Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner
“It’s not the type of thing that, when you’re a kid, that you aspire to be,” Joe Quesada observes. “I wanted to be a baseball player. I was reading comics as a kid, but never thought ‘Some day, I’m going to have Stan Lee’s job. That’s what I want to do.’ In my mind, if I was going to be somebody in comics, it was going to be Jack Kirby.
“Call it what you will, but in my world, it’s been one lucky break after another. Some people say you make your own luck, whatever it may be, or maybe I was in the right place at the right time, but I have been very, very fortunate. To find myself in charge of Marvel editorial creatively has been a helluva ride.”
We’re sitting in a restaurant in Chelsea, Quesada’s wearing jeans and a New York Mets t-shirt, taking occasional bites of his medium cheeseburger while answering questions. Nearing the decade mark since his promotion to Editor-in-Chief, Quesada can accept his fair share of credit for renovating the House of Ideas; one of the “Big Two” comic book publishers was hit hard by a team of villainous investors and corporate suits throughout the ‘90s, leaving the once great company to stagger out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. Just recently, Disney announced their intention to buy Marvel outright for $4 billion, news that comes on the heels of Marvel’s success as an independent film studio (and news, incidentally, Joe can't say much about).
“I use Stan Lee as my role model, especially his public persona,” Joe earlier had reflected on Marvel’s first and legendary Editor-in-Chief. “There’s a lot known about Stan’s era, but I learned so much more from just sitting and talking to Stan and the amazing stories he would tell me.
“Stories about the wild, feverish creativity, publishing by the seat of your pants, and putting the best story possible out there, as well as the openness and inclusion of our readership – when I was reading Marvel comics as a kid, it all felt important. Marvel has the ability (and I think it’s where we’re unique amongst other entertainment companies) to pull the curtain back and say ‘There’s no wizard, and here’s the gears, and sometimes they get rusty and break down, but you get to see it. We don’t hide behind a curtain, and you get to see more than any other company would feel comfortable in showing you.’
“I go back to this particular Soapbox column that Stan wrote when I was a kid. I remember it vividly. It was a right after Jack Kirby left to go to DC. Most companies would either ignore it and not publicize that he left, or put some ridiculous gloss on it and make up something. Stan wrote ‘Jack’s gone. He’s going to work for the other guys.’ You could tell there was a tinge of sadness or concern, but then he said ‘You know what? We’re going to be okay, because we still have other great talents…Marvel Comics are going to still be the best comics you can get.’ That was the coolest thing ever: the ability to let me in on what was obviously an internal creative tragedy.”
But right now, Joe Quesada’s just another man with a burger and a story, the story of the luckiest son of a bitch in comics.
“I wasn’t looking to get into comics, but did by sheer accident, and found myself coloring comics at Valiant for about four months,” Joe says of his entry days around the early ‘90s. “That’s a whole long story about how I got through the doors, but once I was at Valiant, I was watching pencilers coming in with their work and really deciding that I wanted to become a penciler. I would constantly bombard them with questions about the industry – ‘How do you get hired? What are the pitfalls of the industry? How do you prepare for conventions in order to improve your chances of getting hired or noticed? What are the mistakes you can make to not get hired?’ – and I filed the answers away in my head. I’m really big on role modeling and really big on asking questions, especially in areas I’m not familiar with.”
Valiant, which was founded and headed by former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, met with its own degree of success by the mid ‘90s. At this point, however, they were just starting to get their footing. Shooter had Valiant set up as a large bullpen, with himself the focal point of the room.
“Everything else was art tables everywhere and, right in front of the loft where the window faced the street, and in the center with his back to the windows was Jim sitting at a big ass desk,” Joe notes later. “My memory of Jim was that I would walk in everyday and he’d been sitting there (I never saw him not sitting there) with his feet up on a desk with a legal pad, just writing stuff and writing stuff…”
“This was before Valiant was doing their superhero universe, and they were doing Nintendo comics with hand colored painting in the books,” Joe remembers. “It was a weird methodology that they were using, and they were hemorrhaging money. This is no joke: they were paying colorists by the hour. This was in 1990, and I was making fourteen dollars an hour coloring. I was making a lot of money, but I was also sitting there – and I was coloring about four pages a day, and it was fully rendered and light sourced – and there were guys across from me who were coloring half a page a day, maybe a page. I remember going to lunch with them and saying ‘We’ve got to speed it up, or this is going to end badly.’
Sure enough, Quesada was among the colorists let go at Valiant shortly after.
