Over a decade after he got his start in comics with industry leader Marvel, Bill Jemas' name still rings bells and draws associations for many in the comics business. Over his relatively brief period as Marvel Publisher, Jemas served in a number of capacities including pushing Marvel from traditional print operator to licensing powerhouse, aligning comic stories up with a size that well fit trade paperbacks for bookstores and even co-writing high profile launches including "Ultimate Spider-Man" and "Origin."
Since he left that company, Jemas has been a much quieter figure in comics – his name occasionally popping up on blogs in regards to licensing and development businesses he's been involved with. But in October, the former executive will return to comics in a more direct way with his first writing release in years – the parody picture book "Wake The F#ck Up." Inspired by the crossover hit "Go The F#ck To Sleep," the release comes via Zenescope.
CBR News spoke to Jemas about the book, his view on modern comics, his plans for a return to superhero-esque world building with the Transverse Universe and more.
CBR News: Bill, people know you of course from Marvel, and folks watching the industry have followed you a bit over the past few years as you've continued to work in licensing here and there. What prompted this return to writing? Have you had the itch to get back at the keyboard since your Marvel days?
Bill Jemas: Yes and no. It's funny. There's that word "writing." That has a lot to do with being verbal and scripting out dialogue. I'm not particularly verbal, and I don't have an ear for dialogue. But when you say "creating" it sounds really pretentious. So I'm trying to come up with a word that says I'm "thinking up stuff that works in comics." That's what I've been doing. Lately, I'm limiting myself to high concepts and then a bunch of ideas for scenes. Then I'll work with an artist to draw out those scenes. So I've been doing a lot of creative work with artists, but I stopped banging my head against the dialogue wall. We're doing some development work for a new comic book universe called Transverse Universe, and everything on there is either a silent comic or there's dialogue that somebody else wrote.
The exception to this is "Wake The F#ck Up" which if you take a look at the trailer, you can see the little bit that sounds like a poem. I did write that. But beyond that, for the most part, I'm just conceiving of the idea and then am looking for a dialogue writer who wants to be part of the project.
Tell me about the origin for "Wake The F#ck Up." Obviously, the "Go The F#ck To Sleep" picture book was a big crossover hit. Did that spark an immediate idea for a counterpoint, or was there a little bit of rumination on your own life it took to get you here?
Actually, a little bit of both. Everyone's friend sent them a link to Samuel L. Jackson reading "Go The F#ck To Sleep." I loved the online video, and then I went out and bought the book. But my orientation – both from a career point of view and in my position as a parent – is working with teens. I'm fascinated with teen life and creating content and product for teen. So from that point of view, a teen's take on life and a parent's are exact opposite [from the original book]. It's not about going to sleep. It's about waking up and getting out. It's about a parent encouraging their kids to launch and get the hell out of the house because they can't take it anymore.
So "Wake The F#ck Up" is the reverse of "Go The F#ck To Sleep" – as the title would indicate. But it's also the reverse in terms of what the issues are. As I said, I've set my career creating content and products for teens, and I've also spent a lot of my time reading, studying and worrying about what the future will look like in terms of the economy. So this all lined up, and then this story of "Wake The F#ck Up" just popped out of my head in the course of an hour. It's taken a year to get it to the point where I'm ready to publish it. It was an hour-long labor of love and then a year of flat-out labor.
We hear a lot about young people today – in their teens and 20s – and how they get stuck at home. People can't find jobs and if they can find them, they think they deserve more than they get...criticisms like that. Are those issues things you're interested in engaging here?
Absolutely. The first half of the book is just supposed to be a little bit fun and funny. The second half of the book presents the world from the teen's perspective and delves a little bit deeper into those issues. But it's a double edged sword. It's not particularly easy for young people today to get out there. My generation grew up in a time where the parents opened the door in the morning, and you'd get thrown out into a pack of ruffians all day long, and then you'd come home at night to eat. We had an outdoor life. Parents didn't supervise children. There were no play dates. There were playground slides that were 12 feet long, and when you weren't riding that, you climbed a tree. It was a sort of free-flowing kid world.
Now when parents want their kids to go outside, they want them to stay in the backyard and play on the swing set, which is interesting for about a minute. And being unsupervised on the streets or playing playground basketball has gone the way of the dinosaur. It's not as interesting for a kid to go outside right now, and it's even more disastrous for a kid to try and find a job. The facts are, we've got the highest unemployment rate for young people since before World War II. And statistically it's proven that if you don't get a job early, it's harder to get a job and hold a job later in life.
