TOM BREVOORT’s AXIS #9 Tell-All: Heroes Gone Bad, Villains Gone Good, and Changing Origins

Page from Axis #9
Credit: Marvel Entertainment
Credit: Marvel Comics

There’s a lot to talk about coming out of the finale of Avengers & X-Men: Axis, so Newsarama did just that with the editor in charge of it all, Tom Brevoort.

In the following extended conversation, Brevoort, who has shepherded virtually every major Marvel event since 2004, is very forthcoming on the dramatic changes to the Marvel Universe seen throughout Axis, from superhero staples acting like villains to long-time villains turning over a new leaves - with at least one on an indefinite basis [cough, Sabretooth, cough]. The long-time editor also answers our questions about specific moments from this week’s Axis #9, as well as big-picture questions about the evolution of characters and their origins. He discloses internal debates over some of the series' more controversial choices and reveals the one character that he’s hesitant to put in events because they might ruin everything.

Newsarama: Tom, we’ve seen the Avengers and the X-Men share the stage in a crossover or event before, but Avengers & X-Men: Axis possessed quite different battle lines. What was it like for you, shepherding this book with Marvel characters—some of Marvel’s top characters, I might add – acting so unlike what they’re known to be?

Tom Brevoort: It’s the premise of the series, so it’s kind of the buy-in from the beginning. The trick of it really was to write them in such a way that while there’s some aspect of their core values inverted to become reverse or opposite, they’re still recognizable as the characters you knew; we didn’t want them to seem like pod people, mindless zombies, or cackling crazy villains who could be anybody. That was the challenge of Axis.

The secondary challenge was, knowing we would put them most all of them back to their original selves by the end of the series, to be careful of how far any one character went because those actions will be remembered, and those characters are going to have to deal with the fallout and ramifications of what they did while inverted.

Credit: Marvel Comics

There’s the danger in this kind of thing to go over the top and for readers to lose faith with a character because of actions undertaken. We saw that quite a bit with Iron Man during Civil War, as there were certain things in tie-ins and what have you that made some readers not like the character anymore. There’s a whole coterie of X-Men fans who, to this day, don’t like Scarlet Witch because of M-Day. We here at Marvel are concerned about that, and aware of it enough, to realize that every moment we’re making storytelling choices that have lasting ramifications to the characters and to the world.  So we balance the needs of the moment with the effects of this moment going forward. “How long is it all going to take to be fully revealed?” “Are we inadvertently setting ourselves down a path to a Henry Pym situation?,” where no matter what anyone has done with the character in 30+ years, there’s always that one panel of Yellowjacket smacking the Wasp and can never be moved past.

We try to be cognizant of that, and keep the characters true to themselves but, in the case of Axis, had their values inverted.

Nrama: Getting into this week’s finale, Axis #9  was packed to the gills with big moments so let’s start at the beginning: the confrontations between Sam Wilson as All-New Captain America and Steve Rogers donning the name, or at least the old armor, one more time. Their fights were nothing flashy; bare-knuckle brawling out of something like an old 1990s UFC fight, but it’s those words Sam uttered and shouted that seem to hit even harder. Sam was inverted at the time, but regardless those words were still pretty biting. For you, was there anything memorable in editing these scenes in order to hit the right tone and, like you said, not go too far but still go far enough?

Brevoort: I don’t have anything specific in terms of memories there. I wish I could say “ah, there was this line…” or “this moment!” or “this conversation!,” but in terms of actions it was all decided on during the plotting stage. In most of Rick’s plots there’s dialogue, but it tends to be placeholder dialogue depending on how under the gun he is. The final dialogue gets polished once the art is in.

At this stage in the series, with certain characters being inverted, is to push readers’ buttons with their dialogue and actions; to touch hot spots and not be in a place of safety, because they have to bite and be interesting. Again, I sort of use my judgment and Rick uses his to figure out where we think the line is and skirting or bumping into as much as we could. But there’s no specific example of Rick wanting to say something and me asking to turn it down a notch.

Nrama: Next up – White Skull. While he premiered in the final page of Axis #8, it didn’t prepare me for the full reveal and actions of him here in #9. I never thought I’d say this, but I can empathize with the Red Skull when he’s like this, and I’m kind of sad to see him gone by issue’s end.

Way back before Axis #1 shipped, you and me had one of these conversations and you put over just how evil the Red Skull was, framing him as the most evil of all evils in the Marvel U. So with that in mind, what was it like having in the Marvel toybox, for one issue here, someone and something like the White Skull?

Nrama: And evoking shades of Professor X, perhaps somewhere in there still.Brevoort: In the same way its fun to play with heroes gone dark, it’s fun to play with villains gone good or gone bright, and the Red Skull is certainly the most extreme example of that. Other villains similarly flip-flopped in Axis, but none stand in such stark contrast as did the Red Skull. The Red Skull is so utterly heinous on a daily basis that an inverted Red Skull would be much more pious. And we took that analogy almost literally, bleaching out Red Skull to become White Skull.

