The Marvel Decade: An (extra)ordinary Joe
The first decade of the 21st century has seen Marvel comics defined by one man, more than any other: their Editor-in-Chief, Joe Quesada. In turn, Quesada’s work at Marvel has defined him–personally and creatively–lending him a public persona that recalls that of Stan Lee in his 1960s heyday, and allowing him to contribute to (or at least, cast a favourable eye upon) numerous projects that might not have ever made it to the printed page under a different E-I-C.
The story of Joe Quesada’s career at Marvel is in many ways the story of the company’s resurrection, both artistically and commercially. It’s easy to forget just how dire Marvel’s situation was in the late nineties: Quesada’s predecessor, Bob Harras, had inherited a company that was already in serious financial difficulties, and under his direction things didn’t get much better (Harras oversaw, amongst other things, the controversial “Clone Saga” in the Spider-Man titles, long considered the nadir of 1990s superhero comics). Narrowly avoiding absolute collapse in the face of bankruptcy, new blood was needed–and Harras’s chosen successor was somebody who had already proved that they had the talents and the instincts to make Marvel’s characters great again.
In the late 1990s, Quesada and his artistic collaborator Jimmy Palmiotti created the Event Comics company together. This company was then contracted to create several books for Marvel under the “Marvel Knights” imprint, a label that indicated a more adult tone and a greater sophistication of storytelling. Event Comics took characters that were perceived by many to be second-tier superheroes (such as Daredevil, Black Widow, and the Inhumans), and turned in some of the most memorable–and sometimes, successful–Marvel books of the era.
The quality of many of these Marvel Knights series stood in stark contrast to much of the company’s late nineties output, and the brand reinforcement that was offered by the books’ consistent tone, trade dress, and apparent mission statement to tell more adult superhero stories suggested that Quesada possessed many of the skills and abilities that would enable him to lead the company forwards over the coming years. Shortly after the Marvel Knights books began to hit the stands, Quesada was made Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics–and wasted no time in making his mark on the company.
Under the stewardship of Marvel Entertainment Vice-President Bill Jemas (who essentially played the role of Marvel Comics’s Publisher), Quesada began his reinvigoration of the company with several new initiatives aimed at winning over new readers and demonstrating the core attraction of Marvel’s many superhero characters. The most notable of these initiatives was arguably the new “Ultimate” line of comics, which reintroduced many of Marvel’s most high-profile characters in a brand new continuity, set in the modern day, thus allowing creators to emphasise the characters’ key attributes without having to be burdened by any of the baggage that had built up around them since the 1960s.
The back pages of the first few Ultimate Spider-Man hardcovers reproduce some very interesting exchanges that show just how much input Quesada and Jemas had into the Ultimate Universe’s story ideas at this early stage. Jemas’s Commercial nous and eye for a story that would sell well were reigned in by Quesada’s concern for artistry, and many of Jemas’s broad directives made more palatable by Joe Quesada’s creative instincts. Whilst the talents of Ultimate Universe architects Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar undoubtedly played a large part in the imprint’s success, it’s enlightening to see just how many story ideas came directly from their editors at this early stage, and to just what an extent Jemas and Quesada were the driving force behind the imprint.
Under Quesada, Marvel began to push forwards and modernise in more subtle ways, too. Series like Grant Morrison’s Marvel Boy (often cited as a prototype for the Ultimate imprint) experimented with fairly radical new approaches to the superhero archetype, and it didn’t need to draw on existing continuity or old, tired characters in order to make its mark. Also, the creation of another new imprint–Marvel MAX–in 2001 allowed Quesada to introduce even more mature themes to Marvel properties than the Marvel Knights titles were able, in an adults-only manner that was only possible once Marvel had severed ties with the Comics Code Authority (and developed its own internal ratings system). Bendis’s Alias and the highly successful MAX version of Punisher (by Garth Ennis) are both projects that have had a long life beyond that initial explosion of MAX titles, and Marvel still releases the occasional MAX miniseries for stories that simply wouldn’t be acceptable if published in any other Marvel book.
