By Josh Weiss, Forbes
Growing up in San Francisco, Al Madrigal loved reading comic books. But even as a youth, the actor/writer/comedian noticed a blatant lack of Latinx characters in the superhero stories printed by the likes of Marvel and DC.
“A lot of the bigger characters were started in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and it’s all White guys,” he tells Forbes Entertainment over Zoom. “They became so popular and it was sort of hard to introduce others. I always gravitated towards any minority character because I’m half-Mexican. It’s nice to see yourself on the page and on the screen.”
The opportunity to expand on cultural and ethnic representation in comics finally presented itself during his five-year stint as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Appearing on the Comic Book Club podcast as a guest, he met Axel Alonso, who, at the time, was serving as Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Entertainment.
“We realized we went to the same high school, we had kids [at] the exact same age, we were both married to Koreans, we both have the same favorite restaurant, and had a ridiculous amount in common,” Madrigal says.
Alonso — who also worked at Vertigo (the now-defunct and creator-owned arm of DC Comics) — jokes that they were “separated at birth,” going on to add: “We talked about the lack of Hispanic superheroes. How there are really cool back superheroes, Asian superheroes, but the Hispanic superheroes are all third and fourth tier. Like White Tiger and Blue Beetle are the best Mexican superheroes.”
He admits that he was never much interested in mainstream heroes like Captain America, Thor, or even Iron Man. “When I was a kid, I related to the characters who weren’t invited to the party, the ones that crashed the party. Black Panther, Luke Cage, Shang-Chi. All of those characters are my favorites.”
Madrigal and Alonso kept in touch over the years and were finally able to make good on their discussion when the latter founded his own creator-owned publisher — AWA (Artists, Writers & Artisans) — in 2018 with Bill Jemas and Jonathan Perkins Miller.
Madrigal began pitching different ideas, one of which became Primos, whose debut issue goes on sale this week. “I feel like it was a major challenge to come up with something unique in a time when everything’s been done and you’re thinking about powers and abilities and where they come from and origin stories,” the writer says.
During his research, he learned about K’inich Janaab Pakal, a Mayan emperor who ruled from 603 CE to 683 CE and was said to be a descendant of the First Mother (a deity equivalent to Gaea in Greek mythology). “He is — without giving too much away — my Obi-Wan for this,” Madrigal teases. Spring-boarding off the rich ancient civilization that preceded modern-day Mexico, the comic (drawn by Hit-Monkey and Spider-Geddon vet Carlo Barberi) centers around two Mayan brothers who travel into space, traversing the cosmos for hundreds of years.
“We joked about how if you’re Mexican, you’ve got an uncle who has one too many cocktails and says all that sh** about the Chariot of the Gods is true,” Alonso explains with a grin. “The Mayans sent a spaceship into outer space before anyone else. They were out there for hundreds of years. So we decided, ‘Let’s do that story!’”
Upon their return to Earth in 2022, the siblings are horrified to discover their society destroyed and their descendants trapped in cages at the southern border. “One of them decides to get revenge on humanity, the other one decides to save humanity. It sets up the story, the conflict for the fate of the world,” Alonso reveals.
The brother preaching a path of benevolence and forgiveness seeks out three descendants/cousins living in El Paso, Los Angeles, and Mexico City respectively. “He gives them superpowers and says, ‘You three get along and save the world,’” Alonso continues, describing the resultant team as the “Mexican Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Despite being a seasoned writer and actor, Madrigal experienced a major culture shock when it came to plotting out a comic book script, calling it “a completely different thing.”
He continues: “I think your first inclination is to try to cram too much into a panel and then you realize how much you need to spread out essential action. So it really is this bullet point story that you’re showing rather than in a script or when I’m writing TV. You’ve gotta be surgical with your captions and action and have it all track. I’m getting better at it, for sure. I can’t wait for people to see the final versions of everything together because I think it’s smarter and funnier.”
Leaning into heavy politicized topics like immigration policy is part and parcel of AWA’s dedicated mission of crafting characters who reflect the times in which we live. “They’re born in the moment. They’re creatures of the 21st century, they’re not originating in the ‘60s or ‘70s,” Alonso adds. “The DC characters are all in the ‘40s and ‘50s, so they’re cops. The Marvel characters are ‘60s and ‘70s so they’re counterculture. Now, we have characters that are created out of the now.”
With comic books (and the films and shows based on them) are finally coming to terms with the importance of diversity and representation, Alonso feels vindicated for the once-controversial decisions he championed at Marvel.
