You love him, you hate him, you want his job. What is a comic fan to do about Joe Quesada?
He’s only been the Editor In Chief for Marvel Comics a few months and already fans don’t know what to expect next. First, he hires dozens of cool writers and artists to breathe new life into the House of Ideas, then he starts canceling books left and right. Next, he publishes Ultimate Spiderman on the Internet for free, and then he unleashes an elaborate hoax about a character that never really existed.
So, if you could be Joe Quesada for 24 hours, get inside his head and see what it was like to sit in the Captain’s chair of one of America’s greatest comics publishers, what would that be like?
“I’m usually in about 9 AM,” says Quesada. “Then, I get to all my e-mail and internal correspondence. Most of my days end up in strategy and creative meetings. There’s a lot of time on the phone with talent and a lot of time recruiting talent as well. Lunch is usually at my desk and I walk the floor on occasion but it’s usually to cheer everyone on or to make fun of Yankee fans on days that they lose. Another large portion of the day is spent reading pitches and working on ways to promote the books. The earliest I ever get out of the office is about 6PM and when home I usually spend another 2 hours on work related reading or online stuff like answering fans questions.”
While that doesn’t sound like the Geek Heaven one might wish for, Quesada isn’t one to complain. He understands that there’s a lot of work that goes into creating some great comics. Of course, there’s no magic bullet for expanding the appeal of comics to a new generation of kids who are distracted by Playstation 2, the Internet and Jennifer Lopez. But, obviously, there are some key elements that are necessary to achieve the goal. Quesada shares some of the essentials to bringing in new readers. “First, we need to improve the quality of our overall product, which we addressed head on and I believe took care of. Nothing worse than someone getting their first comic and having it be horrible. Second, and most important we need to improve distribution! This right now is our single largest problem. We can have the greatest product in the world but we need a way to get it into the hands of the people who are going to salivate over it once they have it. We’re working on this one now.”
So, Quesada has a specific road map to capture the imaginations of this potential comic book market. But, what about the Big Brass at Marvel? Are they on the same page? “No brick walls yet,” Quesada reassures. ” I made sure that before I took the job Bill Jemas and I were clear on what had to be done. He and I tend to be on the same page 95% of the time.”
In the early days, Marvel Comics was more a seat of the pants operation. They pretty much invented the idea of super heroes being human and quite often bucked the system to bring great comics to the public. As the years passed, however, the company grew larger and times began to change. The once brilliant House of Ideas had begun to grow stagnant and unwilling to take the sort of chances that made them great. Quesada has returned to Marvel a bit of that renegade spirit that has been lost over time. “We can gamble somewhat but we need to keep our eye constantly on the bottom line,” he says. “It keeps us from doing too many vanity projects which is kind of a good thing and it also gives us a sense of immediacy and urgency which is how I like to work. Every book gets its own marketing strategy, we’re constantly spinning and having fun with the industry! There is very little time to sit around masturbating and reliving our past glories. It’s a real renegade attitude that we have. If you’re not on board then just get out of the way. This thing is too hot to handle!”
In keeping with this “renegade attitude” that Quesada so earnestly champions, the marketing plan for the recent Sentry mini-series was engineered as an elaborate hoax that involved a wide range of co-conspirators, including Stan Lee himself, who played along with the ruse. Some fans have been pretty disillusioned about being duped, “And many fans loved it,” counters Quesada. “I think it was a lot of fun and in the spirit of Stan Lee and early Marvel. It was also an intrinsic part of the reading experience of the Sentry myth. I have a feeling that the people that are upset are upset because they got fooled whereas most folks knew it was a gag.”
While Quesada is thrilled to bring back the sense of adventure that Marvel once had, there are a few things he’s looking forward to changing for good. Namely, Marvel’s tendency to kill off characters and then bring them back with such regularity that fans have begun to lose interest. Quesada is eager to change this, “I want a death in the Marvel Universe to mean something,” he says. “I want a creator to think before a character is killed off and to especially think about if the character is killed off can we replace that character with new and even better characters. I think we can. Can’t say that (this trend) is gone for good because some of our creators still love to play with these contrivances. It’s just a personal taste thing with me. How many times can a villain be perceived to have died at the end of the battle with our hero? How dumb can our heroes be to assume that they’re really dead,” Quesada asks. “The more significant the death, however, the more I will fight to keep the character dead.”
