Bill Rosemann believes that comic book characters have an impact in the real world because they make us want to live up to the values of superheroes.
He gave a talk at the DICE Summit, the elite game industry event in Las Vegas, about the Marvel way of making believable superheroes and villains. He told how one mother told him that her son was in the Boston Marathon and heard an explosion. Instead of running away from it, he ran to it. She wondered if it was because he was a Captain America fan and asked himself, “What would Captain America do?”
Rosemann has been at Marvel for more than two decades. He started as a freelance writer for Marvel Age magazine, then moved on to various comic book roles. In 2008, he collaborated with a team of writers and artists to reimagine and relaunch the Guardians of the Galaxy comic book line. That inspired the Marvel Studios blockbuster movie and helped it become a hit in games, print, animation, and consumer products. Now he is creative director for Marvel Games, where he uses his expertise and passion to collaborate with developers on console, PC, and mobile games.
I caught up with Rosemann after his talk for an interview. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Above: Bill Rosemann of Marvel led the team that revived Guardians of the Galaxy.
GB: I thought it was interesting, the connection your drew from designing characters to realizing the real-world impact of those characters.
Bill Rosemann: Part of that is because of their design. One thing I didn’t get into – I just didn’t have time – remember that slide with Stan Lee’s hands on the right, and Jack Kirby was drawing on the left? They were so smart at character design. A lot of the Marvel artists came from advertising and other commercial art. They applied all these complicated ideas about color theory and design and color blocking. No matter what age level or education level, you could look at these characters, even at a small size, and understand who they were, what they were about.
When you look at the heroes, they gave them all the primary colors. Cap is red, white, and blue. Iron Man is yellow and red. Thor is red and blue. Spider-Man is red and blue. As a kid I wondered why all the Spider-Man villains were purple and green. When you look at them, the Green Goblin, Mysterio, even Sandman has the green T-shirt. Those are the secondary colors. So even as a kid—you instantly knew who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. Design creates that impact. When these characters are appealing, people embrace them and bring them into their lives.
GB: My now-13-year-old got introduced mostly through the Captain America movies. I was trying to understand why she liked that so much. She’s a short kid, though, and I was thinking, well, that’s where he started out.
Rosemann: Right. You can identify with skinny Steve Rogers, someone who was picked not because of anything physical, but because of his mental state. They wanted someone who could handle that power and do the right thing with it.
Above: Bill Rosemann says superheroes have an impact in the real world.
GB: Looking over 8,000 backstories or whatever, is that a thread they tend to have in common? The backstory pulls you into the hero?
Rosemann: Of course. We always start with story. Right now, we’re incredibly lucky at Marvel, because we have this huge, wide, deep bench of characters. The creators put so much thought into them, told stories with them over decades. They worked out who they were before they got their powers, where they’re from, what events in their past shaped them. By the time they got their powers, they reacted in different ways.
I point to Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus, for example. They have almost the same backstory. They’re both nerds who loved science, who felt like the world was dumping on them. They had a scientific accident. They both received amazing powers. Doctor Octopus decided to be selfish, to show the world why he’s number one and why it should serve him. Spider-Man eventually learned, no, I can’t be selfish. I have to be selfless. When you have a hero and a villain who have such similar stories, that makes for a great collision once they have their powers.
So when we approach a story we start with, “Who are they? What made them what they are today? What were they like before they had powers? What choices did they make after they got their powers? What do they want? What’s their goal?” Once you drill down and have those very real and accessible touch points, then you can send them on these amazing adventures, because you understand who they are as people. It’s all relatable and accessible, which are the key pillars of Marvel. Heroic, accessible, inspirational, and fun.
GB: Do you have any analysis of this? The most popular characters and how they got that way?
Rosemann: We look across all lines of business. We look at film, consumer products, animation, comic books. There are ways to get quick results on who’s popular. In games we have our live ops, mobile games giving us monthly feedback on what characters people are responding to.
Certain characters are popular worldwide. A character that’s popular here in North America may be exactly as popular in Japan. Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man, the Guardians. Certain characters, thanks to the films and thanks to all their decades of stories and thanks to how strong they are, just have worldwide appeal.
