When Bill Jemas Was Going To Write Captain Marvel, Then Harlan Ellison

Tom Brevoort has been celebrating 25 years as editor of The Avengers and is wondering who can match his length on any one book in an editorial capacity. But he has also taken the opportunity in his newsletter to reminisce about the Marville/Captain Marvel/.Ultimate Adventures U-Decide debacle. We remembered that recently with the passing of Ultimate Adventures writer Ron Zimmerman, and it remains one of Marvel's most bizarre undertakings. Some of it we knew, some of which we really didn't.

It all began when Marvel was raising the price of poorer selling titles from $2.25 to $2.99, Captain Marvel being written by Peter David, who also wrote the widely read But I Digress column for the Comics Buyers' Guide, calling this decision out publicly and offering alternatives. It did not go down well at Marvel. But it could have been worse, as then-Marvel publisher Bill Jemas planned to fire Peter David and write Captain Marvel himself as a consequence. Brevoort recalls;

"And in fact, Bill's plan for a hot minute was that he was going to fire Peter from CAPTAIN MARVEL and write the series himself. I can recall him coming into my office with the first draft script to what became MARVILLE #1 in his hands, spelling out that plan. It was initially written with the lead character being a new iteration of Captain Marvel. But cooler heads prevailed here, and Joe in particular saw a promotional opportunity. So he and Bill hatched the idea for the U-Decide promotion. Put simply, it was this: Bill would write his new series."

Before we knew it, Marvel relaunched Captain Marvel #1 written by David at $2.25, but also launch two new titles, Marville written by Jemas and Ultimate Adventures, using one of Joe's favourite people Ron Zimmerman, and there would be a competition to see which could sell more.

"After the first six issues had come out, the better-selling title would win and survive. In addition, the loser would sit in a dunk tank on behalf of the Hero Initiative at some upcoming convention. I'd like to say that this was a fun promotion, but it really was anything but. Bill saw this as an opportunity to humiliate Peter and his work publicly, and he controlled all of the levers of power in the organization, so he always had an unfair advantage. Meanwhile, Joe saw this whole thing as a method of getting some more eyeballs on a project he really loved, ULTIMATE ADVENTURES, which was done by comedy writer Ron Zimmerman and artist Duncan Fegredo and which featured a satiric take on the story of a super hero sidekick."

No, there was no dunk tanking. Because Captain Marvel won hands down, at 34th place in the charts of that month. Ultimate Adventures was a pretty bad take on Batman and Robin with some pretty good art and came 46th. And Marville was the worst collection of in-jokes that made Bleeding Cool look accessible to the general public, and not even MD Bright art could save it, came 75th. Brevoort adds;

"after being told by a number of people that nobody understood half of what he was referring to in the issue that Bill had an opening page added to explain the jokes ahead of time."

When Bill Jemas Was Going To Write Captain Marvel, Then Harlan Ellison

I'd like to point out that as a reader who had never even heard of Ted Turner, even with the explanation, I still didn't get a tonne of the "jokes" and still don't. The series also tried to include a brand new origin for Wolverine as a prehistoric teenage mutated otter in an attempt to up sales.

When Bill Jemas Was Going To Write Captain Marvel, Then Harlan Ellison

It would depict Peter David as a homeless man.

When Bill Jemas Was Going To Write Captain Marvel, Then Harlan Ellison

Have Iron Man almost use the N-word and have the Kingpin played by Spike Lee.

When Bill Jemas Was Going To Write Captain Marvel, Then Harlan Ellison

It got worse, improved when the story just petered out, exchanged with text pages saying that Marvel just hadn't got enough good writers to write all their books and so the readers should have a go. And with the evidence of Marville alone, they may have a point. It is the worst written comic book Marvel ever published. Captain Marvel maintained its sales comparatively to the others which fell off the charts, but Marville dropped further than all. Marville #6 was the worst-selling Marvel book aside from Eden's Trail, #7 was the worst selling of all. Brevoort recalls;

"But I have to tell you honestly, in my opinion, MARVILLE was one of the most inept and narcissistic projects the company has ever put out. It was bad in a way that defies description, as the only audience for the material seemed to be Bill himself. The person I felt most sorry for in this whole adventure was artist M. D. Bright, who wound up drawing the entire run. Bright was hard up for work and willing to do what he had to, but he couldn't have derived a whole lot of satisfaction from working on this series. In a later issue, unhappy with the work Bright had done, Bill made the insane choice to print his dialogue in full script format on top of all of the completed artwork. I don't know if he thought he was emulating the style that Brian Michael Bendis had used on issues of ALIAS or what, but the end result was borderline unreadable as well as being disrespectful to Bright and the work he'd put in. But at this point, Bill was the absolute boss and there was nobody who could easily say no to him, especially on his own vanity project."

