BILL JEMAS Reflects on His Marvel Past, Looks Towards Future

Bill Jemas was president of Marvel from 2000 to 2003, a conspicuous and controversial time for the publisher. They released groundbreaking, acclaimed series like the Grant Morrison-written New X-Men, and also courted controversy and media attention from moves like a planned addition of the late Princess Diana to the cast of the similarly groundbreaking and acclaimed X-Statix and the "U-Decide" program that positioned Peter David's Captain Marvel against Marville (written by Jemas) and Ultimate Adventures (backed by Joe Quesada, Marvel's editor-in-chief at the time and current chief creative officer).

He's now returning to comic books with both Wake the F#ck Up — a satirical response to the popular children's book parody "Go the F*ck to Sleep," published by Zenescope in October and illustrated by Jean-Jacques Dzialowski and Cyril Saint-Blancat — and his new Transverse Universe, a forthcoming project looking to experiment with the digital format (including an open-source WordPress "digital storyboard player") and present a "better, brighter version of the future."

We talked to Jemas about his new work, plus his thoughts on the current state of the industry, and how he now views his time at Marvel — both what he's proud of, and what he regrets.

 

Newsarama: Bill, Wake the F#ck Up is a satirical response to a parody picture book, so why was a comic book the right fit for the story you wanted to tell?

Bill Jemas: It originally just sort of popped into my head. I really enjoyed go the f*ck to sleep. Having been a parent of little kids, it really hit home. I've sort of spent my life in and around marketing to teens and understanding teens and the teen world, and for a parent of a teenager, the issue flips on its head — it's from going to sleep to waking up, and getting out the door. The idea for the book was just sort of a funny reversal of the concepts and a funny parody of the concepts.

It popped into my head as pictures and words but not necessarily as a comic book. But then looking at the formats to print it in, comics just seemed to jump off the page, and partially because when you're a hammer everything looks like a nail. But comic books works in comic book shops, and comic books work in bookstores, and they're not expensive to print, and they can become collectible. The more I thought about it the happier I got. And I've been dying to work with Joe Brusha and the guys down at Zenescope. I was negotiating with a traditional book publisher about doing a gift book solely for gift stores, and then Joe and I were talking about this, and we thought doing it in comic book format would be fun, and working together would be a blast.

Nrama: What led you to Zenescope? Were you simply acquainted with the folks there already, making it a natural partnership?

Jemas: I was at a comic book show in Philadelphia and found myself following Little Red Riding Hood in a miniskirt through the convention. [Laughs.] So I sort of noticed Zenescope at the convention, doing their tongue-in-cheek guerrilla marketing with the models that they used at the convention.

Joe may not remember, but I met them at the first convention, really liked the guys, loved their artwork, loved their sense of storytelling, and had been rooting for them for years. From time to time, old greybeard that I am, Joe and I will talk about strategy in the comic book business, and ways that I can help guide their strategy. We wanted to work together. I like what they're doing with their original stories, I think they have a lot to be proud of in terms of their recent movie deal and their Kickstarter project — but then they've also done wonderful work in the licensed and custom comic book world. It's never been a particularly conspicuous part of the success of a comic publisher, but it's always been very important. The people who were at Marvel book in the day will tell you that Transformers and G.I. Joe saved the day at just the right time. Zenescope is doing that stuff, and doing it crazy good. Their "Shark Week" comic is just wonderful. You look at a Shark Week book, and you think, "How could that be good?" and you read it, and you're like, "Oh, it's not good, it's great."

Nrama: So you've been keeping pretty close tabs with the comic book industry since you've been away from it?

Jemas: I've kept up personal relationships with a handful of creators who I like working with, and they like working with me. It's not without some level of — not personal nervousness, I cashed in my chips and left the table a long time ago — I just sort of feel that the industry is not necessarily headed in a good direction right now in terms of the health of the retail business. Anybody can see this, you can keep your eyes open in whatever neighborhood you live in, the half a dozen comic book stores in driving distance have turned into five, then four, then three, then two stores in driving distance.

