Earlier this month, around the same time that Run The Jewels were preparing for an appearance on Conan, Axel Alonso, the Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics, was making public a variant cover of two books — the soon-to-be-relaunched Howard The Duck and an issue of Deadpool — both featuring Run The Jewels’ coming-up-on-iconic fist logo.
Turns out that Alonso, the creative head of an iconic company in modern American history, loves hip-hop, and has many thoughts about its confluence with his industry — which he joined in 1994 after answering a classified ad in the New York Times, eventually getting hired as an editor for Marvel’s chief rival, DC Comics.
The morning after New York City’s “blizzard,” Alonso got on the phone to speak with Billboard on his love for hip-hop, how watching his son’s football game led to Howard the Duck shouting out Run The Jewels, the recent announcement of Philip Glass as the composer behind a new Fantastic Four film, the Preacher television series, the commond ground between the music and comics industries, and much more.
Could you take us through a typical day?
No two days are exactly the same. I supervise a group of editors who in turn supervise writers and artists who are literally located everywhere in the world. Normally, a portion of my day is taken up by my meetings and planning meetings where I’ll take a look at a particular line of books and what the longer term plans are for those books — both story-wise and marketing-wise. A portion of my day will be intervening when problems arise, when two writers are telling stories that may conflict, or an artist isn’t hitting their deadlines. The nitty-gritty day-to-day reminds you why it’s work. And then a portion of my day is for the creative story planning sessions, taking a look at franchises that make characters that could get a boost here or there. I tend to love the launches. I treat all of them like a movie premiere, especially when they’re characters that aren’t what you call “top-tier.”
With music and the rise of streaming services, back catalogs have been more important than ever — have you seen, from the business side a similar thing?
Without a doubt. We make all of them available. It’s very important that we’re digitally ready. The digital space is the area of greatest growth right now and it allows for an impulse buy. It allows for someone who hasn’t been to a comic book store for a variety of reasons — maybe one of which is that they don’t know where that store is. If they’ve heard of something and they’re interested they can get it, they can find it, they can read it, all within minutes. I think that’s gonna change things a lot. If they catch on late, they can also binge and buy a bunch of issues and catch up. And all of that’s good. I don’t think that means the death of print. I think it’s all complimentary. Any time you get someone who discovers a comic book in some form or another, they’re gonna be more apt to buy a book — floppy, trade, hardcover — and put it on their shelf. But let’s face it, not all — the music industry is difficult. Now I buy all my stuff digitally. I don’t buy any CDs. But it took a while. I was stubborn. For a while I felt I needed to have the physical thing. And that’s happened to me with blue-rays as well. I’ve only recently in the last 6 months stopped buying blue rays in favor of purchasing digitally. But by the same token as they come up with a real tricked out extra features version of my favorite movie, that doesn’t mean I’m not gonna buy it. There’s still a collectors mentality and there’s still Christmas presents and stuff like that.
And you guys have launched kind of a similar thing to a streaming service, has that been successful?
Without a doubt. We’ve also got Marvel Unlimited, which is the subscription service where people buy for a very small price access to 15,000 comic books, they’re all digitally available and they’re sort of the most important comic books that we’ve done. And we’re continuously adding to that list as we go and making them available. As a kid I could never imagine spending a fixed sum and then having access to 15,000 comics.
Childhood eyes dilate at the thought of it.
So the past few years have kind of brought the business side of things into a rosier light — what did it look like ten years ago? The comics and music industries were looking pretty dire.
I think there have been always the people who want to proclaim the death of the comic book industry and the music industry. And I think that what happens is they don’t seem to understand that creators, artists, companies learn to pivot. They learn to serve the needs of the fans. I think that comics are extremely alive and well right now and if anything we’re just gonna keep growing. Here at Marvel, we see a synergistic relationship between the divisions. The movies, the comics, books and licensing all feed off one another, they all build a hunger for a brand and an appreciation of the brand and a fan base that’s more likely to sample the different things we have available. We’re always make sure to have collections ready for movie time, so if anyone comes out of the Avengers movie and they want to have that feeling again and they’re feeling experimental, there will be a comic book waiting that will give them a similar experience. I can’t speak for the music industry, but certainly a variety of artists have learned to pivot and play off this. My favorite album of the year, RTJ2, was available digitally. Those guys are a phenomenon. Let’s just say that whatever they did worked out for them.
