Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso

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Killer Mike and El-P had a hell of a year in 2014. Not just because of their critically-acclaimed album, Run The Jewels 2, but also because their outside endeavors grabbed the attention of the mainstream (and there's no better way of doing that than agreeing to remake their RTJ2 album using cat noises). And the group's fist-and-gun logo became the inspiration for the variant covers of Issue 45 of Deadpool and Issue 2 of Howard The Duck, two titles from Marvel Comics. Both Killer Mike and El-P are huge comic book fans, but for Mike this achievement hits closer to home.

"I grew up reading comics with my dad—my stepdad, but I don’t use that word—he let me just have his comic collection. So this is a very big deal for me, man," Killer Mike told Rolling Stone. "I look forward to when this shit drops, taking him up and driving him to the comics store in North Dekalb, just to let him get out and not even tell him that it’s going down. I know he’s gonna be so proud he could fuckin' cry, bruh."

Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso—who's also a huge RTJ fan—was inspired by Run The Jewels' worldwide street art initiative. "Tag The Jewels," Mike and El's Tumblr-fueled art initiative, featured 30 graffiti artists from across the globe who were invited to create their own rendition of the Run The Jewels 2 album art on streets in various countries. Huge art pieces of the cover were made on the streets of Los Angeles, Jakarta, Chicago, Paris, Sao Paolo, Lagos, Auckland, Warsaw, New Delhi and many more. So the RTJ-inspired Marvel covers were another notch in the duo's belt last year.

But Killer Mike and El-P weren't the only ones to get the Marvel treatment. Earlier in November, Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi of Rae Sremmurd landed on the cover of a Captain America issue, while Birdman would wind up covering a special edition Spider-Man issue. And hip-hop has a long history with comic books going back to the early days of Wu-Tang and beyond, of course. But with Marvel embracing hip-hop so heavily in recent weeks, XXL got Marvel EIC Axel Alonso on the phone to discuss the RTJ-inspired covers for Deadpool and Howard The Duck, why those covers are different from Birdman's and Rae Sremmurd's Marvel covers and the role of comic books in pop and hip-hop culture. —Emmanuel C.M.

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XXL: How did hip-hop become involved in Marvel’s covers?
Axel Alonso: The Run The Jewels cover came about because I am a fan and I had seen the Tag The Jewels murals being done. I thought those were beautiful and [there was] something kind of cool and honest and grassroots about it. The logo for Run The Jewels is dope and open to interpretations and ironic, strong. My son, he’s 11, he was playing in a football game. He’s a wide receiver and he caught a touchdown that won the game. After the touchdown he took off his receiver gloves and pointed at it like the RTJ logo and a couple of his friends were saying, "Run them jewels fast." I didn’t know he even liked Run The Jewels, so I asked him, "Do you like them?" And he looked at me like I was corny.

At that point it’s like an exclamation mark went over my head. I took a photo of that and tweeted it. A little while later, the manager for RTJ reached out because he thought it was really funny. I just got to thinking at that point, You got so many people doing Tag The Jewels, why not Marvel do its own Tag The Jewels homage? So I thought, Let's do a couple of variants. I looked at a couple of books and thought it might be fun. Howard The Duck and Deadpool were chosen. Then I picked out from a pool of artists.

This was not a commercial thing or a custom project. No money changed hands. I saw a grassroots movement and thought, Let's get in on it. I love their music and overall I think their message is very necessary.

How involved were Killer Mike and El-P?
I corresponded with Mike by Direct Message [on Twitter] and shortly before El-P reached out. It was clear that both of them were total Marvel junkies. I know a lot of guys in hip-hop; nobody is nicer than Mike. Plus, talk about down to earth. I met him at Madison Square Garden before; he’s a really great guy. He explained to me how his step-dad, who he thinks of as being his father, he’s a big a comic book head. He’s bonded with him. Seeing those covers meant a lot to him, so much that he wanted me to go to Thanksgiving dinner. These guys love it, they grew up with it; they're Marvel zombies and were very appreciative. It was a lot of love moving around.

Do you see this happening more often?
I think there [has been] an on-going dialogue between comic books and hip-hop for decades. I’m not talking about a rapper wanting to write a comic book or a rapper writing a comic book, I’m talking just that dialogue that we've seen as far as the Wu-Tang Clan; that’s the best example. In comic books, it’s seen how slowly the hip-hop aesthetics have reached its way in how comic books look.

Marvel, we do variants all the time. We do this all the time. The variants normally, usually, have a theme. There’s a theme that usually is amusing, marries comic books with something else. Right now we're doing What The Duck, which are variant covers all featuring Howard The Duck and he’s in very iconic poses, such as the Lunar landing and American gothic the painting. We try and remind people our place in American pop culture. I think it’s very food for thought that we do some hip-hop variants. In fact we have discussed it. I just want to make sure we have the right plan of attack. I have plenty of artists who want to do them.

