Essays Assemble: Van Allen Plexico Talks About Assembled!

A comics interview article by: Ric Croxton
ASSEMBLED! is the book that gives a history of the five decades of Marvel Comics Avengers up to present. Ric Croxton talks to Van Allen Plexico, the editor, about ASSEMBLED! and other projects. (Please note, all publisher profits from ASSEMBLED! will go to George Perez's chosen charity: The HERO Initiative.)

Ric Croxton (RC): What was the catalyst that caused you to create the book?

Van Allen Plexico (VAP): It began when I founded the AvengersAssemble.net Web site way back in 1995-- it was one of the very first comics sites on the Web. Over the years it's grown and grown, with millions of visitors and tons of Avengers material donated to it from various fans and pros. I always thought we should do a book, using the "best of" what was there. But when we finally got around to "assembling" a book, we decided to go ahead and write all-new material instead. So virtually everything in the book is original for the book.

RC: How did you decide which writer was going to do what era?

VAP: In some cases it was pretty obvious. For example, Dave Medinnus hosts the Winghead.org site about Captain America, so he was the go-to guy for the "death of Cap" chapter. Sean McQuaid (who has written for our Web site for over a decade, and writes for the Marvel Handbooks now) was my first choice to look at the critically important "Kurt Busiek / George Perez Era," because I wanted the wealth of knowledge and detail I knew he would bring to it. Others volunteered and offered interesting takes on what they'd do with chapters on, say, the Ultimates or the Bob Harras era. So it was pretty easy to cover all the bases with good, knowledgeable writers.

RC: Who are the writers?

VAP: The writers are the "Jarvis Heads" of AvengersAssemble.net. To become a Jarvis Head, you must at some point in the past have donated something significant to the AvengersAssemble.net Web site, or otherwise helped in its growth and popularity. Around twenty different Jarvis Heads contributed at least one chapter each to the book. They're all old-school Avengers fans who knows their stuff and have loved the Avengers since childhood (just like me). A number of them have PhDs in various fields and some work in the comics/publishing industry.

RC: When did you first conceive of doing the book?

VAP: From the very start, we've wanted to do something like this, but neither the market nor the technology were there until recently. With the upswing in the popularity of the Avengers recently, we felt we had something that would sell better than in previous years. And with the advent of better and less expensive technology for small-press publishers, we could get the book out to its audience much more easily. It could be "narrowcast" by a small publisher to comics fans, rather than requiring a massive commitment by a major publisher. So, in the spring of 2006, when the title, "ASSEMBLED!," came to me in a flash, I knew it was time to do it! Having the tie-in to a charity (HERO Initiative) that George Perez supports was a natural, given that he is "Mr. Avengers." So we decided we should donate all the profits we earned to that charity.

RC: What was Marvel Comics reaction to your book?

VAP: Nothing from the company, officially-- which is probably a good thing! But Marvel's Executive Editor, Tom Brevoort, liked it so much, he talked it up on his blog a while back (to the tune of quite a few additional sales), and now he's going to write the introduction to our second volume, coming next year. So I take that as a positive reaction. Kurt Busiek said he liked it too-- though he said (tongue in cheek) that the main problem he saw with it was not enough of him in it. Heh. And Bob Almond, Marvel inker and longtime Avengers fan, really liked it, too.

RC: In reading the book I found it was more of an essay style. Why was that style chosen?

VAP: Originally it was going to have a variety of "factual" articles. But we decided that since we already had so much of that stuff on the AvengersAssemble.net site, we should do something totally different for the book. We hit on the idea of dividing it by creator "eras," meaning by the periods when a particularly noteable writer and/or artist worked on the book-- Stan and Jack, Kurt and George, etc. We had a Jarvis Head take each of these important eras and analyze them critically, but with love and humor. So the essays reflect conversations we've been having amongst ourselves for over a decade. The arguments had already been well-honed and deeply considered before any of us sat down to type up our chapters. I think that makes for a much more balanced and thoughtful book, and readers have almost universally agreed with that, so far.

RC: How would you describe your role as editor in this book, as compared to other books you have done?

