While “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” made a strong showing in the ratings when it debuted last week on ABC, the success of the drama means more work for Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada, not less.
Though the weekly series is the culmination of Marvel’s plans to expand its brand outside the comics and movie realms, adding more characters and stories to the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the clip of nearly 20 hours a year on TV rather than six on the big screen involves a lot of coordination. As CCO, Quesada’s job has become more and more about making that universe feel seamless in the same way he once oversaw the ins and outs of Marvel’s comic line. While his new position doesn’t have him drawing comic pages, emceeing convention events and mixing it up with message board fans any more, Quesada told CBR that he’s doing plenty of job juggling with the bi-costal responsibilities of taking Marvel’s four-color world and translating it into filmed media.
CBR News caught up with Quesada during his latest trip to Los Angeles (he flies the the West Coast twice monthly from his home in New York), and, in between story meetings for Marvel’s three animated shows, the CCO explained his role in “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s” creative birth, shared how the Marvel Cinematic Universe is shaping up to be like the comics, including characters like Franklin “Graviton” Hall, and offered an update on Marvel media projects like Disney Animation’s planned “Big Hero 6” feature film.
CBR News: Joe, it was a big debut for Marvel’s first live action TV show last week. Did you actually watch the pilot live, or at this point had you already seen it 5,000 times?
Joe Quesada: I’ve certainly seen the pilot more times than I can count, but it was great seeing it on TV with commercials and all. It made it real. Though I was on the West Coast and three hours behind, I wanted to watch it live with the rest of the world and also live tweet during the broadcast. I’ll probably do the same this coming Tuesday, as well.
The series debuted with some of the biggest ratings ABC has had in years. I know you’ve said that you’re always moving ahead with Marvel stuff, assuming it’s going to run for a while, but was there a sense of relief that the audience showed up?
Sure. You can never, ever take any of this stuff for granted. I think therein lies disaster. We always make everything we do — whether it’s our comics, movies, animated shows or now our live TV episodes — to the best of our abilities with the best intent and with all our heart and souls. And then, at the end of the day, it’s out of our hands. It’s up to the audience to let us know if we’ve succeeded in some small fashion. We’ve been very, very lucky up to this point — very blessed — that we’ve had a decent success rate, and hopefully that’ll continue. But you can’t take it for granted. There will be more projects that come down the road, and you’ve got to make sure you’re vigilant and at your best for those, and you can never lose sight of the fact that the audience has great expectations.
There are a lot of working components to “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” and while it’s a Marvel show, there are a ton of people contributing to the series. With the movies, I feel like Marvel has a chance to take your time in how you layer in new elements of the world big and small. With a TV show, that process is sped way up. With a weekly series to produce, is it accelerating the type of world-building you oversee as CCO?
It certainly adds to the pressure of how we have to be careful of these things. But we also work hand-in-hand with the studios to be sure that they’re intimately involved as we work out these concepts. It is like a living, breathing weekly document we’re making with “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” and we want to make sure that we’re an additive to the Cinematic Universe tapestry and not a complication. What strikes me as interesting about the world of live action television is how much it reminds me of comics publishing. Comics are weekly grind. Every Wednesday, retailers have to have product to sell, so the books have to go out. The amount of creative work and the mental energy put towards that content on a daily basis is stunning and really daunting if we had the luxury to really sit and think about the Sisyphean task for a second. Weekly episodic television is very much like that. The big difference of course is that you do get some time off to recharge a bit.
I enjoy the fact that during the course of the week — almost on a daily basis — I’m reading something that’s coming from the “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” writing or production crew. Sometimes it’s a brief on an episode or the latest draft of a script or a rough cut of a future episode or the dailies, which come, well, daily. Whatever it is that I’m getting, there’s a constant flow of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” stuff in my inbox. I love that grind and that pressure. It reminds me of my comics roots. It’s what I know and very much the way I learned to do things in a creative environment.
With publishing, there are decades and decades of history that folks have to manage to tell the stories. While there’s not quite that much yet in the live action realm, there is likely a growing tapestry of elements for someone on staff to keep track of. Are you or someone else serving as the “Tom Brevoort” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and keeping tabs on the continuity?
