David v. Quesada: Squaring off over 'Captain Marvel' and 25˘

Mon, March 18th, 2002 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Beau Yarbrough, Columnist

While the Internet has always facilitated communication for the comics industry - between fans, fans and creators, and publishers and creators - rarely does a professional discussion become as public as a sparring match between "Captain Marvel" writer Peter David and Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Joe Quesada last week.

It began with Marvel's February 20 telephone press conference, where company president Bill Jemas said that "Captain Marvel," along with "Spider-Girl" and "Black Panther," was selling poorly - "doing DC numbers" - and the company had decided to give each title another guaranteed year on life ... and raise the price of each a quarter.

Last Thursday, David responded, posting an open letter on his America OnLine forum, a letter apparently intended for future publication as one of his "But I Digress" columns in the Comic Buyers Guide:

"I know, I know, I could have just called you and discussed this privately. But on the suggestion of a fan, you raised the prices without calling and discussing it with me. So I'm just going to follow your lead and air my thoughts on the matter publicly. And hey, Joe, when you challenged Todd McFarlane, you didn't do it in a friendly phone call or a telegram. You did it on the Internet. So if Marvel's leaders have opened the door to handling publishing affairs publicly, then I'm going to follow that lead right through the same door. And yes, at the end of this letter, there will be a challenge, so keep reading.

"I've had a good number of fans tell me that they don't buy Captain Marvel-never even sampled it-for three reasons. First, they have no intrinsic interest in, or even have an antipathy for, Genis-Vell, the son of Mar-Vell and our titular hero. Second, believe it or not, because the book is $2.50 rather than $2.25, I've been told point blank that some fans are not interested in spending the extra quarter on a character who holds no draw for them.

"So learning (second hand, thanks for the heads-up, guys) that the book would be jumping yet another twenty five cents, well … that loud ringing in my head sure sounded like a death knell to me, yes indeedy."

The letter continues, with David mentioning what he calls "Marvel's history of quick cancellations," and alleges that no new readers will be likely to pick the book up, between the price hike and Quesada allegedly stitching "the scarlet 'C' of cancellation on it." He ends with an offer: He'll drop his page rate for the book down to $.95 a page, "the difference between that and what I presently earn should offset the increase of 25 cents that you would have charged the fans. And I will continue to write the book for $20.99 an issue until such time that the book breaks into Diamond's top 50 or sells over 25,000 copies an issue, whichever comes first." And in return, David wanted house ads and promotion for the book, and also suggested that Marvel might consider raising the price on its most popular titles - the X-Men family - to help out struggling titles.

Friday, Quesada responded with an open letter of his own at Comicon Newsarama:

"While I appreciate this stunt more than anyone can, since it will bring some much-needed attention to this book, I wish you had cooked it up a year ago when it really could have helped the title! ... When Bill and I heard from the Marvel bean counters that Black Panther, Captain Marvel and Spider-Girl had to be canceled, we rushed to meet with the corporate heads to try to save the titles. One, because we hate canceling books, and two, on behalf of the creators working on the books and the loyal fans who support them. However, we had to offer something up to keep the books alive: We offered a quarter increase; they accepted. Without this effort on our part, the books were gone, Sayonara, FINITO!! Not only did we get a stay of execution, we got another year guaranteed! I guess no good deed goes unpunished.

"So, what do you offer me? As one fan said with respect to one of your proposed options, you would like me to punish X-Men fans because Captain Marvel (The Captain Marvel that you should all be buying) is in trouble. As this person stated, you're not entitled to an audience or a successful book. You don't want your fans punished by paying an extra quarter, but you're willing to punish the majority of fans reading X-men because they don't recognize the value of your work on Captain Marvel?

