A Conversation with Axel Alonso about AWA Studios
Hi, my name is Rafael Calzada, and I work at Carol and John’s Comic Book Shop in Cleveland, Ohio. I’ve been working at Carol and John’s for nearly three years now, and I’ve seen a lot of changes in that time. When I first started as a weekend warrior in 2018, there was only one comic distributor that carried everything, Diamond Comic Distributors. That business model has changed greatly since, and now some of the biggest companies in the business have shifted away from Diamond. Currently, there are at least three different distributors we go through in order to stock comics in our store. Diamond still retains the majority of comics, especially from small press companies, but now DC has gone to Lunar Distribution and Marvel has gone to Penguin Random House respectively. Retailers have had to learn to work on the fly and adjust accordingly, and it hasn’t been made easy by shutdowns and the global supply chain issues that have arisen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But in this new series of interviews with various small press companies and industry professionals, I’ll introduce and explore who these small press companies are and what sets them apart, and why retailers should care, and how to stock their shops with these great books. This week we’ll explore the newest comic book universe that’s been brewing in the pages of Artists, Writers, and Artisans (AWA) Studios comics founded by industry icon Axel Alonso.
Axel Alonso has had a career in comics for longer than I’ve been alive. He was an editor for Vertigo Comics during the 1990s for such seminal titles as Preacher, Hellblazer, 100 Bullets, and Human Target. He later moved over to Marvel at the beginning of the new millennium and became Senior Editor on books such as J. Michael Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man. And around this time, he also helped launch the Marvel MAX line of comics for mature readers, which has proven to be very influential 20 years later in today’s current world of superhero comics. In 2011, he became Editor-in-Chief at Marvel and steered the ship of one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world for the better part of a decade. He’s since moved on from Marvel, and in 2019, he founded a new publishing company called Artists, Writers, & Artisans (AWA Studios) and is now their Chief Creative Officer. AWA Studios is one of the newest small press companies on store shelves now, but they’ve got a talented pool of creators known for great comic storytelling, including Garth Ennis, J. Michael Straczynski, Frank Cho, Mike Deodato Jr., and others who you may not recognize yet. What defines AWA Studios is storytelling that reinvents and blends genres into exciting and cinematic books that have the potential for future franchising and a shared universe that could tie it all together.
The cornerstone title of AWA Studios is The Resistance by J. Michael Straczynski and Mike Deodato Jr.. The Resistance is about a new, grounded world of superbeings, called Reborns, that have been birthed in a world wherein a deadly pathogen has killed hundreds of millions of people but now leaves some of the world’s survivors with new super abilities. Hmm, a story about a global pandemic… that sounds eerily familiar. It also debuted in March of 2020. Now that’s just too strange. The Resistance has been the flagship title from AWA Studios, forming the bedrock and core of a new shared universe in their comics. There’s a large cast of characters that JMS juggles, including several Reborns across the globe trying to connect and make sense of their powers, the new President Lane who wants all Reborns captured and eradicated, and a former member of his cabinet now working for the Reborns to expose the truth behind everything. It’s told very much like the first season of a new TV series, which is no surprise with JMS’s work on shows such as Babylon 5 and Sense8. The Resistance is also reminiscent of JMS’s work on Supreme Power, a Marvel series from that Marvel MAX imprint of the 2000s that saw JMS reimagine the Squadron Supreme with a darker and more grounded tone.
There have been two volumes of The Resistance released so far, with The Resistance: Uprising being the second season in the series. It continues directly after the climactic end to volume one and also explores more of the Reborns and those with powers who have chosen to live a more glamorous life, now being sponsored, costumed adventurers. It also gives more details and background for President Lane’s plans for the Reborns. It continues the excellent world-building from the first volume and also establishes greater threats and consequences in this new world. The series is timely and very relevant and reads like a pretty scary alternate reality if COVID had played out a little differently.
