Comic book readers are pretty used to relaunches.
In an effort to attract new readers or just get the comic some added attention, publishers sometimes choose to start a comic over with a new #1, even if the content doesn't change substantially.
But five years ago this month, a relaunch at Marvel got more than just a little attention as the first issue of New Avengers was released. The Avengers comic's 500+ issues of numbering officially ceased, the old team was gone, and a new team was taking its place. While the move was controversial – particularly the addition of Spider-Man and Wolverine to the team – Marvel took the team in a whole new direction, with a new headquarters, new members and a writer who was new to writing superhero teams.
What resulted was a change to the Avengers franchise that even the most skeptical fans will admit was a sales success. While the Avengers title had been barely squeaking into the Top 25 comics each month, New Avengers shot to a consistent spot on the Top 10. And with spin-offs that now include the ongoing titles Mighty Avengers, Avengers: The Initiative and the recent Dark Avengers, the Avengers franchise has established itself as flagship of the Marvel Universe, taking a central role in almost every event since.
In Part 2 of our series looking at the Avengers relaunch (see yesterday's Part 1 here), we take a closer look at the anatomy of the decision to walk away from the old Avengers and invest in the "New." Today, we talk to Tom Brevoort, the Marvel executive editor who oversees the Avengers titles.
We start our conversation discussing the now legendary Marvel retreat in 2004 where the decision to relaunch Avengers happened after a heated argument about whether Spider-Man and Wolverine should be on the team. Although the meeting had not been designed to address the Avengers in particular, the room full of editors and creators started talking about the franchise, and a remark from Mark Millar led to so much excitement that they decided it was time for a "new" Avengers.
Newsarama: To, we've heard the story about Mark Millar kind of kicking off the idea for the Avengers relaunch. What was your perspective on that?
Tom Brevoort: Yeah, I think Mark said something like, "I don't understand why these guys are the Avengers, that the Avengers back in the '60s, when I was reading it as a wee lad", in whatever backwater country he was living in, "was all Marvel's biggest guys. So today, you would think the Avengers would be, rather than who was in the book at that point, would be all your biggest guys. You know, Spider-Man and Wolverine and the Hulk and whoever else. All in one big book, and that would be the greatest book ever."
Mark tends to think in really broad, strong, sweeping terms this way. And so that discussion went that way. And we hashed it around back and forth.
That evening Mark and Brian were staying in the same hotel, and they had dinner, and they went out afterward, and they had talked a little bit. And they came back the next day and Brian came in with the broad strokes of his pitch to do Avengers. And it wasn't exactly what Mark was talking about, but it was stemming from that point. So I guess that was sort of the thinking, or at least the thinking that led us down the trail toward New Avengers.
The Avengers had been the way they'd been, and nobody had stopped and really said, well why couldn't Spider-Man be in the Avengers, or why couldn't Wolverine be in the Avengers? There was no reason besides the fact that they hadn't been up to this point. And it had just been accepted as fact that they can't and they shouldn't.
Nrama: It's pretty well known that you didn't like the changes that were proposed at first. Why did you have a problem with it?
Brevoort: Everyone misunderstands this, but that's fine. My problem was less about that concept, and much more with the fact that I was editing a book then that was coming up on Issue #500 for which a lot of track had been laid with the creative team that was on it. In fact, there was another book, The New Invaders, that was spinning out of what was planned. And all these plans were being torn up. Essentially, they were being overturned. So I was more concerned about that situation than I was specifically about the question of whether these guys could be the Avengers.
Nrama: A lot of attention at the time was placed on Wolverine and Spider-Man joining the team, but one of the things that has emerged from New Avengers is this higher profile for characters like Sentry and Spider-Woman and Luke Cage. While the creation of New Avengers brought a couple new A-list characters into the team, have they benefitted from it as much as some of these B-list characters that Brian brought into the group? Was that a goal? Or was it something that emerged as Brian wrote the book?
Brevoort: I think this has a lot to do with Brian specifically, and the characters that Brian most naturally clicks with or connects with.
