There's no denying that Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada has revitalized the publisher, taking it from bankruptcy to dominating the comic industry and breaking into movies. We sat down with him at Comic-Con to find out what happens next.
How's the con?
Con's good! I mean, it's day one, so it's fantastic. Ask me again at the end of Saturday night, and I'll let you know.
I was going to say, today's Mondo Marvel panel went really well. I remember last year, which seemed to be pretty much fans saying "You fucked up Spider-Man, so fuck you." It felt like every single panel turned into that.
Yeah, but you know what? That was totally expected. I was totally expecting that kind of stuff, and it was the kind of thing that I could've just not gone to the con, but I was like, you know what? We gotta talk about this stuff, and it's cool. But every con has a different personality to it, so you never know until you get that very first panel and I say, how's everybody doing. You know right away, [this time] there was an energy, it was a really upbeat crowd, and it was nice to see a full room because, lately in San Diego, it's become this multimedia experience so it's become less about comics. But that was a real, solid standing-room-only panel, so that was a good thing.
The bright side is, here we are, a year-plus later, after One More Day [the storyline that controversially undid Peter Parker's marriage to Mary Jane, courtesy of a literal deal with the devil. Or a devil, at least], and it's ironic, but I've been seeing all these emails coming through from people saying, begrudgingly, "I really like the new direction."
I think there're lots of arguments you can have with One More Day as a story, but Spider-Man is better because of it.
The thing about One More Day is, and I've always said this, "Were there better ways of skinning that cat?" Absolutely. The easiest thing to do would've been to kill Mary Jane. But then you've lost Mary Jane as a character.
And then you're stuck with a Spider-Man who's going to be grieving for x amount of months...
Exactly, he's going to be grieving, he's a widower, and being a widower [makes him seem] even older than being married in the first place. And then of course, you can't really lose her as a character, she's too important. We've got books that revolve around her, we've got movies that revolve around her. So you're going to have to bring her back, and then when you bring her back, you're still going to have to deal with the aspects of the marriage, so there was no clean way to do it. We did the best we could, and there are still some unanswered questions that we're going to get to, for the continuity-minded, the people who really wrap themselves around that, we'll answer a lot of questions. You'll be surprised how little Mephisto had to do with anything.
So when you have that kind of vocal fanbase, or with Captain America coming back to life, and you know that there is an answer six months down the line...
Suck it up.
Really? There's never a feeling of, we should rush this out, or we should try to deal with this sooner?
When I took over as editor in chief, Tom DeFalco, who was the editor in chief before Bob Harras, who I took over the job from, he came into my office, smacked me on the back - Tom's a friend - and said, 'I'm gonna give you some advice. From this point on, you have a very big target on your back. You're going to have to have very broad shoulders. If you're not going to do that, you're not going to like this job.' And at the end of the day, I'm making comic books. So I have some comic book fans that're making fun of me. I'm not trying to resolve the economy, I'm not trying to solve things between Palestine and Israel, you know, it's comic books and the worst thing we do is we kill off some trees and we piss off some fanboys. But as long as we do our jobs right, at the end of the day, I want to be able to look back when I either get shown the door or I walk out of it myself, I want to be able to look back and say, we gave everybody a great ride. The story's really good. It's all about story.
We know what's going to come down the line, we know how the Mephisto thing happens, and I gotta sell comics. It's serialized storytelling. They just gotta suck it up.
Now that you're coming to the end, with Dark Reign, of a story that you've been telling since 2005. Does that feel like the end of an era for you, to reach the end of a story that's pretty much gone across all of the franchises at the company?
It doesn't feel like the end of an era, it feels like it's going to be a chance to breathe. One of the things that I really do long for, I remember when we first started - or I first started - this crazy trip of being editor in chief at Marvel, we started by taking books and characters and focusing on creative. Saying 'Okay, Joe Stracynski, go - Tell the best Spider-Man story you can,' or 'Grant Morrison, go tell the best X-Men story you can' -
You broke everything up, to fix it.
We had to. We had to, because the characters weren't defined well enough to have them intermingle again. We had to - Obviously, when Stan [Lee] created the universe, he wasn't thinking this, but we had to recreate everything while still holding all the history. And then, once we'd done that, once we'd taken ownership of it, we were able to branch out and do bigger stories.
