It’s been a while, but it’s always great to sit back on a Friday with a piping hot CUP O’ JOE. Exclusively here at CBR, Marvel Comics Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada opens up the minds of the Marvelous, revealing the ins and outs of everything from comics to animation and beyond!
Driven by a regular string of responses to the biggest questions submitted on the CBR message boards for our CUP O’ Q&A feature, we present loads of CUP O’ JOE content across our mini-site from the latest installments of Joe’s regular interviews with the CBR staff, CUP O’ DOODLES sketch fests, polls, videos and more!
This week, the boy who would be the new Ultimate Spider-Man — AKA Miles Morales — has overtaken not only the comics world but also the national news cycle. With so many responses and reactions to the character who debuted in this week’s “Ultimate Fallout,” Joe carved out some time to talk with CBR about his role in the character’s creation along with Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar and the entire Ultimate Universe creative team, explain why overblown and racist reactions can’t phase him and offer a sneak peek as to the future of “Ultimate Spider-Man” on the page and the TV screen. Plus, Joe shares a recent surprise art assignment from a well-known admirer. Read on!
CUP O’ JOE is Executive Produced by Jonah Weiland and Produced by Kiel Phegley.
Kiel Phegley: Hey there, Joe! While it was great to have you out on the boat at Comic-Con, it’s been a while since we’ve been able to talk straight up comics. To get the ball rolling, I wanted to start with a little bit of what you’ve been up to as it relates to Marvel’s monthly comics output. Between the new, tighter Ultimate Universe and the cross points “Fear Itself” and “Schism” are building to, I think we’re starting to see how Axel is shaping the line as E-i-C, but what has your part in the current crop of Marvel books been? Are you a consultant where needed? A brainstormer? Somewhere in between?
Joe Quesada: Well, the last creative summits that I was involved in as Editor-in-Chief were the “Fear Itself” and “Death of Spider-Man/Miles Morales” creative meetings. After that, Axel took the reins and is running the good ship Marvel beautifully. So to answer your question, I’m not involved in the day-to-day aspects of individual storylines on individual titles, but I’m still very much involved in the bigger stuff we do in Publishing. For example, we’re currently in the midst of planning our next huge storyline for Spring of 2012, and I’m working on that with the team. So yeah, I’m still involved — just not to the magnitude that I would be if I were still E-i-C.
I ask that to start because I know that you were in on all the meetings that led to “Death of Spider-Man” in the Ultimate U and now the introduction of Miles Morales. We talked to Tom Brevoort a while back, and he said that the initial decision to kill off Peter Parker came from Mark Millar and was soon embraced by Brian Bendis. What’s your memory of that initial story meeting, and how soon did you guys start kicking the ball around about who could be the new Ultimate Spider-Man?
That’s not exactly how it went down. Tom got some of the facts mixed up, but he’s partially right. Let me try to walk you through this as the actual story goes back a ways and to tell it properly, we need to first address ethnicity.
The idea of a Spider-Man of ethnic origins isn’t a new one within the Marvel halls. It’s come up over the years, over the course of many creative summits, as well as in smaller editorial meetings. The problem was that the timing wasn’t right, it didn’t feel organic. It was a piece to a puzzle that didn’t exist or that we didn’t know how to build yet. It was a good idea that needed to find its time, place and story. But like so many unused ideas at Marvel, this one was now in the wind ready for the plucking when the time was right.
