Bill Jemas is back.
In the early 2000s as publisher of Marvel Comics, Jemas famously helped guide Marvel out of bankruptcy into profitability in the early 2000s and hired Joe Quesada as Editor-In-Chief, and now the Rutgers grad is once again leading a comics company into a bold new era. Earlier this year, Jemas was hired as General Manager of a new comic book division of the renowned video game company Take Two Interactive. Take Two is well-known for hit game franchises such as Grand Theft Auto, Bioshock and Civilization, but plans for this as-yet-unnamed comics division are focused on creating new stories, new characters, and new franchises.
Newsarama spoke exclusively with Jemas about his return as a comics executive nine years after leaving Marvel, and how he’s implementing the methods and strategies from his time at Marvel to create an entirely new comics universe. Jemas is open and forthcoming about his time at Marvel as well as his detractors, coming back to the comics industry refocused and as he puts it, “aiming for the fences.”
Newsarama: Bill, people have been buzzing about this new comics publishing imprint you’re doing with video game publisher Take Two Interactive. Some people cite it as your “big return” to comics after leaving Marvel in 2004. You’ve dome some comics work between then, but not to the scope of Marvel or what this Take Two project seems to be. What would you say to this being your “big return”?
Bill Jemas: That’s a good question. I don’t think of it as a big return, although you could say I’m taking this more seriously than the intervening projects like the Transverse Universe and Wake The F#CK Up. The idea there was to create a fun way to read comics online; fun for fans, and easy to read. I enjoyed doing that, and it’s a cool open-source comics player, and I enjoyed Wake The F#CK Up. But here now what I’m doing with Take Two, it’s more serious and has corporate backing. They’ve gone out on a limb to get this thing started, and I’m here doing it. There’s more people depending on me, and there’s more at stake, and I’m taking it more seriously. With my other projects, I was working hard but I was on my own; no one was depending on me, so it was different.
Nrama: In the statement that you released announcing this work with Take Two, you described this as a “graphic fiction imprint.” You mean comics, right?
Jemas: Yes. I first heard the term “graphic fiction” from Dan Buckley at Marvel. It’s a good term for the kind of storytelling we do: comic books, graphic novels, storyboards… the whole range of things where graphics combine with text to tell a story.
Nrama: So far nothing has been announced past you working for Take Two on this imprint, but earlier this year Take Two filed trademarks for three interesting names – not for video games, but for “printed and digital books, comics and graphic novels: ” Codex, Carnate and Double Take. Further digging turns up that Take Two also bought domain names for all three: CodexComic.com, CarnateComic.com and DoubleTakeComic.com. And a fourth revealing domain purchase, DoubleTakePublishing.com, puts a name to it. Is Double Take the name of this imprint?
Jemas: We’re playing with a bunch of ideas for names of books and names of the imprint. Take Two owns a variety of brand names, some of which they haven’t acted upon. Double Take is one of the names being bandied about, but I have nothing to announce today. Part of the reason trademarks and domain names are acquired in advance is to delineate if the name is already in use elsewhere in a given arena.
Nrama: A conversation for another time, it seems. Moving on, can you talk about Take Two’s impetus for bringing you in and launching this comic book imprint?
Jemas: Well, Take Two has a long history and real commitment to intellectual property (IP) development. They’re created interesting properties ranging from Grand Theft Auto to Bioshock and also having properties like Civilization in-house now. The launching of this comic imprint only reinforces their goal to develop new stories, new concepts and new IPs.
Nrama: Take Two has been making some bold moves as of recent, both on shelves with Grand Theft Auto 5 being released but also in buying back 12.02 million shares of its company from the Icahn Group in November. Where do you think Take Two sits now?
Jemas: The honest answer is I don’t know. If I had information I couldn’t say I’d tell you so. But I don’t have any more information than what’s out there.
I can say, overall, that Take Two management is interested in IP development. They have a focus on developing and owning their own IP all the way through; if you look at things like Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption and their other projects, they’ve created wonderful things. My feeling is that this is just another aspect of pictures, movement and stories and creating exciting new stories for people to enjoy.
