Marvel.com presents an Oral History of Marvel Knights

"Hey Stan, how do you create a perfect Marvel hero?”

Joe Quesada (co-founder/co-editor, Marvel Knights; artist, Daredevil): I’ll tell you a quick Stan Lee story. I’ve told it many, many times.

Jimmy Palmiotti (co-founder/co-editor, Marvel Knights; inker, Daredevil and Punisher): Not…that story?

Quesada: No, no, not that one. [Laughs]

This happened in the Marvel Knights office… I'd gotten all four pitches for all of the books, right? We’re sitting there and I’m panicked because we’re going to edit our first Marvel books. If these things don’t fly, I don’t know what happens to us, but the industry is in really bad shape. So I cold-called Stan Lee. And he did not know me from anyone.

Later on, people at Marvel were really upset that I just cold-called Stan Lee. They really were like, “How did you…how could you do that?”

Palmiotti: We didn’t know the rules, conveniently.

Quesada: I call up Stan, and Stan is like, “Hey, Joey! How are ya?”

Christopher Priest (writer, Black Panther): He really did talk like that.

Quesada: And I explained the situation. And he says, “Send them to me right now, and I’ll go over all of them.” I’m like wow, okay, cool. I send Stan the outlines and he gets back to me the next day, and he’s breaking all of these down. He’s like, “Here’s the good, here’s the bad,” in the most stealthy and practical ways.

I’m thinking, "Wow... I just got schooled by Stan Lee." And for the most part, he really loved the stuff that was there.

And then I facetiously, literally, asked him, “Hey Stan, how do you create a perfect Marvel hero?”

And he said, “I’m gonna tell ya, Joey!”

He said, “So imagine Spider-Man in his red and blue suit. And he’s at the precipice of a building. And he’s looking out at the cavernous city ahead of him. And the wind is blowing. Maybe there’s some rain coming down. He Thwips! his web, and he swings across the city... That’s a pretty good scene. Right, Joey?”

And I’m like, “Yeah. That’s a pretty good scene.”

Then he said, “But tell me who is inside that suit. Tell me who he loves. Tell me who loves him. Tell me what he does for a living. Tell me what his struggles are. Tell me what his pains are, what he dreams of. Now, when he Thwips! that web and jumps across the city, our hearts are inside that suit and they clutch. Because we’re either him, or we know somebody just like him.”

And I never forgot that lesson to this day.

Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti founded indie comic book publisher Event Comics in 1994. Artists, collaborators, and friends, the two enjoyed success with their young company despite the difficulties that plagued comics at the time.

In the wake of the comic book boom of the 1980s, the mid-1990s saw the industry crash, and the aftermath shook the foundations of even the mightiest publishers—even Marvel Comics.

Facing bankruptcy and struggling to maintain a solid foothold in the new landscape, Marvel contracted Quesada and Palmiotti to take creative control of a selection of characters, utilizing the approach to the medium that brought success to Event Comics. The new imprint was called Marvel Knights.

The small group hired the creative teams, edited the stories, and brought their indie ethos to the House of Ideas. And beginning in 1998, the reinvented Daredevil, Black Panther, Punisher, and Inhumans series were released for the world to read.

To mark two decades since the start of the now-legendary imprint, we’ve spoken to the people that brought it to life—and Marvel Comics back from the dead.

This is the story of Marvel Knights.

Chapter 1: Chapter 11

Kevin Smith (writer, Daredevil): It was tough times, dark days, particularly at Marvel.

Quesada: You have to frame it under the umbrella of what the comic book world was going through at this point: we were on the edge of extinction. And you really got that sense, or we really got that sense, from hanging out with people at Marvel. Because they were seeing the sales figures come in, and they weren’t just watching sales drop. They were watching stores cease to exist, I mean like franchises. Gone. Hundreds and hundreds of stores closing, distributors closing.

Christopher Golden (co-writer, Punisher): There was corporate problem and a potential corporate dissolution of the cohesiveness of the Marvel Universe as a fictional universe, so that’s what was going on in comics when Marvel Knights happened.

Tom Sniegoski (co-writer, Punisher): Punisher was cancelled.

Quesada: And Inhumans did not have a book. Daredevil was one issue from being cancelled when this stuff got started. And that title’s never been cancelled before.

You'd say, well, surely, this is the month where it hits rock bottom. And then the next month would be worse. So, you know, it got to the point where the conventional thinking was that rock bottom would be zero and everybody shuttering. And Marvel would sell off the assets, and that would be the end of it.

Smith: At one point, you could move a million comic books in a month like of one particular title. Even more than that! And then the marketplace collapsed. The bubble burst.

Quesada: Clearly one of our pet peeves was that anytime Marvel had something that really took hold and struck fans between the eyes, they thought, “Oh my god. It’s gold,” and what would happen is that next month they’d produced ten times that thing, until it was dead.

Smith: They had gimmicked the marketplace to such a point where it had grown, it ballooned.

Quesada: Until they just killed the golden goose because it was overkill. But in all fairness, it wasn’t just Marvel; DC was culpable too, as were other publishers. It was gold rush, I think as an industry we tend to focus on Marvel because they were the top publisher, but everyone the entire industry was responsible for the making of this perfect storm—us included.

Smith: Essentially, all those speculators who had jumped into the marketplace because they thought, “I think if I buy these comic books, I’ll be able to afford my kid’s college one day.” Amazing Fantasy #15, Spider-Man’s first appearance, is valuable because there aren’t a lot of copies left in the world.

So people would invest and buy huge numbers, but they all left eventually when they realized, “Oh. You can’t make money on comics.” You can make money on old comics, but comics are about joy, not money, dammit. So they all left. And all that was left were the fans.

Jimmy and Joe
Jimmy and Joe

Dinner with Joey Squid

Smith: So the Marvel brand is about, I don’t know, what, 10 years away from [Marvel Studios’] “Iron Man”? From the rebirth, the renaissance of Marvel. So, in that moment of darkness comes opportunity…where Marvel lets Jimmy and Joe take a handful of titles and go edit them and create the books themselves.

Palmiotti: Marvel was looking to shake things up, to try something new. They were cancelling a bunch of books and everything. Joe Calamari, who was the President of Marvel Comics—I went in the initial meeting, when we went just to meet him to say hello, and then the second time I went with Joe.

Quesada: Without Joe being in a position of just throwing stuff against the wall, this would never have happened.