Now, the idea to kill off Ultimate Spider-Man happened, you could say, simultaneously across two continents. Over in Scotland, a rascally mad-genius named Mark Millar had this idea for a death of Spider-Man story. About the same time, back in NYC, a small group of Marvel folk — which included the Ultimate Editorial office, as well as Axel, Tom Brevoort and myself — was trying to come up with some cool ideas to shake up the Ultimate Universe. That’s when I mentioned the concept of Ultimate Spider-Man’s death. Heck, if we wanted a shake-up, let’s get ballsy and start with the title that has been there through thick and thin. The question was, was there a compelling enough story to tell; not just for the death, but for what was to come after, which ultimately was much more important? I was expecting everyone to look at me as if I’d lost my mind, but the room embraced it immediately. Once the conversation started down that road, it gathered momentum and suddenly had no brakes. As we talked about it, the next obvious question came up: if the aftermath to the death of Peter was the most important part of all of this, who should take over the mantle of Spider-Man? Remember that idea of an ethnic Spidey that was in the wind waiting for plucking? Well…
It suddenly seemed obvious to all of us, and the room lit up. There was only one question left, what would Brian think of it? Remember, Brian up until this point had been writing “Ultimate Spider-Man” for nearly a decade and well over a hundred issues, and we were about to ask him if he was open to killing off his lead character. Truth be told, if Brian hadn’t been open to it, we would have abandoned the concept because, let’s face it, the success of Ultimate Spidey has so much to do with Brian and his personal investment in the title that there would be no sense moving forward if he wasn’t on board. So, with some trepidation I called Brian and was floored as he embraced the idea on the spot. We were off and running!
Let me add, this is what makes Brian one of the very best creators in the industry. Regardless of how much success he’s had, he’s always open to new ideas and ready to embrace them if they make for a great story.
A few weeks later, Mark comes to town for the big Ultimate Universe creative summit, and he stops by my place to visit with my family. Over dinner he tells me that he’s going to pitch editorial on this big idea, “The Death of Spider-Man.” Talk about serendipity! I explained to Mark that we had a similar idea going on in the Ultimate U. What followed was just an amazing summit where suddenly we didn’t just have a Death of Spider-Man story that would run in one title, but an event that would run through the Ultimate Universe. Much like Brian, Mark has this ability to take new ideas, embrace them and make them even bigger. Now, thanks to the mad Scotsman, we had something epic!
We’re talking to a lot of the folks involved with the new “Ultimate Spider-Man” series this week on CBR, but I wanted to get your take on the creation of Miles along with them. From your perspective, when did you first hear about Bendis’ ideas for Miles, and what was your initial reaction? What did you feel were the most important aspects this character needed to make him worthy of the Spider-Man name?
The weeks following the Ultimate Summit, Miles was just about the only thing Brian and I could talk about when we got on the phone. So, between many a late night call and a couple of late night meetings over coffee and junk food in LA, while we didn’t have a name for him yet, Miles was starting to take shape. We discussed his family and upbringing at length and slowly you could see how he was becoming his own person and not just a copy of Peter. Now while I don’t want to give too much away, over the years I’ve been really intrigued by the revolutionary work being done by educator Geoffrey Canada, and as we looked deeper into Miles’ character, I suggested to Brian that he watch the documentary, “Waiting For Superman” (ironic, I know!). Bri loved it, and the wheels started turning. Pretty soon he was building a world and cast that would support Miles in some fantastically intriguing ways that were relatable but also different from Peter Parker’s world. I have a sneaky suspicion that Brian is going to make people fall in love with Miles very quickly.
And, for those wondering, yes Miles Morales was chosen as a name because of the alliteration and as a tip of the hat to Peter Parker. Let me add that we threw out a long list of pretty horrible names, some of them my suggestions. Let me also add that Ultimate Universe Senior Editor Mark Paniccia and Assistant Editor Sana Amanat were absolutely brilliant in helping with the formation and ideas behind the whole story and event, none of this would have happened without their amazing input, ideas and attention to detail.
So obviously, there’s been a lot of talk about Miles. A lot. We can unpack a lot of the whys and wherefores of how folks are responding, but I wanted to start by asking about something you said in that recent CBR TV interview: that Marvel builds their big media events on story first instead of stunt. No matter the story here, introducing a new minority version of Marvel’s most recognizable character was bound to draw a lot of attention. What kind of discussions did you have about how to ground the story to make it worthy of this change knowing there would be (at least the perception of) some stunt work going into the character?
