Getting The '411' On Marvel: Marvel's 1/20/03 Press Conference

[411 - Click to enlarge]Earlier this afternoon, Marvel Comics hosted one of their regular press conferences via telephone and invited the comic book press to attend, with CBR News being one of the many groups in attendance. The topics of discussion didn't revolve around distribution or super heroes, but rather a more serious and focused message of world peace, delivered from Bill Jemas, Joe Quesada, Chuck Austen and editor Mike Raicht. The big project that was revealed, as accurately predicted by "Lying in The Gutters'" Rich Johnston, was "411" and the ongoing "Call of Duty" series was discussed briefly.

"Joe and I have often thought of Marvel as America's storytellers, both because of the sixty year history of providing a forum for some wonderful creative talent to say things the way they want to say it and because we feel an ongoing responsibility to provide a soap box for new creators as they come along," explained Jemas. "There will be over the next month, a whole range of announcements that relate to Marvel extending our reach to new artists and new creators and providing a very large and hopefully very high profile world to say what they want to say. With respect to '411,' let's just say it'll be the most serious of the books we produce in the next year or so, and the word '411' is really the buzzword that kids use for information now, the information is valid, people like Martin Luther King, who dedicated their lives to peaceful solutions to violent problems. We think that it's just the kind of message that Marvel ought to be involved in and it's the other side of the coin to the '911' book, where we have an opportunity without any express political agenda, other than to provide people with a forum to express their views in a high profile way."

The series was also revealed to be three issues long, debuting on April 11th ("We wanted to be cute," said Jemas) and will be $3.50 an issue, because of cardstock covers and a lack of advertisements, explained Marvel. Something else that is sure to illicit cheers from the mainstream audience is that the first issue will have an introduction from Dr. Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhis' grandson and co-founder of M.K Gandhi Institute for Non-Violence.

While this series will be an anthology series, featuring about three stories per 32-page issue, Chuck Austen was the only writer available for this conference, but was glad to explain the genesis of his involvement of what is clearly a project he's very passionate about. "When Mike [Raicht] first approached me about it, the idea was to show non-violent solutions in a violent world, to come up with stories that reflected other possibilities, other options than going out and committing more violence and more violent acts," explains the writer. "The story that I actually wrote was from an idea Bill Jemas wrote, giving credit where credit is due, and he has a rough outline of it, and they sent us a rough outline of what kind of stories they wanted us to do, I read through it and it had to do with parents, it had to with mothers and their love of their children, which was a very strong, resonating theme with me, being a parent myself, so I said 'this a great one, too bad I can't do it myself.' They got back to me and said I wanted to do it, all I had to do was go for it. I'm really happy with how it turned out and I'm really happy with how it turned out- the art is some of the best the artist has turned out and I know Phil Winslade was really into it. I think it's a great project and I'm really excited to be involved in it, I'm really excited and enthusiastic about Marvel spearheading something like this, it's a really unusual project considering the way the market stands right now and it's awesome, I think it's terrific.

"The story that I worked on was about a soldier who loses his daughter and the obvious response for a soldier losing his child is for him to retaliate, to inflict the same violence inflicted upon him, but the event changes his wife's perspective and she argues that he could go off and kill someone else's children and that gives him an idea for a more peaceful solution for the one he has in mind. So he realizes the thing I've realized, that that strongest bond is usually that between the mother and their children, and he decides to use that for a more a peaceful solution."

Austen says that just because the stories in "411" are about peace, it won't make the tales anti-climatic or less enjoyable for readers. "I think the story we wrote has quite a climax, not so much an anti-climax as you might expect. As far as writing a peaceful solution, I enjoy it quite a bit- there's so much stuff geared around a fight or violence or kicking someone's ass in retaliation that they did, it was fun to write something from such a different point of view. It's kind of like one the things I saw about writing the X-Men as opposed to writing something with a little more violence like War Machine- they both have they place, they both have their own point of view, but it's always fun to try something different and interesting, plus working with Bill and his idea, which I though was so different and interesting, from a guy who's known for stirring up the shit, he came up with something cool for ending things peacefully."

Going from a violent series like "War Machine" to a more optimistic series like "411" might seem like quite a stretch, but Austen explains that all he's doing is just showing another facet of his beliefs. "The oblivious different way is that one is violent, the other isn't- a different way of solving a similar problem in a way. Both of the stories have to do with racism or conflict between different religions and viewpoints. When I do something like 'War Machine,' it's a hard book to write in way, because a lot of it's taken from stuff that happened near me and in my life. When you write about stuff that real and that horrifically possible, it eats away at you inside, it takes a little bit away from you. But when you write a story like I did for '411,' it's much more hopeful and much more positive in the end: there's things that happen in it that are terrible, but in the long run they lead to good, something that you think will improve the world. Writing something like 'War Machine' shows me that people will continue to be horrible to people, and that's a fear, but writing something like '411' it something like I'd really something to see happen in the world. I guess that's the main difference- one is more a reaction to way I think things may continue to go and '411' is the way I would like to see life happen."

Something else that Marvel's beaming over is the creative line up for the series and Jemas can't help but contain his genuine excitement over the creators contributing to this series. "One story's written by Chuck Austen, with a little assist by me, and art by Phil Winslade. Another piece will be written by Mark Millar and illustrated by Frank Quitely and another by Bruce Jones & Sean Phillips, plus contributions by Brian Vaughn and Leonardo Manco. There's more, as these are three anthology books and Marvel's not espousing any political agenda, though world peace wouldn't be bad (laughs), but we really want to give a forum for people to express their world views." Marvel also revealed that there will be contributions from non-comic world professionals such as Tony-Award-winning playwright and author Tony Kushner , anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott and political cartoonist David Rees, of "Get Your War On" fame.