Being EIC means being willing to make those hard decisions. It’s one of the hardest things about his job, but he realizes that with the good comes the bad as well. “There are times when you just have to sit certain people down and deliver bad news. That’s probably the worst part of it all,” says Quesada regretfully.
And fans are quite aware of what he’s talking about. Earlier this year when Quesada announced that he would be cutting back on the number of X-Titles Marvel publishes, it sent ripples of dissent throughout the comic world. Even alienating Quesada and Marvel Comics from a big name creator like John Byrne, who vowed never to work for Marvel again. Then, not long after this, Quesada begins to announce a whole new batch of X-Titles to replace the ones he cut in order to trim the fat. Now, the ripples were turning into tidal waves. Why would Quesada announce cancellations on X-books that were redundant, only to launch just as many new X-books, if not more, than he killed? It’s a subject that Quesada is eager to clear up. “Please, can someone do the math correctly? I’ve explained this a million times and still people ask the same question,” he says. “We killed six monthlies and added three (Blink, X-Treme and Brotherhood). I don’t know where people are getting this ‘we added more than we cancelled’ business. Don’t confuse the mini series we have planned for later this year for monthly books. Those mini-series were going to happen regardless. Truth be told,” adds Quesada eagerly, “we trimmed down the number of mini-series which had yet to be announced at that time as well. It’s not all about me dealing with the tumultuous amount of complaints we’re getting. This simply isn’t true. How about the increase in sales and visibility for Marvel?”
“This is the most frustrating part of the job,” admits Quesada. “The mis-information that is out there. Fans think that just cause they read it it’s true. I just read a quote from an old industry pro and in the quote he says that Marvel’s X-Men no longer sell over the 100,000 copy mark. All of a sudden I have a slew of fans asking about this. It’s a lie, better yet maybe let me give him the benefit of the doubt and say he is misinformed, but goes on as if it’s fact. We have at least 3 books over that mark and, come May, possibly more! Careful what you read folks or who you think is telling the truth. It’s very easy to point your finger at Marvel and call us liars, especially when you don’t back it up with fact.”
Beyond this, Quesada is also very adamant when it comes to answering fan complaints about multiple titles for the same character or team. Why do there need to be so many different Spidey and X-Titles? Wouldn’t Marvel experience a huge sales explosion if they only had one Spidey or X-Title? Quesada is quick to put this notion to rest. “No,” he says. ” Because there aren’t that many fans to make up for the dollars we would lose on the multiple titles. The X books have enough meat to them that they can support different types of X stories. There are many interesting angles by which to look at mutants and their world. The problem arises when these books all choose the same point of view. The same can be said for Spidey. Just looking at the core books alone, each has a dramatically different point of view. Amazing Spider-Man is the core book about Spider-Man and his adventures. Peter Parker is pretty self-explanatory and Tangled Web gives you stories from the people who live in Spider-Man’s world. We have three significant Spider-Man books plus the Ultimates”
Ah yes, the Ultimate Universe. Is this new, alternate comic universe setting itself up to replace the current Marvel continuity? “Oh I don’t know, ” says Quesada. “That’s tough to say, right now it’s doing fine. I will say this, we all know that eventually every universe, as time marches on, will have to be reinvented. We can’t survive as an industry that wants kids to read our product without someday reinventing ourselves over and over again, and always angering the previous generation (in the process). Look at it honestly, it may not happen today but it is down the road for all of us. Heck, who knows, we’re all here talking about Ultimates and it may be something completely different that usurps the Marvel Universe ten years from now,” he says. “To me it’s all very exciting and an exciting time to be in comics!”
Yes, it is an exciting time to be in comics, even though a quick browse through the various online comics-themed message boards may lead some to a different conclusion. Quesada knows that there a few disgruntled fans out there, but the sales on Marvel’s books are higher than ever so he’s learned to take these few detractors with a grain of salt. “Message boards are a funny thing because very rarely is a satisfied fan prone to post. It’s like the airlines, how often does one write a letter or compliment an attendant when they get great service? But when you get bad service on a plane,” says Quesada. “Well, you know.”
