Mike Marts talks AfterShock Comics
Mike Marts began his career working at Marvel Comics in 1993. Having begun as Assistant Editor, he is now the Editor-in-Chief and a founding member of AfterShock Comics. Having spent twenty years working for both Marvel and DC Comics, he is now shaping the face of independent publishing. Taking a few minutes from his busy life, Marts discussed what makes AfterShock’s emphasis on quality story-telling, the dangers being “All-New” too often and the joy of sharing interests with his daughter.
Graphic Policy: How was your weekend?
Mike Marts: Fantastic. I’m a Bronco’s fan. It couldn’t have been any better.
GP: Did you catch the Captain America: Civil War trailer?
MM: Yes. Yeah, it was great.
GP: Whose side are you on?
MM: (Chuckles.) The side that makes Marvel a lot of money.
GP: Fair enough. It’s a pretty exciting year for Marvel/DC movies. Considering your work with both publishers, do you have a preference?
MM: No, honestly, I’m happy when I see everyone do well. Right now it seems like most studios are firing on all cylinders. They’re really putting some quality product out there so… I’m excited for everything. Deadpool, X-Men: Apocalypse, Civil War, Batman V. Superman, Suicide Squad. Everything’s looking fantastic.
GP: It’s very exciting. Do you find yourself gravitating towards Marvel Studios over Fox or Sony?
MM: Yeah, I think so. It’s probably because most of the characters that are involved in the Fox movie films are characters I worked on and associate with more but… I worked there for such a long time. You know, you see the blood, sweat and tears and hard work that everyone at Marvel Comics puts into the movies. So, definitely over the last ten years I’ve felt much more attachment to the movies Marvel Studios put out.
GP: Who was your favorite writer growing up?
MM: Easily Chris Claremont. Chris wrote the X-Men comics and those are the ones I fell in love with. Those are the ones I started collecting. For me, as a ten-year-old boy, the X-Men were everything. When I first got interested in working in comics and writing for comics, Chris was the person I wanted to be. I was so enamored with his work. It was great being able to work with him multiple times at Marvel.
GP: Does that mean Jim Lee was your favorite artist?
MM: Jim Lee was one of my favorites. Certainly that era was great artistically. I first got into X-Men maybe ten years before that, so John Byrne and Paul Smith were really the main X-Men artists to me. That’s really who I identified with.
GP: What was your favorite story while you were working at Marvel?
MM: That would be a close tie, maybe a three-way tie. If I had to pick one it would probably be Joss Whedon and John Cassady’s Astonishing X-Men run. Over the course of a career, there are so many different arcs that you look on fondly. But it’s hard to look back at that and not see perfection from every angle. Both those guys are just the epitome of perfection in storytelling. I don’t know that I’ve had that happen before or since. They were just at the top of their game, delivering incredible stories. Probably a close second and third for me would be Wolverine: Origins with Andy Kubert and Paul Jenkins and then Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men.
GP: What were your favorite independent titles while you were working with Marvel?
MM: I would bounce around. I never really had an allegiance to any specific company. I would usually follow certain creators, certainly Brian K. Vaughan. Walt Simonson’s work outside of DC and Marvel like his work on Ragnarok, was appealing to me.
GP: What do you feel like set those titles apart from what was being published at Marvel and DC?
MM: It’s something I’ve discovered working at AfterShock, when people are working on their creator-owned projects, I think there’s a certain ownership. Really, it’s almost like being a parent of a story that doesn’t always exist in the mainstream. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen. It certainly does with certain creators. But on the creator-owned projects you see the TLC, that parenting and ownership on everything they are doing because of their personal stake. Not that you’re never getting someone’s best work elsewhere, but I think working on a creator-owned project you’re getting something they are truly invested in and dedicated to.
GP: What was the appeal of taking the position at AfterShock as Editor-in-Chief, going from such large companies as Marvel and DC to the antithesis, a much smaller and unestablished company?
MM: When I look at it, my perspective is I’ve been building towards doing something like AfterShock my entire career. Marvel and DC gave me huge opportunities to prove myself and work on great projects with great creators, but personally I’ve always wanted to build something on my own. I’ve always wanted to start my own company and my partners at AfterShock were cool enough to give me that opportunity. For me, moving from the two big publishers to something brand new never seemed that dangerous, it seemed like the next evolutionary phase of my career.
GP: A lot of publishers start out very specialized. IDW focused on horror for a long time. Avatar still focuses on mature content. But from books like Super Zero to Insexts, there is a lot of variety from one book to the next. How would you characterize AfterShock to someone who had not read its work?
MM: AfterShock as a company is the top-name creators telling the best stories possible. The fact that we have such variety is a lucky by-product. Our first goal is the best possible story, a story we’re interested in reading, unique and different. Something that hasn’t been done before. The fact that we have so much that’s different coming out has been our secondary goal, but it’s certainly not the first goal.
GP: Your CEO, Jon Kramer, and President, Lee Kramer, both have backgrounds in film and television. How big a consideration is the ability to crossover into movies when you’re considering a new story?
MM: It’s not the first thing we think about. But, certainly, it’s fantastic if the story has legs for something beyond comic books. The cool thing is with John and Lee’s experience, we’re in a great position to quickly enter into different areas of media if we choose to go down that path. The infrastructure is always set up. Other publishers don’t always have that experience and may add extra steps along the way. In our company, we have a lot of experience not just in film and television but distribution, publishing, in social media. We have a good mix of people.