[Laughs] No, I certainly wouldn’t call myself the Tom Brevoort of the Cinematic Universe but we are working closely with the Studio side of Marvel to make sure that we’re not conflicting in any way and vice versa. While I do have an intimate knowledge of what’s going on in both worlds, and of course I jump in if there is a conflict, it’s always good to have the guys who are in the trenches of our film world keeping a helpful eye as well. The simple answer is that we’re all involved in trying to keep the Marvel ducks in a row. But this is also where Jeph Loeb is so instrumental in making sure that everyone is kept in the loop. Jeph is constantly on the go and on the phone with “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and really all things having to do with Marvel TV. Quite honestly, I don’t know how he does it!
Let’s use an example which we know is coming up: Graviton. Now, we don’t know exactly how his story is going to play in “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” but I find it really interesting that a relatively obscure villain from the “Avengers” comic has come to be a potential lynchpin early part of two Marvel TV show as he’s the first big villain of both this live action drama and the “Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” cartoon. What was the attraction there?
There were several reasons for using Hall. If you’re a long time Marvel fan, of course you’ll recognize the name, and we knew that would pique interest. It’s always fun to throw in an established character when you can to get fans excited. Heck, it gets us excited! But he’s also a very compelling character on his own. So if you’re not a comic fan, he’s a character you’ll be introduced to who we think will appeal to folks who don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the MU, especially this incarnation that our “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” writing team has come up with. Of course our loyal fans know that some interesting things happen to Dr. Franklin Hall in the pages of our comics, and while I’m not saying that those things happen here, the fact that perhaps someday they might is kind of cool.
I know you’ve been reading a lot of the scripts for this show and for the animated series, but since “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is such a CG-heavy show in some ways, have you been taking a role in developing the visual side, too?
No, not really all that much. I had some discussions earlier with some of our visual effect geniuses, especially when discussing Lola (whom I have touched many times), but my main focus has been working with Jeph and our writing team on the storytelling aspects of our show. And every once in a while I get to walk around the set and pretend like I know what I’m doing.
Now, DC has had their own TV show already running for a year in The CW’s “Arrow,” and Marc Guggenheim and his crew have found a way of adapting the DC Universe with their own style over its first season. Obviously, your show builds off the work of the Marvel movies, but overall, is there a guiding principal or a tone to the show that you want to include so it really feels like a Marvel property?
Marc and those guys have done a great job with “Arrow.” It’s a great show. I wouldn’t say there are any hard and fast rules, though we do try to keep to a certain feel and tone. Obviously, the Marvel Universe takes place in the real world, and there’s a tonality to the things that we produce that have a distinct, bigger than life Marvel feel. But overall it’s about great story and great performances and great characters, and most importantly fun with a sense of humor.
I don’t think it’s a secret, but at the core of everything we do — and this is evident in all our films and obviously evident in the first episode of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” — is that we try to have a sense of humor about our universe as do our characters. In some instances, it’s a self-effacing, but it’s that humor in the face of danger and or tragedy that brings out the humanity in our characters, and I think you’ll find that’s a hallmark of everything we do at Marvel. While there is a seriousness and a gravitas to the missions our heroes have to undertake and endure, there’s also a ton of levity at its heart. At the end of the day, when you finish reading one of our comics or come out of one of our movies or turn off your TV after watching one of our shows — actually, don’t turn off your TV, stay tuned to ABC and DXD, they have some great programming right after us [Laughs] — we want you to feel like the Marvel Universe is a place that you want to live in, a place you want to revisit. We want you to feel that our characters are people you want to hang out with or aspire to be just like. Even though our world has some crazy badass villains with insane super powers and aliens invade from time to time, we want it to feel like a world worth visiting on a consistent basis.
Speaking of the lighter side of things, you have three animated series in production now, and I get the feeling there’s a little more crossover happening there. You have some voice talent shared between the shows, and we’re seeing characters like Guardians of the Galaxy pop up more often, or Spider-Man show up in the Avengers world. How has that side of Marvel grown? Do you feel a second phase of your own animation studio is on the horizon?
