A little over a week ago Marvel acolytes found out that their company had been bought by the Disney monolith. Yesterday, we had similar news coming from DC. The comic book publisher will now be under a branch of Warner Brothers Entertainment called DC Entertainment. While this restructuring will undoubtedly bring about new opportunities to the comic book industry, the roots of these changes go back to one of the comic book industry’s worst periods.
Approximately 15 years ago, the comics industry was coming out of a particularly dark part of its history. There were several factors that led to the slow and steady decline of comics as a competitive entertainment media. One factor was the quality of comics themselves.
The late 1980s and early 1990s brought about the introduction of poorly thought out characters, dark themes, violent imagery and an obsession with pouches that drove comics from the hands of children into the hands of adolescents and those in their early twenties. This problem was compounded when companies realized that those new readers had money, and a collecting fetish that had been developed with everything from action figures to baseball cards. These were the years of collector trading cards, foil covers and books that had special prizes inside. All of this took a toll, and comics entered a progressively darker period.
During this same time we watched the collapse of the comic book movie genre. Originally spearheaded by the Batman franchise by Warner Brothers, it was a genre that made big money for all. Spinning out from those movies were there were many animated series and toy lines as well as possibly some of the most iconic performances to date of comics characters, performances that instilled themselves in the memories of the populace.
Unfortunately, the death knell was seemingly cast by that same franchise in 1997 with the release of Batman and Robin. Why was this movie so bad? We can pick out many faults in the acting, casting, directing and costume work. Even worse, the movie was doomed in the eyes of Batman fans because it was out of sync with the comic books. While Joe Schumacher was screaming “come on people this is a cartoon…I want it bigger” and demanding the bigger, brighter and flashier Batman, the comics had embarked on ambitious stories such as Batman: The Long Halloween, which featured the dark, brooding detective side of Batman, or series such as Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight.
After the disastrous showing of Batman and Robin at the box office, DC movies all but stopped. Indeed, with the exception of a couple of smaller surprises, such as Blade in 1998, all tent-pole comic movies stopped until Spider-man hit screens in 2002. The Wonder Woman movie was put on hiatus with Joel Silver for over a decade, including nixing a Joss Whedon penned screenplay which, given his rabid fanbase, would have netted a lot of fans. David S. Goyer wrote a Flash script that had Ryan Reynolds ready to jump into the red tights, but that film was also ultimately cancelled. Warner Brothers threatened to make a Jack Black film of Green Lantern, with it being “rip roaring fun like The Mask“, showing that no one at Warners really knew anything about Green Lantern. Finally, who can forget the production hell that the Superman franchise was in until the release of Superman Returns?
Finally, just this past year we saw the chief failing in this disconnect between DC Comics and Warner Brothers’ plans for films. Somehow, either due to incompetence or ignorance, Warner Brothers forgot they had sold the rights to Watchmen to another company. When you consider the prominence that Watchmen has over at DC Comics, it is pretty hard to believe that no one at DC or at Warner Brothers managed to communicate with one another about it enough to piece together that someone else owned the rights to make the book into a movie.
The crosshairs, then, fell squarely on DC Comics Publisher and President Paul Levitz. Levitz comes from a specific generation of comic book creators. He was one of the first fans turned pro in comics. Levitz published a four-year run of the legendary fanzine The Comic Reader in the ’70s, which led directly to his being recruited as a member of the “Junior Woodchucks” at DC. Levitz’s first professional work originally appeared in a DC’s house fanzine, “The Amazing World of DC Comics” which ran from 1974 to 1978.
Levitz moved on from his fanzine work to well-remembered runs on All-Star Comics featuring the JSA, and the Legion of Super- Heroes. As he was writing, Levitz also moved up the corporate ladder at DC. As an exec, he was the one who cultivated a great relationship with Diamond Comics Distributor and helped bring superstar writers Alan Moore, Mark Millar, Marv Wolfman, John Byrne and Geoff Johns to DC. But his staunch stance on story direction resulted in controversies, stemming from his decision to pulp copies of the Elseworlds 80-page GiantThe Authority. Of course let’s not forget the recent axing of the wildly popular series The Boys.
Levitz said today in his resignation letter from being Publisher and President of DC Comics that the comics industry was entering a new “Golden Age.” It’s one that’s been a long time coming.
It is the meshing of entertainment media, extending comics beyond the written page into mass marketed movies, television and video games, that is bringing fans of guys and gals in tights back to the table. This meshing is opening up a whole world of stories to people who have never even opened a comic book; but, they might do so now if it was in one of those ever so trendy “Graphic Novels”. The importance of these new fans cannot be underestimated, as the margin for success grows smaller and smaller for ongoing titles and companies like Marvel and DC focus on publishing only known quantities. In a perfect world, new readers mean greater sales, and greater sales mean more chances for original content.
This new “Golden Age” is the reason DC Entertainment was created. We have passed well beyond the threshold of this new era of comics. If it is the case that this has been in the works for two years, then the Warner Brothers has finally recognized the need for coherence between the business lines. They recognize the opportunity that is in front of them, and they have seen Marvel Entertainment, and now Disney, do what they cannot: build a brand from a line of comic books that dominates the marketplace across multiple media platforms.
More focus by Time Warner on the specific DC area of multimedia could mean higher quality product in terms of movies, games, phone apps, etc. (emphasis on could) In theory, going forward there could be a voice in studio meetings who will say “Hey, you know what could do well as a movie? This Green Lantern character.” Now, perhaps that voice will know enough to have an appropriate tone and casting for the movie.
