Bill Jemas has worn many hats over the course of his career: NBA executive, Marvel Publisher, comic book writer, and straw fedora. Okay, that last one is an unsubstantiated rumor, but I feel like he could pull it off. Jemas was not only one of the primary forces behind turning the House of Ideas into the House of Hit Movies that it is today; he’s also co-written high-profile launches like Origin and Ultimate Spider-Man. Now, after a brief respite from the industry, Jemas returns to comics with the opening salvo from his new open-source Transverse Universe, Wake the F#ck Up, a teenage version of the parody children’s book Go the F#ck to Sleep. Putting out the book through Zenescope, Jemas sat down with us to talk about his new Transverse Universe venture, what we can expect from Wake the F#ck Up and the thought process behind the Ultimate Marvel universe that he helped create.
Nerdist: What can you tell us about your latest project Wake the F#ck Up? What inspired it? What is it that excites you about the project? How’d you get involved
Bill Jemas: A friend of mine sent me a link to Go the F**k to Sleep, the video where it’s read by Samuel L. Jackson, and I thought it was hilarious and fun. I’m a parent of teenagers and I’m very interested in teen life, and I’ve spent much of my career making products for teens and marketing products to them. The teen issue is just the opposite; it’s about getting up and out. It’s not about curling up and sleeping. The first images popped into my head within an hour of reading Go the F**k to Sleep and, for the past year, I’ve tried different means of storytelling to make the whole thing go together. One of the kids that we worked with, we asked him to put together a video that we could add a voiceover to, and he came back with this original hip-hop score that was just wonderful. We really thought we had a winner, so we started the publishing process a couple of months ago and, now, here we are.
N: What motivated your decision to return now and why did you opt to work with a smaller publisher like Zenescope?
BJ: We actually started with a fairly decent-sized traditional storybook publisher, but as the story unfolded, it started to feel more like a comic book than a storybook. We decided to go the comic book route and from there – I’d been dying to work with Zenescope since they were founded. I like what they were doing; I think they’re really good graphically. Joe Brusha’s an excellent writer, and they have another fellow down there named Raymond who’s very talented as well. I think Joe likes me as well, so it was just an opportunity to work with people who I think would be fun to work with. I guess, you could theoretically get a larger distribution if you went to a larger publisher, but this is a little off the beaten path for comic book shops already, so it’s really about finding people who are enthusiastic about doing a little bit of extra marketing and PR to get the word out to the shops.
BJ: The first part of the story is in verse, from the perspective of the parents, and it’s available free online. Then, the rest of the story is a 48-page comic book available in print and some form of paid digital distribution. If people like this story, there are a handful of stories that involve these same characters set in a new universe that we’re creating, so if all goes well there’ll be another graphic novel in the next couple of months.
N: One of the hot button issues in recent years has been digital comics and the future of traditional comic publishing. You helped pave the way with Marvel’s “dot comics” initiative. Do you think digital will supplant print as the industry-preferred medium or is it more of a way to reach more consumers in addition to print?
BJ: I think it would be horrible in so many ways for so many people if digital supplanted print, partially because comic book shops are a great place for people to meet and spread the word. They’re a great way to spend money that supports the creators and the industry. Even though my group did sort of do the first highly-distributed dot comics, we spent the rest of our time pushing the audience into comic book shops and developing products that would help comic book shops make money. During that four-year period, stories went from flat on their back to standing on their own legs and making some serious dough. Personally, I’d hate to see them disappear. If all goes well, digital comics will bring readership into the industry and then it’s the job of the publishers to provide enough product in enough ways so that comic shops have something to sell as well. So, if all goes well, then we’ll see plenty of print product in comic book shops for years to come.
N: While working at Marvel, you have had quite an effect on the comic book industry by shifting the demographic to a younger readership. For example, superhero films are dominating the box office, due in no small part to many of the initiatives you started during your tenure. What are your thoughts on the state of the modern comic book industry and its relationship with Hollywood?
BJ: The best thing about the relationship with Hollywood, especially for Marvel, is that Marvel is starting to control its own destiny – financing its own films, making more money. It’s absolutely wonderful. Going back to the first X-Men film – it was so wonderful in so many ways and had a tremendous presence at the box office, but we just took a bath. We got really no cash from the box office or the DVDs. Marvel Studios’ financing deal lets them control everything from top to bottom. My only suggestion I might have for my old friends is that they might want to focus more on turning movie fans into comic book readers. That doesn’t just happen by accident. From the beginning of comic book movies to the X-Men movie in 2000, the movies did not create a comic book audience. What we had to do was create content that dovetailed exactly with the movies and find ways to get the content to movie fans. If I recall, we had a program with Walmart to distribute 2 to 3 million comic books during the weekend of the Spider-Man film’s release, which we supplemented by millions of copies also being distributed through toy companies, t-shirt companies, shoe companies. You’ve got to get a sample product – either digital or physically – to the audience. Give them the first one for free, then hopefully that will get them into the comic book stores to buy more.