“Again, I was expecting it, and had enough money at that time to go six weeks without looking for work. I had enough money for the next two months of rent, so I figured I had six weeks to get a portfolio together and look for a comics job, but if that didn’t work I could look for a retail job with my remaining two weeks, which is what I was doing before that. I hunkered down, put together a portfolio and went back to Valiant, and spoke to the art director, whose name was Art Nichols, and asked if he knew anyone at DC or Marvel.
“While I stood there, Art called up an editor at DC named Jim Owlsley, and Jim is a very boisterous guy and very jovial, with a booming voice and laugh. I could hear Art on the phone saying ‘Yeah, I have this guy, who wants you to look at your portfolio.’ I could hear Jim on the other end of the line going ‘Stop fucking with me, all right! I don’t have time for this, I’m busy, come on!’
“I think to myself, this is not going well, but he does eventually coax Jim into seeing me, so I run over to DC. Later on, I found out what his tension was all about: Jim was a new editor at DC and had just been hired there, and only had two books to his name. He was trying to develop stuff but had been stuck with the crappy TSR [licensed comics] – ‘Here, Jim, work on this until you can come up with something else.’ I show up there, and he would only meet me in the lobby. He looked at me and simply said, ‘Whattaya got?’
“So, he looked through my portfolio and just turned a page, then turned another page, and went ‘Hey, you’re not half that bad.’
“I said ‘Thanks.’
“He said ‘I got no work for you. I’ve only got these two crappy TSR books.’
“I gave him my best sad puppy dog eyes, and he just looked at me and said ‘You don’t have a job, do you?’
“‘Nope, and I’m down to my last two weeks.’
“He was kind enough to give me an inventory cover.”
The ambitious Quesada went home, and knocked out the cover by the next morning, much to the surprise and chagrin of Owlsley.
“He says ‘Okay, fine. Sit down here, and I’ll get you a rate. I don’t have anything else for you, but will send you up to Bob Greenberger.’ Bob, at that time, was the Managing Editor, and was in charge of trafficking all the books and the talent. ‘Let me check with Bob and see if anything is available, but don’t hold your breath.’
“So, I sat in the lobby, and it must have been an hour but it felt like ten. The receptionist picks up the phone and says ‘Mr. Owsley wants to see you.’
“They show me where his office is, and I go in. He’s sitting there and goes ‘Let me ask you a question: What are the odds that, while you’re sitting out there, one of the artists on one of my two books calls me up, curses me out, and quits.’
“‘Pretty high odds that it doesn’t happen.’
“‘What are the odds that I would give this particular project to a complete unknown who just walked in off the street?’
“I said ‘Probably astronomical.’
“I’ll never forget this to this day: he looked at me and said ‘Well, consider yourself the luckiest son of a bitch in the history of comics.’”
“To this day, I have been the luckiest son of a bitch in the history of comics.”
Things picked up for Quesada in 1992, when his art graced the pages of the mini-series The Ray, edited by Owlsley. He was succeeding at a time when the popular norm was for artists to draw in the “Image Style” popularized by artists like X-Men’s Jim Lee or Spawn’s Todd McFarlane; his unique style, not carbon copied from other cartoonists, made his work distinctive and unique – maybe a little funky – but still his alone. Joe’s art back then was like a spindlier, hipper version of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola’s. If Mignola and Kirby had a kid, it would’ve been Joe Quesada.
Then, came more: a stint drawing Batman: Sword of Azrael with Denny O’Neil for DC, penciling X-Factor with writer Peter David for Marvel, a chance to redesign Batman’s costume, drawing X-O Manowar #0 and three issues of Ninjak for Valiant. In just a few short years, Quesada went from an unknown drawing a sleeper hit of a comic, to becoming one of the “hot” artists in the industry. Along the way, he teamed up with new creative partner and inker, Jimmy Palmiotti, who contributed his slick ink line to Joe’s pencils.
The pair developed a presence in the fan press as two pals who just struck out to make their comics, and had fun while doing it.
“We had a pretty decent run of success, and I think so much of it might have been due to our ability to relate, and talk to people and schmooze (for lack of a better word), than any actual talent we might have had,” Joe admits. “We had talent, but at the end of the day I think we were great at being self-marketers and self-promoters, but not in an entirely self-serving way. We really believed in the creative side, believed in comic books, and had a passion for the stuff. Inside and out, we were comic book creators to the core.