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How did Rae Sremmurd and Birdman react to their covers?
Well, from my understanding it was positive. I wasn’t directly involved in those covers. I made recommendations to those artists at the time. But those are more of a project they were collaborating with us on. So far as it was a dialogue going and these were more—it was a different endeavor from the RTJ covers. Those were just us reacting to a cultural moment. It’s important you understand that or get what I’m talking about. We were responding to a cultural moment.

For me, it was seeing people embracing that iconic logo from Pakistan to Bangladesh and doing their own interpretations on it. So for me I think we’re responding very much to a cultural moment. That’s very different even from us doing variant covers featuring—Let's say we were doing a variant campaign in which covers were modeled from iconic hip-hop covers like Illmatic, Nation Of Millions. That’s a different thing.

It sounds like you’re a pretty big hip-hop head. What are you listening to?
I'll tell you I was very crushed when I learned that 100s from Oakland, one of the last remaining Jheri curled MCs, has retired. His manager told me and I was crushed because he had two records that were sick. I think that Curren$y, for me, is one of the most slept-on rappers around. I think that Curren$y is ridiculous. "Address" is one of my favorite jams of all time. If I’m ever in a bad mood I just put it on and relax. His mixtapes are so good. So many artists do their best material on mixtapes.

I’m really excited to see what Earl Sweatshirt does in the future. I thought this album Doris was a hit and on occasion absolutely brilliant. “Sunday” with Frank Ocean is ridiculous; is there a more beautiful song? I like that minimalist stuff. Obviously Run The Jewels. There’s a few people emerging I’m interested in. There’s a guy in Atlanta, Father, he has something going on. I’m a sucker for that stripped-down sound. I think that it’s always good. Joey Bada$$ I love. He’s so dope; his mixtape Summer Knights is ridiculous, it’s in constant rotation. I love Drake, I don’t care what anybody says. I fell into with Drake with my wife. So for me, it’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that, for the most part. I can go back to the classics, so anything by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth. I think Mobb Deep's The Infamous, along with Nas’ Illmatic, are two records that I listen to the most. For 20 years I’ve been listening to those albums.

Have you ever thought about doing a Drake Marvel cover?
Yeah, you just hatched an idea here. Definitely, seeing the response to RTJ, it’s definitely something that I will entertain.

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What hip-hop artists have you interacted with who are big comic book fans?
Pete Rock, both guys from Mobb Deep. Run-DMC, RZA. A lot of behind-the-scenes guys like Pete Rock and RZA are huge Marvel fans. It’s interesting because their job is a lot like mine. They both would rap on occasion but for the most part they are behind the curtains. They’re working on things and building the larger canvas. I end up relating to a guy like Pete Rock a lot. I’m not the guy to be the one on stage, I like to be the one backstage and say, "That sounds good."

What are Marvel's future plans?
Right now what we have going on is we're entering to this big event called Secret Wars, which is going to happen in May. I describe it as, the Marvel Universe is composed of the Marvel Universe and the Ultimate Universe and a lot of other mirror universes. We’re taking it all together and making one pie. It’s a world called Battleworld in which everything will coexist or not coexist; as the title implies, Secret Wars. It’s the biggest event we've done. It will consume publishing and cross across our other media platform and other divisions of Marvel. We look at it as just a moment where we blow up the Marvel Universe and when the smoke settles we’re going to unveil a new Marvel Universe for the fans.

Every year it seems Marvel gets bigger and bigger now.
It’s been a real cool time. The great thing about this moment in time is so many things are going right for the comic book industry. First of all, for the first time in forever, when you say you work in comics people don’t think you’re a nerd. Secondly, the emergence of this geek culture where people can embrace the geek of themselves; they can have Walking Dead viewing parties, they go to comic conventions, whether they got in a costume or not. All most everyone has read a comic book. We live in a world where everyone knows who Nick Fury is, let alone Iron Man. Ten years ago if you said Iron Man, Joe Blow on the street would say, "Sounds like a superhero that wears a masked suit, right? I think I know about him." Now everybody knows exactly who he is. Tony Stark, they know everything. That’s a great thing for us publishing because we don’t have to teach people from scratch.

So if you could do more hip-hop variant covers, what would they be?
I love the idea of doing the hip-hop variants of classic hip-hop album cover art. So I would say that. To be honest though, I don’t know. Just like how the RTJ cover happened, it kind of snuck up on us and on me. There’s an on-going dialogue that’s getting louder and louder. When I look at the artists out there who [are] diehard hip-hop fans—just off the top of my head, Juan Doe, Scott James, Skottie Young, Corey Pandolph, Jason Latour—all these guys are hip-hop heads and they are not alone. It's just going to happen naturally.

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