I'd like to see the star collapse a little again, and get back to smaller stories, Now that we've reset the pieces and everything's going smoothly, let's go back to basics again, let's tell smaller stories, more family-oriented stories, see where that takes us. And I'll be honest with you, that everything we've been doing at Marvel Publishing, it's always a risk, because fans are - and this is the thing about fandom, and I understand it, I'm not criticizing it, I've been a fan for years - you know, we'll sit there and complain. We'll go, 'Oh, everything's event event event event,' but the marketshare, the numbers... tell us otherwise.
People like the events. You own half the market out there currently.
So there's a lot of fans out there saying 'Go back to basics,' but it's a matter of necessity for us also. We're just exhausted, and we need to go back to basics, regroup a bit, let our writers also take ownership of their books for awhile, because it's taxing on them, and on our artists. You know, let them tell their stories for awhile, and run their books, before we say, okay, let's get the band together again and go a little crazy.
And the other thing is, it will make the day that we go back to another event special again. I think, if we did another event following this whole culmination of stuff, it's just going to seem like white noise. I do sense that it's getting to the point where it's white noise.
I know I live in a world of hyperbole, but there has to be a certain truth in the hyperbole. So, when I say that we're coming to the third act, I didn't say that with [Secret] Invasion, and I didn't say that with Dark Reign, although Dark Reign is the beginning of that third act, when we get there, people will see what we've done. And then they'll go, cool, now let's see what you guys are gonna do next. What we have to do is come up with something compelling enough that they're going to want to go to all of our titles without having to tie them all together.
The challenge to our writers in the last summit was, come up with - If you had twelve months to live and this was the book that you're writing, give us the stories - You know, "Matt Fraction, you're writing Iron Man, give us the best effin' Iron Man story you can come up with for those twelve months. Bendis, you're writing Avengers, give us the best Avengers story you can." That's the challenge, so that each title becomes must read. Hopefully, that works, and we're going to market each one as their own thing. It's a change of gears, and most people will think that we're crazy but, I've often, I've talked to our publisher Dan Buckley about it: It's like being addicted to heroin. Something you've just got to come off.
That's an interesting analogy, "Sometimes, you've just got to come off heroin, other times, hey, let's go heroin!"
[Laughs] But they pay us in heroin!
It's a little daunting when you look at the future and say, wow, what's gonna happen? But I trust our creators and our editors to knock it out of the park.
You said at the Mondo Marvel panel that Paul Tobin was "recreating the Marvel Adventures universe," which may just be a hyperbolic way of saying "We're relaunching the line," and you have the Ultimate line being relaunched as Ultimate Comics. Is this happening because people have become so focused on the "main" universe that the other lines need a push?
It's funny, because Ultimate is almost the exploratory mission for Marvel. Like, we sent the Ultimate books out there to do some insane stuff, when Mark and Bendis were doing those books, and they did things in those books that we never would have dared to do in the regular universe. But they planted the seeds. It was the same thing at [Quesada's first editorial line at Marvel] Marvel Knights, which was an exploratory mission that took certain Marvel characters into places that Marvel never would've published before, and then by putting me in charge of Marvel, kind of took the whole line there. And then Ultimate was kind of the next step, you know, 'Go out West, kids! See if there's Indians out there!'
Yeah, so now this next push in Ultimate, we're taking the Ultimate universe to places where, again, the challenge was 'Where can we go that we just can't go with the Marvel Universe right now? How can we break these characters down, and what can we do with them, and see where that takes us?' And that's really the fun of it, because it's only three or four titles, and if you break them, you break them. Spider-Man in our universe is still Spider-Man, but we can look at Ultimate and say, 'You know, I think that was the line. We shouldn't cross it.'
Is that why the Ultimate line exists, internally? Obviously, it has its fans, and it's there as an entry point for new readers, but internally, is it 'The Place Where You Can Do The Crazy Shit?'
