A Year at Marvel – July

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As the second half of 2001 opened, Marvel had severed ties with the Comics Code Authority and relocated to new quarters. The company was enjoying superlative reviews and sales from the one-two punch of the revitalized Amazing Spider-Man and New X-Men.

President Bill Jemas was having a ball. His outsized persona seemed to enjoy tweaking the DC competition, rattling retailers with his “No Reprint” policy and other initiatives. Underneath it all, he was restless, displeased with several areas of the company and wanted to make changes.

As plans were underway for our triumphant appearance at San Diego Comic-Con, Bill intended to do some house cleaning. The week before our departure, Bill surprised Editorial on July 14 by firing Matt Hicks, Frank Dunkerely and Bobbie Chase (her assistant Andy Lis was the winner, with a promotion to editor).

Last month, I detailed how Matt and Frank disappointed Bill with their handling of the rush Burger King mini-comics.

According to Frank, “I never saw Jemas after the [final] BK meeting. My thoughts were I was simply Matt’s guy and not Joe’s and Joe was also aware of a job at DC that I was offered and turned down a couple of times.” This was ignoring that their title, “Xtreme X-Men was the Number Three seller” at the time.

Bill never seemed to warm to Bobbie, who recalled Bill “was going after me at the time. I wasn’t fired, but ‘laid off,’ so given no reason. I had an odd moment with Joe Q just before I left, where he told me he knew that Marie Javins had put out the ‘anonymous’ firing of Bob Harras on social media. I don’t know why he told me that; I think he might have thought she and I were better friends than we are. We were friendly, but not confidants.”

“I remember you told me that Bill was angry that I put in a P&L for a project, with a sort of ‘who is she to do THAT?’ attitude, although editors put in P&Ls all the time. That’s when I knew I was in big trouble; he was trashing me in meetings.”

What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had done something similar that bothered Bill, but he said nothing about it for months. In this case, there was a demand for ramping up the volume of collections and with their longer lead times, we needed to have an approved lineup. I proposed the 2001-2002 schedule before this and he never commented or acted so when push came to shove, I had the first few months’ worth of material in the pipeline.

While the Marvel booth wasn’t loved by all, it became a very photogenic spot.

“Other than that,” Bobbie told me by email, “morale was low-ish, depending on who you were, and things weren’t comfortable for me. Bill wanted me out of Editorial because Joe offered me a position in the new online group, which in hindsight, I should have taken. But I had just gotten pregnant and didn’t think it good to start something new. I had to tell that to Joe way too early and then had a miscarriage. Bad timing.”

For reasons Joe never articulated to me, during this round of firings, we also let go Patty Banjas, his admin, who also helped me when time permitted. I recall sitting in the office of Mary Sprowls, then and now the queen of HR, and Patty had a look on her face, recognizing what was to come and accepting it with a sigh and shrug. She’d been through so many layoffs during the bankruptcy years that she suspected it was just a matter of time.

This was also the week we released Marvel Masterprints, a set of laminated cards, 6.5″ x 10″. Bill wanted fairly generic covers to be repurposed as needed and here was, in his mind, a perfect use for them. The first set boasted Wolverine by Bill Sienkiewicz, The Avengers by Alex Ross, Elektra by Greg Horn, Captain America by Travis Charest, Wolverine by Frank Quitely, Spider-Man by John Romita Jr., Daredevil by David Mack, Black Widow by J.G. Jones, Spider-Man & DD by Alex Ross, The Hulk by Kaare Andrews, Punisher by Tim Bradstreet and Logan and Jean Grey by Ian Churchill. The intent was to make them oversized trading cards, perfect for dorm walls and school lockers and so on. The intended quarterly release plan lasted all of two sets as they flopped in the retail market.

Still, he overprinted Horn’s Elektra card since her solo title was debuting and would be distributed at the Marvel booth in San Diego and Chicago. Bill seemed somewhat fixated on the character at that point. Somehow, he and Playboy started talking about our producing a strip for them and Bill discussed how much of her we should show. He drew the line at topless, then the deal never happened.