I do keep tabs on the industry. I read books when they come along. I really like the guys over at Valiant, read their books as well, keep up with the Marvel stuff. But there's some sense of distress that the online business hasn't taken off from a financial point of view, and the offline business is sputtering with no real light at the end of the tunnel. I had the sense of sort of trying to get back in the industry and seeing what I could do that could be helpful or at least fun.

Nrama: Well, sales have been rebounding in the last few recent months thanks to some splashier moves, like DC's New 52 reboot. Is that something you've paid attention to, and would you have considered anything like that at Marvel back in the day?

Jemas: I'm very happy that DC did that. They were awfully tangled up in their underwear, and they needed to get out and do something new. The handful of books that I read were very good; really talented guys gave it their best shot and really hit it out of the park on those first issues.

 

Marvel, we had a different point of view. As much as we sounded controversial, we kept pretty much every book in place, doing what it was doing. What we did was launch lines for target audiences. My view is, we didn't call it an alternative universe because people wouldn't have purchased it, but we launched Ultimates as an alternative universe, to get the teen market. Rather than try to scrub out the old fabric and taking out the beautiful tapestry and the designs and the history, we really left everybody in place doing what they were doing. We shuffled the talent a little bit — we brought [J. Michael] Straczynski in to do Spider-Man, did a spectacular run; we brought Grant [Morrison] in to do X-Men to do a spectacular run. We brought a whole bunch of guys who had been knocking at the door and looking in the window who couldn't quite find their way into Marvel. But we didn't want to revamp the old universe. We really wanted to do Ultimates and [Marvel] Knights and manga as separate lines, to hit separate target audiences, without disturbing the continuity.

And even as I'm saying it out loud, I never would have said that at the time, because I wanted to be like Doctor Anti-Continuity. But if you really look at what we did, Chris [Claremont] was still writing X-Men. Everybody who had a job kept their job writing their book, or writing within their character family. It might have been you move from Uncanny to another title [X-Treme X-Men], but you wouldn't be sitting out in the street. You'd be writing in continuity on the characters that you loved and knew.

And I also think that the model that [Mark] Millar and [Brian Michael] Bendis set for Ultimates gave everybody a confidence to go write clear, concise, beginning, middle and end story arcs that turned into graphic novels.

I think [DC] did a wonderful job. I don't think they surprised anybody, because they had talented guys doing great characters, but they really did nail it.

Nrama: When you were at Marvel, the movie business was already starting to become a big deal, but now it's huge, and now Marvel has their own, highly successive production studio and is owned by one of the biggest media companies in the world. How different do you think the dynamic would be now from how it was then?

Jemas: It was very overt. We launched writing in story arcs. We wanted to do a lot of things, including open the graphic novel business, so we could get into bookstores and get to more folks. I think everybody who was writing the graphic novel, they envisioned themselves writing something that would turn into a movie.

This is an industry that's not good at giving credit where it's due. But if you look at the wave of movies that have been really good, you can track them back to graphic novels that were really good. If you read Mark Millar's Ultimates 1 and 2, you can feel Iron Man in the Avengers movie coming through in terms of some of the storylines, and certainly how the characters were positioned. Mark was clearly writing movies. Grant Morrison was clearly trying go write movies. And the guys really wanted to write things that had that cinematic feel, the beginning, middle, end, the character development, the action, the whole ball of wax.

Nrama: Do you think it would be difficult to do the kinds of things with characters that readers saw during your time at Marvel, now that so many of them are billion dollar multimedia properties?