I was gonna ask if you have involvement with the movie arm — there’s a lot of coordination?
There is. I have publishing, my editors and I are responsible for the publishing side of the business. The success of the movies doesn’t help me keep my job any more than the success of the comic books helps [Marvel Studios’ president Kevin Feige]. We’re independent arms and we have to stand on our own two feet, and we do. But I think there’s a great level of cooperation and synergy that we have here. The success of Marvel studios has come from the fact that Kevin [Feige] and his studios have always respected the source material. They’ve always respected the comic books that these stories are rooted in. what they’ve managed to do besides hiring the right actors and directors, they’ve always been able to come up with a screen play — the building block for any movie — that stripmines the best stories across decades into one easy, digestible watch. And again, Marvel’s success comes from the fact that they have a lot of respect for that source material. They don’t feel the need to change stuff just cause they need to feel clever.
I noticed this morning that Philip Glass was scoring the new Fantastic Four movie. Those earlier movies seemed to suffer from what you were talking about: losing the character-driven focus of it. Bringing on Philip Glass to score it, they’re saying it’s gonna be Cronenberg-esque, it sounds like this one is gonna be pretty weird?
Full disclosure, we have no role in the Fantastic Four movie. That’s a Fox movie. We weren’t consulted about story decisions or any of that. I will say that it’s intriguing and interesting, it gets my attention that Phillip Glass is scoring the new Fantastic Four movie. It will send a different message than if it’s who’s hot now — Miley Cyrus, or something. [Laughs.] Or one of those horrible Christian rock bands, you know? They’re certainly going for something different, though what they’re going for I have no more optics on than you do.
You came up in the mid to early ’90s comic book business, when comics’ relationship with rap was really strong. Outkast had comic books in their liner notes, Wu-Tang Clan did, Heltah Skeltah, all these dudes grew up at the end of the “Bronze Age” of comics. And it seemed to rub off positively on both mediums. Were you kind of into that at that time?
What I would say about that is, speaking from experience, I felt a little bit stranded in comics. I liked hip-hop at the time and I saw some small-press experimentation with hip-hop, and certainly some hip-hop musicians attempted to show their love for the comic book form they grew up with — but I’m not sure we’ve come anywhere close to tapping the potential. I’m certain that we haven’t come anywhere close to tapping the potential of that relationship. I think there’s always been a dialogue — listen to any Wu-Tang album. Pete Rock is a friend of mine, and when he came up to the Marvel office he was as giddy to be here as I was when I met him for the first time! There’s a lot of mutual love and respect. I think we’re still learning to bridge that gap and find a way to have that message translate. I think that there’s definitely fans out there — more so than in the ’90s — that are into a range of hip-hop and R&B, that are starving and thirsty for something that reflects that. I don’t think it’s a matter of getting rapper x to pen a comic book.
I made a lot of enemies with my RTJ variant — we can always pick two guys, you know what I’m saying? There’s a lot of love for that culture, that aesthetic, and I’m not trying to sound like a jingle here, but I think we’ve only begun to scratch that potential. We’re still on our first date.
What will the third date look like?
Well, I don’t want to get too explicit. [Laughs.] You can’t anticipate these things. I personally know a number of people deep in the hip-hop field who have expressed an interest or have gotten involved in comics. I think it’s just a matter of turning the corners to make that happen. You’re seeing more and more, in the aesthetic of comic books, the influence of hip-hop. And quite frankly, it’s moved along the same lines as the influence of hip-hop in music. I remember in the late ’80s, mid ’80s, hip-hop was mostly black and Hispanic music. But I remember at one point, vividly, being on Broadway in New York City and seeing some white frat boys drive by blasting Public Enemy. What? I remember things just started to change and a whole generation of people that hadn’t been trained to create strict divisions in their musical taste between rock and country and hip-hop just embraced different styles. A lot of bands merged those styles, successfully and unsuccessfully. You had a lot of rock bands that tried to copy what hip-hop was doing.
I think that dialogue, between rock and hip-hop, results in hip-hop permeating the center of pop culture. I know in comics, I see more and more hip-hop on the page. [Note: This part of the conversation ended up generating a photo gallery of Alonso’s making that showcases hip-hop’s influence on comic art, which you can see here.] I see many more artists whose aesthetic owes a lot to hip-hop flavor. For the lack of a better way of putting it, there’s more hip-hop than rock in what they’re doing. I’m all for that diversity.