Quesada adds that this project was inspired in part by the nature of news today, that he feels doesn't offer much hope for most viewers. "This really came to a head for us was one of those Monday mornings when Bill came to my office and was talking about how there's nothing on the news but tragedy after tragedy, nothing offering a different point of view or a solution. We're not saying we having a solution, but we know there's different points of view and we have lots of writers who share that point of view, and even if they don't, they have others to share. Hopefully we'll offer a relief from the evening news, in the shape of a 32 page comic."

But if you're looking for "411" to be your monthly relief from the evening news, Jemas explains that it could return on a more regular basis, but didn't seem to be looking a monthly series. "It is a 3 book series, it will be collected into a graphic novel, and depending on the reception, positive or negative, we can get back with a project like this."

The marketing plan for "411" isn't something that Marvel is set to reveal quite yet, but Jemas did say that he expects the series to do quite well given the nature of the book and talent involved. "Sure. Part of what propelled 'Heroes' into national prominence was a national tragedy and it would be nice for this book to get some national prominence without some national tragedy. We do expect that, given there will be well-known and talented people beyond the comic book press involved, that we do expect coverage to go beyond the comic book press and that distribution will be handled at newsstands at bookstores."

"I think it's a wonderful way to show our art form to the world at large," adds Quesada. "I can hand it to anyone on the street and they won't look at me as though I'm from outer space."

While previous efforts like "Heroes" have drawn inspiration from actual events in real life, Jemas says that "411" will be a mixture of fiction and reality, though Vaughn's story would revolve around an actual event. "There's no limitation on what the writers can write about. Some of the stories are relentlessly real- I'd love to see Chuck's story come true (laughs). I'd tend to say the essays tend to be reality oriented and the illustrated stories tend to be more fantasy."

While the events of "411" will take place in the Marvel Universe, Quesada said he isn't worried about the effect on the Marvel Universe, though he says the idea of more progressive superheroics is making it's way into the Marvel Universe already. "I think you can see that effect already. That's already on the minds of creators. A staple of superhero comics is the big superhero battle, but when you look at books like 'New X-Men' or 'Uncanny X-Men,' you'll see what Grant [Morrison] or Chuck are doing, where the books are less about the battles and more about politics and their quest for co-existence."

[The Call - Click to enlarge]The other big project announced by Marvel was the "Call of Duty" ongoing, illustrated by Pat Olliffe, late of "Spider-Girl," and written by Chuck Austen. The series will pick up after the events of the previous three mini-series and show readers that the final fates of certain characters were not as they appeared. Additionally, primary and supporting characters from the previous series will return in this ongoing to help create a new cast that Marvel believes will appeal to a mass audience. The series is set to launch in April, with painted covers by Gabriel Del'Otto and will be 32 pages, with ads, at $2.25 an issue.

"On an artistic level and sales level, we're very happy with the 'Call of Duty' and Chuck's work on that series," said Jemas. "When last we checked, 'CoD' was beating 'Smallville' and 'Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight' pretty handedly, so for a series that is about guys with underwear on the inside and asbestos suits, the series has done absolutely well. He's not only beating 'Mar-ville,' but to be outselling series like 'Wonder Woman' that have been around for years it great. Is the series going to do X-Men or Spider-Man numbers? No, only X-Men and Spider-Man do X-Men and Spider-Man numbers, but for a brand new property about an important topic to sell the way it does in the direct market and mass market is nothing short of remarkable."

"I always find it ironic, Diamond's topic 100 or 200, looking where 'Call' sits, underneath it are books that by virtue of what the online community says are hits," explained Quesada and then continued, "Books that have done extremely well but it seems that Marvel books are measured under a different barometer, a different gauge, which is fine, but I think you have to look at this under a 'Call of Duty' perspective because it's not your typical book. Look at it compared to series like 'Y- The Last Man' or 'Transmetropolitan' or even '100 Bullets' and then lets talk about whether we consider it a success or not."

Jemas says he understands that retailers can't risk ordering heavier on books like "The Call," where they aren't guaranteed to sell in higher numbers, and as such, he says Marvel will try to make it easier to draw in new readers so retailers can have another bonafide hit on their hands. "What you'll see us do is take the bottom out of the price of a certain book that we really want to sell. You've seen us do this once with the 'Fantastic Four,' copying DC's ten cent adventure, and what'll you see us do on a regular basis, at least quarterly is to do books for a quarter. 'Daredevil' did very well in terms of additional sell-through and we saw the sales of monthly 'Daredevil' book poke up in a very dramatic way. So what you'll see is that with a book like 'Call of Duty,' where we want to prove to the retailers that they should take the risk, we'll take the risk first."

Marvel also closed out the conference call by revealing that the rumored Punisher series that would be done in a style similar to "Origin" is set for a fall release and offered some details. "It's going to be written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Darick Robertson. The official name is 'Born,' and it's coming out from the MAX imprint. It's the true origin of the Punisher. What happened in Central Park is not the full story."

Stay tuned tomorrow to CBR News for the X-Men themed Marvel Press Conference and presumably news on the "First Wave" titles (or check out Lying In The Gutters).

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