VAP: Less writing, but more work! I had no idea what I was getting into. It's a matter of coordination--of serving as a referee, of making decisions that everyone has to live with, and of simply keeping up with what everyone is doing-- while keeping one eye on the growing manuscript and making sure every topic that needs to be covered is covered. And begging and pleading and threatening my dear friends as deadlines approach. And then there's copy-editing, soliciting the cover art, ushering it all through the publishing/printing process, the promotional/distribution side, and so on. Whew! I think you have to actually live through this kind of project once, to really understand how much effort and time it takes to do it right. That being said, we're doing it again, with a volume two! So clearly we're gluttons for punishment. But we were very fortunate to have a brilliant book designer in Danny Wall, a great copy editor in Joe Crowe, and a fine cover artist in Anthony Schiavino, on top of all the talented writers.

RC: Did any of your writers speak with the creators while writing their chapter?

VAP: No-- and that was intentional. But we had been speaking with one another for over a decade by the time we decided to do the book. That constant interchange of ideas-- and of being forced to defend one's position to a bunch of equally well-informed fans-- made the essays less narrow and more thoughtful than they probably otherwise would have been. In other words, the arguments made in the book have been around the old block a few times, and have been argued over in great detail by very knowledgeable folks. You could say they were heavily field-tested!

RC: Were there any chapters in the book you disagreed with at first, but later decided were right?

VAP: The one that comes quickest to mind is the "Heroes Reborn" chapter by Adrian Watts. Adrian is a younger Avengers fan (from Australia) and he started reading the book at that time, when Rob Liefeld had taken it over and radically changed it. He's much more positive about that period than is anyone else I know--which made him the perfect choice to write about it, because he would be less negative and more willing to see the positives of that era. Though I'm not sure he convinced me there were many positives!

RC: Were your writers inspired by the previous FantaCo Chronicles Avengers magazine?

VAP: I think most of them had read it; I certainly have. I looked through it a couple of times, when working out the structure of the book. But it came out over twenty years ago, and was very much a product of its times. It has detailed character studies and art, while our book was mostly intended to look over the writer-artist eras. Now, our second Avengers book (coming in 2008!) will indeed focus more on characters rather than "eras," so there may be more similarities with the Fantaco book there.


RC: Were any chapters deleted from the finished book?

VAP: Nothing was deleted that was turned in, no. There were a couple of things we had wanted to include but ended up not receiving in time, or else ended up not fitting into the structure the book took on. For example, we were going to have a chapter that looked at the animals associated with the Avengers. Seriously! I think that would have been fun. But it didn't come to fruition. And we'd talked about including more sidebars with poll-type questions of the book's writers (favorite this and that, etc.), but that didn't really fit what we ended up with. We also had to get last-minute installments for a couple of topics we definitely wanted covered, such as the West Coast Avengers, the death of Captain America, Civil War, and the like.

RC: Are any new books planned in the future similar to Assembled? Fantastic Four? Justice Society?

VAP: My first thought was to do an FF book next, and call it "FANTASTIC!" That would make a nice companion to ASSEMBLED! Shoot, I probably shouldn't have spilled the beans on that! Hah. But what I discovered was that it's difficult to get die-hard Avengers fans excited about writing about the FF. What a shock, huh? So we're definitely doing a second Avengers book, this time concentrating on the characters. There will be several chapters each on Iron Man, Cap, and Thor-- the Big Three. There should also be a number of chapters on the second-tier Avengers, among others (Hawkeye, She-Hulk, etc.). And probably some additional material we didn't fit into the first book, such as more complete coverage of AVENGERS FOREVER, AVENGERS/JLA, THE LAST AVENGERS STORY, and the like. As I said, Tom Brevoort has already signed on to write the introduction, which is very cool. We hope to have it out by next summer, before the Iron Man movie hits theaters.

RC: In your chapter on related series, why wasn't the Young Avengers mentioned?

VAP: Y'know, I'm really disappointed that we didn't include YOUNG AVENGERS in the first book. I love that series, and Cheung is my favorite artist right now. You can rest assured there will be an entire chapter about the "Young 'Uns" in volume 2! The writer is already assigned. A couple of years back, at DragonCon, I spent the whole weekend badgering him into reading YOUNG AVENGERS, and he finally did, and loves it. He'll do a great job, I'm sure.

