While their box office successes are highly visible, much of Marvel’s magic has been happening behind the scenes. As millions are lining up for the release of “Ant-Man” this weekend, we talked with Dan Buckley ’89, the company’s president of TV, Publishing and Brand Management, to talk about how he’s expanded audiences and diversified platforms to tell stories on, as well as how his liberal arts education helped him rise to the top.
How did St. Lawrence help prepare you for your current role at Marvel?
My St. Lawrence education had a lot to do with learning how to collaborate with people and experience all disciplines, whereas during graduate school my focus was much more narrow. At St. Lawrence, I was able to interact with all walks of life. I grew up in a small town in the North Country, so taking a variety of classes and meeting multifaceted people with different interests and learning how to relate to those interests was exciting and helped prepare me for what I’m doing now.
How do you balance making enough references for the hardcore fans while keeping the many storylines and characters accessible to non-comic book readers?
Comic books are what my background is in and it’s where I started. I still oversee the publishing group. I worked at Marvel from 1991-1998 and returned in 2003 and the only thing Marvel was producing was publishing, which is the root of where Marvel tells stories. It’s all contextual and it’s a collaborative process. I always have a few people in the room who have a very good memory of what has happened everywhere, which is incredibly valuable.
The most important thing is keeping characters in their proper context. A lot of people have lived and breathed with these characters since childhood and into adulthood. It’s a lot like soap opera storytelling; there’s a baseline and personality traits we will continue to circle back to, and at the same time we continually wonder how far can we take it? You stretch it and take it to other spaces in the Marvel universe but stay true to who that character is at their core.
Context is important because it’s where characters have gone. Many of the characters were created in the 1960s, and we’re bringing them along so they still resonate with their history, but lend themselves to new stories and storytellers. Characters also need to reflect the times and what’s going on in the world today. A big part of our work is being consistent and respecting the stories behind characters and what our fans love about them while allowing space for new fans to come in. There’s an organic approach to it.
How important are the liberal arts to the creativity needed for an organization like Marvel?
Very important. The way I understand the liberal arts is that it has a lot to do with learning a variety of skill sets, how to collaborate, and the value in appreciating various points of view. In my role, being a generalist, the liberal arts are extremely helpful. Every day, I go from dealing with accounting, to international distribution to working with show-runners, on top of my executive-level work, every day and having the ability to shift perspectives so quickly has been an important skill.
Some fans have noted that during the last few years, there seems to have been a real turning point away from dark and gritty postmodern era of comic books. What do you see as the future of storytelling in a super-hero universe?
In the 1980s and 1990s, we welcomed a wave of comic book writers who grew up reading comics and comic book shops opened up because adult males wanted adult comic content. So back then there was a convergence of talent telling more mature stories and serving a specific demographic that wanted those stories.
There is still a lot of darker material in our catalogs. What you’re seeing in comics today is an expansion of genres and stories. The ‘dark and gritty’ is not one of two games in town. It’s one of many things happening in graphic fiction, a fast-growing category in publishing now.
Over the last 3-4 years at Marvel, we’ve seen a stretch in genres. For example, we now have several female leads in our comic books, which fans didn’t see 5-6 years ago. Stretching the categories and genres is very fascinating to me.
As far as the future of comics, I think it’s going to be more accessible. There will be dark and gritty content, light and airy content, straight-up superhero stories, detective stories, and plenty of others. Art styles are already much more varied, too. A lot of different looks and great storytelling is ahead. It’s a pretty exciting time!
What was your favorite part of your St. Lawrence experience? Has it influenced your work in any way?
St. Lawrence was a very unique and transformative experience for me. In college, you’re just trying to figure out what you want to do and be for the rest of your life. I had great friends, great classes, and learned how to live, all of which apply to what I’m doing today.
Growing up, I didn’t realize what was out there in terms of jobs so when I went off to college, I thought I was going to go into banking, finance or even general contracting. What St. Lawrence showed me was that there were many more possibilities out there than that. After graduating, I knew what I didn’t want to do and I knew there was something out there for me and I needed to go find it. So I actively looked for something that excited me. My first job out of graduate school was with Marvel.
Who would win in a fight: the X-Men or the Avengers?
I can’t choose sides on this. Who would ultimately win? The fans.