By Ben Morse
A larger than life figure makes a proclamation promising to bring glory to himself and his city, then embarks on an adventure that involves undead adversaries, robotic replacement limbs, an army of clones and more.
Sound like a Marvel comic? It will be, but this particular adventure features none other than NBA superstar LeBron James and will unfold in the pages of ESPN The Magazine.
We caught up with Deputy Editor Otto Strong and Senior Editor Ty Wenger of ESPN The Magazine to learn more.
|LeBron: King of the Rings cover by Adi Granov|
Marvel.com: For the second time in three years, Marvel will be contributing to the ESPN The Magazine NBA Preview issue.
What can you tell us about the project this time around?
Otto Strong: LEBRON: KING OF THE RINGS is an all-new 12-page comic book that is collaboration between ESPN The Magazine and Marvel that will be inserted in every issue of ESPN The Magazine’s NBA Preview issue, on stands Friday, Oct. 19. It features a hilarious script we worked on with Christos Gage and amazing art by Mike Deodato, Scot Eaton, Greg Land, Terry Dodson and an awesome cover by Adi Granov.
Marvel.com: Can people read it online as well as in print?
Otto Strong: It’ll be a mix of print and digital distribution. We announced the comic at the New York Comic Con, on Saturday, October 13. On that day, the plan is for the digital comic to coincide with the Comic Con event. To bring this great story to our worldwide audience, the digital comic will be available in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese, specifically Mandarin).
Marvel.com: What’s the overview of the story?
Ty Wenger: The gist of it is that LeBron James famously announced a couple of years ago during a pep rally when they announced his and Chris Bosch’s signing [with the Miami Heat], that he’d win not one, not two, not three, not four, [but] all the way up to seven titles. We decided let’s actually take a look at a fictionalized comic book version of what that might actually look like. And extrapolating out to the future, the storyline [becomes] increasingly more surreal with each passing year.
We tried to play off the known story lines of LeBron James and his career. So for one title for example, we have him engaged in obsessive levels of self-improvement as he is want to do, including learning how to shoot free throws underhand ala Rick Barry and how to levitate, perform magic tricks, these types of things. In another title, he’s forced to lose Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh due to luxury tax implications so he has to form a new team that includes a zombie Shane Battier!
We have another season in which due to his chronically cramping quads he actually designs and builds his own bionic legs. Then Pat Riley gets a sample of LeBron’s DNA that he surreptitiously borrows, as we say, from one of LeBron’s sweat-soaked headbands. And then unbeknownst to LeBron, he raises a team of LeBron James clones. As you can guess, thanks to the awesome Marvel visuals, each season gets more and more surreal.
Marvel.com: And you came up with all of this, Ty?
Ty Wenger: Yeah. I actually came up with the overall story one night when I was extremely sick and my wife banished me to the guest room because I had a fever of 103. I wrote the outline all on my iPhone over three hours because I had nothing else to do. There are a couple of other fun seasons that NBA and Marvel fans will love because they’re so wild, and then we build to the final moment where LeBron has a decision to make, where, with the clock winding down, he has to decide, does he shoot, or does he pass? Of course, the eternal question of his career. This creates our cliffhanger that invites readers to go online to vote for their favorite ending.
|LeBron: King of the Rings preview art by Mike Deodato|
Marvel.com: I think you’ve got a future in comics!
Ty Wenger: We had a lot of fun here. It’s been really cool collaborating with all the basketball writers and Marvel’s creators, and to see it progress with each passing week. It’s gotten more and more robust, the jokes that got threaded through; it has been a really fun process.
Marvel.com: Now does LeBron or anyone involved know about any of this?
Ty Wenger: They know that there will be a comic. To what extent they’ve actually seen it, I’d be guessing at any of that.
Marvel.com: Now why did you choose to make LeBron the lead of the story?
Otto Strong: It was a story that was particular to LeBron based on the fact that he has a title in the bank, but also that he famously had that press conference back in July 2010. Even though the press conference might have been in the spirit or in the moment of guaranteeing titles, that’s what teams do, and that’s what athletes do and there’s a degree of expectation that you’re an athlete, you’re paid to win games, and so why wouldn’t you go out there and say you’re going to win games?