Nrama: Earlier this year Take Two hired fellow Marvel alum Ruwan Jayatilleke to serve as a “Business Development Consultant,” and he’s made some interesting Twitter posts reaching out to several comics writers such as Ed Brubaker and Robert Vendetti about working on an unannounced project. Are you and Ruwan working on the same thing at Take Two?
Jemas: I never had the chance to work with Ruwan, but when I initially came into Take Two as a consultant and advisor he helped bring me up to speed. My knowledge to the inner workings of the comics industry is about 10 years old. But Ruwan’s not actively involved in this.
Right now it’s just me. We are just now beginning to staff up the department, but right now our primary focus is looking for writers and artists. If there are any comic creators reading this who are interested, they can email me at Bill.Jemas@take2games.com and we can talk. I read everything anybody sends me. We’re focused like a laser on finding new stories with comic book writers and artist. We will be hiring business people for the department, but our first goal is getting the stories.
Nrama: What kind of stories are you looking for?
Jemas: It’s too soon to say. I can say that my dream is to create books that are as good as what we did at Marvel on the Ultimate line. That was a wonderful, creative time at Marvel, and I hope here at Take Two we can do as good as The Ultimates.
I really sort of learned what I know while at Marvel, and added a little to the techniques and method used there. Our goal here at Take Two is kind of a Marvel approach; combined properties working together in an interlinked universe with “Ultimate”-style storytelling so readers can open the books and understand everything from page 1. In terms of quality, I don’t know that anybody can hit that high level all the time, but that’s our aspiration.
In terms of storytelling, there’s an old joke at Marvel saying they have 4700 characters and each one can be a hit if you throw them at the wall long enough. That’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but if you throw characters, you need to know the direction, the storytelling and the sensibilities. Beyond that, we here at Take Two are wide open to a lot of creative ideas. We take the ones that look best to us, invest in them and publish them. The comic book market then decides what they think is best, and we double down on those. It’s too early on to discuss specific stories, but in terms of methodology we’re aiming to repeat the method I used at Marvel and generate books and concepts people like.
Nrama: You’re talking about new stories and new IPs, but Take Two also has an impressive roster of video games that could be translated to comics – from Grand Theft Auto to Bioshock, Duke Nukem, Max Payne and a dozen others. Ubisoft has gotten into publishing comics based on their own video games. For this comic book imprint of Take Two, could we see adaptations or extended universe stories set in comics of those popular game franchises?
Jemas: That’s a good question. It’s too early to say, but we’re constantly looking at opportunities to tell great stories. Right now I’m 100% focused on brand new IPs however.
There are two modes – turnaround mode and start-up mode. And the reason why I think Take Two thinks I’m good at both is because I feel I’m able to easily accept new ideas, work with diverse kinds of creators, but then on the business side I have a sort of tunnel vision to focus in on a particular system and work it out. For now, the goal is to get a lot of good ideas from a lot of great writers and artists, and develop them into a brand new universe. In the long haul I’d be surprised if we didn’t do comics based on the broader Take Two universe, but for now we’re focused on creating new ideas from the ground up.
Nrama: Comics fan love the idea of a comic creator returning after a long absence, and I’d wager that goes for comics professionals like yourself too. How would you say your vision of comics has expanded since your departure from Marvel in 2004?
Jemas: Let’s see. I would say the nicest part about coming back is running into people who were 12 years old when the Ultimate line was launched, and come up and thank me, Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch, Mark Bagley, Joe Quesada, and the Kuberts for doing the Ultimate line. They often tell me it got them back into comics, or they bought it for their kids. It’s been very nice. I was a little bit too close to it at the time and I took it for granted, but now with some distance I’m able to really take it in. We gave a whole generation of kids their first taste of comics. This is sometimes overlooked, but when we launched Ultimate Spider-Man, we sent out roughly eight million Ultimate Spider-Man books as samples. That doesn’t count the books sold through comic stores or bookstores.
