Ryan Penagos: Getting into the mind of Agent_M

A comics interview article by: Sam Salama Cohén


Our own Sam Salama Cohén had the chance to sat down with Ryan Penagos, Editorial Director of Marvel.com, and one of the people on the biz with more presence on twitter, where you may know him as Agent_M.

They talked about Marvel's initiatives to get new readers onboard, the Captain America and Thor movies, the Superbowl, Marvel on twitter, apps, videogames, Marvel Creative Summits...oh, and even about that old canucklehead Wolverine! Get on board, guys and dolls, because this one will certainly blow your mind!

Sam Salama Cohén: First of all, Ryan, thank you for this interview.

Ryan Penagos: You're welcome.

Salama Cohén: My first question was, now that you know that the profile of the Marvel fans is changing, because there's like a new generation coming in-because of the cartoons and the movies-how do you guys manage to sell a product that has a lot of continuity fresh and new to this new generation both via online and editorial? What are the initiatives? For example, the .1 initiative?

Penagos: That's exactly what I was gonna say, I mean .1 is the perfect example. It's something that will let us, in one single issue, sort of sum up the recent history and in broad strokes the overall history and say "ok, this is where you can start off without being bogged down by too much back story." I think that's really important and it's been incredibly successful and I think that's going to be something that we can and will do for a long time. That's editorial, on the publishing side, they do that. 

And if you look around at our movie window, so to speak, a few months before a movie, and around a little bit after, and then again a little bit after-when the dvd comes out-the amount of comics and collections that are available for a fan kind of grows. Take Thor, for example, a couple of months ago we started producing what was essentially a Thor origin story.

Salama Cohén: Yeah, I saw that.

Penagos: The story's been told several times, but now we're trying it fresh and new, with new artists and a slightly different take on it, so it can be collected just in time for the movie, so a fan can go to the movie theatre a then walk to a comic-book store and then they can see what it's all about. The importance of the copy that goes at the back of the trade or the collection, it shouldn't be looked over; that is oftentimes selling to the fan that's not very familiar with the idea of the story, the idea of what they're jumping into. That stuff is really important. Every company-us, DC, Dark Horse…-every company takes great pains in making sure there's an important copy to have. 

My team, we do something called "recommended reading", so we'll pick several collections and say, for example if you're very excited for Thor, here's some stuff you will like…

Salama Cohén: Yeah, I get you, like Walt Simonson's…

Penagos: Exactly! Some great stories you can jump right into, and take it from there, but take this list first and be sure to read these ones.

Salama Cohén: Ok, and do you have any more initiatives apart from the .1 and these trades?

Penagos: Oh, I'm sure we will, but you don't want to flood the market too much with many disparate ideas, because at that point you can alienate the fans, you know? The Ultimate Universe is great, fantastic storytelling, but then a new fan comes in and wants to learn about the comics and pick something new.

Salama Cohén: It's so difficult.

Penagos: He'll go "is this the Ultimate that I should read, or is the other one"…and then so if you add more on top of it, it could actually get confusing. So we'll continue with the .1 initiative and roll more with that. You're also fighting for space in a comic shop with our own comics and the competitors' comics, so you don't want to put out too much, because that could damage what we're trying to do.

Salama Cohén: Right. Well, for example, with the coming movies, you are launching a new Thor title and a new Cap title-by Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker –are they going to follow the current storylines or are they aimed to be completely fresh and more like the movie was?

Penagos: Because I work on our site and oversee the broad strokes, and I deal a lot more with videogames, movies, television, toys, licensing, making business and all kinds of stuff, I don't get wrapped up into the current storylines until much later or much earlier, like I know what we are doing in a year or two years from now…but it's packed into my brain in a way that it's hard to pull out the pieces, and the other problem is (laughs) I know so much and I can't remember…

Salama Cohén: What you can say or not (laughs)

Penagos: Yeah, I don't remember every time what I have actually said, it's happened to me where talking to someone I say "blah-blah" and they look at me with this face (makes astonished face) and say "What? You're doing what?" (laughs) And I go "no, no, no, no!"

Salama Cohén: (Laughs) Yeah, and you go, "Don't tell, don't tell, erase that!" (laughs)

Penagos: As for those books, the Cap and Thor stuff just comes from what we've been doing with those titles. I just read Journey Into Mystery which took the story Fraction was doing in Thor, and then Kieron Gillen, who is absolutely amazing, he is another guy to look to for technology and interesting stuff (before the interview we had been talking about such things as technology-savvy creators), he's just going crazy with that. "Journey Into Mystery" is great. The Thor book that Fraction is writing, Mighty Thor, it's more of a book which you can pick up new, as a new reader, 'cause it makes sense…it's like: Thor!, Galactus!