Palmiotti: It was Joe Calamari telling us how great we did, for two guys, with Event Comics making a lot of noise and getting a lot of exposure. So when we sat down with him, he knew who we were and we started discussing something like Heroes Reborn.

Smith: Heroes Reborn, I think, had happened prior to this where the Image kids who had left, the prodigal sons were given a pocket universe to play in featuring some of the greatest Marvel characters, and then after a year or less they brought them back and it was done. So, there was a precedent of sorts, right? Where Marvel would say, “We’re going to let the creatives be in charge of these titles.” So, Jimmy and Joe had finagled it somehow.

Quesada: Joe had dinner with Jimmy and I. It was somewhere local. There was an Italian restaurant near Marvel that everybody used to go to. It was the go-to place. I think we met there with Joey Squid [AKA Joe Calamari]. It was a great conversation. We really hit it off.

Smith: You know, mind you, these kids [Jimmy and Joe] were hotter than hot, right? They had their own independent comic books: Ash, Painkiller Jane. Everything that Event Comics put out, they were selling record numbers with at that time.

Quesada: What he had heard about us is that we were clearly a small company, and that was true. There were three of us. It was myself, Jimmy, and our managing editor Nanci Dakesian—who later would become my wife…the managing editor of my life. [Laughs]

We just tried to treat people fairly, throw some fun parties, shake some hands, kiss some babies, and hopefully get some free press. And he kind of dug that. He sent us home and basically said, “Look. Come back with a plan. Tell me what you want to do. We’d like to get you to do some books. What’s the plan?”

“Make us Co-Editors in Chief!”

Quesada: Jimmy said, “Okay, so, what do we want to do?”

I said, “Well, you know, we’re going to ask for four books.”

Palmiotti: We had the conversation again with what characters would they give us, and so on and so forth.

Quesada: [I told Jimmy,] so when we meet with Joe, we’re going to ask for everything. We’re going to ask if he wants us to fix Marvel, we’ll fix Marvel. We have a plan: make us Co-Editors in Chief. Give us all the books. We’ll fix this thing. And he was laughing, he was like, “You’re crazy.”

Of course, he’s not going to do that; but if we ask for that, when we ask for just four books, he really won’t blink.

So that’s exactly what we did. We marched into our second meeting with Joe and he asked us if we had formulated a plan to pitch him, I nodded and told him that we’d be happy to be co-Editors in Chief and that we’d fix the whole place. Joe laughed and said, “Well, that’s not going to happen. So what do you really want?”

Palmiotti: We said these are the characters we’re interested in, we would like to have an office in the building, and we’d like to work with Marvel editorial.

Quesada: We said, “We want to be in-house. We don’t want to do this remotely. We’re four blocks away, but we don’t want to do this remotely because we feel that there’s a sense of camaraderie. We don’t just want people to think that we’re these outside guys. We’re true blue Marvel guys."

Palmiotti: And then they came back with us—okay, here’s what you’d have to do. You’d have four titles. You’d get bonuses for getting things in on time. You wouldn’t get the bonuses if you didn’t get books in on time. Here’s how much you get per book, so that’s how much you have to spend on each team.

So that opened up all the conversations where Joe and I started looking around us and seeing the people that we know, and how to bring them in, and what characters would fit them the best.

Quesada: They’re not going to give us Spider-Man. They’re not going to give us X-Men. They’re going to give us "B", most likely "C"-level characters, or characters that were just cancelled or never traditionally sold.

Palmiotti: We asked for characters really nobody was caring about at the time. Part of that also gives us a lot of freedom because when people are not hyper-focused on something, you tend to get away with a lot more. So we had our takes, our grounded, gritty takes on all four: Punisher, Black Panther, Inhumans…

Quesada: But we needed one character that we knew we could really do something with; that had a legacy. And that was Daredevil.

Jersey Devil

Palmiotti: It was always gonna be us pitching Kevin Smith with me and Joe doing the book.

Smith: I met Jimmy and Joe by way of Mallrats. I met them when we had a Mallrats screening at the San Diego Comic-Con in 1995. We didn’t have an opening credits sequence yet, not the one that’s in the movie that most people know featuring all the comic book artwork.

We had a screening at Horton Plaza. A bunch of creators. We were able to recruit a bunch of comic book creators: artists, writers, people we were fans of, to be in the audience. It was huge for a comic book fan. Like, “Oh my God, we made a movie about the world of comics! We got like Peter David in the audience! Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti are in the audience!” It was massive.

So the movie plays and it played through the roof. That night, even Universal was like, “You’re going to do Animal House business! You’re going to make 100 million bucks!” And they were off by like 98 million. But I met Jimmy and Joe, I talked to them that night.

Quesada: The two characters Kevin and I always talked about were Batman and Daredevil, because we’re both Frank Miller fans.

Palmiotti: We knew Kevin Smith loved Daredevil.

Smith: I was out in the media talking about comic books. I already had an opinion and I was waving a flag for the industry, going, “Hey, man, I’m only as creative as I am because of these things—these comic books and Stan Lee.”

Quesada: So we went at Kevin.

Smith: And so they were like, “Look. You’ve always talked about how you love Frank’s run on Daredevil. Why don’t you write some comics?” Now, this was huge. This was everything.

And I said, “Oh! God! Alright! Yeah, that’d be amazing! Let’s do this! Oh &^%# yeah, son!” And they announced it.

Quesada: And he was just in pre-production for Dogma, so it was tough getting a hold of Kevin.

Smith: And then it came close to the deadline.

Quesada: And I think what had happened was that Kevin had an idea, and the idea was Daredevil getting his sight back. Little did we know that Scott Lobdell was writing the last story arc of the previous Daredevil run, and the story he wrote was Daredevil getting his sight.

So Kevin felt his story had been blown out of the water. It wasn’t like Scott knew what Kevin was doing. It was just that it was happenstance. People have similar ideas. So that killed Kevin’s idea and he didn’t know what to do next.

Smith: And I missed the deadline.

Quesada: He kept putting us off, kept putting us off.

Smith: And then, we were a week over the deadline.

Quesada: He started filming Dogma.

Smith: Then two weeks. Then a month over the deadline.

Quesada: We were thinking, “Geez, we’re not going to get this thing.”

Smith: The boys were being patient. They kept hitting me with emails: “Hey! You got a script yet, you got our story? What’s up?”

