Joe Fridays 4

In Week 4 of Joe Fridays Newsarama focuses on some of our reader’s questions and issues, and Joe goes to town in a massive way. The state of the X-franchise? Where’s Thor? Marvel’s stance on downloading comics? And why books are late are just a few of the topics tackled this week…

Newsarama: Okay Joe – this first question is a little long, so bear with us, please [you too readers]. This week we’re trying to do a solid week of fan questions and this week’s confirmed cancellation of Excalibur bought one issue to mind. Fans often bring up the state of the X-Men franchise and whether it still reflects the "streamlined" version of the line you once envisioned and were very frank about earlier in your tenure.

We went back and read a lot of those old interviews and statements just to make sure we remembered your positions correctly, and to establish the background for this line of questions.

Not too long after you became Editor-in-Chief, you canceled six X-titles due to what we described at the time as editorial reasons (not sales related). You called some of the canceled titles "redundant", a pretty forthright statement from someone in your position and a move that endeared a lot of fans to you early, if not John Byrne and the fans of X-Men: The Hidden Years.

You said at the time the challenge was to streamline the main X-titles and the universe to the point where it would become "readable and manageable" for the editors, writers and artists, and both the existing and causal fan.

Sometime later toward the end of 2002 in an interview with us, in fact, you talked again about keeping the line streamlined and trimming it again. You said of the line at the time, "It's a very strange beast, because you cut, and it starts growing arms all over the place. You cut off something here or there, and all of a sudden, Muties and Morlocks sprout out, and you have all these other mini-series. Before you know it, you’re back to the same number of books that you started off with."

You went onto say to cite books like Exiles as having a unique angle and the kind of book that made sense in addition to the core titles, but then cited spin-off books like Gambit and Bishop and the Icon series of solo limited series as not working and something you wanted to get away from, partly in favor of "extra" issues of core titles like then Grant Morrison’s New X-Men instead.

Now in May 2005 from the outside at least the line seems as large as it’s ever been, including several solo "spin-off" titles and limited series. Does the line today reflect that streamlined philosophy you envisioned during that time? And why or why not?

JOE QUESADA: No, absolutely not, it doesn’t. But, we have to look at this issue in multiple tiers including time and place.

NRMA: Okay, has your philosophy towards the line changed at all since those candid admissions? And if so (and either way in fact), what is the vision for the line in 2005 and moving forward?

JQ: Yes it has … as have hairstyles and fashion [laughs]. Regardless, I’ll try to be just as candid.

Let’s start at the beginning, because that was almost five years ago and we don’t do a lot of the stuff we did five years ago because Marvel as a company is in a different place and because the industry is a different place. That was one of my initial complaints about the way the comic’s biz was doing business to begin with. It was stuck in eras long gone by, unwilling to move because of nostalgia to the point of extinction. If our business plan doesn’t move or shift from where it was five years ago, then that means that our business hasn’t changed or grown.

When I took over along with Bill Jemas, there were at least three X titles, perhaps four, that were all telling the story of time displaced or time traveling mutant teams. This just seemed redundant.

There were more than a large number of X titles that had basically the same status quo as the three core X books. They might not have starred Xavier and the big guns, but it was a mutant team with a father figure and then a cast of lesser known X characters that all fit neatly into the Cyclops role, the Wolvie role, etc. The only thing that distinguished them from the other books was that this was the team that dressed like Goths and this other were the younger, hipper group and so on. But at its core it was the same thing telling the same story. Now, I’m sure the intent was to have them be significantly different, but the execution of those books when I came on board wasn’t what I think they were intended originally to be.

There were the retro books. But I’ve gone into the reasons for Hidden Years cancellation so there’s no need in rehashing that old thing.

There were the solo character books, some worked, some didn’t, some mixed in with the problems mentioned above. Some were time travel books and some were a team book in disguise of a solo book.

Then, most importantly, there was the comic’s market, which was incredibly weak and needed to get back on its feet. Not only did we need to cut down on mutant books, but the market back then would never be able to support the number of non-mutant titles that are, as example, being distributed today.

So, today we find ourselves in a healthier comic’s world in which we not only increased our X production, but we increased production overall.

