There is a facebook page entitled “Has DC Done Something Stupid Today?” The caption on the page reads “Are you tired of having to comb through dozens of articles trying to figure out if DC has done something cringe worthy today? Would you like to be the first person to know how long it’s been since DC alienated fans?” Call me crazy, but I suspect there might be a bit of bias there.
DC and Marvel have always represented opposite sides of the comic playground, even though the same creators often bounced from one company to the other. Beginning with Marvel’s creative heyday in the 60s, fans usually choose one side or the other, either proclaiming themselves a Marvel Zombie or a DC Fanboy. Of course, in the days before the internet, most of this allegiance was based simply on the characters and the perceived quality of the stories. It was no less passionate. Even then, you picked your side and stuck to it.
As it did with so many things, the internet brought change to comics fandom.
In 2012, Sean Howe published a book entitled “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story”. It is an interesting read and I recommend it…unless you are a Marvel fan. It details the various eras of Marvel and all the behind the scenes politics and maneuvering that went on before all those comics ever saw print. Even during the Stan Lee era there were inter company feuds and resentment over who-got-what-credit. The crucial difference was comic readers had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. We read the books, enjoyed the stories on their own merits and largely assumed those stories either sprang to life via magic, or that they were fashioned by happy, larger than life artists for no reason other than to create legends and make us happy.
Yes, I know. Was it possible people were ever really that naïve?
Contrast that with today’s post social media world. Today, when a writer or artist gets bent out of shape over any perceived slight, more often than not, they immediately tweet about it. The internet reports these stories and often the drama behind the comics is more compelling than the drama within them.
Interestingly, the drama actually serves to help delineate some of the differences between DC and Marvel that currently exist. Both are corporate entities, entirely driven by profit, but their views on just how to make that profit differ. Even before Marvel was bought by Disney, they had been following its model. Marvel, like Disney, views its properties as its primary business, rather than the stories about them. In other words, Marvel makes its money because it owns Spider-Man, not because it makes Spider-Man comics. In their view, the real money is to be made by licensing Spider-Man’s image out to companies who make lunch boxes, T-Shirts, bottle openers, action figures and doo-dads of every imaginable type. The comics themselves? Well, they need to be kept going, so that Spider-Man remains an active property, but whether they are great comics is largely irrelevant as long as they remain out there to keep Spider-Man in the public eye so the property can continue to be exploited.
This is not to say that Marvel Comics are never good. Sometimes they are quite good. But that is usually more of a happy accident rather than any careful stewardship on Marvel’s part. Marvel wants the books published, so they hire people to edit, write and draw them. Sometimes those people who are writing and drawing them do a great job, sometimes they don’t. It really doesn’t matter a whole lot to Marvel because what Marvel does really well is marketing and so they will sell the books with only nominal regard for the content.
On the other hand, DC focuses on the books themselves. Sure, they market their books, just not as effectively as Marvel, so they remain convinced the best way to sell more books is to make them better. There are people who would view this as adorably naïve. Because of this, DC is much less willing to give free reign to its creators. They have a larger plan for their universe and want creators to do their best work, but at the same time stick to DC’s editorial direction. One thing that hasn’t changed over the years: creative types usually prefer to be left alone. So is there any surprise DC’s stricter involvement is chafing some of its creators?
Understand, I’m not completely defending DC. Any company is made up of a variety of people and it is rare that egos and agendas do not start to at least partially drive the management machinery. All I’m really saying is this is not new, nor isolated to DC. Of course all this puts comic fans in something of a dilemma. We vote with our dollars and have to decide which is more important to us. While we love the characters and want to see them continue, we also love the creative teams who make them come alive and know that without them, our favorite stories would never have happened. It would be nice if it was as simple as choosing between corporate product and artistic merit, but the best comics have always been driven by a little of both.
All of which makes me want to go pull out some old Jack Kirby comics. He created or co-created hundreds of characters under work-for-hire contracts and never got anywhere near what most people feel he deserved for them. Does this make his work any less wonderful to read? I’ll leave that to you to decide.
All of my nerdy friends (and let’s face it – that’d be pretty much all of them) are upset over Disney’s recent purchase of the Marvel Comics empire.
While I’m not wild about the implications, I’m not nearly as surprised by this move as some people seem to be. In recent years, Marvel has patterned itself pretty openly after Disney’s model. Both companies have long been more concerned about keeping their properties marketable than telling good stories. That’s not to say that their books and movies are never entertaining, many of them are. But it is almost a happy coincidence when that happens; a means to an end rather than the ultimate goal.
I’ve heard all the rants about large conglomerates being anathema to the making of art. I think too many fans want to view the characters and stories they love as something sacred, as “Art” with a capital “A”. As if the people who hold the copyrights to those characters are mearly acting in the public trust. But large media conglomerates exist to sell product, and as fans we are merely consumers of that product, nothing more. Some conglomerates see the music or stories their artists produce as their product. Marvel doesn’t. Marvel sees the iconic characters themselves as the product. The comics they produce on a monthly basis are simply a tool to keep these characters fresh and viable, because they know the real money is almost anywhere but in the comics. Do you think a successful run on the Iron Man comic has even a tiny fraction of the impact on their bottom line that the movie had?
Years ago there was a rumor running around that Marvel was giving serious consideration to “farming out” the actual production of their comics. Although it was never confirmed, they reportedly discussed allowing other companies to produce the actual comics for their characters, while they concentrated on the more lucrative business of licensing. It made a certain amount of sense, even though it never came to pass. Instead, Marvel got into the movie business and that turned out pretty well for them.
Except for one disastrous attempt in the 90s, Disney has not produced comic books. It has simply licensed its characters to other companies and then reaped the benefit that came from the increased exposure by raising their licensing fees. But Disney’s primary business was never making comics. It was making films. Marvel, on the other hand, is primarily a comic book company that has recently gotten into film making and shown their characters, their “properties”, could be wildly successful outside of the fairly insular comic book market. Is it any wonder that Marvel attracted Disney’s attention?
One of my friends posted that these were “dark days” for Marvel. Considering this is the company that has gone survived the regimes of Ron Pearlman, Roger Corman and Bill Jemas, that’s quite a statement. I personally don’t see that many dramatic changes, at least not in the short term. Marvel has been very successful lately and Disney is paying too much money to mess with that success. Luckily Disney has deep enough pockets that they won’t be forced to do anything drastic to earn back that four billion dollars they ponied up for Marvel Entertainment.