We had the opportunity to pick the brain of Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, Mr. Axel Alonso. He gave us the inside scoop on everything from the changes coming to some famous Marvel characters to advice for college students pursuing their dreams. Keep reading to find out what else we learned from one of the most important people in the Marvel Universe.
He may not be one of the actual Guardians of the Galaxy, but he’s definitely one of the most important people in the Marvel Universe. Two of our very own Barnes & Noble College interns got to chat with Mr. Alonso about some of his advice for college students, the new Guardians of the Galaxy film, and how he got to where he is today.
Chloe will be graduating from Penn State University in May, while Dan is a rising sophomore at Emerson College. Both are interning with Barnes & Noble College this summer.
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C: Guardians of the Galaxy is hitting the big screen, which opens up the “cosmic” part of the Marvel Universe. How were the Guardians selected for their own feature film?
A: The Guardians provide a doorway into the cosmos and an opportunity to tell widescreen space opera stories. It effectively broadens the canvas of the Marvel Universe that’s on the big screen. Plus, they’re diverse and they’re fun and they’re family friendly. Especially Rocket and Groot, who I expect will be break-out characters by the end of summer.
D: It seems like comic book fans feel very connected to these stories and characters – perhaps more so than in other genres. Why do you think they feel that attachment?
A: Marvel characters endure because people can relate to them. People fall in love with the character inside – the tights, the costumes, and the powers are just window dressing. If you take a look at the biggest Marvel characters, their interior lives are every bit as dramatic and fascinating and appealing as their super hero lives. Tony Stark has an insufferable ego and is vice prone, Thor has daddy issues, Peter Parker won’t stop sulking about the fact that he got his Uncle Ben killed and he’ll never atone for that fully. I think that these are human journeys, universal journeys and it’s because the characters have warps, because they have flaws, that there’s virtually a character in the Marvel Universe for everybody.
D: That’s very interesting. Do you think that this sort of connection that fans feel with these characters contributes to the success of the movies and the comics?
A: Without a doubt. I think what Marvel Studios has done a wonderful job of doing is translating decades worth of stories into one digestible, easy, Cineplex-friendly story. If you had told me that virtually everyone in the world would know who Iron Man is ten years ago I wouldn’t have believed it, would you? He was a second- or third-tier super hero, and now is so perfectly real on the big screen that virtually everyone knows not only what his powers are, but what makes him tick when he’s not wearing the armor. Marvel Studios never lost sight of the fact that it’s the characters in the costume that matter most. The characters aren’t defined by what they can do, it’s what they do do.
C: As Editor in Chief, it’s your job to make sure the comic books are at their best and that the characters’ adventures across each page keep readers coming back. How involved is your team when it comes to the film-making process?
A: Senior editorial staff, we contribute to the creation of what are called character bibles at the pre-production phase…which is to say we’re consulted to discuss what you call sort of like the immutable truths of each character in their universe. What are the essentials – if you’re going to do Iron Man movies these are things you can’t lose: these qualities, these ticks, these supporting characters. We do that and we frequently read pre-production notes, see designs, and read script drafts at various stages. On occasion we provide feedback notes, but we don’t have any authority over any aspect of production – that’s Kevin Feige and his crew. That’s their domain and they’ve done a real terrific job of… translating our characters to the big screen. That’s the way it works.
D: On the topic of those characters, Marvel has never shied away from diversification – which we love. Thor will now be featured as a strong female hero. Captain America – formerly The Falcon – is African American. Is that diversity a decision made within the book’s story line that is carried over to film? Or is that a decision made for the film only?
A: It’s made for print. I keep my job based on my ability to work with my staff and our writers…to tell enticing stories that bring people to our comics and wanting more. Any changes that we make as a group are made with print in mind. What Studios wants to do, that’s up to them. That said, these changes, the female Thor and Falcon becoming the new Captain America, they were not an editorial edict. These came about because the writers had ideas for a shake-up that they thought would make for cool stories. What they did is that they sold those ideas to their direct editor, who in turn sold it to me, who in turn looped in my boss – the publisher. They said, “this is what we want to do, yes people might yell, yes it’s controversial, but here’s why.” Those changes came about to affect publishing. Whether or not they make it to film, that’s for the studio to decide, but I’m sure they’ll be watching the public response to what these publishing moves mean to see how fans react. I know that the actor who plays Thor [Chris Hemsworth]… at Comic Con when he was asked about the female Thor [he] said “that would be my Academy Award”. I think it’s safe to say that Studios is aware of what we’re doing.
D: Speaking of actors, you mentioned you don’t have control over what the studio does. But as a personal preference, do you have any actors/actresses in mind that – as an editor – you think would fit these roles?
A: To be honest, no. Every once in a while it might happen, but I’m hard pressed to think of an example where a particular actor has come into focus. Obviously, some writers in their scripts might specify, “think Sean Penn” or what have you. Apart from Mark Lewis saying that Fury might look like Samuel L. Jackson, we don’t really get that specific.
C: Are there any Marvel characters that you’re hoping will eventually make it to film?
A: For me, yeah there’s a bunch. But I’ll start with Black Panther. He sports the best costume in all of comics, it’s all black. He’s always been one of my personal favorites. He’s a little stronger than a really strong man, super athletic, he’s brilliant and he’s got lots of gadgets so he’s a little bit like MacGyver with superpowers. I really like the Black Panther and I would love to see him on the big screen.
