When Axel Alonso graduated from UC Santa Cruz and Columbia University with degrees in politics, sociology and journalism, the San Francisco native had no idea he’d have a fruitful career in combining hip-hop with comic books.
Back in 2000 when Alonso joined Marvel Comics as an editor, the comic book behemoth was near bankruptcy. However, thanks to Alonso’s Marvel MAX line, Amazing Spider-Man and X-Men series, Marvel Entertainment was picked up by Walt Disney for a hefty sum of $4.24 billion.
Fast forward to 2015 and Alonso is now the genius behind Marvel’s Hip Hop Variants series. Hitting shelves in October, each title takes a cue from a hip-hop artist. Then continuing in November and December more homage covers are coming: Captain Marvel #1 pays homage to Iggy Azalea’s The New Classic; Carnage #1 tributes Redman’s Dare Iz A Darkside; Uncanny X-Men #1 salutes the Geto Boys’ The Geto Boys; and Web Warriors #1 gives a nod to the Clipse’s Lord Willin’.
Get a first look of the covers above and get (more) familiar with the man behind the Hip Hop Variants series below.
VIBE: What’s your connection with hip-hop?
Axel Alonso: My dad was into an array of music. My mom was into soul and gospel. Rock music wasn’t part of my upbringing at all but I vividly remember being at a diner with a friend, probably after playing basketball, and this song comes on the radio. It’s the back theme to “Good Times” by Chic and these guys are just talking smack like on a basketball court. It was crazy fun and they tell these crazy stories. Of course, it’s the Sugarhill Gang “Rapper’s Delight”. I heard the music and I was like, “Holy sh*t, what the hell is that?’ I begged my dad to help me find that record and I just kept my ear to what was going on. But, also, you hear hip hop echoed in everything, from Rick James to P-Funk. So that’s how far I go back with hip-hop. I’ve been listening to it since the beginning—Grandmaster Flash, Treacherous Three, N.W.A.—it’s always been part of my life, even my friends and family.
Was merging comics and hip-hop something you wanted to do as a child?
Well, I never viewed comics as a profession. My parents were all about getting an education. I have a degree in politics. I have a graduate degree in journalism so I was trained to be in those fields. I saw an ad in the New York Times one day that an imprint at DC Comics was hiring an editor for non-superhero comic books. I sent in my resume and it was one of these weird situations where the editor interviewed me in his office. And he only called me in because he read this story I’d written in the Daily News about the popular culture. He tore this article out of the paper and kept it. He remembered my name because my name was uncommon so that’s really how it came about. He offered me the job. I pondered for some time and then I took it.
When you interviewed for this job, you already had this idea of merging hip-hop and comics?
Yes, I did. I view hip-hop and comics as being two strands of pop culture that thrive from cross-pollination across the media. Hip-hop and comic books survive by being aware of the outside world and what’s going on in it. Hip-hop is built on, from back in the day with [Run-DMC’s] “Walk This Way” and so forth. The big merger between rock and hip-hop, talk about cross-pollination there. I like to interact these two cultures.
What’s your overall purpose for creating these Hip-Hop Variants?
What we’re trying to do with these covers is represent a broad array of covers as possible. We want to make sure that we cover a lot of bases. It just so happens that some of the best records ever made like [Nas’] Illmatic and [Notorious B.I.G.’s] Ready To Die also have some of the best album covers. So that was one of the things that was considered “the no-brainers.”
Speaking of your work, do you have any favorites?
It’s difficult. Obviously, I hate to pick favorites. It’s like a parent trying to pick a favorite child. I will say that there are some that I think are outstanding. I would say on a personal level, the A$AP Rocky one. I’m a big fan of the De La Soul one. My son is 12 and he’s all about Vince Staples and Earl Sweatshirt.
Who else are you listening to these days?
I’m huge on Vince Staples and Earl Sweatshirt as I mentioned before. I’m huge on A$AP Rocky. I like Joey Bada$$, and if I’m going to work out, I’m going to work out to Run The Jewels.