“We’d throw parties all of the time. There was a bar about three blocks from Marvel called Openers, and it was also a block away from where I lived at the time. I’m not even a big drinker, but Jimmy and I would be there every night, and it eventually became a comic book hang out. We started to network with people, so that when we started to do comics, we had a philosophy of how we wanted to do our books, and how we wanted to treat the people who worked for us. It was essentially the way we as creators wanted to be treated, and we had had good examples of how not to be treated and how to be treated. Unfortunately, Marvel at that time fell more into the ‘how we did not want to be treated’ category, and DC was much better at respecting creators. I think that’s also why they had the renaissance at the time. It’s funny, because a lot of the people who were driving DC’s editorial business were all ex-Marvel editors who left under Shooter: Mike Carlin (a dynamite guy), and Denny O’Neil and the late Archie Goodwin (two guys who I worked with and think the world of). I think we took a lot of that with us when we started Event, and it prepared us to do Marvel Knights.”
In 1994, Joe and Jimmy started self-publishing with their Event Comics. The new company boasted books like Ash, the super-powered firefighter, or the gun-toting Painkiller Jane, against the backdrop of fan support. It was a learning experience for the pair, primarily in negotiating with the distributor Diamond to distribute their books.
In less than ten years, Quesada had gone from being an anonymous colorist to co-publisher of his own creator-owned titles.
Marvel Comics, meanwhile, was in a tough spot in the late ‘90s. They had just declared bankruptcy in 1997, and there was a fierce legal battle in which majority owner and junkbond fanatic Ron Perelman was forced out and more capable hands came up to take the reins. Marvel took four of their titles and gave them to Image cartoonists (and former Marvel superstar artists) Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee to package for one year. Dubbed Heroes Reborn, it was a relative sales success for Marvel in a now-treacherous marketplace. Desperately in need of an injection of new blood, they approach Joe and Jimmy to package books for them.
“When we met with Joe Calamari, who was President of Marvel at the time,” Joe recalls. “In what I guess you would call an exploratory meeting, he said ‘A lot of people speak highly of you, and you get a lot of press despite being two guys who don’t have any money. Go back home, think about what it is you guys want to do [for us], and let’s talk.’
“Jimmy and I discussed it, and we got the feeling we could probably do a line of four books. I remember saying to Jimmy ‘Fine, that’s what we have to settle on, but we have to get Daredevil. If we don’t get Daredevil, we’re not going to do it, because it’s a waste of time. We’re not going to get Spider-Man, but I think there’s something in Daredevil. By the way, when we go there, I’m not going to ask for the four books, I’m going to ask for them to give us the entire line.’
“Jimmy said ‘What!?’
“‘Yeah, I’m going to ask them to make us both Editors-in-Chief.’
"‘Are you fucking crazy?’
“‘No, they’ll then settle for four books, and it’ll look like a bargain.’
“We both had a great laugh over that. To this day I don’t know if Jimmy thought I was serious or not, but he was of the same mind, we had to have Daredevil or it just wasn’t worth it.
“At our next meeting, Calamari said ‘Okay, what is it you want?’
“‘Give me and Jimmy the whole line, and we’ll save your company right now.’ Of course, Joe laughed, we settled on four books, and got Daredevil, which was about to be cancelled, anyway.”
Joe and Jimmy took their savvy and experiences as a small publisher and applied it to running a fraction of one of the two largest comics publishers:
“When Marvel gave us the imprint of Marvel Knights, we started running it like a small independent company,” Joe notes. “What was happening, and I think this is very true with both companies, Marvel and DC: what money editors were spending on the artist’s and writer’s salaries on the books, vis a vis to what the sales on that book were, didn’t come into play towards how they cast or marketed the book. They just did it.
“At Marvel Knights, we were very cognizant on what we were paying talent, and that our issues had to circulate a certain number, based upon the price point Marvel put on the book. We had to be very, very careful towards how we cast our books with an eye towards sales, and also on how much we paid [talent]. We were very much an independent publisher working within those walls.”
One of the biggest challenges the pair faced didn’t just come from the then-failing industry outside Marvel’s walls, but from the editorial offices inside.
“The other side of it is that we’d just seen what Image had just done with Heroes Reborn, and Marvel editorial had just gotten their characters back from them. Even in the middle of all the other Marvel stuff, we were aware that while hugely successful on the commercial end, how emotionally it had been a bad deal for Marvel editorial, and that they hated it. Regardless of how successful those stories were (and they were hugely successful), internally Marvel editorial hated it, because they felt like they were sold out by the corporate heads and had some of their best characters given away to outside vendors.
