Why a New Comics Publisher Is Betting on a Shared Universe

AWA The Resistance - Publicity - H 2020
Rahzzah/Artists Writers & Artisans
Artists, Writers & Artisans, the publishing company co-founded by former Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso, is banking on its first release to launch much more.

Almost a year to the day after the launch of the publisher, this week sees the release of the first titles from Artists, Writers & Artisans, the company founded by former Marvel publisher Bill Jemas and former Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso.

Among the releases is the first issue of The Resistance, the series that launches AWA’s shared comic book universe, written by Sense8’s J. Michael Straczynski. The Hollywood Reporter talked to Alonso, AWA’s chief creative officer, about launching AWA’s shared universe, about the high concept behind that universe and The Resistance in particular and about the committee that helps set the guidelines for things moving forward.

Why build a shared universe? It’s a space where, as much as the success of a Marvel or a DC has demonstrated the value of such a thing, we’ve also seen a number of younger publishers struggle to establish their own shared universes with fans; at best, it’s a risky proposition.

As they say, no guts, no glory. Yes, creating a common universe is challenging, but the rewards can be wonderful. Every popular character, every best-selling book brings more fans to every other story. You can build on your successes. That said, the world has changed a lot since it gave birth to Batman, Superman, Captain America and Spider-Man — why wouldn’t its heroes? Shouldn’t today’s superheroes exhibit the hopes, dreams and fears of a new generation? Shouldn’t they reflect that generation in all its diversity? 

The first seeds of our new universe are planted in The Resistance; you’ll see what grows out of it in coming months. We have a plan to carefully and patiently build a superhero universe for the 21st century, one that’s rooted in the present, and has its eyes trained on the future, and think the pedigree of our creative counsel and the writers and artists that join them gives us a competitive edge.

You mentioned The Resistance, which is written by J. Michael Straczynski, who you’ve obviously had some success with when you were both working on Amazing Spider-Man together. What made him the obvious choice to lead the charge, so to speak?

Is there anyone better at laying down the foundation for a new universe than Joe Straczynski? From Babylon 5 to [his Top Cow comic book series] Rising Stars to

Midnight Nation to Sense8, with mind-bending re-imaginings of Squadron Supreme, Spider-Man and Thor along the way, Joe is without peer when it comes to world-building. He creates living, breathing worlds inhabited by diverse three-dimensional characters. All of that is on full display in The Resistance No. 1, where he — and artist Mike Deodato — lay down the bedrock of our universe.

Straczynski is one of a number of creators on what you’re calling the creative council, which is setting the tone for the shared universe. As it stands, the council has an interesting balance of talents — even among the writers, there’s a notable variety of opinions and output; no one is likely to mistake a Garth Ennis story for a Reginald Hudlin story, for example. Beyond that, though, there’s also Frank Cho, who’s an artist, as well as a writer. How did you decide on this particular group of people to shepherd the shared universe?

Variety was exactly the point. AWA’s creative council is six creators, each of whom has a significant footprint in comics and has achieved significant success in other fields: film, TV, animation, video games, novels, YA lit. [The six creators are Straczynski, Hudlin, Ennis, Cho, Gregg Hurwitz and Margaret Stohl.] All six are distinct voices. All six love comics and are here to stay. None of them are tourists. In fact, Joe Straczynski un-retired from comics to be a part of this.  

Were there surprises in terms of immediately agreed-upon elements? Were there things that everyone just knew instinctively, without having to really discuss it?

We wanted to create an easy on-ramp into our universe, a simple origin story that would allow for the creation of a new superhuman species that spanned the globe. We wanted these characters to be linked to one another the same way that mutants are in the Marvel Universe. In our universe, if you were transformed by the event that is chronicled in The Resistance No. 1, the pandemic known as the Great Death, it doesn’t matter where you’re from — Iowa, Africa or Japan — you are what’s called a “reborn.” You have brothers and sisters around the world with whom you share a profound bond. You grapple with the same existential questions and maybe daily dangers.

You mentioned it there and there’s no way not to ask about it: The Resistance is a story about a pandemic and the effect it has on the world. That’s, shall we say, an accidentally far more timely book than it was a couple months ago — is there any nervousness surrounding releasing this right now, especially as the launch book for the shared universe?

When we were planning the birth of our universe, the event that would result in the creation of a new superhuman species, Joe Straczynski suggested the inciting event be a global pandemic, and it just felt right. 

Long before the coronavirus outbreak, there was widespread anxiety about the emergence of a super-virus — it was in the zeitgeist — so we thought it made sense to lean into that very real fear. That said, there are at least two major differences between our virus, XV1N1, and the cornavirus: XV1N1 is catastrophically contagious and lethal and, of course, one of its side effects is the birth of a new superhuman species.

So where did the idea of having the creative council come from in the first place? Was there any serious consideration of you and the other executives having more of a direct hand in setting out the basics of the universe, instead of bringing in this braintrust to handle it? 

I thought it made sense to have a core group of creators lay down the foundation for the universe, with Straczynski at the center. As editor-in-chief at Marvel, I found the editorial summit — where writers and editors did macro story-planning — to be very helpful in planning intricate stories that overlapped multiple characters, so I thought, why not here?

I was wondering how — if at all — your Marvel experience played into AWA. Obviously, you’re chief creative officer at this company, so the positions aren’t exactly comparable, but what lessons did you learn from your experience at Marvel that you can apply to AWA, and specifically, the shared universe? Are there obvious no-nos that you’ve learned through bitter experience, or for that matter, any go-to, never-fail replicable success strategies? 

I’d say the biggest strategy for success is to tell stories that reflect what people care about today and to resist the temptation to put genies back in the bottle just because you can. The stakes need to be real. Readers need to experience triumph and tragedy, love and loss, the way they do in real life. Some things – like death – need to be permanent.  

The Resistance No. 1 will be in stores and released digitally March 18.