Ultimate Bill Jemas & Joe Quesada, Part I

Eight years ago, Marvel Comics launched a new superhero universe. In an industry littered with dead universes — including a failed attempt by Marvel in the 1980s called the New Universe — Marvel’s move left many scratching their heads. The new line was superficially similar to the existing Marvel Universe yet also a new construct, allowing creators to re-imagine classic characters in a modern setting not tied to decades of continuity, ostensibly for the benefit of a new generation of readers.

At the time, when Marvel was still recovering from the bankruptcy it suffered in the 1990s, there was concern that Marvel was launching a line of books that would directly compete with its existing universe. Was 2000 really the right time to launch a new superhero universe?

Apparently, it was. Marvel defied the seemingly insurmountable odds and successfully launched what has come to be known as the Ultimate Universe.

“Ultimate Spider-Man” #1 was an instant success, not only helping to launch the Ultimate Universe, but the mainstream career of writer Brian Michael Bendis, a then-rising star in the industry. The title also initiated one of the longest writer-artist collaborations ever with Mark Bagley illustrating the book for well over 100 issues. “Ultimate Spider-Man” was followed by a second ongoing series, “Ultimate X-Men,” by Mark Millar and Adam Kubert, another highly successful launch that helped establish Millar as a household name in the industry.

This week, eight years later, Marvel releases the first issue of “Ultimatum” by Jeph Loeb and David Finch, a miniseries that promises to alter the Ultimate Universe in very dramatic ways. Characters will die, teams will change, and nothing will ever be the same in the young superhero world. With all the changes the Ultimate universe is set to face, CBR News decided to take a trip down memory lane to the very beginning to see how this universe began and why it was so important to Marvel’s future survival. In this first of an exclusive two-part interview, we spoke with Marvel Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada and former Marvel President Bill Jemas about the beginnings of the Ultimate universe.

CBR: Let’s begin by going back to that very first moment, when the idea for the Ultimate Universe was just thrown out there, back when it was codenamed “Ground Zero.”

Joe Quesada: That’s right. That was the original name. I think it was Bendis who convinced us that while it was a great name, it was hinged on a negative — zero — so he challenged us to come up with a new name. Bill, do you remember who came up with the Ultimate name?

Bill Jemas: No, I don’t. I know that was one of those things when we asked everyone their opinion on the name and they all chose that.

JQ: Ask Brian as he may have a better recollection where the Ultimate name came from. Actually, if you ask Brian, he’ll say he came up with it so it doesn’t matter. [laughs]

BJ: That’s probably true, but then Joe and I get the chance to deny it, so that’s even better. [laughs]

The notion of a modernized Marvel Universe was inspired by a 1997 Warren Ellis column, in which he envisioned creators taking a more modern approach to the Fantastic Four, using the existing history as a starting point. But in terms of the publishing concern of Marvel Comics, how did it all really begin? What was that impetus for what became the Ultimate Universe?

JQ: This is all you, Bill.

BJ: I was working at Madison Square Garden and [Wizard founder] Gareb Shamus came over to visit and we began to talk about what was wrong with the Marvel Universe. Part of it was that characters who were envisioned as teenagers were walking around with goatees, beards and children. And I remember the line was “pretty soon they’d start having prostate problems!” [laughs] So, it really came out of that conversation when I was still working at the Garden.

There were a lot of ideas. Mostly, the first part of my working at Marvel was walking around talking to people at the company about what everybody wanted and everyone at Marvel wanted Spider-Man to be a kid. Everyone wanted Marvel to appeal to teenagers and everybody though the characters were best when they were young. Joe was one of the few people in the creative community who was willing to stand up and say, “I want to make this happen. How can I help?”

Back when these ideas were first floating around, was there ever a consideration — even for a minute — of simply blowing up the existing Marvel Universe and completely restarting it as opposed to starting the Ultimate line?

JQ: I think we entertained that for a little bit, but you also have to understand that when Bill took over the reins of Marvel at the time — and as the saying goes, how Marvel goes so goes the Industry — well, the industry was in the crapper and literally anything you did could be the last thing you did. While it was nerve wracking, it was also pretty liberating because we had nothing to lose. But I think also, looking at the bottom and looking at where our bread was buttered, for good reason we came to the conclusion eventually that it wasn’t prudent to mix one with the other.

I do remember Bill having this idea, but I wasn’t even Editor-In-Chief at the time. I was working at Marvel Knights and Bill called me into this meeting and I had no idea what I was walking into. There were a bunch of editors and myself and Bill and we were all sort of looking around and Bill had this great vision, but the editors had no idea what he was talking about. Eventually when I became Editor-In-Chief we began rolling on the thing.

BJ: Joe was really valuable for this. The problem we had was we couldn’t really find creators to work on this. The ones we could find -- Joe, you used to use the word “horrible” — just gave us horrible stuff. It was either people didn’t want to work on it, or didn’t really want it to work. Joe, I don’t know if you remember this, but I was desperate for a kids writer and you walked in with this script and said, “Well, here’s a script about a serial killer who kills kids!” [laughs] And that was Bendis’ “Torso.” And Joe was right — Bendis had the right sensibility for this thing.

JQ: The original mission statement was to make these characters younger and that it was a different Marvel Universe. I think the guys who were taking on the project didn’t quite get it. It’s sort of the way I used to look at what John Byrne did with “Spider-Man: Chapter One” — the way to make Spider-Man younger was to give him a computer instead of a microscope. That’s not really a shift in the real core essence of the character, but more a shift in scenery. That was symptomatic. This isn’t about pointing out those writers who handed in pitches to me that wouldn’t succeed; it’s what most writers would have done. “Let’s update these guys by giving them all computers and cell phones and that’ll make ‘em younger and modern and it’s going to work.” But that wasn’t really what needed to happen.

