The thing about comics is that you're always chasing the next thing. The frequency with which comics are published means that, as much as you're supposed to care about what just happened, the creators aren't doing their job if they don't leave you wanting the next one just as badly. That means that, even though Marvel's Civil War II still has a long way to go before it concludes, the company is already teasing Divided We Stand—the initiative that will showcase what the Marvel Universe looks like after the dust settles.
"This is not an event. It's the status quo of the Marvel Universe in the aftermath of the war," Axel Alonso—Marvel's editor-in-chief—explains to Co.Create. He says of the teaser image, which premieres above, that the goal isn't so much to offer a statement about the specific stories to be told—the side on the right isn't getting ready to fight the side on the left this fall—but rather, to suggest who's going to be relevant after the current company-wide crossover is done. "It's a glimpse as to whom we can point to in the coming year, with just enough 'What the heck's going on there' spots to get people speculating. 'There's no Tony Stark in that picture, but who's that guy holding the helmet? Is that Doctor Doom?' 'The young girl in the gray armor looks a lot like the new War Machine . . .'"
There are a lot of Marvel characters we've seen a lot of in the image, certainly. Captain America, the Black Panther, Captain Marvel, the male Thor, and Elektra all line up prominently behind the guy who is almost certainly Doctor Doom. On the other side of the divide, Dr. Strange and the Hulk, are joined by newcomer fan-favorites Ms. Marvel, Miles Morales, Gwenpool, and other, less iconic Marvel heroes. And part of the point of the image, according to Alonso, is to signpost who's going to be important in Marvel comics in the next few years.
"They're all there because they matter," Alonso says. "They'll either be in a solo series, or they'll be a key member of a team, or they'll do something that you will be talking about in a Marvel book that will bring them into a position of prominence. They're there for a reason. Including that big, big, big what appears to be a Godzilla foot."
Alonso could not confirm or deny that the "Godzilla foot" in question belonged to cult early-days Marvel character Fin Fang Foom, but he could talk at length about the philosophy behind pursuing new titles for characters that readers might not be expecting to see star in their own books.
"That's the beauty, when you do these new launches. Over the last two years, I'm proud to have seen us launch a number of incredible number ones—from the All-New Thor to The Totally Awesome Hulk to Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur to Black Panther," Alonso says. "We've launched a number of very compelling, high-quality monthly series that have connected with readers—and many of those books have gotten the oxygen that they got because they launched out of the aftermath of an event as part of a larger program, where we shined a spotlight to say, 'We've got a number of new books coming out.'"
The details on what books those are, at the moment, remain vague. Mosaic—he's the glowing blue guy hanging out to the left of the woman in the gray armor—will appear in his own title, as Marvel announced in late June. Others, like Miles Morales, Ms. Marvel, and Dr. Strange already appear in their own books. But there are plenty of other characters in the image for whom it's a surprise to see featured so prominently in Marvel's upcoming plans. With Ta-Nehisi Coates and a new movie due out, it's no surprise to see that Marvel is thinking about the Black Panther. But characters like Solo (the green guy with the gun on the far left), Foolkiller (the purple fella floating above Solo's head), Slapstick (the pale guy with the hammer), and Prowler (another purple guy standing behind Moon Girl) weren't necessarily characters that the comics-reading world was demanding more of. And the roles they'll play going forward remain to be seen.
"Our catalog rolls deep. We have an incredible catalog of characters. I think that some of our C-, D-, and F-list characters are the coolest, for very different reasons than the guys who you see up on the silver screen," Alonso says. So how does Marvel decide which D-listers deserve to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Thor and Captain America in teaser images like these? "Part of it is individual writers who have an obsession with a character, and convince us that they've got the right angle. Part of it is a cameo that provided a nice springboard for us to go all-in on them as we've found that people really like them, and we need to be able to do more with them. But it's not a one-size-fits-all strategy—part of it is just that we roll the dice and put our best foot forward in the presentation of the characters."
