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Ultimate Bill Jemas & Joe Quesada, Part II

by  in Comic News Comment
Ultimate Bill Jemas & Joe Quesada, Part II

Yesterday, CBR News brought you the first part of an exclusive two-part interview with Marvel Comics Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada and former Marvel President Bill Jemas in which the pair looked back on the launch of the Ultimate Universe eight years ago with the auspicious debut of “Ultimate Spider-Man,” and the innovative methods Marvel developed (and risked) to promote and build the line to the mainstay it is in 2008.

“Ultimatum” poster by David Finch

We continue that conversation today, asking Jemas and Quesada how they would approach the launch differently with the benefit of hindsight and if something like the Ultimate Universe could be launched today. We also look ahead at where the Ultimate Universe is going.

CBR: Looking back on the launch of “Ultimate Spider-Man” and the universe it inhabits, would either of you have approached the Ultimate line differently with the benefit of hindsight?

Joe Quesada: No. [laughs] Absolutely not. We caught lightning in a bottle. Following on the heels of Brian [Michael Bendis] was Mark Millar on “Ultimate X-Men.” It’s like hitting a grand slam in the seventh game of the World Series. That doesn’t happen every day. I can’t even fathom a way we could have done it different.

Bill Jemas: Well, the book was really under ordered …

“Ultimate X-Men Ultimate Collection”

JQ: That sort of helped the feeding frenzy didn’t it? There are so many false collectibles in the industry, especially at that time. There are cities built on landfills of old X-Men [laughs], but “Ultimate Spider-Man” #1 was by the second week selling at way over $100. It was a real collectible. You couldn’t get them anywhere. There was a very real intrinsic value there. So, yeah, could that first issue have sold better? Yes, but I think — and Bill this is part of your philosophy that I still carry with me — the collectability of that first issue really drove a lot of the marketing on that book.

BJ: Now, I don’t keep up with the comics industry the way I used to, but my sense of the retail community today is that they’re pretty healthy now, but they were really unhealthy at the time. So, buying a book for a buck and selling it for $50 bucks — you do that ten times and you were having a pretty good week.

Before Joe became Editor-In-Chief, one of the things he was beating the drum about was to get involved in the graphic novel business in a serious way. Having sold-out regular issues really helped the industry stomach the concept of graphic novels. There was an old, kind of stupid question that people asked about for years, “If you’re going to issue the graphic novel, why would anybody buy the comic book?” The reason why it’s a stupid question is because, well, they do, so why are you asking me the stupid question? Let’s make booth. At the time it was a fairly nervy move. So we printed, I think, 6000 “Ultimate Spider-Man” graphic novel collections so we could get it at a decent price and sell it at a fair price to retail. See how far we’ve come, Joe? That was a really scary moment. Talk about your job being at stake — we took our last few thousand dollars in the budget to print a graphic novel collection when our whole graphic novel business in a year might have been 5000 units.

JQ: And Marvel at that point was not a company that wanted to keep any inventory anywhere. That’s why they didn’t have a graphic novel business. So, yeah, taking that type of deep vested interest and position on that book was a huge risk. But here we are, today, “Ultimate Spider-Man” is probably one of our all-time best selling collected editions.

BJ: I don’t know if you know Jim Killen over at Barnes & Noble, but I begged him to commit to a few thousand of them so I could go back to my boss and say, “Well, Barnes & Noble is behind us.” I think if Barnes & Noble hadn’t made a commitment to us at the time, what would have happened is we wouldn’t have printed enough units, so we’d have to pay a higher price to the printer and then because you’re stupid you charge too much for the book and then it doesn’t sell. Because we got a good commitment from Barnes & Noble and were able to get a good price from the printer, we were able to price the book to sell at retail.

“Ultimate Spider-Man” remains one of Marvel’s best-selling lines of collected editions

Have you ever spent any time thinking about the hypothetical “What If…” the Ultimate Universe didn’t succeed and what it would have meant or done to Marvel at that time?

