Marvel: The best writing in comics

It’s been nearly ten years since a radioactive spider crept into the offices of Marvel Comics and bit everyone. Or maybe it was the burst of a gamma bomb. Or a shower of cosmic rays.

Marvel Comics EIC Joe Quesada (photo courtesy Marvel Comics)
Marvel Comics EIC Joe Quesada
(photo courtesy Marvel Comics)

At the time, puny Marvel was trying to steady its wobbly legs after a rough period of bankruptcy in the late nineties. Then, suddenly, the company found itself endowed with fantastic new super powers: It could seemingly make money at will.

Impressed by Marvel’s astonishing turnaround over the last ten years, Disney announced a month and a half ago that it was snatching up the comic book company for $4 billion.

But the secret origin of Marvel’s amazing success isn’t such a secret, says Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada.

In fact, it’s written on every page.

“The most important part of our comics is the writing,” Quesada says. “My philosophy is about quality. In my ten years here—my almost-ten years—that has never changed. What leads us to the best story?”

At first glance, particularly to the uninitiated, comic books appear to be a visual medium—and they are. But, says Quesada, “If you don’t have a great story, the greatest art can’t help.”

(image courtesy of Marvel Comics)
(image courtesy of Marvel Comics)

That mindset has been at the forefront of Marvel’s decade-long Renaissance since Quesada took over the reigns in 2000. “It was a big shift in philosophy,” Quesada says. “We had just come out of the nineties, which were very artist-centric. Artists were driving the business. Comics were filled with beautiful pictures.”

And no one made those beautiful pictures better than Marvel. “Marvel was the place to come to work to make big money,” Quesada says. “Beyond that, though, it wasn’t necessarily a pleasant place to work at. DC [Marvel’s biggest competitor] had a better reputation. It was just the opposite there: the money wasn’t as good, but it was a better place to work. DC had the best editors, the best writers.”

By 1992, Marvel no longer even had the best artists. Many of the company’s top artistic talent defected to establish a company of their own, Image—which, as its name implied, emphasized artwork over all else.

Still, Marvel saw robust sales. The company’s business model focused on collectors rather than readers: deluxe covers with holograms and die-cuts and shiny foil embossing. “It was stunt publishing,” Quesada says. “I knew that couldn’t be sustainable. You had to tell stories. You had to get readers engaged.”

Instead, the seven-year editorial reign of Tom DeFalco took Marvel to its creative nadir, in large part because the company’s marketing tail was wagging the dog (perhaps best exemplified by the now-infamous and legendarily confusing “Maximum Clonage” Spider-Man-and-his-many-clones storyline, which spiraled out of creators’ hands because of intense pressure from marketers). The company’s few creative bright spots included a series of books set in the dystopian Marvel future of 2099 and the development of several “cosmic” Marvel heroes and villains.

Even after DeFalco left the company in 1994, Marvel’s situation continued to unravel. By 1996, poor editorial content combined with distribution problems and shady investor dealings to send Marvel packing for bankruptcy court.

* * * * *

Even as Marvel’s fortunes rose and fell, the comics industry as a whole was still feeling the effects of a massive creative upheaval. In 1986-87, DC Comics had published a twelve-issue series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons called Watchmen that redefined comic books as something for older readers, not just adolescents. “It created a mass appeal for comics,” Quesada explains.

Quesada is quick to trace Marvel’s current high standards of writing back to Moore’s creative thunderclap. “If you look at where we are today,” he says, “it has not been a sudden shift. There’s been an evolution in comics. This is a complexity that has developed over time. Today’s writers build on that.”

Books like Watchmen, Quesada says, sparked his own interest in getting into comics. (“Although fewer people saw it,” he adds as an aside, “I thought Moore’s “V” for Vendetta [1982-1985] was a superior work.)

Ironically, Quesada started as an artist. “It’s the path less traveled,” he admits. “My thing was storytelling, whether through art or through writing. I had to pick my poison, so I went with the art, but I knew very early on that I wanted to work on great stories.”

(image courtesy of Marvel Comics)
(image courtesy of Marvel Comics)

Starting first as a freelancer, Quesada then co-founded his own small imprint, Event Comics. In 1998, he began doing editorial work for Marvel, overseeing a new imprint called Marvel Knights. He also worked with film director Kevin Smith on an acclaimed eight-issue run of Daredevil.

