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Thursday, May 17, 2001

Marvel Press Conference Transcript

Marvel Comics on Wednesday announced that it is parting ways with the Comics Code Authority.

Marvel's Bill Jemas, Joe Quesada and Bill Rosemann discussed the decision, how Marvel will implement its own guidelines and how the decision will impact the company and the industry.

Here's a transcript of the press conference:

Jemas: Marvel's decided that we are going to go ahead and institute new content guidelines and a parental advisory system for our comic books. Let me start by saying that most Marvel comics will continue to be suitable for readers of all ages, but we have been expanding and diversifying the line, and in the future, books that are specifically targeted for teens and adults will be labeled accordingly.

We've taken a long, hard look at the 50 year-old Comic Code, the past years of which we've been a very active member. And we've concluded that the current standards as written down and administered by the Comic Code are just inappropriate for our consumers and our retailers and our business in the 21st century. Currently, for those of you who don't know, the way the Code works is that participating publishers -- and I should say that there are just an handful of publishers left who do actually participate in the Code, so to some extent, Marvel is coming to a conclusion that a lot of publishers came to a long time ago. But if a publisher submits a book to the Code, and if the Code administrations rule that the book meets the Code's rules, the publisher puts a bug, a little quarter inch by three quarter inch stamp on the book, that says this book is approved by the Comic Code Authority.

If the book is rejected because it is unsuitable for children, then the publisher can still go ahead and publish it, but without any form of parental advisory. So you have the somewhat bizarre situation under the current CMAA system that books that are not suitable for children actually do get published with no warning label at all.

Marvel is going to take the opposite approach so that books that need a warning get a warning, and books that don't need a warning don't have a warning. That's the gist of what we're doing here.

I do want to say a couple of more points. The first is this is not a reaction to consumer criticism. As you know, I get plenty of personal criticism, but there certainly has been no significant or out of the ordinary criticism of the content of the books as being particularly violent or sexual or anything like that. This is in fact just a voluntary initiative which we believe is necessary as we continue to expand and grow our business.

As you know, we've launched this Ultimate imprint that has attracted a lot of new kid and teen readers. We've overhauled Spider-Man and X-Men and brought in top creators and we want to give these people real significant creative freedom. So far, that policy has worked great. The earmark of Joe Quesada's very successful run as editor in chief has been attracting great creators and giving them creative freedom. We think this coding system will let us do that in the best way. Soon, in September, we will be launching a mature readers imprint, and we want those books to be labeled as mature readers. We don't want those books sold to younger teens or children.

Finally, and really, I'll make this a personal statement, I just feel that there's something wrong with this current system, that if a book does not bear the stamp of the Comics Code Authority that there's something wrong with the book. I think frankly that's just bullshit. And that level of bullshit has really hurt the comic-book business in America for the past 50 years. If you get to other countries in the world where there hasn't been this institution, comic books have become a significant, interesting, lively mainstream form of media with a tremendous amount of creative freedom and a hugely diverse offering.

I think that we've just been afraid to go out there and make a bold move as a comic-book business. I think comic-book publishers have been afraid to make bold moves. Listen, Marvel was a very, very active participant, if not a leader in the CMAA, so what I'm saying to you here is that we fell victim to our own fear and paranoia. In other words, we fell victim to our own nonsense. I have to tell you that as of the time I started as president of Marvel, and Joe first became editor-in-chief, we did not put Punisher and Daredevil on newsstands, because they did not pass code approval.

So Joe Quesada and the Marvel Knights guys came in and really turned the business on its ear. We took two characters that barely even existed - the Punisher books were cancelled, and DD was zooming into 20,000 units per release, and the Marvel Knights turned these into some of the best books ever done in the comic business, and Marvel was scared to put those books out on the newsstand because they didn't have Code approval.

Those days are over. We talk about constantly within the building, getting ourselves free of fear. So when we were about to do the Ultimates, everyone was afraid it would ruin Spider-Man and the X-Men. Well, it didn't ruin Spider-Man and the X-Men. What it did was it helped revive the characters. We've been afraid for a long time to tell the Wolverine origin story, because were going to ruin Wolverine - that it was this great mystery of the character's background, and his search for self that made the character so great. Because Logan had to search for himself, we were afraid to show the fans what the background of Logan is. Again, that went down to fear.

Right now, the current controversy that I'm helping to drum up and keep going is that we have a new resurgence of collecting, and that is really creating a spectacular resurgence in sales. But everybody is afraid that that's going to get out of hand, and turn into speculation and ruin us. It's all tied into one pile, and this step of eliminating the Code is part of an overall feeling, practice and attitude that Joe and I hope we can continue to bring to the Marvel family, and that is - we are out there to have a lot of fun, do great work and make a lot of money for the company.