I said, “I’m working on it, I’m working on it.”

Quesada: After putting this off, putting this off—I mean you couldn’t be more last minute than this—he dropped out.

Smith: I call them from this apartment I was living in—in Red Bank right on Broad Street, right next door to where the Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash is now. So I call up Joe, and I go, “Well…I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this. I know I said I could do it, but, like, I can’t. There’s too much going on. I think I would suck, man. Like, honestly, that’s what it comes down to. I can’t walk in &$#@^%* Frank Miller’s shoes. It’s one thing to read a Frank Miller Daredevil run; it’s another thing to follow it.”

And he goes, “I disagree with you. I think you’d do a great job. But if that’s how you feel, I’m not going to make you do it.”

Quesada: I just didn’t know what to do. He’s a friend, I can’t yell at him. I just felt bad for him. But I felt worse for us.

Smith: And I was like, “Thanks, man. I appreciate it.”

He goes, “Alright, I’ll talk to you later.” And then he hung up, and that was that.

And I was like, “Right on! I’m off the hook!” One less thing to worry about!

Quesada: That was it. Kevin was out. So I had to call Jimmy and say, “Hey, just so you know, this is what’s going on…”

Smith: Then the phone rings about ten minutes later, and it was Jimmy.

Palmiotti: I called him. I don’t remember if it was a message or I talked to him. I can’t remember.

Smith: Jimmy goes, “You piece of #@*%.”

He’s going, “I can’t believe you, man. We trusted you! We asked you to do this thing and you said you’d do it! And now you call up my boy and say you can’t do it, because, what? You’re $^#*@!& afraid? You’re afraid because you’re not going to be as good as Frank Miller? I’ll ruin it for you: you’re not as good as @*#%!^& Frank Miller, man. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try writing it and live up to the thing you said you’d do! I’m really disappointed, man! It’s @#$*%! up. And Joe won’t say it, man, but he’s !*@^#%$ heartbroken.”

Palmiotti: Kevin will probably remember it much better than me.

Smith: The whole time I’m going, “Jimmy! Jimmy! Jimmy!” In the background. So I said, at the end of it, I was like, “Geez, man. I just thought it’d be easier if you guys went off and did it without me and got somebody better.”

Palmiotti: I do remember saying, “You’re a writer. You’re supposed to have a million ideas. You just turn a corner and there’s another idea!”

Smith: And he goes, “We told people you were doing it, man. There’s excitement out there. There’s expectation!” And then he goes, “You’re a part of this now.” I remember that very specifically. He’s going, “You’re a part of this now. You’re a part of the Marvel Knights. And what we’re trying to show them is that we, the creatives, we can make better books than the books we’re being told to make. And you’re a part of that.”

Quesada: Jimmy and I have been known to do good cop, bad cop. Taking turns.

Smith: So, you know, he fed me the Kool-Aid and I drank it hardcore. I go, “You’re right, man. My bad. I’m on it. Let me give it a think, man.” And then I hung up, and I was watching this movie and it was called God Told Me To. And it was about this guy who hears the voice of God telling him to kill people and stuff.

So I called Jimmy back: “Hey, man, what if I got an idea for a story? What if somebody gives Matt, like, the Second Coming to look over? Like the baby, the Christ, the next Christ? So we call the book ‘Guardian Devil.’”

Daredevil #1 cover by Joe Quesada

Flying Blind

Smith: Now, the story took shape organically. The very first script...there was no script. Joe goes, “Tell me what’s happening. Everything you see happen in the issue, just write it down.” So I wrote two pages of an outline single-spaced and sent it to him.

Quesada: It was less than two pages, more like three short paragraphs.

Smith: He goes, “Alright, I got this.” Next thing he did was hand me 22 pages of a drawn comic book that he got off of my two-page outline.

Quesada: Less than two pages.

Smith: I said, “Whoa! What is this?”

Quesada: We were there day and night, seven days a week, cranking out these pages.

Smith: And he goes, “What are you talking about, bro? We’re doing the Marvel Method.”

He goes, “This is how Stan and Jack did it back in the day, man. Stan would just be like, ‘This is what the issue is about,’ and then the artist would go off and draw whatever the &@#$ they wanted. So I took it, everything that you wrote, and just laid it out.”

Quesada: To be clear, I wasn't looking to do Marvel Method, but had no choice. Then Kevin later on came in with the dialogue stuff.

Smith: So I had a blast doing that. Too much fun, as a matter of fact. There is way too much dialogue in issue #1 of Daredevil.

Quesada: When Kevin finally wrote the dialogue, one thing became obvious; I said, “Kevin, there’s way too much here.”

For those who don’t know Kevin, he’s pretty verbose.

Smith: Joe would get…not mad, but he would be like, “Kev, you’ve gotta give me a break.” He’s going, “You gotta give me some space to draw the pictures. It’s a comic book!”

Quesada: So, I said, “I’m going to go in here with a red pen and then send you back your script, because what you have here won’t fit on the page.”

Smith: I said, “Oh…but I wanted to add this. I wanted to add this.”

Quesada: And he got it back and he goes, “Hey man, you’re redlining like 90 percent of my stuff.”

I said, “Yeah, it’s too much.”

And he said, “No, every word stays.”

I go, “I’ll keep every word, but I’ll tell you right now, when you see these words in the balloons, you’re going to see these white areas over the art, covering up a lot of the art. I don’t give a damn, but I think you’re going to feel weird about it because your eye will jump to the big white word balloons and it's all you'll see.”

“Nah, man. Every word stays.”

Issue comes out, he calls me up: “Dude, all these balloons are CRAZY. You were right.”

Smith: When I write a script, I generally just write all the dialogue because I know what it’s going to look like because it’s in my head and I’m going to be the one directing it. But in a comic book, I’m not the one directing it; Joe was the director.

Quesada: But every writer goes through that phase. For Kevin though, it happened on one of the highest profile books that Marvel was doing by virtue of him being on the thing.

Smith: Daredevil #1 launched, and it immediately broke into the top ten.

Back from the Dead

Quesada: The theory behind the characters was, "Nowhere to go but up." So, Punisher didn’t have a series. Jimmy and I had actually cut our teeth at Marvel doing some Punisher covers.

Palmiotti: My first work at Marvel was a Punisher book. I think I inked around 30 issues or something—30 or 40 issues. I love the Punisher, I love the character. So I thought we had to get the Punisher book.