I think so, I think that's, internally, what our writers feel when we're working on this stuff. You know, the Hulk eats people [Laughs]. That's a line we're not going to go near in the regular books, but it's an interesting take on the Hulk, and we're able to do certain things to certain characters. And at the end of the day, I hate to become redundant, but to bring up the whole Spider-Man thing again, we - all of us, the editors in chief before me - felt like Spider-Man works better as a single guy. The storyline that Stan set off in the newspaper strip of Spider-Man getting married worked perfectly for the newspaper strip, but for Marvel's publishing division, I think that we needed to get him single again. And that was at the very beginning of my tenure, even as a freelancer I used to think that all the time. You know, he's kind of dull and Mary Jane was portrayed as not very nice all the time, because that would drive tension into the relationship. And then Ultimate Spider-Man comes along, and we're like, yeah, that's kind of the way it should be. So that really proved to us that that's really where it works best. If I could've put Peter back in high school in the universe, I would've, but it's cool with him being just out of college and this young man trying to make his way through life at this point as opposed to being in high school. Those are the kinds of things that Ultimate did that we thought, it works.
So, does that make Marvel Adventures the kids line? Earlier attempts, like Marvel Age have seemed more "aimed at kids," but there's something about the Adventures books that works on multiple levels.
My theory when it comes to kids books is that, if you write down to kids, you're doomed to fail. So, the idea behind Marvel Adventures, we live in day and age today where, if you say that a book is "kid safe," that's not a message you're putting out to kids, that's a message you're putting out to parents. It's parent safe, and as a parent, I understand that. We look back on Stan's era, those early mid-60s books, and they look very kid-friendly, and they look very kid-safe, and quaint and easy to follow and stuff, but putting it into historical perspective when they came out, they were incredibly edgy. I think it was 1966, 1967, the Hulk was on the cover of Rolling Stone, and the reason the Hulk was on the cover and Rolling Stone did a six or seven page expose on Marvel was because Marvel comics were huge with college students. But the reason that they were big with kids was, when I was a kid, my dad wasn't interested in what I was reading, he didn't look over my shoulder. I didn't wear a helmet when I rode a bicycle, okay? It was called Darwinism; if I stuck my finger in a plug... there were no things on the edges of tables, there was no cover on the television to stop me knocking my head into. But we live in a different day and age.
So now you progress in time, and what was edgy back then is quaint today, and I would argue that our books aren't necessarily more or less edgy than they were back in Stan's era, but the one thing I would argue that Stan did back in his day was that he never talked down to the reader, even knowing that kids were reading them. So, with respect to Marvel Adventures, they're not "edgy," but they're not stupid. And I think what Paul's going to bring is more of a cohesiveness between all the titles, whilst continuing the "told-in-one," which is, I think, a better approach for keeping kids interested. It's hard work to keep doing told-in-ones while keeping up a linear continuity, but now that I'm working in the animation world, it's something that I see in a lot of animated shows, where each episode is a kind of told-in-one episode, but there's a larger continuity that you see at the end of each season.
You're very involved with animation, but how involved are you in the films these days?
In the films, I'm part of something called the Marvel Creative Committee, and it's - I never count, but I think it's five or six of us, we are involved in every early aspect of the movie, from the proposal of what the story's going to be, to the elongated beat sheet, to the screenplays, we sit there and we just take it apart to ensure that our movies are... They can never be the same as what's on the comic page, but that the experience someone gets is the same as what they get when they pick up that comic.
Could you, or have you, completely derailed something at a late stage?
Oh, yeah. That's our job. When we're derailing, we bring it up and say, 'Okay guys, we're derailing here.' The big difference between doing a motion picture and doing a comic book is, putting out a comic book costs us thousands of dollars...
It's one thing to fail with a comic, and another to fail with a movie.
Yeah, and by the way, if I fail with that one issue, I can fix it in three months. There'll be another issue. These movies are forever, and you're spending hundreds of millions of dollars on them. So we're taking a very careful creative approach. And the beauty of things is, when we're sitting in these meetings, we're not just sitting there and going 'We need an Iron Man floating vehicle because we need a toy here.' That's not the approach we take at all. We're all about story, and character, and driving the movie forward, and driving it towards the inevitable Avengers movie.
Do you, through working on the movies, see the comics in a new way? As in, you see something and think, we should be doing it this way in the comics?