"So, why is no one reading Captain Marvel? You mention its critical acclaim. What does critically acclaimed in comics mean anyway? A couple of dozen people on the net under six dozen assumed names? I've had this argument with Black Panther enthusiasts. Heck, I've had this conversation with Priest regarding the book (Priest is God!). Everyone I know keeps saying that Black Panther is the best book that no one knows about. I mean EVERYONE tells me this. So if everyone knows, who doesn't know to read it? Fans have wondered why word of mouth hasn't increased Panther sales (by the way, everyone, READ Black Panther!) and I'm sure you're thinking the same about Captain Marvel (Buy Captain Marvel!).

"Well, there's word of mouth and then there's word of mouth. There's word of mouth, which is the two-dozen aforementioned people typing and sending you e-mails, and then there are books like The Authority. The same Authority that had one house ad total at its inception, and a word of mouth that caused it to move up an outstanding number of rankings in the top 100 during the wonderful Ellis/Hitch run through the Millar/Quitely arc. That is word of mouth in action, with no paid publicity to aid it. By the way, this is something that is not lost on Priest, who is looking at what HE can do to try to bring Panther to the next level of public awareness.

"So, here's the deal: I'll listen to your offer, Peter, but be prepared because I may have one of my own. But I'm not discussing this any further until I hear one simple thing from you. I need you to publicly say to fandom (especially the 23,000 people who no longer read the book) that perhaps one of the reasons Captain Marvel is failing …

"… is you."

At this point, Christopher Priest, whose "Black Panther" was one of the three titles affected by the price hike forestalling cancellation, weighed in as well:

"The fact is, not enough people have the same warm spot in their heart for Black Panther as they do for Spider-Man, or Thor. That's just the way it is. I'm black, and I did not have the warm spot for Panther. Growing up, I found Panther incredibly dull, and he got his ass kicked a lot, and Joe and Jimmy had to overcome that stigma, that net impression, to get me to suit up. Now Sal and Bob and The Two Mikes and I have to overcome that stigma with Marvel's larger fan base, a stigma that is real and visceral because I personally experienced it. These days we sell Black Panther one new reader at a time, and we support it with personal appearances, frequenting message boards, and an extensive BP website: www.digital-priest.com/panther.htm

"Am I tired of pushing this one uphill? Absolutely. I wish Panther had more promotion and more this and more that. Tax them X-folks! Go for PANTHER MONTH! But the reality is, there are increasing numbers of titles competing for a diminishing number of resources and some decisions needed to be made."

Over the weekend, David responded to Quesada:

"Joe … I'm a neurotic Jewish writer. Of course I feel Captain Marvel's low sales are my fault. The critical acclaim doesn't make me say, 'What's wrong with others for not getting it?' It makes me say, 'What's wrong with me in that I'm writing well-received stories that still aren't sparking interest?' To me, guilt is such a normal state of mind that it literally went without saying. For that matter, I thought that offering to assume the financial burden for the book's current low-selling status was taking personal responsibility. That it was removing the onus of support from the shoulders of the fans and Marvel, and putting it on myself. It never occurred to me to spell anything out because I thought it was implicit and obvious in the offer. But if that's insufficient mea culpa for you, I have no problem with that.

I do have a problem with the way in which you tried to present it, and can only assume it's your aforementioned anger that prompted you to do so in such a dubious manner. Joe, honestly. You know as well as I that orders on the first (highly promoted) issue of the title were in the mid-40s, but retailers then immediately started cutting orders on subsequent solicits - with the book still sight-unseen - and that they were already heading into the mid-20s by the time issue #1 was hitting the stands. You want me to take a bullet for reactions to a series people hadn't even read yet? Is that what you really want? Or was it just designed to try and make me look bad?