RC: What charities will the profits be donated to?

VAP: The HERO Initiative, which helps retired comics creators who are in financial need.

RC: Will signed copies be offered?

VAP: Several of us have been selling and signing copies at conventions this year already. If you catch us at a show, we'd be happy to do so. Otherwise, folks can email me via the AvengersAssemble.net site and arrange to order signed copies.

RC: What made you first think to create this book?

VAP: I'd gotten involved with the creation of White Rocket Books as a small-press publisher of pulp adventure and superhero-related books. We'd wanted to do a book about the Avengers for a long time, and with White Rocket on board, it all just fell together perfectly.

RC: Will later printings be offered with art created for the book?

VAP: No. This is it-- this is the book as it will be. We were frankly nervous about putting too much art in the book, because we didn't want to get sued, despite the fact that our profits are going to charity. We have a few covers reproduced in the book, the way you'd quote something with "fair use," but nothing in the way of "fan art." I know the Fantaco book had a lot of that, but they had permission to do so. We didn't even want to get embroiled in all that legal stuff. For the second book, we may get a little more daring and try to sneak even more cover art in than last time. We'll see.

RC: Do you plan to do future signings at conventions on the book?

VAP: Definitely. I'll be a guest of OmegaCon in Birmingham, Alabama in March of next year, and we'll have a table at HeroesCon in Charlotte in June. Some of us are always at DragonCon in late August, and I probably will be at Archon in St. Louis next summer, too. I'm hoping some of the other contributors can make appearances on their own around the country with the book, too. The latest info will be posted on the AvengersAssemble.net site, and at www.whiterocketbooks.com.

RC: What do you feel was the most difficult part of putting together this book?

VAP: Having to prod and beg and threaten and cajole and persuade people I respect and admire and like very much to finish their chapters before I had to fly to their cities and track them down and chain them to their keyboards. Probably half the chapters arrived within a week of being assigned, and the other half took up to sixteen months to come in. It was sort of strange that way. But even though I got impatient, I always had to remember that this was a volunteer effort, done purely out of love of the comics. So I was as diplomatic and pleasant as I could be... as I pulled my hair out and shook my e-mail fist! Haha.

RC: Who wrote your introduction and what is his connection to comics and more importantly The Avengers?

VAP: Keith R. A. DeCandido is a best-selling author, noteably in the Star Trek and Buffy novel lines. But he's also a big comics fan, and he served as editor for the Byron Preiss Marvel novels a few years back. He's been a Jarvis Head since that time, and was a natural to do the introduction, since he knew all the writers and also knew the subject matter, and could speak knowledgeably about both. We were honored to have him do the intro.

RC: Where can fans find ASSEMBLED!?

VAP: All over the place. It's already on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. It's available through the publisher's site, whiterocketbooks.com. It's sold through the printer's site, lulu.com. It's listed by the various book distributors such as Ingram, so bookstores and comics shops should be able to get copies in whenever they want to. And we hope Diamond will pick it up soon.

RC: What is White Rocket Books and where can we find it?

VAP: White Rocket Books is a small-press publishing consortium of which I am a member. White Rocket publishes short science fiction, pulp adventure, and related books, and serves as a mutual promotion and distribution hub for creators, writers, and artists. The site is www.whiterocketbooks.com.

RC: Who is Van Allen Plexico and what other books have you been involved in?

VAP: I'm a college professor by day and an SF/pulp novelist by night. I've written three volumes in the SENTINELS adventures so far, from White Rocket, with volume four in the plotting stages even now. They are my fictional homage to the Avengers and are a diverse super-team of men and women (and aliens and androids) thrown together to confront vast menaces to the Earth--even as they bicker amongst themselves. I've written the adventures of the old pulp fighter ace, "the Griffon," for Wild Cat Books and Airship 27, and am writing the first "Mars McCoy" SF pulp novel as we speak-- he's a Flash Gordon type of throwback space action hero, created by Ron Fortier of Airship 27 Productions. ASSEMBLED! was my first work as an editor, and I hope folks enjoy it as much as they enjoy my novels. Thanks for the chance to get the word out to the fans-- I think old and new Avengers fans will get a lot out of this book.

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