What If... Bill Jemas

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After a recent exchange of emails, Bill Jemas, newly promoted Chief Operating Officer of Marvel Comics, kindly offered an interview. I write twenty questions, he answers them, and I follow up the answers with another round of questions. Simple.

For reasons I won’t go into, upon reading the questions, Mr. Jemas declined to conduct the interview.

That should be the end of it. Right?

Well, not quite.

While I think Mr. Jemas has done a terrific job at Marvel, and Mr. Quesada has shown a real vision for the Marvel Knights line, bringing in some terrific talent, that shouldn’t be the end of it.

That shouldn’t make questions go away.

I do believe that there needs to be dialogue in this industry about what’s what for the creators who write, pencil, ink, letter and color in it. There also needs to be a dialogue about REALLY finding enough readers to make this industry truly healthy.

As I responded to Mr. Jemas: “I think any of those questions could have been approached honestly. Those questions were about taking stands, for better or for worse, and not pretending they don’t exist. If they don’t exist, then why don’t you want to address them?” It was certainly Mr. Jemas’ prerogative to not answer my interview questions, even though he was the one to suggest an interview format to help generate a dialogue.

However, since Mr. Jemas chose not to answer some very important questions about Marvel and this industry, I will invent the answers I expected, or in some cases hoped, Mr. Jemas might give.

What If… Bill Jemas Had Conducted This Interview?

I reiterate, the answers below are not—NOT NOT NOT— the positions of Mr. Jemas or Marvel, at least not that I’m aware.

Part I - A dialogue about the future of Marvel comics, inside and outside of the Direct Market.

Q1: What is Marvel’s vision for the demographics of its different lines?

ANSWER: The Ultimate line is intended to be a jump-on place for new comics readers, whether they be young or old.

The Marvel Knights line is intended for readers who know Marvel comics…and want to experience a new interpretation of the characters they’ve come to know and love. This also gives comics readers who’ve not been reading Marvel a jumping on place, albeit a more sophisticated one than our Ultimate line.

The basic line is for fans that have been following Marvel for years, and we are dedicated to continuing to offer books to them.

Q2: While Marvel is enjoying sales growth that appears to be a direct result of the well-promoted Ultimate and Marvel Knights comics, as well as the expanded collected edition program, how much of this is Marvel simply getting a larger slice of the same-sized pie—that pie known as the Direct Market

ANSWER: Complicated question. First, the growth at Marvel shows we’re headed in the right direction. Our books are getting better…and more people are reading them.

That most of those people remain in the Direct Market is more symptomatic of the reality that it’s going to take more than Marvel to solve the difficulties of the Direct Market.

For the Direct Market to increase its number of stores, we’re going to need an extended period of reinvigorated health to attract potential new retail merchants.

That said, we think we’re doing our part. Marvel’s increased sales within the Direct Market indicate that we’re offering a more attractive product to consumers.

As the industry continues to show increased signs of health, we also hope that the numerous new films based on comics characters will help increase awareness among the vast mainstream audience, and that that will translate into more people walking into comics shops.

We just have to have some patience and not overreact every time there’s a periodic dip in sales.

Q3: How has the upswing of sales led to a significant increase in the number of specialty shops in the Direct Market?

ANSWER: Well, again, it hasn’t, but we expect that a reinvigorated line will lead to better word of mouth that comics are cool, and that that will lead to more readers.

More readers will show a healthier industry, and that, we expect, will lead to new specialty shops.

One more thing. I think the new specialty shops will be much more diversified in their product than the shops of ten or fifteen years ago…and that will help them stay in business.

Q4: What action is Marvel Comics taking to expand, in any substantive way, beyond the Direct and vastly depleted newsstand markets?

ANSWER: Well, not unlike the film industry, we can no longer count on one revenue stream to keep us healthy.

In the entertainment world of today, licensing for products and films will likely continue to be an important source of income and for making increasingly large audiences aware of our characters.

