Marvel Knights began 20 years ago this week, and the comics industry was never the same.
For one, it opened the door for famous writers from outside the industry. Back then, editors often gave the cold shoulder to people well-known in other mediums, but the Marvel Knights editorial team of Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti launched the line with a Daredevil story by filmmaker Kevin Smith.
The success of the imprint also led to Quesada being promoted to Editor-In-Chief two years later. But it’s the sequence of events that led to the imprint’s creation that I find fascinating. There are so many little moments that, if they’d gone differently, might’ve changed the course of comics history.
Most dramatically, Jim Lee was offered the opportunity to run Marvel years before Quesada. Today, Jim Lee is the Chief Creative Officer of DC Comics, just as Joe Quesada is the Chief Creative Officer of Marvel. But their careers are filled with interesting coincidences that, at times, almost resemble mirror images of each other, briefly intersecting at the point where Marvel Knights is born.
Unless otherwise noted, any direct quotes come from interviews from Kevin Smith’s Fatman On Batman podcast. I’ve included more information about this and other sources at the end of the article.
■ Joe Quesada was a Marvel fan as a kid but grew out of them around the time he hit puberty. “When I discovered baseball and girls, not necessarily in that order.”
■ Jim Lee was a DC fan as a kid, but grew out of them around the time he hit puberty. He was still a comic fan, but now he was a Marvel fan. X-Men especially.
■ In the ’80s, Joe Quesada worked at FAO Schwarz in New York City. A coworker who saw him doodling suggested he might like a comic that just came out. It was Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns #1. Quesada went to a nearby comic store for more like it, and found Watchmen #2.
He was a comic fan again, but now he was a DC fan. “The Marvels looked better, but the DCs were better reads … I would look at the Marvel stuff for the pretty pictures, but I just couldn’t read those books. And I think, consequently, I could never wrap my mind around X-Men, because the X-Men book looked great but they were really, really tough to read.”
“And I think a lot of that really affected what I did from then on, once I got into comics, because as Editor-In-Chief, even though I am an artist, it’s always been about story first for me. Always about story, you gotta start there.”
■ In the ’80s, Jim Lee was studying medicine at Princeton. One semester he signed up for art as a filler class, and suddenly realized how much he’d love to do art as a career. He wanted to draw comics.
After a year of intense self-study and art training — and several rejection letters — his big break came when he attended his first convention, with the goal of showing samples editors in person. He spotted Archie Goodwin, and overheard that Goodwin had promised an artist earlier in the day that he’d look at his work, but the artist was clearly a no-show. “And I’m just standing right there with my portfolio, and I was like, ‘while you’re waiting, would you mind looking at my work?'”
Luckily, Goodwin liked what he saw. He invited Lee to stop by the Marvel offices after the weekend. It eventually led to a gig on Alpha Flight in 1987, Punisher War Journal in 1988, and fill-ins on Uncanny X-Men in 1989. Then, finally, he landed his dream gig as regular artist on Uncanny X-Men. The first full issue of his run kicked off with Uncanny X-Men#268 in July 1990.
■ Also in July 1990, Joe Quesada’s very first published work was released — a single page in Captain N: The Game Master #3 by Valiant. His first work being for a Nintendo tie-in is a strange and fitting coincidence, since his time at FAO Schwartz saw him play a key role in introducing Nintendo to America.
A contact at Valiant got him in to see a DC editor Christopher Priest. Priest didn’t have any openings, but gave Quesada an inventory cover to work on, not expecting that Quesada would show up the immediately next day with the completed job. Yet, as luck would have it, a position opened up just then:
He says, ‘let me ask you a question. What are the chances that while you’re sitting out in the lobby, I’m on the phone with one of the artists for one of my TSR books, and we should get into a huge argument? … What do you think are the chances that he would just quit on the spot? … What are the chances that I would give this job to a complete unknown who just walked into my life in this office yesterday?’
I’m like, ‘that’s pretty astronomic.’
He literally pointed his finger and was like, ‘from this day on, consider yourself the luckiest son of a bitch in the history of comic books.’
And I will never forget that until the day I die, because there have been no more prophetic words ever uttered to me.
Quesada had steady work at DC, and although his dream gig was to be the regular artist on Batman, it didn’t stop him from doing occasional covers for Marvel. His very first published Marvel cover was also the first time his pencils were inked by Jimmy Palmiotti, on Punisher #55 in September 1991. [Note: Although Punisher #55 hit the stands first, Quesada recalls Ghost Rider #21 being the first image they worked together on.]
