After we’re through,” Joe Quesada said, “you’re going to be Spider- sick ! We’re going to have people puking Spider-Man. ”
It’s a Tuesday in late December, and Mr. Quesada, the 40-year-old editor in chief of Marvel Comics, is regaling a visitor to his midtown office with his company’s elaborate marketing plans for Spider-Man , the Sam Raimi–directed, Toby McGuire–starring $139 million action film that Sony Pictures will finally release on May 3.
Spider-Man is Marvel’s most famous character, and the success of the film-a project delayed more than two decades by endless script rewrites and lawsuits-is crucial to the company. Abandoned by kids and ravaged by greedy speculators, the comic-book world is in tough shape. Marvel is only a handful of years removed from bankruptcy.
“How important is Spider-Man to Marvel?” Mr. Quesada said, “How about to the industry? I think it’s amazingly important, more so than the Batman movies. When the Batman movies came out, we were very, very healthy.”
Mr. Quesada bounced in his chair. Portly, with spiky blond-highlighted hair and an earring, he had the I-don’t-give-a-shit-that-I’m-the-boss look down pat-black T-shirt, sweatpants and a pair of Air Jordans. As a package, he seemed to personify what Ben Affleck’s comic-artist character, Holden McNeil, had in mind when he said in Chasing Amy- a film directed by Mr. Quesada’s friend and sometime collaborator, Kevin Smith-that comic books are about “over- or underweight guys who don’t get laid.”
Mr. Quesada is married, with a daughter, so obviously he gets some action. But two years after taking the helm of Marvel, the artist-turned-executive has distinguished himself as a comic-book geek’s comic-book executive-the best the business has had since the rancorous Stan Lee, a writer-turned-exec, started hitting the talk-show circuit in the 1960′s.
Like Mr. Lee once did, Mr. Quesada has puffed out his chest, spouted off at the mouth and shown an old-style comic-world flair for attention-grabbing stunts. He leaks delicious information about his company’s titles to Internet comic-gossip sites. And as Mr. Lee did rather fiendishly, Mr. Quesada revels in needling his competitors-in particular Marvel’s biggest rival, DC.
But in a short period of time, Mr. Quesada has brought a new pulse and energy to a company considered dead not too long ago.
“There had been seven straight years of declining sales before 2001,” said John Jackson Miller, editor of Comics & Games Retailer , a trade magazine. “Two thousand and one was the first year where we’d seen any growth. And I think much of that has to do with Joe Quesada’s job at Marvel. Unlike some of the guys who’ve been there, he’s built up a real personal style. He’s been very visible.”
Mr. Smith was less charitable about his pal: “Joe’s a media whore.”
Whatever the case-artist, showman or shameless ho-Joe Quesada, who never cared much for comics as a kid growing up in Queens, now has what many fans believe is the world’s most important comic franchise on his round shoulders. For Marvel to prosper, Spider-Man has to be a hit . But so does Joe Quesada.
Earlier that December day, Mr. Quesada arranged to meet the winner of a raffle sponsored by the New York City Comic Book Museum. Over the telephone, a Marvel publicist had described the winner as “some kid.”
It turned out, however, the “kid” was a 28-year-old father of two named Pedro Vega Jr., who arrived wearing a backwards baseball cap and a T-shirt depicting Venom, Spider-Man’s evil nemesis.
“You’re so lucky,” Mr. Vega whispered to a reporter. “You get to hang out with him all day. “
For all their loyalty, guys Mr. Vega’s age are thought to pose a problem for Marvel. Once a business supported by children who blew their lawn-mowing money, the industry now relies largely on adult buyers. The last comic boom, in the early 1990′s, was fueled by over-21 readers who thought a pile of comics would make them rich.
But that gold rush has long passed. Forty-eight million comics-$850 million worth-were sold in April 1993. Last year, the industry did $220 million. Longtime aficionados worry that comics have become the exclusive, expensive commodities of geezers in specialty stores. Kids today are into other things-PlayStation 2, W.W.F. wrestling, Harry Potter.