In 2000, Quesada took over the helm as editor-in-chief for the entire company—the first artist to ever hold the position.

And the artist’s first order of business: recruit new writers. “We sought out the best and brightest writers working in comics and the best and brightest writers who weren’t working in comics but wanted to be,” he says. “We’ve also worked very hard at developing young writers.”

It was perhaps his Daredevil collaboration with Smith that helped open the floodgates, Quesada admits. “Kevin Smith was a huge break for us. He ushered in huge change. He helped usher in a Renaissance at Marvel,” Quesada says. “He was the first person to really awaken creators from outside comics to the possibilities of coming to comics—coming from the big ocean into the little pond—and discovering that it’s a fun thing to do. That was a really important step.”

Quesada rolls off a list of writers familiar to any Marvel fan—Mark Millar, Brian Michael Bendis, Grant Morrison, Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, Joss Whedon—but he also cites big names like science fiction writer J. Michael Straczynski and comics legend (and Hugo-, Nebula-, and Newberry-Award-winner) Neil Gaiman. “It was great to have Neil come back,” Quesada says. “A previous incident with the company had tainted him, but we reached out to him to work that out, and we got some amazing work from him.”

Marvel has been adapting Stephen King's <i>The Stand</i> (image courtesy of Marvel Comics)
Marvel has been adapting
Stephen King’s The
Stand (image courtesy of
Marvel Comics)

Marvel has also been working on special collaborations with Stephen King on his Dark Tower series and an adaptation of his novel The Stand, and the company has been giving similar treatment to Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi classic Ender’s Game.

The company’s Marvel Illustrated line has tapped such classics as The Man in the Iron Mask, Moby Dick, The Last of the Mohicans, and even Pride & Prejudice. “I look at what [Eric Shanower and Skottie Young] have just done with The Wizard of Oz,” Quesada says. “It was a real triumph. They made that story fresh and new.”

The key behind this flurry of activity has been to find great stories and then find great ways to tell them, says Quesada.

“Because I’m a creator—because I started as a creator—I have a lot of respect for creators,” Quesada says. “My philosophy is to get out of their way and let them do their job.”

* * * * *

But sometimes, Quesada has to put himself right in the thick of things. One of the hallmarks of his editorialship has been “The Big Event”—massive cross-over storylines that runs through a dozen or more titles.

Marvel has done such storylines in the past—Secret War I & II and the Infinity Gauntlet trilogy comes to mind—but such crossovers had little substance holding them together. Fueled more by spectacle than story, they frequently embodied the exact kind of gimmicky marketing that got Marvel into trouble by the mid-90s.

Quesada’s Big Events, on the other hand, have shaken Marvel continuity from the ground up, over and over.

“We just killed off Captain America,” Quesada says, referring to the death of one of the company’s flagship characters. “We could’ve made a much bigger deal out of that than we did, but we didn’t do it for the publicity; we did it because we had a great story.”

Captain America’s death capped off an ambitious Big Event called Civil War, which ran from 2006-2007. Aside from being a massive superhero battle royal, the story’s central themes could’ve been torn from today’s headlines: How do we, as a society, balance our need for security and safety with our civil liberties? Likewise, Civil War could’ve been a history lesson, uprooting the tale of America’s defining conflict from 1861 and retelling it in the present, with brother still pitted against brother.

Secret Invasion #1 (courtesy of Marvel Comics)
Secret Invasion #1 (courtesy of
Marvel Comics)

Or take the Secret Invasion story, which ran through the last two-thirds of 2008. Shape-shifting aliens called Skrulls, fueled by religious fundamentalism, infiltrated Earth in an attempt to take over. When the bad guys look just like us, how do we know who to trust? Are all Skrulls bad, or just the religious nutjobs?

Unlike Marvel crossovers of days past, where a title might tie in to the larger story through the flimsiest of connections, Quesada’s team of writers manage to weave tight, meaningful connections between their individual titles and the Big Event.

“We hold a gigantic creative meeting with the writers to hammer things out,” Quesada says. “We’ll construct a massive story. It’s a highly collaborative process, and through that, we come up with ways to let the writers go off and do their thing. The writers are driving that, with the editors in tow.”

