While mega events like "Avengers Vs. X-Men" and their multitude of tie-ins continue to turn the key for longtime Marvel Comics readers, the publisher rarely misses a beat on providing gateway series aimed at younger readers.
While their last iteration of the titles most commonly called "all-ages" (AKA Marvel Adventures) wrapped at the end of last year, Marvel soon replaced those comics with the more synergistic "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes" and "Ultimate Spider-Man" ongoings. Aside from sharing the name and general appearance of the two animated series that anchor the Sunday morning "Marvel Universe" block on the Disney XD cable channel, the two series serve the same function the Marvel Adventures line fulfilled for years. Namely, they offer up new, kid-friendly and continuity-free comic stories that have a shelf life beyond the Wednesday comic shop experience. The short stories featured in these monthly titles (two tales come in each monthly issue) are eventually spread across the Marvel/Disney media group for digital projects, grocery store magazines, library digests and more.
Associate Editor Tom Brennan spoke with CBR News about his approach to stewarding the all-ages books at Marvel over the past year. Below, he digs into his philosophy for making good comics, period, rather than good comics "for kids," the reason he treads lightly around the overarching stories of the Marvel TV shows and how he builds creative teams of well-known creators and newcomers, particularly when it comes to December's issues featuring stories by Karl Kesel, Chris Eliopoulos, Louise Simonson and Jen Van Meter.
CBR News: Tom, a while ago I spoke with Editor Steve Wacker about the shape of the all-ages books at Marvel, and since then we've seen a shift where the comics are more in line with the "Marvel Universe" block of animated shows on Disney XD. But I've also heard from writers on the books that your editorial approach hasn't strayed from that core conviction of "just make this a cool comic and not necessarily a comic that talks down to kids." Can you describe your overall goals with the line?
Tom Brennan: These books are designed to be stand-alone stories. They're reprinted elsewhere, so we want them to serve as the gateway to Marvel for younger readers and all ages. Steve Wacker helped set the tone at the start of these series. Steve and I talked a lot before we started in on these new all-ages series about this. I'm of the belief that if you cut a panel here or a panel there, a Dan Slott "Amazing Spider-Man" story is completely appropriate for all ages. That's how I want writers to approach these books. These are action-adventure stories. Obviously, there are certain guidelines we have to adhere to based on the market these books are sold to, but none of those rules prevent us from telling a story in the Marvel fashion.
I look at the way most mainstream superhero comics are written, and I think the ideas are appropriate for all ages. Maybe a scene here or there is a bit much, but the themes and big ideas are appropriate for kids. Too often, a new writer who's coming to comics via these series think they have to change the mold and do something new. [Marvel SVP of Publishing and Executive Editor] Tom Brevoort always jokes that the first time anyone pitches a Spider-Man story to Marvel, they pitch the story where he either unmasks or kills someone -- two things he'd never do. No. That's not how you stand out. You've got nine to ten pages in this series, so just do the best Spider-Man or Avengers story that you have in you.
With the titles changing to "Ultimate Spider-Man" and "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes," how much do you work to sync things up with the cartoons kids see on cable?
It's the same continuity with the shows of course, but we don't want to try to tie too closely with their story lines. We make sure the writers have seen the shows, and we have a great relationship with the folks working in the Marvel West offices who can provide us with any materials we need. Fortunately, the first season of "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes" is available on Netflix. So there's tons of research material available. What we try to stick to is the idea that these comics are set in that continuity, but our story shows what's happening on a Tuesday while the TV show episode shows what happened on a Monday. We're not trying to avoid their plot lines, but we do want our comics to have a certain evergreen feel so that anyone can be brought up to speed with what they need to know quickly.
In the case of "Ultimate Spider-Man," that's just that Spidey is a high school-aged kid working with S.H.I.E.L.D. and these younger heroes like White Tiger, Nova, Iron Fist and Power Man. Beyond that, the complexity of the relationships on the show or the machinations of the villains that the show writers have been building for most of the season are things we don't want to touch on too much or at all. That isn't a great service to the comics or our writers. Tying in just detracts from their ability to tell a good story that any audience can enjoy.
With that in mind, how have you looked at building creative teams and launching stories within that framework?
With the first issue of "Ultimate Spider-Man," we were lucky enough to have stories from the Man of Action guys as well as a Dan Slott/Ty Templeton collaboration. These are people who in the case of Man of Action work on the show, and in the case of Dan know Spider-Man inside out. And for "Avengers," Christopher Yost who is the show runner wrote the first seven issues. These are people who completely understand the world we're dealing with. From there, the other writers we've been bringing on meet a goal where we can have a mix of new up-and-comers and veterans who have been around forever. Really anyone who wants to tell a fun story, I'll talk to.