Quesada: We had a real great love for that character.

Palmiotti: We decided, “Let’s do something really bizarre that’ll piss everybody off, but get attention.”

Quesada: We just thought...what the hell. Tom [Sniegoski] and Chris [Golden] were just creative friends we’d known for a while.

Golden: Essentially, my phone rang one day and it was Joe, and he explained what they were doing with Marvel Knights. And he said they’d gotten about 15 or 16 pitches from—and I don’t use this term in a pejorative sense—the usual suspects. The people who fans would expect to write the Punisher. And what Joe said to me on the phone was, “They’re all the same. It’s essentially the same pitch from 16 different people.” And he really wanted to try to do something different.

Quesada: And they had this great pitch, and it was a horror pitch.

Golden: I called Tom because we’d been writing partners for a while at that point. And when Joe called he was actually asking about Tom and I, together, pitching something.

Sniegoski: And I think at that time, because of the whole weird supernatural angelic stuff, I was either doing research or I was writing the Fallen novels. I don’t know if I was writing them or about to write them, but I can see where a lot of that would have come into play when concocting the pitch.

It’s a pretty simple concept and there’s only so many ways you can do that kind of character, which is why we did such a total different type of take on the character.

Golden: We kind of went from there.

Palmiotti: And we made this demon Punisher thing.

Quesada: Once they mentioned a horror pitch, we thought, “Wait a minute. We don’t have Bernie Wrightson,” who was also a part of the circle of creators that we used to hang out with. And Bernie was just sitting on his thumbs at the time, so we called him up. And Bernie just jumped on the opportunity.

Sniegoski: I met Bernie at a convention and we just struck up a friendship. So I would call Bernie and we would talk on the phone, and we always talked about doing a project together. And then this thing kind of dropped down from heaven. It was amazing.

Golden: And it was easy to forget a lot of times, when you’re working with somebody like Bernie, because you don’t even think about the fact that he’s one of the great comic book artists of all-time and he’s drawing--

Sniegoski: Your thing.

Golden: Yeah.

Sniegoski: He was such a nice guy that there was no problem, ever. You know, I have horror stories and Chris has horror stories of temperamental artists and things like that. With Bernie, it was like nothing. It was just, “Oh yeah, that’s cool. I like that. I’m drawing it!”

Palmiotti: And then I got to ink Bernie Wrightson.

Quesada: To get Bernie Wrightson was a huge get. One of the loveliest human beings on the planet. And he knocked it out of the park.

Sniegoski: And as we’re talking about this, I’m standing in my office and I have Bernie’s penciled cover for the first issue of the Punisher hanging on my wall.

Punisher #1 cover pencils by Bernie Wrightson

Sniegoski: And what’s interesting is it’s slightly different because he has these angelic symbols on his forehead. And on the actual cover of the comic, it was one symbol in the center. On the penciled page, there’s three across his brow. So that’s one of my prized possessions.

Golden: I want to make sure that we also appreciate Joe Jusko as part of the team.

Sniegoski: Yeah! Oh yeah! He said to me that he’d always wanted to paint Bernie’s work, so I guess the two of them got together and figured out that Bernie would do these relatively tight pencils and then transfer them over to Joe. He did these gorgeous, these beautifully rendered covers on Bernie’s stuff.

Punisher #1

Golden: The interesting thing for us was that we were just having fun. We were just being fanboys.

Sniegoski: We’d get together and we’d just spitball. We would sit in front of the computer and we would just write. We would write and we would just bat things around, back and forth, back and forth. We used to call it ‘the pajama party.’

And that would go on all day until lunchtime, and then we’d have lunch and then it started all over again. And there were even some times when I would stay over. Remember those ones?

Golden: Yeah, a lot of times if we were on deadline or whatever, Tom would then sleep here. Sometimes on the floor of my office, sometimes on a blowup mattress--

Sniegoski: On the floor on a stack of newspapers!

Golden: He slept on some on some hay in the barn. [Laughs]

That was the setting for it. But what was really interesting at the time was the idea of taking a different approach to the Punisher that only could exist because it was a response to everything that had come before. And because continuity was super important to us, [we wanted to] tell our story in a way that did not contradict any of the existing continuity. We wanted to release this whole idea of demonic interference in the life of Frank Castle, Hell, and all of this other stuff without changing any of the existing continuity… We got to put Daimon Hellstrom in this story.

Sniegoski: Yep!

Golden: So we were just having fun doing this thing with Bernie that nobody cared about, because nobody cared about the Punisher. But there was this one guy who I remember Joe and Jimmy telling us about who loved the Punisher so much, and he wrote them letters like all the time when we were doing our story about how wrong it was and how much he hated us.

I could only imagine in the era of social media, I would expect him to show up at my door wearing his Punisher uniform.

Sniegoski: Don’t even joke!

Golden: No kidding, right? But in any case, the only thing I can say is that we had a great time. I know, because I’ve heard from a lot of them, that there were a lot of readers that loved what we did.

But Jimmy and I had a long conversation in the aftermath of it, and I’ve told Tom this story many times, where Jimmy was basically saying that it was a really unusual sales pattern because the first issue had sold incredibly well. Issue #2 had the usual where it dropped off by 50 percent, which typically happens. Usually, in a miniseries, the third and fourth issues drop off further…

But Jimmy and I were on the phone and Jimmy was telling me, “Look. You have no idea what’s going on with this book.” Issue #3 sold way better than issue #2, and issue #4 sold way better than issue #3. And that was actually partly driven by the people who hated this thing!

Sniegoski: Yeah, what I find interesting is the fact that I had tons of people who hated the Punisher who read our miniseries and said, “This is great! I love this Punisher. I’ll read this!”

So I think what it was is that it somehow convinced people who never had any interest in the character to come on over and take a look at it, just because of the fact that it wasn’t what they thought it was.

Golden: I loved every minute of that first mini-series.

“Why Inhumans?”

Quesada: There had never been a successful Inhumans series. Jimmy and I looked at those characters, with such great Kirby designs, but they hadn’t found a hook yet.

Palmiotti: I mean, I think at one point somebody said, “Why would you… Why Inhumans?”

And we’re like, “Because they’re cool.” As simple as that.

Quesada: And then, with respect to the creative teams—I’ve known Jae [Lee] since he was 16 years old. He was working as a professional already at that point.