While The Resistance currently has several spinoff titles available now including Knighted, Moths, and Telepaths, Axel tells me that all AWA titles have the potential to opt-in and join in this new universe. Characters can appear in other books, miniseries can extend and become ongoing series, and all of them can be interconnected. But they don’t all have to be. AWA is a company about different genres and creator-owned properties, original stories, and characters near and dear to the creators, that ultimately give them the freedom to tell their stories how they want.
One of the biggest draws to AWA and what makes them so accessible to new readers is their price point on trade paperback collections. Each series comes out in single issues first, but when whole volumes and story arcs are eventually collected in trade, each is priced the same at only $9.99. “It creates an impulse buy for customers,” Axel tells me, offering whole collections and complete stories at a price point that many other companies might charge for only a single oversized issue. It’s a model that has made reading and catching up on all their titles easy and affordable, for both customers and retailers.
While The Resistance is the marquee title for the company, Bad Mother is the next book in their library that Axel would push new readers to for more from AWA. Written by Christa Faust and featuring art again from Mike Deodato Jr. (he’s now exclusive to AWA along with fellow artist Frank Cho), Bad Mother is AWA’s answer to the movie Taken. It’s got brutal violence and is a great story of revenge. The hero of Bad Mother however isn’t another secret service professional with a particular set of skills like Liam Neeson, but a suburban soccer mom who will go to any lengths to find out what happened to her daughter and how to get her back. Her name is April Walters and her journey to find her daughter takes her to dark and unexpected places, coming up against her own nemesis who values family just as much as she does, but only her own. When I talked to Axel, I hadn’t read this book yet, but he urged me to check it out as soon as I could afterwards, and I’m glad I did.
Bad Mother is a tour de force of just how far motherly love will go. Titular mom April Walters doesn’t have crazy gunplay skills like John Wick, but she’s got her wits and she knows her daughter. When everyone else just assumes she’s run off, April knows that couldn’t be further from the truth. She isn’t afraid of anything in her quest to get her daughter back, and she’ll go toe-to-toe against anyone who will stand in her way. They may be bigger and stronger than she, but they aren’t as driven as she is to bring her daughter home. Everyone underestimates her, and maybe even the reader. There are no signs or clues that show how badass this mom can be, but when she does go off, she gives Frank Castle a run for his money. It’s a great crime story in a similar style to that of AMC’s Breaking Bad, and I can see why Axel was so high on this series.
The next major franchise from AWA, and soon to be a movie, is Bryan Edward Hill and Priscilla Petraites’s Chariot. The blurb at the top of this book, from the Hollywood Reporter, describes it as “Knight Rider meets The Matrix” and it perfectly nails the genre-blending that AWA is so good at. Chariot is about a man who’s struggling in every way possible; with his ex, their son and his hospital bills, his job, and the mob. But when he comes across a car that has the consciousness of a special agent inside, he’ll go on a synth wave-inspired adventure to prevent the Chariot from falling in the wrong hands and save the world. The writing by Hill is top-notch superspy stuff, and the art from Petraites is sleek and stylish, making for arguably the most cinematic book from AWA. It’s no wonder that it’s in active development now for a major motion picture from the director of the new Top Gun flick.
Mark Russell has a curious following in comics, in that he isn’t a huge draw for all readers, but his fans love his work and check everything out. One of his better series is AWA’s Not All Robots, a satire on technology, privilege, and toxic masculinity. It’s the future, the year is 2056, and robots have officially taken over the workforce from humans. Now every home is equipped with a house-bot that provides for their human family and that family is completely reliant on them. This family, the Walters (no relation to April Walters of Bad Mother), lives with their house-bot Razorball, but this house-bot has been working secretly in the garage and scaring the majority of the family except for goofy and robot-loyal patriarch Donny Walters. But robot-human relations are tested when one robot in control of the city of Bubble Orlando adjusts the air quality and kills the whole city of two hundred thousand humans. Was it a mistake and just a malfunction, or was it intentional and an act of rebellion against the humans who are no longer in control of this world? In Not All Robots, Russell delivers a humorous, if not bleak mirror to society that touches on several sociopolitical topics relevant today. It’s one of the most thought-provoking stories at AWA now.
