Everything you know about Marvel Comics is about to change

Axel Alonso on Secret Wars, and how to make a movie out of a comic book event


The Marvel universe is about to explode. Again.

Next month, just as Avengers: Age of Ultron hits theaters, the self-styled House of Ideas will kick off its own summer blockbuster series in Secret Wars, a universe-spanning event helmed by Avengers writer Jonathan Hickman that will pit superheroes and villains from across time and between dimensions against each other. Five years in the making, it’s the single biggest thing Marvel has done with its comics characters in its 76-year history, and according to Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso, it promises to change how it tells stories for decades to come.

Longtime fans will recognize the Secret Wars name from the original miniseries Marvel released back in 1984. The premise was similar; take all your major characters and make them fight one another. It was the first, if not the most important, crossover event of its kind, and it paved the way to the kind of franchise-smashing events that Marvel and DC are now trying to pull off at the movies. This year, things are getting much crazier, with the entire Marvel multiverse at stake.

Secret Wars will change Marvel Comics for decades to come

Despite being a series that pulls from Marvel’s entire existence, Secret Wars is meant to be accessible to just about everyone from beginning to end. In his eyes, it’s a movie — albeit, a six-month-long one — that Marvel’s writers have made sure old and new readers can dive into and enjoy. The comparison is probably as crazy as it is apt. Marvel currently rules the roost when it comes to comic book films, and with Age of Ultron slated to bring in perhaps the biggest opening weekend draw of all time, any chance to bring in new fans means bringing in big money. That means writing massive stories that might one day be even more massive movies. The trick — and it’s not going to be easy — is managing to tell a good story. I spoke with Alonso about how Marvel could possibly pull this feat off.

Axel Alonso

Marvel is ready to blow up its entire universe. Whose idea was this, and why is it happening?

This event has been years in the making, and it started with an idea that Jonathan had prior to writing The Avengers [in 2009]. We saw it as an opportunity to transform the Marvel universe in a way that quite frankly we've never done before. So, all of our ships, so to speak, would be pointed in one direction — towards this event.

So essentially you're blowing out the original 1984 Secret Wars concept. Like you said, this is bigger than anything that's happened before.

Yeah, it is. I mean, the long and short of it is that this event shares a title and shares some cosmetic similarities to the original Secret Wars, most notably this place called Battleworld. But it's an entirely new story and an entirely different story, set up by completely different inciting events. And what it does to the Marvel universe is take the various universes and smash them together, making a new world. A new world that's divided into new regions that's governed in a very new way. And the first question is: what characters and what portions of the Marvel universe, and the Ultimate universe, as an example, survived and made it to this world. So what you have is a new world, a new Marvel universe that's comprised of these new and frequently dangerous regions populated by those characters we cherry picked to be survivors on the world. [It’s] about the dynamic on that world.

There's been a lot of talk about how this may or may not be a reboot. My understanding is this is effectively changing the fabric of that multiverse but not necessarily the characters. Is that right?

Yeah, I'd say that’s what this is. It's ultimately for the readers to decide what they're seeing. What I will say is that we don't believe our continuity or our universe is broken. We don't believe it needs to be fixed. And I think that this story will bear that out. We have a tremendous opportunity here to transform the Marvel universe in a way that makes for incredible stories down the road, for the next 10, 20 years worth of publishing. This is an instance where we're going to be bringing into the Marvel universe new characters, new regions, new concepts, and, in certain cases replacing, out of necessity, some pieces that were on the board. And it's going to make this a lively debate on the internet and beyond.

I do want to stress one thing here: that this is structured to be a very accessible story to anyone who's not read a comic book before. Jonathan and Esad [Ribic]'s story is structured in a way that should be completely understandable to anyone who went to see, say, The Avengers movies. [It] begins clean, and moves upwards cinematically, and readers will understand who the players are, what the inciting incident is, [and] the stakes. There will, of course, be questions that propel them through the story. That's what a good story should always do. But the story does come to a sense of full resolution, and that story in and of itself should be an incentive for people to want to know more and read the other titles — the Spider-Man titles, the X-Men titles — and see what's going on in them.

I want to make it very clear, nothing in that series or during the event, is inconsequential. Nothing there is a "What If?" story, or an alternate reality story. There is only one reality, and it is Battleworld. That is the only reality. And out of that, everything that was part of it, every single book needs to bring something onto the table that will last and exist and inform the Marvel universe moving forward. That could be a character or characters, good guy or bad guy. It could be a new region. It could be a new artifact of great power or what have you. It could be almost anything. But every single series that we're doing is a piece of the Marvel universe going forward.

So from May on, it'll be broken up into three sub-stories. You have "Last Days" beginning and ending next month, then you have "Battleworld" and "War Zones" running from May to November. How do those all work?