Collected editions continue to sell well in bookstores, and, with renewed interest by book publishers in the graphic novel format, we expect that to increase.

The trick is getting comics into the hands of kids who don’t go to comic shops or bookstores. And that’s a lot of potential readers.

“Disney Adventures,” at its height in the 90s, sold nearly one million copies a month as a point of purchase check out item at grocery stores and other mass market outlets, and the comics section remains the most popular part of that publication.

At some point, to really expand, comics have got to aggressively explore all the mass outlets available, from grocery stores to Wal-Mart to get comics into the hands of the kids who will read comics.

Q5: Not only does superhero continuity wipe out any chance of material being accessible to a mainstream audience, the current visualized page is completely indecipherable to them, so how does Marvel plan to bridge this mainstream readership gap with a readable product?

ANSWER: Well, yes, that’s a problem…for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse… for all of us.

What we have to do is go back to basics for any books intended to reach a mass market.

That doesn’t mean comics for stupid people.

That means smart comics with clean, self-contained story lines, action that is easy to follow, left-to-right balloon placement, etc.

We acknowledge that comics today in the Direct Market have story lines and utilize storytelling tools that are not accessible to a mainstream audience, but they are comics that our readers in the Direct Market love.

The trick is to create transitional comics for the entry-level reader, like the Marvel Ultimate line. From there, readers will get their sea legs and be able to then experience the full line of what we have to offer.

Q6: What can Marvel do to get trade paperbacks and graphic novels out of the graphic novel/humor collective ghetto that exists in bookstore chains today?

ANSWER: First, it’s always hard to tell somebody how they should run their own business, and get results.

The best way we can change the way bookstores display our books is to show them a better way that exists within their current display standards.

Many years ago, First Comics introduced a line of illustrated classics that were contained in point-of-purchase displays and sold at bookstores across the country.

If a similar type of book that was crafted solely for a mainstream audience were similarly displayed, and successfully marketed and sold, then I think that might be the first break in the armor for how comics are displayed in that market.

In this respect, success would be the best instructor.

Q7: Regarding your upcoming line for young readers, how do you expect to reach younger readers in stores that currently have a much older clientele?

ANSWER: First, you can’t ignore a potential audience.

If we don’t publish for this market, then they will surely not have anything to purchase when they step into the stores, will they?

Just because the market’s small, doesn’t mean it can’t grow. Those specialty shops that continue to modify their stores to reach a potentially larger audience deserve encouragement…and books to sell.

That’s where we come in.

Q8: If it’s your intent to reach beyond the Direct Market or depleted newsstand distribution system with these books, how do you expect to accomplish this?

ANSWER: It’s never good business to give away a business plan.

However, the important thing to remember is that dreams begin with “build it and they shall come.”

We’re building it.

Q9: Why does Joe Quesada cancel Marvel books, only to bring them back under his own imprint…where, whether or not this is the intent, he derives a personal profit…especially when leaving them where they were could potentially maximize Marvel’s profits?

ANSWER: I’m addressing this question because I do not want any professional or fan to think that Joe Quesada would work at any cross-purposes to Marvel. He is our Editor-In-Chief, and I support him completely.

With Marvel Knights, Joe Quesada has built a line that stands for a unique vision of the Marvel Universe. He created it as an independent contractor.

With some books, where we felt the vision was lacking and needed reinventing, putting them in the Marvel Knights line made sense.

Books in the Marvel Knights line get a lot of attention, and increased sales are a reflection of what Joe has built. That Joe profits from his efforts in having developed this line is simply fair. He’s created an asset for us, and he should be entitled to profit from it.

Part II - A discussion about the nature of freelancers and how they’re viewed by Marvel Comics.

Q10: If the huge turnover in the Marvel freelance workforce is NOT the result of an “out with the old, in with the new” editorial policy, then why couldn’t these changes have been made with existing talent?

ANSWER: In order to do the job of revitalizing Marvel Comics, we had to make a lot of changes…and quickly.

