Why No One Should Be Surprised By the Current Turmoil at DC Comics
I work in comics. Not the kind that come in your Sunday paper, but the kind that have been inspiring all the summer blockbusters for the last few years.
Even with all of my industry’s recent mainstream success, the public’s perception of comic books rarely reaches beyond “Biff! Bam! Pow! I found one in my grammy’s attic that sold for a bazillion dollars” headlines or the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. So you can imagine my excitement when DC Comics found itself as quite the media darling over the last few months—until I found out why.
First, they offended the LGBT community by hiring a writer who was a known and active advocate for anti-gay legislation before eventually burying his story when the artist walked off in protest. Then, DC pissed off nearly every suicide prevention group in the nation with an ill-advised artist talent search that implied a newly sexualized version of a beloved female character was going to commit suicide while naked in a bathtub during National Suicide Prevention Month.
Most recently DC has been pilloried in sensationalized headlines such as Today.com’s “‘Batwoman’ Creators Quit, Saying DC Comics Forbade Lesbian Marriage.” As Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon might say, “Blergh.” Especially since that last headline is completely untrue.
Admittedly, JH Williams III and his collaborator, W. Haden Blackman, announced that they would be leaving Batwoman after a critically acclaimed run. And yes, Williams stated that one of the reasons they were leaving was due to the fact that he and Blackman were not allowed to marry Batwoman’s alter ego, Kate Kane, to her fiancé, Maggie. In a blog post, Blackman and Williams wrote, “In recent months DC has asked us to alter or completely discard many long-standing storylines in ways that we feel compromise the character and the series.” This included the directive that “most crushingly, prohibited [them] from ever showing Kate and Maggie actually getting married.”
But here’s the thing: the creators were not denied their plans because it was a gay marriage; rather, it was because it was a marriage of any kind. In fact, on the same day the team announced their resignation from Batwoman, Williams followed up with a Twitter message that read “To reiterate: Were NEVER told they could not marry because of gay marriage. AT ALL—“ [sic]. This in turn generated an official statement in which a DC Entertainment spokesperson said, “As acknowledged by the creators involved, the editorial differences with the writer of Batwoman had nothing to do with the sexual orientation of the character.”
See, in reality the problem wasn’t that Batwoman was gay, it was that she was a corporate intellectual property that must have its media rights preserved. But that’s not a sexy headline. It won’t generate likes, shared page counts with claps, pokes and viruses.
The dirty truth is, no matter what your profession, you’ve probably had to take some kind of orders from The Man. Lord knows I have. Whether it’s using preferred software, a certain supply vendor, or being told you have to wear pants to meetings, everyone has to answer to someone else eventually. And in the “I’ll take ‘no shit, Sherlock’ for $500” category…we all hate it.
Your limit might be different than mine. I have a string of former employers that will vouch for the fact my “shit-taking tolerance” is pretty low. But everyone has their limit. DC clearly found Williams’ and Blackman’s, but make no mistake: DC didn’t say that Batwoman couldn’t or wouldn’t be gay. Quite the opposite. They want the option of Kate Kane having numerous romantic entanglements and the inherent drama therein. DC has done the same with the heterosexual characters as well.
This isn’t a new precedent either. DC’s largest competitor, Marvel Comics, felt the same way about its flagship character, Spider-Man, in 2007. At that time, Spider-Man’s alter ego Peter Parker had been married to Mary Jane Watson for 20 years in “real” time. It was thought by then Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada that a married Spider-Man made the character stale. Quesada stated the following in an interview with Comic Book Resources:
Sometimes when I look at the way that the lines of opinion have been drawn in comics about the marriage [between Spider-Man and Mary Jane], I see the argument falling into two basic camps…On one side, there is a contingency of fandom that wants Peter to age along with them and live life as they do. He needs to get married, have kids, then grandkids, and then the inevitable. One the other side, there are fans that realize Spidey needs to be ready for the next wave or generation of readers, that no one can lay claim to these icons, no one generation has ownership and that we need to preserve them and keep them healthy for the next batch of readers to fall in love with.
To me, only one side of this argument is correct. If Spidey grows old and dies off with our readership, then that’s it—he’ll be done and gone, never to be enjoyed by future comic fans. If we keep Spidey rejuvenated and relatable to fans on the horizon, we can manage to do that and still keep him enjoyable to those that have been following his adventures for years… At the end of the day, my job is to keep these characters fresh and ready for every fan that walks through the door, while also planning for the future and hopefully an even larger fan base.
At a macro level, this is what DC is faced with. Whatever your opinion on Quesada’s argument, he is correct that the job of an Editor-in-Chief is ultimately to ensure the viability of the corporation’s intellectual properties. Much like a CEO is responsible to shareholders, Marvel and DC are now owned by multi-gazillion dollar entertainment companies (Disney and Warner Brothers, respectively).
This directive led to DC’s current state. In September of 2010, DC hired Bob Harras to fulfill the role of Editor-in-Chief. Harras, in collaboration with Co-Publishers Dan Didio and Jim Lee, began working behind the scenes at DC to ready a line-wide reboot of their fictional universe for the express reasons Quesada outlined above. By late 2010, the DC line had become mired in years of mismatched continuity and editorial missteps that made some of their signature characters seem stale and aging, including their flagship character Superman, who married the iconic Lois Lane in 1996.