But, if you really want to set Quesada off on a rant, just ask him what he thinks about the topic of over-printing comics. “Retailers believe that overprinting helps develop new readers. Huh? I don’t have a shred of evidence that proves this in the slightest. What I CAN show you is a steady decline in readership of 7% to 10% a month for the last four or more years no matter how much we overprint. How much longer will we fool ourselves? It sounds good on paper but it’s not working,” he exclaims. “I also get peeved with fan polls sometimes. For example let’s say we have a title that’s lost about 300,000 readers in the last 3 or 4 years (of which we have quite a few). Let’s say it’s core readership is well under 70,000 fans today. We decide to change the direction or the creator or what have you. Fandom.com takes a vote and 75% of the readership says you should keep the direction or creator or what have you intact. Can someone please poll the 300,000 readers who left in the last few years? I believe they might have something to say if you can find them. These polls are misleading because the majority of the fans really voted on these matters several years ago. They voted with their feet. Who are we fooling? Phew, you see what happens when you get me started?” he says.
Not that his whole day is spent dealing with irate fans, by any means. Since Quesada’s been on board at Marvel he’s been responsible for an increase in sales and a sense of renewal that hasn’t been felt for a long, long time. It’s like someone opened a window at Marvel and let the sunshine in. “On the positive side, sales are up on a title by title basis for six months running and the Trade Paper Backs are selling out like crazy,” says Quesada. “All the signs are there and it looks like the patient is showing signs of life!”
To keep his mind off the things that drive him crazy, Quesada has decided to focus instead on the things he loves about working in comics. One of the best things Quesada has done at Marvel, even before he was made EIC, was to recruit new talent to the ranks. Just who has Quesada brought to Marvel’s table? “Kevin Smith, Brian Bendis, Garth Eniss, Greg Rucka, Devin Grayson, Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, Frank Quietly, Jae Lee, Paul Jenkins, Chuck Dixon, David Mack, J. Michael Stracynzski, Trent Kaniuga, Chuck Austen, and a bunch more on the way,” says Quesada.
So what is Quesada’s secret weapon when it comes to wooing great creators? “It’s as simple as picking up the phone and guaranteeing them a pleasurable, creative experience and living up to it,” he reveals. Surprisingly, many of Marvel’s biggest acquisitions recently have come from their Distinguished Competition. Are there any other DC creators that Quesada still has his eye on? “There’s a list,” he admits, “and you can probably figure it out. ”
Still, quite a few of Marvel’s talent pool has been recovered from the list of those who have been wounded by them in the past. Now that there’s a new EIC in the captain’s chair, some of these creators have decided to return. However, a few other individuals have kept their grudges. Quesada shakes his head, “I’ll tell you what I find rather funny. There are some creators who in the past have grown disheartened, and rightfully so, with DC and Marvel at one time or another. Usually they end up forgiving DC and still holding a grudge against Marvel. Maybe it’s because we’re the bigger player, I don’t know. Anyway, the funny bit about this is that whomever was in charge of Marvel at the time that these creators got upset are so long gone that you would need a private detective to dig them up, while all the major players who were at the top of the food chain at DC are still there. Go figure,” he chuckles.
But, Quesada is committed to bringing the best talent he can find into Marvel’s ranks with one simple mantra. “Just hire the most creative people and then do something that Marvel has had trouble doing in the past–GET OUT OF THEIR WAY!”
And will we ever see another Kevin Smith title over at Marvel? Quesada will only say, “We’ve spoken and we have a big surprise in store. Probably for next year.”
So, while being Joe Quesada for a day may not be the ultimate fantasy of every comic fan out there, it does certainly have its perks. When asked what the best thing about his job is, Quesada is quick to respond. “The never ending parade of groupies and Super Models! Though, I must confess it does get tiresome. In all seriousness the best thing about my job is all the amazing creativity that I’m surrounded with. Every hour of every day there’s stuff coming through the door that just blows me away!”
But, doesn’t he miss being a creator himself? “All the time! There are sometimes when I wish life was a bit simpler,” he admits, “But then I realize how much fun I’m having right now!”