Palmiotti: We kind of just brought in all our friends and we thought, “Alright, who’s going to be the best on what book?”

Jae Lee (artist, Inhumans): The part that got me interested was working on a book giving us as much leeway as possible. It was an opportunity to take some chances and just go for it.

Palmiotti: Nobody cared about the Inhumans, and what’s great about that is there are no expectations.

Lee: I got on the phone with my frequent collaborator José Villarrubia and we were thumbing through the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe to see what hidden gem could be hiding in plain sight. We stopped at the "I" section when we got to the Inhumans and that was it—no need to look further.

Quesada: But we should add that in the climate of the time where it was hard to sell anything, Inhumans never really having a successful run was a gamble to say the least. So we needed to load that book with an A-list talent like Jae. If Jae had turned down the Inhumans I have no idea what we would have done.

Lee: …Who knows, if we had made it all the way to the end, I may have done a ‘Zzyzx’ book.

Quesada: Paul Jenkins came to us through Jae. One of Jae’s stipulations was, “Yes, I’ll do Inhumans, but you have to get Paul Jenkins. If Paul Jenkins writes it, I’ll do it.”

Lee: I really enjoyed Paul's work on Hellblazer.

Quesada: I didn’t know what Jae’s connection was to Paul. So we called Paul and he came into New York, and we chatted. I said, “Well, so, how long have you known Jae?”

He goes, “I don’t know Jae outside of his reaching out to me to see if I'd be interested in doing this book."

And it was literally as simple as Jae read Paul’s Hellblazer run and liked it, and said, “Yeah, that’s the guy I want to work with.”

Lee: I thought he had a great ear for dialogue and said we should get this guy.

Quesada: But there was also the challenge that Jae was…“deadline-allergic,” I guess we could say? Deadline-challenged. At that point in his career, he just could not get stuff in on time.

So everyone at Marvel was just laughing at us; “You are never going to get 12 issues of Inhumans from Jae Lee. It’s never going to happen.” But Jae was getting the stuff in, slowly but surely.

Palmiotti: They didn’t know we had a secret weapon.

Quesada: We had a secret weapon, right? Our managing editor, Nanci.

Weapon N

Quesada: Jae became a challenge for her, because Nanci's the kind of person that, if you tell her she can’t do something, well, be damned, because she’s going to find a way to do it.

Lee: Let's just say Nanci makes good on her threats.

Nanci Quesada (Managing Editor, Marvel Knights): I really don’t like to be proven wrong.

Quesada: Now before getting into this story, we should give a shoutout to Laurie Bradach. She was our original Managing Editor and was instrumental in helping us launch Event Comics back in the day. Nanci had joined up with us part-time as we started to grow and would help out at conventions especially.

After we got the Marvel Knights deal, Laurie—who was based in Chicago—asked if we were okay with her bowing out. Relocating wasn't something she wanted to do, and she felt the transition would be smooth because Nanci knew the biz and could pick up right where she left off.

The big thing would be convincing Nance to leave her job at Archie, where she has been for quite some time—longer than I had actually been in comics at that point. Thankfully, she saw the opportunity and took the leap.

Nanci: I was there for fifteen years. Archie’s a very different animal.

Quesada: So now we have Nanci coming into the world of Super Heroes for the first time, never having to deal with our ilk, which is very different than Archie, and finds herself shocked at the audacity of comic book artists and writers not getting their crap in on time.

Nanci: The artists are not looked at the same way as Super Hero artists. The Archie artists back then were paycheck-to-paycheck and getting paid a fraction of what anyone else gets paid, so they’re workhorses. You give them a deadline, you say, “I need this six-page story done in a week,” and a day or two later, you have it. Because the sooner they turn that in the sooner they get another script. So they’re workhorses and that’s what I was used to.

And coming to Marvel Knights, everyone had a bit of an ego going in, like, “This is who I am!”

And I'd say, "I don’t really care. I have a deadline."

Quesada: Total culture shock. She's so incredibly efficient and thorough, more than anyone I have ever met in our industry.

One of my favorite moments was a day when I could see her out of the corner of my office, she was manic, clearly trying to get something back on the tracks. I thought it was probably someone running late on a deadline, but it was clear she was out of sorts. I asked her what was wrong and she kept telling me it was nothing, she had it under control. Finally, after about an hour of this, she walks into my office, defeated, which is not a look you see often on her face. She needed help.

She was copy editing one of our books, I think it was Panther, and couldn't find the proper spelling of a word. She had gone from dictionary to dictionary, searched and searched, but nothing.

I looked at the script and started laughing, and told her she was never going to find the word in a dictionary because it was made up... Adamantium.

Like I said: culture shock.

Nanci: We were there five years and it took me a good four and a half to get used to it!

Quesada: It was kind of fun watching her pull her hair out. But I would get the brunt of it at the end of the day, so…

Nanci: I like to be on time, so being late for anything—whether it’s a comic book deadline, or an office meeting, or even just a dinner engagement—bothers me. And Joe’s the total opposite. It doesn’t bother him at all. Working with him is very difficult, because he’d say, “Let’s go to the movies!”

And I’d say, “You’re late on your book! How could we go to the movies?”

Quesada: Let's just say I learned a lot and straightened up my act in many respects. Difficult to make up excuses when you work right next to each other and then later get married.

Nick Lowe (former intern, Marvel Knights; current Executive Editor, Marvel Comics): I interned as a general Marvel editorial intern, but I ended up doing a lot of work for Nanci and [Assistant Managing Editor] Kelly Lamy. I learned so much, so fast. But there is no B.S. with Nanci.

Nanci: I remember I went up to Kevin Smith at a convention, and him turning around to me and saying, “You call me more than my girlfriend calls me!”

And I said, “Well, if you got me your work, I’d stop calling you!”

If you’re gonna ignore me, I’m gonna call you more. Just tell me you’re late, or you can’t do it, or something. Don’t ignore more, because I’m just gonna come after you more.

Lowe: Little patience for nonsense, but so wonderful and so generous.

Smith: Nanci is the real unsung hero.

Quesada: She is Marvel Knights. It doesn't happen without her.

Nanci: It’s like raising 30 or 40 different kids. They all have their own personalities; they all respond to something totally different. There was one artist that needed a call every single day. Then there were other artists who, if you called them more than once a month to say, “Your deadline’s coming up,” they’d stop producing. And then other artists needed me to find something spectacular on every page they did.

