A Year at Marvel – March

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By March, I had settled in to my new role at Marvel. Most days saw me wandering from office to office, checking in with editors or production or lettering or collected editions. I had become a familiar figure, especially in offices where things were running less than smoothly. That usually meant brainstorming with Mark Powers and his assistant Pete Franco, on ways to get the merry mutants caught up.

Mark Powers

Mark always seemed harried and tired but accommodating although felt somewhat helpless with the talent always being behind. The X-titles were not something you could easily order fill-ins for. Pete, described in one magazine profile as “a spiky-haired assistant editor in his twenties, gnaw[ing] at a toothpick”, struck me as perpetual annoyed with the world. The current teams were on their way out and the Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely era was in the works but things remained vexing and vague.

Bill’s directions were settling over editorial, with a lot of attention on Axel Alonso’s office. We were about to soft launch a new take on Spider-Man with incoming writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist John Romita Jr. debuting a month later. Pages were already rolling through the offices and there was a lot of enthusiasm over what we were seeing. Axel was breathing fresh life here, prepping his Tangled Web spin-off, and Paul Jenkins and JRjr. Doing some interesting work on Incredible Hulk. Axel was already laying the groundwork for his Startling Stories line which would later give us the Black Captain America.

His pride and joy remained the Ultimate line which by then included X-Men, Spider-Man, Team-Up. He’d spend a lot of time with Quesada and editors Ralph Macchio and incoming assistant editor Brian “Smitty” Smith. Bill felt that since the line was more reflective of today’s world, the all upper case lettering was not in accordance. In fact, he kept telling us The New York Times wasn’t all upper case, why should Marvel? Joe, I believe, worked on a compromise that brought upper and lower case lettering to the Ultimate line and not across the board.

Bill had also declared there’d be no second printings, intending to entice retailers to up their initial orders. This vexed Direct Sales Director Matt Ragone and Sales Manager, and my former DC compadre, Fletcher Chu-Fong, which would prove problematic later in the year. One workaround was Marvel Universe, a newsstand title, reprinting things like Marvel Knights’ Daredevil run. And there was Ultimate Marvel Magazine, 80-page magazine-sized comics that reprinted one each of the Ultimate line. It didn’t catch on, lasting just 11 issues.

Meantime, my collected editions team was going through some growing pains as the bookstore market demanded more material. With Ben Abernathy and Matty Ryan running the shop, designer Mikhail Bortnik couldn’t keep up with the demands and left. Mike Farah came over from Russ Brown’s licensing team to work with them and they were aided intern Corey Sedelmeier.

As Ben told me recently, “It was a crazy time, yeah, with loads of work and unparalleled output! We rebuilt the entire reprint department (I think Polly Watson, who’d run it before me, delivered something like 8 or 9 titles the year before I started…and in our first year I think we doubled or tripled that)…we created the spine branding that is still used today…”

I sincerely disliked the Comicraft redesign of the Masterworks trade dress and insisted on fresh designs, which I am happy to see survived for 20 years. I had also gotten comfortable enough to reach out to the fan community, asking for their recommendations, which helped inform my proposed plans for the balance of 2001 into 2002, which was presented at the March 15 meeting. Little did I realize it was this early that trouble began brewing.

Dan Carr, production manager, was telling me about the desire to go digital wherever possible, but it meant scanners for the talent, something Marvel wouldn’t help finance. There was also the matter of tracking digital work coming in from the talent, which led me to Gui Karyo, EVP of Operations & Chief Information Officer. We began discussing rebuilding the traffic flow databases, from scheduling to publishing, customizing much as I helped oversee during my time at DC.

At one point, I admired the Sony Vaio laptops being used by Gui and others and the next thing I knew, I had one.

This was also around the time I fielded a call from the FBI. An agent in Florida had just arrested a scam artist who was bilking people and one of his “claims” to fame was he created Wolverine. I verified for them that he did not do such a thing, going on about how it was a collaboration between Roy Thomas, Len Wein, John Romita, and Herb Trimpe. As I recounted the story at home that night, my daughter, coming downstairs en route to semi-formal dance, seemed a little concerned I had an FBI contact just as she was beginning to date.

Matt Ragone, left, with Tom DeFalco some time between his joining Marvel and my arrival there.

I would report my doing to my boss, Lou Gioia, who was supportive but still didn’t know much about the publishing side. Still, when I lamented to him how Marvel didn’t provide comps to the staff, he heard from owner Ike Perlmutter it would cost a million dollars. Lou had production director Mark Belinky run the numbers and one copy per every employee would amount to $35,000 a year. When we took that relatively small sum to Ike, he rejected it, now saying it was never about the money, but tried to equate it with the costs of giving everyone on the Toy Biz side a toy. While I appreciated his sense of equality, comics publishing and toy production were separate worlds.

The growing pains post-bankruptcy were still being felt with Marvel’s fast and loose style pleasing some and irking others. Brian Wood and David Choe’s NYX, mature mutant title, was failing off the rails around this time, and not everyone appreciated the snap decision making that saw things change on the schedule.

I’d sit in on the marketing planning meetings with Bill, Joe Quesada, Matt, Fletch, and Bill Roseman as we’d try and figure out which titles to promote in the Diamond solicitations. Occasionally, gaps were found where we didn’t have information from editorial or there was nothing “sexy” enough to make Bill happy. He saw glimmers here and there, but some were too far away to move up. These grew tense and Bill would invariably take it out on poor Matt who tried to laugh it off, while it was uncomfortable for the rest of us.

It was around here it was decided to really promote the new U.S. Agent series but the campaign, resembling Judge Dredd, drew Rebellion, owner of the British character, took umbrage.

Overall, things were humming, you could feel momentum building in the halls and there was a renewed sense of energy that made the vets feel good and newcomers like me feel like a new era was really taking root.

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