AXEL ALONSO and Marvel Comics - A Look Back

Axel Alonso by Judith Stephens
Credit: Judith Stephens (Marvel)

Just over a week after the news of Brian Michael Bendis signing an exclusive deal with DC Comics, Marvel announced today that Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso would be departing the company, to be succeeded by VP of International Business Development & Brand Management C.B. Cebulski. A major Marvel fixture since 2000, Alonso has been tied to some of the company’s biggest successes as well as some its most controversial storylines.

Following his stellar track record on DC’s Vertigo line editing books such as 100 Bullets, Preacher and Transmetropolian, Alonso began his tenure at Marvel as the editor of the Spider-Man line, where he oversaw Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski’s bestselling run on Amazing Spider-Man. Alonso is credited with bringing creators like Garth Ennis, Greg Rucka and Paul Pope to play in the Marvel sandbox with anthology series Spider-Man’s Tangled Web — all in his first year.

"One More Day" image by Joe Quesada
"One More Day" image by Joe Quesada
Credit: Marvel Comics

Muddying the waters of the Web-head’s origins with science and mysticism, the flagship Spider-Man title under Alonso’s purview reunited Peter Parker with his estranged wife Mary Jane, confessed his secret identity to Aunt May, and defected to Captain America’s side after publicly unmasking during the 2006 event Civil War. Alonso’s tenure on Amazing Spider-Man ended with no small amount of controversy however, as Straczynski and editor-in-chief Joe Quesada capped the run with One More Day, which retroactively erased Peter Parker’s marriage to Mary Jane thanks to magical interference by the demonic Mephisto.

With the Spider-Man line reinvigorated Alonso’s workload at Marvel diversified, first with Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s bizarro run on X-Force and its follow-up series X-Statix, then in Kevin Smith’s long-delayed Spider-Man/Black Cat: The Evil That Men Do series with Terry Dodson, and the iconic (and then controversial) series Truth: Red, White & Black by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker, which retconned Captain America’s continuity with a Tuskegee-like series of Super-Soldier experiments on a squad of black soldiers.

Alonso’s books also courted controversy with Ron Zimmerman’s Rawhide Kid, which depicted the 1950s western gunslinger as gay. Given a “Mature Readers” label and getting media coverage from ABC, the Advocate, and even Tucker Carlson, the series was largely panned in reviews for its too-cute innuendo and campy tone. Alonsa also edited Mark Millar’s series Trouble, which featured a young May Parker having affairs and a teenage pregnancy.

While Alonso was still overseeing Straczynski’s Spider-Man run, he branched out to Marvel’s darker heroes, editing Garth Ennis’s acclaimed run on the Punisher, which aged Frank Castle as a Vietnam veteran wreaking bloody vengeance decades after the deaths of his family, and taking over editorial duties on Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s Daredevil, which put Matt Murdock in prison with his secret identity revealed thanks to Wilson Fisk.

Credit: Marvel Comics

During this time, Alonso would also oversee several creators whose work would gain new relevance later on in the cineplexes: Reginald Hudlin and John Romita, Jr.’s Black Panther, a major inspiration behind next year’s Chadwick Boseman-starring film, and Mark Millar’s run on Wolverine, which pit him against the Marvel Universe as a brainwashed Hand agent, culminating in the dystopian future storyline Old Man Logan which heavily influenced this year’s critically acclaimed hit film Logan.

Now firmly established at the House of Ideas, Alonso’s books would also begin to take on a more experimental, creator-focused vibe akin to his Vertigo work. Frank Cho came to Marvel to take on Shanna the She-Devil, while Matt Fraction was later tapped for his first ongoing series under Alonso with Punisher War Journal.

Meanwhile, returning creators came back with some big swings, such as David Finch’s iconic artwork on Moon Knight; Warren Ellis’s cult series Newuniversal (which would influence Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers run just over half a decade later) and J. Michael Straczynski and Esad Ribic’s Silver Surfer: Requiem, an out-of-continuity series that had Norrin Radd contemplate his own impending mortality.

Alonso would go on to edit much of the X-Men line, including the latter half of Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run, as well as the event series Messiah Complex which had several mutant and anti-mutant factions going head-to-head to find the first mutant baby born since Marvel’s House of M event.

Credit: Esad Ribic (Marvel Comics)

During this time, Alonso retooled much of the X-Men line with strategic picks, such as overseeing X-Force under writers Craig Kyle and Chris Yost and later Rick Remender, which put Wolverine in charge of a black ops team of mutant assassins. Alosno presciently put the spotlight back on future movie star Deadpool with his own Daniel Way and Paco Medina-headlined series. With his portfolio and seniority growing, Alonso was named Executive Vice President, Senior Editor in 2010, spearheading Marvel’s cross-promotional issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Perhaps even more importantly, Alonso would also tap some major up-and-comers that would pay dividends for Marvel. It was Alonso who hired then-Vertigo up-and-comer Jason Aaron to write his first Wolverine arc, Get Mystique!, which would solidify his path to becoming one of Marvel’s most A-list writers. Alonso would also recruit novelists Gregg Hurwitz to write Foolkiller and Victor Gischler to write Deadpool.

However, not every series under Alonso’s purview always struck gold - though Deadpool’s title count ballooned into an ever-increasing number of silly side series (including spinoff character Hit-Monkey), Rick Remender’s well-received Punisher series took a polarizing swerve into a monster-centric spinoff Franken-Castle while the titular X-Men series itself became enmeshed in the Twilight-era vampire craze in Curse of the Mutants, which pit the X-Men against Dracula and turned the firecracker-emitting mallrat Jubilee into a teenage vampire.