I think that the beauty of this whole thing, and I hate to bring up a stupid corporate word like "synergy," but there really is a lot of that going on. I was up at Marvel Studios three weeks ago, and I got to see some of the designs for Asgard [from Thor], and I sat there and I turned to Dan Buckley, our publisher, and Kevin Feige [Marvel Studios president] and said, 'Two years from now, this will completely affect the way that artists render Asgard.' Because it is completely unlike anything I've ever seen, but still has that essence of the [Thor co-creator, Jack] Kirby stuff that we all fell in love with. So I think that there's always that give and take. And, as we work on stuff in publishing, I'll send stuff to Kevin Feige, just preliminary stuff, pitches that we have on books that I think might make interesting sideline stories for a Marvel movie some day, so there's a lot of give and take, there's a lot of transparency right now.
I was thinking of something like Iron Man where the movie came out and generates a lot of interest, at the same time as Matt Fraction comes up with The Invincible Iron Man, and the portrayal is so close, and it's the best portrayal of the character in comics for years.
And because of that, Matt was just flown out to consult on Iron Man as well. So he sat down with Jon Favreau and Kevin Feige to discuss Iron Man 2, the ideas and concepts behind the second movie. So, yeah, all of that stuff is involved. The only thing that I can compare it to, I remember reading a great article on Pixar, and the way that Pixar makes their movies and I remember thinking, that's the way that we do it. In a perfect world, we'll continue to do that, and - especially being a fledgling studio - I think it's going to work. From what I've been seeing in the screenplays and what I've seen of the pitches... I mean, Iron Man 2 is gonna be a lot of fun. And those guys are having a good time making it, too. But something like Thor... I mean, this has an opportunity to be unlike any movie... There're grandiose elements that're akin to something like Lord of The Rings, but it's not really anything like that, and it's not going to look anything like that.
There's a lot of speculation about what Thor is going to be like. Any and every new piece of news drives the internet wild.
I love that stuff.
Does it drive you mad, do you think "I know what's really coming up, and you're all getting upset over nothing"?
I live for it, and anytime I can fan it, I will gladly fan it.
All that stuff is good. I really do believe that any of that stuff is good. Fans are passionate. If there's no chatter out there, I'm gonna get nervous. If the chatter's bad, you know that they care. All I have to do, and all Marvel Studios has to do, is deliver. They have to deliver the goods. Because if they don't deliver the goods and we have the bad chatter, then, okay. We had it coming. But speculation is just speculation, it's not going to hurt. It drives interest. Everybody that's chattering, they're going to pay to see it. They're going to pay to see it.
Is the same thinking what drives Marvel's internet activity? The company and creators are very active on social networking, you're all about Twitter, are you trying to push that kind of chatter?
To me, it's about community, and letting people see how the gears work. Even if they get rusty and something crush people between them, you know. It's letting people behind the curtain, and that's something that, when I was a kid reading Stan's Soapbox [A regular column where Stan Lee wrote about Marvel in the Marvel books of the 1960s and 70s]... I always say that Stan was the first mutant, he didn't know he was a mutant, but he did have a magical power, and that was, in a hundred words or less he would write that soap opera and me, reading it, would get to find out all about Marvel and I would feel like he was talking to me. Not to the kid over my shoulder, meanwhile, that kid's feeling the exact same thing. And that was Stan's magical power, a short burst of dialogue that just brought you into that world. I don't have that power. But I got the internet.
I can talk until the cows come home because I love the stuff that we do, and I love what I do for a living. Taking over as editor in chief, one of the things I wanted to do, I really felt that inclusiveness was missing. Including the rivalry with Marvel and DC. There was sort of a passive and boring détente, especially after [joint Marvel/DC project] Amalgam. I looked at it, and I thought, this sucks for business. You need that passion -
But fans take that rivalry much more seriously than you do. I mean, everyone at the two companies get along -
We do, everyone gets along for the most part, but the rivalry does very well. It's funny, but when I went to see McCartney on the street in front of the Letterman theater, the DC offices were right behind me. [DC art director and editor] Mark Chiarello sends me a text saying, dude, I see you, come on up, come on up and join us. And I'm like, I got front row! As much as I want to be with you, I'm here! I have great friends up there, and all this stuff is just poking at each other, and I think it's great for business. It's great to get fans riled up, get them passionate about something. Even if they don't buy a Marvel comic because they hate me, or they hate us, they're buying their team, you know?
