Master Of The Obvious: Issue #59

Wed, September 13th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

[Joe Quesada]
Joe Quesada
Marvel's been oddly quiet the past week. (Though no doubt all hell broke loose right after I turned this column in. That's the way it usually goes.) The Tuesday putsch that extinguished Bob Harras's reign as editor-in-chief of the world's most influential comics company (which, as Howard Chaykin once put it, is like being the world's tallest midget) and placed Joe Quesada under the dangling sword produced such a flurry of noise and congratulatory justifications by high-ranking company officials that daily dispatches from the front - step by step examples of how Joe was going to "fix" Marvel - seemed imminent. If nothing else, the power shift had served to get a lot of people talking about Marvel again in ways that news of yet another team of super-agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or a new writer on GAMBIT can't, and logic suggests if you're freezing in the wilderness, once you finally get a fire started you keep it stoked if you can.

Instead: nothing.

While speculation on the reasons for Bob's removal have run amok on the Internet (though there's cause to take seriously many of the rumors and innuendoes, I'll leave it to others to elaborate on them) one thing's reasonably certain: the ascendancy of Joe Quesada represents a sea change in Marvel policy. Traditionally, EICs have risen up through the editorial ranks. Even Stan Lee, though the boss's nephew, started as editor of CAPTAIN AMERICA. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (with help from Steve Ditko and others) may be the underpinnings of modern Marvel, but it was Roy Thomas, as writer and EIC, who defined "continuity" as it's commonly used in the business today, and turned into the foundation for the Marvel Cathedral. 70s EICs like Marv Wolfman, Len Wein and Gerry Conway finished Roy's work. By the time they came to power, Jim Shooter, Tom DeFalco and Bob Harras were all so awash in the glow of Marvel's market superiority (for a considerable time, it was popular in the offices to assume there was no need to pay attention to anything happening in the field outside the company because anyone who had any talent was working for Marvel already; the company actively view competition as parasites leaching off readers Marvel drew into comics shops for them; and, for a brief time, this was arguably true) they treated "continuity" as the natural order of things. I bring up continuity because, from a creative (or fannish) viewpoint, Marvel is less a company or a collection of characters than the sum of its collective mythology, molded over the years into an almost literal parallel universe. Despite occasional complaints that "continuity" insulated the comics against new readers, there was no serious move made to undermine, streamline or dispose of it. Rumors of "a line-wide reboot" to rectify continuity snafus and wipe out detritus ala DC's CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS or even ZERO HOUR have steadily popped up for 10 years, a

nd all been smoke.

This "parallel universe" aspect of Marvel is much of what propelled it to market leadership. Certainly every comics company of the 90s that tried to introduce a line of superheroes took it for granted that the Marvel Universe was the only acceptable model, and almost every one of them, from Image to Dark Horse to Legacy to Valiant to Malibu's Ultraverse to DC's !mpact and Milestone to a horde of tiny wannabee startups, drove its line to collapse by trying to achieve in the blink of an eye a complexity Marvel accrued, often unwittingly, over decades. What survivors are there now? DC's attempt to integrate all its concepts into a cohesive Marvelesque whole never quite gelled, and rarely noticeably improved sales. (Is anyone actually happy that Captain Marvel, the Shazam version, shares a world with Lobo?) GHOST, the last survivor of Dark Horse's ill-fated Comics' Greatest World/Dark Horse Heroes line, just got cancelled. Chaos Comics, one of the few companies to succeed with the shared world model, has shifted focus from a universe to specific characters.

Up until now, Marvel has simply not been considered a valid candidate for serious change. Whether you agree with what any specific editor or editor-in-chief has done, they have all (with the possible fleeting exception of Archie Goodwin, who was rather ambivalent about the whole concept) held the viewpoint that the Marvel legacy is something to be protected, a hedge against the vagaries of the future.

But the prevailing Marvel attitude, and the tacit acceptance by the rest of the industry that Marvel is its rightful leader, is in considerable part responsible for the state of the business today. Marvel goes nuts for gimmicks, therefore every publisher must, rising prices and too much valueless specialty publishing eroding the audience wholesale. Marvel, following the philosophy that the audience comes to the shops only for them, considers abandoning comics shops altogether for a line of Marvel Comics shops but instead buys a distributor and goes exclusive, and everyone else falls into step with rival distributor Diamond, until Marvel's Heroes World disastrously collapses and Diamond owns comics distribution.

"…the prevailing Marvel attitude…is in considerable part responsible for the state of the business today."

The last five years at Marvel have been like everywhere else in the business: constant decline. There's one area other companies didn't follow Marvel into, though many wanted to and couldn't, that puts the company in an even worse position than most: it's publicly held. Selling stock in the company was the brainchild of former owner and financial prestidigitator Ronald Perelman, a man with two dreams. The first was that Marvel could turn him into the new Walt Disney. The second was that the stock market might be used to recoup his purchase price for the company, ridiculously overvalued when he bought it.