■ Also in September 1991, the last of the Jim Lee’s variant covers to X-Men #1 were hitting the stands (each one was released on a different consecutive week). A year later he was co-founding Image Comics. But before his creator owned series WildC.A.T.s launched, he got an offer from DC to do Batman.
They said, ‘hey look, we’re doing this book called Legends Of The Dark Knight [NOTE: Lee likely meant 1992’s Batman: Shadow Of The Bat], do you want to do the first arc on it?”
I was like, ‘four issues…I could delay the release of my Image book for four months and then…’ And I’m trying to rationalize it to the guy, like, ‘look, this will be good, it’ll make me a bigger name, y’know, even though I’d sold so many comics with X-Men [laughs], this will help set up Image…’
So I was trying to figure out a way to be part of this project, and ultimately what killed it was they said, ‘well, we want you to do the story but we have a cover artist, so you’re not going to do covers.’
WildC.A.T.s #1 hit the stands in August 1992.
■ Also in August 1992, DC released Batman: Sword Of Azrael #1, the closest thing to a full-length Batman story Quesada had been given so far. Quesada knew he was a hot commodity, because Marvel was trying to get him to do an X-Men book, but he kept turning them down. He had his eyes were on a Batman series, though it was starting to seem like the Bat-office just wasn’t that into him.
X-books weren’t easy to turn down, either, because they instantly raised the profile of any comic artist on them. Not to mention the money involved. “I won’t get into the dollars and cents here, but the amount of money that you would make on a monthly basis, not on the page rate of X-Men, but on the residuals of the books, was astronomical.”
They were even offering him his choice of X-book. Ultimately, he accepted a gig on X-Factor, based on the strength of Peter David’s writing. But David was on his way out, which might be why it ended up being such short stint. Or maybe it was because the Bat-office was offering him a role in the next big Bat-event: as the designer of Azrael, he now he got to design Azrael’s new Batman costume. He was also doing deluxe fold-over cover for Batman #500, which would be the new costume’s big reveal.
Or it was supposed to be. Somehow, a small distributor had gotten a copy of the sketches and leaked them out. Around the same time, Wizard: The Guide To Comics asked Quesada to do a cover featuring the new costume, assuring him it was approved by DC when it wasn’t. At least the Wizard cover was caught in time to blacken out the costume, putting it in silhouette. But suddenly, work had dried up at the Bat-office. One year later, presumably while turning in the cover to Legends Of The Dark Knight #0, he was informed that he’d been banned from the Bat-books for the last year.
■ At this point Image Comics was calling. But Quesada felt like working at Image would mean being stuck in the shadow of the founders. At Valiant he’d pitched Bob Layton an idea for a firefighter superhero, which Layton didn’t care for, but maybe it’d be better to just self-publish it. Quesada co-founded Event Comics with Jimmy Palmiotti, and Ash #1 launched in November 1994.
Within a year, they were in discussions with Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks to option the movie rights.
■ Around the same time those discussions were taking place, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld were in discussions with Marvel to take over four of their monthly titles. Heroes Reborn was first announced on December 14, 1995 under the working title “Unfinished Business.” Jim Lee’s Fantastic Four #1, the first of the new books, hit the stands on September 4, 1996.
Marvel was so happy with how things were going, they made Lee another surprising offer:
Ron Perelman, who owned it at the time, said ‘I want to meet with you, fly out to New York.’ And you’d think a millionaire would fly you out [laughs] … but I figured, okay, if I’m going to meet with him, we’re probably going to talk about something pretty big. And sure enough, they actually said, ‘what would you think about us buying your company, and you would run Marvel.’ And this was before they went bankrupt, okay?
So the stock was low, and I think this was a stock play, because to Wall Street it would be like, ‘this is the guy who had the best selling book at Marvel, left to start his own company, Marvel’s reacquired him … and then he’d get a big bump, and would be making paper money at least on the stock price.
So we had a follow up series of meetings, and the pay would’ve been awesome, and they would basically pay me for the company — the value of my company — based on a multiple of what they call earnings for profits, five years down the road, which is fine, because the pay was astronomical: two million dollars a year.
