When Marvel Comics first unveiled their line of variant covers -- comic book covers printed and sold in limited quantities to retailers -- paying tribute to hip-hop, the response from the community was enthusiastic, to say the least.
The response from the comic book community, not so much. It was a surprising disconnect between what the actual artists being paid tribute thought, and comic book fans accusing the publisher of appropriating hip-hop culture to sell comics.
I mean, sure, Marvel doesn't want to NOT sell comics... But Editor-In-Chief Axel Alonso has long been on record as a hip-hop fan; and as MTV News found out when we hopped on the phone with him, this line is not only a dream come true, it's also a shot across the bow.
The hip-hop covers are just the opening salvo in Marvel's huge push towards greater diversity, something that's continued with massive changes in their characters (an Asian-American Hulk is just the most recent addition to their diverse roster), as well as behind-the-scenes talent: critically acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates was recently announced as the writer of "Black Panther."
It's not ending there, though. As well as revealing four new covers, MTV talked to Alonso over the phone about the inspiration, the controversy, and what's coming next.
Silver Surfer #1 Hip-Hop variant by Cliff Chiang; Homage: Drake's "Nothing Was the Same"
MTV News: You've unveiled so many of these at this point... Is this a second wave, or are you still pushing forward with these at this point?
Axel Alonso: No, it was always planned. We knew that we were doing a variant to coincide with every number one launch that was part of this All-New All-Different Marvel Now launch. So these [covers] will encompass every book that’s launched between October and April. Since most of these titles come out in those first few months, we've been able to preview 3-4 every week.
MTV: You've got a surprising mix here, from current Drake albums, to Missy Elliot albums that are over a decade old, to under-the-radar mixtapes. How did you decide on which would work for which title?
Alonso: Well, the process changed. When we started this, we started knowing that there were going to be certain albums that you absolutely positively f--king had to do a variant to. And those covers were so iconic, and in many cases coincided with such an incredible record, that we knew we had to start there.
Those covers got priority, Nas' Illmatic was one of those, Dr Dre's The Chronic was another, NWA's Straight Outta Compton was yet another. I could keep going, but we knew those were covers we were going to have to do an homage to. I was talking with a few artists, who I know to be hip-hop heads because we correspond all the time, Stanford Green, Damien Scott, and so on, about these.
So since they were involved in running discussions, they got dibs on some of the first ones right out of the gate. Sanford did 3 Feet High And Rising, the "X-Men" cover, so we started there. As we progressed, once we locked down, we just had to be centralized, we imposed on ourselves one rule... And that rule was that every recording artist would be limited to one cover.
We could have done all of the Tribe Called Quest covers, you follow me? [But] we wanted to make sure that we spanned 30 years of hip-hop, and we wanted to span all of the various genres within it. We wanted old school, new school, west coast, east coast... We wanted gangsta, we wanted trap lord. We really wanted to show hip-hop in all its glory. As we moved along, we just checked an artist and an album off the list, and that was that.
All-New Inhumans #1 Hip-Hop variant by Marco D'Alfonso; Homage: Future's "DS2"
MTV: I know you've been a big hip-hop fan from way back, so bringing this together with your other passion, comics, must have been a dream come true.
Alonso: It is. For me, this is the music I grew up with. Whereas previous editor-in-chiefs have drawn their inspiration from the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen and you name it, I draw my inspiration from [hip-hop and R&B].
This is the soundtrack to my life, and I also know this is the soundtrack to a number of other people's lives that work in comics. And that group has grown, and grown over the years. I've been in comics now for some 25 years, and I've noticed that there are more and more people of all races who are into hip-hop. This is the music that they listen to.
I think this is an instance where I'm having a lot of fun, allowing Marvel to holler back, so to speak, loud, at hip-hop. There's a precedent for this. We do variants for all sorts of things, we're a thread of pop-culture... We've done variants to move posters, we've done variants to album covers in the past, to flying art, you name it. We constantly do homages to assorted things in pop culture, and I just felt like, let's do hip-hop.
We did those two Tag The Jewels variants two months ago, and the response to them was just so off the hook that it confirmed to me what I always felt was true: that a lot of Marvel fans are hip-hop heads, and vice versa.
Black Widow #1 Hip-Hop variant by Phil Noto; Homage: Missy Elliott's "Supa Dupa Fly"
MTV: Not to inject myself into the story, but I sit right next to our hip-hop team, and when the covers first hit, their reaction was, "these are cool!" And the hip-hop artists responded, and said, "these are cool!" And then I'd turn to my Twitter timeline, and comic fans and press were calling them "cultural appropriation." Why do you think there was this disconnect?
Alonso: I'm going to be polite. I think that many of the comments made... I was very clear in my first public statement that I absolutely, absolutely believe that Marvel benefits from being diverse, and that in fact, this initiative was the head of a spear.
I said it then and I'm saying now, wait to see what we have planned. We would not have done this initiative if it wasn’t part of something larger, and a few of those announcements have come forward in recent weeks. They include "Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur," "The Totally Awesome Hulk," Ta-Nehisi Coates on "Black Panther," and there are more announcements to come.
I understand that it’s a fair criticism to make, is Marvel serious about diversity if they have so few African-American writers? That’s a fair criticism. Ask us that question. I've answered it. We've been working on it, we're course correcting. It’s a separate thing to level accusations that there's no black artists involved in these covers, a statement that was made very early on and was rebuked.
I was talking with artist Afua Richardson the other day, and she was telling me about how the day before her hip-hop variant was announced, she was talking with a group of people who were saying, "can you believe how there's no black artists involved?" And she couldn’t wait to say, "well, I did one!"
But she could have gone down the list and included Sanford Green, and Damien Scott, and Marco Rudy -- artists of all races doing these covers. Diversity is important, I've said that its important: I myself am Hispanic, and I have a Korean wife, it's in my DNA to feel that diversity is an important thing in the field.
But I have a hard time with people who have shifting sands arguments.
Look, hip-hop's oxygen is communication, or is dialogue with other art forms. It was built on sampling, on creating a sonic collage of preexisting sounds. And so you listen to Pete Rock, and there's R&B and jazz buried in its DNA, you listen to LP's Run the Jewels, and that goes from metal to funk.
This is also true of Marvel Comics. Our oxygen is dialogue with other art forms, and we're not going to be afraid to have that dialogue. Perhaps up to this point, the dialogue between Marvel and hip-hop has been a whisper... I hope that this and other things that we're doing turns into a shout.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 Hip-Hop variant by Dave Johnson; Homage: Curren$y's "Verde Terrace"
MTV: To that end, do you think you'd want to get a Drake, or an Eminem, or someone else from the community to write a book?
Alonso: I don’t think it's out of the realm of possibility at all. I know that I've had creative flirtations with hip-hop artists in the past. What's more important to me is that more and more people -- I despise the term people of color but I'll use it, because it’s a shorthand -- more and more people of color feel that they understand that there's a place for them here. That they can see more writers and artists as our talent pool expands, that look like them and have the same experiences as them.
Every writer, editor and artist is the sum total of their experiences. Their culture, which includes the food that they eat, the music that they listen to, the art that they listen to, the art that they look at, the films that they like... All of that’s reflected in their work. And as editor in chief, I can say we want as much reflected in our comics as possible. We want to be authentic, and we're taking steps.
And we're making progress, we knew we were making progress when we announced this, we knew we had stuff to unveil when we announced this program.
Marvel's new line will start debuting throughout the Fall, running into early 2016.