Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

Roll Up, Roll Up!

Stan Lee was the industry's first great showman. Now current Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada is keeping up the tradition, for better or worse, as demonstrated in his recent public showdown with writer Peter David.
22 March 2002

Huckstering is one of the grand old traditions of comics. From the early days of the pulp magazines that birthed the modern Western comic book format, through to the Barnum stylings of Stan Lee and the Huge Hairy Hype Monster he created, right the way up to Bill Rosemann's Your Man @ Marvel columns, comic books have been privy to some of the most interesting publicity strategies seen in modern media.

A current example, and one that's been compared by many to the over-the-top posing of Lee's heyday, is the New Marvel hype machine. Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas have been more than garrulous about every aspect of their new regime, from the Ultimate titles through to the Max line.

So far, so fair.

But there have been times when their good cop/bad cop routine has left a sour taste in the mouth. The public badmouthing of John Byrne and his titles (whether deserved or not) smacks of childishness, and the challenge to McFarlane to grab his ol' pencil case and meet Quesada outside the saloon at high noon was a schoolyard spitting match that never really got started.

Recently, one of Marvel's freelancers has seen fit to try to take New Marvel's policy of 'All Spectacle, All The Time' and challenge The Man in the form of an open letter, published in Comics Buyer's Guide. Peter David, writer on CAPTAIN MARVEL, took issue with Marvel's plans to raise the prices on CAPTAIN MARVEL, BLACK PANTHER and SPIDER-GIRL by a quarter in order to stave off cancellation.

His letter (republished at Newsarama, along with his later comments) was a call-out to Quesada and Jemas, accusing them of sealing the book's coffin while trying to appear to save it. He was playing with fire, however - he's been writing his 'But I Digress' column for CBG for years now, and while he's been able to take shots at various targets over the years, he's never been up against a contender quite so adept at public spin as Quesada.

David says in the letter; "I know, I could have just called you and discussed this privately. But on the suggestion of a fan, you raised the prices without calling and discussing it with me."

On first glance, it seems like David has a point. He's the one to take the fall if the book goes - Quesada doesn't get paid per book published - but on closer inspection it's evident that there's a misconception at work here. Namely, that Marvel owes Peter David anything outside of a cheque at the end of the month.

Harsh? Yes, but unfortunately true. It would be lovely if Marvel was all puppies and cushions and Christmas cake, but the sad fact is that it's a business. It made a business decision that, one presumes, involved its accounts and marketing departments. It didn't need to involve the writer. From a corporate standpoint, all that's required of David is that he write in English and not ask artist Chris Cross to draw pictures of Superman.

It would be nice of Marvel to have warned David that this was going to happen, and it certainly comes as a blow to the image of lollipops-and-cuddles mutual appreciation that New Marvel has presented, but it's a corporate decision made for the benefit of a corporation. It didn't need to tell him. This was his first mistake, and it's one he should have known not to make.

David goes on to mention the lack of promotion for CAPTAIN MARVEL. In his reply, Quesada mentions some of the promotional tricks that Marvel has turned in respect of CAPTAIN MARVEL, but the irony is that David has arguably done more to promote his book with this public fight than he has ever done previously.

Though David maintains a presence at his Usenet group and at the CAPTAIN MARVEL message board at Alvaro's Comicboards, he's a relatively rare sight on the Internet. Compare Kurt Busiek or Fabian Nicieza, who both haul themselves round various sites answering questions about any and all of their books left, right and centre. Though Marvel certainly could promote the book more effectively, among the best promotional tools a creator has in this day and age are himself and the Internet.

Quesada's response to David (also published at Newsarama, along with his later comments) took the form of another open letter, but this one showed little of the jocular, pally 'Joey Da Q' that fans have come to know. Instead Quesada gave us Joey Da Boss, reminding Petey Da Freelancer who was who.

His first statement thanks David for raising the issue - and even for doing it in this manner - but he says he wishes David had "cooked it up a year ago when it really could have helped the title!" The implication being that nothing can now save the title short of what he and Jemas have come up with.

It's a nice example of subconscious spin, and there's plenty more of it to come. For example, he makes reference not once but twice to the old axiom, "No good deed goes unpunished," suggesting that the quarter price increase is a good deed, and that David is punishing him by spitting it back in his face.

Another example of Quesada's spin is where he reels off a list of the efforts Marvel has made to promote CAPTAIN MARVEL, including store posters and the CAPTAIN MARVEL #0 that shipped free with Wizard. What Quesada neglects to mention is that all of these measures happened at least eighteen months ago.

The comics industry is zip-pow-bang in more than just cheesy TV series' effects; it takes hardly any time to forget yesterday's 'Hot Book' and move on to the next. Quesada cites THE AUTHORITY as an example of positive word-of-mouth, but these days it normally only gets mentioned in the context of the ways in which DC has creatively castrated the title. Yet Quesada makes the reader forget all of this - he keeps jollying the audience along (his repeated exhortations to buy CAPTAIN MARVEL being either blackly ironic or insanely desperate), all the while poking fun at David.

The most recent developments have seen David effectively back off from Quesada, admitting in a leaked early copy of his follow-up column that he holds himself to be largely to blame - something entirely unstated in the original letter.

Quesada wasn't going to hang around, though. Instead of waiting for David's response and engaging in the sort of back-and-forth that he points to as being typical of David, he pre-empts the inevitable reply and states that he'd rather be playing with his daughter than spending any more time on this. He also says he won't establish a potentially dangerous precedent by allowing David to take a pay cut, and he won't back down on plans to raise the price on CAPTAIN MARVEL.

Again, this is an example of Quesada's huckstering genius. The book gets the publicity, the price point is raised, David is made to appear to be quibbling over minor points, and Quesada is shown to have his priorities in order. All this in a colloquial, pally style that takes us right back to the old Joey Da Q persona.

By writing an open letter, David was getting into a fight with a Goliath he couldn't beat. David's letter, though it raises many good points for debate, doesn't have the structure of Quesada's. David writes a complaint. Quesada writes a story, and all us good little kiddies are entranced right up until the ending.

David isn't dealing with an Erik Larsen here (with whom he has a long-standing animosity - Larsen responded to David's letter by taking shots at "lazy, overpaid and soft" freelancers on his message boards). He's dealing with the new Masters of Hype, and in this three-ring circus, Quesada's the one holding the whip and wearing the top hat. And whether we like it or not, we're glued to it. Because there's a sucker born every minute.

Alistair Kennedy is the coordinator of the PunchDrunk Pop blog and a former editor for Robot Fist.

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