When it became apparent that Yost was going to have so much on his plate between the Marvel books he already does and the writing outside of comics on his plate, we thought he would be able to make it through six issues of "Avengers." And it turned out he was able to do seven! The guy can just get it done. It was the same thing with "Ultimate Spider-Man" where we knew the Man of Action guys and Dan would only be able to do a few stories. Although, Jacob Semahn and Eugene Son who have written for the book work with Man of Action on the TV show as well. They're guys who know the world but are newer to comics, so it's the perfect mix.
Most of these writers now have young kids, and they've mentioned wanting to do a story they know is geared 100% towards kids. With Karl and Chris, these are two guys who wanted to work on some all-ages material but who, more importantly, had great stories to tell. In the case of Karl's story, it's Spider-Man versus a GIANT monster, and in the case of Chris' story, it's Spider-Man and White Tiger against Simple Simon the Pieman. Both of them, like the "Ultimate Spider-Man" show, are a little bit more kooky and funny than the "Avengers" show. The monster and the Pieman lend themselves to that world. And both writers are guys who can craft a good story with stakes that matter alongside the humor. They can make their stories feel important with major risks for the characters involved.
On the other hand, Louise Simonson and Jen Van Meter on "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes" #9 seem to be dishing up a bit of a "girl power" issue. Was that a theme you went out looking to build up some?
It was entirely by coincidence. I knew I wanted to make use of the Ms. Marvel character. She's someone who's getting more play on the show, and we've only had a chance to use her once in the series as part of a huge Avengers battle scene. So I knew I wanted to use that character, and for each issue I look for a writer who's a bit more of a veteran and someone who's newer to a mainstream audience. It just happened that picking that character and a name with an established pedigree, Louise came to mind.
Jen, on the other hand, had done an all-ages Hulk story a while ago with Pepe Larraz that I absolutely loved. There, Hulk was protected by a traveling circus from a group of mercenaries. So I asked if she wanted to another story, and she said, "I've always wanted to do a Black Widow story that's basically the opening sequence of a James Bond movie." And I think that's a perfect way for a writer to think of a nine-page story. When in doubt, imagine the opening of any James Bond movie. There's a goal set up early, and by the end, it's either accomplished or not with some twists thrown in. They're always short films in and of themselves. So Jen pitched me one version of the story where Black Widow teamed with another character, but it didn't quite work. She wanted to use Invisible Woman, but the more we looked at the show, it felt like she wasn't as big a part of it where that made sense. In the end, Jen was able to use the Wasp in a similar role.
It was only midway through the conversation with Jen when I realized that we had an issue using our three female lead characters being written by two women. It wasn't really by design. It was an accident, and I was thrilled when I realized that. They're two great writers who know how to write great stories, and the characters were one I wanted to use and one they pitched me on. That said, if there are young girls out there who will pick this up that felt like they couldn't before, that's wonderful.
Overall, how do you feel all the writers approach the challenge of crafting shorter stories each month? Keeping things at ten pages has been fairly uncommon in mainstream comics for a while now.
They've all loved the challenge, and it's a challenge I love too. It's a ton of fun to say, "I've got this many pages. I've got this mix of characters to play with. Who do I think is around that can tell a story that really works for this world?" This is a fun world of comics to play in, and the challenge of a short story is one where I've never met a comics writer who doesn't love it -- to be push themselves to be concise in a precise way and make it all work in the framework of ten pages. That can be very hard, but I think it appears more hard on the outside than it is. Newer writers who are still making their way in comics seem to revel in the challenge and enjoy it the same way that veterans do, which is fun for me to watch.
Since you've been involved with the all-ages line for a while, I wondered if you've ever encountered your work with this material out in the world or even have met kids who read them?
I've seen the books a few times at libraries or at a writing center here in town that I volunteer at, 826 NYC. It's always exciting. I've also made my mother possibly the most popular person in our family because I've got tons of little cousins and second cousins across the country -- most of whom I've never met -- and every few months they get a package of Marvel digests from my mom. Their parents are thrilled because they're kids are reading and they have something to occupy them so they don't drive mom and dad nuts. That I love. And my mother is pretty pleased with me too.
It's easy where we sit in comic editorial to get caught up in a bubble where you forget how much comics can mean to you. But once we started running pictures of little kids in Spider-Man costumes and shirts in our letters columns, we just got flooded with images from people who wanted their kids in there. We got them from across the country, from across the planet -- kids of every possible background both boys and girls. It's amazing to see that kind of response and realize how much kids love these characters. Being in a position to work on books that are geared towards those readers, it's a wonderful thing and a great responsibility. We've got to make sure that these comics for the kids are as good as any other comic we put out. Treating them with that respect is very important because they're out there and reading, and they'll tell you if they don't like it.
Both Marvel's "Ultimate Spider-Man" and "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes" ship monthly with two features in every issue.