In order to overcome what has been a consistent trend of Warner Brothers not remembering that they own a comic company, the newly positioned DC Comics, through DC Entertainment, cannot be just a nameplate that feeds character ideas into movies. DC Entertainment must be a cornerstone of a business line that produces entertainment in a consistent, organized fashion.
There is huge risk in this proposed management structure for the comic book side of the business. If the parties do not respect one another, or cannot communicate, tension is likely to rise between creators of the comics and the movies. Having to hold stories, or organize release schedules to match movie marketing, could be difficult; and yet Marvel has managed to do it. Marvel has managed to produce high quality movies fairly consistently (with some notable exceptions). More importantly, from the much maligned donning of the black suit by Peter Parker during running of Spider-man 3, to the release of The Invincible Ironman comic while Robert Downey, Jr. was wearing a Stark Enterprises tie, Joe Quesada and his team have been keenly aware of how to work with the Marvel Entertainment brands to sell their comics. Clearly that relationship has paid off with the Disney purchase last week. Disney sees the new “Golden Age” that Levitz mentioned, and they want a piece of that pie.
Warner Brothers are bringing in a non-comics person to head up the DC Entertainment division, someone whose closest experience is heading up the Harry Potter multimedia franchise. However, they are also moving Paul Levitz to a consulting position, in theory to actually provide some measure of characterization, story info, and continuity to the new entertainment head. Not a bad choice in terms of DC knowledge for that department, but what does his loss as head of DC Comics mean for that branch?
Remember: we are talking today about the company that built the Golden Age of comics. It was their characters, specifically The Flash, that kick-started the Silver Age. It was their event in which The Flash was killed that is often credited with being the beginning of the dark days of comics. If DC Comics is to remain on this frontier, and if the efforts of Joe Schuster, Jerry Siegel, Bob Kane, William Marston, Gardner Fox, Jack Kirby and so many others are to be more than a list of properties at the bottom of a spreadsheet, DC Comics has to change.
In order to compete, and more importantly, in order to keep DC Comics alive, it has to become a brand, a real brand, with all the glory and baggage that comes with it.
On one hand, DC has always maintained a certain level of focus on brand building; that’s why Wonder Woman will always have a book, no matter how it sells. It’s why the JLA needs someone with an “S” shield or a bat emblem on the team at all times. It’s why they publish entire lines of books based on just a few characters. It has been a reciprocal system: they maintain their most well known brands, and their most well known brands continue to sell, so they continue to push them. A character like the current Manhunter never had so many readers until she piggybacked a Bat-book.
In fact, one hand of DC editorial already seems to have embraced the brand building philosophy. The Legion of Superheroes is intimately linked to the Superman books again, and now they’re connected to the Flash and Green Lantern books as well. Lower selling titles have been cancelled and added as back-up features in the core DC books. The character of Static has been integrated into the DC on the strength of his animated series. Finally, let us not forget the regular crossover events that allow second stringers to interact with the A-list characters.
It is the other hand of DC editorial that is most likely in for a shake-up, the hand that decides to publish books like Magog or yet another Doom Patrol book, or a re-launch of obscure characters once owned by Archie Comics. If Warner Brothers is going to have any influence over DC editorial, it would seem like the bottom line for sales is going to get a lot higher, and that any future new titles need to be justified by ties to pre-existing brands. But this is comics; how is that really new?
The restructuring could and should mean more television shows based on DC properties, as well. Smallville has had a surprisingly long run and the list of new shows for the coming fall include a decent number of sci-fi tinged concepts. Warner Brothers has an entire catalog of such ideas, just waiting to be turned into anything they want, from TV shows to movies to videogames. On a purely economic level, it makes sense for them to at least investigate what they have before moving forward with any new idea: why pay for something brand new when you already have a similar concept in your vault? I wouldn’t be surprised to see pilots for multiple obscure DC properties show up over the next few years as they try to gauge which genres will stick. What are the chances that we see an I.Q. series of some kind? Or a Warlord syndicated series like Hercules: The Legendary Journeys? Or I…Vampire?
In the end, though, this was inevitable, as inevitable as the Disney/Marvel deal was. The signs have all been there. As comic books have become more and more valuable outside of their source material, it was only a matter of time before they got swallowed up by larger, entertainment companies. It’s strange to think of Marvel as some sort of small start-up company, but that’s exactly what they became. They were producing fringe entertainment that suddenly became incredibly profitable, so they were swept up by a company who needed what they could offer. If Marvel’s overall dominance in both comic book sales and popular culture recognition hadn’t motivated Warner Brothers by now, Disney’s move certainly did. If we thought comics had gone pop already, we had no idea. Comic-Con may have to expand to include all of Southern California next year.
So, its possible we will see better movies, games, and rides, or possibly worse. More suits will be involved in any case. Where does this leave the comics? For Marvel, probably not a lot different, unless again Disney starts pushing its “G” rated goodness into the comic pool. For DC, it will likely depend on who replaces Paul Levitz when his tenure is done and his/her passion for the comic properties. New contracts will be made, existing writers and artists may leave and new ones may sign. One thing is certain: changes will definitely occur.
Many more articles are likely being written about this news, some positive and some negative, tons of message board gossip. The companies love it because it generates interest, so they’ll be sure to milk it for all its worth. The real test will be to look again in a year or two and see just how different the multimedia and comic landscape is. Will there be a ton of amazing new comics films and games in development? Will the comics industry be as strong or stronger? As popular comics writer Geoff Johns often puts it: wait and see.