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Marvel Comics: Joe Quesada

Marvel's new editor in chief reviews his first few weeks on the job and the company's new direction.

By Russell Lissau     October 26, 2000

Marvel Comics Editor in Chief Joe Quesada is, without question, the most wanted man in comics. Over the course of a typical hour, close to a dozen people knock on Quesada's office door or ring him up on the phone, asking him about everything from story ideas to artwork. He is barraged with interview requests on a daily basis. And for some reason, ever since he assumed his new seat of power atop one of the world's biggest comic book publishing companies, people keep asking him for jobs.

This is one busy guyand that's not even taking into account the demands of his personal life, an existence that revolves around a wife of less than a year who just happens to be expecting their first child in December. To say Quesada has his hands full is certainly understating the obvious. To say that he loves his life is an understatement, too.

'I'm constantly saying to myself, 'Is this as good as it gets?' Because it's pretty damn good,' Quesada says. 'When I think of where I was to where I am right nowI was just some kid from a broken home in a candy store in Queens, buying comic books and saying, 'Wow, isn't that a cool thing to do for the rest of your life.' And here I am now. It's a whole different world. I'm really, really, really blessed.'

A New Gig

Quesada's rise to the top of Marvel's creative hierarchy has been a red-hot topic at virtually every comics-related discussion board since he was named editor in chief in late August. The veteran artist and former head of the acclaimed Marvel Knights imprint has pledged to return Marvel to its glory days and to restore the company's flagship characters, especially Spider-Man, to their rightful place atop the comics pantheon. Fans have reacted ecstatically to some of the changes he announced in his first weeks on the job, including the removal of writer-editor Chris Claremont from the core X-Men books, the expansion of the Ultimate line of comics and the hiring of fan-favorite J. Michael Straczynski as the new scribe on The Amazing Spider-Man.

'From day one that I landed here, [it was] 'We're going to change this, we're going to change this, we're going to change this,'' Quesada says, rather matter-of-factly. 'I have to make the changesor else why did I take this job? If I felt things were fine, I would have been like, 'You don't need me.' But things had run their course, and desperate times require desperate measures.'

Of course, a big question for Quesada when he took over as editor in chief was why those changes hadn't been made before. Readers knew a lot of Marvel's books weren't up to par. A lot of creators knew the books weren't up to par. So why did it take so long to get the ball rolling? 'People have been waiting for Marvel to do something for a long time,' Quesada says. 'You can go into any comics shop and ask any fan how to fix Marvel, and instantly they will name 10 things that can be donethings that we're doing now. These were obvious changes that had to be made.'

Quesada was offered the EIC position this summer shortly after deciding to end his brief run as the writer of Iron Man because of the many demands on his time. Running Marvel Knights was a big job in itself; so was trying to pencil the imprint's flagship title, Daredevil, and trying to get the schedule-impaired book back on track. But Quesadaalong with former creative partner Jimmy Palmiotti, once the co-editor of Marvel Knights and co-founder of Event Comicshad given Marvel a huge shot in the arm with the popular imprint, and the company was hoping he could do the same with the entire line.

Although Quesada says he had talked with friends about the concept of one day taking over as EIC, the actual job offerproposed by Marvel exec Bill Jemas over lunchcompletely surprised the artist. 'It hit me like a ton of bricks,' he says. After taking a week to consider the proposal, Quesada said yeswith a few important stipulations. First, Marvel would have to dramatically expand its trade-paperback offerings. Second, the company would have to open its doors to freelancers who, for whatever reason, felt unwanted by Marvel or didn't want to work for the company because of prior bad experiences. And third, Quesada requested that he be allowed to aggressively hire new editors, writers and artists instead of just cleaning house quietly. Jemas agreed, and Quesada jumped into the joband into an immediate tornado of industry attention. 'It was a non-stop roller-coaster of interview after interview after interview,' he recalls of his first few days in the big chair. 'I think I was doing six phone interviews a day.'