But let’s look at what we’ve also tried to do with the X books. With each of the new titles we release, we are trying to give a very different point of view on the world of X-Men. District X, a police drama set in Mutant Town, X-Statix (which I miss terribly) that not only gave X-Men an Indy flavor, but also looked at the idea of mutants as a metaphor for celebrity. New X-Men, which is the team of up and coming future X-Men set in a true high school type setting dealing with problems within the school. Excalibur, which is the reunion of Xavier and Magneto setting things up for the future of the X world. There were interesting series like X-Factor that were creepy and topical. Look, did we succeed with all of them? Of course not, but the intent to try different stuff was definitely there and I think admirable of my editors to attempt. I think it’s been an interesting period of experimenting with the X world.

But I understand what probably sets the people that criticize the world of X off the most and what perhaps makes the scales appear tilted are the solo character mini series or ongoing series. But, this is also what I’ve come to learn about that. What makes X-Men the most powerful franchise in the world is that within that franchise you have more than one incredible icon running through it. Unlike Spider-Man or Batman, that as you expand the line, well what you end up getting is more Spider-Man and Batman. X-Men is totally different and quite frankly judged way too harshly.

Sure Wolvie is the most popular X-Man, but within the brand of X you have characters like Storm, Nightcrawler, Rogue, Emma Frost, Mystique, etc, who are strong enough and iconic enough, that most publishers would give their eye teeth to have in their publishing line up. That is why it’s the franchise that it is. However, since they’re part of the X-brand, people put them into the same bag.

I mean let’s just look at Storm for example. Imagine the word mutant was never used to describe her. Look at her wonderful design as a character, her origin as a child thief who discovers redemption and that she has these great powers to control the weather. That alone is the makings of a great character, X or not. Or, perhaps Rogue who I feel is just a beautifully designed character. So, what I find is that the X-franchise gives us the ability to single out these characters from time to time and let them shine as individual icons, it is a liberty we have with the world of X. I guess it would be like looking at Avengers and calling Cap, Iron Man, etc. Avengers spin-off books and then looking at the Avengers line and saying that it’s getting too big, if not of course, for the sake that Cap and Iron Man came first.

So, yes, we are back to a decent number of X-books. I believe, not counting the Ultimate Universe, with limited series and the like, we are up to about 17 titles in June in the core universe. Still about a title short from the dark days of five years ago. So as the natural progression of publishing and increased business goes, I think we’ve stemmed the tide somewhat.

Now, with respect to solo books, I have to fully admit that I haven’t been completely satisfied with all of the books we’ve put out. Yes, there have been some exceptional ones, but there have been some that I feel don’t say enough about the character they’re about, about what truly makes them unique. Recently we’ve done some soul searching, looking at some of our better solo books like Mystique and what we did successfully and we’re going to be hopefully following that pattern a bit more closely. We recently received a Colossus pitch from David Hine that I believe is sensational. This is a direction I’d like to see our solo books go in moving forward.

The final two tiers to this answer are also very important. Especially with our solo books and to a larger extent our ongoing team books. The decades plus long complaint of too many X-books use to have perhaps a bit more validity behind it. Back in the day, almost all the books connected in order for a reader to get the full tapestry that was X-Men. Today, for the most part the books operate individually in order for readers to pick and choose what they like.

Now, that’s not to say that we won’t tie them together from time to time, but if they all run independent, then what’s the reason behind the complaint except that people want to post, "Hey, Joe said that he was going to do this certain thing with publishing and now five years later he’s changed his mind." This isn’t morals. Political beliefs or religion, Matt, it’s business and we are allowed to be flexible aren’t we? And if we’re making it so you don’t have to read all of them, then why should you care that we have more than one or twenty for that matter?

The last tier is that certain franchises make money for publishers. Superman and Batman make money for DC, X-Men and Spider-Man make money for Marvel. In a healthy market fans want to see more of what they like as do retailers, people vote with their dollars. Look, I think there are too many CSI’s and Law & Orders, but obviously someone wants them and who am I to argue.

See, ask a long question, get a long answer.

NRMA: Moving to creator choices, one of the more controversial creators Marvel has hired recently was Orson Scott Card who some fans objected to due to his statements about homosexuality and political stances. Do considerations of a creator’s non-comics, or outside work and the potential controversies they may cause ever play a role in their hiring, or does story (and expected sales) come first?

What is the barometer in regards to what they’re known for outside of comics for whether or not a creator will be hired?