While I can neither confirm nor deny such things, there are certainly a lot of things that we’re talking about internally that will get Marvel fans excited, but it’s much too early to even hint at them. We’ve been very fortunate at Marvel Animation. Even though we have three shows on the air now, the studio is still very much in its infancy, yet we’ve had a tremendous amount of success and that’s a real tribute to Jeph, Eric Radomski [Senior Vice President and Creative Director of Animation], the incredibly talented people who work for us and our wonderful partners at Disney XD. We’re having a lot of fun with it, and I enjoy working with the writers and animation crew. That’s actually what you pulled me away from for this call: a pretty heated “Avengers” story meeting. Boy, I wish they had warned me that the Man of Action liked to settle story disagreements by hot oil wrestling each other. That Duncan Rouleau sure is a slippery one.
Everyone knows that you’ve been able to bring Clark Gregg over as Agent Coulson in the “Ultimate Spider-Man” cartoon. With a whole new crop of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents now appearing on TV, is there any chance for more cross-pollination between the animated and live action worlds?
I’ll be 100% honest with you: We have not had those discussions. Anything is possible in the Marvel Universe, but it’s way too early to even think about that.
Well, I do get the sense that from the moment Marvel started making an interconnected universe of stories outside the comics, fans were ready for those crossovers to go from zero to 60 almost instantly, and that impulse is still very much there.
For me, I still have to pinch myself and wonder how the hell we even got here. When I started at Marvel, the company was in Chapter 11, and now we’re on the air with the top rated new show of the year, three animated shows and some pretty decent hit movies under our belts. I shake my head and wonder how it all happened and how did it happen so quickly. But yeah, the impulse is always there and you have to be vigilant, because it’s the fact that we haven’t given in to that impulse that has help with our success outside of the print medium. Comics is a very unique beast. Going from zero to 60 with respect to crossovers and continuity, while great for the long time loyalist, is the best way to alienate the larger world out there who needs to be weaned into the universe just like our long time fans were when they first started. Stan Lee once said that every comic is someone’s first. We now have to take that philosophy and apply it to everything we do, regardless of whether it’s paper or film.
Back in the comics side, Marvel is getting ready to launch All-New Marvel NOW!, and last year you got to be involved with the original set of launches under that banner with some character design and cover work. Any chance you’ll be doing more of that in the near future?
No. While I was asked to, I won’t get a chance to do anything for Marvel NOW! this time around. There’s just too much other stuff going on and I won’t have the time. That said, it’s not like I’m not drawing. While my travel schedule is ridiculous, I don’t go anywhere without my 13-inch Cintiq travel tablet. I should have some stuff trickling out here and there sometime in the near future. I just can’t tell you exactly when.
Lastly, what’s the latest update on Disney’s planned “Big Hero 6” animated film? Are you in the scriptwriting phase? Are there any ways the project is evolving differently for you since it’s a part of Disney’s animation division?
“Big Hero 6” is really looking great. Don Hall, Kristina Reed and the entire crew are such amazingly talented people and have such a love for all things Marvel that it’s been an absolute blast working with them. They’ve really taken the BH6 property, which at the end of the day doesn’t have a lot of publishing history behind it, and built an entire world and mythology around it.
Being there from the very beginning, the process has been amazing to watch. The amount of research Don and his crew have done is exhaustive and beyond thorough, and I don’t just mean with respect to reading the comics. From the design of the characters and their tech to the look of the world, no stone has been left unturned and a lot of frequent flyer miles have been tallied up to get where they are at this juncture. These guys have traveled the globe to make BH6 the very best it can be. It’s a tribute to how John Lasseter runs the animation division. He encourages this kind of thorough research, and you’ll undoubtedly see the results in the story and on the screen and I’m sure in the making of DVD. [Laughs]
At the end of the day, the hope is that the audience won’t be consciously aware of it because it’ll be seamless. And really, that’s what you want. You just want people to accept this incredibly fantastical world as the reality they’re living in for the next 90 minutes.