Robot 6

The Middle Ground #5: Sitting Up Straight On The Back Of The Bus

middletrueI’m pretty sure that the first licensed comic I actually bought would’ve been a Star Wars comic. I don’t really remember ever buying any of them, but I remember always having them around (For some reason, I specifically remember them always being around when I was sick, although I do remember eagerly running home from the newsagent with the first issue of Return Of The Jedi, hoping to find out what happened in the new movie before it came out, and being somewhere between excited and upset to realize that the movie adaptation only filled the first third of the issue, with a random SW story and The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones filling up the rest). The first one I remember actively collecting was the Marvel UK version of Transformers, although I didn’t think of that as a licensed comic; my head didn’t work that way, yet, so it was just a comic that was connected to those toys that I thought were awesome in some mysterious way.

So why is there some kind of stigma against licensed comics these days?

Part of it could be the whole idea of “selling out,” as if there’s something less worthwhile about working on a toy comic than, say, Justice League of America, I guess; it’s not an argument that really holds water (Creators neither own nor control either type of book, after all), but there’s certainly that attitude that exists – Maybe the problem is that it’s rare to see top-selling creators at the height of their powers work on licensed comics, beyond the occasional cover? Gone are the days of Walt Simonson and Tom Palmer doing Star Wars (Or, going back further, Simonson and Archie Goodwin doing Alien for Heavy Metal), with very few exceptions. Or, simply, it could be that licensed comics are seen as lesser because they’re not the primary medium for the characters, and that kind of thing is important for comic fans (See also: Why comic fans are so suspicious of adaptations of their favorite comics ahead of time)?


(Some commenter has already decided to say that it’s because licensed comics suck, but that’s not really true; personally, I’d hold recent issues of Buffy, the Star Wars books, Bill Willingham’s Angel or especially GI Joe: Cobra up against most Marvel or DC books in terms of quality. I think there are some great licensed comics out there, certainly enough to balance the not-so-great ones.)

I feel like I completely get why publishers like IDW, Dynamite and Dark Horse put out so many licensed books, from a business standpoint: There’s an immediate audience there for them, as well as a buy-in to a brand recognition that could help grow the publisher’s audience in one fell swoop (or even the comics audience in general – You can’t tell me that new readers didn’t come into the medium for Buffy‘s eight season or IDW’s upcoming True Blood, which is being sold via HBO’s website as you read these very words, bypassing any traditional “New readers won’t know where to find them” complaint, for example). And, clearly, they must be selling well enough to continue appearing. I just wish that they didn’t always seem like second class comics citizens, is all.



One of my favorite monthly books is Star Wars Legacy from Dark Horse. So I agree that there are more than a few excellent licensed products on the shelf.

However, it does not follow that all licensed products are of decent quality. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I suspect my particular mindset is not that uncommon. I have a tendency to prejudge a lot of things, whether comics or movies or video games, based on relatively limited information and prior experience. Is Uwe Boll capable of producing a great movie? Possibly, but you cannot pay me any amount of money to sit through anything he creates. Likewise, in video games, who hasn’t been burned by the sheer number of movie-tie-in games that genuinely suck? Sure, some great ones slip through, but the list of those that aren’t worth renting gets longer with each new blockbuster season.

There is a cynicism, I admit, to the way I view certain comics. I refuse to purchase prequels/sequels/adaptations that are directly related to newly released movies, because it is my belief that these are rushed out the door as quickly as possible to make a quick buck off the coattails of the movie they relate to. I understand and concede that that is not always the case, but I have yet to be so enthused by a new movie that I felt compelled to pick up the simultaneously-released comic book.

I believe Terrence Dicks, one of the Script Editors for the classic Dr. Who TV series, was the one who told writers for the show, “Do not write for the fans. Do not try to make the fans happy.” The meaning was, he wanted them to focus on writing the best stories they could, to appeal to as broad an audience as they could. In a similar vein, go to any Dr. Who/Star Wars/Star Trek convention, and you will be guaranteed to find swarms of fans who have far more intimate knowledge of the fictional universe than those who actually worked on the fictional universe.

The Buffy comic book is not trying to appeal strictly to Buffy fans. They are trying to write good stories in the Buffy-verse. Same with the Star Wars comics. But as a fan, I have seen far too many licensed products of all varieties attempting (often blatantly!) to appease/attract only the fan, the collector, and the completist. In nearly every case, the quality of the product was less important than the ‘Oooh, Gotta Get It!’ implications.