RTJ2 kind of epitomizes the mixing of rock and hip-hop, just the production of it.
Yeah without a doubt. I mean it’s a hip-hop record with a hell of a lot of rock in it. It’s got that flavor. It’s not an R&B-influenced hip-hop record.
It’s not soft.
And I think a lot of people appreciate that. I know I do. I feel like I could dunk a basketball when I hear “Oh My Darling.” You get a white guy from New York and a black guy from the south — they’re late bloomers, they’re smart, they’ve lived, they’re men, they probably have regrets. They’ve had some stuff happen. And you can tell in the lyrics. If there ever were a better line than “you want a whore in a white dress, I want a wife in a thong,” I have yet to hear it. But I’m telling you nothing new. You’ve seen that dialogue.
Who knows where hip-hop is going? I personally, as a guy who loves hip-hop dating back to “Rapper’s Delight,” which I heard at the Doggy Diner on 16th and Mission when I was like 6, I went home and immediately memorized every word in that record. I bought the EP, put it down on the turntable, then I got out my pencil and wrote down all the lines and learned every word. I think I still know every word to “Rapper’s Delight.” But by the same token, I’m not a pop snob, there’s a lot out there that I like. I like Drake. People say that it’s not real — I love it. I love RTJ, Pete Rock is probably my favorite living musician. He’s like The Beatles to me. I get excited about Pete Rock the way people get excited about the Beatles. I cannot tell you how profoundly he affected my life with his music.
Interesting things start happening culturally when things go mainstream — they’re so pervasive you stop thinking about it. Does that make sense?
I totally know what you mean. Some music’s commercial, some music’s not. I have one prejudice in music. I hate these American Idol shows. I feel like that’s turning out a factory. That’s turning out performers, not artists. What saddens me is — that stuff is fine, like a jingle here or there. It’s sad to me to know that more and more talented young people thing that’s the route to being a star instead of going into your garage in the suburbs like Black Flag or on Long Island like Public Enemy, and coming out the other side with music that gets better and better over time. I like it when people throw down and they draw form their experience. I think it’s great to perfect your craft and your instrument, but I like it coming from something more pure.
That reminds me of that series Hip-Hop Family Tree. Have you seen that? It’s fantastic, like early ’70s art, just telling the genesis of each movement in hip-hop.
I gotta watch it. I’ll watch it for sure.
So I was wondering, Run the Jewels‘ rep said that you guys approached them about the cover.
I had noticed the “Tag the Jewels” movement, where you had a variety of artists commenting on the Run the Jewels logo, making their own murals. From Beijing China to Pakistan, you saw artists that would interpret that. The fact that it was homegrown was really beautiful to me. My son — he plays football, he’s 11. He caught the winning touchdown pass, and when he got to the end zone, he ripped off his receivers glove, and he pointed at it with a hand while his teammates crowded around him. And then one of his teammates started the “run them jewels fast, run them jewels fast” chant. And this is a bunch of 11 year old roughnecks. I thought ‘What? Are they doing what I think they’re doing?’
So I went over and I was like, you like Run the Jewels? And he was like ‘Poppa, you make me feel like I’m a dork. Of course I do.’ I don’t know what significance my 11 year old attaches to the finger pointed at the gold chain, I haven’t even asked him. It’s irrelevant. But what the hell! I think Marvel should do some “Tag the Jewels” variants. I tweeted a photograph of my son’s hands with the thing and just put tag the jewels, and I think I got followed by someone over there, their management guy. We chatted briefly and then I hatched the idea. Killer Mike and El-P followed me shortly after. So I communicated with them and I let them know in advance, this is what we’re doing. I let them see the sketches and stuff like that. I learned that they were huge comic book fans. Especially Killer Mike — well both of them — were as knocked out by this as I was by their music. So it was great.
What would you say is the top five that you’re listening to right now? We used to ask on your iPod, but it’s peoples’ phones now.
RTJ, I’m way into Curren$y, who I think is one of the most underrated rappers out there. I will definitely give a shout out to Daz Dillinger, from California. When I listen to certain cuts by Daz or Dogg Pound I feel like I’m a car driving on Highway 1. Joey Bada$$‘s new record is dope. It’s great, I love it. It grows on you too. I was listening to Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar a lot, but you move on a bit, so maybe I won’t put them on there. Let me scan again, who else do I have here.