But Tom also shares early plans for that Captain Marvel relaunch from Peter David who was also looking to win, which could have gone a very different way;

"Peter was definitely in it to win it, despite the fact that the deck was stacked against him. So his initial idea was to reach out to his close friend Harlan Ellison and see if Harlan might be willing to write the story with him, and help with the promotion and so forth. And Harlan did come up with a pitch for a story—one that Peter wouldn't tell me himself, but which could only be conveyed to me by Harlan himself. So Harlan called at the appointed time, and laid out for me a story involving the fact that, some years earlier, Rick Jones (who was still switching molecules with Captain Marvel in the current series) had been the Hulk. What Harlan envisioned was a story that revealed at some point during those Hulk black-out periods, Jones as the Hulk had impregnated some woman somewhere and she'd given birth to a Hulk-baby. And now that child would return to create chaos in Rick's life, and by extension Captain Marvel's. I don't know what Peter thought about the idea, we never discussed it really, but I suspect that he may not have been all that keen on it himself, but having asked Harlan for assistance he felt honor-bound to move forward. But there was no way that I could green light a story in which the Hulk, even a non-Bruce Banner Hulk, was a rapist and had conceived a child. I tried to find some reasonable alternative, but Harlan felt that it was crucial to what he had in mind that Rick had to have done the deed unknowingly as the Hulk, and so when that wasn't a possibility, he gracefully exited the project."

Could it have been consensual with the Hulk? It was with Marlo and Caiera. In comments, Tom states "I asked Harlan similar questions, Matt, but according to him, for the story that he wanted to tell, it 'had to be.'" Anyway, this was a long time ago.

"At one point we all did a telephone press conference in which each of the principles described the book that they were going to be doing in an attempt to make it sound appealing to readers and especially retailers. I can remember, after that call ended, Bill and Joe felt pretty confident about how it had gone—they felt that Peter had come across like a goon as usual, and that they had utterly smoked him. This lasted until the articles written about the press event began to came out, and everybody seemed to have good things to say about Peter's CAPTAIN MARVEL plans, while being uncertain about the other two projects. They had overlooked the fact that Peter had years earlier been on Marvel's marketing team and knew how to speak to the press and the retailers in a language they would understand. (I had actually advised Peter that he should quit the book one point, feeling that the deck was stacked completely against us. But Peter replied that he wasn't going to quit while they were still paying him, he was just going to do the best that he could, which I think was an excellent response and is excellent advice in general.) When the initial orders began to come in, it was clear that CAPTAIN MARVEL was soundly ahead."

And then this is where it gets even more Trumpian than it was when it began.

"For a brief day or two, like something out of modern day politics, Bill decided that he was going to send out a press release announcing his victory—there was some half-baked nonsense about how the next day Joe Q could send out a similar press release about ULTIMATE ADVENTURES and so forth. But none of this came to pass. In the end, everybody simply stopped paying attention and the whole effort resolved itself without any sort of winner or loser and nobody winding up in a dunk tank."

I'm still holding out for that dunk tank, Bill! Also, out of Marville, Marvel launched a new line, Epic Comics, intended to publish new writers' works. There were some good books that came out of that, and mostly bad ones. Remember Trouble? That would have revealed Peter Parker was actually Aunt May and Uncle Ben's illegitimate child, conceived when they were teenagers? Yeah, That one. It is a period that Marvel has done its best to forget.

Marville is no longer in print, nor published by Marvel digitally. I presume it never will. But there is a postscript, You see, after Marville had finished publication, Bill Jemas approached me and asked if I wanted to write Marville after him.

Which I thought was bizarre but I wasn't going to not step up to that. It's not like I could write anything worse than Bill. I did write a script which would have seen the character KalAOL kidnap Alan Moore, cage him and have him shaved like a sheep as an offering to Joe Quesada. It ended with the god Glycon attacking New York to free his disciple. But I never heard back from Bill. In comments, Brevoort recalled "I had heard that there was talk about you taking the series over, but I never saw any script or any evidence that it had gone beyond just idle talk." Which is probably all for the best.

 

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Rich JohnstonAbout Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.
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