GP: Would you say there’s a possible burnout of interest in television shows and films that started as comics?
MM: If there is, I don’t think it’s anywhere in the near future. If you look at everything that’s on the networks today and so many things hitting the theaters, there are so many projects that have originated in comic books. And so much of it is really high quality. Everything from Marvel’s Netflix shows to their movies, I, Zombie and Lucifer and Gotham. Even things my daughter watches like Teen Titans Go! is high quality. I don’t think it’s luck that this is happening. People who grew up reading comic books and loving that art form know what it’s like to put together a quality story. Now these people have grown up and are in industries like movies and television and video games. They’re applying that storytelling foundation and background to the stuff they are working on today. I really don’t think there’s an end in sight because there’s so much good quality in the libraries of what’s been done.
GP: How old is your daughter?
MM: Six. She’s home sick today so I’m taking care of her.
GP: That’s a wonderful age. My daughter is eight and we’re just getting into Tolkien.
MM: That’s so cool that you are guys are getting into Tolkien! I can’t wait to get there. I can’t wait for the day she picks up a Harry Potter book. We spend so much time doing Star Wars together. She loves all the Marvel and DC superheroes. It’s a good thing.
GP: It absolutely is. She’s lucky to have you to share that with.
Many writers know the pain of approaching a publisher that is accepting submissions from artists but not from writers. What’s your advice on how they might find some advantage?
MM: You know, everyone has their own different story and there’s no magic formula. You can never give up in this industry. There’s only a few spots and so many people vying for those spots, so many people who are great in their own right. You have to persevere and stand out from the pack, find some special way of making noise and getting yourself seen without becoming pushy, annoying or overbearing. It’s a magic line and not everybody finds it. Some people do and still are not able to break through. That’s how tough it is. But when you do, you are in. You are part of a brotherhood and there’s not really any going back.
GP: Andy Schmidt once told me when I asked a similar question about how to talk to editor’s when the position is “we won’t look at unsolicited material” that you might try approaching the editor directly and saying, “May I please send this to you.” What are your thoughts on that approach?
MM: Every company has their own way of looking at stuff. We don’t look at stuff unsolicited. I recommend people putting stuff up on their site and then telling the right person it’s there. Then people can go look at it. Being in contact and letting people know you’re out there is a good thing. If you’re not telling people to go look at it then you’re already working from a point of disadvantage.
GP: I’ve been reading comic shop owners who are saying the sales for Marvel and DC are down. Do you have any insight as to why?
MM: No, I don’t. Certain companies have a certain title count they’re aiming for each month. Not AfterShock, but certain companies do. They may be required to get a certain amount out each month. Not all the time but what that can sometimes mean is you can dilute your existing talent and maybe diminish the quality of your product. If there is a decline in mainstream sales, my guess might start there.
GP: Do you think that events like Marvel NOW and New 52 that are intended to bring in new readers ultimately drive people away?
MM: No, not necessarily. I was involved in New 52 quite a bit. The best intentions are always involved in launches like that. I do think they can capitalize on what they’re trying to do, draw in new readers while retaining the existing readership. Certainly with DC’s New 52 there was great success and great reviews. It seemed we were bringing in new readers, bringing back lost readers and satisfying our existing readers. Where some of that can fall short, not speaking of anyone specifically, is when you don’t stick to a plan or what you’re promising. Maybe you shift gears too suddenly by saying, “Wait, here’s something ‘All-New’…” you’re sending mixed messages. You’re not fully following through on the promise you made last month or last year. Comic readers are highly intelligent and have seen every relaunch, sales gimmick, marketing trick in the past. When you have something like that where you’re trying to bring the new while you retain the old, you have to continue with that. Sometimes that might mean not being able to take some other chances. But you have to stick with your message and what you promise.
GP: I have read other complaints that, while diversity is important, a lot of the diversity we see today is shoe-horned in and feels a bit pandering. How do you feel about characters like Sam Wilson/Captain America or Jane Foster/Thor?
MM: Having worked at Marvel when both those stories took place I can tell you they originated from story ideas. There was never a conversation where people said, “we have to mix things up and increase diversity. We have to have a female Thor or African American Cap.” Those conversations started with Jason Aaron or Rick Remender or whoever coming to their editor saying, “I got a great idea. Something terrible happens to Steve Rodgers and, guess what? Sam Wilson has to take his place.” That conversation may have gone differently at a different company or at a different time but definitely those two instances were born out of true need for original story. I definitely stand behind them. It’s the same type of thing in ’83 or ‘84 when Tony Stark was battling alcoholism and James Rhodes had to step in and become Iron Man. That was born out of story. That was a huge deal. I think sometimes, after the fact, it’s easy for those story-needs to get caught up in hotter topics and the issue of diversity. But more often than not they’re born out of a need for story and I think that’s an admirable thing.
GP: With Dreaming Eagles, AfterShock has quickly demonstrated its own diversity. But where does that importance reside when the subject may not necessitate a certain race?
MM: Well, it’s a good question. But at AfterShock what we promise in our mission statement is to deliver the best stories. From that priority we get stories like Dreaming Eagles. If we get great stories that tackle social issues that’s a double-win for us. The first win is getting a great story and helping someone like Garth Ennis (Dreaming Eagles) or Paul Jenkins (Replica) or Jimmy Palmiotti (Super Zero) to see their dream story fully-realized and printed. If we tackle tough issues in the meantime, that’s a double win for us.