Interview with Tom Brevoort

Interview with Ace Masters

By Matt Rawson
Published: 2006-06-04

I recently got in contact with Marvel editor extraordinaire Tom Brevoort and laid before him some questions that were burnin’ my cerebellum. The result is the following interview that explores such areas as why books are cancelled, how books get started, and a few inside tips on how to get your brilliant submissions looked at and not stored away with the old coffee cups and cigarette ashes.

Matt Rawson: I can only assume that being an editor at The House of Ideas comes with some long hours, and many people are unaware of what an editor’s job actually entails. Could you describe a typical day at the office?

Tom Brevoort: There is no typical day, in that there are always a million things going on at any given time. In my office, we put out twenty or more titles a month, so that amounts to the equivalent of one book every working day. So there are always scripts to be read, art to be looked over and trafficked, lettering to be proofread, coloring to be checked, freelancers to be called, and so forth. Not to mention a bevy of internal planning meetings, rate meetings, character coordination meetings, and so forth.

MR: That is quite a workload. Regarding a process you probably run into often, would you care to enlighten our readers on the process behind the decision to cancel a series, or to save it if it is faced with diminishing sales?

TB: In most cases, this is a fairly cut-and-dried scenario: if a book hits a certain sales threshold, at which point it’s not making the profit margin necessary to cover its share of our overhead, then we cancel it.

MR: Does a book being critically acclaimed and/or labeled a “fan-favorite” influence the decision, or does it really all boil down to the hard numbers?

TB: Outside analysis of this phenomenon by the fans has grown more difficult, in that they’re not always aware of all of the venues in which certain titles are sold. For example, the Marvel Adventures titles tend to sell poorly in the direct market.

“If a book hits a certain sales threshold, at which point it’s not making the profit margin necessary to cover its share of our overhead, then we cancel it.”

However, they’re among our most profitable books once you factor in newsstand sales, subscription copies, and sales of the collected editions to libraries and book sellers such as Scholastic. We’d like every book we launch to be successful and to find an audience large enough to support it, but that simply does not always happen. It’s a tough marketplace, and with the price of comics nowadays, the average reader is forced to be more discriminating — which makes it tougher for a new title to find its legs. So critical acclaim is nice, and might make us work harder to try to find a way to make the numbers balance out, but at the end of the day, Marvel is a business, and in order to stay in business, we need to live up to our financial responsibilities.

MR: Self-advertising within Marvel comics is pretty much dominated by high profile titles (New Avengers, Wolverine: Origin, Astonishing X-Men, etc.), even within the pages of lower-tier books. Would it not be prudent to advertise secondary books in guaranteed top-sellers as a means to get the word out about them?

TB: I don’t think there’s as such a domination in terms of in-house advertising as you indicate. I can’t remember the last time there was a New Avengers house ad, for example, but I can remember recent ads for Iron Man, The Thing, and X-Factor, none of which are super-high profile titles.

On new series: “Are the characters or the character ideas marketable, and do they occupy a space that’s not duplicated by something else in our publishing line?”

But it’s the nature of the beast: the books that sell the best are going to be more easily able to command a greater allocation of resources. And there’s no hard-and-fast scientific correlation between house ads and increased sales, but for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that a house ad would increase your numbers by 5%. That percentage is going to add up to a lot more actual copy-sales on a higher-selling title than a lower-selling title. One thing to understand is that, it doesn’t matter what title a given creator is working on, they’ll all tell you that they don’t get enough promotion, because it’s impossible to ever get enough promotion.

MR: Isn’t that the truth! What are some of the chief concerns discussed whether or not to greenlight a new series?

TB: There’s a basic formula: characters + creators + concept. Are the characters or the character ideas marketable, and do they occupy a space that’s not duplicated by something else in our publishing line? Do the creators have appeal, and do they have something to say? What is the project about, and is the underlying idea compelling in some way? What audience is it aimed at, and is it likely to do a good job of connecting with that audience?

MR: I’d like to move on to editor/creator dynamics. First off, since most creators are freelance, how are they chosen for certain projects? Are they largely contacted by the editors first, or do they come selling proposals?

TB: Depends on the circumstances. Sometimes, a writer or a writer/artist team might pitch a project to an editor at Marvel. In other cases, an editor might have an idea for a book he’d like to get up and running, and he contacts the talent he thinks will be interested in the project and best able to bring it to fruition.