I’m impressed, usually when you get to a certain age you just give up on new music.
No way! There’s been so much good hip-hop in the last while. A$AP Rocky. I like Wiz Khalifa. A lot of people rip on him, but I like him, I like the beats, I liked his last record. Not everything on it. But enough off of it.
It seems like the second tier characters are just as important these days? I suppose there’s not gonna be an Alpha Flight movie any time soon though?
It’s funny, there’s no absence of fans for Alpha Flight. But again, every character is their own riddle to solve. I thoroughly believe that every character is a great creative team and pitch away from being a hit. Guardians [of the Galaxy] definitely proves that if we’re able to make a raccoon with a ray gun a household name, we can do anything. When we announced that movie, a number of people came out of the woodwork to say that Marvel has finally set themselves up for failure. “What are they thinking? They’re crazy. This is gonna bomb. They made a mistake.” And of course they’re saying the same thing about Antman, and they’ll say the same thing about the next movie. But what a lot of people have to remember: who knew who Iron Man was back when we launched the first movie? It’s very easy to forget that Iron Man was not that popular a character. If you went to the average Joe on the street they could kind of figure out who Iron Man was — is he a guy in an iron suit? But how many people said that he was Tony Stark or knew that he was a flawed individual with a heart of gold? Again, the success of Iron Man on the big screen is a testament to making the right decisions about the cast and what stories to bring to the big screen.
If you get the right creative team, and remember that it’s all about the character.
Without a doubt. You have to always drill down and figure out what makes a character unique. What type of story do they exist to tell? Using Ant-Man as an example, a lot of people will say well, he’s a ridiculous character. Well yeah, there’s a little bit of ridiculous just in the name. But he’s a really cool character who has a unique power set and an ability to do things that no one else can do. He can go into your intestinal track to mess you up if he needs to! This is a guy who understandably has a chip on his shoulder, has many flaws. We decided one of the things we wanted to lean into hard with the comic is the single father aspect of his character. The fact that he’s got a daughter that he’s devoted to and is given a second chance to be with. He does not attempt to squander that chance, which makes him unique from everyone else — from Tony Stark, from David Banner, from Peter Parker. He’s a single dad. He’s set up to be the hero that his daughter wants him to be.
You edited my favorite comic book of all time, Preacher. I was wondering if you could talk about editing that and what you think about the team that they’ve put together for the television adaptation?
That team — the comic book or the movie? I’m cautiously optimistic that they’ll do it right. Preacher is a very difficult book to bring to the screen. It has a really hardcore fan base, everybody has their opinions on who Cassidy should be, who Tulip should be, and the challenge is bringing them to the screen and making them feel fully realized. That book was very character-driven. It was a spaghetti western with a bit of science fiction, but it was character-driven. Walking Dead relies on the central conceit that it’s the zombie apocalypse and that characters can be killed off and the franchise can continue. You can’t do that with Preacher — once Jesse’s dead, where do you go? It hinges on the relationships of the three principal characters and to a lesser degree the villains and the nuances of all those relationships. So yeah, I’m cautiously optimistic this will work. I know Garth [Ennis, creator and writer of Preacher], and this isn’t his first rodeo and he sounds more optimistic about this than anything that’s occurred so far.
As I understand it he’s been put through the ringer with proposed adaptations for a while?
Yeah since back in the day. Since Preacher was still coming out there were various people attached for feature films or TV pilots or what have you. I think whats happened is that cable tv has caught up with Preacher — from Game of Thrones to Walking Dead to Boardwalk Empire to the upcoming Marvel Netflix shows. I think that cable TV and binge watching is gonna create a base for idiosyncratic, offbeat, and dark material down the road.
It’s crazy to think that The Sopranos would lead to Preacher being adapted for TV.
It’s all baby steps man, it’s all baby steps. All of these things feed into our culture. The way that we absorb culture right now, I’m not even sure I’d call what we’re looking at TV anymore. It just happens to be relayed on a TV screen. When you look at streaming and you look at binge watching, it’s a whole different way that people are taking in their information. This is an era where you don’t necessarily have to score a grand slam with your pilot to survive. Because you’ve got episodes 2,3,4 to keep people watching. And of course the fact that the independence you enjoy allows for a larger birth of creative content.