Brevoort: I suppose, at least in my mind, we left it for readers to draw their own conclusion. We very specifically did not make any point about how much of this is the Red Skull being inverted and how much of it is whatever residual bit of Charles Xavier in the grey matter trying to come out. The story’s not about establishing a “magic door” to bring Professor X back… that’s not really the intent of it. I hope X-Men editor Mike Marts doesn’t start getting letters about how this is an opening for the X-Men to track down Red Skull, recover Xavier’s consciousness somehow and get the Shi’ar to clone him a new body again.

There are strong bonds between readers and characters that’s been established over the decades, and having the Red Skull be inverted in that way allowed some of those bonds with Professor X to be touched on and those heartstrings pulled on a little bit. Xavier’s death in AvX was relatively sudden and no one really had much of a chance to process it in that moment. Most processed it after the fact in various X-Men issues, but this issue of Axis #9 saw some other characters who hadn’t completely dealt with Professor X’s death come to terms with it.

Nrama: Like I said, I already miss White Skull in some sort of weird way. Reverted back to the Red Skull, we last see him in Axis #9 under lock and key by Doctor Doom. Some of the storylines at the end had obvious sign posts to where they might pick-up next, but what about this one? Where should fans interested in this Doctor Doom / Red Skull story look to next?

Brevoort: I don’t know that I can direct you to one specific thing yet. Certainly because it’s the Red Skull, it would always make sense to pay attention to All-New Captain America because that’d be low-hanging fruit. And Doom, he’s that way for the Fantastic Four, but also in Avengers and New Avengers. Anything is possible, and I don’t have a specific book people can point so.

 

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1 by Art Adams
Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1 by Art Adams
Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: So what you’re saying is that Doctor Doom and the Red Skull will probably show up next in Squirrel Girl. [laughs]

 

Brevoort: Definitely. [laughs] If Squirrel Girl would have been in Axis, it would’ve only been an issue and a half long – it would have been lovely. She’d have gotten everyone in touch with their feelings, and beat up any stragglers. That’s why we can’t do tie-in issues with her.

Nrama: Sounds like a great What If? story however.

One character that was in this issue and has had his own track record of acting evil is Spider-Man. For me he didn’t seem in the main thrust of the story, but really crawled around the edges and made some choice moments that moved the story forward. And Rick for his part really seemed to excel at writing Peter and his dialogue, to a surprising degree. On the Tom Brevoort scale of things, how did Rick do with the wall-crawler?

Brevoort:I think he did  pretty well. But I’d say Spider-Man was a central character, in that he was one of only a handful of fully empowered heroes not inverted and not stuck in the ant farm. He could really be his heroic self, with Nova and Nomad, and among those Peter’s clearly the marque character. Axis also had a lot of Spider-Man villains amongst the inverted, so having Spider-Man not be inverted, it gave those villains-turned-heroes something to bounce off of. Rick did a nice job of giving Spider-Man big moments and big beats throughout the course of the series, even if he wasn’t the only guy it was about.

It was sort of the same way Rick gave Iron Man some good moments in the first arc, especially in Axis #3 which was very much an Iron Man story. Rick found a very good tone for Iron Man, and it exemplifies one of the things Rick does very well: in the midst of all this crazy chaos with a million ideas buzzing around, he finds a way to give one character or another the spotlight, get to the heart of them, and give you a sequences that touches upon why people enjoy that character so much.

Also in your attention paid to Rick’s depiction of Spider-Man, it’s what these artists bring to those moments that makes them stand out. The visual dramatization of bringing a character to the fore is in some cases subliminal. Some things that you may credit to the writer may simply be providence after the collaboration of the book’s production. It’s the artist and writer in tandem that go about completely capturing the moment. It’s oftentimes the case that after a page is drawn by an artist based on the script the writer provides, the writer will go back and see what the artist has done and scale back the dialogue because the artist conveys the original message with the artwork alone.

And I praise the team we have on Axis all the way through the nine issues. Part of the reason those Spider-Man moments you mentioned were so enjoyable was because of Jim Cheung’s Spider-Man, as well as Adam Kubert, Leinil Yu and Terry Dodson all bringing everything they had to the table.

Nrama: Speaking of synergy though, there’s one moment that stuck out to me – Loki picking up Mjolnir on the moon. I loved seeing Loki as the God of Thunder, but shouldn’t that hammer already be in possession of the new female Thor as seen in her series that launched several months before Axis #9?

Nrama: You had me there for a moment when Loki was about to grab the hammer – I thought for a second there you were going to reveal that the blonde, female Thor was in fact Loki. Seemed far-fetched, but Loki’s switched genders before! My gears were turning and questioning everything about Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman’s Thor until I saw Loki with the hammer and wasn’t as changed as I thought.Brevoort: I can talk about this now that Axis  is complete – all of this series takes place before Thor #1. The hammer was on the moon for some time, between the end of Original Sin and the beginning of Thor #1. That’s why Thor still has both arms in Axis even though one was cleaved off in Thor #1. So in the timeline of things, by the point of Axis #9 the hammer hadn’t yet been recovered.

Brevoort: [laughs] You know, that never came up at all. If I had realized that during this issue, I would have talked to Rick about steering more into that turn.