JQ: This is a great question. Let me first clear something up, I try never to bring up my political or religious beliefs because I know that Marvel fans come in many shapes and sizes. We have staunch liberals and staunch conservatives with everything else in between. That is the beauty of America isn’t it?

But let’s be real here, for the most part the comic’s creative community is a liberal one, it’s just natural, creative people for the most part lean in those directions or at least that has been my experiences. That said, I have made it a policy that Marvel’s comics and characters should be no one’s political or religious soapbox. Yes, there have been times when something may squeak by and we don’t catch it, but it’s my personal policy that despite my feelings on the war and other events, that has nothing to do with our books. Now that doesn’t mean that we forbid creators from bringing up politics in our books, all we ask is that if you have a character or a situation that is expressing a certain belief, that you try to have another character or situation with the counter argument. This has worked very well for us so far.

Admittedly during Bill J’s time here, we were a bit more vocal and one sided, and while I may have even agreed with a point of view here and there, I wasn’t in favor of seeing it in our books, but that was Bill’s world.

So to that, we have many creators who have various beliefs, what is important to me is that if they are going to go public with those belief, that what they decide to share with the public isn’t stated in a manner that preaches hate.

In the case of Orson Scott Card, I’ve read the remarks that got everyone up in arms, and I saw nothing there expressed in a hateful manner. He has his beliefs based upon his religion and his upbringing, but I read nothing more than one man’s opinion expressed in a very civilized way. But, no decision is made in a vacuum, I asked others within the company to read Orson’s statements and they felt as I did. Do I agree with everything Orson believes in, no, but I will defend his right to say it as long as it’s stated in a way that is intelligent and devoid of hate and prejudice.

Now, as long as our creators, if they so choose to, express their opinions in an civil and educated manner, then I will always defend their right to say it. If any decide to go out there and preach hatred against any political, religious or ethnic group, then it will be dealt with very harshly and I certainly wouldn’t be handing them the keys to our biggest characters.

Look, for people to say that Orson shouldn’t be writing for Marvel because he doesn’t believe in gay marriage is just as ignorant as those people who wrote in and said we should never have published the story of a gay cowboy. Heck, I’ve often heard that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko shared completely polar opposite political beliefs, but yet they managed to create some of the most memorable characters of all time together.

It’s no different than when the government came down on a leftist creative community during the McCarthy era. This is America for crying out-loud!

NRMA: Let’s move to a few questions from Newsarama readers…

"On behalf of Thor fans everywhere, we would like to hear something definitive about when the Thor monthly is going to return and who's going to be doing it. Also, while you're at it, when are we going to see the [Mike Oeming’s] Tales of Asgard mini?" – danfinnegan

JQ: Dan, I get asked this question quite a lot and I always ask fans to be patient. I know that may not be what some want to hear and of course there are those that will accuse me of dodging the question, but look, I just can’t tell you everything that we have planned because it will spoil some great surprises. Thor will be back, I promise, but that’s all I can say. He is part of a larger plan.

However, in the meantime, while you wait, you can enjoy Michael Oeming and Scott Kolins Thor: Blood Oath, which comes out in September!

NRMA: Joe, an issue that seems to come up often is the perception by some fans by some fans that publishers (including - but not limited to - Marvel) release titles that aren’t going to automatic bestsellers, but then focus all the marketing efforts (house ads, Wizard ads, press conferences) on books that will likely be relative high sellers anyway.

In this light, "keense" asks, "So, in light of the little marketing budget Marvel has, will Marvel be advertising these books (i.e. a book like She-Hulk) in the House of M books? Surely in-house publicity for these books would be more effective than for the various X or Spider books that already have a high profile?"

JQ: Hey “keens”, pleasure to meet you (electronically). I’ve spoken at length about this before so I’ll try to make it as interesting as I can.

When we look at marketing dollars, although smaller projects get some money earmarked for them, the bulk of the marketing revenue will always go to the larger books or events. Here’s the very simple, clear reason why…

…We get more bang for our buck!

Let’s say I was a store owner and I had a billboard over a major highway in my home town and it was going to cost me a fortune to hang a sign on that spot. Now, let’s say that my reason for taking that spot was solely to increase sales in my store. It’s not about foot traffic, it’s not about art, simply sales. You can be dang sure that I’m going to advertise Joss Whedon’s X-Men or a Bendis or Jim Lee project as long as they were on one of the four or five major icons. I’m not going to advertise She-Hulk or JSA. And here’s the reason why.