“One of the things that Jimmy and I really discussed was that one of the biggest reasons Marvel editorial felt estranged and really upset by this, was the fact that these were being produced on the other side of the country, they had no say in it, and were just handed a disc and had to publish it. Part of our deal with Marvel Knights, and we told the higher ups this, was that we wanted to work in the Marvel offices. We didn’t want a satellite office, and wanted an office at Marvel. We asked that to be put through the exact same approval process that Marvel Editorial had to go through to get their books approved and out the door, so that we could show the editors internally that we were part of the same team. In some cases we even made our approval process more difficult.
“That took about a year of us busting our tails off to break that barrier with editorial. They put us up in the annex offices on the room of the building, a great place to be, but we were still sequestered. We’d always go down to visit, and I felt that every time I walked through the Marvel offices, I had a big target on my back. It was very uncomfortable, but we had a couple of really good parties that solved that. Bob Harras, then Editor-in-Chief, didn’t come up to visit us in our offices for over a year. It took him over a year before he was able to come up there, and it was the strangest thing. Bob was busy as hell, but when he did come up, we busted his chops and went ‘Wow! You made it!’
“Eventually, they moved us downstairs to regular editorial. I think a lot of those things with independent publishing and the gauntlet we had to run through, prepared Jimmy and I for so much of what we eventually used towards our success.”
The first wave of Marvel Knights books – flag title Daredevil, Black Panther, The Punisher, and The Inhumans – took a more human and street-level approach to the characters, superpowered or not, and featured the talents of Christopher Priest (formerly known as Jim Owlsley), Bernie Wrightson, Jae Lee, Quesada and Palmiotti, and screenwriter Kevin Smith. Tapping the cult screenwriter for the writing chores on Daredevil was a revolutionary move that elicited media attention then unusual for comics.
“Kevin had become good friends with Jimmy and myself, and always talked about comic books and how he’d love to write them. So, we finally decided to take him up on it. Through some ups and downs and Jimmy playing bad cop literally yelling at him on the phone, he did decide to do it.”
Daredevil, the Man Without Fear, had become the title without direction by 1998; the past three years ranged from Daredevil killing off his secret identity and wearing a suit of armor, taking a more light-hearted approach after cleaning that mess up, and then spiraling into a mediocre comic at best. When Quesada and Palmiotti recruited pop culture-saturated cult filmmaker Kevin for the writing of their new book, the result combined Frank Miller’s defining approach of the 1980s with Smith’s distinctive approach to character and Joe and Jimmy’s slick art.
In the team’s story arc, titled “Guardian Devil”, Daredevil is faced with protecting an infant who may or may not be the Anti-Christ, and is forced to face his own demons while his world falls apart. The most notable and controversial aspect of the run is in his girlfriend Karen Page’s being apparently diagnosed with HIV and then killed by the assassin Bullseye.
Daredevil may have last gone out with a whimper, but Marvel Knights brought him back with a bang.
“I keep thinking that if someday they ever decide to name this particular comics age, what would be the book that put the flag in the sand and say this is where it started? I honestly think it was Daredevil #1, and not because I was involved with it, but speaking from the moment the industry changed,” Joe says, placing much of the credit on Smith’s shoulders. “I think Kevin Smith’s coming into the world of comic books changed everything. There had been people in Hollywood who’d dabbled in it before. Kevin was making these small movies, but had such a huge public persona. He was on the net with fans long before others embraced it, and was a groundbreaker in so many ways, love him or hate him (and, frankly, I love him to death). It was revolutionary, with his coming to comics, it changed so much and opened peoples eyes during a time that you could argue was pretty droll in the industry and everyone was looking for the one bright spot.
“Other writers in Hollywood might not draw a direct line to Kevin and say ‘Kevin inspired me to write comics’. The fact is that Kevin was the first guy to really, in a big way, go leap from the ocean to the pond; looking at it from the perspective of a big-time screenwriter, director, what have you, who says ‘I work on big blockbuster Hollywood movies, but I’d really love to write comic books’ – what if that doesn’t go well? It doesn’t bode well for your career, and Kevin took a leap of faith and ran through fandom naked (and that’s a scary thought), but he did it and bared it all.
“So, to me, I think Kevin Smith saved the comics industry, I really do, and from that point on, other people picked up the baton.”
