Practitioners 45: Joe Quesada

Joe Quesada was born to Cuban born parents in New York and grew up in Jackson Heights neighbourhood of Queens, globally, a stones throw from Marvel comics’ headquarters in Manhattan, where he would eventually end up. Studying at the School of Visual Arts, he recived a BFA in illustration in 1984, starting out officially as an artist in the 1990s. While he certainly generated a great deal of material prior to becoming widely distributed in the intervening years it was his work with Valiant Comics, a comic book imprint published as a cooperative between various publishers that caught the greatest interest, pencilling interiors and covers for Ninjak, Solar, Man of the Atom and others. His distinctive blend of styles with the emphasis of large watery, expressive eyes, flowing hair and unnatural body proportions. But the Manga stylism was subdued slightly into a style very specifically and easily recognisable as Quesada’s. His flair for composition and the understanding that a strong grasp on the fundamental layout of the page is what stood him out from other, more chaotic artists from the period.

Later, he and his inking partner Jimmy Palmiotti formed a publishing company, Event Comics, and co-created Ash, a Firefighter with superpowers.

In 1998, Event comics was signed to work on Marvel Imprint, Marvel Knights. As Editor of Marvel Knights, Quesada encouraged experimentation and brought forward seminal artists from the indy scene to work on Marvel’s edgier mainstream talents, such as David W. Mack, Mike Oeming, Brian Michael Bendis, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. It was here that Quesada illustrated a Daredevil story with film director and comic nut, Kevin Smith.

Several of his page compositions, even from early work, reflect the art nouveau style of Alphonse Mucha, a Czech artist who lived in the late 19th and early 20th Century and inform and influence the work of other artists in comics such as Adam Hughes. Mucha applied a latticework to his compositions designed to draw out a central figure at it’s heart. Quesada does the same, only applies the same theory to multiple panels and incorporating story pacing and the writer’s script – something that any artist who has worked hard to incorporate story, style, emphasis and balance to any page can tell you is difficult without the additional stylistic demands of art nouveau embellishment and flurries of abstract additions to the page. A clear example of this is in Daredevil Volume 2 1-11 (with Kevin Smith), one of the finest examples of comic book art to appear in a fringe title already made famous for bleeding edge artwork and innovation.

Quesada became the first ever artist editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics in 2000, following on from Bob Harras’ tenure in the same position.Taking the positiohn at the same time as Bill Jemas succeeded as President of the Company saw the inclusion of the Ultimates line; a set of series delberately separated from the main continuity, furthering Quesadas philosophy of experimentation. Marvel had become a commercial giant and fallen from grace some years previously, something that had generated decisions by his predecessor Harras that were predominantly commercially minded. In the time they were made they were undoubtedly the right choices. The greatest of these was at the height of the collapse of comic book collecting in the 90s, when Quesada was cutting his teeth on X-Factor with Peter David. The decision was made that all titles over 100 outside of the still commercially credible X-Men series was to be rebooted back to issue 1 in order to create collectability, effectively rebooting interest in the titles – something DC have done recently. Quesada reversed this while still retaining the Volume 2 number on the front cover, mainstays and long standing books now carry a second, smaller number that denotes the total number of issues the title has enjoyed. This gives back a note of historical credibility to titles such as Fantastic Four, Avengers and Spider-man that had been removed previously.

However, Quesada also saw through a plan that attracted a great deal of criticism and arguably was more damaging than a simple relaunch of a title. He had the Spider-man continuity retconned removing the marriage of Peter Parker to Mary Jane, the youthing of Peter Parker and all associated developments collected by fans removed in a single creative decision. The method, a spell cast by Mephisto to erase the history of Peter Parker also smacked of hurried and an ill-considered lack of concern for story and plausibility in favour of editorial policy which admittedly did Quesada little favours. The level of condemnation prompted Quesada to do a number of interviews to discuss the issue of the removal of the marriage between Parker and Watson, in which he applauded the title Spider-girl in which the marriage survived. Spider-girl was later to be cancelled in 2010.

It is Quesada’s willingness to adjust policy and meet with fans and maintain a forum that sets Quesada apart, as well as the fact that Quesada’s decisions are almost universally based on creative policy and not driven by commercialism – a choice perhaps admittedly denied Bob Harras in the same position.

Another brave decision by Quesada was the ‘dead is dead’ policy across all Marvel titles in which Quesada introduced a moritorium on the all-too-common death/ resurrection of major and minor characters. This was intended to create a greater sense of consequence and meaning to the death of characters, the implication being that the removal of them would result in them never being seen again. Following a series of deaths and subsequent resurrections, Quesada was further questioned on the strength of his intention and he clarified that the policy was for writers to exercise forethought and caution before killing off characters or resurrecting them, so that such plots would not be produced too frequently or without gravitas, and not that it entirely be prohibited.

On February 10, 2010, Quesada apologised and changed panels in Captain America 602 in response to complaints from the conservative Tea Party Movement in America that they were depicted in a rally with Cap’s partner Falcon saying he wouldn’t be welcomed by a crowd of ‘angry white folks’.

Quesada was a great editor for Marvel. He steered a ship that was growing in popularity and made the transition to Entertainment giant and cinema gold seamless and natural. While Marvel comics is economically the bottom of the pile in all of that, dwarfed by the sheer scale of budget and ticket sales from the movies. Marvel has held fast and met the added scrutiny well. Events have run smoothly and included the rest of the titles very effectively.

But it’s as an artist that Quesada really excelled. Abstract, compositional, dynamic, influential and challenging, Quesada was (is) one of the finest artists in the history of comics. His innovations and distinctive style set him apart from all others. Quesada is immediately recognisable. His figure’s physicality is almost always exaggerated, dynamism and strength of compositional angles draw in the eye. Clarity is achieved through clear line work in oblique and unusual angles. Features are extended and contorted to emphasise emotion and effort in battle sequences. Battle sequences themselves are whirlpools of motion and energy. More than that, as a technician he is near flawless. At some point Quesada made a transition from pencil and ink to more sophisticated computer draftsmanship technology but there is no sign of that happening. His work never altered in temperament or design. That is the mark of a true professional. Quesada is a master of the form but also master of his tools. Few are more capable of knowing when a piece is complete or as obsessive and precise about their objectives. That is why Quesada will always be a popular artist and a pair of safe hands.

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