Named Editor-in-Chief the following year in 2011 following Joe Quesada’s promotion to Chief Creative Officer, Alonso was quickly thrown into Marvel’s multimedia churn, as the company launched the event series Fear Itself to coincide with the impending Captain America and Thor solo films.

While Fear Itself received mixed reviews, Alonso’s tenure also launched Jonathan Hickman’s FF, which added Spider-Man and Doctor Doom to Marvel’s Fantastic Four, reimagining them as a space-faring scientific think tank. Alonso also oversaw Brian Michael Bendis’s Death of Ultimate Spider-Man which paved the way for Miles Morales to debut as Peter Parker’s successor, and the X-Men’s Schism which split the team into Wolverine’s School for Gifted Youngsters in Wolverine and the X-Men and Cyclops, Emma Frost , and Magneto anchoring their own fugitive team at the Weapon X project in Uncanny X-Men.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Perhaps the biggest crossover during Alonso’s tenure was Avengers vs. X-Men in 2012, which took a cavalcade of Marvel’s top writers and artists and pit the House of Ideas’ premiere superteams against each other, leading up to Joss Whedon’s Avengers film hitting theaters that summer. While critical reception was mixed given the Avengers’ one-sided victory against the Fox-owned Children of the Atom, the series was a monster hit in sales. Meanwhile, Dan Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man culminated in Peter Parker dying and being replaced by Otto Octavius in Superior Spider-Man, a divisive series that proved to be a commercial and critical smash.

With several of Marvel’s top-tier creators such as Mark Millar, Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction beginning their exodus to Image Comics, Alonso’s Marvel became increasingly steered by Jonathan Hickman and Brian Michael Bendis, with the Avengers line charting the course for the Marvel Universe as a whole under Hickman’s pen, while Bendis would be dropped in to reinvigorate struggling side series such as the X-Men and the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Meanwhile, following DC's massive sales success with their “New 52” reboot in 2011, Marvel began what would be a regular series of issue #1 relaunches with their Marvel NOW! initiative in October 2012, a trend that would accelerate in the following years. Driven to stay competitive against their crosstown rival DC as well as encroaching pushes from a reinvigorated Image, Alonso's tenure also saw Marvel take a page from his Deadpool playbook to expand key brands such as the Avengers and X-Men lineups.

Credit: Marvel Comics

But perhaps the biggest creative win under Alonso's auspices was the debut of Kamala Khan a.k.a. Ms. Marvel in 2013. A brand-new character whose only connection to Carol Danvers was honorary, the title from writer G. Willow Wilson, artist Adrian Alphona and editor Sana Amanat was a critical darling that grabbed international headlines and became one of Marvel's bestselling digital series. Kamala's adult counterpart, meanwhile, had been promoted to Captain Marvel, where writer Kelly Sue DeConnick earned a modest but fiercely devoted fanbase known as the Carol Corps.

Around this time, Alonso also oversaw the creation of a new Ghost Rider, Robbie Reyes, whose Mexican-American heritage Alonso shared, and pointed to as a source of pride.

Meanwhile, outside of Ms. Marvel's sphere, Alonso's stewardship scored acclaim and headlines with books such as Matt Fraction and David Aja's Hawkeye, Ryan North and Erica Henderson's Squirrel Girl, Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez's Spider-Gwen, and perhaps most importantly, Marvel’s modern Star Wars line, a franchise that would prove to be an enormous money-maker and market share boon for the publisher.

Despite several reinventions under Alonso’s tenure, Fantastic Four continued to struggle in the market, with Marvel eventually cancelling it entirely after Secret Wars (which continues to this day), chased by rumors that a conflict between Marvel Studios and 20th Century Fox over film rights were a factor in the cancellation.

Though Alonso's Marvel continually chased after the big response to Avengers vs. X-Men, none of Marvel’s subsequent events proved its equal. Original Sin, AXIS and Death of Wolverine each were met with mixed reviews and returns, but those proved to be just preludes to Secret Wars, the culmination of Jonathan Hickman's years-long run on Avengers.

Secret Wars #1 cover by Alex Ross
Secret Wars #1 cover by Alex Ross
Credit: Marvel Comics

Wracked by delays, Secret Wars - a deep dive into Marvel continuity - wiped out the Marvel Universe as well as its Ultimate counterpart, temporarily discontinuing the whole of Marvel's publishing catalog in exchange for miniseries loosely based on celebrated classics such as Age of Apocalypse, Old Man Logan and Planet Hulk. But post-Secret Wars sales figures continued the trend of relatively strong (and numerous) new and re-launches, followed quickly by declining sales and cancellations amid waves of titles featuring C-list characters.

Yet under Alonso, Marvel still maintained their market lead, moving forward with a swift but risky ploy to diversify their characters. Over the course of a year, Steve Rogers, Thor and Bruce Banner were replaced by Sam Wilson, Jane Foster and Amadeus Cho, with legacy heroes such as Miles Morales, Sam Alexander and Kate Bishop getting new prominence in the Marvel constellation.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Despite Alonso's push forward for more diverse heroes, Marvel began to face self-described sales challenges in the last quarter of 2016, at least in relation to the preceding years. Brian Michael Bendis's Civil War II, taking place a decade after the original bestselling event, did not replicate the commercial or critical success of the original. Secret Empire, with its polarizing premise of Steve Rogers as a Hydra sleeper agent, also met with divided responses from readers and critics.

Following Secret Empire, Alonso led the charge to bring Marvel back to its roots with Marvel Legacy, which was meant to bring characters such as Steve Rogers and Jean Grey back to the forefront of the Marvel Universe and recapture an editorial spirit of Marvel’s past. Despite Alonso’s departure as well as that of Brian Michael Bendis, it seems as though Marvel will continue that course under new leadership.

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