Simply put, it all started with character and story. I feel like we had a good hook for who Miles is, and that led to Brian running with some pretty amazing story ideas. What was important wasn’t the color of his skin or his ethnic background. What was important was who he is and how he’s different from Peter while still remaining likeable and relatable. The truth of the matter is that this is so much harder to do than you would think. What makes Spider-Man iconic isn’t the suit or the super powers, it’s Peter Parker. He’s almost perfect in his construction, so the real task started there.
Now all that said, I want to get into this idea of “stunts.” I hear people throw that word around, with respect to Marvel, every time they want to denigrate a story or idea they don’t like. Look, we’re in the business of telling great stories. Better yet, we’re in the business of telling compelling stories that keep readers coming back for more. I live by a simple credo: if you keep the status quo the same, people will stop reading your stories. Since the dawn of the MU, Marvel has been shaking up the status quo. Could you call putting all the Marvel heroes into one comic called the Avengers back in 1963 a stunt? Sure maybe. How about the defrosting of Captain America? The first appearance of the Black Panther? The death of Gwen Stacy? I could rattle off hundreds of iconic storylines that you could call a stunt simply because they impacted meaningful change in the lives of our heroes and the Marvel U or because they were designed to keep the readership interested and coming back for more. This is what we do for a living; this is why people read Marvel Comics. The folks who are crying that this is a stunt should ask themselves what brought them to Marvel in the first place (if they’re actually reading our books). Chances are it was one of these so-called stunts. Look, if certain people want to call Miles a stunt, go ahead, knock yourselves out. For the rest of the Marvel die-hard fans, they know that that’s not what’s happening here. There are very big plans in the works for the Ultimate Universe, and Miles is a very big part of it.
I’ve spoken a lot with Tom about this, but Marvel has been on a streak of late of spoiling certain major changes in the mainstream press, from the death in “Fantastic Four” to the demise of Ultimate Peter Parker. Is that just a necessary evil of today’s comics world, and does the publicity associated with these moves really pay off for comic shops and Marvel in the long run?
Yes, it’s very necessary. We’ve spoken about this before here on CBR, but let’s go through it again. There is no question that there is no good way to do this. Whether we hold on to the press or break it in the news, someone is going to lose out — but here is how we have to make that Solomon-like decision. Our goal is to get people into comic shops to buy as many comics as possible. It’s important to the lifeblood of our industry. That’s it, nothing more, nothing less.
So, let’s say we go to a major news outlet, let’s call them BIG NATIONAL PAPER. We say to BIG NATIONAL PAPER, “we have this very cool story that we think you guys might find intriguing.” Now, let’s say BIG NATIONAL PAPER agrees and thinks it will make for some cool news. Hey, that’s great for everyone! The first thing BIG NATIONAL PAPER is going to want is to be the exclusive news outlet that breaks the story. Okay, cool we can make that work, now we’re left with two choices.
- BIG NATIONAL PAPER can break the news during solicitation cycle — that means letting them break it a day or two before the retailer catalog hits the street. Okay, let’s look at that. The news hits, and because the mainstream audience doesn’t know that the catalog and this news is hitting three months before the book ships, comic shops will fill up with new customers looking for a book that doesn’t exist yet. Now we have disappointed would-be customers in comic shops and frustrated retailers who wish they had the book, then and there, to sell. Sure, we can cross our fingers and hope that the article tells people that it won’t be released for three months, but then how many of the people that read the story will remember to go to a comic shop three months later? I would venture on 10% or less. Oh, and don’t hold your breath on a follow up story three months later, you’re already old news. It broke on a national outlet which means very few will want to report it again later, they’re on to the next big thing. And also in this method, the news gets spoiled for comic readers three months in advance.
- BIG NATIONAL PAPER is interested and want the news exclusively. Thinking about scenario #1, we decide to keep the info a secret and give BIG NATIONAL PAPER the ability to break the story, but breaking it the day before or the day the title ships so that retailers have the books in hand. Yes, the story will be spoiled for some, but let’s face it, a story this big combined with the Internet is going to get spoiled for some anyway. At least in this scenario, if we do our job right and have plenty of extra copies for retailers to reorder, the odds are better that more people walk away satisfied and the industry is healthier as a whole.