But I said, ‘you’re not paying a penny for my company.’ I mean, two million is amazing, right? And I said, ‘well, if you go bankrupt, you’re not going to pay me anything for the company you’re acquiring,’ and they wouldn’t budge off that, this model. Basically, it was performance based. I mean, two million is great. You’re getting paid well to do it, and then you really cash out if you can lift the company up.
And sure enough, they declared bankruptcy, I want to say like six months later…
Marvel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on December 27, 1996. Six months earlier, initial orders were coming in for the first month of Heroes Reborn books, assuming Lee’s estimate on the date is correct.
■ Also six months earlier, on June 25, 1996, Dreamworks officially optioned Quesada & Palmiotti’s Ash. The movie was never made.
For the second half of Heroes Reborn, Marvel handed Liefeld’s two titles to Lee, who would oversee all four book but would no longer be drawing any of them. Instead he was prepping a new series called Faraday’s Law — later to be renamed Divine Right — and working on a final X-Men story. The second half of Heroes Reborn began shipping in February 1997.
■ April 16, 1997 saw the release of Azrael/Ash #1, a crossover between Joe Quesada’s first creator-owned character and the DC character he was most known for. It would be the last DC story he’d ever draw.
■ June 26, 1997 saw the release of WildCATs/X-Men: The Silver Age #1, a crossover between Jim Lee’s first creator-owned characters and the Marvel characters he was most known for. It would be the last Marvel story he’d ever draw.
Earlier in June, Lee announced via AOL that Heroes Reborn would be wrapping up with issue #13 of each title, and also confirmed a rumor that he was in discussions with Marvel to take over four other books, this time in-continuity. He’d be acting as a creative supervisor on Punisher, Nick Fury, Doctor Strange, and Defenders.
■ But by the end of June, Carl Icahn and Marvel bondholders had seized control of the company from Ron Perelman. Icahn fired the CEO and President and replaced them with Joe Calamari.
Calamari began putting out feelers for other star artists to run a line of comics. To replace Jim Lee’s line? To compliment Jim Lee’s line? To use as a bargaining chip in negotiations about Jim Lee’s line? I don’t know. What I do know is that Calamari spoke to Gareb Shamus, the founder of Wizard: The Guide To Comics, and Shamus suggested Calamari talk to Quesada and Palmiotti.
■ It led to a meeting:
I remember being with the then-President of Marvel, Joe Calamari, and he just sort of sat there and said, ‘what would you guys do if we gave you a few books, what would you do? Because I love the way you guys just manage to get press and we heard from Gareb Shamus at Wizard that you guys are really good at this, that, and the other thing, and what would you do? I just want you guys to think about it’ — this was over dinner — ‘and just think about it and come back and talk to me.’
Quesada and Palmiotti put together a list of characters who didn’t currently have books in publication, but they were also very interested in Daredevil, whose series was currently active. Quesada’s plan was to go in and make a demand so outrageous that Daredevil would seem like sensible request in comparison.
So we met with him again, and he’s like, ‘so tell me how you’re going to fix the company?,” and I said: ‘Make us both Editor-In-Chief and we’ll fix the company.’ And he’s like, ‘I can’t do that’ — ‘No, seriously, both of us will fix this company for you, we know exactly what’s wrong.’ And the truth of the matter is we probably could’ve done it at that time, too.
And he laughs and I said, ‘well then, you know what, give us four books, give us our own imprint. Give us this, but we can’t do it unless we have…we need Daredevil, we need Punisher,’ and he said, ‘I think we can do that.’
But negotiations stalled. Quesada and Palmiotti had a friend in Dan Buckley, who was the Vice President of Marketing Services at Marvel, so they asked if he could figure out what was going on. Negotiations resumed soon after.
■ On September 24, 1997, Wizard #75 reported that Jim Lee’s line wasn’t happening after all.
■ On October 11, 1997, Antarctic Press office manager Matthew High posted to Usenet, “A couple week back I heard that Event Comics was effectively closing shop in order to work on Marvel titles. Last week someone posted a rumor on AOL that Event was shutting down. Then, in this week’s ZENtertainment newletter:
Sources tell ZEN that EVENT Comics’ Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti are in final talks to package several books for MARVEL, a la HEROES REBORN, except these titles will take place in MARVEL continuity, and have the blessings of MARVEL editors. As part of the arrangement, filmmaker / comic-fan Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy) is rumored to take over as writer of DAREDEVIL.”
■ Meanwhile, Jim Lee was still thinking about that offer Marvel had made to buy WildStorm, his piece of Image Comics. He approached DC and Paul Levitz with the idea, and a year-long courtship began.
