Professional Motivation from one of the most hated men in comic books
This week I found a little professional inspiration from an unlikely place – early ‘00s Marvel Comics.
In 2002, Marvel published a hardcover book called Marvel: Year in Review – 2000 – 2001: Fanboys and Badgirls, Bill & Joe’s Marvel-ous Adventure! Between the covers of this book with such an unwieldy title lies an equally unwieldy literary exercise. While, at its core, an overview of Marvel Comics’ previous year of publication, the book is also a guide behind-the-scenes in how Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada completely revamped and remade Marvel Comics as a company in the early ‘00s.
Bill Jemas had a background at the NBA which led to him being the president of the trading card company Fleer Entertainment Group and, when Fleer was purchased by Marvel in the early ‘00s, Jemas transitioned over to the comic industry. In January 2000, Jemas became publisher at Marvel Comics and one of the first things he did was hire Joe Quesada as Editor in Chief.
Quesada had decades of experience in the world of independent comic books before he was recruited to launch the Marvel Knights imprint at Marvel in 1998. His work on these books led to great success and Jemas hand-picked Quesada to sprinkle that same magic dust on the entire Marvel Comics line-up.
While Quesada remains a leader at Marvel Comics (currently the Creative Director for Marvel Entertainment), Bill Jemas is considered a controversial figure in the world of comic books. Jemas helped launch a number of great, extremely successful initiatives such as the Ultimate Comics line at Marvel, as well as led the industry in digital comic books and a focus on serialized storytelling designed to be collected in trade paperbacks. He also picked fights.
Bill Jemas repeatedly referred to DC Comics, Marvel’s chief competitor, as AOL Comics and the constant picking at the other company led to a rift that has still not been healed completely. It wasn’t just the competition, though, that Jemas picked fights with. As repeated in the Marvel: Year in Review book, Jemas has strong words for comic book retailers and fans who stood in the way of what he saw as the industry’s fight for survival.
Bill Jemas railed against what he saw as gatekeepers - fans, and retailers who grew up in their cloistered, close-knit community of fellow comic book fans, picked on or mocked by the larger mainstream community. Jemas claimed these fans, in the early ‘00s, felt threatened by any attempt to bring in new, outsider audiences into the world of comic books. They didn't want people disturbing the solitary world they had built around them, protected by labyrinthian continuity and impenetrable storylines. For Jemas, tearing these walls was his biggest mission.
Whether it was through introducing younger characters or experimenting with ways to reach younger readers, Jemas was focused on figuring out a way to make Marvel mainstream.
And guess what? It worked.
If you look at the world around us in 2020, Marvel characters are more known and beloved than they have ever been at any point in the company’s history. People know and love the brand and its library of superheroes and villains. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and the entire roster of artists and writers responsible for dreaming up the characters in the early days of Marvel are the clear architects of the Marvel Universe. Likewise, the decades of industry talent who kept the characters’ stories alive through the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s deserve respect. That said, so much of the current success of Marvel Comics is owed to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and so much of those films’ success is owed to the work that was being done under the leadership of Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada. Jemas might have been a micro-managing bully but he did what he sat out to do - make Marvel relevant again.
Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada outline their goals and values for the company throughout the Year in Review book – whether it was focusing on the characters over the events, revamping the art style and printing processes for the books, getting rid of the restrictive Comics Code Authority or just bringing in outside talent (so many Marvel books in the ‘90s were being written by the same group of people who had been writing books for decades). Through these steps, Marvel Comics pivoted from being a company in the early '00s coming out of bankruptcy into a company that Disney paid $4 billion dollars to acquire.
The theatrical industry is going to be in a weird position as we leave 2020 and enter 2021. So many of the things that have been done, and the way those things have been done, will no longer have any real meaning going forward. Theatrical windows are dead, there’s going to be a level of trust that needs to be rebuilt with audiences and safety, and people will need to be reminded how preferable going to a theater can be after a year spent watching hundreds of hours of entertainment from the couch.
When I first started working for the Alamo Drafthouse, I often grew frustrated with people telling me “No” because “that’s not the way we do things here.” As the years went on, though, I grew in my responsibilities and I developed a team around me. Gradually – too gradually to notice – I became the person telling people “no” because it went against the way I was used to doing things. This attitude will need to end.
Like Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada stormed into Marvel in the early ‘00s, shook things up, blasted away expectations, and regrew a company for the next century, a similar "take no prisoners" attitude will be needed for the theatrical industry to plot the next course. There can be no sacred cows and everything will need to be on the table.
Being a part of the beginning of the next evolution of an industry will be exciting. We can look at the future as scary, or we can look at it as an unparalleled opportunity to figure some new shit out and try different ways of doing things.
Marvel survived the comic book bust of the ‘90s and is a more impressive company than they’ve ever been. Movie theaters can survive COVID-19 and do the same.