MR: Who generally chooses the artist for a project, the writer or the editor?

TB: Nothing is ever done in a vacuum, but the editor signs the checks, so the editor hires the artist.

MR: Marvel states on the website that it is actively searching for new talent, but how open is Marvel to unsolicited submissions?

TB: Marvel is, I think, more open to unsolicited submissions than just about any of the other major players in the industry. But with that said, it’s a tough market to crack. A prospective writer is up against literally everybody else who’s already in the business, and literally everybody else who’s trying to break in. And while almost everybody who reads comics thinks that they have what it takes to write comics professionally, the truth of the matter is that only the smallest fraction of that audience actually does. It sounds cruel, but you’d be amazed at the quality of some of the writing work that’s submitted to Marvel for consideration.

MR: I can only imagine. So if a certain creator passes the initial test of actually possessing talent, what criteria must a submission meet to avoid being stuffed in the circular file (beyond the general guidelines listed on the site)?

TB: How can you avoid being stuffed in the circular file? Be good, be brief, and get your ideas across succinctly and compellingly. And look to establish some credentials outside of the field as well as within it — writing credits are writing credits, and the

On pitches: “Be good, be brief, and get your ideas across succinctly and compellingly.”

experience will not only make you a better writer, but also help to show that you can take an opportunity and execute a story that somebody somewhere wants to publish. Don’t limit yourself to just one venue. And don’t fool yourself; be realistic about what you’re submitting — nobody walking in cold off the street is going to be given Astonishing X-Men to write next month. To break into this business, you need three things: talent, perseverance, and luck.

MR: Care to divulge what projects are sitting on your desk at the moment?

TB: There’s not much to tell you that’s going to be of much interest, as it’s either stuff that’s already been announced, or stuff that hasn’t been announced yet

“To break into this business, you need three things: talent, perseverance, and luck.”

— in which case I can’t tell you what it is. But this morning, I proofread the lettering for Iron Man #9, and I’ve got the proofs to the next Captain America Marvel Masterworks waiting for me to go through; I’ve got scripts for three separate issues of New Avengers working, a pitch for a new project by a creator who’s just finishing up a limited series, final composite proofs for one of the Annihilation books to go through, a Front Line script to check against the master Civil War timeline, three proposals and a draft of our ratings guidelines to go over for a meeting in an hour, and assorted other things.

MR: Regarding character and continuity changes, how much is decided in-house versus those made based on outside influences, such as feature films (e.g. Bullseye’s costume change and Spider-Man’s organic web-shooters)?

TB: As far as the comics go, all of these decisions are made internally — nobody was forced to give Spidey organic web-shooters in the comics, or whatever. But we’re also aware that the number of

“The projects that are complained about the most online are the ones that usually perform the best sales-wise.”

people who see the Spider-Man movies is going to be far, far greater than the number who read the comics, so if the change is reasonable, we’re often likely to try to move in the direction of the films, so as to present a consistent vision of the character, and so that people who come out of the theater with a further interest in the characters can more easily locate something in our books that’s familiar to them.

MR: If a project or change in continuity is leaked, or previewed to the public via the Internet, and it garners huge negative feedback from fans, does this ever influence what the final product becomes, or is this premature criticism largely ignored?

TB: Premature criticism is largely ignored in terms of affecting the final product, if for no other reason than that, at that point, we’ve already started down a particular road, and are halfway to our destination. Additionally, the online fans have proven consistently that A) some of them will complain about literally any project that we could possibly dream up, and B) inevitably, the projects that are complained about the most are the ones that perform the best sales-wise. Premature criticism is criticism based on the fears of the reader, not on what the project is, so it’s not a terribly informed reaction.

MR: Many people relax by reading comics; seeing how you are knee-deep in comicbooks at your job, how do you kick back when the day is through?

TB: I generally go online and answer posts, or read reviews, or answer e-mail.

MR: Alright, time to really get inside your head. What is the first thing that goes though your head when an unpublished aspiring creator says to you, “I have this great story I’d like to pitch. . .?”

TB: “Where is the exit?”

MR: HA! Well, Tom, I’d like to thank you very much for taking the time out for this interview and giving our readers a bit of an inside look at what goes on in a Marvel editor’s busy world.