Comic books may be a fascinating and unique storytelling medium, but they are also a business. Because of this, it may be upsetting but not too surprising to hear the news of a cold, hard business decision like the removal of Tom King from Batman much earlier than his supposed planned conclusion. This is much different than the usual cancellations and shufflings seen over the years. King had well established that his run on Batman was to end at around 100 issues (specifically, somewhere between #100 and #105). For him to now be leaving at at issue #85 – roughly 20 issues before his planned conclusion – is upsetting. But sadly, it is not without precedence. Comics – particularly the Big Two – have a history of cutting creative teams off at the knees. Whether that means ending a run prematurely or forcing changes to a writer’s planned story, editorial interference plays a major role in superhero comics.
One of the most famous examples of this involves DC and another well regarded comics creator – Jack Kirby. Time for some brief history. Kirby had been a longtime artist at Marvel, helping to created Captain America, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four and many other characters. Eventually, he had enough of Stan Lee’s self-aggrandizing and jumped ship to DC, where he would be given free reign to create whatever crazy shit he could come up with. Desperate to catch up to the now booming Marvel, DC made sure to heavily promote that Kirby was part of their stable of artists.
With such a big name such as Kirby in the fold, they wouldn’t overstep their bounds and fuck with his stuff, right? He’s the King. You don’t fuck with the King. Well, sure enough, they went and fucked with his stuff, and Kirby jumped back to Marvel. What he did manage to create while at DC, the Fourth World Saga, is legendary and arguably his best work. However, it may have been even more had New Gods made it past issue #11. Or if OMAC #8 wasn’t that series’ last. The Fourth World as we know it is only a fraction of what may have been.
There’s more to this than DC and various Kings. Over at Marvel, J. Michael Straczynski faced a ton of editorial interference throughout his generally well-regarded run on Amazing Spider-Man. Prior to Nick Spencer taking on the title in 2018, people often pointed to the work of JMS as the modern Spidey. Throughout his six-year run, JMS tore down and rebuilt the Spider-Man mythos. He provided the titular character some much needed development. He gave him a stable job. He Cleaned up and did a wonderful job with the relationship between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson-Parker.
Unfortunately, JMS also had to deal with Joe Quesada, who felt Marvel’s books needed to be shaken up, and that Spider-Man needed to be more “relatable” to readers, even though being married and juggling responsibilities already made him relatable. This resulted in a departure from JMS’ original plan for the story “Sins Past,” and the… polarizing story that is “One More Day.” There are other, smaller things to point to throughout his run that reek of interference. For as well acclaimed as JMS’ run was, Marvel couldn’t help but step in and push their larger agenda.
Speaking of agenda-pushing, does anyone remember DC’s “no married heroes” mandate during The New 52? Here’s the short of it: DC relaunched their entire line in 2011 with an initiative called The New 52 (because there were originally 52 new ongoing series) in which heroes’ histories were started from scratch. Except in the cases when they weren’t, such as Batman or Green Lantern. During this time, DC pushed the idea that their heroes were now younger and more “relatable” (sound familiar?), which meant that none of the heroes were to be married. That means no Superman and Lois Lane. No Barry Allen and Iris West. And for the creative team of J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman’s acclaimed run on Batwoman, that meant no marriage for the titular Kate Kane and her girlfriend, Maggie Sawyer.
As a result of editorial saying “no” and reneging on their approval of Williams’ and Blackman’s story proposal, the creative team walked away from the book. Writer Marc Andreyko attempted to pick up the pieces and salvage the title, but to no avail. To say that there was fan backlash is an understatement, as it was a total PR disaster for DC with fans left wondering what might have been for the character.
Now, editorial interference is often painted in a negative light. However, almost all stories from the Big Two, and to a lesser degree publishers like BOOM! Studios, IDW Publishing, and Dark Horse, have been altered thanks to input from editors. After the Batwoman fiasco, then Editor-in-Chief of Dark Horse, Scott Allie, made a series of tweets about the differences between good and bad editorial interference. He’s not wrong that editorial interference can be a good thing if done in the right way. The problem with good editorial interference is that it’s rarely mentioned. You won’t hear a writer say, “I had this idea that in hindsight was really terrible, but thankfully my editor gave me notes to steer it in the right direction.” Notes about keeping characters consistent or establishing guidelines or expectations from the onset can be valuable to a creative team as they plan a story – especially one that is expected to run for the foreseeable future.
Editorial interference will always be a part of comics that take place in a shared universe. Loyal DC and Marvel fans at this point should come to accept it as a part of their reading experience. Sometimes, a story is going to be truncated or altered because of an editorial mandate. While we can hope for things to change in the future, the fact remains that both publishers are just small cogs in the machine of their respective multimedia conglomerates. So don’t hold your breath.