In 2000, Joe Quesada was promoted from Marvel Knights to Editor-in-Chief of Marvel. Bill Jemas was named new President of Marvel at roughly the same time, and the pair rebuilt the company after turning the comics industry upside down, starting with the Comics Code.
“It was shortly after my taking over as Editor-in-Chief, and a guy who used to work at Marvel, Matt Ragone, came to me and said ‘Hey, Joe, whenever they have a Comics Code meeting, I’m the one who goes,” Joe reveals. “(The previous Editor-in-Chief) Bob Harras, didn’t want any part of it. Do you want to go?’
“I said ‘Sure, I want to go, because I want to know what this is all about. I never understood it.’ The next meeting was up at DC so I jumped at the chance to go. With the Comics Code, every book had to be submitted to the Code, which is a self-regulating committee that we paid for. With every book submitted, we had to pay into the Code. The meeting at DC was about what they were going to do with the extra money that they raised or that remained through payments to the Code to help promote comics in the mainstream. I remember their idea was ‘We’re going to hand out pamphlets at the Book Expo.’
“I thought ‘Are you fucking kidding me? Is that the best we can do?’ I was sitting there, thinking I was in a room with a bunch of old men (and nothing against old men, because I’m getting there myself) filled with nothing but old ideas (which to me was the bigger sin). I came back to Marvel and Bill Jemas, the President of Marvel at the time, had a shit-eating grin and asked me ‘How was it?’
“‘I want to get out of the Code, right now,’ and to Bill’s credit, he said ‘Fine, we’re done. Right now.’ That was it. I remember Mark Waid calling the code seal the Scalloped Demon, that’s how I felt about it.”
The Comics Code was founded in the 1950s, in response to a backlash against comics featuring violent material that (allegedly) inspired acts of juvenile delinquency and corrupted America’s children. Comic book burnings were regular witch-hunting events, and there was even a Senate investigation held by an ambitious Senator named Estest KeFauver. The publishers united to form the Comics Code guidelines of decency/censorship to keep from the industry’s going even further up in flames.
“I was telling Bill ‘This thing serves no purpose and, to the person in the mainstream, it doesn’t mean anything…We pay into it, not a huge amount of money but we still pay per book to censor ourselves while we could do it all ourselves. It would have more impact to me if Marvel had a rating on the cover. People understand ratings; they go to the movies and see them all the time, and they’re on video games and TV shows now as well.’
“Bill made the call and told Levitz and all the others involved that we were out. They called an emergency meeting and asked us to please partake and give them a moment to plead their case, and Bill said ‘I’ll only have it if you come up to Marvel and do it.’ (Laughs) They came up to Marvel and – this is one of the things I loved about Bill, and it was a dickish thing, but really wonderful – Paul Levitz came up, Michael Silberkleit and someone else from Archie, and I want to say Mike Carlin was there, but my memory is vague about that. Then there was me and Bill, and what Bill did was bring in every editor we had who either worked previously at Archie or DC, including Senior Editor, Axel Alonso (who we had just pouched from DC) just to sit in the meeting, for the hell of it. I could see it was very going to be a very uncomfortable room.
“The Archie guys and DC guys (and especially the Archie guys) felt the Code meant something and were really pushing for it. The two most surreal moments of the meeting were when the Archie crew produced this humongous oversized portfolio, flopped it on the desk, and opened it up. In the portfolio were these haggard, yellowed newspaper clippings from the ‘50s. They said ‘If we’re not careful, this is going to happen to us.’ All the clippings were about the hearings from the ‘50s. I think it was at that point that Paul Levitz said ‘If we don’t keep the code, Senators will come after us.’
“To this day, the most legendary line to me in the history of all comics was when Bill turned to Paul and said: ‘Quite frankly, Paul, I’m more scared of Sentinels than Senators.’ End of meeting. That was it, while it probably went on for another few minutes you could tell that there was nothing left to discuss.
“We were done with the Code.”
“He was a good guy. Like anybody, he wasn’t perfect, but he was a great Dad. He really was, that nobody could never take away from him.”
Joe Quesada returned to Daredevil in 2004 with the mini-series Father. It explored the Dickensian web that sprang from Matt Murdock’s relationship with his father, and how it shot out to catch others in its strands. The series follows Matt’s dealing with an apparently abused client from his old Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood and her husband, a Latino superhero team from Hoboken, and a philanthropist who reemerges years after his father’s brutal murder. The idea came to Quesada after wrapping up the Guardian Devil story with writer Kevin Smith.