Let me start at the beginning. All of our creators, all of our writers and artists, knew Secret Wars was coming. One of the options we made available to people was that perhaps you think it will be interesting to show the last days of your character before this event, before the — pardon my French — shit hits the fan. What would they do in their "last days?" Tell us that story. So it allows for them to tell a smaller story in the Marvel universe as it exists right now. And certain titles like Ms. Marvel and Black Widow, they're a little smaller scale, they opted to take that route. Those individual writers said, "You know, I think it's fascinating to see how Kamala Khan reacts to this. She's a new superhero. She lives in Jersey City, and this event happens. What does she do?" So they elected to do that, and those are the "Last Days" stories. It's the last days of those characters before the event.

The next category is the "Battleworld" titles, and they're titles that are about the [newly created] world, but they're more closely associated with the core series, Secret Wars. They're about the world as a whole. So they cover an aspect of that world, whether it's the way that world is policed, or governed. A border dispute between two zones, like Age of Ultron versus Marvel Zombies would be an example of that. It doesn't sound like a recipe for hugs and kisses, does it? So what happens in that scenario. I kind of look at that as being a deep dive into Secret Wars. You can see the politics of that world, the infrastructure of that world, all wrapped up, of course, in the story.

The "Warzone" titles are about a single domain, and they stand alone. You needn't read Secret Wars to appreciate them. You can feasibly not read Jonathan and Esad's core series and still get what's going on. An example of that is The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows. If you've seen the tease, Spider-Man and MJ are back and married and everything's rosy. How the hell did that happen? Is that a good thing? What's going to happen? Those stories are [about] picking moments of our biggest and brightest — and in some cases most controversial — stories, and having some fun with our core characters.

Secret Wars Gallery

"Warzones" like X-Men '92 will be where Marvel will explore some of its classic stories and settings away from the core series.

How difficult is it mapping out and molding the story to the point that it can come out and be an event and actually work?

It's tough. It requires a high level of coordination and cooperation from editors and talent. Tom [Brevoort, Marvel's Executive Editor] gets full credit for standing at the center of all of these big events. Tom doesn't forget anything ever. He's very good at standing in the middle of that storm and embracing it. We have lots of charts and sheets that are shared amongst groups — there's an X-Men group, there's a Spider-Man group, there's a Marvel Heroes group — and information is shared amongst people so that we know where we're landing. We have editorial retreats that we do about four times a year now, where the core writers and all of the editors convene for three days, and we hole up in an office in a big conference room, and we just talk about the future, and we lay out our plans, and we see how the roads that different characters are traveling intersect. Once we knew where Secret Wars was landing, and we knew when Jonathan would be starting it, we were able to give people long in advance [what] they would need to be able to clear the decks. So whether they were in issue 18 or issue 4, they knew when Secret Wars was hitting. They had ample time to prepare for what they wanted to do.

"Miles Morales is a very important character to the story."

Would you say that there are certain characters that take a central role in the overarching conflict? Characters who really bear the weight of this conflict more?

I'm reluctant to give spoilers, but I will say that people who overlook [the upcoming] Ultimate End run, featuring Ultimate Spider-Man, do so at their own peril. Miles is a very, very important character to the story. And he's not alone. So too with the female Thor. You'll see when you read.

When the dust settles in the fall, will there be more ways to get into the new universe for any new fan?

Yes. The beauty of Secret Wars is that it opens up the opportunity for us to explore a lot of genres that we haven't been able to explore for a while. You've seen in solicitations the fact that we're doing "Weirdworld," which opens a world of science fiction and sorcery. You've seen "1872," which imagines the Marvel universe through the lens of a classic Western narrative. You know, Captain America, Iron Man, all viewed as Western archetypes. Those and more are the kinds of series that will start in Secret Wars and they'll be joined by new series post-Secret Wars, when the story reveals new opportunities for us to reveal new material. Both genre-wise and for the characters themselves.

This is also, of course, to drive sales right?

Well, you always want to drive sales! [Laughs] Anybody that thinks that we don't want to sell comic books doesn't get it. Of course we want to drive sales. The way you drive sales is by delivering a good story with good art. It's not through a hologram cover or making a lot of noise. Ultimately, you need to make noise to get people to pay attention, but you've got to back it up. And I think our track record over the last few years has shown that. When I look at some of our successes over the last few years, we're at a position now that people are eating up Howard the Duck and Ant-Man and Ms. Marvel. The [positive] response to the female Thor. We have an African-American Captain America. The diversity in what we're doingI think Brian Bendis is winding up one of the best runs on X-Men ever. We're putting out a lot of quality material now, and retailers and fans are coming to understand that.

"The way you drive sales is by telling a good story with good art."

I think there will always be some internet cynicism about these events. People that will want us to say, unequivocally, that this is or isn't a reboot, and we won't do that. I think that what you want to do is read and find out. Or wait till it's over and find out whatever people tell you. But you know, right now, I think that we don't allow internet chatter or cynicism to guide us. We use our own faith in our creators and editorial staff to guide us.