Nrama: Let’s get back to some solid serious ground here. The idea of putting some of your top heroes and depicting them villainously must be no easy matter, especially with Marvel having such a large profile. When DC did something similar in Forever Evil, they distinctly made them different characters – with different names – but not Marvel. Iron man was inverted, All-New Cap was inverted, and the man most people know as Thor wasn’t the good guy for once. You’re one of the ones running the ship at Marvel comics, but were there any kind of red tape or apprehension in doing so – even despite the success of Superior Spider-Man?

Brevoort: Not really. Hopefully by this point we’re pretty good at our jobs, with the comic creators telling great stories and as well as the editorial team overseeing them. Part of the trick is knowing where the line was that beyond which would damage the character. Being aware enough not to cross that line while still going into dangerous territory and giving readers something unexpected.

Credit: Marvel Comics

That being said, we certainly heard from people who point out that Axis is the first full story featuring All-New Captain America and he’s inverted. That fell down to timing with Rick writing Captain America while also writing Uncanny Avengers which set up Axis – it ended up being where Cap was at the time, and what had to be done. Rick made the conscious decision to not do any Axis tie-ins with All-New Captain America, however. It seemed like a crummy thing to do, making a first issue a tie-in, but more concretely we didn’t want the new black Cap being awful in the first issue. You want to showcase character as well as you can, especially in their solo series. 

We certainly heard from people about Captain America & The Mighty Avengers wherein Sam, as well as Luke Cage and others, are not themselves and that Axis came so close on the heels of Captain America #25 that they felt besmirched of seeing Sam as the legitimate Cap. Al Ewing is grappling with this in Captain America & The Mighty Avengers #4, and the situation is not something we were unaware of; unfortunately, that’s the way the cards fell and that’s the choice we made. I don’t think anything in Axis undermines the possibility of Sam Wilson to be a great Captain America.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Going back to your point, doing this to character isn’t something we plan to do all the time, willy nilly. We’ve got to be careful with these characters. Marvel and superheroes in general are pretty resilient, but sometimes certain things stick – Yellowjacket slapping Janet for instance. The people doing that wasn’t intending for that do be a character-defining moment, but history judged it differently and factored into how strongly that moment resonated with fans in the months and years that followed. Big picture, these characters have all been in stories both good and bad, and for the most part have been resilient; to bounce back, all you need to do is put them in a good story again and people will remember why they liked them in the first place.

We at Marvel realize the surest way to lose our audience is to be too precious with everything. Although it is disconcerting to readers at times and even us, we’re not all one mind up here. We argue and go back and forth about the strengths and weaknesses of stories before coming to a conclusion and deciding where to go. As storytellers, we have to do things that are different, exciting, and provoke a strong emotional response or the audience will get bored. Readers want us to be nice to characters, but in some ways they really don’t because it’s boring. You have to be willing to bang up the toys to keep them fresh and vital. You can certainly go too far and we take pains to figure out where that line is, but these characters aren’t porcelain dolls that can’t be touched – they’re superheroes.

Nrama: One character who by the end seemed to undergo the most permanent change, for now at least, is Sabretooth. Creed’s story emerged very slowly over the course of these nine issues, but the last issue had some strong moments with him and Wolverine, him and Mystique, and others. Was his story always in the cards to play out this way, or did it develop over time?

Brevoort: We knew we were going this way with Sabretooth all along. This is kind of why in Axis #9 he’s not quite the point-of-view character, but he opens and closes the issue in very difference places. We knew this is where we were going to take him, and it was one of the operating goals and one of the outgrowths of the Axis storyline. It’s only sort of natural that it was a prominent character in the final issue whose set-up and transformation became more earned.

That being said, Sabretooth’s not a sterling hero that’s going to be invited to people’s birthday parties anytime soon. Creed’s got a long history of being an absolute awful human being, and Axis doesn’t change his past at all.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: It looks like you and Rick gave Charles Soule and Raw Fawkes in Wolverines a nice gift in the way this character has turned out.

Brevoort: That’s one of the places to look.

Nrama: So now, with Axis done and over, what are the standout moments to you? You talked about defining moments of heroes, so what will you remember professionally and personally as a fan the most about this series?

Brevoort:  Unfortunately, that’s the kind of question I don’t like nor want to answer; it’s not for me to define that. What’ll stick out to the readership is probably not even going to be anything specific that I anticipate. We’re taken by surprise on a fairly constant basis about what our audience likes and responds to. So while I could point out a specific moment of Axis and say it’s good, I’m too far into the machine, too far into the making of the sausage, to have a proper perspective. I know for sure that one thing people will be talking about is the Scarlet Witch/Magneto sequence, which had people up in arms when it came out. People are still responding to that, and feel very strongly about Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver’s relationship to Magneto. Some have become very agitated on what it might mean, but it hasn’t all played out yet. That’s the kind of thing only time will tell.

Axis was described very early on as a Jerry Bruckheimer sort of affair; Original Sin was mired more in guilt and more cerebral matters, but Axis has been about blowing things up, explosive moments, and superheroes doing crazy things. It’s had a sense of chaos and disquietude all the way through, and once all nine issues are collected as one big book I hope it’ll still feel that way.

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