I was kept busy planning the cons along with the increased production of trades, interviewing for a new production manager and trying to keep editorial steady as books were handed around in the wake of the losses.

I flew out to San Diego early, overseeing the booth construction and materials with which stock it. This was a first for me, despite all the years I worked closely with DC’s Marketing team on cons. I knew I couldn’t freely spend but I did try to emulate Ike Perlmutter just once. To save on renting carpeting at every venue, I purchased foam-rubber flooring that I sampled at the Licensing Show a month earlier. I figured it would support our feet just as well. This proved not to be the case.

I defied Ike just once that year and it was having the full booth constructed, not the two levels he insisted on.

Depending on age and/or gender, Elektra or Spidey was very popular at our booth. Photo courtesy of Jackie Estrada.

I stocked the booth with a mini-fridge and cases of water to keep everyone hydrated, an expense I later had to justify. My team included Bill Rosemann and Ben Abernathy but I was also assigned three assistant editors, as I recall: Pete Franco, Mike Raicht and Marc Sumerak (I think). I bought everyone T-shirts from Graffiti Designs, so we appeared in uniform each day, and of course, heard grumblings about it.

Fletcher Chu-Fong, on hand to deal with the Sales side, recalled it was “the year that Marvel had the Nabisco sponsorship and wanted to give out free Oreos but couldn’t because it conflicted with the convention food services contract,” which caused some trouble but thankfully was above my pay grade.

Rob Grosser had been a “security consultant” to the company since 1982 and became one of Ike’s inner circle by the time I got there. Ike let him run their character appearance program as a perk, so through him, I arranged performers to be there as Spider-Man and Elektra, coordinating their schedules to not overtax them through the five days.

Spidey and a Fan, photo courtesy Jackie Estrada

I wish I still had my records because I know I organized several Marvel panels for the weekend but the only one I recall was the 40th Anniversary one for The Fantastic Four. As you may recall, Bill was all about looking forward, not behind, so the company did precious little for the Marvel Age’s 40th anniversary. Here, I could do as I pleased. I moderated with a panel that included Roy Thomas and John Buscema (my first chance to meet the legend, a year before his untimely passing).

While there, Joe and I met with director Peyton Reed about a potential film, years before he got to direct Ant-Man. We also had an interesting conversation with actor Freddie Prinze Jr. who was desperate to write a Spider-Man comic, although that went nowhere.

My boss, Lou Gioia, made a brief appearance on Sunday, flying in to see it for himself since it was nothing like his ToyBiz trade shows. I showed him around and he seemed pleased with how I ran things.

The culminating event that weekend was an appearance from Spider-Man director Sam Raimi, who would sign trading cards and shake hands. The con thankfully provided me with stanchions and extra security to handle the sizable crowd. I stood nearby as Raimi, incredibly polite, dealt with the crowds. At one point, I stopped some big guy from breaking the line, but he turned and I realized it was Gene Simmons of Kiss, who told me Raimi was a pal. Who knew?

Sam Raimi signed hundreds of these during his booth appearance, then signed some more, handing me a stack to use as I saw fit.

Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics wrote, “As in past years, I was not overly impressed by the layout of the Marvel mega-booth. It seemed very compartmentalized. One side has the video games, another is used for the actors hired to portray various Marvel characters. The middle is used for signings. The action figures were almost hidden in a corner of the booth. What did impress me this year about the Marvel mega-booth was the amount of traffic. In past years it was possible to stand in the middle of the booth without risk of anyone coming near you (including the people running the booth). This year it seemed to have a steady stream of people in it.”

We survived and got mostly good marks for the event. I was there for breakdown on Sunday night, then flew home Monday. July was winding down. I think I had found someone for the Production job and it was time to get back to finalizing the digital workflow programming and gear up for the fall.

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