Marvel editorial has done a two-step with revolving owners since the late 80s. Owners sell at the biggest profit they can, inflating value and potential value. Asking prices can be temporarily justified - figure 2000+ characters, with potential trademark/franchise/licensing value, and think of how much money Superman has made for DC over the years, and you can see the allure, though the huge flaws in the argument should be just as apparent - but purchase prices are only justified by profits. If you buy a company for $250,000,000, you want the company to produce that plus a good return as quickly as possible. (Before Marvel declared bankruptcy the first time, I estimated the stock value - based on the selling price and the number of privately and publicly held shares - to be $2.1 billion, so ludicrously beyond any sane value anyone could place on Marvel it's no wonder they've been unable to find a new buyer for four years.) So editorial gets the push, as it has every time ownership has changed hands, to pump out more product, more expensive product, and to get it out faster and cheaper. But markets, even the comics market in the biggest boom of its existence, hit saturation. Past the event horizon you get sucked into a black hole of negative cost/profit ratios. An audience willing to invest in your product on a regularly recurring basis can only get so big, and will last only as long as value merits price.

Comics fans tend to presume the editor-in-chief has control over this, partly because Jim Shooter, who made many people aware of the position for the first time, was such a strong presence. Earlier EICs had a laissez-faire approach to editorial if at all possible, but Jim was direct, making himself the symbol of the company in a way no one but Stan had previously dared to. I don't think it's out of line to say Jim viewed himself as an extension of Marvel and vice versa, and his editorial hand was very forceful, often to the annoyance of the editors and talent. Whatever credit and blame Jim deserves for things that happened during his reign continue to be debated, but he became most people's idea of what an EIC is: the righteous presence who sets the creative agenda and dominates the company he controls. To the extent that during the boom of the early 90s, editors at companies where they were the only editor took to calling themselves "editor-in-chief," presumably to bolster their status.

"[…Jim Shooter] became most people's idea of what an EIC is: the righteous presence who sets the creative agenda and dominates the company he controls."

But Jim's dominance of Marvel really fills a narrow gap between publisher Stan Lee's functional abandonment of the company (which was never total, and Stan's periodic visits to NYC from his L.A. home always sent panic through editorial at all levels) and the hiring of Michael Hobson as vice-publisher, Stan's East Coast surrogate. At Hobson's arrival, the EIC post at Marvel became increasingly political and decreasingly creative in nature. No EIC has experienced Jim's level of control since, and, after you filter down the various stories and takes, the bottom line is that Jim was fired because his view what an EIC should be clashed with that of the men above him. It's corporate logic: challenge your boss and your boss wins. Though the editor-in-chief may advise, the publisher sets the agenda. By the time Bob Harras got the post, it was almost entirely political, the job of the Editor-In-Chief being largely to translate the dictates of the publisher, the board of directors and marketing to the editorial staff, and while Bob's time in power was punctuated by the occasional creative decision (like having Mark Waid's CAPTAIN AMERICA rewritten), from everything I've heard it mainly consisted of warding off dictates from above (as when the bosses wanted to shut down the whole line except for the X-Men and Spider-Man books, which Bob reportedly talked them out of).

Because the editorial image of Marvel and its corporate image are two different beasts. Warren Ellis took a walk through Marvel's corporate philosophy, as delineated in their recent financial statement, in his COME IN ALONE column a couple weeks back, and the way the moneymen view Marvel is clear: it's a media company, not a comics company. A banker's fantasy: form completely stripped of content. This is the myth on which previous owner New World Pictures, and financial pirates Ron Perelman and Carl Icahn (a notorious corporate raider infamous for buying successful companies and selling them off for spare parts at a quick profit) crashed and burned. Marvel as the new Disney: the marketing of icons sans context. Marvel amusement parks, Marvel theme restaurants, Marvel toys and games and every possible variant of merchandise. And it's hard to blame them for wanting it, because that is where the big money is. Movies. TV shows. Who cares that UNCANNY X-MEN sells to 150,000 readers a month when an X-MEN movie reaches 27,000,000 moviegoers in a weekend? From a corporate viewpoint, which tail should be wagging which dog?

Marvel's had a rough time of it the past few years: bankruptcies, stockholder lawsuits, failed spinoff companies, severely declining sales, and ridiculously plummeting stock prices accompanied by credit devaluations. Two corporate restructurings in five years and no juice. They've had two very successful movies based on Marvel characters recently, BLADE and X-MEN, and still the public doesn't pay attention - unless there's talk of another movie, like SPIDER-MAN. And then only talk about the movie, and Marvel gets no rub off it at all. (Unlike DC and the first BATMAN movie, which can be argued to have started the comics craze of the early 90s, with lots of viewers suddenly getting interested in comics again.)