"Most of the criticism I've seen from the fans is that our titular hero's purpose in life seems rather aimless and unfocused. That I've spent too much time concentrating on Rick Jones. That the humor can be overwhelming. I think it's observations not without merit. I concentrated on Rick because he was the familiar face to me, and frankly the situation itself seemed so ludicrous that it pretty much dictated the tone. However I likely caused, in some cases, reader attention to wane as a result. Well, I've already taken steps to change that. The book won't be going dark and dreary by any means - the fun will still be there - but starting with #31 (in a fairly dramatic story, I think) I am scaling back the jokes, and as of #32 there's more emphasis on Captain Marvel … with extremely startling developments occurring with the supporting cast. Issue #31 kicks in the door; issue #32 blows the roof off. In short, I'm endeavoring to answer fan criticisms and make the book as strong as possible. I'm telling you this in case you haven't read the scripts yet.

"However, if people don't know about it or feel it's overpriced at $2.75, then I could do 22 pages of Rick playing the banjo for all the difference it will make to the book's long-term health.

"My job, the way I see it, is this: when a publisher hires me, it isn't just to write stories. It's to write stories that sell. I do what I can to make that happen, and in this case - since apparently the title wasn't performing up to snuff the way I was writing it - I'm willing to take on the financial burden so that fans will have the opportunity to (and be encouraged to) see the changes I've made.

"I can see you seizing upon the very worthy The Authority as an example of a book that has sold well with minimal advertising. On the other hand, it's been pointed out to me that the series started its life as the well-reviewed, but poor selling, Stormwatch. The series was revamped, started with a new issue #1 and Bryan Hitch on board creatively, and it still got good reviews but lousy sales. The Authority was the third time around. All you really proved was my initial point: That some books, no matter how good, sometimes need time to catch on.

"I could keep going, Joe, do a point-by-point rebuttal … but really, what would be gained? It would simply continue to keep us drifting further and further from the point, and the point is simply to sell comics. I have not lost sight of that fact, nor am I interested in getting into a pissing match with you. I like you too much."

The interchange ended (for now) with a final word from Quesada:

"First, I've seen how these things go with you. This is not, nor will it be the last time you spar with another pro online and in print. You have a history of it, it's your thing, and you type 200 words a minute for crying out loud! I've seen months worth of back and forths by you with everyone from Todd McFarlane to Erik Larsen to Johnny Byrne to name but a few. Now, I'm a firm believer that those that do not study history are doomed to repeat it and judging by your history in these public debates, I will be quibbling with you for the next three months with next to nothing ever being resolved. So, with over a hundred creators to take care of, close to fifty titles to publish, an impending Blade and Spider-Man movie media blitz and many upcoming, high profile comic projects on the cusp of being announced, it has dawned on me in the very clearest of ways, that this is nothing but an incredible waste of my time. You and I had our little public back and forth, the fans got their chuckles, the book gained an additional 4 readers as an outcome, but at the end of the day, what are we really arguing about here?

"Captain Marvel and twenty-five cents!

"Say it with me, folks, 'Captain Marvel and twenty five cents!'

"What am I nuts?

"Now, that leads me to my second bout with clarity. I am blessed, as a lover of comics I have the greatest job in the world! I'm like the biggest fanboy on the planet when I see the gorgeous art and amazing stories that come through the doors here at Marvel on a daily basis, and the fun I have at my job often times makes me forget the simple fact that I'm EIC of Marvel! So like a bolt from heaven it reoccurred to me this Saturday evening, I'm the boss and as the boss I get to make decisions. That's what I get paid for and that's what I'm responsible for. So with that said I've come to a decision with what to do with Captain Marvel and your offer…

"… absolutely nothing!

"The price stays the same and I won't pay you a dime less. I will not establish that precedence for you. However, what I offer you is the opportunity to try to improve your sales, the rest is simply up to you. Peter. I remember as a kid, all I wanted to do was to draw comics and lord how I wanted it to be for Marvel! There are thousands of fans out there today who wish they had this same opportunity that you and I have been blessed with, to write a Marvel Comic, to take something perhaps with troubled sales like Captain Marvel and try their best to turn it into the next X-Men and sometimes I think that we seasoned pros forget what that feeling was like! You have that opportunity."

Note: In the interests of space, the preceding open letters were excerpted.

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