Mr. Lee, now 79 and living in California, said he never tried to tailor comics to one age group. And he offered no solutions. “I tried to make the best that I could, that were readable enough for young readers and interesting enough for older readers,” he said. “Maybe that’s too high a goal … to grab readers of all ages. Maybe that’s too difficult to do today.”
Mr. Quesada swears he doesn’t care if his buying demographic is older than a generation ago. He believes success can be achieved through stronger artistry and writing-not by catering to grade-schoolers, whose influence he believes is overrated.
“I think the 8-year-old comic reader is a myth,” he said. “It’s not a concern to me. A year ago, when I took that job, that’s what I was concerned with. I heard comic-store owners saying ‘Where are my 8-year-old readers?’ You know what? I don’t think they were ever really out there.”
Part of Mr. Quesada’s apathy towards the childhood reader may come from the fact that he came to appreciate to the genre at a more advanced age. Born and raised in Jackson Heights, Mr. Quesada ‘ s father introduced him to comics with the ground-breaking three-part series that appeared in issues 96 through 98 of The Amazing Spider-Man . Deemed “the drug issues,” they depicted the narcotics addiction of Peter Parker’s troubled roommate, Harry Osborn, who happened to be the son of Spider-Man’s nemesis, the Green Goblin.
But whatever interest Mr. Quesada held in comics as a child didn’t last. In fact, for nearly two decades, he didn’t touch comics. A talented artist, Mr. Quesada attended the School of Visual Arts, where he took elective courses from comic-art icons Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner. He flunked them both.
“I just didn’t hand in my assignments,” Mr. Quesada explained. “I just could care less.”
All he really wanted to do was play gigs with his band. Staying away from art, Mr. Quesada moved through a blur of menial jobs, and by 1986 was working at an F.A.O. Schwarz when a co-worker found him doodling. The coworker said Mr. Quesada had talent, and suggested that he should draw comics for a living.
“If I bring you something,” his colleague said, “will you read it?”
Mr. Quesada said yes, and the man came back with something called The Dark Knight Returns . Written and drawn by Frank Miller, The Dark Knight explores the psychoses of Batman as a wearied, violent old man, called back to his cape and cowl after years of atrophy and alcoholism. Along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen , The Dark Knight received critical acclaim and attracted an adult following previously unknown to comics.
“I thought, ‘Holy shit,’” Mr. Quesada said. “That’s what I wanted. I wanted my own Dark Knight , my own Watchmen . I didn’t know if I could write it, but I knew I could draw it.”
Starting with a title dubbed Spelljammer for DC, Mr. Quesada became known for drawing such titles as X-Men , Vampirella and Azrael . In 1994, he and inker Jimmy Palmiotti started their own company, Event Comics, and in 1996, Marvel turned to the two and their publisher [Nanci Dakesian, whom Mr. Quesada would later marry] to help revive a few of its struggling titles. For one project, the two commissioned Mr. Smith, an accomplished screenwriter and comic-book collector, to write Daredevil , the hero of Hell’s Kitchen. Daredevil was a smash.
Impressed by what he’d done, new Marvel chief operating officer Bill Jemas gave Mr. Quesada the keys to the whole kingdom in August 2000. Mr. Quesada quickly set about making good with writers and artists once alienated by Marvel. At the 2000 Marvel Christmas party, he arm-wrestled Mr. Jemas to determine whether a well-known writer would stay with the company. Mr. Quesada won.
Indeed, Mr. Quesada restored a writerly quality to Marvel’s books. As of late, Marvel’s comics have become less about picayune crusades like fighting Galacticus than they are about the personal struggles heroes must endure. For the ardent reader, that’s what you want. For all their attention to micro-detail, the best comics revolve around a basic, accessible storyline: a man or woman alone, driven by an idealistic, sometimes reluctant desire to fight against the world’s great evils.
“This can be mainstream entertainment,” Mr. Quesada said. The key is a proper showcase, he said. “There are geniuses in this industry who aren’t acknowledged as geniuses, since the mainstream doesn’t know them and doesn’t know they exist.”
As he retooled Marvel, Mr. Quesada cultivated a larger-than-life personality of his own. He reached out to readers and the comic-book media and even dipped a toe into Hollywood. With a cameo in Chasing Amy under his belt, he appeared in Mr. Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back as a pizza boy seduced by the sultry Eliza Dushku.
