Comic books taught me to read by the age of 4 (yeah, OK, shout-out to Sesame Street too), and the mainstream sway of superheroes has only grown larger in the decades since. Anyone under the age of 20 who hasn’t seen a Marvel Studios blockbuster like The Avengers or one of the Spider-Man movies is living in a galaxy far, far away, even if comics themselves might sound as quaint as baseball cards in 2014.
Captain America: The Winter Solider just dominated Easter weekend, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens May 2, and Netflix signed a recent deal to bring Marvel characters like Power Man and Daredevil to the small screen. What better time to sit down with Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Axel Alonso to talk colorblind casting and diversity in the comics realm? With Michael B. Jordan officially cast as the Human Torch for next year’s Fantastic Four reboot—and the likes of Jamie Foxx and Anthony Mackie serving killer assists in this season’s superhero flicks—EBONY discusses the browning of the Marvel Universe with one of its highest editorial execs.
EBONY: Marvel and Netflix announced some new series to be filmed in New York City, and the Black American superhero Luke Cage is one of them. Tell us all you can about it.
Axel Alonso: The characters [Netflix] picked cut through a broad range of material from our publishing division. The characters they represent—sort of the street-level crime genre, kung fu, espionage—all really lend themselves towards exotic TV treatment. So I would guess that’s part of the reason these properties were picked. They’re all sort of street-level characters, they’re reliable in that regard.
Luke Cage happens to be one of my favorite characters. He, of course, was created in the early ’70s and erupted from the cinematic tradition of blaxploitation. He was very much modeled on the characters of that era. And I think what’s unique about him is, he went into the new brand of the hero, a character who was more flawed, more street level than we’re used to seeing.
EBONY: Speak to the challenge of bringing a character like that into the modern age. He was born out of the blaxploitation era. What were the challenges of modernizing him?
AA: I think in comic books, that challenge was to make him relevant to the overall tapestry of the Marvel universes we’ve seen. All of these characters all live in one universe. So part of making him relevant over time is the aesthetic changes. The tiara and disco shirts worked in the ’70s, but that doesn’t work in the ’80s [or] ’90s, let alone now.
Currently, he’s a key character and leader of the modern Avengers, which is a team composed of multicultural superheroes. He’s a big player. He’s still got the steel-hard skin and super strength he had when he was born back in the ’70s, but he has a slightly more contemporary aesthetic style. He definitely has changed with time, like all characters have to.
EBONY: Regarding diversity in terms of Marvel, who’s holding it down over there as an African-American writer/artist these days?
AA: Well, the writer I most enjoy working with is Reggie Hudlin. He did a long run of Black Panther for me, and he’s currently working largely in Hollywood. He did an adaptation of the screenplay of Django Unchained. Reggie is a good friend.
EBONY: Is there anyone current?
AA: Currently, I can’t point out one breakout writer. I’m very excited about Ronald Wimberly. I think he’s a major talent. He did a book called The Prince of Cats, a graphic novel, and we’re talking about a lot of things right now. He’s pitching us something that I’m very excited about. He’s doing a little art for us. On the art front, we’ve got lots of representation from Black, Hispanic and Latino artists as well. Humberto Ramos, who does Amazing Spider-Man. Damian Scott, who’s done a lot of Spider-Man. There are a lot of people that work with us right now.
EBONY: What was some of the initial reaction or pushback from the readership in terms of the Ultimate Spider-Man line starring Miles Morales (whose parents are African-American and Latina) as Spidey?
AA: Whenever you introduce the idea of change, the initial response is from fans that don’t like what they’re hearing. When we announced our intention to kill Peter Parker and replace him with Miles Morales, there were a number of people that came forward and said they didn’t like it for one reason or another. I must say that I don’t think that they’re representative of the stance, because ultimately, fans embrace Miles.
For me, it was a very important move. I myself am Hispanic, and to see a character who’s got a lot of vowels in his name is important to me. I like the fact that my [11-year-old] son can see a character who comes from a background that resembles his. And I think the message we’re sending when we have Spider-Man peel back that mask and reveal a different face is one that’s inclusive and embracive of all fans. So I’m very much excited about that move. We endured a few punches out the gate, but ultimately I think the majority voted with their wallets.
EBONY: For those who haven’t followed the titles since high school, since when is S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Nick Fury—portrayed by Sam Jackson in the Marvel movies—African-American? Why was that decision made?
AA: Well, really what it comes down to is the fact that we’re one large company. We’re one large universe, which is comprised of publishing—where all things start—and the movies, with the largest audiences possible. And so we want to make sure we find new fans and new readers by all means necessary.
So this is one of those instances where there’s a number of people out there now who have gone to The Avengers movie and their understanding of the Marvel Universe looks a certain way. We want to make sure we’re able to greet people from the Cineplex. There is room in our universe for the old White dude with the eye patch. It’s really about making sure that we don’t have a disconnect between the mass audience for the films and the always growing audience we’re looking for in print.
EBONY: And the recent casting of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch, will this be reflected in the comics at all? Any Fantastic Four reboot spoilers?
AA: I know stuff that I can’t talk about. As far as publishing goes, there are no imminent plans to reflect what’s going on there [in Hollywood]. I was not consulted, of course, of this decision. That’s not my job. What I can say is, I think it’s a great move. I think it gives the story an additional layer, a nuance.
And I love the idea that it forces us to wrestle with a new definition of the family. I think it’s very important that people of all kinds, all shapes, sizes, colors and culture—all these people who are going to the multiplex, watch cartoons—all of these people see themselves projected on the big screen. The Marvel Universe is everybody’s story, and we’re committed to making that clear.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.