Comic fans irritated by Marvel Comics' initial decision not to reprint "Ultimate Spider-Man" #1 should prepare for more heartburn. Although the company eventually relented, Marvel president Bill Jemas said Tuesday that the appearance of "Ultimate Spider-Man" #1 as an online reprint was the shape of things to come for future under-ordered hot titles.

"With respect to 'Ultimate Spider-Man,' we found ourselves in a situation half by accident, half on purpose," Jemas said in a lunchtime phone press conference. "What we ended up doing with USM was advertising and promoting this book … as much as we've advertised and promoted any book in recent memory."

When retailers underestimated demand and under-ordered the first issue, "we made the decision [to print] as many books as we had orders for, plus a few thousand more, and not go back for more. … And we'd give the people who supported us the benefit of having something of a collector's item."

In an industry where many blame the collector (and speculator) mentality for the crash of the early 1990s, Jemas thinks that collectors are the way to get Marvel back on top.

"We know that if store owners feel a book will become collectible, they'll order more of it," he said.

As for the conventional wisdom that speculators purchasing multiple variants of comics with enhanced covers and all the rest created the conditions for the dramatic collapse of sales, readership and the loss of comic shops across the United States, Jemas isn't having any of it: "That was the excuse.

"If I were the publisher during the period of the crash," his response to what happened would be that, "Gee, Marvel bought a distribution house … and our books stink. … I could say that, and the next morning I could go back and be a fry cook at Burger King. Or I could say that there was a speculative market, and the customers left.

"Everybody looked for the excuse that saved their jobs for a while. … We have to realize the excuse was the excuse, but we have to realize the problem is the problem."

Marvel's new appointed editor-in-chief Joe Quesada is working on improving the quality and accessibility of the line, Jemas said, while he looks for other ways to improve the company's health.

"Collectibility, which makes the market explode, is not a detriment. Was collectibility a detriment to Pokemon? To baseball? To Beanie Babies?" he said. "Collectiblity is an asset, not a detriment. … When you make a mistake, say you make a mistake, not give an excuse."

And recent history shows that the collector mentality can still bring customers into comic shops.

"I do think that when 12 year olds hear about comics that are worth $20 and $30 that you can get in comic shops for $2 and $3, they'll come into comic shops, just as they did for Pokemon."

Limited reprints will bolster the collectibility of individual hot issues, while Marvel.com will provide online reprints of those comics for readers who missed the issues in the meantime.

"We've gone ahead and created what we're calling Marvel.Comics," Jemas said, calling the current first dozen pages of "Ultimate Spider-Man" #1 on the site right now a "prototype." "We think that's a reasonable compromise when a book sells out, and we can hold off [until] we can have a substantial paperback."

Look for the next 11 pages to go up on the site by Friday, barring any technical problems, he said.

As for other near-term Web ventures, Jemas said "there are a lot of other projects that, in the fullness of time, will come to fruition on Marvel.com," including animation and games. "But for right now, we think the best use of our resources is to get comic book stories out to comic book fans."

And, except perhaps for online reprints, it'll all be free.

"My flip reaction is that we'll charge for this when they start charging for radio. … There will be more than enough advertising revenue to make this viable for Marvel on an ongoing basis. … The minute we start charging for this we start talking to ourselves."

One thing fans won't be seeing soon is Marvel's return to "mature reader" comics in the tradition of their 1980s Epic line. The launch of the mature readers line, which was to have had a strong online component, has been delayed while Quesada and company work on getting a stronger group of titles together. And, given the spotty track record the Epic line had, "Epic" "isn't even the strongest contender" for the new line's name.

Do look for Marvel's free e-mail service, offered through IConnect.com to expand into offering of a commercial Internet connection service. The service, which Jemas said would be comparable in cost to other commercial services, would likely be coupled with incentives like discounts on subscriptions and other merchandise.

And while not wanting to make any absolute predictions about what the next Marvel.Comics reprint will be, Jemas said that "Babylon 5" television series creator J. Michael Straczynski's first issue of "Amazing Spider-Man" would likely qualify.

"When a book sells out at retail, and the paperback is six to eight months away, Marvel ought to … make it available online right away," Jemas said.

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