spoiled by success
October 16, 2003
By Franklin Harris
When Bill Jemas arrived at Marvel Comics, the company was bankrupt, directionless and creatively stagnant. Now its debts are nearly paid, its characters are again household names and most of its titles, including "New X-Men," "Daredevil" and "The Amazing Spider-Man," are better than they've been in years.
That said, it is time for Jemas to go, and Marvel's upper management agrees.
Marvel announced Tuesday that Jemas was out as the company's president of publishing and chief operating officer. (He will stay on in the lower-profile role of chief marketing officer, at least until his contract runs out early next year.) But even if Marvel is only now admitting it, evidence of Jemas' impending ouster has been mounting since August, when Jemas, formerly the all-too-public face of Marvel, virtually disappeared. He wasn't even quoted in company press releases.
How did it come to this? Long story short: Success spoiled Bill Jemas.
Early on, Jemas made one excellent decision. He hired Joe Quesada as editor-in-chief. Quesada, an artist who had run his own smaller imprint, ushered in a new era of creativity. He lured name writers and artists from rival DC Comics, independent publishing and Hollywood. Among them were J. Michael Straczynski ("Babylon 5"), Brian Michael Bendis ("Powers") and Grant Morrison ("The Invisibles"). Quesada then gave them latitude to tell the stories they wanted, with little editorial interference.
With a stable full of talent, Jemas launched new initiatives. He was the driving force behind Marvel's Ultimate line, which created a new, streamlined Marvel Universe populated with modern versions of the company's characters. "Ultimate X-Men," "Ultimate Spider-Man" and "The Ultimates" (a hardcore take on "The Avengers") soon outsold their old-school counterparts.
Jemas then reinvigorated Marvel's trade-paperback program and pushed graphic novels into bookstores. He saw the rise in popularity of Japanese comics and launched titles that adopted Japanese methods of storytelling. And he restarted Marvel's dormant Epic imprint as a showcase for new talent.
But I come to bury Jemas, not to praise him.
For all Jemas did to regain Marvel's reputation as the House of Ideas, it wasn't enough. Jemas tried to follow the example of Stan Lee, the man who, for all practical purposes, invented Marvel Comics.
Lee was a creative force who, with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, gave birth to Spider-Man, the Hulk, the original X-Men, and just about every other Marvel character worth mentioning. As Marvel's longtime editor-in-chief, he was also a showman. He sold Marvel superheroes like a carnival barker sells glimpses of a bearded lady.
Jemas wanted to be Lee, and that was his mistake. Lee was a huckster, but he was a talented and amiable one. Jemas wasn't. He tried his hand at writing, and the result was "Marville," which was so far beyond bad it was offensive. He issued increasingly bizarre edicts, including one banning flashbacks. He insulted retailers. He had a public feud with "Captain Marvel" writer Peter David. Eventually his micro-management undermined the creative atmosphere Quesada had nurtured, and a resurgent DC Comics lured back several creators Quesada had labored to bring into the Marvel orbit, including Morrison, the man who made "X-Men" readable again.
Now Jemas is out, and Publisher Dan Buckley is in. The first signs of post-Jemas Marvel are already apparent. Jemas' Epic imprint, which failed to live up to its promise, is withering on the vine, and boneheaded creative decisions involving "Fantastic Four" and "Thunderbolts" have been reversed.
Still, Marvel is better today than when Jemas found it, if only because he was removed from power before he could do more damage.