Despite such apparently radical innovations, Quesada also made sure that Marvel’s core franchises were attended to, after the neglect of the late nineties led to atrophy and near-death for even some of the highest-profile character franchises. 2001 saw J. Michael Straczynski begin a long run on Amazing Spider-Man that would rejuvenate the character, returning him to his roots. At the same time, Grant Morrison took over the X-Men franchise, rebranding the main title New X-Men to signify the fact that he intended to develop the central ideas of the X-Men in a logical but genuinely fresh and innovative manner, reflecting modern youth culture rather than falling back on the established elements of the mutant world that originated decades ago. This latter example perhaps best represented Quesada’s initial determination to push Marvel’s characters forwards into new places rather than keeping them in a predictable holding pattern indefinitely (a sense that is only overshadowed by the fact that so many of Morrison’s innovations were immediately reversed following his departure, and the X-Men franchise pushed backwards into its old status quo once again).
A little later, a third major Marvel franchise was given a shot in the arm when Bendis was assigned to the Avengers book in 2004. Whilst many longtime readers cried foul at Bendis’s treatment of major characters like the Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye during the “Avengers Disassembled” storyline, it’s undeniable that the new direction for the books created a swell of interest that simply hadn’t been present before. Compare the state of the franchise in the pre-Bendis days to the glut of Avengers-themed books that we see on the shelves today, and it’s impossible to not see the beneficial effects that Bendis’s input has had on the Avengers family of books.
The “Avengers Disassembled” storyline wasn’t the only controversial storyline to betray the editors’ hands, however. Quesada’s tenure as E-I-C has seen more than its fair share of storylines that exist as much to accomplish an editorial goal as to provide a compelling reading experience in their own right. For example, the House of M miniseries effectively reset the status quo of the X-Men titles via an unsatisfying and murky magical means, which made it a disappointing story in its own right, but arguably set the stage for better X-Men storylines that gained a greater immediacy due to the decimation of Earth’s mutant population. The highly controversial and much talked-about “One More Day” Spider-Man event effectively reset the continuity of that character, again using magical means to do so in a manner that was again highly unsatisfying for readers, but which allowed Marvel to tell stories that featured an unmarried Spider-Man. And the company’s biggest selling book of the decade, Civil War, played fast and loose with established characterisation in order to contrive a gigantic slugfest between almost every major Marvel character in existence, which again suffered from problems on its own terms, but which gave subsequent stories the added spice of having outlaw superheroes constantly at odds with their legally registered colleagues.
Whilst the artistic merit of these stories is debatable, it’s arguable that they have been written with an eye to their long-term survival of the franchises, and have served to better position them for future stories. There’s a genuine sense that Quesada is aware that he’s the shepherd of characters who will have a far longer life than that of his own career–and it’s perhaps for the same reason that he instigated a gradual reversal of the issue renumbering policy that had been put in place by his predecessor Harras (who had, for commercial reasons, relaunched many of the company’s major titles with a new “#1” issue).
Outside of story-specific matters, many of Quesada’s biggest successes at Marvel have been in the attraction of new talent, and in giving them enough creative freedom that they’re comfortable working with the publisher for extended periods. I’ve already mentioned Brian Michael Bendis (whose runs on Daredevil and Ultimate Spider-Man are highlights of the decade) and Mark Millar (whose Ultimates and Civil War perhaps played a bigger role in setting the tone of modern Marvel than any other books), but other writers like Captain America’s Ed Brubaker and more recent newcomers like Matt Fraction have been equally significant assets in the ongoing battle to secure top talent for the company.
Quesada has also shown an aptitude for “thinking outside the box”, and looking a little further afield than simply the DC offices across town for his creative talent. Over the past decade, he has managed to attract well-known film and TV writers and novelists to work on Marvel properties, repaying the favour to Hollywood by allowing some of his own talent pool to work as a braintrust of sorts on Marvel movies such as Iron Man.