I'm a New York Mets fan, and I have a daughter, and I've told my wife, I said 'Look, I'm a pretty liberal-minded guy. My daughter can, she can bring home an axe murderer. She can bring home Jeffrey Dahmer or something, when she's sixteen, and that won't be as bad as if she brings home a guy who's a Yankees fan.' That's what we're talking about here. It's that kind of thing. If fandom feels something, that's great. We're keeping them engaged in our books, DC's keeping them engaged, and it's our job to get the guys who're only reading DC to come over to Marvel. It's their job to pull our guys away from us. And by doing that, you raise the level of competition between the companies. And that was the hope, let's get paste the détente, let's get past the niceness, let's start competing. Let's do Coke and Pepsi and get into it. And I think it's been healthy for the industry.
But this goes back to the original question, and the original answer, which is how Stan made people feel. And I think, as a company, we've adopted a lot of that. I learned very quickly that the dumber the thing I said online, the more hits we got, and ultimately, the viral message will get carried by the fans who're irate about it. So if someone is pissed off at me because I said something ridiculously stupid about a character, they would then go to Bendis' board, or John Byrne's board, or all these other message boards, and say 'Do you believe what this jack-ass just said?' Now, all of a sudden, something dumb that I've said - "Dead is dead," [An oft-mis-quoted line attributed to Quesada by fans, saying that if a character died in a Marvel comic they would never be seen again] - is everywhere. It's not necessarily the quote, but it's everywhere. I'll take it, you're promoting my name, you're promoting our policies, you're promoting Marvel. So, I did learn to play with the internet in that fashion. And that's always fun to do, to say, 'Okay, what can I say today that will piss people off?'
You're just poking people with the internet as your stick.
It's fun. Look, you and I are having this conversation, and you can see that my tongue is firmly in my cheek, when you type it out, a lot of people don't see that. But it's all in good fun. You'll know when I'm deadly serious about something. It's comic books I'm deadly serious about, outside of putting out a good story, there's little else I'm deadly serious about.
Who is the one character that, for people, who don't really read comics that they should pay attention to in the next year?
I really do think, before Iron Man [the movie] hit... You know, Spider-Man, the X-Men and Wolverine are pretty recognizable, and were pretty recognizable before the first movies ever hit. Iron Man was a complete challenge to us because, not only was the character not really well known, but we were a brand new fledgling movie company, and it was a pretty big risk. So we put a lot of our time and effort into making Iron Man not only a popular character in comics, but we went out there and put out viral marketing and CGI animation on websites, and I think we did a pretty good job. I mean, Iron Man is a pretty damn recognizable character [now]. I'm not gonna say that he's at Spider-Man level, but he's pretty damn close. And now, as predictable as this answer may be, we're doing the same with Thor.
And Thor offers even more unique challenges at this point. I mean, you've got mythology and all these different kind of things. So how are you going to produce a Thor movie, but also a Thor that is uniquely Marvel, wholly unique to the idea of Norse mythology to the people who know Norse mythology. How do you make it interesting, and how do you tie it into the Iron Man movie and the upcoming Avengers. We've got a pretty intense plan around Thor, including the upcoming Thor (comic creator) team, who will take on [the series] sometime after our final third act soon.
Will they be announced here?
Not here. There won't be any post-JMS team announced here, but there will be some Thor news coming up within the next few months. I think fans will really, really, love the news.
But the focus right now is Iron Man, Thor - If you're not a Thor fan, you're gonna want to start picking up the books - and then focus, while it's kind of on Cap right now, it's going to intensify on Captain America as we get closer to that movie.
What happens after the Avengers movie?
We've been talking about things. This is really a question for Kevin Feige, and I don't want to step on his toes, but we've had some discussions, there's a lot of discussion and strategizing about the future of Marvel Studios... We have to [look beyond that]. We don't stop being in business after the Avengers movie.
What's the one thing you want to do, and haven't done, at Marvel?
