Five Problems Most Licensed Comics Have

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When Marvel Comics recently announced that they would be taking over the Star Wars license from longtime publisher Dark Horse Comics, there were basically two reactions from fans: "Well, I'm not surprised" and "Oh, no, please don't."

Nobody much was very excited about the nation's largest comic book publisher taking over probably the most popular line of licensed comic books of the last two decades. Why? Well, there are a lot of reasons, and most of them have little to do with Marvel, so at least the House of Ideas can take solace in the fact that the Darth Vader-syle "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" they heard that day wasn't anything personal.

So what is it, then, if not personal? Well, it's years of experience that tells fans most comic books based on other-media franchises are pretty terrible. Some of it, probably, is just taking the audience for granted, assuming that between the fans of the property and the fans of whatever creators you put on a book, you'll be able to cobble together enough sales to make it a success financially even if it's a critical and artistic abortion. There's more to it than just laziness, though.

Not even going back to the Silver Age heyday of cheesy licensed comics, I can think back in my own personal experience and remember terrible comics based on The X-Files (though the current one is outstanding), ALF, Chuck and more. With rare exception, it's difficult to get excited about a comic based on a TV show, movie or novel because the vast majority of them slip into the same handful of traps:

fortytwo6Bringing nothing to the table

A great example of this is the Steve Leialoha/John Carnell adaptation of Douglas Adams's sci-fi-comedy classic The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Published by DC Comics in 1993, this authorized adaptation did a pretty respectable job of aping the BBC's beloved (if campy) television adaptation, taking blocks of text straight out of Adams's novels and juxtaposing them next to imagery that, in many cases, looked like it was just out of the TV version (with alterations made to account for the fact that about a decade had passed between The BBC's take and DC's).

It was, then, not an altogether poor adaptation of the first novel in the series (two more miniseries--The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and Life, The Universe and Everything--gave the second and third novels similar treatment). What it was, was totally uninspired and lacking anything that would make it feel like that comic was just begging to be made. Comics are neither prose nor cinema, and attempts to make them conform to the rules of either just makes the book feel a bit flat and uninspired.

Worse yet, it fails to take advantage of the unique benefits that comics have to offer.

The stories feel inconsequential

CHUCK-Cv6For a variety of reasons, including the ongoing concern of a TV series or film franchise, many licensed comics can suffer from a lack of tangible consequences for their events. When WildStorm did a Chuck miniseries years ago, they tried to offset this in the way many stories do--by making their stand-alone, continuity-abstract story revolve around events that would be MASSIVE events in the characters' lives, so even if there weren't long-term ramifications like a death or a change in someone's relationship status, the storyline would be memorable on the strength of the plot alone.

This gets them into something continuity-obsessed comics fans don't love, though,and fans of the franchise may be turned off from if they check out the comics on a whim: You're telling a story so big it should be a movie, and the next episode of the TV series will likely never acknowledge that it occurred or make any kind of reference to that time ALL OF YOUR VILLAINS TEAMED UP AGAINST YOU AT ONCE. That makes the stories feel like, no matter how hard you try, they didn't really happen or matter.

And, of course, you can be pretty sure that ther will never be a character death or major change in status or motivation happening in a tie-in comic--which means the drama inherent to action/adventure stories: the threat of death when Indiana Jones squares off with the bad guy on top of a moving truck, for instance--is totally removed from the experience because your common sense tells you nothing really bad can happen in the story.

The art is often focused on likeness rather than storytelling

indiana-jones-thunder-orientThis one can be tricky: when a comic has obtained likeness rights for the actors who play the characters onscreen is when it's most obvious--but even if they haven't, you can get artists who are big Doctor Who or Star Wars fans who get borderline pornographic about getting the technology and settings just right.

When you're trying to attract the audience for a live-action product into your comic book adaptation, it's always a good idea to have an artist who can accurately depict the main characters and central locations, technology and the like. If you don't, many of those TV/movie fans will never even give you a second look.

The problem? Comics is its own skillset and the ability to draw accurate likenesses of real-world models doesn't inherently make you able to do the visual storytelling part of comics art. And without that, the whole thing will just feel lifeless and odd, no matter how pretty the vehicles and faces are.

Some guys, in fairness, can split that difference well. Jerry Ordway is one such example, and his Batman movie adaptation back in 1989 was a pretty good one.

Over-reliance on scant source material

star-wars-marvel-8-han-chewie-misfit-toysWhen Marvel launched into their years-long Star Wars series, there was only a single movie--not even that! A single script--to work from. The series, though, was ongoing and so after adapting Episode IV: A New Hope, the writers and artists carried on trying to set stories in the world of Star Wars. While many of them were pretty awful and the average was "forgettable," for years Marvel had told more stories within the universe of Star Wars than anybody else.

Unless your creator/writer/writing staff spend an awful lot of time world-building and creating an elaborate official bible, an over-reliance on just one movie, or even one season of a TV show, can turn a comic into a real mess. Its continuity could turn out to contradict the main universe, go in a totally different direction than the creators are interested in (resulting in the aforementioned problem of stories that feel pointless or inconsequential in the long run) or even just being bad. If you've got a movie, 20 issues of a comic, and 18 of those issues were unreadable crap? Well, that will likely give some fans the idea that the people responsible for the movie aren't being good stewards and are putting just anything out there for a few bucks.

Getting the showrunners involved can help offset this; Joss Whedon's early involvement in the early Buffy comics and the work Guggenheim and Kreisberg did on last year's Arrow digital comics helped ensure those stories not only meshed with the existing tales and the big picture, but were good stories when taken on their own. The problem with bringing in help like that is that you can have...

Licensor interference

While the involvement of Lucasfilm has helped make Dark Horse's Star Wars comics far better than anything Marvel published in the old days, they have a reputation for being a bit strict with storylines and creative choices--and they're not alone.

Picky control freaks exist at every level of these types of relationships--not least of which are the people whose entire job it is just to make sure your book is good enough so as not to embarrass the franchise.

In my capacity as a reporter, I've had stories fall through because my interviewee answered the questions, but never heard back from the licensor to confirm that what s/he had said was alright to publish, wasting both my time and the interviewee's. I've recently had fans tell me about the writer for a fairly major licensed comic book who was openly complaining at a convention appearance that the licensor was making it impossible to tell a good story...to the extent that he was eager for his chance to jump ship.

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Those two anecdotes don't come from the same property, the same licensor or even the same publisher but in both cases they're fairly big titles. Titles you've seen before.

So there clearly isn't a balance between defending your property and being so aggressive that you could drive off top talent. Which, ultimately, is going to result in at least a handful of mediocre books. The fact that Dark Horse seems to have mostly figured out the code to unlocking some awesome licensed books that honor the source material is a big reason why so many fans reacted badly to last week's news--even if it was both expected and inevitable.