So it was inevitable that Bob's day would end. He's old-school Marvel editorial, a defender of the holy continuity. Continuity only vaguely passes for content, but if your goal is form liberated from content, any content is suspect.

Which is why Joe Quesada's a major shift in Marvel policy. Spiritually, Joe's an outsider. (Yeah, yeah, he's been a Marvel Knights editor for two years, but Marvel Knights was functionally an outlaw label, a sub-contracted operation distinguishable from Marvel proper much as Jim Lee's short-lived Marvel sublet operation was.) I know Joe a little; while he has as much childhood hook into Marvel as anyone, I don't get the idea he's insolubly married to the basic premises that have been steadily ingrained in Marvel editorial as long as I can recall. (Certainly as long as the beginning of the Shooter era, over two decades ago.) He must strike Marvel's corporate bosses - the ones who have little direct knowledge of the comics business, who see it all as money and trademarks and not as fiction, who are outsiders to the esoteric inner sanctum of editorial and view it as suspect and unresponsive - as being like them: someone who views the Marvel characters as salvageable, but who isn't Marvel.

Certainly Joe's past doesn't demonstrate any hardcore allegiance to Marvel. I've no idea what his favorite comics were as a kid, or even if he read comics, but his pre-Marvel Knights creative run at Marvel was scanty at best, while he freely bopped around companies like DC and Valiant before hunkering down with Event Comics (in collaboration with his wife and Jimmy Palmiotti), which became the foundation of Marvel Knights. MK has been one of the few shining stars at Marvel in the past couple years, revivifying properties like DAREDEVIL and THE PUNISHER and bumping their sales way up while most other books anywhere floundered. Continuity? The first MK run of THE PUNISHER was so out of character it was explained away with a mere, "Oops, sorry," and a more traditional Punisher replaced it. No convoluted continuity gyrations, no extended explanatory storylines. Just "oops, sorry" and on with the show. "It was a mistake, forgeddaboudid."

That just isn't done at Marvel. He was also among the few who have sucked popular talent back toward Marvel, talent generally viewed by the audience as progressive and visionary. I know many have credited this, and many of the other progressive elements of the Marvel Knights line to Jimmy Palmiotti. That may be true, but even if it is, you have to assume Joe picked up something in their years together, and even if that's not true, it's not like they don't still talk to each other. Joe's press statements at the time of his ascension indicated he views his job (not the EIC job, his life's work) as pushing the medium forward - new labels, new formats, more varied content, creator rights - which puts him way above many editors and talent in the business whose main objective is to keep things as static as possible.

The budding problem: he's not like the suits who hired him. The questions: how much leeway will he have? Joe will likely have a reasonably free hand creatively, as long as it doesn't get in the way of "higher" goals; to those who don't care about content, all content is equal and the measure of viable content is profit. Whatever was discussed before he was hired (and it's pretty clear from the timing he was hired before Bob was fired… which, corporately, would be the right way to handle it), his evident mandate, spoken or otherwise, is to pull a Marvel Knights-like revivification of the rest of the company. To the extent he can pull that off and create a public sense of excitement about the company and its future to help pull the stock price out of its coma, it's possible his corporate masters will leave him alone. An advantage for him is the appearance of instability that will result (risking further damage to the company value) if he gets fired or gets pissed off enough to quit, at least any time in the near future.

The real question is how well everyone's stated goals for Marvel will mesh. Presuming (a big jump, but let's make it anyway) nobody's lying their ass off for the sake of a photo op and a soundbite, there's never been a situation in this business where the dichotomy between money and creative is so pronounced, nor one where so much is at stake.

Speaking of Marvel, X-MAN #69 should be out this week (or next, at the latest) with the usual gorgeous artwork by Ariel Olivetti and plenty of shocking revelations and oddball events for those who like that sort of thing.

The first WHISPER BUREAU OF PROPAGANDA COMMUNIQUE went out over the weekend. If you want this e-mail update on progress on the forthcoming WHISPER graphic novel, click on this link and this link only. Thanks. As mentioned last week, I'm also clearing out the closets, which means piles and piles of comics I've written over the past ten years. Turns out to be a hell of a lot of comics, so I'm still compiling the list. They'll be selling for $1@ plus postage, and some sets will be at bargain prices to be determined, so if you want to see the list, click on this link, and to the millions and millions of Steven Grant fans who have already sent in requests (and there've been a lot more than I expected) I want to say thanks and please be patient. It won't be long now, though these things always seem to take more time than they should.

New this week at @VENTURE: the kickass conclusion to Mike Baron's THE HODAG. No Badger or Baron fan should miss it. Also: more of Jan Strnad's horror novel RISEN. It's not too great a stretch to say Jan's working very strongly in the Stephen King tradition. Worth reading.

Question of the week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: Choose your favorite comic. (No laundry lists: commit to one.) Now design a soundtrack to go with it, up to five songs or compositions. Explain.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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