That's the whole speech. Moving away from the 50-year old Code is not an isolated, individual move. It's part of an overall corporate ethos, and we're going to go out there and do great work."

Quesada: I just wanted to say that we will still be submitting Bill Jemas to the Code before these press conferences to make sure we're all OK.

Just one correction, Bill. Daredevil did have the code on it. The feeling at the time at Marvel was that even with the Code, it was still too edgy for newsstand, so it was Marvel again, being a big member of the Code and again policing itself even harder by not allowing Daredevil onto newsstands.

Jemas: Isn't is insane? That's an attitude of someone who's never visited a newsstand, because what's on a newsstand is the same as what's in a Daredevil comic book.

Quesada: That's basically it. In retrospect, thinking about the Code and the CMAA, let me just put this bluntly, I just think the CMAA did a very poor job with respect to letting people in the general public know that there were comics other than the ones for kids, thus, I think in a lot of ways perpetuating the CMAA, and Marvel was a very big part of that.

Rosemann: Can I just add one thing? A lot of people have asked me, "Hey Bill, as a marketing guy, are you afraid this is going to hurt Marvel. Are you going to produce comic books that don't get a seal of approval?"

I said, "No. The opposite." Right now, we have a system going that doesn't inform consumers what they're buying. What we're going to be moving towards is a system that let's people know exactly what they're buying. So it's better for the consumers. Like Bill and Joe said, this is a move that's going to help everybody.

Question: Was there any single incident or a small series of incidents that was the trigger for this move?

Quesada: I can't say that it was any one particular incident. It was one of those things where week-in-week out we deal with the Code. Those guys have a really hard job to do - they have to read every comic from all the major publishers, and there were certain levels of inconsistency. Looking at that over a period of six to seven months, the frustration just sort of built within me where it was like, "I just don't understand why we were doing this.

Realistically speaking, every Marvel book, before it goes to Code deals with four levels of reading. We have editors who are called read-out editors. These are our senior editors who read every book four times, but they read them for content issues. They read them to make sure that things jive in continuity, and the characters act like the characters. They don't read them necessarily for key words that the code would bounce. I think it would be much easier for us in house, once we have our own system set up, that we just have our read-out editors add that to their list.

Again, we have the finest editors in the business, and I think that we will be much more consistent. And I do get letters from fans, because sometimes things do slip by, even slip by the Code. I may get a letter that says, "Do you really think Character X should be saying this?" Sometimes I can't disagree, and I can't help but feel we could have caught it in our readout stage.

Question: Does this tie in to with Marvel is doing with the different trade dress for the newsstand editions of comics, and are those newsstand editions going to continue to follow the code in any way?

Jemas: That has a little bit more to do with the interesting machinations for how books get approved for wholesale distribution. They're not related, so if you see a book with a Marvel Universe label at newstand, it really refers to trying to make the world simpler for the wholesalers. It doesn't really have anything to do with the content that's inside the book.

Question: CMAA had a racking program. How will Marvel address the racking program of the CMAA?

Jemas: Marvel, from a policy point of view, had determined some time ago that the racks were a very well-intentioned, but diseconomic way to push distribution. We have a handful of initiatives that are just as expensive as racking that we're instituting now.

What racks do - and again, I think this is part and parcel of the 1950's attitude towards comics -- is they take comics out of the mainstream magazine line, and they stick them off in a corner.

Frankly, even when Marvel was very successful at the newsstand in relative terms, we were never comfortable with the idea that a comic book would have to live in a separate area. I think that the racking is part of this feeling that comic books are this creature in itself. An example of an initiative that we can talk about is because it's been initiated is that we've taken the Ultimate books and reprinted them in magazine trim size and spent quite a bit of money to get those books placed adjacent to electronic gaming magazines. And then we've taken the Marvel Knights content and packaged that in magazine trim and tried to put that as close as we can to where Maxim magazine is sold with their sort of Maxim magazine-type content.

Our sense is that we think there's more bang for the buck to get comic books racked adjacent to magazines than to get comic books segregated off into a wire rack section. The simple fact is that those wire racks never got the kind of traffic that they needed.

Also, we don't really believe any more, philosophically, that Amazing Spider-Man should be racked with Archie. Amazing Spider-Man is an extremely sophisticated book, written by one of the best authors in the business that deals head on with teen issues. Archie is a 1950's teenager book, and we're not in the same world competitively. We don't want to be racked with them, and we don't want our demos to be dragged down to where their demos are. They're nice people and I'm sure they're nice to their families, but we don't want to be treated like them.