But I also think it has to do with a larger Avengers question and why the team had been the guys that they were. To a certain extent, that answer is the same answer for these characters. Why Luke Cage and Spider-Woman and the Sentry or whoever in the New Avengers title? The answer is exactly the same. Those are characters for whom New Avengers is their home book. Those are the characters with whom Brian had the most latitude and the most freedom to do things with. It's not to say he couldn't write stories about Captain America or Iron Man, but any time you would come up with those stories, you had to be aware that there was a Captain America book and Iron Man book too.
The same is true traditionally for the Avengers going back 45 years. And certainly, if Mark Millar had written New Avengers, if coming out of that retreat, Brian hadn't had the idea and sold his pitch first to Mark and then everybody else, probably Mark's team would have been markedly different. And who knows if it would have been more successful or less successful?
But I think the reason those characters came to the forefront is that Brian truly loves them. There's no one in the Avengers canon that he loves more than Luke Cage. And I think at the same time, it's the voice that he gives to Luke and the attention that he pays to the characters. And the same with Spider-Woman and most of the others. The thing that made that book and made those characters really work was Brian's take on them. And he had a better and more interesting take and was able to sell it to a wider audience maybe just through the use of them hanging around with Cap and Spidey and Iron Man or whoever, than Avengers past, whoever the Avengers characters were that were the new guys years before.
I think it also helped in a subliminal way that these were mostly characters of the '70s and '80s. So they've been around the block a few times. The idea that Luke Cage could be on the Avengers. He hadn't been on the Avengers before, but he had enough pedigree as a character that he didn't seem strange or out of place or like a latter-day addition standing next to these other guys on the cover. And the same thing with Spider-Woman. These are characters that had some history behind them, even if that history up to that point hadn't been as Avengers. And I think that helped them out more than maybe using latter-day guys like Quasar, who suddenly was on the Avengers and it was very apparent they were put there because it was like, "Oh, I just got a new book, so let's put him on the Avengers and use it to help drive interest in his title." This felt a little more natural and organic. Even people who were upset by the switchover and changeover, none of those people really had any gripes about Luke or Jessica. They maybe had gripes about Wolverine being in too many books, and they may have had gripes about Spider-Man being in too many comics, but it wasn't a problem with these other characters.
Nrama: While there was a switch in characters, there was also a change in tone after Disassembled. Brian told me he was trying to bring something new to superhero books, but it was hard for him to define what it was. As his editor, what do you think he brought to the Avengers title that was a change to comics in general or at least to team books like the Avengers?
Brevoort: I don't know if I'm going to have a much easier time defining this than he did. But maybe I have the vantage point to see this slightly differently than he does, because he just did what he did. Whereas I get to at least watch him do it.
I think what Brian brought to the Avengers more than anything else is himself. And the things that he applied to it are the same kinds of insights and same kinds of approaches he previously used on Daredevil and Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men and any number of other things. I think Brian's approach to writing comics, the way he goes about it, the way he gets into the heads of his characters and the things he draws inspiration from really sort of reset the paradigm, just because he was drawing from areas that nobody else was really drawing from in that same way.
Having talked with him, having worked with him for so long on Avengers and other things, it's very apparent to me, where a lot of guys are mostly influenced by the comics they read in the past, Brian is much more influenced by film – by screenplays, by cinema, by all of that. I think that, and his experiences in learning film writing and applying a lot of those lessons and thought processes to comics and to superhero comics specifically, are what changed things. Even the nature of pacing, and how much is necessary in a single installment of a comic to make it satisfying.
You can go two or three issues in a Brian comic and not have a fistfight, and yet he can make you feel like you've been put through the wringer emotionally because of what the characters are experiencing. It's one of those things that's a little bit divisive. There are still people out there that don't care for that particular flavor, that will quote you the mantra of, "they would have done that in two pages in the old days." And the answer is, "They would have done something that was sort of like that in two pages in the old days, but it wouldn't have been anywhere near as effective as what he does."
Looking back, I think Avengers: Disassembled< was the last sweep-out of the old guard Avengers. But after Avengers: Disassembled was over, I think almost immediately, he came in and wrote Avengers unlike Avengers had ever been written. Everybody who had written Avengers up to that point, to one degree or another, looked back and went, well what did Stan do and what did Roy Thomas do and what did Steve Englehart do? What's the formula? How do you write an issue of Avengers? Whereas Brian just went in and said, I'm going to let these characters kind of bounce off one another and use my own innate sense of pacing and structure and just pace it differently.
