Prose novels based on comic books have been around for decades. Writers like Len Wein, Marv Wolfman and David Michelinie contributed to the "Marvel Novel Series" in the '70s, and the '90s brought books like Diane Duane's Spider-Man: The Venom Factor.
DC Comics has a long history of adapting their major storylines into the novel format, from Roger Stern's The Death and Life of Superman in 1993 to Greg Cox's takes on recent stories like Final Crisis.
So when Marvel announced Tuesday morning a new line of prose novels adapting their biggest stories — starting with former Marvel editor and recent Namor: The First Mutant writer Stuart Moore taking on Mark Millar and Steve McNiven's 2006-2007 event series Civil War — it wasn't unprecedented. Still, to hear Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso talk about it, it's clear that they're planning something different than similar efforts in the past. He compares it to the work Marvel Studios has done in introducing Marvel's characters to new audiences through interconnected films, and hopes to achieve something similar through prose.
"It’s my hope that the experience of reading Civil War will spur readers to read more, that these stories will interlock like a puzzle," Alonso told Newsarama.
In his first interview regarding the announcement, Alonso discussed with Newsarama the origins of the line, the audience Marvel is hoping to reach, and the plans beyond launch book Civil War, which is scheduled for June 2012.
Newsarama: Axel, let's start at the beginning — why is now the right time for Marvel to launch a line of prose novels, and what got the plan in motion internally?
Axel Alonso: Why now? Why not now? Thanks to Marvel Studios, who doesn’t know who Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Hulk are? Or Fury, Black Widow or Hawkeye, for that matter? And come 2012, everyone is going to know who the Avengers are. The Q-rating of comic books’ greatest super hero team is going to go through the roof.
[Marvel senior vice president of sales] David Gabriel came to me with the idea and asked me if I thought it would fly. We sat down with [associate publisher Ruwan Jayatilleke] and agreed that it was completely doable. We needed an editor who knew comics and new how to edit prose so we went to Stuart Moore, who worked here at Marvel and also at Vertigo and has experience as a prose editor and writer. He'll be writing the first book, Civil War and edit future books.
Nrama: So was it always a given that Civil War would be the first story to be adapted into prose?
Alonso: No, it wasn't. We discussed at length which story we should lead with. For obvious reasons, we thought it made sense to lead with an Avengers story, but we needed to lead with one that we could translate to a broader audience. Civil War was immediately appealing because it is arguably the biggest event comic ever, but we had to be sure we could tell this story in a manner that was accessible to an audience beyond the comic reader. When Stuart confirmed our instinct that “Civil War” could, in fact, be told as a prose novel, we committed to it. Oh, and Mark Millar is very happy that Stuart’s doing this.
To translate this to prose, Stuart provided us with an outline that broke down the story, and proposed the point-of-view characters. Cap and Iron Man remained foreground characters, of course, but Stuart made some canny suggestions about who else might make for appealing point-of-view characters, with an eye toward the fact that our readership will be male and female.
Nrama: Since the average prose novel can encompass more story than a seven-issue comic book miniseries like Civil War, can readers expect to see a lot of story and character elements expanded on in these books?
Alonso: Without a doubt. For that reason, I knew I needed to go outside of my already hard-working staff to do this right.
Nrama: In recent years, comic books have become more and more a presence in stores like Barnes & Noble, and even the stories themselves have become more accessible. Do you think at this point there's still a large number of people who are more likely to pick up a prose novel than a comic book?
Alonso: Yes. Whatever level of respectability comics have achieved over the past decade — and there are in fact more people that have embraced it as a continuum of pop culture — there are a lot more prose readers. As I said before, the visibility of “The Avengers” is going to be at an all-time high next year. When someone who went to the multiplex sees “Avengers: Civil War” at the bookstore, it will be far easier to get their attention. And remember: The reason Civil War got such strong mainstream play was the strength of the core concept. We used superheroes to tell a story about the world within which we live. A world where people ask themselves the question, "How much of your freedom will you give up for safety?" A question that's still relevant today.
Nrama: With the novels, then, will there be an element of backmatter directing readers to the comic book product?
Alonso: I expect we’ll do what we always do: encourage people to adventure into the comic store for a sample of the bread-and-butter of our industry: the comic book or graphic novel. But again, the challenge here is to create a prose-reading experience that feels as immersive and immediate as the comic book-reading experience.
Nrama: Is the plan at this point simply to do adaptation, or are new stories in the prose format a possibility?
Alonso: At this point, it's just adaptations. We have four stories earmarked for next year, and a very specific rollout plan, and there's a reason why it's these stories. They're four of our biggest stories, and they deal with four of our biggest characters or franchises. How they perform will inform the decisions we make about the next slate.
Nrama: Right, because novels with new stories based on comic book characters aren't anything new, but adaptations of existing stories is something that Marvel has attempted too extensively before.
Alonso: There are prose adaptations of Marvel stories out there – a "Weapon X" novel, for instance – but this initiative begins a new tapestry. It’s my hope that the experience of reading Civil War will spur readers to read more, that these stories will interlock like a puzzle. Marvel Studios worked hard to build an interlocking franchise — stories that connect, characters whose lives and fates intersect. Hawkeye's cameo in Thor, Black Widow's in Iron Man 2, Sam Jackson's appearances in all of the above were all part of a plan to slowly build a universe like the one that exists in our comics. We’re going to make the same types of decisions as we build a prose universe.
Nrama: So just to clarify, there will be prose novels in 2012?
Alonso: At this point we have four slated. That does not mean that we're only publishing four, it just means that we've locked down four. They're already on our schedule, we know what they are, and we're in the process of finalizing who writes them. Stuart writes the first one, and then edits the next three.
Nrama: Got a couple of detail-type questions — are these going to debut in hardcover or paperback?
Alonso: Hardcover first, then mass-market paperbacks.
Nrama: And is it the plan to do e-book digital releases, too?
Alonso: It's a bit too early to say what our plans are, but we'll reveal more in the next few months.Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!