Question: Once implemented, how will this affect the content of the books?

Quesada: I don't think this is going to affect the content of the books. The content of the book is really not going to change. What's going to change is that there's going to be a consistency in place where in certain words that might be flagged sometimes or might not be flagged sometimes will either be flagged all the time or not. I really don't think this is going to affect content one way or the other."

Question: How widely accepted do you think a proprietary Marvel rating system would be, particularly in retail chains and larger stores?

Jemas: It's only a little bit arrogant to say that Marvel is the industry leader. Marvel was the industry leader long before Joe and I got here, and it will be long after we leave. The fact is, that's what we are, and we feel we should act as such.

My sense is that, and Joe has a little bit more hands on in confidential conversations in this one, that there is significant interest from other comic book publishers who are looking to reach the same demos with similar content. We think that we may end up once again with certain industry-wide standards, but without the mechanism of submitting to a third party.

So, our sense is that the comic-book industry, if we're as smart as we think we are, will end up with industry standards that are easy for retailers and customers to understand that are published to make a lot of sense, but each individual comic book company is responsible for applying those standards to their own work. We think that's where we end up on all of this when the dust settles. We don't think it's that big of a deal for the companies if that does not happen, but we certainly welcome input, participation, etc. from other publishers in the business.

Quesada: Let me just add that we're not trying to exclude other publishers here. If other publishers down the road would like to incorporate this system, or just discuss with us how we built our system, by all means - we've been meeting about this for a couple of long weeks, and they're more than welcome to tap into our information. There's nothing confidential here.

Question: Can you give us a hint as to what the guidelines will be like - will they be more similar to movie ratings or television ratings?

Quesada: Without getting into the details just yet, I would say that they're probably going to be closer to the TV ratings. We looked at all the ratings systems, and it seemed that TV was the one that correlated more directly to what it was we did content-wise. You agree there, Bill?

Jemas: Yeah, I do. Essentially, what we're talking about is advising parents that there are certain books that they may want to read along with their younger children, and then advising parents and retailers that there are certain books that are probably not appropriate for any children. That's pretty similar to what happens in television. Also, similar to television and the movies, we all the feel, the less specific to some extent, the better.

We also don't think that publishing guidelines that say, "naughty words," or "no naughty words" really make sense. We do think that the general statements are very helpful, and it makes sense to leave the specifics to the individual companies to deal with.

Question: CMAA exists thanks to voluntary contributions from the publishers, so you're taking a big chuck from it?

Jemas: We had an interesting, not nearly as productive as it might have been, but interesting meeting with the people at the CMAA, and I think they can speak for themselves on this, but our impression is that the institution will continue. It may just be that there are bunches of people who hold up the flag that comic books are for children. It's a hard flag to hold up - to hold up that flag and say "comic books are for children" means you've never actually seen a comic book shop or a comic-book reader, but it may be that the CMAA goes ahead and sets the standard in publishing stuff for little kids. It didn't seem to me - and again I don't want to speak for these companies -- that the people who remain involved with the CMAA are likely to let the organization disappear.

Question: Can you give us a hint on the characters and concepts included in your mature line?

Quesada: Not yet. The hints are already out there. It's still a little too early for us to talk about.

Question: Are you going to polybag the mature titles?

Quesada: We're actually going to give each retailer their own steel vault (laughs). We are not going to polybag them. They will be labeled accordingly. We do have to be responsible for the material we put out. But that's really it.

Jemas: Let me also say that when we say mature readers - not that I've ever seen an X-movie, but I've heard about them - I have seen horror movies, we'll but a lot more like a horror movie than an X-movie. I can't imagine Marvel ever getting to the type of content that would even necessitate a polybag.

Question: From the previous comments about racks, are you looking at getting away from newsstand distribution entirely, with the exception of the Marvel Knights and Ultimate magazines? Is that where you're going?

Jemas: I wouldn't say that necessarily. There are several chains that rack comics without the separate trim-size wire. We think there will be a lot of that, and we also think there will be -- without any more detail than this, we are working on certain types of pre-packed shipper programs that will make sense for certain large retail chains.

So we do expect that traditional trim-size comics will continue to be distributed and displayed through newsstands. It's just the idea that these books are segregated from from the rest of the magazines and put in these wires. Again, the wire was only partially a function of the comic book. Part of the function of the wire was to stick these books into a separate part of the store, and ensure that the content was kids-oriented and not mainstream.

Question: Will there be several different types of ratings, or will it be books targeted at teens and adults will be labeled, while others are not?

