Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

Article 10: Silly Billy

Marvel Comics is the industry's biggest juggernaut, and in president Bill Jemas it appears to have an idiot at the wheel. It's all an act, claims Paul O'Brien, but to what end?
15 October 2001

Over the last year or so, Marvel has created, developed and marketed possibly the most controversial fictional character in comics today. You may have heard of him. His name is Bill Jemas.

Jemas is a peculiar figure. For one thing, unlike his predecessors in the job, the average fan has actually heard of him. He's behaving like one of the editorial staff. He's credited on the stories. He gives quotes to Newsarama with such frequency that you feel the poor bastards must have to take their phones off the hook at night, lest he phone at 3 a.m. with another gratuitous attack on DC. Bill Jemas isn't just making himself available to the press - he's aggressively marketing himself as one of the key faces of the new Marvel.

And why not? He's the president, after all. Moreover, he's a would-be writer with an obvious interest in the creative side of the business. Who better to be out there as a figurehead for the business?

Well, at first glance, almost anyone. Throwing conventional PR strategy to the winds, Jemas seems to have embarked on a mission to personally insult everyone in the industry. He publicly dismisses retailer complaints as a sign of stupidity. He tells his own readers that they spend most of their time in the basement masturbating. He makes absurdly inflammatory comments about his fellow publishers. While traditionally publishers want to be liked, Jemas is striving daily to make you want to punch him.

But in the bizarre circumstances of Marvel Comics in 2001, he may be on to something.

Of course, it's all an act. One of the things that's so entertaining about Jemas is the bemused responses of people who not only didn't get the joke, but didn't even realise that there was a joke to get.

Poor Mark Alessi, challenging Jemas to a public debate at the MegaCon in Orlando, has missed the point entirely. Alessi, president and CEO of Crossgen, seems to think this would involve an hour of his incisive logic crushing Jemas' nonsense. In fact, it would involve an hour of him playing the straight man while Jemas blasted onwards with his lunacy. I almost hope he accepts the offer.

Jemas has described his public persona as a "good cop/bad cop" double act with Joe Quesada. But there's more to it than that. He isn't just playing the suit who takes the unpopular decisions. He's created a bizarre Bill Jemas persona for public consumption, designed specifically to annoy.

And he can get away with it, because most people who matter don't have the option of walking away. The existing core audience was in decline anyway. The worst Jemas can do is speed that up. The replacement readers are presumably meant to be coming either from elsewhere in the existing comics readership (where they're likely to be more impressed by the improved roster of creators and products than by Jemas' nonsense) or from outside the existing audience altogether (in which case they won't have a clue who he is). The other publishers aren't going to give up just because Bill was nasty to them. And the retailers don't have the option of not carrying Marvel's products - it's too big a part of their income.

So what's the point? Well, back in the sixties, Marvel managed to portray themselves as a loveable bunch of fun-loving chaps having tremendous fun in the mythical Bullpen. Over the years, their image in the industry faded, first into being a rather dull corporate environment, and then ultimately into being a dire, insolvency-addled hellhole whose employees shuffled miserably from room to room in perpetual fear of redundancy, churning out the same formulaic material they'd been publishing in one form or another for most of the nineties. Not only did Marvel not sound like a fun place to work, it sounded like somewhere you'd do anything to escape from.

Jemas, and to a lesser extent Quesada, is getting away from that and pushing the image of a Marvel run by unpredictable creative folk with unconventional priorities. You should never know quite what they're going to say next. A refreshing hint of anarchy - in the publicity, at any rate.

Some good old-fashioned iconoclasm sits nicely alongside Marvel's editorial change of direction, tacitly renouncing (and denouncing) years of house style and most of their output from the last decade. And stoking the old feud with DC is always good for a laugh. At least it makes both sides seem like people, rather than corporations. It's better to seem childish than to seem like an accountant.

If Jemas comes across as a dangerous lunatic, that's probably deliberate. He wants to be seen as a very strange and eccentric type of executive. He plays it rather neatly to avoid being too obvious - I can't quite make up my mind whether that publicity photo he's given to Newsarama is just an extremely bad photo that makes him look like a mannequin, or a deadpan joke to make himself look insanely corporate and confuse everyone even further. But however appalling some of Jemas' comments may be, he always promises an interesting ride. (Though not necessarily to the right destination.)

None of this is to say that the strategy has been an unalloyed success. I'm not convinced that the "bad girls for fanboys" running joke did anything for ELEKTRA - although admittedly, it did chart fairly high with its first issue. While the retailers don't have the option of telling him to piss off, there still have to be some adverse consequences from alienating them. It might be unwise of them to turn against Marvel, but then if fiscal wisdom were their main concern, they wouldn't have opened a comic store in the first place.

Some of the attacks on other publishers seem a touch too insensitive - not merely criticising, but actually mocking DC's response to September 11, showed incredible nerve, to put it mildly. The inter-publisher feud is coming across as genuine ill feeling among sad, sad men rather than a bit of adolescent fun. Jemas is showing signs of doing this because he likes the attention, rather than because it's helping the business.

And it's not like getting attention is all that difficult. Not only is Marvel one of the biggest publishers in the North American industry, but it has been doing some interesting things this year. This is in stark contrast to, well, virtually everyone else. Marvel has announced a string of high-profile relaunches, a change of editorial policy for their entire line, a string of impressive creators coming to their company, their withdrawal from the Comics Code, etc. What's everyone else had to publicise?

DC? Endless crossovers, the relaunch of SUICIDE SQUAD, and the market saturation test - not what you'd call gripping. Image? The occasional announcement of a promising new book, but for the most part they're quietly plugging away without being particularly newsworthy. Crossgen? They've only got the two press releases: "Creator X joins Crossgen, is very pleased" and "Crossgen launch new title with funny name", which seem to come out in monthly rotation.

Given that Jemas has actually got a real story to publicise in Marvel's current changes, it's no real surprise that he's getting the attention over competition as stiff as this. Still, you have to wonder whether Jemas actually has any other mode of operating, and how he'll adjust when things settle down. It's a risky promotional approach and if people continue to miss the joke then at some point it'll become counterproductive. The obnoxious git routine is bound to get tired in the end.

If Jemas ever does get NYX off the ground, it'll have an enormous impact on his public image. Unless he writes it as an extension of the persona - which would reduce it to an industry in-joke - it'll take the edge off the whole thing. If it's any good at all, it'll show us that he does have some empathy for his fellow man after all. If it isn't any good at all, he'll look like a complete idiot, because everyone will be watching and waiting for him to fail. Supposedly he had a hand in co-writing the opening issues of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, but everyone quietly ignored that so he got away with it. (Mind you, those were pretty good issues. Perhaps he really can write. Wouldn't that be infuriating?)

Jemas' routine is a joke, at the expense of everyone who doesn't get it. But it's working - people talk about his nonsense as if he were serious, and Marvel has managed to claw back some of the maverick image they were going for. Be honest - you love to hate him really.

Paul O'Brien is the author of the weekly X-AXIS comics review.

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