In the first part of our Fear Itself conversation with writer Matt Fraction and newly minted Marvel Comics senior vice president of publishing Tom Brevoort, we talked about the origins of the April-debuting crossover event, and the main characters — Captain America and Thor.
Getting further into the seven-issue series, we chat more with Fraction and Brevoort about coordinating the tie-ins of an event this size, what ancillary characters may be seen, and past crossovers that Fraction is taking some inspirational cues from. (We also talk about the musical Chicago, but only a little bit.)And, yep, there's even more coming, so check back here on Friday for the third and final installment of our Fear Itself interview, devling into, among other things, the role of series artist Stuart Immonen.
Newsarama: Matt, as the main writer of an event series like this, how much do you have to worry about interacting with the authors of all the tie-ins, and make sure everything matches up timeline-wise and all that? Or is that all an editorial thing?
Matt Fraction: That is mostly Tom’s nervous breakdown to have. I kind of throw in my two cents as we go, and suggest series as we go. There were a lot of — are tributaries like the little rivers that flow into the big rivers? — tributary characters that got cut away. That stuff sort of organically develops as you go, and I’ll jot down a note, and off it goes to Tom, and Tom has to worry about it. I don’t know how you manage it.
Tom Brevoort: It’s the division of labor, which amounts to, no one person can deal with all of this. It does become a full-time job. Understanding the broad strokes and the gist of the story, and where we’re going, and our themes and so forth — if there’s something that somebody presents for a tie-in book that I think has bearing, or has impact, or is questionable, or doesn’t necessarily fit, I’ll typically consult with Matt. I’ll send it over to him, and say, “Hey, take a look at this, and let me see what you think, we’ll see how this fits in with everything else that we’re doing.” I try to do that as little as possible, because at any given point that Matt is reading somebody else’s pitch, he is not actually working on the mountainous amount of stuff that he has to do for this directly. And yet, there are plenty of situations that need Matt’s awareness, or I need to get a sense of what he’s thinking so we can advise the other editors and the other creators appropriately.
Fraction: It got to a point where we were really close to having a finished draft of the first issue, and Tom and I had just been living in it for so long we had adapted a shorthand. It was all we had been talking about. Now you have to loop in 30 other people. Getting everybody caught up without drowning everyone in needless volumes of confusion. Let’s keep this contained. It’s kind of like herding cats, I guess. Or understanding the nature of cats so to best herd them.
Brevoort: Yes, it is exactly like that.
Fraction: I don’t want anyone to curse my name and slam a phone down in anger because I’ve done something to cause them to waste time, or even worse, lose work. So that is my mission.
Brevoort: The worst situations like that tend to come on the other side. We have a lot of incredibly creative people, and you present them a challenge, or you present them the broad strokes of something, and inevitably they’ll come back with something you didn’t think of before. Quite often on a project like this, these are good ideas, but they don’t necessarily fit in with the rest of the structure.
To put kind of a pedantic example together, if Thor is in Asgard thwacking away at a problem over here, he can’t be in North Carolina hanging out with Ghost Rider. No matter how good that Ghost Rider idea is, the story requires Thor to be in Asgard, thwacking away at whatever, and there’s no give there. Those are the most difficult things to dice around, because you spend two days trying to figure out, “Could we get him to North Carolina, and get him back on time? Is there some way to kind of bend this, and make it all work?” Inevitably, what it means is that somebody goes away slightly unsatisfied and having to rethink what they’re doing.
Fraction: Suddenly Volstagg makes it out to North Carolina.
Brevoort: There’s a tremendous amount of interaction and compromise. It’s certainly a lot easier if you’re just writing your comic, and, “Ghost Rider’s in North Carolina, yay!” Once you’re doing something sizable, the amount of interaction for everybody just gets exponentially bigger, and you’re not necessarily king of the hill even in your own story. By doing — and I’m using Ghost Rider for no apparent reason — a Ghost Rider story and saying, “I want to be part of this larger thing,” you’ve abdicated to some degree your position at the head of the table, because the story you’re telling is not your story. It’s your story, and Ghost Rider’s story, within the context of this larger super-story, but you don’t necessarily get to control every single element of that. Waking up one day and saying, “It would be much better for me if the villain was this guy rather than that guy,” you don’t have the ability to control that unilaterally that you do if you were just writing Ghost Rider.
Nrama: Even though Fear Itself will have a lot of tie-ins, it seems that — and I could be wrong — the actual main story focuses in on only a few characters. We’ve established that Captain America and Thor are the stars, and there’s been talk about eight characters being “the worthy.” Is it fair to say, then, that the main story isn’t quite as sprawling, maybe a little bit more zoomed in?
Brevoort: I make this point all the time: For all that Civil War was a big, sprawling story with dozens of superheroes colliding over this issue, Civil War is really a story about three characters. It’s really about Cap on one side of the argument, Iron Man on the other side of the argument, and Spider-Man caught in the middle. And every issue of Civil War is really about one of those three pieces, and where they are, and how these things develop — with dozens of other characters arrayed around them. Going into a big story like this, you can have a cast of thousands, but they can’t all be stars. You need to know who your stars are and who your main focal point characters are, and then boil your way down to your co-stars, and your bit players, and your cameos, and your scene-stealers — some of whom will get more play in ancillary books than they will in the core books, simply due to the fact that that’s an issue of Ghost Rider, and so you have 22 pages to devote to Ghost Rider, whereas in the main book he may just be a co-star, or a bit player, or a cameo.
We have certainly boiled it down to the characters that we think it’s genuinely about. There were scenes and sequences and ideas for other characters, that just as we continued to boil this away, had to fall by the wayside, simply because the story wasn’t big enough to contain them all at the center.