Jemas: There will be three major categories, one that is stuff for everybody and will not bear a label, which again, is the opposite of how things had worked out with us under the Code, and then a parental advisory, and then a mature audience. Within the parental advisory, it may be that we specifically state that the parental advisory applies to some graphic violence or some sexual situation, but again, we haven't gone that far. But we have gone as far as to figure that there will be three major categories.

Question: Will titles be put into a track? For example, will Fantastic Four be all audiences all the time, or will ratings change from month to month as the story may dictate?

Quesada: No, to avoid major consumer issues here, it has to be consistent. We will have an editorial meeting at Marvel, and I will be talking to each of our editors to find out where they feel that their books fits in the system, and that's where it has to stay. That's not to say that we can't do a Fantastic Four mini-series, something that's self-contained and on its own that can't be a little edgier. Again, I wouldn't go to mature readers with FF, but that's not to say that we couldn't do self-contained projects like that. The basic FF book, wherever it fits in the system, that's where it's going to stay.

Question: Was there any effort by Marvel to have the Code update or modify its rating system before taking this step?

Quesada: There was some start of a conversation with that. Maybe call it my aversion to the Code, but it's a very tough discussion to get into without going into the details of the final meeting that we had, wherein I just felt that it was an old, archaic way of doing things, and it puts extra stress on my employees who could pretty much be doing this job on their own. It just didn't seem to make any sense to me. We were sitting around the table, and actually, the word McCarthyism started coming up. Again, without getting into details, guys, it wasn't a place where we as Marvel want to be anymore.

Jemas: That's a good point. The other issue was that we don't really think it is appropriate for Marvel, certainly, and I can tell you from conversations we've had with other publishers, that the idea that you submit your creative work to a third party to stamp it. That's not consistent with the way we want to approach the creative process. You wouldn't know it to talk to us, but we have some very responsible adults that work here, and take this very seriously. We think that they're perfectly capable and very interested in applying fair advisories for parents and retailers.

Even if the Code would move to - and I think on some levels, the industry will move to a ratings system - the idea that submissions to a third party is inconsistent. Philosophically, I'm not kidding about this one, historically it would have been very interesting to see what would have happened to comics in this country, had there been no Code at all. The interesting experience will be as we begin to experiment over the next five years as we begin to move creatively away from restrictions.

One of the people involved in the Code said that the worst thing that you can do is sell a non-kids appropriate material to children, with the implication being that, if it's a comic, it's de facto for kids, and you have to prove otherwise.

That's a very sort of parochial American statement. You wouldn't go to any other country in the world and say that a comic book is a kid's thing any more than you'd say a magazine is a kid's thing. We really think that we needed to shake ourselves loose from the traditional thinking and the traditional fears in order to do what we needed to do to succeed in the long haul.

Even if the Code were to make adjustments, the basic premise of the Code is that if it's comic book trim, it's for kids, and for me that's utter nonsense, and has nothing to do with the way the business has worked for the past 20 years. The idea that a creative company is obliged to submit to a third party - that's un-American as far as I'm concerned, just as I feel that Mr. McCarthy was un-American. So, I don't have any use for that.

We've started to move, and we're moving really fast, and we don't foresee any way we would ever move back into that kind of situation.

Quesada: It's also ironic that the Code, as an organization made up of a group of companies - Marvel included -- that were attempting to show that comics aren't just for kids, and aren't this sort of niche medium. This press conference we're having right here guys is the biggest publicity they've had in years. As far as the general public is concerned, I don't even think that they know there is a code anymore.

Question: You're pulling out of the CMAA?

Quesada: Yes. That's correct.

Question: Is there any concern that putting these advisory labels on comics may actually be scarier to the public than the absence of the code's seal of approval?

Rosemann: To me, what's scary is not only do people not know that there is a Code, but when they look at this tiny, little seal of approval, they don't know what that means. So what's scary is there's a symbol on there and they don't know that means. By actually adding a ratings system that will identify what the rating means, that's not scary at all, to me, that's comforting.

Question: How will a new ratings system work in an international marketing like Australia?

Jemas: That goes into one of those good questions categories and we're all going to get on the phone with our Australian distributor and start talking.

Question: Will the ratings effect pricing?

Quesada: No, not at all. One of the mature titles we're working on will have ridiculously low price point on. So, it's separate from pricing.

Question: When are you going to implement?

Jemas: We have a timetable in mind, but we're not prepared to announce it because we have to reality check it against our production schedules. But it will be quick. We don't have the exact date.

We also envision there may be a scenario in which there may be a few weeks books go to newsstand with neither fish nor fowl, without a code stamp or without a separate Marvel rating. But you're not talking about more than a week or two.

Question: By the end of the summer?

Jemas: By the end of the summer, absolutely.

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