The fate of the Marvel universe rests on Axel Alonso's shoulders.
Standing in front of a mural depicting the fantasy world he watches over, the editor in chief of the nearly eight-decade-old comics publisher slings a replica Mjölnir battle hammer over his right shoulder in the "Thor Room" at the company's offices in midtown Manhattan. He does not look like your typical executive. Emblazoned on his bicep, a Mayan calendar tattoo peeks out from under the sleeve of his black V-neck tee. (He got inked to commemorate his ethnic heritage after the death of his father, a Mexican immigrant, he says.)
Alonso, a journalist turned modern-day mythologist, is leading the world's top comics publisher during a time of great disruption. In an industry historically dominated by caucasian males, Alonso is breaking the laminated seal of stodgy tradition by adding people of every ilk to the brand's roster of writers and dramatis personae. Under his watch, the Marvel universe has expanded to accommodate costumed crimefighters of myriad ethnicities: a biracial Spider-Man, a black Captain America, a Mexican-American Ghost Rider, to name a few. Last year he hired the company's first ever black female writers.
By encouraging his crew to buck the status quo, Alonso has won admirers as well as detractors. He says he has "seeded conversations" about shaking up Marvel's ways of doing things, such as swapping in new superheroes, but mostly he leaves his creators to their own devices. The ideas are theirs and the onus is on them, he says. He describes his role as one of a traffic cop. "You're show-running 17 different popular shows all in the same universe," Alonso says. When someone has a new idea, he must bring everyone together "to avoid car crashes and create car pools."
Still, by transforming beloved characters, Marvel has also encountered backlash, including a refrain that's now familiar to anyone on the internet: "You're ruining my childhood." Top editors, in particular, make good whipping boys. As Fortune's sister Time presciently put it at the time of Alonso's promotion six years ago, the "new job is a fairly thankless position in terms of public response: very often, anything that goes right is perceived as the creators’ doing, and anything that goes wrong is perceived as the editor-in-chief’s fault."
Even with a mallet in hand, Alonso cuts an unassuming figure. He could be mistaken for the civilian identity of one of the franchise’s spandex-sporting paladins. Indeed, I am mildly disappointed that he does not spring into action when an Amber Alert buzzes our phones, urging us to be on the lookout for a black Kia Sorrento last spotted across the river in Long Island City. At least he’s got the characteristically alliterative name of a Marvel protagonist. (See Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Rocket Raccoon, etc.)
His origin story: Alonso grew up reading comics and watching Kung Fu and “blaxploitation” films in San Francisco. His first job, at age 11, was running numbers for a bookie. (He didn’t realize the true nature of his employment, he says, until one day he happened upon his boss being arrested.) Later, he stocked ATMs. He worked as a fisherman in Alaska. And eventually, he parlayed a predilection for storytelling into a journalism degree from Columbia University.
After a brief stint freelancing for the New York Daily News, Alonso joined the comic book industry on a whim. He landed a gig as an editor at DC Comics—home to Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman—in 1994. There, he worked primarily on the edgier, adult imprint Vertigo. Six years later, he switched teams to rival shop Marvel, known for Captain America, Black Widow, and the X-Men. The company had just pulled out of a bankruptcy tailspin. As a senior editor, Alonso helped Joe Quesada, then editor in chief, lead a spectacular comeback, an effort that ultimately culminated in a $4 billion acquisition by Disney [fortune-stock symbol="dis"] in 2009.
Two years later, Alonso took the helm. Since then he has overseen a bold refresh of the house’s superhero lineup. While the book side of Marvel is run independently from the big-money movie business, the two are are obviously symbiotic, and the screen often take cues from the printed page. In books now (and someday coming to a theater or set-top box near you?), there's Miles Morales, a black and Hispanic teenager who donned the Spidey suit in 2011. Three years later a 16-year-old Muslim girl from Jersey City became Ms. Marvel. Now there’s a female Thor, a Korean-American Hulk, and a black girl genius in Iron Man’s armor.
The rush to diversify characters has more to do with business than politics, in Alonso’s telling. "Our creators are itching to show you the world outside your window," he says, citing a directive he says dates back to the tenure of Stan Lee, longtime Marvel editor and geek-idol extraordinaire. The direction does not, Alonso stresses, reflect the influence of Marvel’s overlords at Disney. It’s organic—"it's in the air," he says.
(Disney's presence does not go entirely unfelt; this reporter noted a corporate poster hanging on the conference room door that read “Resources + Opportunity + Goals” above “D + Me,” where the “D” was scrawled in Disney’s signature logotype.)
Whatever the motivation, the strategy appears to be working. Last year Marvel Comics claimed roughly 40% of the North American market’s $580 million in comic-book shop sales, more than any other publisher, according to industry watcher John Jackson Miller. Add digital subscriptions, newsstands, and bookstores, and total revenue for comics on the continent has grown to more than $1 billion, per estimates by Miller’s site Comichron and industry tracker ICv2. Those revenue figures do not include the astoundingly lucrative studios that handle film and television production, which are separate units under Disney. But it's worth noting that Marvel motion pictures, such as The Avengers, Deadpool, and Guardians of the Galaxy, have recently slayed at the box office.
When I suggest that the comic books offer an unparalleled opportunity to feed the motion picture hopper with experimental ideas, Alonso's brow furrows. "Let me be clear about one thing, I don't look at us as being R&D," he says. "That's a fool's path and the quickest way for me to lose my job."
"We have to earn our own legs," he adds.
Despite the challenges inherent to fostering a new generation of readership, Alonso believes the audience for the physical page—"the bedrock," as he calls it—has room to grow. The trick is to keep everything fresh. In addition to pushing Marvel Unlimited, a $10 per month digital subscription service, he has experimented by commissioning hip-hop inspired variant covers and by drafting star writers like the National Book Award-winner Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay. Most dramatically, he has presided over a revamp of the classics.
The makeover has critics as well as fans, particularly as it alters the identities of beloved characters. But any backlash, Alonso says, tends to "subside after you put the books on shelves."
So far Alonso has been pleased by the outcomes. Two years ago when his young nephew learned that a Korean-American named Amadeus Cho was set to become the next Hulk, his conviction solidified. His sister-in-law’s son, a Korean-American himself, laid awake in terror that evening, suddenly stricken with the fear that he too might become a brawny, green, and rage-filled monster. Alonso called the boy to set his mind at ease. The experience left an impression. As Alonso sees it, more audiences are connecting to Marvel’s creations like they never have before—beyond vicariously. Viscerally.
For all the talk of modernization, Alonso has a soft spot. Seated beneath a pantheon of Thor illustrations and beside a cardboard cutout of actor Chris Hemsworth, Alonso beams at the earliest renderings. He says the older sketches of the Asgardian god of thunder by Jack Kirby remain his favorites. He refers to these portraitures as “OG” Thor, or “original gangster” Thor.
At the close of our interview, Alonso demurs when asked to reveal plotlines to come, though he does furnish a tantalizing nugget. With so many new faces, creeds, and cultures in the mix, Marvel’s icons—new and old—must figure out whether they can all get along, he says. Typically carefully apolitical, Alonso let's slip a joke. "It's like red states and blue states," he says.
Is the world—even Marvel's fanciful simulacrum—big enough for both sides to coexist in harmony? Alonso won't say, but given the overarching theme of inclusion, we think we know the answer. There's space enough for all comers.