We had to reinvent the entire corporate culture of how Marvel does business, and sometimes that means breaking some eggs.

While we appreciate the work past creators have done for us, we have to be concerned about the future…and our future required fast changes that would improve our books immediately.

Q11: Since it’s well known that the Marvel creator contracts are unilateral—in the respect that it binds creators to the company, but that the company can cancel the contracts at any time—under what circumstances does Marvel cancel contracts with talent?

ANSWER: Creators that sign our contracts are all big boys and girls who know what the score is. Our contract tells them we want them, that as long as our intent or goal—which is paid off in the quality of the finished comic—is upheld, they can count on working for us for that particular period of time.

But, if the goal of a comic is not met…or even changed…then we have to find the right people to do the job, and, considering the financial state of this industry, we can’t afford to be giving out pay-or-play contracts to talent we can’t use.

Q12: How do you believe freelancers share fairly and/or reasonably in the fruits of their labors?

ANSWER: Freelancers receive a living wage up front for their efforts, where Marvel takes all the publishing risk.

While we would all like to return to the situation where there is so much profit that everybody can benefit on the backend, we need to be a little realistic about that.

The reality is that if creators really want to receive full benefit for their labors, then they should become independent comics publishers…and assume all the risk themselves.

We think we offer freelancers a lot of money for the books they create for us, and even though there’s been a massive drop in industry sales over the last ten years, that has not corresponded into a commensurate reduction in page rates.

I’m not telling you life is rosy…but at least it continues…and has a hope for improvement.

Q13: With the understanding that these freelancers who’ve worked endless hours to write, draw, ink, letter and color your books are the ones that bring to life Marvel’s characters…characters that were created by other work-for-hire freelancers, what is your moral responsibility to any of these people?

ANSWER: Okay, it’s time for a reality check here.

First, we do appreciate the efforts of our freelance workforce, even those who have left us, but we all have to look after our own. I have to look out for my family first, and you have to look out for yours.

The people who work for us are not children to be coddled.

They are professionals doing a job for us…and under agreements that should not be expected to extend beyond whatever we have written between us on paper.

As businessmen, our moral obligation is to do what’s right…for our business. Anybody who thinks otherwise is playing by a different set of rules.

Q14: What should happen to artists and writers with a more mature style, whose current work is not perceived, inside Marvel, as being saleable to younger readers with a younger taste?

ANSWER: Well, there are two ways to look at this.

First, I’d love it if comics were published and sold in such quantities that everybody who’s of a professional caliber could be published…but that’s not the case.

In our current environment, we don’t have the luxury to be able to go out and create books for talent who we think have moved beyond being able to contribute as productively as we’d like.

The assignment of talent has always been and will always be a subjective affair, based on determination by our editors.

In specific answer to your question, it is the responsibility of talent to find a market for their work, not the other way around.

Q15: What efforts are made by Marvel’s editorial staff to redirect existing talent…before deciding to fire them?

ANSWER: It’s the editor’s job to decide whom they do and don’t want to work with. If they have changes to make in books, and they’re not comfortable making them with existing talent, then they have to find somebody else to do the work.

In answer to your question, editors do whatever they think is necessary—sometimes a lot, sometimes probably nothing—and everybody still working for Marvel has been somehow redirected, and THEY were not fired.

It is the editor’s domain to determine whether or not it’s worthwhile to spend time working to redirect talent, and since they do this for a living every day, seventy-plus hours a week, I have to trust their judgement.

Only the quality of the books will determine whether or not their judgement was correct.

Q16: Beyond the short-term success of ten to fifteen years—similar to that of a professional athlete—what long-term future can freelance talent expect to have in the comic book industry?

ANSWER: Some will have quite long and lengthy careers, using Joe Kubert and Will Eisner as examples, others will begin their careers in comics and move beyond it into different fields, and others, for whatever reasons, will have very short careers.

Some people will make a lot of money, but most won’t.