BJ: I’m not exaggerating when I say if the book wasn’t good, it never would have come out. We wouldn’t have launched the line. One thing I’m really proud of in retrospect is that Joe and Mark and Brian have kept that tradition going, that the Ultimate books have to be good or you just don’t print them. We had that philosophy from day one. I’m not saying that “Ultimate Spider-Man” had to succeed. What I’m saying is that if it wasn’t good, you would never have heard about it. We needed something that would drive the machine — everything from video games to even in some small extent influencing the quality and nature of how movie scripts were going to get made. So, again, if this thing wasn’t any good you wouldn’t have known about it and we may have done something else. It might have been a Marvel Knights title, for instance. We would have found some way to have a great Spider-Man comic and look come out. If Ultimate wasn’t going to be it, something else would have been it.

Joe, remember how good [J. Michael] Straczynski’s books were when they hit the ground with “Amazing Spider-Man?” It might have been that.

Looking at what Marvel is today, as well as the current state and health of the industry, could something like the Ultimate line be launched in 2008 and still be a success?

JQ: I think it’s all a matter of timing and the state of the industry. Eight years ago, the industry was ready for something like this from Marvel. It’s always time and place and a little bit of luck. I think lines can be launched and lines have been launched, but something like the Ultimate line? I don’t think the time is right to do something like that today. That air of desperation back then really helped. What’s the old saying, necessity is the mother of invention? I’ve often heard people call those early years where Bill and I started this thing called “the wild west” and really, that’s what it was. That’s how you end up getting stuff like the Ultimate universe and the “Rawhide Kid” and “Wolverine: Origins” and things like that because while there’s a lot at stake, there’s nothing to lose. I think it’s a matter of timing and climate.

“The Ultimates” did much to define the nature of the Ultimate Universe

Could it be done again? Maybe, but these types of things are usually cyclical and big things like this usually happen in comics once every twenty years. I think it’ll be a long time until you see something like the Ultimate universe come around again.

BJ: I have thought about it, but I think Joe’s right. There was that energy that came from hard times. It’s interesting, when you talk to people like my parents and their generation, who lived through the Great Depression, that as tough as it was there was this glean in their eyes about fighting through the hard times.

You know, I’ve had some cool jobs in my lifetime, but I’ve never had a better time in my life than working with Joe and Mark and Brian on [the Ultimate line]. I don’t know if you feel the same way, Joe …

JQ: Oh yeah.

BJ: … but we had four people in the room, all from entirely different backgrounds, lifestyles and mental mindsets and we just figured we’d throw whatever egos we had aside and just come up with really great stuff.

JQ: We had two writers that were really looking to make a name for themselves in the industry and thumbing their noses at the establishment. You had an Editor-In-Chief who was new and fresh to the job and basically wasn’t aware of any of the pitfalls of what could happen so that little bit of ignorance allowed you to be a little more fearless than you even know. And you had a President who came in with a real vision on how to change a company by hook or by crook. The chemistry was there.

I think we also need to throw [editor] Ralph Macchio into the discussion here, who took on the Ultimate line.

BJ: Oh, absolutely, yeah.

“Ultimate Fantastic Four” Volume 2

JQ: I remember having a very faithful conversation with Ralph, who had been editing the Spider-Man line at that time, and I told him we were taking the Spider-Man line away from him because we needed him to launch the Ultimate line for us. “We need you to be that guy,” I told him. While you had the four of us who were sort of brash and to some extent inexperienced in what we were doing, we needed a guy who was an old hand at making the comic books and keep everything on the road. Left to our own devices, this thing would have derailed and fallen off the tracks. Ralph was the stability we needed. It’s like my relationship with my wife — I’m totally left-side-of-the-brain and if it wasn’t for her I’d be on the street impoverished. So, Ralph was sort of our wife in this whole thing and really helped keep this thing in order and did a spectacular job grooming Brian and Mark to become really just phenomenal craftsmen in the Marvel sense.