Now mind you, scenario #2 isn’t perfect either, but we have found through experience of doing this kind of thing, that it has worked better than the alternative. I know it frustrates some fans, but it’s the best way to do it for the long-term growth of our industry. Also, it’s not like we do this all the time and spoil dozens of stories a year to the mainstream news. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that the average fan has their favorite stories spoiled many more times by posts on the Internet or gossip columns than by what Marvel ever does in the mainstream press.
On a personal level, you’ve drawn a lot on your own Latino heritage while working for Marvel with the Santerians characters being perhaps the most prominent example. What does it mean to have a character like Miles out there so prominently for you? Is this the kind of hero you feel you didn’t have as a young comic fan?
Back in the ’60s, my family was one of the first Latino families in our neighborhood. By the time I was old enough to play with the kids on my block, our neighborhood had grown into the proverbial melting pot. On any given summer day, you could find us, a ragtag crew composed of Asian, Black, Indian, Italian, Irish and Latino kids, playing stickball or hanging out on each other’s stoops. I was very lucky as a young reader. My father exposed me to Marvel comics when I was 8 years old, and the reason I gravitated to them was because of characters like T’Challa and Luke Cage. While I’m not African American, as a Latino I could sense very early on that the guys at Marvel were writing stories about my world, about my friends and about my neighborhood. So in some ways I feel I did get characters like that from Marvel — maybe not to the level of diversity we have today, but it was there nevertheless and significantly important to me.
Of course, with anything like this, there’s always an ugly side to the reaction, and from what we’ve heard in public from some Marvel staffers, there’s been quite a bit of, frankly, racist e-mails and comments coming into the offices this week. What do you make of that reaction? Is there anything to be taken from that kind of response outside of being disheartened?
Disheartened? Never. None of this comes as a surprise and to be quite honest with you, I no longer pay attention to it. I’ll never forget years ago when news of the Rawhide Kid broke. I don’t think any reaction could have been as violently hateful as the prejudice that was thrown at that title — sight unseen, mind you — but isn’t that always the case? Quite frankly, I was shocked and embarrassed by some of the reaction, and it got to me; it got me down. But I promised myself after that that I would never, ever let that kind of stuff bother me again and I came to terms with the fact that it was a much smaller minority than what the e-mails led me to believe. Today, when I read stuff like that, it just makes me smile because if people with racist tendencies disagree with the things we do, then I know we’re doing the right thing.
Overall, the issue of more diversity in superhero comics is quite a hot topic these days, but it’s been much more complicated when it comes to taking the fervency of fans online and turning it into big sales for non-white characters in their own books. Why do you think that is? Is there resistance in the comics marketplace to minority characters in general or minorities starring in their own series?
There’s no resistance that I can see. This isn’t just an ethnicity issue, it’s tough to introduce new characters and have them stick regardless of ethnicity. It’s an incubation period. Look at the average history of many of the characters we consider iconic today — it’s not an overnight process. It takes years for them to reach that status and the more comics expand and the more characters you introduce, the harder it becomes to do that. So, no, I don’t think it’s an ethnicity issue. It’s just hard creating that next big thing. Let’s face it, if it was easy, wouldn’t everyone be doing it?
In the broader terms of the Ultimate Universe, we’ve seen so much talk on making those books distinct and different from the regular Marvel U. So where does this lead next? What kind of talks have you had with the creators of the new Ultimate series to keep this momentum going into 2012 and beyond?
All we’ve been hammering on is story, story, story. Let’s get back to making the Ultimate Universe the most unpredictable and exciting line in all of comics.