Mysterious Stranger

May 18, 2010 at 4:36 pm

I think it all stems from the quality of the comics themselves. I think licensed properties, at least “back in the day” were treated as shit assignments that were relegated to lesser known creators. Larry Hama oftens talks about the reason he ended up writing G.I. Joe for Marvel is that he said yes when no one else wanted the job. I think one of the reasons for this is creators would have to answer to two masters – their publishers and the owners of the property. Having to promote a toyline or film franchise was the primary goal of the book with story and quality a distant second. This mentality is what taints licensed books to this day even though licensors are allowing for more creative freedom than ever before.

Nowadays licensed books look to be treated no differently than superheroes or any other corporately owned IP like Superman or Iron Man, there are just a few more hoops to jump through in the creative process with a licensed book. I’ve read some superhero books that were real stinkers in comparison to some licensed books. Its all in the execution and the willingness of the licensor to trust the creators to “do right” by their property. The only difference between Batman and Buffy is how the profits are divvied up.

I think it also depends on whether the license is for a current franchise, or if it’s more of a nostalgia vehicle. If it’s current, like a True Blood or Supernatural, fans might shy away because of continuity issues. After all, these projects are forced to “dance between the raindrops” of continuity, as they’re not allowed to affect the plot going on in the television show. So, you might get an extra adventures surrounding your favorite TV franchise, but the stories dont “mean” anything.

Buffy, for instance, is a comic that’s published in lieu of a television show. In this case, the people who wish to follow what *might* have come after the show are now able to do so. If Buffy were still on, though, these comics might not be such a big deal. I don’t have numbers in front of me, but I’d like to assume that the Buffy Season 8 series sells a lot better than the Dark Horse Buffy Comics published while the show was on.

There are a lot of people out there who don’t care about continuity, but a lot of these licenses are for projects with established mythologies and timelines. If these comics aren’t really allowed to play with those, then fans shy away from them.

Brandon Graham

May 19, 2010 at 2:40 am

It seems like a good way to combat the licenced stuff being second class comics citizens would be if things were done in comics that couldn’t or wouldn’t be done in film/tv. I find the idea of the Buffy comics season really cool. I could never understand why they didn’t do the same with Firefly and Sarah connor.

I could see a lot of good creators being thrilled to produce licenced books if they were given freedom to do something different with it. I’ve been really into the idea of seeing comics adaptions taken places film wouldn’t be– like an elseworlds style retelling of the clone wars compleatly ignoring the star wars movie prequals or a reworking of Aliens where they don’t make the mistake of killing most of the good characters from the 2nd movie–even a comics adaption of the William Gibson 3rd Aliens script would probly attract some good creators.

There are some strong business reasons for top-name creators choosing non-licensed properties over licensed ones. While individual agreements vary, most typically if you’re doing work on a publisher-owned property, sure, you’re signing away all rights to the material… but in return, you’re getting ongoing financial involvement. If I write an issue of Major Comics’s Legion Of Dudes and introduce the new character Catface Dude – yeah, Major owns it, but when they reprint it in Best Of Legion Of Dudes ten years from now, I’ll get money from that. When they issue the Legion of Dudes action figures, I’ll get money for the use of Catface Dude. When the Legion of Dudes movie comes out, if Catface Dude is in there, again, ka-ching. On the other hand, if I instead introduce Catface Dude in Major Comics’s licensed book Dude Patrol, based on the Perfecto-Zizbaum movie series, Major’s agreement with Perfecto-Zizbaum likely involves P-Z getting all the rights in the work, unencumbered. There are some very practical reasons for this, but it does mean that if P-Z makes Dude Patrol 3 and throws Catface Dude in there, I’m owed nothing. Ditto for the action figure. And if ten years down the road, Major publishes Best of Dude Patrol, I -might- get some money – but the Dude Patrol license may by then have moved to Fernoogle Publishing, and Fernoogle would not owe me a cent for it.

There are also strong creative reasons. The creative goal on working even on a long-running typical book is to make it seem as fresh and new as possible, doing something that feels like nothing that has ever come before. In contrast, the goal on a licensed book is generally make it feel as familiar as possible, because you don’t want Dude Patrol fans saying “hey, that’s not the Dude Patrol! It doesn’t feel just like the movies!” And the constraints there can be very specific – you need to capture the writing voice, you need to capture the exact look of the lead actor – and that actor may have approval over use of his likeness, in which case you have to worry about somehow capturing the idealized version of the face that the actor has in his mind. In general, approvals can be messy, particularly with currently-active properties.

And in the long run, even if you succeed with a licensed book, the success is apt not to be seen as yours. I mean, Buffy Season 8 is deservedly a strong seller, but how many people are talking about it as showing an interest in the work of artist Georges Jeanty?

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