Those with a real love for comics will find a way to continue producing, and the satisfaction of the finished product may ultimately have to be their greatest reward.

Part III - What Marvel requires of its editors, as professionals.

Q17: What working knowledge of story and art, as well as professional demeanor, is required at Marvel to be an editor?

ANSWER: At Marvel, an editor needs to have a working knowledge of story structure, character construction, dialogue, visual storytelling, balloon placement, and be able to critique drawing and finishing. An editor also needs to understand the market they are developing books for, as this is a commercial medium.

That said, an editor needs an aesthetic that is consistent with the goals of the company.

An editor also needs to be a manager…of people as well as projects. There are many balls to be kept in the air, and it’s the editor’s job to make sure as few of them hit the ground as possible.

To utilize those skills, an editor needs to be a communicator.

Q18: How promptly should editors return phone calls from talent, if at all?

ANSWER: There is no excuse for editors not to return phone calls within a day. If editors are on deadline—which they always are—it doesn’t take long to call people back, even to have to arrange conversations at a more convenient time.

I realize there are people in this business who have a natural tendency to avoid difficult conversations, such as telling people they aren’t interested in buying ideas.

That said, an editor is the representative of Marvel Comics to the freelance community, and it’s not in our best interest for them to behave in an unprofessional manner.

Communication is the life’s blood of our company, and an editor cannot be a bottleneck of information.

If people are not getting their phone calls returned, I want to know about it.

Q19: How important is it to Marvel that an editor respond to a submission from a known professional and give a sound reasoning why something wasn’t acceptable?

ANSWER: It’s very important.

Not everybody’s proposal is going to be 100% on the money, and whatever guidance can be given to help bring a project in line with Marvel’s editorial goals, then that benefits Marvel doesn’t it?

Obviously you’re asking this question because you believe that freelancers don’t get feedback from editors.

Well, as I mentioned before, Marvel’s editors put in over seventy hours a week to get our books out. They are dedicated to this task, and they often have to choose between getting books out and buying new projects.

Obviously, there needs to be some middle ground, but I think they’re doing the best they can.

Q20: How are ageism and cronyism discouraged by management?

ANSWER: Who editors hire is left pretty much up to them, but I have continued faith in their professional editorial judgment.

Had he chosen to, Mr. Jemas could have offered these—or any other—perspectives, and shown the face of Marvel to be that of a business struggling successfully to work its way out of many years of decline.

But that is not the face he chooses to show us. He wants us to think we professionals should all be members of some big, happy family.

I wanted straightforward answers…so we’d all know what was what…and what’s so wrong with that?

Too often, collectively as professionals, we don’t face the realities of the business we work in. We want to write or draw or ink or letter or color. We want to participate in the telling of stories with characters that we care about. We want to do it so badly that we don’t face the realities of the business we’re in…or who we’re really working for.

And sometimes we end up being surprised by how things turned out for us.

And sometimes we feel screwed.

But were we screwed, or did we simply believe we were members of one big happy family? And we all know you don’t screw your family…

Marvel and DC are companies, not families, and that’s how they should be viewed.

Marvel and DC are also the industry leaders, and where they fail, we fail. If there is a perception that something’s broken, let’s fix it. If our books aren’t what they should be, why not? If a mass audience can’t read our books, why not?

Some people, Mr. Jemas included, have criticized my perspective of editors, the state of the industry, and the quality of comics. To me, that sounds an awful lot like: “America, love it or leave it.” I always believed that loving something means accepting it for its good as well as its bad traits. Accepting it, and facing it.

Facing problems and dealing with them is the only way to make them better.

We should not miss seeing the forest for the trees.

I think the comics industry needs leaders, not cheerleaders, who’ll step forward.

I hope Mr. Jemas will be one of them.

2001 by Lee Nordling

Lee Nordling is Executive Editor of the Platinum Studios Comic Book Department, Editor of the internationally syndicated “Rugrats” comic strip, and author of “Your Career in the Comics.”

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