The philosophy is simple, get back to the basics of the Ultimate U. When we started this universe many moons ago, the idea was to create a younger version of the Marvel U, to imagine ourselves as Stan Lee and all the great early Marvel creators, creating these characters in the year 2001. That idea quickly morphed as we realized that this was an interesting playground in which we could do things we would never attempt in the regular Marvel U because of the long history it had with the fans. What we then started to see, completely unintentionally, was that the edginess of the Ultimate Universe was now starting to inspire and influence the Marvel Universe. The world of the Ultimate Universe was becoming a testing ground in many ways. Now flash forward a few years to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and you can see very clearly a mixture of story, attitude and look from both the classic Marvel Universe and the Ultimate Universe inspiring our movies from look to tone. Flash forward again, and you’ll see in 2012 how the Ultimate Universe has inspired our animated division. This is what we’re getting back to…having the Ultimate Universe doing what it does best, taking us places into the future that, who knows, may inspire the next era of classic Marvel Universe comics and the Marvel movies, television shows and cartoons of the future.
I think we’re off to a great start!
Since you got onto the subject, outside of publishing, what has you really jazzed right now within World of Marvel Entertainment. What have you been working on as CCO that you think is maybe not on the radar of fans in the same way Miles Morales is right now but maybe deserves to be?
One thing I’ve been really excited and talking about consistently is our upcoming “Ultimate Spider-Man” animated show that’s coming to Disney XD in 2012. What makes this Spider-Man cartoon really special and unique is that, while there have been many great Spidey shows in the past, it’s the first Spidey cartoon made by Marvel. Marvel writers and artists worked directly on this show so it’s going to have more Marvel DNA than any show that has come previously. Jeph Loeb has assembled a pretty amazing creative brain trust and writers room consisting of Paul Dini, Man of Action (Joe Kelly, Steve Seagle, Joe Casey and Duncan Rouleau), Spider-Man Editor Steve Wacker, me and even our very own Brian Bendis. On the art side, Jeph enlisted the help of guys like Ed McGuinness, Stuart Immonen, Humberto Ramos and Paolo Rivera. Heck, even I did some character sketches for the show. The idea being that even though animation style is much simpler than the stuff we generally do in comics, let’s get Marvel artists to do some character design work in their respective styles as inspiration and tonal flavor for the animators. I think you’re going to see much more of this approach as we move forward.
Wanna see some of the stuff? I bet you do!
As always, there are readers out there wondering what your next comics gig might be whether its covers, interiors writing or something else. I’m not sure if you’ve got a project on your slate just yet, but I do understand you’ve been working on a piece for a very esteemed comics fan. What can you tell us about that project?
Ha! Well, just the other day I was on Twitter and posted a very detailed making of a Fantastic Four 50th Anniversary piece I did, but somehow I don’t think that’s what you’re asking about.
Sometime in mid-February, I was contacted by someone from the White House asking if I had time to chat with one of the President’s aides. When we finally connected I was floored to find out that the President wanted to commission me to do a piece of artwork. While I’d love to go into detail as to what it was, I don’t feel that it’s proper for me to do so at this point, as it was a request that came personally from Barack Obama — not as President but as citizen. In other words, the piece had nothing to do with politics and was to be a gift. Needless to say, while a fun piece to do conceptually, I was a nervous wreck. I must have submitted about a half dozen sketches, and nearly lost it with anxiety waiting for final approval knowing that the POTUS was reviewing them.
So does this now make you the “The United States Comic Artist Laureate?”
Sure, why not, let’s make it official! Now I just need to figure out how to add that to my title of Chief Creative Officer and still manage to have a legible business card.
How do you think this came about, did it have anything to do with the Obama Spider-Man issue?
Funny you should mention that, I asked that same question, and I was told that it had nothing to do with that, but simply that the President is a fan of Marvel.
Yes, but not all that uncommon. I’ve done quite a few commissions like that for members of both parties. There are more closet comic fans in the world of politics than you would imagine. Seems that while it’s tough for both parties to agree on anything, there’s at least one thing they both agree on, a love of Marvel Comics!
Have some questions for Marvel’s Joe Quesada or any of the Marvel Executive team? Please visit the CUP O’ Q&A thread in CBR’s Marvel Universe forum. It’s the dedicated thread for all connections between Board Members and the Marvel staff that CBR will pull questions for next week’s installment of our weekly fan-generated question-and-answer column! Do it to it!