One of my favorite titles from AWA, and a great example of the breadth of genres they have to offer, is Casual Fling by Jason Starr and Dalibor Talajić. The creative team consists of two AWA returning veterans, with Starr having previously written Red Border and Talajić having drawn the terrific horror anthology series Hotell (now on Volume 2 in stores now). Often compared to the erotic thriller Fatal Attraction, the tagline for this book is “Sex Is Never Safe” and this couldn’t be more perfect for the series. It’s a tale of infidelity and obsession, and how a one-night stand, a casual fling, can shatter lives. Jennifer Ryan has a good life, she’s a partner at her corporate law firm and has a loving husband and two young children at home. But when she steps out on her marriage with someone new, the whole life she has built for herself is threatened and her greatest mistake could be exposed to everyone. There’s mystery and crime in this book, as Jennifer and others team up to reveal the true identity of her tormentor and just how dangerous he really is. And another example of how interconnected the AWA books can be, there’s a cool programmer/hacker named Sensei that helps Jennifer out. Even in the letter page from the creators, they mention how much they enjoyed creating the character and how they have further plans for her in future books. Could that be a sequel, spinoff, maybe an appearance in The Resistance too? Anything’s possible with AWA.
What’s Next for AWA Studios?
There are several more series at AWA to be excited about. Recently, the new series The Fourth Man and The Crimson Cage have both debuted with issue #1’s. The Fourth Man is a dark comedy true crime story, originally based in China, now taking place in rural America about dead bodies and dueling car dealerships. And one of my favorite first issues of the past few months, The Crimson Cage is Shakespeare’s Macbeth but told in the world of professional wrestling during the mid-1980’s in New Orleans, Louisiana. Axel and I agreed that we weren’t big Shakespeare buffs, and he’s not much of a wrestling guy, but we both really enjoy this series.
Also coming soon from AWA are new series Primos and Hit Me. Primos is a Latinx superhero story about family and protecting your heritage, and Hit Me is the next crime thriller from Christa Faust, writer of Bad Mother. It also features art from Chariot’s Priscilla Portraits.
Two other major books from AWA, Frank Cho’s Fight Girls and Garth Ennis’s Marjorie Finnegan, Temporal Criminal recently concluded and will be available in trade paperback soon. Fight Girls is a battle royale contest between ten tough ladies on a hostile planet for the title of “Queen of the Galaxy,” and has had a big following at Carol and John’s Comic Book Shop. Similarly popular at Carol and John’s, Ennis’s Marjorie Finnegan is a fun and raunchy romp through time and space, and perfectly fits the style and tone of another one of Ennis’s works with Axel, Preacher. Like all other AWA trade paperbacks, Fight Girls will collect the whole story for only $9.99, while Marjorie Finnegan will collect all 8 issues for $14.99, continuing AWA’s tradition of quality storytelling at a great, affordable price. And soon there will be hardcover collections as well for AWA titles Axel tells me.
The Resistance universe continues to build, with more of the series Knighted on the way. Written by Gregg Hurwitz and drawn by Mark Texiera and Brian Reber, Knighted is about a hapless bureaucrat who accidentally kills the city’s popular masked vigilante The Knight. But with the help of The Knight’s assistant/butler, this bureaucrat will don the mask of this fallen hero to protect the city before it falls into utter chaos. Also in-universe with The Resistance, Kaare Andrews’s E-Ratic is set to return later this year for season two of that series. And finally, The Resistance is getting its very own superfamily with the debut of The Joneses beginning this April.
There is plenty of speculation too about future TV and film projects based on AWA properties. While Chariot has been confirmed to be in production for a movie, Axel told me there is also a TV show in the works based on one of their titles that are well into pre-production, that is complete with cast, crew, and showrunner, and is set to be announced by the TV studio any day now.
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