“I’d just seen Saving Private Ryan, and there’s this one line where someone turns to Tom Hanks and says ‘What if this Ryan isn’t worth saving?’ I don’t think anyone ever told the story of the old man that Matt Murdock saved. We told the story of his father, and Sister Maggie, and Matt being blinded, but this guy just walked away. You would think that, somewhere down the road, this guy had to think of this kid who saved his life. Then I thought ‘What if this guy wasn’t worth saving? What if there was a reason he was walking in front of that truck? What if he wasn’t naturally blind?’ I called Kevin and said ‘I’ve got this idea, and it would make a great sequel.’ I remember Kevin saying ‘Hey, man, that’s a great idea, you should write that yourself,’” Joe remembers, knocking out a dead-on Smith impersonation.
“Now, when I write, I like to write in the context of taking a theme and having it echo throughout a story. I started thinking about my wonderful relationship with my Dad. I’d also just had a daughter, and was having these fleeting thoughts while looking at my daughter and thinking ‘This is really the only chance we humans have at immortality. I won’t live forever, but parts of me will through my child just as my father does through me. If I do my job right as a father, the lessons I learned and will teach her will carry on through her kids.’ It was at that time that I had this whole idea of what our parents give us, and I started getting the ideas of fathers: So, what about that old blind man that Matt saved as a father? What about Matt Murdock and his father? Suddenly I started hearing echoes.”
Father soon took on a greater emotional weight for Joe Quesada, as his own father, Jose Luis Quesada, became ill and it became a matter of art, life, and love intertwining. Father was no longer a follow-up to Guardian Devil, but was quickly metamorphosing into Quesada’s most personal work to date.
“Now, right as I’m about to write the outline for the story, and my father turns ill and is hospitalized. I’m in the hospital room with him, and he’s recovering fine, slowly but surely recovering fine. I flew down to Florida to be with him and, my Mom had passed away, so, outside of his sister, I was the only immediate family he had left. I was in his hospital room pretty much 24/7. When he was awake, we’d watch TV, and when he wasn’t I’d sit there and continue writing the outline for this story. It’s the first time I’d started writing an outline that complex, soup to nuts, I don’t know if I would have been able to do it if not for the fact that I was forced to concentrate and sit and do it as I didn’t want to leave his side. Before I knew it, a week later, it was over and I was done.
“The outline now finished, my dad’s doctors told me that he was doing really well and should be ready to go home within a matter of a day or so. It was at this point that after years of trying, I’d finally convinced him that it was time for him to move in with me and the family back in New York. We had a guest room and, with his ailments, it was too tough for me to fly down to him on moments notice and run Marvel Editorial at the same time. I’d have to quit my job, or I’d have to bring him to New York, and he said ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ Checking with his doctors, I booked a flight back to New York to set everything up, planning to fly right back the next day to bring him back to his own home and prepare everything for his move to New York.
“I left that afternoon, got home, said hi to my family, went to bed, and the next morning I’d gotten a call that he’d passed away. It was a shocker, really, because it’d seemed like he was getting better, the doctors assured me he was out of harm’s way and that it would be fine for me to leave him for a day, but he’d had a massive heart attack in the middle of the night.
“At the end of the day, I’ve lived with the sadness that I wasn’t there at that moment, that he was there without family, but I take some solace knowing that I was there every day that previous week. He loved that I was in comics and creative, because he encouraged that in me. When I was a young kid, growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s in Queens, and the first generation born here in the States, all my other friends who were kids of immigrants were being pushed by their families to ‘be a doctor or a lawyer, that’s where the money was and where the security was.’
“My Dad, on the other hand, was encouraging me to be an artist and was very cool with it. He’d say ‘Go for it,’ and did good by me, and bought me art books and art kits. He was so encouraging, and at least he got to see me do what I do. He used to love hearing all the stories about the world of comics. “
“There were so many old philosophies that I used to hear much like ‘movies don’t drive our business,’ when I first took over, and I remember thinking to myself ‘That can’t be true, there’s no way.’ As it turns out, most of them weren’t.”
Quesada’s rise to Editor-in-Chief came right when comic books were at their lowest as an industry, but quickly reaching their best in terms of popular culture. The Blade film had already come out, X-Men followed, and was soon succeeded by Spider-Man. The direct market was still hurting, but comics were gaining a foothold in bookstores as graphic novel and trade paperback formats soared in popularity.