Everyone needed something totally different to make them produce. And the trick is to find out what they need. And once you know what they need, it makes it…not easy, but easier to get the job done.

Lowe: When Nanci first moved to New York, and was in school and working on Archie, there were times when she lived in her Jeep. She’s the toughest person in the world. So tough that Garth Ennis actually based a character in Punisher on her—this tough lady who ran kind of compound who’s the toughest character that you’ll ever read in a comic book.

Quesada: There came a point where Jae stalled out. He just stalled out. We were asking for the pages to be mailed in; “Where are the pages?”

“Oh, I’ve got 12 pages done,” or whatever it may be.

“Well, FedEx them in!”

“Oh, I can’t FedEx them in, because I need to go Xerox them first so I have copies and my Xerox machine at home is broken and…”

Lowe: Nanci’s a force of nature.

Quesada: Jae lived in Virginia, right? And she kept threatening Jae, “One of these days I’m going to show up at your doorstep to pick up the goddamn pages.”

Lowe: You do not mess with her.

Nanci: Jae and I had a deal, because the reason why Jae couldn’t produce is that he produced a lot of pages…you just never saw them. So our deal was that every night he had to fax me a page of what he did all day. Because Jae would do a page and then get to the end of it and say, “I don’t like it,” and redo it. And then redo it again, and redo it again.

So, I turned around to Kelly and I said, “I’m going to take a drive and go and see Jae.”

Lowe: …You do not mess with her.

Nanci: And she goes, “Okay.” Because she knew I didn’t say anything without meaning it.

So, GPS wasn’t what it is today. Because [after driving from New York City], I was within two miles of his house and it took me three hours to find it from that point. I was driving around. I asked postal workers. I went to the police department and they were looking at me like I was a psycho trying to stalk this guy, because I said, “I need to get in touch with Jae Lee.”

And they were like, “...Call him?”

And I was like, “I don’t want him to know I’m on my way.”

Lowe: She does not mince words.

Nanci: I finally came across the road. And I finally got outside his house and I gave him a call. And I said, “Are you home?”

And he goes, “Yeah.”

And I said, “Okay, because I’m gonna knock on your front door.” And then I knocked on the door.

Lee: It's too bad we didn't have camera phones and YouTube back then. She could have recorded my reaction and it would have been a viral hit and a lesson to freelancers everywhere.

Nanci: Every day when Jae was sending me the faxes, he would say, “Oh I have to go to a copy store and get a copy made, so I can’t do it right now. I’ll do it later.”

And when I walked into his house, there was this big ass copy machine sitting right there and I said, “What’s that!?” He was busted and he knew it.

Lowe: She does not suffer fools.

Nanci: We went out to lunch, and later on when I was heading home, I said, “I’m going to take those pages now.”

And he said, “No, I’ll mail them to you.”

And I said, “It took me four hours to get to the vicinity of the house, and then those last two miles took three hours to find the damn house.” By the time I got there, I was not leaving without the pages.

Quesada: She got 12 issues out of Jae Lee, and proved everyone at Marvel who told her she couldn't that they were wrong.

Inhumans #1

Nanci: After that, he would call up the office. And sometimes it would come up with his name on the phone, and I would not answer the phone. And he never knew, if he was late, if I was driving back down. And he would call Kelly and say, “Kelly, is she in the office today?”

And I’d say, “Tell him you don’t know where I am.” Because then he had to work, because he never knew when I was just going to show up at the door.

Quesada: Jae delivered 12 issues of that book, and knocked it out of the park. I think that as a body of work that was probably the greatest Inhumans story ever told.

The King

Quesada: Black Panther, from my childhood, is a character that not only do I remember with great affection, but it’s a character that solidified that Marvel was the company that I wanted to read. So, there was an emotional attachment to Black Panther as well as the fact that there was nowhere to go but up.

Palmiotti: I’m a huge Jack Kirby Fantastic Four fan. I mean, I have issues #1-#125; all 125 issues. I grew up with those books. So two groups of characters stood out: the Inhumans, which were introduced in Fantastic Four, and Black Panther, which was introduced in Fantastic Four.

Quesada: Black Panther, again, did not have a book, had not had a real successful run.

Black Panther’s the coolest character there is. So we picked Black Panther.

Quesada: Mr. Priest and I have a very long history together.

Priest: Yeah, we don’t have time for that.

Quesada: We don’t, but--

Priest: We met. We fell in love. That’s it.

Quesada: Black Panther was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but you’re the third creator in this because you added so much to the canon. You created the T’Challa that people know and love. There is no Dora Milaje without you. There is no Everett K. Ross without you. There’s so much of the technology that you introduced into the story.

So, one of my proudest moments from Marvel Knights is actually seeing Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther” and knowing that my buddy had—all the stuff came out of your big, fat head and onto that screen. How do it feel for you? You went to the premiere, right?

Priest: Yes.

Quesada: Did you weep like a colicky baby?

Priest: Just a little bit, but I was weeping because I was sitting next to Don McGregor who was weeping. We were weeping together. 85 percent of what you saw on the screen, I really attribute most of that to Don and his brilliance in creating a lot of that infrastructure. Then, I sort of came along and put my little spin on it.

Smith: We don’t get that movie without the Black Panther that was relaunched by Priest.

Quesada: Christopher Priest was a Spider-Man editor here for many, many years. But I got to meet Priest in the early ‘90s when he was editing at DC. He’s the guy—he basically hired me sort of off of the street. He gave me my very first gig as an editor and changed my life.

I contacted him for Black Panther—I think we had talked about it sometime back—but I knew he had a take on it. And then, we workshopped the book and he pitched it once. It wasn’t quite right. He pitched it again and then knocked it out of the park.

Palmiotti: Black Panther was set in New York. I think it was just, “Do what you know.” Me and Joe are both New Yorkers, we knew New York. We went for the ones who we both felt were more grounded.

Quesada: I think one of the comments was that the Black Panther book, as it’s been written over the years, is that so much of it is focused on Wakanda, this fantasy country. And so much of the Marvel Universe where it really resonates with people is when it’s in the real world. So, why don’t we do something fun? Why don’t we do Coming to America? Let’s bring T’Challa here and do the fish-out-of-water thing.