If that billboard cost me $1000 and lets say it’s going to quadruple my sales on any given book, well I’d rather have sales quadruple on Astonishing X-Men than She-Hulk. I’m probably selling ten times the number of Astonishing than She0Hulk to begin with so I’m getting the most bang for my $1000 investment. And then if you do consider foot traffic, people will recognize, Spider-Man or Superman, you stand a better chance of having them come into the store at which point I can direct them to other great titles.

It’s no different for Marvel or any other business. Let’s take a look at the Coca-Cola company, they have dozens of different soft drinks, but at the end of the day they spend the bulk of their money marketing Coke. You would have to think that everyone on planet earth is aware of Coke, yet they spend an astronomical amount of money keeping Coke out there.

Now that’s not to say we won’t spend money on smaller books. Heck take a look at the Avengers franchise, we’re pouring more money into that these days than we have in resent memory. That wasn’t always the case. But smaller projects have to gain traction on their own for the most part. If we advertise a bit and see some movement, then we’ll open the coffer up a bit more and spend a bit more on the project.

I hope that clears it up for you.

NRMA: Along these same lines, "t_pearson" asks, “Why do you guys release a lot of 2nd tier books at once, let them run for an arc or two and start slashing them? It seems that you flood the market with a group of books at once (Tsunami, X-Men Reload, etc) and then cut them due to sales."

JQ: T, we have to operate like a real publisher. As I’ve said in the past, our nearest competitor didn’t operate this way, they had a completely different business model that wasn’t so much about sales at the end of the year, but of being more of an R+D factory for the mother company. By the way, God bless, it’s a great position to be in because you’re able to keep projects going even if they’re not making a significant profit or any at all for that matter. But, Marvel has to operate like a business so we try new ideas but we don’t have the luxury to keep them around if they don’t have a fan following, it’s very democratic that way. If you look at big magazine publishers, they have stuff that comes and goes, it’s all about sales.

That said, lets also be real here, a low selling book doesn’t help our business as a whole. Sure perhaps you try to keep around a low selling book if its saying something new about comics, if it’s breaking ground, but after that, it just hurts sitting on the stands. Here’s another of my way too long examples.

Lets say, Brian Bendis and David Finch decided for whatever bizarre reason that they wanted to do Squirrel Girl as a monthly comic. So, eventually the books dip below a really profitable number. I personally feel that we are doing our retail partners a disservice by keeping that book going, especially with a team that even place on a B level character would make them a significant amount of money. Of course if Squirrel Girl was redefining comics, if it was the next Watchmen, I would do what I could to keep it going despite sales.

Also, retailers come to expect a certain title count from the big two publishers. If either of us dips from that average number, stores have a tough time with revenue. So, in many ways, when something gets canceled we try to plan far enough ahead that we can fill in and try to keep that delicate balance going.

NRAMA: Joe, just to wrap this topic up thoroughly, despite the well-known and documented difficulty new characters and concepts have in the current marketplace, groups of titles like "Marvel Next" and "Tsunami" seem to come (and pardon the pun) in waves, which some fans perceive as making it difficult for any one title to shine and then survive.

Can you address why (as it appears to some fans) the books that seem to need the least marketing get the most, and why new concepts seem to be brought out in waves when the survival rate using that method (Runaways being one exception) appears to be very low?

JQ: See my response to the last question, but I strongly feel that we have had a much more focused marketing plan towards giving new ideas a fighting chance these days.

Arguably I had my problems with “Tsunami”. I think there were some very cool things in there like Sentinel, Runaways and even to some extent, the Human Torch and Namor, there was also stuff thrown in there like Venom and Mystique that, while cool, just didn’t make any sense to me thematically? It seemed to go against what we were trying to say with “Tsunami”. To me it was lacking the connective tissue of what Tsunami was all about, but this was ultimately Bill’s call.

