This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on October 22, 2015.
Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Why are licensed comics not as good as corporate-owned (i.e. Marvel and DC) comics?
It’s probably best to start this conversation by defining what we’re talking about when we talk about corporate and licensed comics. A casual reader may not recognize that there’s a big difference between how Batman and Darkwing Duck comics are brought into being. But there is a fundamental contrast in how DC Comics produces the former and Boom! Studios (specifically the Kaboom! imprint) produce the latter.
DC Comics is the publishing branch of DC Entertainment, which is a component of Warner Bros., which is itself a piece of Time Warner. It is one cog in a very, very big corporation that also happens to own Batman. DC Comics, with relatively few exceptions, owns all of the characters and concepts within its mainstream superhero line.
A wide variety of other comics publishers like Dark Horse, IDW, and Boom! Studios are independent companies that also publish popular intellectual property (e.g. Aliens, Transformers, and Donald Duck, respectively). They don’t own any of these properties though, instead licensing the right to create comics with these characters from the entities that actually own them.
There’s obviously some degree of nuance to be found in different agreements and within the inner workings of a media conglomerate like Time Warner, but painted in broad strokes this scenario creates a clear division between the two. So why would someone say that licensed comics are less good than corporate comics?
Probably because when painting in broad strokes like this, they’d typically be correct and there are a couple of reasons for that. It has nothing to do with slight storytelling, poorly attempted mimicry, or art aspiring for a photo likeness of characters. These are all problems that can be found within licensed comics, but they also run rampant through corporate brands as well. They’re a failing of storytellers, not the method of licensing itself.
Licensing comes with an added level of editorial interference. In addition to contributions of the creative team and editorial staff, both of these groups are legally bound by a contract to follow specific rules and receive approval from an outside owner. This isn’t an inherently negative thing, but it’s far more likely to do harm than any good. Sometimes you’ll see a property like Aliens be handed to a great artist like Mike Mignola who is allowed to create his own story and utilize the iconic monsters how he sees fit. In a scenario like this you get an interesting comic likeAliens: Salvation.
There’s very little incentive for owners to want to take risks. The value of their intellectual property (IP) is based on public perception and any major changes or controversial decisions potentially threaten that perception. A bored comics audience isn’t likely to raise any waves, but an outraged one might catch the attention of many more eyes as Nick Spencer’s Sam Wilson: Captain America recently proved on Fox News, after Wilson stood up against a bunch of Ku Klux Klan stand-ins that Fox pundits agreed with.
This also comes with the consideration there is not nearly as much money to be found in comics as any other media in the United States. The places where these properties originate, movies, television, etc. are all much more likely to earn owners money. So what’s the benefit to changing things up or courting public ire with a readership that ranks in the tens of thousands in a best case scenario? With licensed comics there will always be at least one more person who has to approve storytelling decisions, which is just one more obstacle for good ideas to overcome to reach publication.
The other big issue is that licensed comics are such a small part of the industry when compared to corporate comics. There’s a reason Marvel and DC are referred to as the “Big Two”. They comprise well over half of all issues sold in the North American market. This gives the publications a wide variety of advantages. Marvel and DC Comics can publish more series, reach more readers, and hire a more diverse range of talent.
Even a widely recognized IP like Transformers can only sponsor a handful of comics at IDW Publishing (4-5 series over the past year), and most of those series feature a massive catalog of characters. Meanwhile, DC Comics can publish that many series that feature just Batman and about 40-50 ongoing series that show off their cast of capes. Even if both publishers are only managing to make about 20% of their comics any good, DC will publish 10 good superhero series compared to IDW’s 1 good Transformers series.
This comparison of DC superheroes and Transformers may seem a case of flying apples and robotic oranges, and it really is. The truth is that all of IDW’s transformers series maintain a minimum level of quality with a comic likeTransformers Vs. G.I. Joe (a double scoop of licensed comics) manages to rock the medium and genre, experimenting wherever possible and delivering a truly unique reading experience. DC on the other hand is all over the board, publishing some excellent superhero books like Bizarro and Action Comics along with complete hogwash like Justice League and Batman & Robin Eternal.
Yet DC Comics still attracts the vast majority of attention when compared to a company like IDW. They are the conversation, which means their best (and even many of their worst) books receive a disproportionate amount of praise and chatter when compared to the true genius of Tom Scioli’s work on Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe.
When you consider how minimal the rewards of producing even a great licensed comic are, it’s hardly surprising that so many publishers aim for safe, reliable content and sales over making what you or I might define as great comics. But even that is changing.
Just take a look at what Dynamite has recently announced for its many female licensed characters like Red Sonja and Vampirella or what they are doing with James Bond this winter. For many years the publisher was known for its classic cheesecake depictions of women, pandering to a lowest common denominator with standard barbarian and horror fare featuring women barely covered by their “classic” costumes. Now Gail Simone and several other very talented creators have been hired to both redesign these leads and move them forward into new stories.
007 “VARGR”, the upcoming Bond story by Warren Ellis and Jason Masters, expresses the best way to approach a licensed comic, which also happens to be the best way to approach a comic. Talented creators are tackling a story that interests them and (according to interviews at least) are being allowed to tell it the way they want. 007 and the Simone-backed reboots at Dynamite don’t “look good for licensed comics” because they simply look good for comics.
The truth is that there’s nothing about licensed comics that make them any more likely to turn out good or bad than corporate comics or creator-owned comics. Ultimately, a good comic is a good comic. The problems between the conception and actual creation of a good comic vary between these different processes though. Changing management at the Big Two and licensed publishers are more likely to reflect what is better or worse than anything else. A willingness to hire great talent, take risks, and focus on story are the keys to making good comics in an editorial-driven atmosphere.
When you look at what DC and Marvel have been doing for the past couple of years and what other publishers like IDW and Dynamite are doing right now, it’s not too difficult to imagine this question being reversed in the near future.