The later years of the decade have also seen Quesada work to enhance the presence of Marvel Comics outside of the monthly “floppy” format. In addition to an already efficient and brisk trade paperback programme that makes Marvel backissues easily available for modern-day readers (and often in lush oversized or hardback formats, especially in the last few years), we’ve seen the company react to the possibilities opened up by modern technology, embracing the format of digital comics in a progressively more sophisticated manner, and even attempting to make innovations of their own–such as the slightly disappointing yet laudable effort to create a new hybrid format of “motion comics”.
However, more than anything else, the second half of the decade will likely be remembered as the era of crossover fever. Whilst by no means an affliction that was confined to Marvel, it was Joe Quesada who seemed to have the best grasp of how to use crossovers to encourage sales. If House of M demonstrated the value of consistent branding and of “event” comic tie-in issues, it was Civil War that really saw Marvel reap the benefits, with a devastatingly simple trade dress and such a simple crossover concept that it could be easily integrated into every one of Marvel’s superhero books, should they so desire.
Although later events like World War Hulk and Secret Invasion attempted to emulate Civil War’s success, they never managed to recreate it. Perhaps this was because readers were becoming wise to the fact that tie-in stories were often only tenuously connected to the main event. Or perhaps it was simply due to their realisation that the main event itself often ended inconclusively, with the climax only serving to set up the next big crossover event, thus perpetuating a cycle that inevitably fell foul of the law of diminishing returns. Either way, the company seems to have learned that constant linked crossovers may not be the best long-term business plan, maintaining a reasonably consistent “Dark Reign” status quo in 2009 but limiting the year’s “event” comics to more self-contained offerings like Captain America: Reborn.
Quesada’s ability to gauge the needs of his audience has also extended far beyond the comics, thanks in no small part to the rise of the internet as a marketing and communications tool over the last ten years. Whether fielding reader questions in his regular “Cup O’ Joe” columns, teasing his audience with mysterious advertisements or hints at future projects, or simply stating his opinions, Quesada has gained a reputation for being accessible and candid with his audience in a manner that other companies’ editors have struggled to emulate.
However, Quesada has also become well known for his outspoken and sometimes controversial opinions, which have occasionally become more talked-about than the comics themselves. His blanket ban on the depiction of smoking in Marvel comics (later relaxed, provided that the smoker was shown to be suffering immediate ill effects afterwards) and his ambiguous “dead means dead” policy on character deaths and resurrections have both provided much fodder for fan discussion–as has his openness about wanting to put certain “genies back in bottles” (referring to major editorial fixes that he wanted to instigate, such as the slashing of the mutant population, eradicating the Spider-Man marriage, and making the Marvel Universe a less friendly and a more unpredictable place for its heroes).
In amongst all of this, Quesada has been able to work directly on projects to which he feels a particularly strong connection, providing artwork for stories like “One More Day”, drawing numerous covers and several short stories, and also finding the time to write and draw the highly personal Daredevil: Father miniseries, which was created around the time of the death of Quesada’s own father.
Whilst I’ve concentrated mostly on Quesada’s successes, it’s only fair to acknowledge that he has overseen his fair share of failures, both artistically and commercially. Some fan-favourite series have failed to generate the sales that they deserve (for example, the recently cancelled Captain Britain & MI:13), at the same time as other higher-selling projects have been slated by readers (such as “Wolverine: Origin”, and “Ultimatum”). Then, there are the odd projects that simply never made the splash that they were expected to make, with the likes of Trouble and The Call quickly fading into obscurity after the fanfare of their debut. However, thanks to a generally impressive track record (especially where Marvel’s dominance in terms of market share is concerned), I have a feeling that history will forget these lesser projects and remember Quesada more for his successes than for his failures.
Having initially planned to end the article there, I’ve realised that it almost reads as an obituary for Quesada–or at least, the final word on his tenure as Marvel Comics’s Editor-in-Chief. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth: all indications are that Quesada still has a long career with the company ahead of him, and it will be very interesting to see how recent developments (such as Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment, or the acquisition of Marvelman/Miracleman) will play out. Given his past history, it seems certain that Quesada will use these changes to his advantage, finding a way to give the readers what they want (or at least, what they think they want) at the same time as providing the sales that Marvel as a company demands.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he were still around in 2020.