Interviewing Axel Alonso

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Axel Alonso consistently edits comic books that take nothing for granted. His titles generate new perspecitives on old characters and themes that we thought we knew too well. He has successfully breathed new life into war, mafia and love stories during his tenure at Vertigo. He has brought classic but faltering titles such as X Force and Amazing Spider-Man to the industry's foreground. Rather than using gimmicks such as stylized covers or crossovers, Axel Alonso's titles tend to rely on strong characterization, plots and/or storytelling.

I first became aware of Axel Alonso through his Vertigo anthologies Gangland and Heartthrobs. What I found so exciting about these mini series was the consistent effort to take hackneyed themes and innovate them. Mafia tales or love-gone-wrong stories are very basic themes, however these mini series pushed to tell these kinds of tales with an eerie or unique vantage point. No hackneyed stories here. And whether or not any given story was successful, I was thrilled to watch the consistent push to explore new kinds of stories, especially in an industry inundated with men in tights.

In the more mainstream, Alonso has led the X Force creative team to treat the superhero team as though it is just another form of entertainment such as sports or television shows. This provided the opportunity for social commentary and satire. However, rather than obnoxious, misanthropic characters, the book still provides characters with humanity and nobility. In Amazing Spider-Man, Peter has confronted a villain that, for the first time in a long time, presented an intimidating threat, his old high school, his origins, tragically, September 11th and his Aunt May, as she has discovered his alternate identity. With The Incredible Hulk, he has stripped away the cosmic or grand scale qualities of previous comic continuitiy. The current team has grounded the character as a man that struggles to control his anger, something many people might more readily identify with. This universal quality bring the character back to its roots.

I was lucky enough to catch up to Axel and ask him a few questions. The discussion is as follows. Many thanks to him for taking the time to provide this interview.

BT: When you edit a book, from the outside looking in, it appears as though you try to take familiar concepts and strip away any preconceptions or assumptions that readers may have? Is that an accurate assessment?

AA: Depends on the book. With the [Vertigo] anthologies I edited, yes, because by nature, that's what anthologies should do. With a book like THE INCREDIBLE HULK, it's just a matter of asking yourself some basic questions -- like, does this HAVE to be a super hero book? There'll be a lot of folks who'll insist it does, but you've got to trust your instincts and ask all the questions that need to be asked. The Hulk has a long history, but the character is also a pop icon that resonates with a lot of folks who've never read the comic. I try to take them into account, too.

BT: What questions do you try to answer or problems do you confront as you approach a new book? Beyond "increasing sales," which is undeniably important, what is it you try to accomplish as you approach a new book? In other words, how do you approach the problems or questions of the preceding question?

AA: Increasing sales hopefully results from improving the quality and accessibility of a title. Again, trusting your own antenna is key. If an editor allows himself to be easily swayed by the folks who'd second-guess him, and there are plenty -- he's doomed. X-FORCE, for instance -- THAT book was vilified prior to even being published. On one side, you had the "Zombies", those folks who didn't want any change at all; and on the other side, you had the "Vegans", those folks whose politics preclude their ability to read things with an open mind, who refused to believe that Peter [Milligan] and Mike [Allred] could mine creative gold in a commercial property.

Generally, I ignore folks who dismiss alternative comics or adult-oriented comics; they're treating comics are a genre, not a medium. I also ignore creators who reflexively bash mainstream comics; their political agenda has overwhelmed their sense of perspective, and most of 'em have an "Ultra-Force/Wolverine 2099" miniseries or two on their resume, so I take 'em with a grain of salt.

BT: Do you think the current downturn in the economy and specifically in the comics industry has provided you with greater degrees of freedom to be more creative?

AA: I've heard that people flock to low-cost forms of entertainment during times of economic downturn, so perhaps this isn't the worst time to be working in comics. Whether or not this has inspired greater freedom, who knows? I give credit the guys at the top of the food chain who've given me the latitude to do my job right.

BT: Care to take a guess as to how the comics industry might evolve over the next three years?

AA: I hope there will be a little more crawlspace for new kinds of material, and I hope there's increased dialogue between mainstream comics and alternative comics and European comics.

As for the evolution of the form, I think certain material currently served up in periodical form will naturally evolve toward becoming self-contained graphic novel. But not all. Some comics function quite well in the periodical format, despite the folks who've adopted the curious political rhetoric of referring to comic books as "pamphlets". I grew up buying comics at the five-and-dime, and it's a unique American art form that's close to my heart. It ain't no pamphlet.

BT: What did you enjoy most about doing your anthologies?

AA: With my magazine background, anthologies were a natural fit. I grew up on the Warren books - "Creepy" and "Eerie" - and like the fact that anthologies give readers several different . . . flavors. Working on them was a pain in the ass, but they were a great place to develop new talent and working relationships with established creators who I might not have had the chance to otherwise - Bruce Timm, Brian Bolland, and Richard Corben.

BT: How do you enjoy playing with some of Marvel's biggest characters?

AA: It's fun. Spider-Man and Hulk are pop icons. Who doesn't know who they are?

BT: Is there an editor whose style you emulate or appreciate and why?

AA: Archie Goodwin. You could see his fingerprints in his books. He always seemed to get the best out of his talent. And he was the nicest guy. Everybody always says that 'cause it was true.

BT: Are there writers whose work you enjoy and/or recommend?

AA: Sure. The guys I work with I do for a reason. Beyond that, Jaime and Gilberto Hernandez top my list. Those guys are geniuses, but more than that, their comics really speak to me. It's like Jaime's "Locas" was written specifically for ME. I'm Latino, I'm from California, and I came of age in the emerging skate-rat, surf/punk, hip-hop scene, so I lived the backdrop to their stories. Dated Maggie, got my heart broken by Hopey, and that guy who Izzy fell in love with in "Flies on the Ceiling" is a dead-ringer for my father in so many ways it's uncanny.

Other creators who I admire and recommend are David Lapham, who is an amazing artist and storyteller - why more people aren't reading STRAY BULLETS is beyond me - and Joe Sacco.

BT: Do you have any "love projects" that you would like to get off the ground?

AA: That's a tough a question to answer because two of my favorite projects were as different as night and day.

100 BULLETS and X-FORCE. One's dark and moody, one's irreverent. One's creator-owned, with few -- if any -- parameters placed on content; the other is an X-book that excels BECAUSE it exploits crawlspace that comes with that in strange and devious ways. With 100 BULLETS, I knew heading into the development process that this was exactly the kind of comic I wanted to get out there. With X-FORCE, I literally sunk under my desk when Joe Q tapped me to revamp it.

BT: These next two are from my editor, Craig Lemon. "What do you expect of Comics 2002 in Bristol in the U.K.?"

AA: Guinness. And bad food.

BT: "How does it compare with the San Diego Con?"

AA: I've been to UKCAC in the past and it's a very different con from San Diego. It's much smaller, and most of the action takes place in the pubs at night.

BT: Any other general comments you would like to add?? (ie, grab a soapbox opportunity?)

AA: Keep an open mind. Don't let others close it for you. 'Cause they WILL try.

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