And then we started talking about, “Is there a Kitty Pryde in the cast? Is there an eyes and ears and voice of the audience?” The man off the street, the gal off the street, who’s watching this incredible hero do his thing. Because once you can provide a character like that and they can be part of the voice of the cast, you get the layman’s perspective of just how special these characters are. So Everett K. Ross came out of that.

Priest: Everett K. Ross came out of my Ka-Zar series that I was doing at the time. We transplanted him into the Marvel Knights series.

Quesada: While Priest may claim otherwise, Jimmy and I had nothing to do with the creation of the Dora Milaje. I just want to make that clear. That’s all him.

Priest: I think it accidentally became sort of a feminist book. Ross is like the storyteller—he’s telling the story of his girlfriend Nikki, who was loosely based on Nanci. So you had all of these strong women at the center of the story there, and I think that it wasn’t really such a deliberate thing where we said, “How do we make this more inclusive?”

It’s just that Marvel Knights as a premise, right from the jump, was like there were just no restrictions. It’s not the generic white bread comics thing. It’s reality-based and they wanted to make it look as much like the world that we know—particularly the New York, the urban world that we know—as possible.

Quesada: Yeah.

Priest: As far as the technology goes, that I go back to Stan Lee who was my mentor. He taught me visual storytelling. A dear man, a dear friend. When Joe and Jimmy asked me to come aboard, the first thing I did was I went back to Stan. I thought, “Who is this character as Stan saw him?” Stan saw him as a character who was highly technically advanced, he was rich, he was smart, and he beat the Fantastic Four all by himself.

What I told these guys when they called me, I said, “I’ll do it, but I gotta do it my way.” I can’t have Black Panther be this lame guy. He’s got to be this darker, hipper, smarter-than-the-average bear. And he’s got to kick ass.

Palmiotti: And then getting my high school buddy Mark Texeira on to Black Panther.

Quesada: We can’t express enough how important Mark’s art was to that book.

Black Panther #1

Priest: It was a complete departure from anything you’d seen before with the character.

Quesada: The first page, with Everett K. Ross without his pants, standing on a toilet, trying to shoot a rat in Harlem, was priceless. And then the first image of the Black Panther, which was T’Challa in that badass suit and the two Dora Milaje flanking him. I mean, it just defined the entire run.

Palmiotti: I went to the High School of Art and Design and graduated in 1979. And Mark Texiera was the guy in my classes that was this super talented guy. A painter, illustrator—like even in tenth grade, he was amazing. You know? And Mark started getting professional work while he was there, helping other artists.

Quesada: Jimmy and I had always marveled at Mark’s art.

Priest: Mark Texeira is absolutely instrumental in bringing all of that to life visually.

Quesada: He is a force of nature. Mark is just a whirlwind of energy, and he just makes stuff out of nothing. But with that crazy force-of-nature energy comes a crazy force-of-nature energy. Nanci ended up becoming the Tex-wrangler, as we liked to call it.

Nanci: He would come in and finish up the work [in the office]. One time, he was supposed to do five or six pages a week, and he was on the train heading into New York and I called him up. He says, “I’m heading in.”

And I said, “Great, Tex. How much of the work is done?”

He’s like, “90 percent.”

So I go, “That’s great, Tex. You won’t have to stay here that long.” And he’s gonna see me in two hours. And when I went in, there was maybe, at best, 15 or maybe 20 percent done. Like there was like one panel on every page done, maybe. An adult’s mind would know that you can’t lie that much. [Laughs]

Quesada: Tex was infuriating and lovable and exciting and magnificently talented, and like so many artists, frustrating! But we got some amazing work out of him and the visuals he provided for that book were just fantastic.

Nanci: As much as that was an effort, he was so wonderful to watch. But that’s the nature of the beast. The reason why we picked the people that Joe and Jimmy picked were because we were all—even Joe and Jimmy and myself—we’re all problem children.

The Penthouse of Ideas

Quesada: Marvel was at 387 Park Avenue South. Marvel editorial was on the 10th floor. But they didn’t put us on the 10th floor; they put us in... ‘the penthouse.’

Nanci: Ah, the Penthouse.

Quesada: The building built an annex floor up on the roof of this building. Basically, the fire stairs in the building go up and there’s this little shack thing at the top of the building. Well, they took this shack thing and extended it out, and built an office.

Tom Brevoort (Executive Editor, Marvel Comics): It meant he was more around and more available, as was Nanci, as was Jimmy, as was whomever they were dealing with. Even their talent would be upstairs…largely because they were working with a lot of guys that you kind of couldn’t trust to get jobs done if you left them to their own devices.

Palmiotti: The great thing about the Penthouse is that it opened up to a rooftop. At one point I had a lounge chair put up there. And I would go out there and take a nap once in a while, because I was working all night.

Nanci: It was really nice to be in an area that had all these windows and you could walk out and be on a rooftop.

Quesada: We wanted to be on the 10th floor, but this was actually kind of cool. We literally could just #&%! around up there, do our thing, and not have to worry about anything.

Nanci: It reminded me a little bit more of Animal House than anything else. It was not your typical office experience, but Marvel Knights was not your typical company anyway.

Nanci: Joe and Jimmy shared an office, which was nice, and we had a spare office that we had one single computer in there. Which was quite amusing.

Palmiotti: We wanted to leave it open for any of the freelancers, if they wanted to come up and work. Joe and I would be up there all the time, so if you’d come up you’d see us in one room and we’d be drawing.

Nanci: We did a lot of photo shoots up on the rooftop. We had people pose for Tex, for Black Panther, and stuff like that. Not using names…but there was some of the Marvel people were posing. Joe and I took a lot of the reference shots for the Daredevil book.

Quesada: We were there seven days a week.

Nanci: Tex disappeared inside the office, too. We had the Penthouse and he thought he’d be smart, because I’d say, “Tex, stop going out on the rooftop.” You know, “Just sit in your room and do your work.” He went out and he’d be hanging out on the rooftop.

So I locked the door to his office. And he was in the office, and Joe’s said, “Where’s Tex?”

And I said, “He was in his office. All the doors are locked.” So I go into his office and Tex is gone! He's just vanished. But then I notice that the window is cracked about a quarter of an inch. And he went outside! Climbed out the window. And I thought, “Oh, that #@&*%^*!”

I was so pissed that then I locked him outside. And it started raining, and Tex is banging on the door to come in and I said, “I don’t hear you.”