BJ: Now that you mention it, you also have to remember Adam Kubert, who I knew from my Fleer trading card days. Joe really did a great sell job to Adam to get him to tackle “Ultimate X-Men” because it really was moving him off a first-class book with guaranteed high creator royalties and prestige. And I don’t know if you remember this Joe, but I just begged Mark Bagley to do “Ultimate Spider-Man” and finally what did the trick was his daughter read Brian’s script and yelled at Mark to do this.

JQ: Basically, Mark was a big mainstream comics guy for a while doing Spider-Man, but somewhere along the way Mark ended up doing more licensed and custom comics, if I’m not mistaken. I just know he wasn’t drawing any of the mainstream stuff. He left for DC for a little bit and Bill just had this vision that Mark was the guy. Before I knew it, Mark was attached to the project and I was like, “Wow, Bagley’s back? I didn’t even know he was around doing comics.” So he really sort of brought Bagley back. While Mark had some great success early on in his career, “Ultimate Spider-Man” is arguably the thing he’ll be best known for — over 100 issues with Bendis. It was a magnificent run.

BJ: Joe, ask [Marvel Publisher] Dan Buckley about this. Mark and I worked on this really cool set of Spider-Man cards together four or five years before then, but I think Buckley called up from retirement, heard about this, knew my house was on fire and I think he was the one who said to use Bagley.

Mark Bagley was integrel to the success of “Ultimate Spider-Man”

JQ: I just remember that Mark wasn’t a main Marvel guy back then.

BJ: Exactly.

You two have both spoken about a number of the highlights of the launch of the Ultimate Universe, helping to define the careers of Bendis and Millar, working together in a collaborative fashion in getting this universe off the ground. Let’s take a moment and explore some of the “lowlights,” as well. Surely, the publishing delays experienced by the “Ultimates” books by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch had to be one of those.

JQ: You know, it was certainly a problem, but the debate internally was do we ship this book late or do we bring in another artist? Bill was a very big believer, as was I, of that book hinging on the quality that Hitch brought to the book. Bill pulled many rabbits out of his hat to bring Bryan here. Bryan was in a situation that he needed to get out of contractually that wasn’t working for him and Bill really stepped in and went to the mat for Bryan. We knew he was the right guy for this project and Mark really wanted him on this thing. Once we had Hitch, we realized that “Ultimates” was such a product of the magic of those crazy guys from across the pond that putting in a fill-in would have killed the momentum on that book. The theory from retailers at the time was that if you don’t ship the book, all the momentum is going to die and no one would want it. On the contrary, what happened was that with every issue that came out, the momentum kept building no matter how late that book was. It was a little nerve wracking, but from my point of view it ended up being the smart decision.

More than any other Ultimate titles, “Ultimates” really helped define the feel of the universe and really did a job defining what the Marvel Universe is today, including the Marvel movies. The Marvel movies and what the Marvel Universe feels like now is so much of the feeling that Hitch and Millar created in those “Ultimates” books.

Has there ever been a story idea originally intended for one universe that was pulled and repurposed for the other?

JQ: Not to my recollection. Maybe there’s something on Brian or Mark’s end where they had an idea and shifted from one to the other, but never told us. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t remember there ever being that sort of move.

“Ultimate Galactus Trilogy”

BJ: It’s a very good question, but I think as the ideas came up, we kind of knew where they would fall. There were three Fantastic Four titles being revamped at the same time — one Mark Waid was doing, we had this little idea for the FF to sort of get laid off from work and then there was the idea for “Ultimate Fantastic Four.” I think the universes were and are, at least in the minds of the creative teams running the show, were so clearly defined that they easily fell into the square pegs, round pegs or triangular pegs the right way.

Looking forward, we have “Ultmatum” #1 on sale this week and it promises a new status quo and that no team will be the same; that someone will die on every team. That’s something that superhero readers don’t have a lot of faith in anymore, dead characters staying dead. Will these characters actually stay dead in the Ultimate universe?

