My Trip To Marvel Comics
It all started so innocently:
Date sent: Tue, 14 Nov 2000 18:53:04 EST
Subject: It's about time..
...that you took a trip up to the Marvel offices and wrote your article about
what a whacky place we got going here. ;-)JQ
Who was I to say no? And so, on Tuesday, December 5th I made my way to 387 Park Avenue South in New York City. It's about five blocks over and five blocks down from Madison Square Garden, and not on the southbound side of the street at all. (What can I say? I don't visit New York often enough to know all the naming conventions. Streets run east and west, while avenues run north and sound. I finally have that straight. I'm lost on everything else, really.)
And here's what the building that holds Marvel Comics looks like:
...except you can't see Marvel here. That's just the entrance. Marvel occupies the top floors. Editorial is on the 10th floor, and all the bean counters and Toy Biz people, along with the receptionist, are up on the 12th floor.
The waiting/reception area right in front of the elevator on the 12th floor. It's pretty neat. There's a display on one side that shows off the X-Men toys. Directly in front of you is a glass wall with Spider-Man's webbing etched into the glass. You can tell it's a comics company when you look at the magazine selection in front of the receptionist's desk. The two mags that stuck out at me were TOYFARE and WIZARD (Ultimate X-Men cover, naturally!). So while the receptionist called down for Joe Quesada, I grabbed TOYFARE and flipped nimbly through it.
(Tangent: If you thought WIZARD was bad, you have to read TOYFARE. It's completely vapid. It's nothing but joke after joke after joke. I don't think there's a serious article in the magazine, and the amount of cheap shots and sexual humor exceeds even WIZARD on its worst day. It's also half as thick, so they're got to pack them in. If you're a toy collector, though, I suppose it's a lot of fun.)
To make a long story short, I finally got to see Joe Quesada about 40 minutes later. The receptionist had no clue who Joe Quesada was ("How do you spell that?"), and the Marvel voice mail system seemed to be having issues that day.
Quesada has the corner office on the tenth floor. His drafting table and desk are on the "far side" while a wall of comic statues are on the set of built-in bookcases on the side you walk in on. The office is strewn with comics stuff. A partially-broken Batmobile sits on the desk, along with the infamous Death Row Marv SIN CITY action figure and a Too Much Coffee Man statue. A Kid Death and Fluffy page hangs up on the side. A whiteboard behind Quesada has phone numbers of artists and Hollywood folk written on it. And, in a view all too common at Marvel, a Macintosh sits perched on the desk. Macintoshes are the computers of choice at Marvel. There are more fruity looking monitors in that office than I've ever seen anyplace, although I suppose in a graphics-oriented company that it makes sense. Heck, I even saw a 21-inch monitor on one desk. Very nice. (Thanks, Jeff!)
Quesada asked right away what I wanted to know. My cover was blown. I quickly admitted I had no game plan in going to Marvel. I just wanted to absorb everything, poke around, talk to some people, see what the famed Marvel Bullpen looks like, etc. Boy, did I get an eyeful. (As luck would have it, in writing this article I've come across a whole raft of questions I'd love to ask. We'll save those up for the follow-up visit. ;-)
Imagine the biggest comics geek bedroom that you can. Picture in your mind all of those posters hanging up. Some are 15 years old. Some are from last year. But they blend together to form a history of Marvel comics. Not an inch of space is left unadorned. Four-color heroes are everywhere, drawn by the likes of Mike Mignola, Art Adams, Jim Lee, Mike Zeck, and more. "Bullpen Bulletins" cartoonist Chris Giarrusso has done up a few large 'toons for a couple of the offices, too. Ralph Macchio's office has hanging up a door-sized Spidey Giarrusso drew.
That's what Marvel Comics' offices look like. These are people who live comics. They surround themselves with the fruits of their efforts, and rightfully so. Heck, the various hallways have street names, such as Yancy Street and the Peter Parkerway. Bookcases in various offices are packed with trade paperbacks, lined with action figures, and topped with toys, tools, and photocopies. Spinner racks adorn offices, photocopy paper boxes hold comic collections, and the ubiquitous flat files hold the pages of original art. (As an original art collector, myself, I was tempted to drool over the mere labels on the drawers at the promise of what they held inside.)
You could literally spend all day poking around just looking at the walls and the shelves and lose yourself in geekiness and the nostalgia rush. It's pretty cool.
Of course, it's also New York City office space. The hallways barely fit two people across. The offices are all smaller than your bedroom, most likely. Even the editor-in-chief's corner office is barely ten by ten feet, I'd say. But, boy, do they pack it in. Some of those offices have two desks in them. Most every editor's office features a large whiteboard prominently keeping track of the status of books in production. Check marks tick off which issues are written, drawn, lettered, gray washed, or colored. Creators' phone numbers and deadlines surround the charts. Comics hang on the wall. Character designs and pinups and tryout art encircle everything. Flat files and bookcases stand packed with items.
For a comics fan it's almost overwhelming.
(The one exception to just about every one of these rules is Stuart Moore, Marvel Knights' new editor. He's just recently moved in in October and in light of Marvel's impending move to new office space, hasn't had the chance to decorate it that well. A MARVEL KNIGHTS poster is easily seen through the door, but no whiteboard hangs up, and a small two-person couch sits in front of his desk. If I remember correctly, it's a PUNISHER poster hanging behind it. The flat file cabinet is the only other piece of furniture in there.)