In September 2011, DC relaunched their entire publishing line in what had been dubbed “The New 52”. It was new. It was bold. The New 52 was a commercial, if not critical, success. And Superman’s marriage was dissolved as if it never happened. Superman was even redesigned by Lee to look more youthful and less archaic, eliminating the “underwear on the outside” look he helped iconize.
However, since the relaunch DC has been plagued with dozens of terminations and/or walk-offs by creative personnel. Most who have been willing to speak publicly cite editorial interference, including changes requested to storylines after previous approvals were given, last minute changes to scripts and artwork, and lack of meaningful input to directions of future storylines.
But anyone surprised by what’s going on at DC shouldn’t be. The precedent was set with Harras’ hiring. And you know what they say about tigers, stripes, and history doomed to repeat.
The following quotes were extracted from the now defunct Wizard Magazine. Issue #22 with a cover date of June 1993, contained an interview with exiting X-Men writer Chris Claremont regarding Bob Harras’ regime at Marvel during the early ’90s. Again, this interview is not from this decade, but from 1993!
The minute you begin to integrate all the various books, the writer becomes less and less of a factor and the editor becomes more and more pre-eminent. The editor is the person, presumably, who knows all the directions, who is aware of what everybody is doing, who can say ‘no’ when people step on other people’s toes. It’s a very short step from that to saying, ‘Okay, you go here, you go there, you go there. This book goes that direction; I want this to happen in this book.’ Suddenly, as a natural evolution, the writer is the person who does what the editor tells him to write the book.
This is a state nearly guaranteed with a line-wide reboot. The Editor-in-Chief becomes the de facto ringleader, guiding the future direction of corporate icons and intellectual properties. Like pieces on a chessboard, they are no longer characters but pawns to be moved about within the rigidity of the editor’s rules.
You may goose in some stuff around the edges, you may throw in a line or a character that speaks to you, but these are grace notes on a symphony that’s being written, fundamentally, by someone else. Why should I-–-or anybody worth the name—waste their talent executing someone else’s vision, especially when you get into the moral question of why the person whose vision you’re executing doesn’t go write his or her own stuff?
What you have now are editors, in a lot of cases, who do not view themselves as facilitators but who view themselves as active participants in the production process. They say, ‘I am going to tell you what the story is. I am going to decide the direction of the book. You will help enable us to get there’––rather than the writer coming in and saying, ‘This is where I want to go’ and the editor saying, ‘Okay,’ or not. If you want to hire a writer to write the book, let him write it. If you want to write the book yourself, do that.
The perception may be that, in a time when you cannot guarantee the quality of the writers, when you have to hold together a vastly expanding, convoluted, Gordian knot, cats cradle of continuity—maybe this is the only way they figure they can do it. I think it’s wrong. I think you end up with a lot of second-rate work. By the same token, none of the people involved—save perhaps the editorial staff—have any long-term vested interest in what they’re doing. It doesn’t really matter what the work is—it could just as easily be making cars. You’re producing stuff, you’re not creating anything. It’s the illusion of creation.
Now, thankfully, it is no longer 1993. Grunge is no longer on the radio, and Scully and Mulder aren’t looking for the truth anymore. But lucky for you, I already found it.
DC currently has a stable of competent, even exceptional, writers with a proven track record for producing good to great work. Heavy-handed editorial dictatorship shouldn’t be necessary to ensure great work from creators you know and trust to hire for your books.
But there’s the rub. Like most employers in this post-economic-meltdown world, DC has little interest in great work. Only, as Claremont stated, “the illusion of creation” where the viability of intellectual property is maintained above all and employees are treated like interchangeable cogs in the machine.
And there’s nothing sexy about that.
Luckily, for creators like me and others, DC and Marvel are also no longer the only viable publishers. Numerous companies have risen in the last two decades to produce fantastic works that rarely have a cape or cowl among them. Admittedly, DC and Marvel still hold the lion’s share of monthly comic sales, but these upstarts are making inroads to diversifying comics and the genres they cover.
Interestingly, some of the most innovative work in that time is coming from the company Harras sort of inspired during his Marvel tenure, Image Comics. When a group of superstar artists at Marvel had enough of the heavy-handed editorial style that was cramping both their creativity and their earning potential, they went off and formed Image.
Unlike Marvel or DC, Image isn’t a traditional publisher. It owns no intellectual properties itself, leaving those solely in the hands of the creators. Instead, it uses its infrastructure to print and distribute comics for a flat fee, free to fail or succeed on its own merit. And while Image has its share of superheroes (mostly from the founders), it’s the genre-bending titles like Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead and more recently Brian K. Vaughn’s Saga that make Image so attractive.
Then there is the Hollywood-connected BOOM Studios, whose 2 Guns undercover cop story was recently adapted into a film starring Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington, and vampire epic Day Men was optioned for a movie after producing only a single issue of the comic book.
In addition, Dark Horse Comics, Oni Press, IDW and Action Lab Studios are all producing top notch work that go far beyond “Biffs” and “Pows”.
And then there’s the internet. No one likes to talk about it and there’s rarely any real money to be made, but if you want complete artistic freedom and you have a story to tell, you can bypass traditional publishers entirely and get your genre-bending story out there about a gay, one-eyed Canadian vampire dog that saves the universe with sparkles from a magical collar. No editors, no corporate control, just pure creative freedom: you, your work and any eyeballs you can get.
And on that note I have likes, page counts, pokes and viruses to generate for my one-eyed vampire dog webcomic.