Today with initiatives like “Marvel Next” and “Marvel Adventures”, the themes are consistent and I believe very clear. Runaways, Young Avengers, X-23, Arana, Machine Teen, Spellbinders, Livewires, Amazing Fantasy, etc, all share that common thread of young new heroes and they have a certain fresh sensibility. I firmly believe that this initiative has been the success it’s been because the marketing and themes were focus and easier for the consumer to wrap their arms around. It’s not like suddenly we threw The Punisher War Journal by Garth Ennis in the middle of it.

NRAMA: "What one title, character or franchise currently out of print and currently have no plans to bring back into print would you most like to revive?" – Calibre Freeze

JQ: Hey, CF, there is one major franchise that I'd love to revive, but I just don't want to say because I want to surprise y'all with it. But here's one that I've been mulling over but have no plans for as of yet, Killraven. I'd love to do some sort of update of the book in the next few years.

NRAMA: "What is Marvel's position on bit torrent and Web sites that allow you to download comics, old and new, for free? What is your personal position? Would Marvel ever pursue legal action against a fan who uploaded or downloaded Marvel comics without permission?” – JK Phoenix

JQ: Well, my personal position is that if its unauthorized use, as a creator I’m completely against piracy. In an industry where we get paid by the unit as well, this is very important to us creators. It’s someone stealing our stuff. As for legal action, I can’t speak for our lawyers but perhaps Eli Bard, one of our legal eagles can. Eli?

Eli Bard: "We stand behind our creators and we will not tolerate them being ripped off, but while we routinely shut down unauthorized online games and people who sell reproductions of the characters without permission, I cannot think of a single instance where we have sued a fan and we have no plans to do so. With that said, the safest route is to buy the comics (and we won't complain if you want to share them with your friends without copying them).".

NRAMA: "On that same line, has Marvel considered offering downloadable comics for a small fee?" – JK Phoenix [again!]

JQ: We always have deals like that on the table. Currently we haven’t jumped on any. Not to say it wouldn’t be possible in the future.

NRAMA: When you have a title that will be shipping late due to the artist’s speed, why not bring in another artist to keep the project on schedule?

JQ: Well, in most cases we will do this, and we have, there are however some projects that we give special consideration to because the teams is what makes it special. It’s these projects that fans seem to focus on the most.

I know for a fact that if I had replaced Bryan Hitch on The Ultimates I would have done significant damage to that book. Both Mark and Bryan would have lost the mojo they had working together, does anyone remember The Authority? Could you have imagined if Dave Gibbons or Alan Moore would have been taken off of Watchmen because the latter issues were running late? There are just some projects that I feel it’s best to wait as long as you can if you have the ability to do so. Also, in the case of a book like The Ultimates, it was a found, unexpected hit, we were not basing our yearly budget on it the way we do with other books, so that gives us a bit of leeway.

But let’s also talk about late books and modern comics, you know why? Because I want to open up a tempest in a teacup and watch these boards explode. Nothing like healthy debate, huh?

People talk about late books by today’s creators as if it’s something new. Look as a kid I remember that there were times in the middle of a story line that suddenly I go to the store in anticipation of the next issue and BAM! there would be a reprint issue. Does anyone remember that? A REPRINT ISSUE!

Perhaps the older fans that complain about today’s late shipping don’t remember that, perhaps some are too young to even know that that was the case? Now, I’d love to take a poll of today’s fans and retailers and ask if they’d like us to employ this method once again? That’s right kids, creators of old use to miss deadlines too despite the fantasy, but back then, because of the whole newsstand system and the way press time was paid for, publishers would throw in a reprint or lose countless amounts of money, so reprints were the way to go. How many fans or retailers would crucify us if we did that? Fans would be dropping books like wildfire and just not purchasing whole issues of certain comics.

Here’s another quick history lesson. Did you know that Daredevil Vol. 1, #1 was so late from Bill Everett that it cost the company thousands of dollars and that’s thousands of dollars in the early Sixties. In the end, Steve Ditko and Sol Brodsky ended up inking a lot of backgrounds and secondary figures on the fly, they cobbled the cover and the splash page together from Kirby's original concept drawing, and so forth. It’s just interesting to think about how the golden days we remember would have panned out if they had this monthly catalog system and non-returnable factor to deal with. But again, nostalgia is a beautiful thing and hindsight is 20/20.

Look, I’m not looking to make excuses for late books, but like so many things that are argued in comics, they are argued with a complete sense of ageism and prejudice and all I want to do is add perspective.