Jemas: In terms of the need to keep doing it, there's absolutely a need to keep doing it, and comics are great for reinventing. In terms of what's hard, it's always the fear. "It's going to come out wrong, are people going to make fun of me, I'm going to lose my job, what's going to happen?" I can tell you back in the time, we had that no fear tattoo on our forearms. We were so beaten down, and we had so little money, and we were just sort of innately so headstrong that it wasn't hard for us to do back at the time, both because I was happy to take whatever heat we needed to take at the board level, and the board was happy with the guys and me that were doing the licensing work, so nobody was going to say, "Jeez, we don't like what you did with Colossus, we're so mad that we're not going to have you and your guys bring in half-a-million dollars a week on licensing revenue." Not that anybody is bulletproof, and no one likes for the board to yell at them, but we weren't worried. We got to be courageous about comics because we were so beat down that the only way to go was up or out, so we were going to go up.

But the bigger the organization gets, the more successful you get, the harder it is to be brave, so maybe it is a little bit harder now.

Nrama: The early Joe Quesada/Bill Jemas era was definitely characterized by unique territory being explored in the books.

 

Jemas: Creatively, it was the most fun you can have. We would have fairly large brainstorm sessions. We decided that we were going to tell the story of the origin of Wolverine, or turn Captain America black [the Truth: Red, White & Black miniseries, which revealed that the super-soldier serum was tested on African-American soldiers before Steve Rogers], or do anything that sounded like it was going to be fun and make money, and there was nobody to say, "Gee, that's a bad idea," loudly enough to make us not do it.

A couple of things happened. This is a little bit cruel to say, but the more anti-blank we got — the more anti-origin of Wolverine, the more anti-Rawhide Kid, the more anti-black Captain America — the more anti- we got, the higher the book sales were. You could almost graph it, if you had a morbid sense of humor. The more kickback, the more sales. And I think that's because some of the creative concepts really just captured a nerve. People would kick back and say, "Don't do that, you're going to ruin everything." Then a thousand other people would write in, "No, let's go see how that comes out," or, "If you don't like it, don't buy it." That dialectic got attention on the book, and the people just kind of had to look. Thank goodness for the talented writers and artists, most of the time, the books were good. Most of the time, you had that anticipation, "Ultimate Spider-Man's going to suck, who's Brian Bendis, what's this guy Jemas, didn't he do basketball?" and out popped Ultimate Spider-Man, and it kicked ass.

Nrama: And he's still writing it 12 years later.

Jemas: I would have guessed that. He just can write the hell out of that book.

Nrama: So you have plans for future comic book work beyond Wake the F#ck Up?

Jemas: First things first on Wake the F#ck Up: Wake the F#ck Up is partially supposed to be funny, but it's mostly supposed to get you to wake the f*ck up. Teen unemployment is at the highest level since World War II, but all the studies say the earlier you get the job, the better you do at your job. The biggest part of workforce training is get kids job early, and there's no jobs for kids. We're in a desperate state to get people with families who need to put food on the table, who need to pay the mortgage, and we're losing a generation of teen workers. It really matters. As somebody who's hired dozens and dozens of kids out of college and beyond, the earlier they start working, the better they do with the job. The purpose of the book is to get people thinking about the way we're drifting into bad patterns as a society and as families.

I'm brewing up a comic book universe with some friends, and the idea of the universe, in a soundbite, is to present a better, brighter version of the future. There are people who tell stories to make money, there are people who tell stories to have fun. I've done lots and lots of "make money, have fun" and then occasionally you get to do a book that's important, and still interesting and exciting.

Marvel's heavy with messages: don't turn your back on your family, live up to your responsibilities; if you're discriminated against minority group, don't turn into the persecutors. We always used to say, "Give them some sugar with that." Wrap it all in superheroes.

The universe that we're building is called "Transverse Universe." It's hopefully fun, interesting stories that matter, present a positive vision of the future.

Nrama: Who are you working with on the project? 

Jemas: One of the principal artists is J.J. Dzialowski. He did Wake the F#ck Up. I think his work is spectacular.