The fact that Alonso compares the D-listers to the movie characters is interesting. It wasn't long ago that characters like Star-Lord, Groot, and Rocket Raccoon were consider D-listers or worse—and they ended up headlining one of Marvel Studios' biggest hits. But he stresses that his job, as the EIC of the comics line, isn't to throw unknown characters out there in order to see if Netflix should think about premiering Squirrel Girl in 2019.
"Honestly, no," Alonso says when asked if that's part of the calculus. "On our end, we're just trying to make comic books that connect. It's not our job to worry about whether that translates to the screen. We're not R&D for TV and movies—we're just creating comic books. If [Marvel Television executive vice president] Jeph Loeb out there in TV land or Marvel Studios want to latch on to something, that's great. But if we're launching a Paladin series, it's not because we're eyeing a TV show. It's because we've got something to say with a character in a comic book."
That doesn't mean that the two sides don't communicate, or reflect each other's work, of course ("The fact that Elektra was such a fantastic character in the Netflix [Daredevil] series didn't work against bringing her back in a major way to the Marvel Universe," Alonso nods). But it's almost a badge of pride for him that the comics version of the Marvel Universe is pretty far out there compared to what the Marvel Studios version of things looks like.
"You'll notice that the complexion of our Avengers doesn't look anything like the on-screen Avengers in the movies. We're encouraged, and we're emboldened to take great chances with what we do," he says. When it was announced that Sam Wilson—the Falcon—would replace Steve Rogers as Captain America in July 2014, cynical fans who knew that Marvel's movie calendar had Captain America: Civil War coming out two years later suspected that it'd be a short-lived stunt. For Alonso, the fact that Sam Wilson is still wearing red, white, and blue at this point is something he's proud of.
"The key thing to keep in mind is that we're telling stories for the future. We're not going to sit back and watch what goes on on the silver screen and follow. We're paid to do our own thing," he says. "That's what Marvel has been doing for decades—taking chances and creating new things. To the credit of our company, we're able to take those chances, and wonder if down the road, any of this will show up on a silver screen or in a TV show."
Among other things, "taking chances," in the context of Marvel Comics right now, means that—while the Cinematic Universe currently features more talking superhero raccoons than it does female superheroes of color—the lineup is incredibly diverse. That's something that's especially clear in the Divided We Fall teaser image. On the side lining up behind the as-yet-unnamed character in armor, only 5 of the 13 heroes are white. (Only one of them, Dr. Strange, is a white man.) Yet looking at the image, the first thing a lot of people will notice is that they're just looking at a bunch of superheroes. The fact that female characters outnumber male heroes, and that heroes of color outnumber the white characters, is an afterthought to the fact that, like, maybe Dr. Strange, the Hulk, Ms. Marvel, and the Miles Morales Spider-Man could be the new Defenders, or something.
"That's the effect you want to have," Alonso says. "We're all about creating books that connect with readers of all types. This has been a natural and organic process for us, and there's been an evolution on it for us over the last few years. Looking at the teaser now, I'm noticing for the first time that you've got five caucasian characters in the mix, five African-American characters, a Korean-American Hulk—it's more diverse than I ever would have imagined, and I think that's a good thing."
Increasing the diversity of Marvel's line has clearly been an objective for Alonso since he took over as editor-in-chief in 2011. But what that means, in a practical sense, isn't foisting characters on a public that doesn't want them. While there have certainly been plenty who've grumbled, the real success of the diversity we see displayed all over Divided We Stand is that these are the versions of the characters that readers actually want.
"At the end of the day, we're in the business of selling comic books," Alonso says. "We put out books with the intent of creating popular characters. We know that Black Panther is successful because the book sold 350,000 copies. It's one of the highest-selling books of the year, and it's because it's a cool character by a cool creative team. The Totally Awesome Hulk is connecting with readers—that's why he's our Hulk. It's good to have diverse characters, but what that means is that they have to connect with the readers. And right now, they are."