“It’s important to me that kids can pick up a Marvel comic book and see their reflection in that, which is why I thought that Miles Morales was important, Amadeus Cho,” he explains. “It’s why I always put a big push behind the Black Panther, even back to the year 2000 when no one gave a sh**. I wanted to make sure that we had a diverse lineup of characters and, of course, there was a lot of pushback from hardcore fans. In 2000, when I did Isaiah Bradley, the black Captain America, people wanted to lynch me. [They said] ‘You can’t do that! Captain America’s White! It’s Steve Rogers!’”
Two decades later, and Bradley (played by Carl Lumbly) made his live-action debut in Marvel Studios’ The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a show that deals with race and ingrained bigotry in America. “I almost cried. I took such a beating for that and I did it back in 2000 and now, in 2021, it’s out on TV for a mass audience. For me, it’s very important to have diversity and that was one of the important things to me there. My legacy was creating diversity there and pushing back when people tried to intimate me. And now I’m doing it here at AWA as well.”
“I’m really excited about Jaime Reyes and Blue Beetle and seeing what Warner Bros. is actually gonna do with that,” Madrigal says of the upcoming DC feature from director Angel Manuel Soto. “I’m excited about The Rock [in Black Adam] and … Shang-Chi. I’m friends with Ronny Chieng. To see that movie was unbelievable, I thought they did an amazing job. I love all things Marvel. Haven’t seen Eternals yet … I heard Kumail [Nanjiani] is great and he’s a buddy of mine … To see your friends show up in Marvel movies is so f—ing cool.”
After years of cheering on his buddies, he’ll be called off the Marvel bench this April in Sony’s long-awaited Morbius where he plays an FBI agent, Alberto Rodriguez, investigating a string of mysterious deaths linked to Doctor Michael Morbius (Jared Leto), aka the Living Vampire.
Over the last several years, Madrigal has starred opposite A-listers like Kevin Hart (Night School) and Ben Affleck (The Way Back). Getting the opportunity to join the Marvel Universe, however, has essentially turned him into the coolest dude on Earth — at least in the eyes of his children.
“When we went to go see Spider-Man [No Way Home], we’re masked up in there. My daughter and I were shaking each other when the Morbius trailer came on. We just lost our minds,” he recalls. “The fact that I’m in it is so f—ing cool. I am so excited about the prospect of my character and what they’re gonna potentially do with the Sinister Six.”
While Sony only owns the screen rights to Spider-Man and his expansive gallery of rogues, the film (directed by Life’s Daniel Espinosa) will connect to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe by way of Homecoming villain, Adrien Toomes/Vulture (Michael Keaton), prompting Madrigal to go full, unabashed fan boy.
“I told Michael Keaton when I met him, I’m like, ‘I’m not even gonna pretend to be cool around you. I’ve seen everything you’ve ever done,’” he admits. “And the fact that this guy has comedy chops — from The Other Guys, which I think is one of the funniest movies of all time — to being in Dopesick and every single drama that he’s done — from Birdman to Gung-Ho — that’s the career. The fact that I have this little tiny version of that, being able to go from Night School to The Way Back to Morbius, I’m just constantly pinching myself constantly. I really am. I can’t tell you how cool this is.”
He continues: “You’re working with mega-stars. Jared Leto and I were trading gifts at one point. When I showed up in my trailer, there was a letter to Agent Rodriguez from Dr. Morbius. I have framed art from Jared Leto.”
Despite the fact that Morbius isn’t exactly an out-and-out comedy, Espinosa allowed Madrigal to exercise his jocular side. “He told me right away when I showed up that — I’ll do my Daniel Espinosa impression — he goes, ‘Al, you are my baby bird. And when I say you can fly…you can fly.’ He [once] looked at me [after] four takes and he goes, ‘Baby bird…fly.’ And I’d be able to improvise and say whatever I wanted.”
Recently delayed for the sixth time, the film is the most postponed blockbuster of the COVID era. However, it’s unclear if the decision was a direct response to the ongoing global health crisis or a way to give Spider-Man: No Way Home (now one of the highest-grossing movies of all time) more room to breathe at the box office in the run-up to Uncharted’s debut on Feb. 18.
“It’s just bad timing. What do you expect them to do? It’s not like they’re Disney and they can just throw it on Disney+. They had to do that and I’m glad that they did because for me, it means that it’s good,” Madrigal concludes. “I just got to see what I saw in ADR and obviously I read the script, but I think Daniel Espinosa makes this fantastic. The effects and what they do with Morbius when he does go full monster, it looks incredible … I’m certain that this is going to be good and something that they can build on. I’m fired up and I’m glad that they’ve pushed it and saved it.”
Primos #1 goes on sale tomorrow — Wednesday, Feb. 2.
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