Salama Cohén: Yes, directed to a newer audience, maybe.

Penagos: Yeah, yeah. And the Cap books too, they are going to find its little place within the continuity but also for the fresh ones.

Salama Cohén: You´ve said that online fans are hardcore fans, but there are a lot of offline fans as well, so all the feedback that you get from online fans, of course you have to take into account…

Penagos: Oh, yeah.

Salama Cohén: … but how do you translate that impact? I mean, do you guys have like a formula that says: ok, online fans are x% of the total fans, so let´s take their comments with a pinch of salt? I mean, imagine they start criticizing the new Thor series for example, and you go -like you said on yesterday's panel-be honest with them and say ok, this is the best idea we had and you are gonna love it…but is it so important to listen to them or…? 

Penagos: It's kind of the idea of the silent majority, the most vocal fans are usually a small number, but they are usually the most active online, but in comparison they're much smaller. As a company, whether it's Marvel or someone else you can't get too bogged down by the positive or negative feedback, because there's no way to know exactly how indicative it is of the total fan base.

Take Thor the Mighty Avenger. That is my favorite comic we have produced in years. It's by Roger Landgridge and Chris Samnee, it was simply not selling well, it was a case of the market not supporting that book. Unfortunately it just couldn't survive…And the fans who really loved it, REALLY loved it. They were very vocal about it, they were campaigning…During a very small window I would get, you know, a 100 messages on Twitter, personal messages on Marvel.com, on my personal blog…very passionate.

Salama Cohén: And with Spider-Girl, as well, right?

Penagos: Spider-Girl too! Spider-Girl is a little bit different. The fans are a larger group, and they swayed sales, whereas they just weren't as many people for the Thor title, they just were louder. It's hard to say who's doing what and how much we can really take that into account. We look at everything, and I pass along all kinds of feedback, and we have people who track, you know, look at comments, trying to see where people are, but it's more for our knowledge.

It can't sway the decision for the company too much. The people who are in charge of Marketing, David Gabriel and his crew, they are awesome at what they do, they know what they are doing and they have to continue on whatever path they're on.

Salama Cohén: Marvel Marketing lately is being very good with teasers, and getting people in.

Penagos: Yes!

Salama Cohén: One thing you said ties in to my next question. Yesterday you said that more than 300 people from Marvel-between creators and editors-are present on social networks via either Twitter or Facebook. How can online Marvel gauge how much impact this fact has on Marvel revenues and sales?

Penagos: Sure. I think the number in question is 350 staff (writers, artists, creators or partners). I think it's closer to 400 right now, just on Twitter, not counting facebook. Twitter is more my interest zone. You know, I'm on Facebook and everything, but I'm more…

Salama Cohén: Twitter takes just seconds, in seconds you can say…

Penagos: Yeah, I come much closer to the fans, it's great. The Marvel family on Twitter is really important. We have people who track all the kinds of stuff: how many people are clicking a link, going from one place to another, buying a subscription to a Marvel Digital Comic from Facebook or Twitter or a promotional discount, or how many times a Marvel events app is downloaded, or how many times the Marvel Comics app is downloaded…if we are doing a sale on Monday who's going to find about the 99¢ comics from one social media to another…it's retweeted by me, by Bendis, Joe Q…

Salama Cohén: Brubaker…

Penagos: Brubaker…it's easy to see where that goes. Like during the Super Bowl –in America the Super Bowl is huge…

Salama Cohén: The biggest thing, yeah (laughs)

Penagos: Yeah! Bigger than the game are the advertisements…

Salama Cohén: Yeah, you got the Thor one…

Penagos: We had Thor and Captain America. My team and I were getting ready and ready and ready…I had people at my house watching the game, but I was at the laptop (laughs)…

Salama Cohén: (Laughs)

Penagos: …Ready to post links live into the internet. Just watching the numbers grow, that was insane. And you know, that builds awareness. And it doesn't always, but hopefully it helps move people to sales.

Salama Cohén: Sure, it has to. 

Penagos: Yeah!

Salama Cohén: Ryan, you were talking about apps right now. Is Marvel going to move from apps that work mostly with Macs to apps that work with PCs and other devices as well?

Penagos: Let's see, the Marvel app is only on IOS, IPhone, IPod… You can get digital comics in the States on an Android phone through Graphic.ly-that's a partner of ours-so like I have them on my Android phone. The events app we just launched a couple of months ago, and that's currently on the Apple devices but we created a mobile version, so if you go to events.marvel.com you get almost the entire functionality on any phone, from a blackberry, an android, a windows phone…

Salama Cohén: Is that a streaming version?