Quesada admits that the craziness might have been too much for him to handle as a younger man. But at 38, with a decade of experience in the comics biz, the new EIC says he can handle the incredible amount of responsibility that has been thrust upon him. 'So far I think I'm doing an OK juggling act,' he says. 'If this were to have happened to me when I was 25, I'd be a complete, babbling idiot. But I'm completely cool with it. I'm not really caught up in it. And it's the nature of the beastit comes with the chair. The minute I'm not in the chair, those phone calls will stop.'

Taking Charge

Once the initial firestorm died down, Quesada was able to get down to business at Marvel. He met with writers, artists, editors and various staffers about their projects and his goals for the books, and he laid down the law about how things were going to be done on his watch. For starters, he announced he was going to read every Marvel bookevery onebefore they hit comics shops. 'I don't think that had been done before,' Quesada says.

He also started making some high-profile personnel changes, such as removing Claremont from the core X-books (Grant Morrison has been tapped as one successor, but the identity of the other new X-writer is still a secret), replacing Amazing Spider-Man writer Howard Mackie with the ultra-hot Straczynski and stealing two editors from DC's Vertigo line, Axel Alonso and Stuart Moore. Alonso was drafted to edit the Spidey titles, while Moore was given the duty of replacing Quesada as editor of the Marvel Knights books.

Quesada knows that getting Straczynskithe creator of Babylon 5 and the writer of the Rising Stars and Midnight Nation comics for Top Cowto make time in his busy schedule for Spider-Man was a particularly monumental coup. 'It was huge,' Quesada says. 'But it wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be. What you find is that everyone, deep down inside, is a Marvel fan.'

And Quesada isn't nearly done making lineup changes. Although he refuses to reveal any plans before they're set in concrete, he promises that more wonderful announcements are on the horizon. 'We're going after some very big guns, and not just for Marvel Knights but the entire Marvel line,' he teases. 'We're going after the heavy hitters who have been missing from the Marvel catalog.' Quesada will disclose that filmmaker-writer Kevin Smith, who helped resurrect Daredevil for Marvel Knights, will return to Ol' Hornheadbut not on the regular series. 'It's going to be a special project, a self-contained kind of story,' Quesada hints.

According to Quesada, the edicts and the early creative changes he instituted quickly have led to a new, positive atmosphere in Marvel's halls. It was as if folks could finally see the light at the end of a dreadfully long and dark tunnel, a grim passageway that stretched all the way back to the industry's collapse and Marvel's bankruptcy in the mid-1990s. Things are definitely looking up, Quesada says proudly. 'I had an editorial meeting this afternoon, and I congratulated all of the editors for all the wonderful work they've done,' he says. 'We've come so farwe've had a 180-degree turn from where we were last year, just in attitude alone. Imagine where we're going to be this time next year having the same meeting.'

Quesada wants to make sure the new attitude spreads to Marvel's freelance writers and artists, too. 'This is not every book that's out there, but on a good number of the books that we do, we've grown complacent,' he says. 'We've allowed creators to phone in plots, phone in pencils. But the idea is to instill a freshness in the creators that gives them the motivation to go out and try to tell great stories. Back in the day, before Stan [Lee] and company really knew what the hell they were doing, they would sit in their office and look out the window. And they'd see a woman getting out of a taxi cab and think, 'What would happen if Thor walked by right now?' And then they'd sit down and type that story out.

'But what we do nowadays is look at the latest issue of Avengers and say, 'Hmmm. Remember that relationship between so-and-so and so-and-so?' What if we make them have a relationship with [someone else]? We're not writing comics about what's relevant to the world. We're writing comics about comics. And it's no wonder that it's this insulated culture, telling stories to just hardcore fans. We're not doing stuff that relates to somebody's daily life, outside these doors. We need more guys looking out windows than guys looking at comic books. I want to get our creators back to writing and drawing stories, rather than writing and drawing stories about comic books. It's not a very difficult thing to do.'

