Meet the man who is bringing Asia into the Marvel universe

C.B. Cebulski is now Marvel’s man in the East, overseeing everything related to the brand. He talks about Hong Kong’s role in the expansion into Asia

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 5:31am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 5:31am

If Asia is to play any role in the Marvel universe, C.B. Cebulski will have a big say in the matter. In July, the comic book giant asked this loyal soldier to uproot from his New York home, for a new executive post half the world away. Cebulski, packing up everything including the family cat, said yes.

Working out of parent company Disney’s Shanghai office, he will oversee anything and everything in Asia with the Marvel name attached. This includes licensing deals, film promotions, and special projects such as the upcoming Iron Man Experience attraction at Hong Kong Disneyland.

“My job is basically to help expand the Marvel brand in Asia, develop understanding of the characters, form new alliances and look for partners who will develop the characters and properties with us,” explains Cebulski, whose official title is vice-president, brand management and development, Asia.

“I’m basically reverse engineering the brand. In the West, people know we started in comics and grew to develop games, consumer products and films. But here, people know the films first, so I’ve got to figure out how we get people who don’t know who Stan Lee is to understand there is this other 75-year history.”

For non-nerds, Lee is the comic book legend who created Spider-man, the Hulk, the X-Men and other iconic characters, as well as being the chairman of the Marvel empire. The company is no longer cult or fringe in any way. It’s an entertainment powerhouse, ruling box-offices, merchandising stalls and the pop culture zeitgeist. In 2009, the Walt Disney Company purchased Marvel for US$4.3 billion.

As for Cebulski, you’re not likely to mistake him for just another expat executive in a suit with an MBA. His wardrobe consists primarily of bowling shirts and T-shirts with logos and characters. Even more un-corporate-like, he maintains a food blog that chronicles his gluttonous discoveries and adventures (Eataku.com).

But underneath that geek disguise, this friendly hulk has honed the superpowers to move millions of dollars in merchandise.

“Marvel is everywhere in America, but here it’s a roller coaster around movie releases,” he says. “The movies hit and there’s a period where there are T-shirts and toys everywhere. After a while, it returns to a lull. We want to build a bridge that connects all the tent poles with all the brands, and that’s what I will focus on.”

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Cebulski’s nerd credentials are impeccable. He grew up a typical superhero fanboy and collector. “The first comic I found on my own was The X-Men,” he says. “I was still quite young so the story didn’t grab me as much, but the images did.”

Initially he wanted to be a comic artist, but realised he didn’t have the talent. Cebulski then decided to be a storywriter, but his submissions were constantly rejected. Instead of giving up, he took a sabbatical and explored a budding interest in manga, spending several years in Japan. After returning to the US, he finally got his break.

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“Marvel was looking for Japan-centric stories at the time,” Cebulski recalls. “I didn’t have any connections but I just kept pitching and looking for opportunities. In the end, Marvel gave me my first writing work based on the fact that I had experienced Japan. So it wasn’t my skill as a writer that got me my first job, it was my intimate knowledge of Japanese culture and manga.”

Once he got his foot in the door, Cebulski proved to be as indispensable to Marvel as agent Phil Coulson is to S.H.I.E.L.D. The writer and editor’s responsibilities began to expand. After a brief hiatus working on his own projects, he returned to the fold in a rank with even higher security clearance, as Marvel’s head international talent scout.

Travel has always been part of the job. Theoretically, being in Shanghai will now allow him to cut down on the air miles. But that hasn’t been the case so far. Just last month, Cebulski was in Japan, Singapore, New York, San Diego (for Comic Con) and Hong Kong for the Ani-Com & Games event and Book Fair.

“I did come over to Asia about five or six times a year, so I’m quite familiar with the different territories. But living in Shanghai now it’s a whole new experience as a kind of ambassador for Marvel,” he says.

“Asia is of utmost importance. The brand is growing here faster than anywhere else in he world. There’s something happening in every territory, whether it’s games in Korea or films in China. I’m here to figure out what’s what and how to connect it all. Why are certain things popular in some areas and not other? Can what we do in Hong Kong translate to the rest of China?”

With the Iron Man ride nearing its debut late this year, Hong Kong will likely be a regular commute destination for the jovial Marvel promoter. As he enthusiastically discusses the attraction, Cebulski lets drop an Easter egg on the upcoming Doctor Strange movie, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

“We worked closely with Disneyland [on the ride] to create an original story featuring Tony Stark in Hong Kong, and we’re very happy with it,” Cebulski begins. “It just so happens Hong Kong’s arrival in the Marvel universe will be twofold. Not to give too much away, but in the new Doctor Strange movie, the city also plays a key part in the mythology of his magic. So, it’s a one-two punch for Hong Kong coming out in the Marvel universe.”

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Despite the overwhelming success of film franchises like X-Men, The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel is at heart still about comic books. And that is Cebulski’s origin, too.

The blockbuster films mean there are business suitors lined up to partner for toys, licensing and spin-off products. But on the creative end, finding Asian artists to collaborate who are compatible with its primarily North American readership has been more difficult.

“The art styles are different but I don’t think that is the core of it,” says Cebulski. “There is also the basic difference in storytelling structure. Comics, in Japan or Hong Kong, are extremely fast paced. The art tells the stories far more than the words. You have larger panels, less background, and nominal word load.

“American comics are more word heavy, and everything plays out at a slower pace. If a hero confronts a thug in Asia, the hero grabs the villain, looks him in the eye and then throws him out the window in five or six panels. In American comics, you see the hero enter the room, they would meet, there would three panels of dialogue, then he gets thrown across the room in slow motion, smashes out the window. The hero would say something as the villain falls and smashes into the ground. This would play out over four or five pages.”

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Even more contentious are issues about making the world of comics more racial and gender diverse. Marvel has taken some proactive steps. It generated much buzz by announcing Thor would become a goddess of thunder, that the new Iron Man will be a black woman, and introduced Muslim teenage girl Kamala Khan as a new superhero, Ms Marvel.

On the other hand, the film studio arm was roundly blasted for whitewashing an Asian character in Doctor Strange by casting white British actress Tilda Swinton.

“It’s a tough thing,” Cebulski concedes. “At Marvel, we say the only thing we discriminate against is bad art and bad stories. One reason most stories, up until about five years ago, were written by white males is because that’s what our fan base was. Now, our readership has expanded culturally, and more women and minorities are reading, so we have many people pitching who are women and from every country across the world, straight and gay.

“The big thing I want to look at [in content development] is localisation of characters. How do we find local creators who understand Marvel and who can bring their worldview to us? Just like how Spider-man stories are specific to New York, how do we find creators here who will put Marvel tales in Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai?”

Can Cebulski achieve his lofty goal? Stay tuned for the next Marvel episode.