Fraction: And that was Tom’s most consistent note to me. I got to a point where just to keep myself straight, I was making charts that just tracked the main characters in each issue. “What is their big win here, and what is their big loss here?” Every issue had a plus and a minus for these guys, just to keep my head in the game and to keep focused on everything. I said this to Tom a million times, “I keep losing the lawn for all the blades of grass.” You get down on your hands and knees all day in the dirt, it’s really easy to do.
I think that had a big thing to do with what attracted Joe [Quesda] to the story. When we kind of really laid down the railroad tracks, I think Joe saw very early on — maybe even before I did — how this was a character story. We had a retreat where that just kind of was his mantra: “Where are the characters, where are the characters?” That was what Joe wanted us to keep the optics on. You’re a fan, you know what it’s like — you just kind of start daydreaming,. “Oh, and this would be cool, this would be cool!” and suddenly you’ve got the greatest Volstagg/Ghost Rider tie-in of all time, and Captain America hasn’t been here for 50 pages.
In a thing with this many moving parts, it’s really easy to lose track. “Oh yeah, we’re making a watch, we’re not polishing cogs.” That sounds like a really dismissive way to… I just called somebody’s favorite character a cog, and not a watch.
Brevoort: They can’t all be watches.
Nrama: If they were all watches, than the cogs wouldn’t seem as useful or special. Or something.
Matt, given that this is your first time writing a big event story, are there any in the past that you really liked and are maybe taking inspirational cues from?
Fraction: The original Secret Wars — which, granted, dates very poorly, I think, in a lot of ways — came out right when I started reading Marvel books. It was very early in my nascent Marvel-dom as I kind of realized, “Oh, there’s DC and there’s Marvel!” Secret Wars is kind of my touchstone, and I think the best lesson to take from that is how it was like Ocean’s 11 — it was just everybody you loved. The best good guys and the worst bad guys fighting. It was so pure, on some level — y’know, because it was on some level an advertisement for toys — but it works. You go back and look at it now, it’s like, “some of this is silly,” but I still can recreate in my mind, panel for panel, the Dr. Doom/Beyond fight. I gasped when Doom’s leg just gets blown off like a thing of tube sand out of the back of a pickup truck.
On one level, just that kind of very simple, like, razzle-dazzle — I can’t remember what musical that’s from — make it huge, and epic, and big, and exciting, and pure.
Brevoort: That’s the promise of these. That’s what attracts the audience, and always has, on the most 8-year-old level imaginable. It’s a big story, with all of your favorite superhero characters, fighting all of the worst villains, in the biggest, craziest, most dramatic story ever, where crazy sh*t happens. It’s everything you like about an ordinary comic, but multiplied a million times.
Fraction: It’s the IMAX version of the same sh*t we do month in and month out. It’s tough in this era when our sales cycles are so nakedly exposed, and our promotional cycles are so out there, and everything is always hyped as, “The end of everything, in Muffin Man #17!” You know it’s not really the end of everything, but hyperbole has become our default mode of communication, I think. That’s a big part of it. “What is the simple epic of it all? Oh right, it’s everything you love, all at once, happening on a scale way bigger than you can imagine.” That’s one of the brilliant things about Brian [Michael Bendis]’s Avengers relaunch. That Kang story — every month something else would come out, it was just like, “Goddamn it, I don’t know how you top this.” That open was so robust.
The other one I think has to be Civil War. Like or dislike, that it was so nakedly about the zeitgeist at the time, whether by design or by accident, I think was fantastic, because that’s what Marvel heroes always were. Marvel guys were always the blue-collar. working-class; hustling to get Aunt May’s prescription. It was like the real world. I think we can reflect some of that. Like I said earlier, no one wants to hear Spider-Man punch a recession, but to see Spider-Man worried about the same sh*t that I’m worried about means something to me. That resonates. I think that’s why Marvel is Marvel. I think it’s relatable in a way that DC never is. So that is another important thing to me, keeping an eye on the real world, and understanding that we’re not going to solve any of these problems, but we can look at them, we can think about them, we can talk about them through the lens of these Marvel heroes. If you can combine the marquee, epic, smash-‘em-up purity of Secret Wars, with the relevancy of something like Civil War — which was also not lacking in the smash-‘em-up department — I think that is a pretty terrific combination.
I slept like two-and-a-half hours last night. That sounded pretty good, right?
Nrama: I'm not even sure know what to add, other than that it was Chicago that had the “Razzle Dazzle” song.
Fraction: That's it.That’s even more dangerous, just as fans, when you lose blades of grass in the lawn. You might love Ghost Rider and Volstagg, and suddenly you’re writing for stuff for you as a fan, because there is this scenario that invites all of these characters to smash together. Suddenly, it’s very easy, just as a fan, to like, “I’ve always wanted to see what would happen if Ghost Rider and Volstagg went to North Carolina.” It’s easy to lose focus. You get to sleep over in Toys R Us all night long.
Brevoort: Everybody here has a love and a fondness for so many of these characters, and so many of these things — or sees potential, or sees interesting things in them — that when suddenly your assignment is, “Write a story that’s about all of them,” it’s very easy to get lost in, “And this guy and this guy and this guy!” When you look up and you go, “Well, I have 22 pages and I have 54 scenes,” clearly you’re trying to put 10 pounds of sand into a two-pound bag. It just doesn’t work. But it’s exactly the process that every single person goes through on this, because it’s such an attractive thing. “Look at all this stuff!”
Fraction: There’s a phone call that I made to you — I remember calling and asking, “So, can we have 44 pages every issue?”
Brevoort: That one happens, too, every single time. “Can there be a few more?” I think we want Stuart to live through this, so probably we want to have a little moderation.What characters are you hoping make it into FEAR ITSELF?