JQ: As far as I know, these are pretty permanent deaths. I can’t speak to five, six years from now because, hell, I don’t even know if I’ll be here tomorrow! [laughs] As far as we’re planning right now, these are very, very significant deaths. While I can’t say on the record why some of these deaths are happening, some of them are happening in order to get back to the original mission statement of the Ultimate universe — to make these characters younger. We’ve been publishing for eight years now and there are times where we’d deviate off the road then get back on and I think it’s time for us to sort of clean house a little bit and get back to the original mission statement. So, the deaths will definitely shift things around, shift cast members and many of the books might be unrecognizable by the time we get out of this thing, but it’ll be pretty darn exciting and it’s just great to have Millar and Bendis back on the books, joined by Loeb. It’s going to be pretty crazy.

The Ultimate books have over the past couple of years seemed to settle somewhat in terms of content. And they haven’t been blazing up the charts nor are they often front and center in the daily comics news cycle. Why is now the right time to re-inject the Ultimate universe with all this creative energy?

JQ: I think one of the reasons why the Ultimate universe may have started to, I would say, maybe lose a little of that edginess—honestly, I think that’s maybe a bit of a misstatement. I think what happened is that the regular Marvel Universe had started to adopt so much of the edginess of the Ultimate universe that the Ultimate universe now has to figure out how to take that next step now that the Marvel Universe has caught up. What’s the next step in that evolution? That’s really what I think we’re going to find the Ultimate Universe to be, sort of the pre-cursor of where the Marvel Universe will end up.

“Ultimate Origins”

If you read in “Ultimate Origins,” we discover the big secret in the Ultimate universe is that mutants aren’t the next step in evolution, but rather that mutants were actually created by man. That again gets down to one of the major staples of the Ultimate universe, which is something that Bill insisted we work upon, which is modern science. The Marvel universe was based on ‘60s nuclear science, while the Ultimate universe is based on today’s genetic science. Staying within those parameters, Mutants were created in test tubes. They weren’t God’s will, they’re not evolution, they were created by man and that’s going to make things real screwy in the Ultimate universe if that secret gets out. There’s a lot of stuff brewing.

The Marvel Universe is one that simply cannot end. It’s not designed in any way to do that. But the Ultimate Universe is a very different beast — can it ever come to an end?

JQ: That’s the great thing about the Ultimate Universe — yes, it could absolutely end tomorrow.

Should it end at some point?

JQ: I don’t know. Just like the way it began, it was a product of its time. If the time comes where it has to end, then yeah, there you have your last Ultimate story. I don’t see it happening in the foreseeable future, especially with the stuff we have coming down the road, but that’s also one of the great hallmarks of the Ultimate universe — it’s so darned unpredictable. You just don’t know what will happen, as will be witnessed through “Ultimatum.”

BJ: I agree with Joe. That universe, that construct, can end because the Marvel Universe has moved in the direction it has. One of the bugaboos of the industry is the kind of comic writing where the stories are just about the last story and the stories don’t really relate very well to the real world, which means a new reader showing up to read a book is not going to really understand, care about or internalize the characters. So, as the quality of the Marvel universe has improved — and I hate to say “quality” when it comes to creative work — but as long as Marvel keeps writing stories about life on earth, you don’t need Ultimates to set the tone. When the Ultimate Universe is important is when Marvel gets tied up in its own underwear.

Tied up in its own underwear or not, eight years ago the basic Marvel Universe books made money. I remember walking into Marvel and not really understanding the Internet at the time, saying things to reporters like, “Well, the comic books sucked.” I didn’t realize at the time that that line would be all over the Web for weeks! “Well, I didn’t mean sucked like they were bad, I just meant sucked like I couldn’t give the books to a twelve-year-old who would enjoy it!” So, as long as Marvel does what it does now really well, the Marvel Universe is fine and the Ultimate line is not necessary, but as long as its good, great. When it no longer has a reason for being, you’re better off letting it go.

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