What’s fun about games, the added element—you may have a character that’s very popular in a specific game because they’re very effective in the game. They have meaning for that particular game. For a time, the most popular character in Contest of Champions was Gamora. Granted, she was in a big movie, but she was also very effective in that game, and so people wanted to have her on their team. It can be a combination of who they are, how many different things they star in, but in games we always think about gameplay. We work very hard with each partner to figure out who might be effective and who might be different. We work to see if there’s something new they can do with a character that another partner isn’t doing.
GB: Does there have to be a sort of rock-paper-scissors relationship with villains? Which villains work well with particular heroes?
Rosemann: There is a bit of a science to it. Usually you see the same villains fighting the same heroes. But it’s really fun to see a hero face a villain that they’ve never faced before, to see how their personalities and power match up. In the beginning we may introduce a villain as part of an event, say, in a mobile game like Avengers Academy. We might introduce a villain that’s grouped with a specific set of characters. But after that we really give our partners freedom to mix and match different villains with different heroes and locations. We work with them to make sure it all feels authentic – that this hero and this villain really would be on a collision course – but other than that, we invite them to mix it up and offer new experiences for players.
Above: Bill Rosemann and Jay Ong of Marvel at the DICE Summit.
GB: In the licensing world, I wonder if there’s a way to figure out how much to saturate the market with different characters. Historically, in games, there was a time when Electronic Arts was the big licensed IP company. They kind of hit a wall at some point and shifted more toward their own original IP. It seemed like gamers had gotten tired of licensed games. It was enough of a phenomenon that it caused hiccups for a couple of companies – THQ was another one. But I don’t see this happening with Marvel. It almost seems like there’s an endless appetite for Marvel content.
Rosemann: Well, we like to think so. [laughs] One reason for that, we have this very broad and deep bench. Whatever your favorite genre is—like we say, superhuman stories isn’t a genre. Games aren’t a genre. Games are a medium. Within Marvel, there are many genres. You can see that in the films. Ant-Man was a heist movie. Guardians is sci-fi. Thor leans into fantasy. Captain America is a bit of espionage. Each film is different and each hero can exist in a different genre. But there’s the connecting denominator of what makes Marvel Marvel.
Even though they’re in different genres, they’re all inspirational. They’re all accessible. No matter what the genre is – even if it’s in space, with a talking raccoon and a walking tree – we ground it in a way that you understand who they are. It’s still relatable. And it’s all fun. We never confuse drama with darkness and violence. There’s action in our movies. There are stakes. There are serious moments. But there’s always a sense of fun and time for humor. It’s a universe you’d want to live in. You don’t get tired of it. You want to spend more time in that universe.
I think now we’re getting very good at it, and people are seeing this. Not only across our mobile platform, but now going into console, we’re partnering with the best partners, matching the best characters with them to deliver the best experience, the best version of that character. As long as the quality is high and we make each game different enough, there’s no end to what Marvel fans can enjoy.
GB: Is it similar to the way Nintendo can think about things? It’s a Mario game this year, so next year let’s do a Luigi game, and in a few years fans will be ready for another Mario game again.
Rosemann: We manage our portfolio looking at many factors. There’s no hard equation for how many games are released in how many months with what characters. But we want to give each of our games breathing room, time for each game to flourish. We give players time to enjoy each game. We think about what characters are appearing where. You try to manage their career, so to speak, make sure they have the proper time to shine.
GB: You touched on modernization and diversity. It seems like people have responded well there.
Rosemann: The good thing is, it’s always been baked into what Marvel has done, for our entire history. I noticed it when I was a young boy, reading Power Man, reading when Storm was the leader of the X-Men, reading the Falcon in Captain America. It’s been in all of our stories for decades.
We’re not always perfect. We don’t always get it right. But we’ve always tried our best to be inclusive and have representation. Through that comes diversity. Over the last, I would say, 10 years, we have a renewed dedication to that, not forgetting that it’s a very huge part of Marvel’s heritage. And there’s more and more creators across all of our lines of business – TV, film, comics, games – more and more creators from a wider audience who love these characters themselves and want to make their stories. When you have those new fresh voices, you can deliver that back into the stories and have it ring true. That’s what’s most important. It has to be authentic.