■ Joe Quesada was never a fan of the Heroes Reborn comparisons:
“[Heroes Reborn] actually made our job more difficult internally at Marvel because, understandably, the staff at Marvel, when the Image guys were given those books — and Joe Calamari had explained this to us — he’s like, ‘you’re gonna have a tough road up there, because when those books were given to the Image guys…’ … there was a lot of resentment up there, because they felt like, ‘people are taking our jobs and giving it to these guys who left.’
Quesada and Palmiotti insisted that they didn’t want to run this imprint as outsiders; they wanted to work in the same offices and go through all the same approval processes.
“It always felt like there was a target on our back … and I think eventually we won a lot of those guys over, because they could see that we were there until 1 o’clock in the morning, we were there on weekends… I mean, we worked our asses off to get those books up and running.”
But there was one snafu — whether down to resentment or sheer coincidence — that led to Kevin Smith briefly quitting Daredevil.
Deadpool and X-Men writer Joe Kelly was ending his run with Daredevil #375, but Marvel didn’t want any downtime between the old and new run, so they commissioned Scott Lobdell to fill the space with a four-issue arc. Kevin Smith was working on a storyline in which “a supernatural character was going to offer DD his sight back, but it came with a price,” but was crushed when he learned Lobdell’s story also involved Daredevil getting his sight back.
Smith needed a new story idea quick, but nothing was coming. So he quit the book before it began, announcing his departure on his View Askew website on January 14, 1998. The first issue of Lobdell’s run didn’t ship until April 1, 1998, but I guess that wasn’t enough time to change the fill-in, or just kill it entirely?
[A similar snafu happened a few years later, when Lobdell did a fill-in before New X-Men and killed a character Grant Morrison was planning to use, right after Joe Quesada initiated a “dead is dead” policy. Maybe Lobdell is just bad luck to have fill in before new creative teams? Morrison replaced Colossus with Emma Frost, so it kind of worked out in the end.]
Luckily, Quesada and Palmiotti were able to talk Smith through it, using what he described in an interview with ManWithoutFear.com as “their patented brand of good cop/bad cop.”
On May 28, 1998, Wizard #83 announced that the Quesada/Palmiotti imprint had been officially named Marvel Knights.
■ On September 15, 1998, DC announced it would be acquiring Jim Lee’s company, WildStorm.
■ Also in September 1998, the Marvel Knights line launched.
■ Also in September 1998 (or early October), Joe Calamari was fired by Isaac Perlmutter after the successful merger of Toy Biz and Marvel into Marvel Enterprises.
■ Two years later, Joe Quesada was named Editor-In-Chief of Marvel in August 2000.
■ Jim Lee became Co-Publisher of DC in February 2010
■ Also in 2010, Joe Quesada became Chief Creative Officer of Marvel.
■ Earlier this year, Jim Lee became Chief Creative Officer of DC.
■ There are so many little moments that, if they’d gone different, might’ve changed the course of comics history. If Joe Quesada had achieved becoming a star Batman artist, would he have become a DC editor and worked his way up to Publisher like Paul Levitz? If Jim Lee had continued to run an imprint at Marvel, would he have become Editor-In-Chief? Or are they the perfect people in the perfect place to one day make DC/Marvel crossovers happen again…?
I think the only conclusion we can safely come to is that they’re both “the luckiest son of a bitch in the history of comics.”
The above was sourced liberally from Kevin Smith’s podcast Fatman On Batman (about to be renamed Fatman Beyond). Before it was a series discussing current comics news, co-hosted with the always insightful Marc Bernardin, Fatman On Batman was a series of career-spanning interviews with creators and celebrity fans of Batman, who often dropped mind-blowing nuggets I’d never heard anywhere else. Unfortunately, the early episodes are now locked behind a paywall on Stitcher, but if you’re a fan of geek history, I recommend giving the service a try. The Mark Hamill interview alone is worth the price of admission.
And just so I don’t confuse anyone into thinking the header image is some sort of rare unreleased artwork, it’s actually a Joe Quesada cover from 1995 for Double Edge: Omega #1. The way Daredevil and Nick Fury are fighting with Punisher in the middle seemed fitting.
Mild-mannered UI/UX designer by day and freelance writer/artist by night, nothing can stop Kate Willaert in her quest to analyze everything in geek culture. She also writes about video game history for GameHistory.org.