So Joe Quesada has stepped down as Marvel’s editor-in-chief. He is, of course, still heavily involved in the company as its Chief Creative Officer, but still, he was Marvel’s EIC for longer than Jim Shooter, so it’s probably worth a minute or two to consider his tenure as a whole, even if he’s not going anywhere.
Quesada has done a lot at Marvel since 2000, and if you read enough message boards and livejournal accounts you’d think that most of it involves killing babies, but taken as a whole, it’s hard not to judge his tenure as anything but a success. He helped pull Marvel out of bankruptcy, reinvigorated a flagging company after a decade of disastrous creative output, and turned it into a money maker and a dominant force in the comics industry. There’s a lot to praise and criticize in Quesada’s record, but really his biggest accomplishment is bringing an emphasis on creator driven comics back to mainstream superhero comics.
Editorially driven comics were really the driving force of comics in the 90’s. A franchise like the X-Men or Spider-Man was really steered by editorial, with a series of writers ranging from terrible to unremarkable usually doing the monthly work. While high profile artists like the guys who formed Image often flourished, uniquely gifted writers would frequently get kicked off books or leave out of frustration (see Mark Waid, Steven Seagal, and Joe Kelly on X-Men). Even at DC, distinctive creator defined runs like Mark Waid on the Flash or Grant Morrison on JLA seemed to be the exception to stuff like an entire line of Superman books that seemed to be more concerned with numbers on the cover that helped you keep track of reading order instead of interesting stories.
As a Marvel Knights Editor and then Marvel EIC, Quesada played a big role in changing all that. Working first alongside Jimmy Palmiotti and then Bill Jemas, he put Paul Jenkins on the Inhumans, Garth Ennis on the Punisher, J. Michael Straczynski on the Amazing Spider-Man, Kevin Smith and then Brian Michael Bendis on Daredevil, Ed Brubaker on Captain America, Grant Morrison on X-Men, and Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch on the Ultimates. Most readers weren’t excited about these because they were the latest storylines on those books, they were excited because of the creators working on those books.
Crossovers and yearlong storylines fell by the wayside with Quesada’s tenure and the people making the comics and the stories they were producing became the focus on the industry. People got pumped by the creative teams on the books again, not what the latest crossover was. I still remember how excited people were when the Ultimates was released, and it wasn’t because it was a new Avengers book, it was because two of the hottest creators in the industry (Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch at the height of their powers) were coming together to work on a new book. It just happened to be an Avengers book. DC was even affected by this. Gone was the Bat crossover by committee, in was Geoff Johns being the reason you read the Flash and JSA and Mark Waid revamping the Legion of Superheroes.
Even as the industry has shifted back to crossovers and an increasingly anal focus on continuity (something which Quesada deserves his fair share of the blame for), the importance of the creator remains. Crossovers and company events are no longer (or at least rarely) written by committee or company men. Companies understand that if they want these things to sell, they have to put their biggest creative talents on them. Even if they’re still largely terrible, I’m at least glad to see there’s an emphasis on the creative team on these things.
Still, Quesada’s legacy is mixed. While I think he is an excellent judge of talent, whose record of successful books/hires as EIC far outweighs his failures, his creative input into the company have been had its fair share of problems. He has famously mentioned that he wanted to put three genies back in the bottle: end Spider-Man’s marriage without doing anything age the character(killing his wife or divorce), reduce the number of mutants, restore a sense of danger to the Marvel Universe by having heroes be less buddy buddy with each other.
The first two of these were clear creative disasters. Whether or not ending the Spider-Marriage was a good long term creative decision remains to be seen (I disagree with it, but a number of high profile comic writers seem to be relieved by it). However, in the short term, it has cast an appalling cloud over the Spider-Man books that has prevented many readers (like my co-blogger Jim) from seeing any redeeming quality on the Spider-Man books, regardless of how well they’re done. It was also a move that reeks of the kind of backwards looking nostalgia for the comics of our childhood that needs to be burned out of this industry with a blowtorch.
While lots of other creators have moaned about the Spider-Marriage before, no more mutants solved a problem that only Quesada seemed to see. I understand the logic of not wanting every new superhero to simply be a mutant. God knows this got overused in the 90’s, but reduced the number of mutants to less than 200 (all of which happen to be in the X-Men cast) severely hampered the X-Men books. Any storyline that didn’t involve them trying to reverse this felt frivolous and pointless. They’re on the brink of extinction, why would they focus on anything else? Quesada seemed keen on this status quo, but he was about the only one, and barely any writers seemed interested in exploring the story opportunities it could have offered, which, to be fair, could have potentially been interesting. In short, “no more mutants” helped severely weaken what was once the strongest franchise in comics. Despite the efforts of some high powered creative talent, the X-books have never really recovered from this. I’d argue Quesada’s failure to reinvigorate the X-Men franchise after Morrison’s run remains his biggest failure as EIC.
Finally, the restoration of enmity between heroes lead to the rather dreadful Civil War, which helped return crossovers to mainstream superhero comics, so I can’t say I’m happy about that. That said, I agree with his sentiment. I always get annoyed when superheroes, particularly DC superheroes, act like best friends when they get together. These are highly motivated individuals who dress up in costumes and beat the hell out of law breakers. I’m pretty sure they’re not all going to get along. More conflict is a good way to go. When it’s not written by Mark Millar at least.
I could write ten blog posts about Quesada’s tenure as EIC from the good (putting Bendis on Ultimate Spidey when he was still an unknown) to the bad (One More Day), but then we’d be here all day. It’s been a mixed bag and I know he’s not really leaving, but I think this simple fact gets lost too often on the internet: Joe Quesada left Marvel Comics and the entire comics industry stronger than he found them. Whether we like it or not.