[Deep breath] Wow. The one thing I want to do at Marvel?
Do you even think like that, or are you too focused on the day-to-day?
I'll tell you, I no longer think like that, because the beauty of my job is that I get thrown so many different things, no day is the same for me. For example, now being chief creative officer of animation. I did not see that coming. I didn't lobby for that position, I was just helping with animation and got, you know, a promotion to that position. Which is great, it's certainly going to be an education, it's a world that I'm not familiar with.
Does that mean you're going to step back slightly from the comics?
No. I also have the chief creative officer of publishing title, but I don't use it because it just makes the title look like a resume, and it looks ridiculous. But I get a lot of things thrown at me.
I can tell you that when I got started in comics, my one goal, my one aspiration was Watchmen. I got back into comics with Watchmen and through Dark Knight, and my goal was, someday, I want to write and draw that. It's like, as a musician, I was a musician before I was in comics, and as a musician I was like, someday, I want to write and perform Sgt. Pepper. I want my Sgt. Pepper. That didn't work out.
But even in comics, no-one's ever done Watchmen or Dark Knight again. They were Sgt. Pepper of their era. But it's what I aspire to. So, someone mentioned this to me, and it's hard for me to think about because I'm still doing what I do, but someone said that my Watchmen has been my ten years at Marvel, the body of work that we created here, and where we've taken the comic industry and Marvel as a company is one of those great stories. We were bankrupt, and now... we're not.
How does that feel, to have saved Marvel?
I was not in charge of saving Marvel, there was a team. I was part of a great team of guys and girls who've really put Marvel into a prominent position where we are now a movie studio, and that's a pretty spectacular feeling. When it's all said and done, I can look back and, I think the person that said it was right: That's my Watchmen. Nobody else can do that. Give it a shot. That's hopefully what I contributed, as well as drawing some funny books.
You're sticking around for awhile as editor in chief, right?
As long as it's fun. Because I was from the outside looking in, and I saw what Marvel went through when it was approaching bankruptcy, and I was walking through the halls when the pink slips went out, a terrible terrible time. And then, being at Marvel Knights when, overnight, 40-some people were let go. To this day, the attitude I adopted, and it's not something negative, but I never want to be surprised by walking into my office and seeing a pink slip there. I remember that look on people's faces, getting the pink slip and saying 'I can't believe it's me, I never thought this would happen to me.' Even in light of bankruptcy, the surprise was still shocking, it was daunting for people who must've sensed it was coming. And I don't even want that to happen to me. I never want to take any single day at Marvel for granted.
When I turn off the lights at night, I could come back here tomorrow and all my shit could be in boxes. It's the world of business and you can't take that for granted. So I've kind of adopted that, that little mantra for myself. But I've also said, at the same time, using a baseball analogy - My father got me into the sport, and used to bring up certain athletes like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams who retired before their skills faded. He used to say, 'Whatever you do, don't wait until your skills diminish. Leave on top.' I feel the same way; I'm still contributing to the company, but the day I feel like I can't contribute to the company, I'll be the first one to walk into my publisher's office and say, 'You gotta let me go.' Or, 'put me somewhere else.' Because there are people in line for my job, I'm not gonna have this forever who need to have it, who need to guide us into a different era. I never want to be That Guy.
You seem very aware of the history and the legacy of the company, and the position.
It's something that, in the very beginning of my tenure, especially with [Brian Michael] Bendis and [Mark] Millar, who I have a lot of affection for, because they sort of came up with me and helped build a lot of this stuff. We used to sit around and talk about all the mistakes that were done before us. Certain people that took their careers for granted, certain people who went in a particular direction, and not because they were stupid or anything, but because they were the first ones to do it. And we were sitting around saying, alright, we don't want that. We want to avoid these things at all cost.
And it's funny, because I was having breakfast with Mark this morning, and I said, 'You know what's really scary? We're kind of at a place where I think, twenty years from now, there're gonna be three guys sitting around saying "We don't want to do what Quesada did, that was a huge mistake.' I try to, at least, look forward. People always ask me, what was your greatest success and greatest mistake at Marvel, and I always stumble on that answer, I never look backwards, I can't answer it.