Palmiotti: I do remember we threw a party because we wanted the staff of Marvel to come up and see what we did with the place, because we painted it all different colors.

Nanci: Everyone would come up and they’d still be on Marvel turf, but they’d be up in the Penthouse having fun.

The Next Generation

Brevoort: Doing the Marvel Knights 20th anniversary [limited series], this is all just different versions of cover bands.

 Marvel Knights 20th #1

This past fall, Marvel Comics launched a six-part limited series to mark the 20th anniversary of Marvel Knights. Passing the baton to a new generation of writers and artists, Marvel Knights 20th concludes with issue #6 on January 30.

Donny Cates (showrunner/co-writer, Marvel Knights 20th): I was 13 or 14 when the first Marvel Knights books dropped, so I was right there in the prime demo to have my mind blown.

Matthew Rosenberg (co-writer, Marvel Knights 20th): There was a new perspective, a more adult way of taking on a lot of the same themes and ideas from older books. I can't say if it's intentional, or even if it's real, but I have a real sense that these comics were a challenge to lapsed readers or non-readers. They were a dare not to fall in love with these heroes...or fall in love again.

Tini Howard (co-writer, Marvel Knights 20th): Unlike a lot of Marvel fans and writers, I didn't start reading Super Hero comics until I graduated high school in the early 2000s.

Vita Ayala (co-writer, Marvel Knights 20th): I’ve been reading comics since I was around 6 years old. Marvel Knights Black Widow was the first book I remember collecting purposefully, PERIOD.

Rosenberg: I remember a few months into the Knights launch, a guy at my local shop telling me that things were going crazy for Marvel. I'd heard it before and didn't pay much attention but then I happened to look at Daredevil. Daredevil has always been one of my favorite comics and I didn't realize how much I'd missed it until I saw Joe and Jimmy's pages. They hit me like a truck.

Howard: I'd always read and loved comics, but I read a lot of the darker indie stuff that was available at the time, and had a weird four-color idea of what Super Hero comics actually were. But all of the first Super Hero books I read and loved were Marvel, and Knights was a huge part of that.

Ayala: It opened my mind to the idea of Super Heroes REALLY existing in a solid, tangible universe.

Howard: Marvel Knights was really the beginning of those realistic-feeling, darker, character study books that have gone on to be the award-winning mainstream! The look, feel, and intent behind Marvel Knights was 100 percent behind what makes me—and a lot of people, I think!—a Marvel fan today.

Rosenberg: The defining thing for me, was always an emotional growth. Some of this may just be perceived, but Marvel Knights read like a signal to me that if you read Marvel as a kid you could stick around or come back. The comics were growing up with you.

Cates: Man, all these years later, they are still some of the best stories Marvel has ever put out. It's no wonder that the legacy of those books can still be found woven into the DNA of the Netflix shows, the movies, and especially, and now more than ever, the comics.

Ayala: I bought the Marvel Knights books whenever I had the money and could find them, often out of order. I lost all of those books in a flood a few years ago, but I can remember the covers like the faces of old friends.

Cates: It's been an honor to have my name printed next to the Marvel Knights banner.

Rosenberg: I think the big thing we wanted to do was honor what came before, the tradition and the legacy. Grounded, gritty, personal, honest, and challenging work was a major goal. But also we wanted to insert bits of ourselves into the book.

Cates: I only hope I live up to its name.

Rosenberg: You read those books and they could only be made by the specific people who made them. We're trying to do that in some ways.

Brevoort: Marvel Knights was really nothing more than Joe and Jimmy taking a bunch of characters and making those books and those stories the way they wanted to make them.

The Marvel Knights

Quesada: At the time, we were just trying to survive.

Palmiotti: We were just trying to get books out and make them really good, you know?

Quesada: When success like that happens, you're literally in the eye of the hurricane. You don’t know what buildings are getting knocked down and what’s getting disturbed around you. We’re just hunkering down and trying to do the best work we can.

Palmiotti: Getting new readers is the hardest thing in the world in comics, and I felt like Marvel Knights caused an excitement there. A lot of people tell me what it meant to them and that’s really nice to hear.

Quesada: So much of what happened at Marvel Knights—influencing our movies and our TV shows—that’s really, really satisfying. I have people ask me all the time, “Isn’t it cool that your Daredevil imagery is showing up here? Your influence?”

Yeah, it’s cool, but you know what’s cooler? The Dora Milaje. The stuff that Priest created. The stuff that we put into Inhumans that was created. The stuff that was created by the teams that we brought in; that’s the stuff that really gets me kind of weepy. That stuff really feels good.

Palmiotti: It was the right thing at the right time. And as that always happens, it always happens accidentally.

Nanci: We were all from the Land of Misfit Toys. We all worked very well together. You can look back and be proud of what we did. What we did as a team. What we did as a company.

Sniegoski: Personally, I think it reinvigorated Marvel. I think it was almost like those paddles that you see in the movies when somebody has a heart attack. [Laughs] I think it completely resuscitated Marvel.

Golden: It reinvigorated Marvel in general, but also I think it reinvigorated comics across the board because it made people notice! People had to sit up and go, “Oh, maybe we should be taking more risks. Maybe we should be doing things crazier. Maybe we should give creators the opportunity to spread their wings.”

Lee: I think it showed that creators do indeed matter, and if you let us be creative, we'll be creative.

Golden: It definitely felt like we were all getting away with something.

Brevoort: [After Marvel Knights,] Joe became Editor in Chief. Then Joe kind of put the stuff that he had worked out doing the Knights books into operation, across a wider swath of the Marvel line.

The 'Knights' of it all kind of spread out. When people talk about, “How do you define Marvel Knights?”—to me, Marvel Knights is the aesthetic of Jimmy and Joe.

Smith: I was just a big comic book fan, a big flag-waver and stuff, and wanted to do that before I made movies, but ultimately movies seemed easier. At the point that I loved comics, all the writers were British and I’m like, “Well, I’m not British so I can’t get into the industry. I might as well make a movie instead.”

But movies led to comic books and kind of got me to that place, man, where Joe and Jimmy trusted me enough to say, “Alright, we’ll bring you into the clubhouse.”

And we got, just for one brief shining moment, to forge a little bit of Marvel history.

Written and edited by Tucker Chet Markus | January 7, 2019

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. Special thanks to George Beliard and Rebecca Childs for their assistance in the production of this article.