Comic books often hype upcoming issues by promising big twists that change everything, but it's only with hindsight that the importance of one particular afternoon in July 2007 can be fully appreciated. There was excitement at the time, sure, but that's a given at Comic-Con, and by today's San Diego convention standards, the moment was a minor blip, a back-alley sideshow compared to the modern big top circus.
Certainly, no one had slept outside all night to see Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. at the Marvel booth on the show floor, debuting the costumes for their forthcoming first Iron Man movie. At that point, the character was a C-lister, and the first movie from Marvel Studios represented more of a curious gamble than big news, let alone a major cultural event.
Ryan Penagos, one of just a few members of Marvel's fledgling digital team, was recording the event on a small camera, unharassed by screaming fans or giant security details. He texted quick missives via his small rollerball Blackberry to a new social media experiment called Twitter, providing the only real updates to fans who wouldn't likely hear the term "live stream" for another handful of years.
"Favreau and Downey weren't who you think they are now, and they were able to be in the booth," Penagos recalled in the latest episode of the Fandom Files podcast. "We've shut down Comic-Con just by having people on our stage, and they were literally in the middle of the booth, where there were fans standing next to them and behind them. I remember holding a camera and being like, 'Oh, this is cool.'"
The rest is history: Iron Man went on to become an international sensation, raking in nearly $600 million in 2008 and jumpstarting the Marvel Cinematic Universe, now the biggest and most sprawling franchise in modern entertainment history. And over the past decade, Penagos has been there every step of the way, connecting the ever-growing number of fans with Marvel’s movies, TV shows, comics, and digital output, one of the most influential figures in the mainstreaming of geek culture.
Whereas Stan Lee is the historic face of Marvel Comics, Agent M has been its modern-day avatar. Penagos assumed the nom de tweet (with an assist by the editor who hired him, John Dokes) when he signed up for the fledgling networking site in 2007, and thanks to both Marvel's big-screen boom and his early-adopter status, it became a recommended account on the Twitter homepage.
Soon enough, Penagos was teasing his burgeoning Twitter following with "seeekrits" about upcoming comic issues and movies, and helping the company convert its movie fans into print comic readers. His audience was huge — and interactive, which came as a major change after spending his early career working for trade magazines up in the suburbs north of New York City.
Penagos remembers those formative days with fondness — even the more awkward experiences, like his first interview at Wizard. Now he can laugh about what at the time felt like a disaster. In 2003, he was an eager recent college grad, and got called in for his big shot after a year of freelancing. He wore an ill-fitting suit, a Venom tie, totally flubbed his interview, and then killed his car engine, necessitating a jumpstart from the editor with whom he had just flopped.
In a way, the jumpstart now serves as a nice metaphor; he got another interview, which he nailed, and got a job as a price guide assistant at ToyFare Magazine. He learned a lot at that company, including some hard lessons that have stuck with him to this day.
"I was in at Wizard at some editorial planning meeting, and there were four or five of us, and the editor was Andy Serwin," Penagos remembered. "He and a couple of the other editors were talking about Batman Hush, which was this big Batman story by the now-head of Marvel Television, Jeph Loeb. They were talking about this book, and they just say '... and so and so was Hush, this is how, this is the last bit and how it ends, and this is what we should do.'
"I'm sitting there going, 'Wait, what? That's how it ends? I don't ... What do you mean?'" Penagos continued, recalling his shock and horror at the casualness of the spoiler. "Andy looks at me and he goes, 'F***ing deal with it. Everything you ever love is going to be spoiled for you from now on.'"
Since that moment, Penagos has never read comics quite in the same way. He's always far ahead of the audience, as he reads each of Marvel's weekly books well before they come out. But the experience also taught him the value of surprise, and just how much of a bummer it is to learn of a major twist before you read it on the page. So he's been careful about what "seeekrits" he releases to fans; at this point, with Marvel's own Twitter account flourishing, much of his Internet presence is focused on conversations about Godzilla movies, anime, and tacos.
His prominence means that he still listens to fans' complaints and protests about issues concerning both the stories in the books and the company at large, but he no longer mans Marvel's social accounts. His recent promotion has elevated him to a higher overseer role, with a hand in podcasts, videos, and other creative endeavors.
"We haven't really done too much about this publicly, but we're moving into a place where I am no longer the head of editorial and social media," he said, noting that he is taking on a role that is both more public-facing and behind-the-scenes. "I want to make sure that everything we do feels Marvel. As someone who has 11 years at Marvel, who lives and breathes our history and our company, I just want to make sure that we are making sure that that's consistent throughout."
To contact us about the podcast -- or to nominate yourself or someone else as a future guest! -- feel free to drop us an e-mail or tweet at us. And if you like what you hear, please be sure to rate and review us on iTunes!