Axel Alonso knew it was coming.
The editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics knew that the backlash was imminent when the company announced a series of variant covers mashing up their flagship heroes like Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Wolverine with iconic hip hop album covers from the likes of The Roots, Tribe Called Quest, and Lauryn Hill earlier this year. He knew the company was going to put itself under the microscope, with accusations that Marvel was participating in cultural appropriation masked as inclusion.
“We come to expect a certain amount of criticism whenever we do something new,” Alonso explained to CoCreate the day after The Totally Awesome Hulk #1—starring a Korean-American green giant—hit store shelves. “But it’s somewhat frustrating to be yelled at when you know what you’re planning. When people were accusing us of lack of diversity, your immediate instinct is to stick out your chest and start talking about all the stuff you’ve already got in the works or that’s on the stands now. But our strategy was always, ‘Let the work speak for itself.’”
Alonso’s frustration—he refers to the hip hop covers as the “tip of the spear” for larger changes within the company—reminded us of our conversation with writer David Walker and artist Sanford Greene when it was announced the pair would be heading up a revival of Power Man and Iron Fist. “Then a book gets announced, like Black Panther, and there were people who were like, ‘Oh, yeah, Marvel just got those guys to shut all the critics up’,” Walker told CoCreate back in October. “I’m like—they got a guy who is one of the best writers in the country right now! You can’t broker a deal like that over a weekend, you know? It takes time.”
So as 2015 draws to a close, where does Marvel stand? The confidence that comes from knowing that even your third and fourth tier heroes—Hello, Ant-Man—can shoulder blockbuster hits and your edgy, adults-only Netflix series like Daredevil and most recently Jessica Jones can dominate the cultural conversation for weeks at a time is evident. The emboldened print side of the Marvel U.—which the company points out has an editorial and managerial staff that is well over 1/3 female and non-Caucasian, including Alonso himself, who is Hispanic—continues to push for a more colorful, and more reflective, comic book universe. (Alongside Alonso in this effort is Chief Creative Office Joe Quesada–for his thoughts, check out the video above for our conversation with Joe from this year’s New York Comic Con).
“I think the key thing is to be aware of the outside world,” says Alonso. “Be aware of the fact that our readers are diverse and that there need to be avenues and windows into the Marvel universe for all people. I think the arrival of [new Spider-Man] Miles Morales and [Ms. Marvel] Kamala Khan were sort of watershed moments for us because it represented taking classic characters and looking at them in new ways. And those characters were embraced. So I think that emboldened us to take broader chances. And the results have been seen in things like the new Thor, the new Captain America, and the new Hulk.”
Although Khan (the first Muslim character to have their own title) and Morales (the multi-racial heir to Peter Parker’s mantle) were both introduced in 2013 and 2011 respectively, this year saw them not only become part of the “main” Marvel universe (Morales began as the Spider-Man of an alternate world called the “Ultimate” universe) but also full fledged Avengers. They joined a Marvel U that now boasts a female Thor, the aforementioned Korean Hulk, and a Captain America who is now Sam Wilson, the former Falcon and mainstream comics’ first African-American hero when he debuted in 1969.
But Alonso insists these changes were organic. “We never mandated a ‘diversity initiative.’ We just made it clear that we wanted to reflect the world outside our window. And the changes were always story-driven. Sam Wilson was Steve Rogers’ ally and friend for decades. When I first discovered Captain America, the book was called Captain America and the Falcon. And Sam Wilson was the guy with his ear to the street who helped Captain America broaden his understanding of what the country was about. He was perfect. To wrap him in red, white and blue was a no-brainer.”
Despite the positive response to, say, Jessica Jones and how the series has changed the conversation around how woman and even interracial relationships are handled in mainstream media, there are still criticisms lobbed at the Marvel cinematic universe, which has been accused of sidelining female and P.O.C. characters. Although Alonso’s focus is on comics first and foremost, he actually credits the movies for helping them shake things up.
“The seismic change is that when you show the image of the female Thor, it carries so much more weight now, after all the movies. This clearly isn’t Chris Hemsworth. We have a shorthand now, we can communicate with a larger group of people,” says Alonso.
He adds: “There are lots of people out there. Lots of people with different tastes, different interests, different backgrounds, who are looking to see their lives reflected in our heroes.”
Still, as proud as Alonso is of the year Marvel Comics has had, he’s realistic heading into 2016.
“The more you try, the more people yell at you.”