Bill Jemas Autopsy

Bill Jemas was for a few years the man everyone loved to hate. He played the bad guy to Joe Quesada, who more effectively cultivated himself as the “people’s man” in Marvel Comics’ administration. Now that Jemas is out as Publisher, a few commentators have rallied to his side, and more have softened their rhetoric. Now comes the time of evaluations, of recriminations, of reversals praising the fallen soldier. The comics obituary for a titanic figure of the last few years is being written.

Bill Jemas

Bill Jemas

A bit of flashback, shall we? Coming from the Marvel-owned company Fleer (specializing in trading cards), Bill Jemas took the title of Publisher at Marvel during the company’s bankruptcy reorganizations. Jemas presided over the launch of the highly successful Ultimate Marvel universe, his contributions to Ultimate Spider-Man being strong enough to warrant a co-writing credit on the first storyline. (Jemas would continue in this role; his contributions to Ultimate Venom years later can be seen in the back of the hardcover Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3.) Jemas was key in getting Joe Quesada the job as Editor-in-Chief, replacing then-Editor-in-Chief Bob Harras. Jemas and Quesada courted controversy, becoming the public face of Marvel as they pushed — and sometimes publicly disagreed over — new projects. Among these projects was the MAX line of mature readers books, the first time Marvel had published such material since its Epic division in the 1980s. Marvel also expanded and entrenched the Marvel Knights line of slightly edgier books — a line Quesada had originally helmed. The duo also supervised the Tsunami line of new launches: these ongoing titles — starring Marvel villains, secondary characters, or new characters — were supposedly linked by their manga influence, though sometimes this took the form of the artwork, the title’s setting or themes, or no form at all. Among the Tsunami titles was Namor, cowritten by Jemas and somehow selected out of all the new titles to receive a loss-leading 25-cent promotional first issue.

Jemas, Quesada, and writer Peter David publicly fought over the cancellation of David’s Captain Marvel series, and the three launched “U-Decide”: three six-issue mini-series, only one of which would continue as an ongoing series. (The ostensible winner was David’s relaunched Captain Marvel; Quesada’s representative — the quite interesting Ultimate Adventures, by Ron Zimmerman and Duncan Fegredo — still has yet to publish its sixth and final issue.) For the event, Jemas scripted Marville, a comedic series mocking DC Comics and its parent company, AOL / Time-Warner. While critics detested the series, it was not without amusement. Most importantly, it led Jemas — apparently by his thinking about how indulgent Marville had been and how few opportunities others had — to spearhead a new line to use the old name of Epic Comics: this new line of books would be published with little overhead and was designed to create opportunities for unknown creators. The line is now, with Jemas’s exit, widely rumored and even reported to be cancelled, the various works running down its pipeline to press stopped somewhere near the point of press — the exact spot of cut-off, between announced books and new solicitations (no longer being read), depends on whose reporting one reads.

The duo of Jemas and Quesada also changed the way Marvel published comics. The company that had long publicly asserted that its characters were more important than its creators now began aggressively recruiting talent, seemingly snatching everyone they could from DC’s Vertigo line of mature readers books. Marvel had long suffered from the lack of a coherent trade paperback program while DC raked in titanic sales from its classics in trade paperback form; under Jemas, an aggressive Marvel trade paperback program was launched and continued — not without hiccups — to place back into print, in reasonably-priced editions with good reproduction values, many of the company’s classics that had gone unseen for years, sometimes for decades. The program even included thick, oversized hardcovers that are just about the best in the business. Concomitant with this emphasis on trade paperbacks, while Marvel movies began doing big box office, Marvel began ordering decompressed storytelling designed for trade paperbacks, with the first storyline of any title written like the character’s first movie (and ready to sell to Hollywood). To some, the philosophy seemed to be to use comics, given their the cheaper production costs, as a shop to germinate and tweak ideas that could later be funneled into movie ventures.

At the same time, Marvel instituted a policy of not allowing stores to order additional copies of its titles after a certain date prior to publication, a policy designed to get retailers to order more Marvel comics, speculating success, rather than relying on Marvel to overprint and fill augmented orders. Breaking the rule of monthly production as routine, a rule established under a newsstand market that no longer dominated, Marvel began experimenting with stepping up production of its most popular titles (hypothetically replacing production of poorer-selling and less memorable mini-series). A line of newsstand magazines compiling several titles was launched (though it failed after about six months). Hell, Marvel even switched to lower-case type for most of its books: capital letters had only been used because the cheap printing process used for decades screwed up details so frequently. Perhaps most dramatically, the company removed itself from the Comics Code Authority, the censoring body the major comics companies established for themselves and for the industry, a body long seen as irrelevant and oppressive of both artistic expression and smaller publishers; Marvel created its own line of ratings instead.