As you know, there's just not enough paying comic jobs for the amount of talent that's out there. It's relatively easier now than it was back in the day to get really talented people to work at afforadable prices, and do their best shot. So right now it's mostly people who haven't been on mainstream books. In the future, with a little bit of luck, we'll have a more diverse, broader talent base.

Nrama: Do you have a publisher in mind at this point?

Jemas: I'll do as much with Zenescope as they like, but a lot of the comics are going to be digitally distributed. The first round of distribution will be digital free, and then as things develop and get good, we'll publish through publishers. And I'll do anything with Zenescope that they want to do with me.

Nrama: When your name comes up now in comic book circles, it's typically with a degree of infamy. Do you have any regrets about your time at Marvel, or are you simply proud of the work you did there — or do you just look at it as something in your past that you don't really dwell on?

 

Jemas: At the time, I didn't think about it at all. We would do these Wednesday afternoon press conferences — we would just think of something to talk about or do that would be a little wacky; we're going to kick out the Comics Code, we're going to ban smoking. I didn't realize that as we were talking, that Newsarama's message boards would just be churning with hundreds and hundreds of messages back and forth. I think comics really took a lead in terms of really active fan involvement, and I'm proud to say Marvel had a lot to do with that.


When other big publishers and IP owners were sending cease and desist letters to websites, we were sending out license agreements. We were saying, "Here, use our characters all you want," we offered a deal where we feed you a banner ad and we'll split the money. I think we did a good job of building the network from an advertising and a business point of view, but at the time I paid as little attention as I could to what people were saying, bad or good, about me. I don't think it's good for a person who is trying to lead a creative charge to pay attention to online typing. There's plenty of guys in the organization who can pay attention to online typing. I just think if you're trying to let creators be creators, you shouldn't flinch when somebody writes an email or complains. So I kept myself immune from that.

Looking back, I don't think I'm wired for regrets, but I think we hurt people's feelings, and I really wish that we hadn't. I personally could have been a lot more courteous to people, especially people who don't quite understand my sense of humor. I think I would have had fewer jokes at other people's expense, more at mine.

Nrama: When you say hurt feelings, do you mean among fans, creators, retailers?

Jemas: I'd look at people and say, "the comic books suck." I didn't mean that the comic books sucked, the comic books were paying my salary. They were paying my rent. If it wasn't for the comic books, we wouldn't have jobs, we wouldn't have movies. But I would say the comic books suck, and what I meant was, we're trying to reach teenagers, teenagers can't read the books. So I should have just said: "We're trying to reach teenagers, teenagers can't read the books, we need a new line of books for teenagers." I wasn't trained that way. I was trained on the streets in New Jersey, we just say whatever we say that we thought was funny or interesting that we thought would get through to people at the time. I really should have been, and could have been, more polite. There's always room to be more polite.

 

Beyond that, if you look at what we did, the industry should be doing that right now. Every day we woke up in the morning and tried to figure out how to make money for comic shops. The things that we did in terms of building the graphic novel business, making comic books collectible, issuing a line of toys that were sold only at comic book shops, we sent 10 million to teen readers, we did everything that you could think of to drive feet into the stores. We were all about making comic book shops successful.

There's an irony there, because a handful of store managers in the comic book industry did not like our policies. The guys who liked our policies were busy running their stores, the guys who didn't like our policies were busy typing. I think the industry has to pay a lot more attention to the health of comic book stores, because I don't think that the digital business is going to grow fast enough from a dollars and sense point of view to keep enough people working, to keep the creative flowing, to make the comic book world go 'round.

In terms of the controversies at the time, there's very little that we did that in retrospect was a bad idea from a business point of view in terms of the health of the comic book industry. Lots of new talent, heavy recruiting. We dumped the Comics Code. We did a whole bunch of things that caused a creative explosion, that brought attention, and brought movies, and then we did a whole bunch of things that made a lot more money every single day of the week for the stores. 

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