D: As someone who has so much experience in this industry, you’ve probably seen it go through a lot of changes. With technology evolving, how do you make sure you stay relevant and innovative?
A: You stay relevant by not being afraid to take chances. In this case, by not being afraid to embrace technology and being an early adapter. Marvel’s always been an early adapter on the digital front. We were one of the first to embrace traditional digital comics as a format and we’re currently the only ones pioneering a new comic book form called Infinite Comics which are comic books made specifically for hand held media devices. They’re not digital comics, they’re not just comics reformatted for a tablet…sized down for an iPad screen. They’re comic books that use the tablet as the canvas and all the digital tools like a paintbrush. The writer and artist collaborate to take a look into everything digital has to offer and the result is a thoroughly unique reading experience. The reader scrolls through the comic book and there’s panels and captions and balloons and we’re even experimenting with audio, but the reader controls the pace of the reading experience. They are reading, it’s not animation. It’s about motion and special effects that just aren’t available on printed page. That’s one prime example of how we’re experimenting with technology to tell stories and we’re not afraid to make mistakes, we’re not afraid to spend money, we’re not afraid to lose money as we get better and better at doing this.
C: As someone who has worked on characters such as Spider-Man and the X-Men, is it still exciting for you to see them come alive in film or in these new digital media apps?
A: To be honest it’s not that surprising, at least now. This is modern mythology featuring characters who really capture the imagination of 7+ generations of readers…and this is across multiple media platforms, comics, novels, animation, TV – live-action TV of course – and now the perfection of the movies that technology has caught up with. It stopped surprising me once Ironman stuck, if that’s a good way of putting it. Once we saw how a character like Ironman could stick I ceased being surprised. It started being like a rolling stone at that point…independent movies that function like puzzle pieces of a larger whole…I just think the sky’s the limit.
D: Before you got into this industry, were you into comic books?
A: When I was a little boy I was way into them. I used to buy two comic books every Friday afternoon when my grandma would pick me up after school….and that’s how I got introduced to comics…I loved them up until my pre-teens when I discovered girls and basketball. So I got out of comics for a while, although, truth be told, I did find copies of the Heavy Metal comic book being put out at the time and I kind of liked that it was crazy fantasy. And I rediscovered comics when I was in college and I’ve been back ever since. I never ever dreamed of working in comics, but I was a fan. I especially think that when I got back into comics in college, I happened to wander into stuff like Alan Moore and Frank Miller – who were, of course, seminal creators…so it was good timing for me to fall back in love with comics.
C: When it comes to editing comics, what process do you go through? How do you eventually land on a final product?
A: Speaking as an Editor, I’d say that the most important thing is that I look at a character and ask myself what types of stories are there to tell…obviously, if you have a character named Captain America who is dressed in red, white and blue, you’re probably going to tell stories that have something to say about America as opposed to the cosmos or Norse mythology…Apart from that, there is a rule I live by that there is no one way of doing things…for me I think that it’s really about just understanding that you have to trust your gut and start by understanding who the character is in the world and then what story you want to tell and then sticking to it.
D: You mentioned that people relate to characters because they can see a piece of themselves in them. Which character do you most relate to?
A: *Laughs* My quick answer to that is the Hulk because he has anger management issues…but I don’t know that I relate to any one character. I do know that when I got into comic books, my favorite characters were never what you would deem the most popular at the time…the Black Panther, Shang Chi, Luke Cage, Iron Fist…their powers were more downsized, more street-level, maybe a bit more realistic….But, I usually related to characters that were a little bit smaller scale-wise and a little bit more of an outsider.
C: Being Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Comics is what a lot of people would call a “dream job”. What are some challenges you faced when working to get where you are today?
A: I’ll start off by saying that as a kid I never considered that comics…were a career option. My education and career path took me into journalism and from there I landed at DC Comics…and through fate I ended up at Marvel. …the initial challenge was working for low-pay and long hours and feeling overqualified – because it was a very weird move to go from being fairly successful in journalism to starter-level in comics. But I stuck with it…If I think about the challenge you always face in the creative field, it’s just sticking to it. You’re always going to hear a lot of chatter, you’re always going to hear a lot of voices…angry at you, who question your judgment, who don’t like what you’re doing…and you’re going to hear them loud. And I think you just have to tune them out…do what you think you should do and trust the voices of a few people whose judgement you trust. You’ve got to be willing to get fired to get promoted (*Laughs*). If you play it safe, you’re never going to get anywhere.
D: At Barnes & Noble College, we work with a lot of students. What advice would you give to them about chasing their dreams and staying motivated?
A: Everybody’s different. I tell them pretty much what I tell my son, who is 11…work hard at something you love. If you love doing something…you’re going to put in the hours and get better and better at it, simply because it won’t feel like work. You put in those hours, which means you’ll get better…you’ll hear it…you’ll get rewarded for it. Bottom line, boiling it down – work hard at something you love.
Sounds like some MARVELous advice (sorry, we couldn’t resist!). For those of you who are new to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy series, we suggest kicking off your adventure with Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Avengers (sold in all Barnes & Noble Superstores and select Barnes & Noble College Bookstores – see your store for details).
Do you have a favorite Marvel character or series? Post a comment below and let us know which is your top pick!