Jemas reportedly micro-managed a number of Marvel’s plots, leading to some harsh feelings: some thought he was arrogant and that his changes were not beneficial. Rumor claimed that the overused device of the flashback had been banned altogether. Ari Arad, in charge of the lucrative work of selling Marvel properties to Hollywood, apparently ran into trouble due to comics Jemas had guided: for example, the MAX mini-series Fury, depicting Nick Fury as a whore-mongering old killgore, reportedly caused to wane interest in a more patriotic Nick Fury movie. Jemas’s rhetoric, at times hostile to continuity and Marvel characters’ history, inflamed traditionalist fans resistant to such change. In recent months, Jemas’s relationships within Marvel have visibly crumbled, including his relationship with Quesada and with seemingly all-important Marvel’s film people. His public persona has ceased. And now he is out.

And so, the evaluation. The balancing of failures and scandals with successes and glories. The obituary.

Presidential candidates love — or hate — to ask “are you better than you were four years ago?” It is simplistic, we know. No President utterly controls the economy, can utterly deter violence or riots or terrorism, can utterly take the credit or the blame for a nation. In millennia before, it was plagues, bad seasons for crops, and unfortunate swings in tribal warfare. But we ask to like that question. And it is, for all its limitations, useful. “The buck stops here,” shouted the plaque on Truman’s desk: the man at the top, no matter how limited his powers or what role his subordinates play, is the symbol of all that is right or wrong with the world he controls.

Is Marvel Comics better than it was pre-Jemas? Yes, undeniably. The comics are better, aimed at an older, smarter audience. We all like the Ultimate line. MAX represents a major commitment to serious comics work from a major company for too long sorely lacking such commitment. We all liked the idea of the new Epic line. The trade paperbacks are crucial. The company that seemed behind DC in everything important is on a small number of creative, format-oriented levels leading the way.

On the other hand, Tsunami has been an only slightly mitigated disaster. The disorganized nature of this line, or non-line, hurling onto the market a bunch of new books without so much as a shared theme, is only symptomatic. When Jemas took his position, Marvel needed to cut books and refocus on what was left. Marvel Knights could be used to rehabilitate characters who might otherwise go unpublished, but the mainstream Marvel staple needed to concentrate on quality. Now, that quality has risen, and Marvel is in a major expansionistic phase once more. The many Tsunami books that have plunged down the sales charts from impressive debuts share their dubious status as questionable ongoings with titles like Kingpin and Thanos.

What seems most disturbing about this — though I can see the logic in terms of germinating sales of characters to movie studios — is that it’s precisely at odds with Marvel’s other moves of consolidation. Why another Spider-Man mini-series when we could add its story to an existing book that gets published more regularly? Why not consolidate mini-series into trade paperbacks where they fit in the series? — as has been done with Ultimate War (into Ultimate X-Men) and Mechanix (into X-Treme X-Men). Why not focus on quality over quantity? Why not move towards big monthly anthologies like those created for newsstand distribution? Why a tsunami of new titles of questionable quality? That such a flood comes now makes sense — the company is in better shape. But still, why expand into more questionable mainstream super-hero series instead of expanding the MAX line, making the Epic line something more solid from the start, or further solidifying Marvel Knights?

In judging Jemas’s legacy, I won’t even mention Marville because I think it’s been trashed overly much while something like Ultimate Spider-Man gets overly praised. Not that I don’t read the latter (in glorious hardcover collections) and that I didn’t drop the former after one issue (only to pick up the added seventh issue that was non-fiction prose discussing the new Epic line). But the former wasn’t shit and the latter isn’t a gem.

I guess that’s the point. Jemas presided over much improvement for Marvel. He was controversial. He undoubtedly moved the company forward. Perhaps he was good at that and not the man to helm a healthier company. But, however mixed the bag, I am left with the sense that the good outweighed the bad, that the Ultimate universe outweighs Tsunami, that the trade paperbacks and concern for creators outweigh Marville, that the nobility of the MAX line and the Epic relaunch make them worthwhile despite the much-criticized flaws in the execution.

Bill Jemas, thanks for helping make comics interesting again. Thanks for helping make Marvel readable again. You may be a bastard — I’ve no idea, really — but you did those things.

The greatest are great in error as well as accomplishments; the holiest sin too. Whatever controversies, failings, and most-mortem acclaim, I’ll drink a toast to you tonight, Bill.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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