N: On a related note, in regards to the Ultimate Marvel universe, it seemed like a good way for readers who might be put off by the years and years of storylines they missed to hop on board the Marvel universe on the ground floor. Was that part of the goal in creating it? Do you think it has fulfilled that goal?
BJ: That’s a good question. [laughs] There was a character I helped create at Marvel called Online Bill Jemas, who’s power was to make unilateral decisions. When I got the job at Marvel, it was running licensing and sponsorships – our strategic corporate relationships – and then comic book retail and digital distribution came later. I was walking door-to-door, on conference calls – the message was clear: teens didn’t like superheroes, they weren’t reading comics, they were done. We realized that the best way for us to grow would be to capture the teen audience. However, we didn’t have books that you could turn over to a teenager to read. Now, this is sad – the X-Men movie was coming out and the guys at Toys R Us had a great relationship with the Toy Biz people. They said, “Hey, we’ll buy 2 million comic books from you and fill them with coupons and your licensed products and distribute them through FOX at the movie theaters.” So, you go to the movie and you get a free comic book filled with our advertising. I walked down to the 9th floor, to the Editor-in-Chief’s office and asked what X-Men comic books for teens we had from the last thirty years of X-Men. There was nothing we could show a teenager that they would actually read. We had to go all the way back to Stan Lee’s original X-Men story, and we got close to that but they were all wearing tight vests. We ended up using the Stan Lee comic, which was okay, but it wasn’t as good as the movie. So, the message was here’s this great movie, but this not-so-great comic book.
That kind of galvanized us; come hell or high water, we were going to have comics that teens could read. We did everything we could to scour the comic book writing universe and find writers and artists that could do that. Y’know, Brian Bendis was there – years of accumulated talent, but no outlet – and Mark Millar was there – years of accumulated talent. Neither of them had contracts with DC or Marvel, so they were available. They were True Believers. That became an initiative; it became a rallying cry internally. We were going to get teen readers in order to be the best.
N: Well, it certainly seems like it had its intended effect.
BJ: I was not around, obviously, for the making of the Avengers and Iron Man movies, but it was so thrilling to see Mark Millar’s characters come to life on the screen. Just wonderful.
N: I agree – I have a very distinct memory of when the Ultimate universe launched of my non-comic book reading friends coming to me with Ultimate X-Men or Ultimate Spider-Man and asking, “Hey! Have you seen this?”
BJ: Yeah! When you really get down to it, the Ultimate universe was an alternate universe comic book. We didn’t call it an “alternate universe comic book” because the wisdom there is that had we put that label on there, people wouldn’t have paid attention to the book. We had to make it mainstream and that was one of the things that made it so interesting. At the time we launched Ultimate Spider-Man, we had Joe Straczynski on Amazing, and he did one of the best comic book stories that I have read anywhere. As we were doing Ultimate for teens, the stars lined up and Joe did this wonderful Amazing Spider-Man line on top of it.
N: Despite coming from largely a business background, you still find time to write. Do you find you prefer wearing one hat to the other? Which do you consider to be more challenging?
BJ: It’s sort of the whole “jack of all trades, master of none” thing. It’s very easy for me to do simple things in any discipline from calculus and science to ancient history. It’s all pretty much equally easy up to the point where big stuff happens. Everything’s a scramble when it comes to details. I certainly enjoy the creative process, but it’s fun to run the numbers to see how a project would generate revenue via an advertiser or sponsor. When it gets down to a certain level of detail, I have to be surrounded by talent or I won’t get very far.
BJ: Yeah, there is quite a bit of work in development and you can look at some of it on TransverseUniverse.com. It’s certainly not ready for prime time; it’s work-in-progress. It’s an open-source comic book universe. Stories that are set past, present and future, and the future’s looking brighter. So, the idea is to create sort of a fantasy universe where the vectors line up toward a brighter future. The content is, for the most part, introduced into the public domain through a Creative Commons license. The format/template for the website and the player that plays the comic books are an open-source WordPress plugin. I would say, don’t get your hopes too far up. We need writers and artists to look at the universe, then want to do a lot of work for a little bit of money. They’re not real comics yet; there’s no dialogue, no layout, just the DNA that we are starting to flesh out.
N: Even so, that sounds like a pretty exciting model for aspiring comic book creators and artists.
BJ: What we’re hoping to do is create something exciting and open-source so people can then use that in their own stories and be excited about doing so.
N: You must be buried in comics. What titles are you reading and enjoying right now?
BJ: I am kind of a Mark Millar/Brian Bendis groupie. I don’t think I’ll ever stop reading Ultimate Spider-Man, and I don’t think Brian will ever stop writing it. I also love everything Mark writes. For years, if you opened up my cell phone, it would say “DC sucks,” but their New 52 relaunch is wonderful. They’re knocking it out of the park on that relaunch.
For more on Wake the F#ck Up, check out Zenescope’s website. And visit the up-and-coming Transverse Universe and see if you could be the next great comic book creator. What do you think of an open-source comic book universe? Quemment below and let us know!