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DC Comics And ‘The Normal Course Of Business’ [Opinion]

Art by Alex Ross

It’s a rough time to be a fan of DC’s comics. The publisher has made so many problematic moves in the past couple of years that the brand is now as strongly associated with disgruntled talent and unhappy readers as it is with iconic characters like Superman and Batman.

In the wake of the inauspicious departure of the Batwoman creative team of J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman, I intended to write something about DC’s editorial troubles. I got as far into the opening paragraph as noting, “I have to write quickly because there’ll be another fiasco along any minute,” before another fiasco came along – the Harley Quinn try-out controversy.

At this stage, talking about any individual incident at DC as a blip seems too narrow. A good week is now a blip for DC. The company has profound problems, and the question we have to ask is, can it be fixed?

The departure of the Batwoman creative team is typical of one facet of DC’s editorial approach. John Gholson at Gutters and Panels offered an extensive and yet still not exhaustive timeline of writers and artists that were shuffled off books in circumstances that reflect poorly on the publisher. The list of names is extraordinary: John Rozum. J.T. Krul. George Pérez. Gail Simone. Ron Marz. Chris Roberson. Rob Liefeld. Robert Vendetti. Jim Zubkavich. Art Baltazar. Franco Aureliani. Keith Giffen. Todd Farmer. F.J. DeSanto. Joshua Hale Fialkov. Andy Diggle. Tony S. Daniel. Mike Johnson. James Robinson. Kevin Maguire. J.H. Williams III. W. Haden Blackman. Commenters added Justin Jordan, Brian Wood and Paul Jenkins to the list.

Some of these reassignments were presented as logistical changes, and may reflect nothing more than poor planning. Some may even be wholly legitimate dismissals for cause. But enough creators made specific reference to direct interference to suggest that editorial handling of creators at DC is unusually problematic. John Rozum spoke of being “essentially benched” by his editor and artist. George Pérez talked of compromises and broken promises. Paul Jenkins decried “pointless and destructive changes to scripts and artwork” at both major publishers.

Co-Publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee tried to address the problems in an interview with ICV2 back in July. They downplayed the level of editorial interference, and Jim Lee called it “the normal course of business.”

Some degree of tension is inevitable under the work-for-hire model. Creators are valued for their voice and talent, but they must also meet the expectations of the employer that they work for. There will be disagreements, and sometimes those disagreements are unresolvable. That much is normal.

For it to happen this often and this publicly in such a short space of time, and for so many creators to be willing to burn bridges with the current regime, is not normal at all.

 

Art by JH Williams III and Dave Stewart

In his statement about his departure from Batwoman, J.H. Williams III succinctly identified the problem; “DC has asked us to alter or completely discard many long-standing storylines in ways that we feel compromise the character and the series. … All of these editorial decisions came at the last minute, and always after a year or more of planning and plotting on our end.”

A lot of discussion about Williams’ resignation focused on the specifics of his and Blackman’s plans. The creators wanted Batwoman, a.k.a. Kate Kane, to marry her partner, Maggie Sawyer. Nixing the story had a whiff of homophobia.

According to DiDio, DC currently has a policy against married superheroes that extends across the line regardless of character sexuality. It’s an indelicate policy — an absolute ban leaves no room for family-oriented characters like Reed and Sue Richards of Marvel’s Fantastic Four — but it’s grounded in good sense. Marriage does traditionally close characters off to other romantic entanglements in a way that’s less true for other types of relationship. It turns every love triangle into adultery, every break-up into separation or divorce. It creates an ending for characters who aren’t meant to have endings. It’s tough to undo. In superhero comics it’s tidier to reverse a death than to reverse a marriage.