Remarkably, the level of writing remains consistently high across the board. The results have been some of the company’s most ambitious, elaborate storytelling. Each time, Quesada has his writers push the bar just a little bit higher.

“It’s like being in the eye of a hurricane,” he says. “I won’t know how far we’ve come until I someday step out of it and can look back.”

* * * * *

Just as Marvel’s writers have continued to evolve, so has Quesada’s role as editor-in-chief. For instance, as a member of the Marvel Creative Committee, Quesada spends time reviewing scripts for the company’s animation and movie projects. Because Marvel now self-produces its own movies, Quesada has a say in the scripts for those films. “We want to make sure everything has the same Marvel sensibilities while still allowing the movie to be its own entity,” Quesada says.

Quesada has also embraced new technology, including social media, to make himself more accessible to fans than any editor-in-chief before him. He posts regular columns, does frequent interviews and forums, and uses the net like a marketing-savvy pro. Of course, that sometimes makes him the target of sniping fanboys who over-dissect every word he’s ever said online (as only sniping sci-fi fanboys can do), but Quesada says the relationship he’s built with Marvel’s overall fanbase makes it worth it.

(image courtesy of Marvel Comics)

Quesada has also been “very deeply involved in” Marvel’s use of bleeding-edge tech to develop a new “motion comics initiative.” The motion comics, which thus far feature Spider-Woman, combine traditional art with basic animation and a small cast of professional voice-over actors. Each one runs approximately ten minutes and can be downloaded through iTunes. “Because I live in a world of fantasy/science fiction, we have thought about these things for a while, believe it or not,” Quesada says. “Seven or eight years ago, I was already thinking of motion comics. I thought, ‘We’re going there.’ We just had to wait for the technology to catch up.”

The magazine industry is waiting for a similar technological boost. “If the technology isn’t that far away for colored magazines to appear on [digital readers], that will change everything,” Quesada points out. “That will save the magazine industry.” Comic books will benefit too, obviously, although Quesada says the comics industry has been “thriving” compared to the magazine industry as a whole.

But even as technology continues to offer new possibilities, Quesada sees it as just one more step forward in the ongoing evolution of storytelling. Everything, he says, will always ultimately come back to the writing, to good stories and compelling characters. The strong writing that’s been the hallmark of Quesada’s editorial reign will remain Marvel’s most potent super power.

“The possibilities are absolutely limitless,” he says. “Absolutely limitless.”

4 replies »

  1. As I read this, I think back a bunch of years to when the Academy gave Spielberg (I think I have this right) the Thalberg award. At that point it looked like SS was never going to win a real Oscar. The thesis of his acceptance speech was exactly what Quesada is saying – it’s all about great storytelling.

    Great minds think alike, I suppose….

  2. While what Quesada says is true, it would be nice if he really valued the lessons he preached. Quesada was at the helm for one of the most insulting decisions in comic story telling I can think of, Ultimatum.

    For those of you who 1) don’t read comic books or 2) don’t follow Wikipedia, Ultimatum was the closing chapter to Marvel’s Ultimate universe. The Ultimate universe served as something of a reboot for Marvel’s story tellers. It allowed them to use popular characters from Marvel, but freed them of the intricate and often asinine baggage the characters have picked up from 40 years of story telling. Writers had the freedom for modern interpretation, but the truly great stories could still be used as inspiration.

    The Ultimate universe became extremely popular, and it influenced many of the recent string of Marvel movies. However, the higher ups at Marvel decided they could make more money by rebooting the reboot. They decided to kill the series off. And I mean that literally.

    About 30 major and supporting characters were killed off in the five-book series, including most of the X-Men, many of the Ultimates (Marvel’s version of the Justice League) and popular antagonists like Magneto, Juggernaut and Dr. Doom. The deaths came quickly, haphazardly and graphically — at least four characters had their heads bitten or blown off, and another was shot in the head. A couple of deaths were the result of cannibalism.

    After seeing Marvel work hard to create modern versions of some of their most classic characters, it is disheartening and insulting to see them destroy it so callously. It reminded me of a bored 6-year-old breaking his toys because he has nothing better to do. I can’t think of a better example of lazy writing.