Marvel Creative Exec Joe Quesada Talks Diversity And Putting The Story First

Joe Quesada has had quite the journey in the world of comics. He first gained acclaim as a fan-favorite artist in the post-Image landscape in the 1990s, before climbing the ranks over at Marvel. His work as a comic book artist includes a high-profile stretch drawing Kevin Smith’s run on Daredevil, but eventually Quesada stepped into the role of Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief.

In 2010, Quesada was named Chief Creative Officer of Marvel Entertainment, and stepped down as Editor-in-Chief the following year. He now helps oversee pretty much every arm of the vast Marvel empire, which seems like a pretty good gig. He took the time to talk to us at the D23 Disney fan expo in Anaheim following a well-attended panel, and we got to pick his brain on a variety of topics.

I wanted to talk to you a little bit about diversity and Marvel. You’ve got Iceman getting his own new comic, and Ms. Marvel has been making waves for a long time. How important to you is diversity and representation in, not just the comics, but all of Marvel?

It’s always been important to us. This goes way beyond me and way before me. This goes back to the time of Stan and Jack and Steve and all those guys. It’s essentially what got me into Marvel Comics. It really established Marvel as the comic book universe that I wanted to be a part of. When I was reading an issue of The Fantastic Four, the Black Panther showed up for the first time. I grew up in a very, very ethnically diverse neighborhood. I’m Cuban. My best friends were Dominican and Columbian and African-American and Italian. It’s crazy. We were from all over the world. When I saw the Black Panther appear in a comic book, which was revolutionary at the time, right, I knew that these were stories that were about my world, about the world that I lived in. If the characters didn’t reflect me directly, they certainly reflected people that I knew directly, and also the fact that Peter Parker lived 15 minutes away from where I lived.

If I’m understanding it correctly, your job is specifically to make sure that the characters are consistent from one medium to the next?

It’s part of my job, absolutely, yeah. It’s really more about Marvel DNA and making sure that that Marvel DNA remains true. While people may inherently feel something that is Marvel, they may not be able to necessarily put it into words or break it down into ways where they can say, “Oh, this is what makes it Marvel.” I think our competitors actually feel that in a lot of ways. They don’t quite understand it, but we at Marvel, we’ve been doing this for a really long time, so we do get it. Yeah, a lot of my job is not just to make sure that the DNA is still true in all mediums, but also, I work on story, I work on art, I work on a lot of different things. My latest venture has been working with WDI [Walt Disney Imagineering] on theme parks and stuff, which has just been fantastic. Even there, you can lose that DNA very, very quickly and it’s a delicate balance but once you hit it, you hit it.

Is it important to sort of be able to distill every character down to a core essence that you try and represent?

If you were [at the D23] Cup O’ Joe [panel], you would have heard it. Stan Lee did this for me. He broke it down to its perfect core essence: I asked him a long time ago, “Do you really have the formula for a perfect Marvel character,” and I was asking facetiously and I had no idea that he really did have the answer. I won’t go into that story, but what it really boils down to, in my interpretation of it is, every great Marvel story, even if a comic or a movie or a TV show is called Iron Man or Jessica Jones or Spider-Man or Daredevil, the book is not about Daredevil. The book is about Matt Murdock. If you tell a fantastic Matt Murdock story, you’ve got a successful Daredevil comic because Daredevil is just a red suit. Spiderman is just a red and blue suit, and it’s like that with all our characters.

It’s the same thing with diversity. If we’re not coming from a wonderful, honest, true place, if we’re just… I’ve seen this happen creatively with other creative companies where they’re sort of checking boxes because they feel they have to. That’s not the way. We always come from story first. We have a story, we have a character, if it’s somebody new, and then who is this character and what does he feel like? Who does it feel like he or she is? We go from that point on. When you come from that point of honesty and that point where you’re reflecting on the world you live in, then those characters resonate. Then when you put a costume on them and a cool power, then you kind of have a crazy kind of alchemy, then it becomes hard to explain.

You put the emphasis on the story, rather than the superhero?

Yes. Always. Let me back up. We always should. We don’t bat a thousand. On those off times when we don’t, it’s very clear, “Oh, that failed because we weren’t looking and we weren’t paying attention.” But yes.

What are the other ins and outs of your job, other than making sure that the characters are consistent?

I boil it down to, I tell stories all day long. I get to tell stories all day long. I get paid to do what I used to get yelled at in school for doing, which is basically daydreaming and making stuff up. For someone like me who gets bored very easily, every day is completely different. Some days I’m just reading scripts. Some days I’m watching first cuts of episodes, I’m drawing a cover. Two days ago I was working feverishly to finish a poster. At the same time I was watching dailies of Jessica Jones simultaneously. Every day, there’s no two days that are the same, except that every day there is work, seven days a week.

You brought up drawing a cover. Honestly, you’re one of my favorite comic book artists of all time. You say you’re still drawing when you can, but how much do you miss drawing all the time, or do you not miss it?

I try to draw every day, to be honest with you, it’s just people don’t see everything that I draw, but I’m a firm believer that with anything, whether it’s drawing, writing, athletics, if you don’t use it, you lose it. In particular, something in the arts where, if I was a major league baseball player, I would be many years past retirement at this point. Not so being an artist, but if you don’t use it you lose it, so I try to draw every day. I learned this the hard way because I went through a stint early on when we had first become part of the Disney corporation and I was being pulled left and right to tons of meetings and stuff as we were trying to get acclimated with Disney, and I didn’t draw for a while.

When I got back behind the drawing board, it took me a good two or three days to really get back in the rhythm, and I’m like, wow if I had taken like a year off, I can’t imagine what this would be like. Even though, I’d probably still be able to draw, some of that skill would definitely, I think, wane after a while.

Speaking about another one of my favorite artists, what do you think is ultimately going to be Mike Wieringo’s legacy?

Wow. It’s hard to say. Ringo was truly, truly, truly, truly, one of the nicest people every. I’ll give you an exclusive Ringo story: I don’t know if this ever went public, but there was a time during my early tenure as Editor-in-Chief where DC was aggressively, aggressively, aggressively trying to poach our talent, and in some cases successfully so. But part of their negotiation tactic, which I found kind of unethical was, we’re putting a lot of money in front of you… “Here’s the deal, artist X, here’s a deal, we’re going to give you a lot of money, but if you go back to Marvel and tell them, the deal’s off.” I guess they were trying to avoid some sort of bidding war, whatever it may be, and basically it was either you take it now or it’s gone. They were sort of forcing hands. I found that to be really kind of unethical in a sense. It’s a really tough place to put a freelancer in, but a lot of artists took it.

To Ringo’s credit, Ringo is the only guy, who when that was put in front of him, he said… It was considerably more money. He was drawing Fantastic Four for us at the time. They said, “You either take it or it’s off.” He said, “It’s off. I don’t operate that way. I don’t feel right about that. I at least have to go back to Marvel who’s been very, very good to me and tell them that this is happening.” And they pulled the deal. I heard about it and I gave him a raise. DC was offering him a lot of money and fiscally at that time, we couldn’t afford it, but I gave him a raise, just based on the fact that he’s the only guy. He’s the only guy. Ringo, aside from being a great guy, I will always and never ever forget that story. To me, that’s his legacy. That defines, not him as an artist, but him as a man, so yeah.