DC would have been smart to make an exception to their rule for a Batwoman marriage. I personally prefer Batwoman unmarried. I think pushing all the major LGBT characters in superhero comics into steady relationships can have a neutering effect, by taking them out of contention for stories of romantic discovery. Yet I also think it would be extraordinary and wonderful to make Kate and Maggie the Reed and Sue of the DC Universe. It would make a positive statement about same-sex marriage, and DC could have sold the story internally and externally as exceptional; deserving of exemption from their anti-marriage policy precisely because of its cultural importance. It would even have gone some way towards assuaging an audience that has come to think DC only cares about two types of relationship — a man’s relationship with his libido, and a fist’s relationship with a skull.

I think DC understood the value of Batwoman’s relationship at one point, even if it didn’t want it to get this far. The appearance of homophobia is an appealing media story that fits neatly into the narrative of insensitivity at DC, but I think the marriage ban reflects short-sightedness rather than malice, and in this instance it’s a distraction from another endemic cultural problem at the publisher.

 

Andy Diggle left ‘Action Comics’ before his first issue was released (image edit by J. Caleb Mozzocco via Robot 6)

The eleventh-hour changes that Williams and Blackman say drove them away can be summed up by a word that has gained new currency behind-the-scenes among comics freelancers: “Unapproval.”

Here’s the way it’s supposed to work: The creative team pitches an idea. The editor comes back with notes. The creative team makes changes. The editor approves the idea. Sometimes there are no notes and no changes. Sometimes the idea gets thrown out completely and the creative team comes up with a new pitch. But once an idea is approved, it’s supposed to be the idea that sees print.

It doesn’t always work that way. Life happens. A real world news story necessitates that a story gets pulled. A change in personnel sends tremors down the line. Two books with two creative teams pull a concept in opposite directions and something has to give. Sometimes a better idea comes along at the last minute.

Those ought to all be unusual circumstances. Smart and responsible editors ought to minimize a creative team’s exposure to those sorts of swerves.

By all reports it is now standard practice for DC editorial to approve a story and let the creators start work on it, only to then “unapprove” the story and demand drastic changes at the last minute. That level of interference is why Williams and Blackman left. It’s why Jenkins left. It’s why Pérez left. It’s why Rozum left. It’s the “normal course of business” at DC.

It’s an institutional problem, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why it exists. Most likely, the editors giving their creators approval have been robbed of the authority to truly do so. It may be Editor-in-Chief Bob Harras, it may be Co-Publishers DiDio and Lee, or it may be someone further up the chain, or some unfortunate interplay of all-of-the-above. Whoever is responsible, they have created an unsustainable working environment.

DC has a lot of talented creators on its books, but even the best in the business can’t do their best work in such an uncertain climate. The quality of DC’s output shows the strains.

The New 52 was not built on a firm foundation. It was put together so quickly that many of the new creative teams were playing catch-up just to keep up from day one. Perhaps DC editorial felt the need to maintain a tight whip at the outset as the only way to keep the continuity straight and the books in line. Two years later they don’t seem to have slackened their grip one bit, and the creative teams are still not the architects of their own stories. There was a famous meeting back in February in which DiDio reportedly promised his creators that the overbearing editorial oversight and last-minute changes would stop. The promise was not kept. DC still does not trust its creators or its editors to do their jobs.

 

Static loses an arm at the behest of DC editorial

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The quality of the product and the names of the creators on the books are irrelevant from a business perspective. What matters is that the publisher is thriving. Reviews and awards matter much less than sales.

The New 52 relaunch did a good job of growing revenue, and DC deserves a share of the credit for luring customers back into stores. DC almost challenged Marvel for market dominance when the relaunch began.

Almost. In the thirteen months between DC’s New 52 and Marvel’s similar initiative Marvel NOW, there were only five months in which DC out-earned Marvel. DC’s growth has plateaued even as the market continues to expand. DC is now forced to saturate the calendar with events and gimmicks to maintain its share, despite history telling us that such an approach exhausts the audience.

DC has done very well in the past two years, but that it’s still number two shows that it could have done better. I think consistent creative teams putting out stories they care about with the best art and writing they could muster might have contributed to further success. I think producing the sort of comics that garner a few decent reviews and a couple of awards couldn’t have hurt. If they don’t want to be the market leader, they’re doing just great.