“On the DVD,” he said of Jay and Silent Bob , “they have a deleted scene where I’m dry-humping the shit out of her. Not me, the pizza boy. And she’s kissing me all over. That wasn’t in the script. She was just kissing me.”
Such executive horseplay would be considered over the top in most professions-but then again, showmanship and eccentricity have a history of working in the comic trade. No one knows this better than Mr. Lee.
“The more Joe makes himself a public figure, the better,” Mr. Lee said. “He has to become a living symbol of Marvel.”
Taking another page from the Stan Lee playbook, Mr. Quesada has ended the long period of unnatural détente between Marvel and its rival DC Comics, the home of Superman and Batman, now owned by AOL Time Warner.
Since the so-called Silver Age of Comics, which took place from 1956 to 1969, readers have defined who they were by their allegiance to Marvel or DC.
DC was Dick Van Dyke’s 1960′s. It was The Flash, alter ego of handsome, earnest police scientist Barry Allen, and his reporter girlfriend Iris West, whose sharp, delicate features, Capri pants and hair ribbons made you swoon, but not lust. The lettering was clean, and the art, wide and open, imbued with the sense of Ivy League decorum and buttoned-down sensibilities.
Marvel, meanwhile, was Lenny Bruce. Beginning with the Fantastic Four in 1961, Mr. Lee and his crew created comics that tapped into the roiling social and sexual energies of the time. When the heroes weren’t fighting villains, they were battling their inner demons, unsympathetic cops or other superheroes.
As Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay , the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about two comic-book writers in the 1930′s, put it: “DC was part of the establishment. Marvel was different. When I was younger, I liked the heroes of DC because they seemed like parental figures. When I was older, I liked Marvel, because they seemed like they were my contemporaries.”
Mr. Quesada is convinced that some good old-fashioned gloves-off rivalry will be good for business. “I liked it when the two companies hated each other,” he said. “It made it better for the fans. You know, if you like DC, then you hated Marvel. If you like Marvel, then you hated DC.”
“What the fuck is DC anyway?” Mr. Quesada said, stoking the fires. “They’d be better off calling it AOL Comics. At least people know what AOL is. I mean, they have Batman and Superman, and they don’t know what to do with them. That’s like being a porn star with the biggest dick and you can’t get it up. What the fuck?” (Paul Levitz, DC’s president and publisher, declined to comment for this story through a spokesperson.)
Still, it’s the ancillary success of Spider-Man that may ultimately determine Mr. Quesada’s legacy. In anticipation, Marvel’s lined up some of the industry’s best talent to handle its various Spider-Man books. In addition, Mr. Quesada has made sure that their storylines at least resemble the look and feel of the film.
“We’re just seeing revenues in this industry increase again,” Mr. Quesada said. “But Spider-Man could be the knockout punch.”
Part of this synergistic impulse is a response to the failure of Marvel to rouse X-Men comic-book sales following the movie’s release two years ago. Marvel’s been trying to do this for a long time. Remember the Saturday morning cartoons of Spider-Man? Remember Bill Bixby getting mad enough to turn into Lou Ferrigno?
In theory, it should work: The publishing arm produces products-stories-which can become movies. Now might be it’s best chance. After Spider-Man , Marvel will have three big film vehicles with The Hulk, which is being directed by Ang Lee, and Daredevil and X-Men 2 in 2003.
There are skeptics. “Will the movie mean better sales?” said Mike Dean, an editor with The Comics Journal , the tweedy, intellectual voice of the industry. “I don’t know. I don’t know if any movie has ever translated into extra comic sales.”
When told of Mr. Dean’s comment, Mr. Quesada got characteristically bold. “You know what that’s called?” he asked. “That’s what we call the loser’s song. ‘I don’t have any properties that can be made into movies, so let’s criticize some that do. My books don’t sell a lot, but they’re critically acclaimed .’
“You know what? I’m going to have books that are going to sell a lot and are going to be critically acclaimed.”
“So,” asked Joe Quesada, ‘”what are you fucking going to cry about tomorrow?”