I don't know if that completely answers your question, because I don't know that there's an easy soundbite for what it is.
Nrama: That definitely addresses how he's different as a writer. Was there anything specific you saw that was new?
Brevoort: This is a strange observation to make, but I see Brian do this a lot, since I see all the scripts. And I don't know entirely how much it comes across overtly to the audience, but I think it comes across subliminally an awful lot. It's one of those things that nobody can quite put their finger on. Brian very, very often will have a character say one thing while he's thinking something else. Or thinking the opposite. And that's all down to the artist to interpret that masquerade, that Luke Cage is really thinking black when he's saying white. And that's a very common sort of motif in screenwriting. People don't necessarily say exactly what they're thinking and aren't quite that direct. And for the longest time, if you had word balloons or you had thought bubbles or you had over-narration in comics, that was absolutely definitive, to the point where there are plenty of fans still online who will say, "Yeah, but he said this. Well, yeah, so-and-so said that, but we all say a lot of things, and we don't necessarily say exactly what we're really thinking.
I think that simple technique that he uses, I don't think he uses it as a trope; he just does it. Nobody quite encountered that done in quite that same way before in comics. So now, you see a lot of other people doing it as well, because Brian's been doing it long enough that he's inspired other writers who've followed up on him to figure out some of what he does and build on it going forward.
Nrama: It's interesting that the retreat's goal was not particularly to make changes to the Avengers, and that you had other plans in place, because looking back, that was a huge turnaround not only for that title, but it ended up spawning multiple Avengers titles. Do you think that was just an aspect of you reacting quickly to the success of New Avengers?
Brevoort: I think it's actually kind of the opposite, which is that ... we didn't rush into doing multiple books. It took us a long time. It took us until after Civil War to launch the second Avengers book, which was Mighty. Both Brian and I resisted that quite a bit and always have, because that's the Marvel formula in a nutshell. The classic quintessential Marvel thing is, you've got something selling well? Quick! Let's do three or four more of them, because more is good and strike while the iron is hot. Anything that you do that expands the franchise or expands the brand has to be adding something of value, has to give you something new or stand on some patch of ground that the other book doesn't, at least over the long haul and not to just run a concept into the ground.
Financially, New Avengers was a huge success, and for, I guess, about the first two years, there was only one book. There was New Avengers. And it wasn't until Mighty launched around the same time as Issue #26 or #27, so two years in, that we expanded out to Mighty and we expanded to Avengers: The Initiative, which also came out of Civil War.
It was really the Civil War set-up that gave us the hook that we needed to feel comfortable. Coming out of Civil War, the whole of that series had set up these two divided points of view: The Iron Man point of view and the Cap point of view and the people that congregated around each of those pro- and anti-registration sides. And so it seemed the most natural thing in the world, particularly since Iron Man's side ended up on top and victorious, to have the Iron Man point-of-view Avengers title, and to have the Cap point-of-view Avengers title, even if Cap wasn't there to be part of it because he'd been killed.
And then from there, going through Secret Invasion and Norman's ascension, it made sense to do a Norman point-of-view book. There was a period of time where we discussed ending Mighty and replacing it with Dark. That's a case where, financially, it made sense to ask, do we need to end Mighty? Mighty was doing really well, so we looked at how to keep it around and find some other ground for it to stand on. And that's a case where we sort of deliberately said, let's try to do a book that harkens back a little more to the classic Avengers.
Right from the outset, I knew New Avengers would work. I mean, it's the Avengers, but it's got Spider-Man and Wolverine and all the big characters in it. Absolutely, that's going to work. And it was being written by a guy who was then and still is now one of the top three writers in the industry, and it was being drawn by [David] Finch, who was an incredibly commercial and incredibly talented superhero artist. No question in my mind that it was going to work. Now the fact that it's lasted and been on top as long as it has is more a testament to Brian and all the guys who have worked on it with him, and what they've been able to build into the bedrock of that series and that concept all this time.
Check back next week as we talk to Brian Michael Bendis about the controversy of Disassembled and how he approached New Avengers, plus more discussion with Bendis, Brevoort and others about what comes next for the Avengers, both in comics and the movies.