Also, I don’t care what people say, today’s comic’s consumer has come to expect much more from their creative teams.

Look, let’s get this out of the way, every generation or two has it’s Kirby’s, Buscema’s, Romita Jr’s, Bagley’s and Larocca’s who are just plain speed demons. These guys are just aberrations. Not many artist fall into that category of doing incredibly detailed work while doing it fast. Look, I’m just being brutally honest here. I’m not saying that Bryan Hitch is any more or less talented than say Ditko, but when you put the work next to one and other you can see why it takes Bryan so long to get his books done.

Many of the artists of the past hardly even drew backgrounds in many cases and if they did they were rudimentary at best. This wasn’t because they couldn’t or were less talented or lazy, but because they just had to get it done and there wasn’t this fan/superstar creator culture and also back then, they really had no knowledge that this stuff would be looked at 40 years in the future with such reverence. Today, if an artist skimp corners like that, consumers don’t reward them by buying their books in large numbers, as a matter of fact, it’s the exact opposite, they get called hacks. I know for a fact that the artistic community finds itself in a very tough place.

Sure, we can go back to a simple style of drawing, we could go back to simple covers with no to minimal backgrounds and so on, but that’s not what today’s fans want. They want a cool slick style, they want detail, they want comic artist to show them something that they’ve never seen before. As the field of comics gets older, that becomes harder and harder and more time consuming to do. Most artist that I know don’t miss their deadlines because they’re lazy, it’s because they labor for three to four days on a page to make it special. Sure some are lazy, heck some are insane, but it’s no different than days of yore except for consumer expectation and the artist expectation in themselves because we’re all fans too. Perhaps some fans don’t care, but when you look at the list of the best selling artist, there’s one thing that they all have in common, that’s the eye for detail and that just takes time.

Back then it was a different time, and the job just had to get done, so everyone was cranking away and taking whatever shortcuts they could. Take a look at any of those old reprints, it’s really eye opening when you place it against today’s artwork. Just figures floating in space at times, cityscapes and sometimes actual machinery that were never photo referenced. It was a different climate with different expectations.

It might also be worth pointing out that the reason that guys like Kirby did so many pages in those days is that the rates were so low - that was what he had to do to pay his mortgage and feed his family. He wasn’t working 15 hours 6-7 days a week because he wanted to. And if he and the others of his era had the kind of incentives and rates we have today, and he only worked on one book a month. I can only imagine what Kirby’s style would have looked like if he had the ability to slow down. Especially since the style he developed was one evolved out of speed.

NRAMA: What’s the status of Neil Gaiman’s next Marvel project? Is it at least decided upon, or on some kind of timeline?

JQ: I recently heard from Neil’s editor that he is feverishly working on the outline, so stay tuned, it’s going to be rather huge!

NRAMA: A little while back, Neil mentioned that Miracleman, coming from Marvel was imminent. Did he misspeak, or does the Magic 8 Ball suggest that signs are pointing to yes?

JQ: Again, there are just some things that I can’t comment on. Not trying to dodge you but I do have to be respectful of other people’s wishes.

NRAMA: All right Joe, you’ve responded at great length to some of these questions, so let’s wrap things up this week.

The first few weeks we’ve focused on a lot of business issues, a few DC topics that were big news of the day, and House of M. Our questions regarding new and upcoming projects have mostly been met with "Wouldn’t you like to know?" type answers [laughs]. So this week it’s “Editor-in-Chief’s Choice”. Tell Newsarama readers some details about something cool and new they haven’t heard much or anything about yet?

JQ: I’ve always loved the idea of Moon Knight but have found his past incarnations a bit too complex to simply wrap my arms around. There’s a lot to take in with the multiple personalities and the whole Kunshu thing, it’s just not as stream lined a character as I’d like to see ultimately. We’ve been fishing for a while for this and we’ve finally found the writer who has cracked the code for us. A Moon Knight that shows respect to the past but also something new and great moving forward and still uses Marc Spector. It’s too soon to really get in depth but that’s my little secret tease for the week.

As always, readers who want to submit a question for Joe can do so by clicking here.

Please be patient while we try to get to your question. This is a weekly, indefinite feature so they’ll be lots of time to get to the ones that need asking. Please try to make them as succinct as possible to give Joe a fighting chance to respond.

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