I think we also felt that this off-season was the only time that we could do this, that after LeBron has won his first title. You couldn’t do this any other time. You couldn’t do this next year; you couldn’t do it after title two. This is the only time you could ever do this. And we were like yeah we have to go all-in with this. It was a bit of a high stakes maneuver, seeing if we could pull it off in a few weeks, but it seems to have actually happened.
Marvel.com: Who did you work with over on our end?
|LeBron: King of the Rings preview art by Greg Land|
Otto Strong: The main points of contact were project manager A.J. Fierro, editor Bill Rosemann and of course Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso, who also worked on the last NBA preview project. Then Bill and Axel selected and guided all the creative talent on Marvel’s side.
Marvel.com: As mentioned, this is our second NBA preview issue we’ve done with you guys. What do you like about partnering with Marvel? What’s worked as far as this partnership so far?
Otto Strong: It’s a blank canvas essentially, that was always my thing from the start, and Ty fully embraced the notion that these pages are truly blank canvases and that we can have players basically doing anything [and] between Ty’s mind and the writers and artists at Marvel, we’re left at a product that is quite stunning.
Marvel.com: Was the response from the first NBA preview from comic book fans and basketball fans pretty big for you guys? Did you get a lot of people saying that they liked this combination?
Otto Strong: We got a number of people saying that they had never really seen a team preview or a league preview that had as much creativity and that [we were] approaching it from such a unique place that still held together as a preview that was informed, even though there were 30 comic book covers that were kind of telling the story of the season. This is a different take; it’s not trying to tell the story of the upcoming season. If anything, it’s telling the story of the upcoming seasons down the line. But the big departure is that we’re pretty sure that LeBron won’t be cloned anytime soon [Laughs].
Ty Wenger: One other thing I’ll add to that, and I thought about this a little bit, since we first kind of came up with the notion. I think that basketball itself, the reason that it works so well with what Marvel does, is if you think in terms of the major sports of any athletes of what they actually do, where you can dovetail the notion of what they do with the notion that there’s actually a super heroic aspect to it. In baseball, there are athletic moments but I don’t think anyone necessarily considers baseball athletes to be the greatest athletes on the planet. And in football you already have so much padding and helmets, and the nature of the game becomes bigger than the individuals, so I think that one of the cool things about the NBA and what Marvel does is that you see those players, you see their faces, you see their bodies, and you see everything they do. The notion of LeBron grafting bionic legs on to his own actual legs, although it’s ridiculous, it actually in a way kind of works. So that’s my own personal theory about why basketball and super heroes go together very well.
|LeBron: King of the Rings preview art by Greg Land|
Marvel.com: Why would Marvel fans be interested in this comic that doesn’t feature their favorite super heroes, but real life athletes?
Otto Strong: For folks who are fans of comic books, they will be able to see the work of superstar creators like Adi Granov, Mike Deodato, Scot Eaton, Greg Land, Terry Dodson and Christos Gage and to experience their work in a different venue and see how they are able to take their talents, so to speak, and apply them to other areas. Without giving it away, there are a couple of instances of references to the Marvel Universe within the pages that we think will be a cool little gift. If you follow Marvel at all, it’ll be fairly easy and obvious. And there are also references that will speak more to an NBA insider’s knowledge.
One of the decisions we made early on was whether or not we wanted this to be in just the hands of just one illustrator or put in the hands of several. We decided it would be more fun to see kind of an “all-star team” approach, so I think that’s another of the cool aspects working with some of Marvel’s greatest talents.
Marvel.com: All right, final question for Ty. If this launches you to comic book super stardom, as I feel it will, what Marvel character would you want to work on?
Ty Wenger: [Laughs] That’s a good one. I’ve always been a Hulk guy, myself, kind of a big fan. The TV show growing up too, always liked it. There may be a nod to The Hulk in the comic book. I think Hulk’s my favorite, so once I become rich and famous off this, and once I leave this whole magazine racket behind, that’s where I’m going.
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