Like I said this morning, it comes from one world — the real world, the creators – influencing the fictional world, and then that fictional world influences the real world. It creates a whole new generation of Marvel fans and creators who come back and tell new stories. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle.
Above: Bill Rosemann standing next to an image of the original Captain America.
GB: Do heroes have a life cycle. Do people tire of them at some point?
Rosemann: Some heroes have stood the test of time since their very first appearance. Some heroes, once they debut, just go right to the top. What we do is art, so sometimes we have characters who are of the moment. They may feel dated later on. But it’s our job – and this is a lot of fun – to go back through the vault and find characters from other decades. That’s what we tried to do with the Guardians. We pick these characters from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, and we bring them back today. We figure out how to not fundamentally change them – because we want to celebrate them – but how do we modernize them just a little bit? Just to make sure they’re as accessible today as they were in the ‘70s. How do you take their essence, their core, and preserve that, but also make them connect with today’s reader?
Sure, the popularity of certain characters may come and go. But it’s our job to figure out how to bring them back. We think they’re all great. They just need the right moment.
GB: Do you have to think about how much bandwidth you devote to things like games? The argument we’ve seen here on stage a few times is that games are bigger than movies and music combined. Maybe games should be the priority you design for?
Rosemann: The beautiful thing is, each of our teams focuses on their medium. Our comics division is going to focus 100 percent on comics. Our TV division focuses on TV. The games division, we’re pouring all of our effort into games. We look at what everyone else does and we see new characters – “I can use that character in my game at the right time” – but in that way, we don’t have to take people from certain teams or shut things down and move things around. We just say, “These teams work on these media. Everyone go full force to deliver what people want.”
GB: I remember seeing stories about Jessica Jones as a more mature, adult-oriented series and character. How does that fit with the demand you face?
Rosemann: Another awesome thing I loved about Marvel growing up is that they made different comics for different readers. Marvel does that today. We have a line of comics for all ages, for younger readers. We have our main line for teens and above. We have a line of comics that’s clearly marked and branded for mature readers. We don’t want to blur those lines. They’re marketed to specific audiences. We pay very close attention to that.
That allows us to try and make something for everyone. Still with that Marvel feel, but it gives our creators freedom to tell different types of stories. They can pick what will best allow them to tell the story and get at the issues they want to talk about. Then we can decide the appropriate rating for what they’re doing.
What they’ve done with Jessica Jones – first with the original comic book, Alias, and then translating it into the Jessica Jones TV show – it was the exact right call and the exact right tone. People who were watching the show found out there was a comic, and when they went back to read the comic, they clearly saw the connection. “Wow, this show really captured the tone of the comic.” In fact, we just brought Jessica Jones back again in her own comic series by the original creators, with that same tone aimed at an older audience. We just have to be very judicious about deciding which characters are appropriate for each rating group.
Above: Bill Rosemann shows one of the diverse reimaginings of Spider-Man.
GB: We’ve seen that you can make a Spider-Man series today, a Spider-Man series years from now, and it’ll always work. It’s worked with the movies as well, and it seems like it should work with games. You have console generations, too, so each Spider-Man game is going to look better than the last one and people will buy it for that reason. It’s an interesting reason for these things to come in cycles.
Rosemann: We’re always trying to top ourselves. We’re very competitive with ourselves. We want to always do better than what we’ve done before. The beautiful thing, especially when it comes to the gaming industry—if you just wait a few years, the leaps in technology and quality are going to happen. It’s a great opportunity to be able to say, “We have a window now to do a Spider-Man game. It’s been so long since the last one.” Given that, we try to say to ourselves, “Let’s pretend this is the first Spider-Man game, the only Spider-Man game. Let’s focus on that. Do we deliver on the wish-fulfillment of what it’s like to be Spider-Man? Let’s not obsess over what’s come before and focus on the now.”
That said, we want to be educated. We know what’s come before. We know what people have loved, what worked, what didn’t work. We know what we have to equal and what we have to surpass. It’s great to know what’s come before and try to be better, but we want to make our own statement and deliver the best experience for whoever the character is.