“One of the main things I learned from [Bill Jemas] was ‘We don’t publish in fear,’” Joe notes. “And to always ask the simple question ‘Why?’ when confronted with age old axioms. If you ask ‘Why?’ and if you keep asking ‘Why?’ you’ll get to one of two things, either the truth which is a logical reason behind certain rules, but, more often than not, you’ll find that the reason many axioms exist is because someone has just heard it a bunch of times and is repeating it our of rote. It never became more evident when we were discussing whether we should tell the origin of Wolverine or not…
“This goes back to our very first creative summit, where Bill told the group ‘Let’s tell the greatest Marvel story never told.’ Everyone in the meeting had jaws drop and asses clench with a ‘We’re not going there, are we?’ Bill kept hammering us, challenging us and I remember him clearly saying, there’s an X-Men movie on the horizon, they will do sequels and someday they will want to tell the origin of the character. If we don’t do it in the comics, they’ll make it up on their own and we’ll end up having to adapt what Hollywood did into the comics as opposed to the other way around. Still he met with resistance.
“‘If you tell the origin of Wolverine, you kill the character.’
“‘The mystery of his origin is the strongest part of the character.’
“At one point in the meeting, we took a lunch break, and I remember going up to Bill and saying ‘I just realized I don’t believe any of this shit I’ve been saying to you. Quite frankly, I can’t think of any reason why we can’t tell the origin, as long as we tell a great story. I think the reason I’ve said this is because I’m used to hearing from other Marvel editors. I just asked myself why and realize that I don’t think I believe that at all.’
Wolverine: Origin, written by Jemas, Quesada, and Paul Jenkins, with art by Andy Kubert, debuted in 2001. Just this summer, parts of the story were adapted for the film X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Aside from the star X-Man’s origin, other character changes that have occurred under Quesada’s tenure include the death of Captain America and replacement by his long-dead sidekick, a Civil War between the Marvel superheroes, the rise to power of supervillian Norman Osborne, and the removal of smoking from Marvel Comics. Perhaps the most controversial move is the Spider-Man mini-series One More Day, in which Spider-Man (to save Aunt May’s life) makes a deal with the devil to erase all history of his marriage to Mary Jane. The resulting Spider-Man issues, dubbed "Brand New Day", feature adventures of an unmarried Peter Parker once more burdened with being a single superhero.
“Whenever we do something at Marvel, it doesn’t matter if something you do is the right thing to fucking do, which is eliminate smoking from our books,” Quesada pointedly says. “You’d think that would be met with ‘Huzzah! Great! Thank you!’ When you read it online, you’d think every fan hates the concept. I don’t think so, because it’s the right thing to do. What happens is that people who have a gripe like to go online with three or four different identities and make it seem like there’s a mob with torches at our doorstep, but there isn’t. When I go to conventions, they’re not there.
“It’s the same with 'Brand New Day,' whether it’s myself, Joe Straczynski, or the editors, we all knew exactly what we were doing and what we were getting into. We knew there was going to be backlash, but it was a matter of sucking it up and just doing it, because it was the right thing to do for the character and the future of the character…
“No one at Marvel, especially the people who work with me, go in there going ‘How are we going to destroy the Marvel Universe?’ and twirling their moustaches. We go in there saying ‘How are we going to do the best possible stories? How are we going to keep our readers entertained and treat these characters in the best, most respectful way to tell great stories and keep them alive, not for tomorrow, but for ten, twenty, fifty years from now?’
“Spider-Man doesn’t belong to me, Spider-Man belongs to the fans of Marvel, I’m simply the caretaker. I have to worry about the kid who’s going to want to pick up a Spider-Man book five or six years from now and find a Spider-Man that they find enjoyable. That is my responsibility now, and I take that very seriously. I take it incredibly seriously, hence ‘Brand New Day’, and here we are.
“But for the few fans that keep going back to the marriage thing, I always ask the same question, outside of the marriage special, what was the quintessential Spider-Man as a married man story arc that you will miss because from this moment on he is single? Where was that story? There isn’t a single Peter and MJ as a married couple story that is either significant or that couldn’t have been told with them just living together in love.”
Another change in Marvel has been the boosting of their trade paperback collections of running story arcs from the monthly comic books. Perhaps because of the format’s popularity, the long-term storytelling has increased in the monthly comics, with storylines running anywhere from a handful of issues to several years.