So there's a real conflict between what aught to be happening and what the real environment is. And part of doing this story with humor is that it allows people to pay attention to difficult aspects of reality when it has a bit of a sense of humor. It's hard to watch the news. It makes your stomach hurt. But it's kind of fun to watch John Stewart of Stephen Colbert.
You've got this book planned with Zenescope, and I assume there will be a digital component to the launch. When you came into comics, one of your big pushes was to go towards trade paperbacks and graphic novels in the bookstore market. What do you make of the digital revolution for publishing. Are you interested in creating content for that platform, or do you think the traditional methods still hold more sway?
Part of developing content is that you have to focus more on content generation than you do on the media. I guess it's so easy to say now, but what was so damn hard to do at Marvel was to understand that we weren't a comic book publisher. We were a content company. And even as you said those words – "We aren't a comic book company" – all the guys that worked at the comic book side of things got nervous. They'd go, "Oh God, we knew we weren't a comic book company!" So you had to rephrase it. You had to say, "At our hearts, it's content first." And then the medium we'd use would be whatever was available in the market.
So when it comes to the books that will come down the line with this universe I'm trying to get launched, we'll create content that's as good as we can make it until it comes out good enough to print and then distribute. Everything will get published first in digital format for free. This particular book has that trailer you saw on YouTube. Then there's a digital storyboard, which is single panels of the first half of the storyboard for free. Then there's an electronic book with a full story and a printed book with a full story, and if it's good enough, it'll be a graphic novel both in print form and digital form.
What you're hearing me say is the exact same thing we did when I was at Marvel. You create "Ultimate Spider-Man." You keep banging at it with new creators and different writer and artist combinations until the story is flat-out great. And once you have greatness, then it becomes a t-shirt and an electronic game and a trading card game. Over time, you build this whole spectrum of media and merchandising around that content.
Ideally, I grew up in that world. I started at the National Basketball Association where you were a live game and then you were a televised game and then a t-shirt and a DVD and a music video. You do the best you can on the core content, and then you do as many deals as you can with your internal departments or with outside business to distribute the content through multiple media and merchandise. Did I answer your question?
[Laughs] Yeah, I get what you mean. Content is more fluid once it's created.
One of the things about working with a person like me is that I'm a little dyslexic. Right is left, and Kiel is Jonah. I have a lot of difficulty with the details of day-to-day life. I haven't started walking into doors yet, but it's only a matter of time. Still, people like me have a much easier time translating content from one medium to another. Part of that is that we're not particularly good at focusing on the details that make any one iteration great. I need a Brian Bendis and a Mark Bagley to rally make the comic book great, but in terms of adapting that comic to a t-shirt or a video game, that's easy. That's easy for me because I can see through the details and into the heart of the content. If I can get enough of that heart into the hands of a writer or artist, they can iterate the final comic or t-shirt or game.
How does that skill set apply directly to you building a new universe? Marvel and DC of late have been trying to relaunch their lines and make things friendly for new readers while also focusing on the continuity for core fans. Do you have an idea of how to counter-program that with new content that can stand out?
I have a hope. I hope that there's a niche for the kind of story we're trying to tell in the Transverse Universe. My sense is that teenagers especially are looking for a brighter future. Here they are subjected to Apocalyptic visions of the future and sort of get transfixed by violence. I think there's a yearning to see a beautiful, green, sustainable world. They want to swim in the rivers and drink fresh water and see actual living wild animals. My sense is that outside of mainstream media, there's a yearning for visions of a brighter future. The Transverse Universe is designed to deliver that.
But you still have to make it fun. You still need fist fights and conflicts and a sense of adventure. My hope is that the niche for storytelling that presents a brighter future and some of the steps that it takes to get there exists. It's a two part process. First is, "Is there a market for that?" and then it's "Do the creative teams I work with have the chops to make something good enough to get people's attention to watch it all the way through?" So that's our hope. I've been at the Transverse Universe stuff for almost a year, and it's looking pretty good right now. It's certainly not ready for prime time, but I think it's good enough to show to some writers and artists and see if we can get more people interested in working with me.