Other than that, the most encouraging thing I’ve learned coming back to the industry is the explosion of talent. I was a little bit of a nerd about coming back; I fired up my iPad and a comiXology account, and probably read a 1000 to 1500 comics in my run-up to join Take Two. I was very happily surprised by the level of independent talent out there in the industry. To see lots and lots of those books in the Top 300 – and the Top 100 no less – written by independent writers and artists creating their own work, either through Image, Dark Horse or elsewhere – that’s invigorating.
It’s no knock on my generation and my time at Marvel, but it was a real tough search to find Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar, and the others Joe and I brought to Marvel. Here now in 2013, there are a lot of talented craftsmen, storytellers and entrepreneurs. It takes a lot of brains to do independent comics successfully, and there are a lot of people doing it. I’m surprised at how much good talent there is in the industry That makes his imprint at Take Two even more hopeful.
Nrama: Since you speak about your time at Marvel, I wanted to ask about that. In the nine years since you left, to some your contributions there as publisher have been overlooked by some in favor of Joe Quesada and the Marvel board ushering the comic back to solvency and then into the Disney acquisition. Do you feel your contributions during that time, helping lead it out of bankruptcy, are overlooked?
Jemas: There are a couple answers for that.
One, I don’t think it’s a good idea to worry too much about credit; it’s not healthy mentally to do. There are a lot of people who worry a lot about that, and I’ve never been one of them. It’s not to say I’m not human however. I love Ultimate Spider-Man… that makes me happy. There’s a team who worked on Ultimate Spider-Man; 20 people who put blood, sweat and tears into that… especially the first arc. I was standing on a lot of shoulders, and there were many standing on mine.
I grew up in the sports world, where for my generation it was about teamwork. A good executive is one who assembled a great team and who leads by example. And so I did lead the team that launched the Ultimate line, and Joe and I helped Mark and Brian find a good path on the first stuff for The Ultimates, Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Spider-Man. After that Brian and Mark passed me going 75 miles per hour on the freeway. After a little bit of leading, I was able to be the one following. It was gratifying to see it put together.
I think our team at Marvel did a great job, and I’m not so much worried about credit. I’m very lucky in my life, and I try my best to count my blessings; there’s been a quite a few that are undeserved.
Nrama: Getting back to the topic at hand, how do you feel about the future of this Take Two imprint and what comes next?
Jemas: I’m not sure how good they’re going to be yet. In the middle of the creative process on developing stories, I have this feeling of two parts of my mind working. Part of your mind is saying “This is going to be the greatest thing ever done!”, and the other half is saying “Oh my god, this is the worst thing I’ve ever read.”
Here at Take Two, we’re shooting to do things in comics no one has ever done in comics. We’re trying to do them in a variety of different ways. Honestly it’s too early to tell how good they’re going to be. I’ll tell you that if they don’t come out good on the drawing board then we won’t be publishing them. Guys who were on the inside with me at Marvel can back me up; we left a lot of attempts at Ultimate Spider-Man unpublished. The first draft of Ultimate X-Men Mark Millar did, we sent it back and workshopped it. We workshopped things with an aspiration to be a little revolutionary.
So here at Take Two we’re trying to be a little revolutionary, and do things that are exciting, new and fun. But Chris, when you do stuff like that you have to be objective. When you’re finished you have to show it to inside people to make sure you’re accomplishing what you’re trying to accomplish.
I think at Marvel we did wonderful books. It was a golden age, but I say that with no disrespect to the real Golden Age of comics with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. What they did was so spectacular that it’s silly to think of what we did at Marvel in the same breadth. What readers didn’t see is all the crap… crap, crap, crap we didn’t let out the door. As editors and publishers we try as hard as we can to do incredible stuff. A lot of people put time and effort in projects that ultimately doesn’t come out. Here at Take Two and when I was at Marvel, I’m swinging for the fences. We expect to whiff, then correct our form and connect to hit one out of the park. That’s what we’re doing here.