Brian took the idea of Peter Parker as the skinny guy, pocket potector, nerd with the horn rimmed glasses — which is what the nerdy kid was like in that era and he looked at today’s modern world and Peter Parker dropped all those trappings and became more of a very brooding sort of kid. He had a sort of intensity to him — he’d either end up being one of two things: he’d either be a nerd or the guy who shows up at the high school the next day in a trench coat and blows everybody away. That was the shift that was needed. It wasn’t about computers or microscopes or cell phones. It was about an emotional difference between what the kid is today compared to what he would have been in the ‘60s.

Why was there so much internal resistance to the Ultimate Universe in the beginning? Was the Ultimate Universe really that big a threat to creators at that time?

JQ: The immediate threat internally was here’s the new boss, he’s got all these high fallutin’ ideas, he doesn’t know what the heck he’s talking about, we’ve been here a million years, etc. There was a lot of fear because it’s been tried a couple of times before, but it’s never worked.

When I joined the meeting, the reaction was like, “Well, this guy doesn’t even work at Marvel — he’s a packager. And he’s going to dictate policy, too?” So, there was a lot of that going on. The shift happened internally when Brian’s first scripts started coming. It was then we realized that this stuff was really good. Of course the same shift happened in fandom, only it happened much long.

Now, another thing that happened was Bill came in and said, “I don’t want Spider-Man in costume until the sixth issue.” Everyone said, well, now it’s doomed to failure! [laughs] Let me say this, it would have been doomed to failure if it hadn’t been written well. I know Bill got in there with Brian and got his hands dirty and coached him along to go develop and work on the characters and cast. It made for an incredibly successful line and a super star writer out of Bendis.

In terms of your job at the time, Bill, how much was riding on the successful launch of the Ultimate Universe line?

BJ: Well, there are many different levels to the job and I never thought about the job like that at the time. Look, we were real broke and we needed something that would generate little bits of money, you know, cash flow day-to-day. We needed a new business model. As much as “Ultimate Spider-Man “is a comic book and a wonderful one at that, Ultimate Spider-Man the character and look stood in the middle of the machine that was going to be the fuel that fueled that machine. Early on in my first six months, we were right in the middle of the release of the first X-Men movie, which was this spectacular box-office success. I think at the time it was the third-biggest opening weekend of all time for a non-sequel. Crazy numbers. But the comic books were based on the ‘60s continuity. So there was no graphic novel, no TV promo. The movie was for 20-year-olds and the toys were for 10-year-olds and the toys didn’t sell. We had an [animated] TV show that was from Hell that didn’t tie into anything and we had merchandise that was from Hell that didn’t tie into anything, too. So, we had a movie success and a god awful financial failure and we were broke! Like can’t-make-payroll, broke!

Ultimate Spider-Man was going to be the character and design that would prove the point that the company could work together. Again, I’d like to take credit for it inventing it, but I walked around the company and asked everyone what they wanted and what they all wanted was to appeal to teenagers with a character who looked like he popped out of a video game and not out of a 1950s newspaper.

Spider-Man was essential because we were in financial straights and if it wasn’t Spider-Man or something else as big, we would have gone into a further financial spiral. What was going to be as big as Spider-Man? Really, nothing, so it was crucial that the project succeeded to help the property to succeed.

The X-Men series from Hell — are you talking about the animated series or the live-action “Mutant X” series?

BJ: Oh, I had blocked “Mutant X” out of my mind! [laughs] Of course I was talking about the animated series.

Of course, the Ultimate line was a success. “Utimate Spider-Man” #1 sold out in a day and it’s been reprinted countless times -- not just in trade paperbacks and hardcover collections, but there were also Wal-Mart and Kay Bee Toy Store editions, a Free Comic Book Day edition, and then of course “Ultimate X-Men” #2 was included for free in copies of the New York Post back in 2003. That kind of outreach, back then, was mostly unheard of. How did you accomplish all that?

JQ: That was Bill’s philosophy and something he brought with him from Madison Square Garden, all that free sampling.

BJ: Well, the goal was to create Ultimate Spider-Man with great visuals and great comics. The first thing we did was had a shoe company, Buster Brown shoes, that was filled with these very irrational Spider-Man fans. We spent a fortune to create a great pair of shoes. Joe, remember the red shoes with the webs?

I’ll get back to the shoes in a second, but Joe gives me more credit than I deserve — I brought Joe into every high-end sales and creative meeting I could find because I’m not an enthusiastic person really, but Joe would come in and start beating the drums! Big sponsors and newspapers and companies — you know how Joe gets the comic industry to follow the drum, well, Joe did a lot of that with people from the electronic game companies to the shoe companies.

Okay, so back to the shoe company. They bought 500,000 copies of “Ultimate Spider-Man” and stuck them in the shoes and sold those shoes like crazy! So, really, what we were doing was getting the comic books out there way in advance of the movie and that spurred the graphic novel program. Then people saw the success of the graphic novels and the shoes and wanted to do some t-shirts and we forced them — and this is horrible to say — but we forced the sample comics down everybody’s throats at first, but then they really liked them. I think the sampling number ended up being around 8 million units.

It was a successful book in comic shops at 100,000 units. We were thrilled to get that many. But to get 8 million units in samples and then, Joe, I don’t have a good memory, but I think we got up to 3 million a month with MarvelDotComics.

JQ: Yeah.

BJ: So, well in advance of the Spider-Man movie coming out, people believed Spider-Man was and could be a success.

CBR News concludes our discussion with Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada Wednesday, when we discuss what might have happened to Marvel had the Ultimate Universe not succeeded, how they may have launched it differently with the benefit of hindsight, and whether or not the Ultimate Universe could actually end one day.

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