“DC and Dark Horse, when I started in 2000, used to kick our ass when it came to collected editions (trade paperbacks and hardcovers),” Joe admits. “We had no collected editions division whatsoever and once we started getting into it hot and heavy, and started to produce trade paperbacks, we made a business out of it for ourselves. One of the questions I got all of the time was ‘This is going to kill the monthly comic. The monthly comic is dead, right?’ Even certain creators said ‘The monthly comic’s dead, not going to be around much longer, because everyone’s going to want the trade paperback.’
“My personal feeling was that one was going to feed into the next: this would be an additional revenue stream for us, and it would help the monthly comics sales. It turned out to be true, because we learned that we had three kinds of customers: there was the monthly traditional customer, a customer who only wanted trades, and then those customers who wanted both. It’s turned out to be a boon for us.”
Marvel soon found two more outlets for their characters and comics: motion pictures and the embryonic Internet distribution.
“While I don’t have a burning passion to draw a Daredevil story at this moment, if someone ever said to me ‘Would you ever like to direct a Daredevil movie?’ Are you kidding? I’d be there in a heartbeat.”
In 2005, Marvel gained a loan from Merrill Lynch to produce their own films (as opposed to the co-producing done on earlier films like Spider-Man and X-Men). In 2008, they officially struck out as an independent film studio with the successful Iron Man, as well as The Incredible Hulk. Both films feed into one another, with the upcoming Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America movies culminating in an Avengers team-up film.
“I see the Marvel movies that we’re making in-house (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Avengers) as our Star Wars universe,” Joe compares. “It’s starting to feel that way where we’re creating a Marvel cinematic universe that has a continuity. While the movies are separate, they can still be connected. We’ve already seen it with the Hulk and Iron Man movies. It’s starting to feel like Star Wars but more importantly, they feel very Marvel…”
“Kevin Feige in our West Coast office [is] so respectful of the comic books and what we do,” he states later. “He looks at us and goes ‘You guys are the source, you’re the top of the creative pyramid. If you look at the financial pyramid, the movies are at the top, but if you look at the creative pyramid, the comics are on top. It starts there, and then trickles down.’ That’s what enables them to make the movies that they make.
“They do look at the comics, and the thrill and challenge for us with the Marvel movies, is making sure that the person who goes to see the movie, when they walk out of the movie theater, has had the Marvel experience. It felt like Marvel. I think Iron Man captured that very well in a two-hour movie. Robert Downey, Jr. is a Marvel character. That’s what they do with these movies, and once you see Iron Man 2 and then Thor, you’ll go ‘I see where this is going.’ It feels like the company that I love.”
Aside from the feature films introducing new audiences to the Marvel characters, Marvel hopes to get “motion comics” of their books downloaded through portable video devices everywhere. The motion comic is an animated version of a comic book, line for line, adapted into a combination between a music video and a cartoon. Marvel’s first superhero venture into motion comics was Spider-Woman, written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Alex Maleev; it is the first motion comic that is reverse-engineered into a print comic book. Astonishing X-Men, adapted from the first story arc by writer Joss Whedon and artist John Cassaday, debuted late last month.
“The other side, in respect to literal translations, is where I think motion comics will be an avenue for us,” Joe says. “What motion comics offer is a purity of vision…When you see Astonishing X-Men the motion comic, it’s all Joss’ words and all John’s art. For lack of a better way of putting it, it will be the literal movie translation of the comic.
“Imagine seeing a literal translation of something like Civil War in its entirety? World War Hulk? Daredevil: Born Again? Motion comics will allow us to do that. It really is a brand new world out there and the sky’s the limit. As we sit here talking, the technology’s changing, and how we can apply that to making a living in comics is exciting.”
Spider Woman exists in layers, as the characters slide around the screen in a noir-ish music video, complete with quick cuts and driving music. Astonishing X-Men, the motion comic, is a far cry from competitor DC's stinted and poorly directed Watchmen motion comic of last year. The characters move and pulsate onscreen, their eyes darting about a room as their mouths move, issuing out well-acted voices. Thanks to Neal Adams and his Continuity Studios, producers of the Astonishing motion comic, the form has taken a quantum leap.
The next time I see Joe Quesada, his face is two stories tall, projected out of Union Square and onto the side of a building. It’s Marvel’s “MarvelFest” on October 28th, a chilly night where a small crowd of fans have gathered outside to watch the premiere of the Astonishing X-Men. Twenty years ago, he was an anonymous colorist in a newborn comic company, and now he’s projected to Galactus proportions.
It’s a reminder that he’s quite possibly the luckiest son of a bitch in the history of comics.