Penagos: It's HTML 5, essentially. It's a slick, mobile web-page that could be more stable than the events app. We took that very hard in consideration. I think going to the Android platform, 'cause that's becoming the highest mobile technological platform, I think we've said we're gonna do it, but the technology isn't there yet, you know. The Apple stuff is very stable and the Android is a bit more like the wild wild west. We have to make sure that everything is right and we can give fans the right product, instead of getting it out there just to get it there. My boss's boss, Ira Rubeinstein, he's head of all digital, he's got all these plans, he knows what he's doing, he hires all these people…we're moving in the right direction.

Salama Cohén: Yeah, because it could be the wrong impact, fans could get pissed off if they download a comic and they can't see it well on their device, right?

Penagos: It's tough. Android especially is so difficult, because we could have ten people in a room and their devices would have different versions of the operating systems with a different chip speed. There's so many variables…It's like, you know, PCs. The software is created for so much, that it's a little bit harder to create something for it. In videogames-my brain goes to videogames-if you create a game for an XBOX, you know it's gonna rock, 'cause it's created for that XBOX. But if you create that same game for a pc, you don't know that it's going to work on every fan's pc, someone might have to upgrade his video card…So I want to do it right.

Salama Cohén: Talking about videogames, how's the Marvel vs. Capcom 3 game doing?

Penagos: Oh man (smiles), it's huge, it's great, it's a blockbuster. I mean, I've been involved learning about it, promoting it...

Salama Cohén: Yeah, I saw the teasers: "new character: Galactus!, the Super Skrull!" 

Penagos: I helped get load up in the game, which is my big thumbs up, and my name's in the credits, which is great. I think it's the first time my name's in the credits of a videogame!

Salama Cohén: What are you credited for?

Penagos: Just like special thanks. Special thanks for several of us, for a bunch of Marvel's VP and other folks. I'm very happy about that. It's doing super-great! I'm sure there'll be more information about that soon.

Salama Cohén: I have to get it, man. I still don't have it…

Penagos: Oh, yeah, yeah…you have to!

Salama Cohén: I loved the old one, it was amazing with Iceman, Cable, and all that stuff…

Penagos: Super Skrull is my favorite one.

Salama Cohén: Yeah, when I saw Super Skrull I was like: Super Skrull in this game, wow! (laughs)

Penagos: He's great!

Salama Cohén: He changes from Thing, to Human Torch…

Penagos: He's just SO fun to pull of…

Salama Cohén: I imagine (laughs). Hey, I wanted to talk about another iconic Marvel character, Wolverine, and specifically about how does Editorial manage to have him into continuity when he's like in 300 teams at the same time!

Penagos: I think the continuity question is one everyone at Marvel gets; fans get very worked up about it (makes funny angry face) but if you look at it and say ok, say the first arc of the regular Wolverine by Jason Aaron that took place during 6 or 7 issues…

Salama Cohén: He was in Hell, right?

Penagos: He was in Hell, but it took course during one or two days, though the publishing stretched during 6 or 7 months. So let's say we are in April, that story took place during the 1st and the 2nd of April, and then the New Avengers they have five issues where they're off, you know, dealing with H.A.M.M.E.R., and that takes place in one day, so that's the next day, and then the X-Men are…you know, invaded by Sentinels or whatever crazy awesome stuff is happening down there…

Salama Cohén: Yeah (laughs)

Penagos: Yeah! So that's less than a week but it takes ten months of comics, the timeline it's not just cut and draw, this is a big world, the characters fit into this puzzle in many different ways and hopefully they don't contradict each other.

Salama Cohén: Ok, cool. One last question, Ryan, as Editor of Marvel.com you've been involved in this new "Architects" campaign…

Penagos: Yeah.

Salama Cohén: All the creators listed as Architects-Bendis, Brubaker, Fraction, Aaron-have been present and writing at Marvel for several years, why call them the architects now?

Penagos: There's two kinds of components that I see out of this; one is the Marvel Creative Summits, that have been running for several years-I remember covering them when I was an editor at Wizard Magazine-I knew a lot of these guys…

Salama Cohén: They've been doing them for almost ten years, right?

Penagos: Yes, 7 or 8 years, yeah! Going to these creative summits it's like a brainstorming, you know, people would be coming in and out of it, you know, a guy like Bendis who's been there for so many years…

Salama Cohén: Fighting with Jeph…(laughs)

Penagos: Exactly! Yeah, yeah, you know, these guys they've build up this Universe over all these years; a lot of what's going on it's build up on their ideas, so that makes sense; and then you have also the Creative Committee, which is in short-hand Marvel creators' brains being used for movies, videogames and TV, to make sure that characters are correct, for example with the Thor and Captain America andAvengers movies is a great help to the Marvel Studios to make sure that the characters are correct! The guys that make the comics are on the production side of the movies and TV, so I think it's going a great step forward, and we will be supportive in any way that is needed. So I think it's great! 

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