A New Attitude

As an editor and artist at Marvel Knights, Quesada helped breath new life into characters like Daredevil, the Inhumans, Black Widow and the Punisher. It's his goal to bring the Marvel Knights philosophythat creators should take risks with stories and artworkto the entire Marvel line. 'Guys brought their A-game to Marvel Knights,' Quesada says. 'They didn't bring their B-game, because they knew that all the guys at Marvel Knights were bringing their A-game. It's like, 'Hey, I just saw those Jae Lee pages come inI've got to do better than Jae Lee.' And when Jae Lee sees J.G. Jones' pages, he says, 'I've got to do better than J.G. Jones.' Now, you may not verbalize that, but that certainly is the mentality.'

Writers should be just as competitive as their pencil-packing counterparts, Quesada says. 'If you bring in J. Michael Straczynski to Amazing Spider-Man, someone who's writing the second Spider-Man title is saying, 'I've got to keep up with JMS,'' Quesada says. 'And at the end of the day, as you starting bringing in these top-name talents doing their best work, the whole line benefits from it. It's not brain surgery,' he quips. 'It's comic books.'

Of all the books that have hit stands since Quesada has become editor in chief, he seems most proud of Ultimate Spider-Man, the Brian Bendis-written series that is designed to introduce a hipper Web-slinger to a newand hopefully youngeraudience. He's especially excited about the other Ultimate books scheduled for release over the next few months, including Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Marvel Magazine and Ultimate Spider-Man and..., a tentatively titled team-up book. Although some fans were skeptical about the Ultimate line, sales on Ultimate Spider-Man have been strong, as have its reviews. Quesada is pleased the book is doing well even though Peter Parker has yet to appear in the famous Spider-Man costume, a decision he and others at Marvel initially questioned.

'I've read the book and I've talked to fans of the bookthey can't get enough of it,' Quesada says proudly. 'If you write a comic badly and don't put the character in a costume, people are going to hate it. But if you write a comic well and don't put the character in a costume, people are going to talk about what a good comic it is. You will not miss it if the book is really well written. I swear to you, it's all in the writing. It's all about the relationships between Peter, Mary Jane, Uncle Ben, Aunt May and the Osborns. That's what the story's about. It's not about the costume.'

Since becoming editor in chief, Quesada has made it crystal clear that he considers Marvel the world's best comics publisher. He's also doing his best to end the truce that has existed for much of the past decade between Marvel and DC Comics. It's nothing personalit's just business.

'I think the rivalries are good for the companies,' he explains. 'We had this very weird détente between Marvel and DC, and it happened right around the time where everything was going to hell in a hand basket. We had the whole Amalgam thing. And to me, from the outside looking in, it looked like both companies were like, 'All our stuff sucks, the industry is dying, and the only way we can make anything happen is by pooling our resources and being nicey-nicey and amalgamating our characters for some sort of sales stunt.' It was one big fanboy wet dream, and I couldn't stand it. I hated it. And all of the sudden everything was lukewarm, and there was no difference between Marvel and DC.

'There used to be a huge difference between these companies,' Quesada continues. 'And I think the industry worked better when all the companies were more competitive. Stan always used to refer to them as our 'Distinguished Competitor.' But at the same time, he made no bones about the fact that our comics kicked theirs in the ass.'

Quesada's 'Us-vs.-Them' attitude means a considerable scaling back of the number of company crossovers Marvel will do, with DC or any other publisher. 'I don't think we should do away with them, but I think we should do them for a reason,' he says. 'There are a couple Marvel-DC crossovers that make sense from a historical point of view. But anything else after that is just pandering.'

The Future

Quesada understands that the professional lifespan of an EIC at Marvel is usually a relatively short one. But he's going into the job knowing that he has other things in his life, such as his family and a successful career as an artist. 'I don't want to overstay my welcome,' Quesada says. 'My bargaining chip is, I have somewhere else to go. I have a home to go to, a drawing board to look at and pages to draw at any given time.

'I've written an end to this storyI tend to like stories with an ending,' he adds. 'And I want to get to that end and say I've done what I could do. I want to get this place back to what it should be, which is a healthy, strong comic book company.'

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