DC’s core strategy appears to be to court an audience that will buy bad comics. To put it another way; the traditional superhero fans. In a profile on outgoing Vertigo founder and Executive Editor Karen Berger in the New York Times back in May, Co-Publisher Dan DiDio was quoted as saying it would be myopic to believe “that servicing a very small slice of our audience is the way to go ahead.” It’s a head-scratching quote given DC’s focus on male adolescent sex-and-violence comics to the exclusion of most other flavors, but DiDio’s follow-up quote provides context:

We have to shoot for the stars with whatever we’re doing. Because what we’re trying to do is reach the biggest audience and be as successful as possible.

The key phrase here is “biggest audience.” DiDio is not interested in a small slice, but nor is he interested in the whole pie. He wants to narrow his ambitions to the biggest slice of that pie. The core demographic. The generic superhero fan. He has no interest in anyone else.

This is the mentality that drives DC’s overly-controlling approach to its creators. They’re stuck in the ’90s; stuck in the certainty that everyone reading comics wants the same thing. They don’t believe that the core audience is eroding or splintering. They don’t see any value in serving any other niche.

 

Panel from artist Phillip M. Jackson’s interpretation of the Harley Quinn contest page

This is why the other big fiasco of the past couple of weeks seemed so typical of the publisher’s missteps. You know the one. The week before last, DC launched a contest in which one artist could get a page of their art featured in the forthcoming Harley Quinn #0 comic by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner. The try-out page script described the lead character attempting to commit suicide by electrocution while naked in a bathtub.

Given proper context, the page might have worked. Harley Quinn has traditionally been a cartoonish figure, the sort of character who is unusually elastic in the face of injury and psychologically dark scenarios. The page is meant to show the character’s despair at the terrible things writers put her through. It’s an interesting idea that’s actually in sync with the attitude of some of DC’s critics.

The contest’s web page did not offer proper context. Readers had to provide their own. DC used the New 52 as an excuse to reinvent many of its female characters in ways that increased their sexual appeal to men and limited their appeal to women; characters as different as Starfire, Amanda Waller and, yes, Harley Quinn. In light of DC’s apparent disinterest in female readers, fans and some commentators assumed the try-out page was also meant to hold distinctly sexual appeal. They assumed that DC had stooped to sexualizing suicide, just a few days short of National Suicide Prevention Week.

Both author Jimmy Palmiotti and DC have issued statements to reassure readers that this was not their intent. I’m sure it wasn’t; the try-out page feels to me like a valid interpretation of the character. Yet DC has to own its responsibility for creating an environment in which such an extraordinary reading seemed plausible.

As I said, DC appears convinced that it has a lock on its core audience, and doesn’t seem to see a value in reaching out to other audiences. That’s fine. That it doesn’t take the time to try not to offend them is extraordinary. That they are so tone-deaf that they would hire outspoken gay rights opponent Orson Scott Card to write a Superman story, or launch 52 new titles with only one female writer and one black writer, indicates a profoundly narrow reading of the changing media culture.

DC is not wrong to value and court its core audience, but the publisher has 52 titles to play with, and no-one in that core audience is reading 52 DC titles a month. There are other niches to crack besides “straight white men who like horror” and “straight white men who like westerns.” Straight white men who grew up reading comics and want to buy something for their daughters might be a place to start.

With almost all 52 books designed to appeal to the taste of one type of man, it’s inevitable that creators with their own ideas and stories would chafe in such an environment. It’s inevitable that diversity would die in such an environment. I think it’s also inevitable that the audience will get tired and drift away in such an environment. DC is betting that this is not the case. In an increasingly competitive market, DC believes it can maintain or grow its current revenues by placing all its chips on the old audience without respect for the new, for creators, for readers, or for women or minorities.

If that doesn’t work out for them, maybe they can reboot the whole universe again.

That’s the normal course of business.

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