The first item on the agenda was a quick tour and meet and greet. All the Marvel editors line one wall of the building. So we made our way down the hall, stopping in everyone's office, meeting and greeting, talking a little shop, and moving on to the next. From Moore and Axel Alonso down to the X-Offices and Ralph Macchio, the Plotmaster General at Marvel Comics. (There were another half-dozen in between, but they came so fast and furious that I'm blanking on names. Bobbie Chase and Tom "Mr. Marvel Universe" Breevort were both out of the office that day, though.)
I scored myself a fresh-off-the-color-printer copy of ULTIMATE X-MEN #1. (Full review coming on Friday.) Now that word has officially leaked out about it, I can mention here that I had the chance to look at scans of the first few pages of the upcoming GHOST RIDER #1. It has a pretty good opening to introduce Ghostie. The art is not your standard super-hero stuff. Trent Kanuga can draw regular people in suits in an office environment that looks normal.
Talked briefly with Ben Abernathy, he who is in charge of the trade paperbacks at Marvel. He's rather excited about his job now that the trades are getting renewed attention. We talked briefly about THE AVENGERS and some design things. (Contrary to some reports you may have read, there is no plan to reprint the first 12 issues of Busiek/Perez's run in one volume. The first twelve issues are being collected in a few separate collections, though.) I think Marvel's in good hands here. Besides, Abernathy was the only one with a business card handy. ;-)
In the middle of the floor was the famed Marvel Bullpen. It's in some shambles right now, just because they're getting ready for the big move, but here's one angle on it:
It's just a collection of desks, lightboards, drafting tables, and spinner racks of comics. (On our way back from lunch a little later, Stuart Moore grabs a BLAZE OF GLORY issue off one of the racks. "I've been meaning to read this.") Some smaller offices (like they could get any smaller) are on the far side, as is the "kitchenette area," which is barely a sink and a refrigerator. And, of course, the art corrections/inker/fixer known only as Pond Scum sits at the table in the back of the room slaving away on pages. Quesada said he's there in the morning when he arrives and still chained to his table as he leaves.
We stopped at a wall on the other side of the bullpen on which hung a couple dozen various Marvel Comics, their covers all lined up and facing out. They were all books that just recently came out or were coming out that week. This was Quesada's cover wall. One of the multitudes of things he's working on at Marvel is the cover designs. He's more interested in better-designed covers than the types of covers that show you a scene from inside the book. After all, how many covers do you need of one character fighting another or, even worse, two whole teams of people fighting each other and competing for cover space? That doesn't help very much. You need a better cover design - something like an album cover design, sometimes - and something which attracts the eye, whether that means the use of negative space or just a simpler, larger image, for two examples. He pointed out one cover that had to be colored very carefully to make it stand out better. There was a crowd of characters on the cover, so the coloring department worked their magic to try to mute the colors on the background characters to push them back while the lead characters jumped out better so that the cover could catch the reader's eye on the stands.
It's an interesting way to look at things. The "wall of covers" gives you a better idea of what the comics will look like on the newsstand, not to mention how they'll look in the crowd of other comics, all vying for space and your attention.
Just to the left of that is the official Marvel Knights office, staffed by Nanci Dakesian and her assistant, Kelly Lamy. It's not so much an office as it is a large closet, packed with a couple of desks, some flat files, a drafting board, and stacks upon stacks of paper. While Quesada signed off on some checks - remember that Marvel Knights is an Event Comics concern and so he's the boss - he kept me busy looking at a stack of original David Mack paintings for upcoming DAREDEVIL issues. Just wait until those issues come out. They should look pretty good, judging by the art I held.
After all of this, it was off to lunch at a rather nice sports bar just across the street from Marvel. Sitting at the table were Quesada, Dakesian, Lamy, Moore, and Alonso. Not bad company, and the food was pretty good. We talked about a little of everything, including comics, both Marvel and others, movies, and events of the day. Nobody was afraid to talk about anything and maybe a bit impetuously, I brought it all up, from the recently pulped UNIVERSE X book to Warren Ellis' missing issue of HELLBLAZER. (Hey, if you're sitting with two former Vertigo editors, might as well talk to their strengths. ;-) They did stump me a little when they asked if I read any Vertigo books. Truth be told, TRANSMETROPOLITAN and 100 BULLETS are it. I was never a SANDMAN or PREACHER fan. Looking through my lists afterwards, though, I see that I missed FINALS, PROPOSITION PLAYER, I DIE AT MIDNIGHT, and a couple of other short mini-series.
After that, it was back to the offices, where I had the chance to sit down and chat with Joe Quesada for a little while longer, along with both Stuart Moore and Axel Alonso on the state of the books they're editing today. But I'll just have to save that for next Tuesday's column.
There's one really odd aspect about this whole trip, though. For the next couple of months, I'll be saying, "I knew it" an awful lot when Marvel makes announcements. It's happened already since I left there, as news has come out about Ghost Rider and Marvel Knights magazine, for two examples. It's a bit frustrating, but it's a small price to pay. =)