License to Thrive
A number of years ago, I was writing a “Star Wars” project. I guess there’s no sense in being coy about it: it was the “Darth Maul” miniseries, still one of my favorite gigs. As we were putting together the project, my editor Dave Land and I talked about cover artists.
It was a fairly prestigious project in terms of visibility, so there was a desire (and a budget) for a fairly prestigious cover artist. Dave told me he was going to contact someone we’ll call Prestigious Cover Artist. Okay, fine, Prestigious Cover Artist is good, and should bring some additional attention to the project. So Dave called Prestigious Cover Artist and offered up the gig. The way the story was related to me, Prestigious Cover Artist sniffed dismissively and said, “Oh, I don’t work on licensed characters.”
Prestigious Cover Artist turned down the gig, and continued producing very lovely superhero art for Marvel and DC. And there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that. But the part that amused me was the line in the sand between licensed characters and Marvel and DC superheroes.
There’s not much difference in what people consider “licensed” characters versus superheroes. The only real difference is the medium in which the characters first appeared. In either case, you’re playing with someone else’s toys, in someone else’s sandbox, by someone else’s rules. There’s a much, much wider gulf between creator-owned work and company-owned superheroes than there is between company-owned superheroes and licensed material.
There was certainly more creative freedom on company-owned superhero books in the past. As a creator, there was more of a sense that the book was, within reason, yours to run with, keeping in mind the needs and dictates of the shared universe.
It’s a more tightly controlled process now; more books are editorially driven. And that’s understandable, with the advent of superhero blockbuster films earning collective billions for corporate owners. Recognizable superheroes are incredibly valuable properties, not unlike “Star Wars” or “Star Trek.” You’re much less likely to see a lengthy, visionary mainstream run, like Miller’s “Daredevil” or Simonson’s “Thor” or the Wolfman-Perez “New Teen Titans,” on a company-owned book today.
Writing or drawing Superman isn’t all that different from writing or drawing Darth Vader. In each case, you’re hewing to an established look, an established personality, an established overall setting. And in each case, it can be a hell of a lot of fun.
The primary difference is the approval process, in that there’s an extra layer of approval at the licensor level. It’s most often this level that generates freelancer horror stories about licensed books, things like likeness approval, seemingly arbitrary revisions or hurry-up-and-wait delays.
When DC held the “Star Trek” license, there were tales about Paramount insisting that anything shown in the comic had to be something that could be shown in the television series. Essentially, the comic needed to adhere to a television budget, especially for special effects. Aliens needed to look like actors in makeup. There was lots of walking and talking, not as much action. Which of course neuters the core strengths of comics as a whole.
I’ve personally never suffered much grief with licensor approval. My work on things like “Star Wars” or “Aliens” or a character like Tarzan has been quite smooth. Maybe I’ve just been very lucky, or maybe starting my career writing for the Big Two helped me understand how the process works.
No one in their right mind would pitch DC a story that finally reveals Superman isn’t actually the last son of Krypton, he’s really the last son of Zeus. It’s the same with licensed characters. You don’t pitch the “Darth Vader is secretly a female Wookie” story. Part of the job is working within the established parameters. You’re almost always hired to play with the toys, not break them and build a different toy. Now, before you go there, I know that once upon a time I broke a toy named Hal Jordan. But it was at the request of DC, with direction from editorial. Those sorts of initiatives are almost always generated above freelancer pay grade.
Part of playing with the toys is the continuity. When I was writing the “Star Wars: Empire” title, more than a few people asked if working within the expansive continuity was a problem. In a lot of ways, something like “Star Wars,” with a firmly established canon, is easier to navigate than the squishy, ever-changing, multiple-reality continuity of the Big Two. That’s not to say one is necessarily better than the other for the reader. The fuzzy passage of time in most superhero comics is a necessary compromise when characters don’t age (though it becomes awkward when a character’s past is tied to a real-world event, like a war; see: the Punisher).
Continuity for something like “Star Wars” or “Buffy” is linear, and more apt to make overall sense. On “Empire,” I very much wanted to tell stories involving characters like Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Darth Vader; the characters we all know and love. It was actually more difficult to tell their stories, rather than that of the third Stormtrooper from the left, because between films, novels and comics the main characters had very little space in the timelines. But we generally found a way.
Ultimately, the ease or difficulty comes down to the people you work with, at both the editorial level and the licensor level. Being open to compromise, and trusting in others to do their jobs, goes a long way. So does having an editor who is willing to go to bat for you.
I wrote a two-part “Friday the 13th” story for Wildstorm when DC held the license. The editor was Ben Abernathy (who has since moved on to Madefire), one of my favorite editors in the business. My story was a little unusual, in that it took place in the Camp Crystal Lake area, in the winter, in two eras: the present, and more than two hundred years ago. Hockey-masked Jason Vorhees didn’t appear until the final page of the first issue. Whoever was handling approvals for New Line Cinema wasn’t enthused about Jason only being seen on only one page of the first issue, and kicked the script back to Ben for revision.
Ben called me, and after some discussion, we came to the conclusion that the script worked best the way it was, with Jason only on the final page. Even so, wanting to be a team player, I offered to figure out some way to introduce Jason earlier in the issue. Ben told me not to worry about it; he was going to push New Line to accept the script in its present form. I thanked him, and that was the last we discussed it. New Line backed off, and allowed us to do the story as we thought best.
The major pitfall of licensed comics is when the licensor approvals end up in the hands of someone who doesn’t understand how comics work. The process doesn’t work as smoothly if someone involved doesn’t really grasp the nuts and bolts of putting together a comic: what each part of the process entails, how long it takes, how much fits on a page. All that can be learned, of course, but you have to start all over again when someone new takes the job.
Licensed comics often are seen as somehow a less-prestigious creative endeavor than playing in Marvel or DC’s sandbox. From the creative side of the table, I’ve never seen a great deal of difference, honestly. As a creator, you always try to make the best story you’re allowed to make. I’ve had great satisfaction writing things like “Star Wars” or “Conan” or “Red Sonja,” just as I’ve had great satisfaction writing company-owned superheroes.
Licensed books can serve as a gateway for readers who aren’t regularly picking up comics. The first time I seriously followed a comic was Marvel’s “Star Wars,” because I was desperate for more stories set in a galaxy far, far away (giant green bunny and all). Those “Star Wars” issues led me to a love affair with other Marvel books, like “Avengers” and “Uncanny X-Men.”
The comics industry is in constant need of new readers. One of the ways to bring them into the tent is comics based on video-game franchises, films and television. Something like “Adventure Time” or even, lord help me, “My Little Pony,” might not be to my personal taste at all, but I’m glad they exist. Today’s reader of “Adventure Time” might well be tomorrow’s reader of “Saga.” The future of comics lies in diversity, and licensed books are a big part of that.
So… those Darth Maul covers. Once Prestigious Cover Artist turned us down, I said to my editor, “Well, why don’t we call Drew Struzan?” My editor said something like, “We can’t afford Drew Struzan, he’s Drew Struzan. And he’ll probably be busy anyway.” Me: “Can’t hurt to ask, right? It’ll take five minutes, and the worst that can happen is he’ll say no.”
Drew Struzan said yes. He had room in his schedule, and banged out four amazing Darth Maul covers. And Prestigious Cover Artist? As his career went on, he ended up painting a bunch of covers with licensed characters anyway.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts” and “Ravine” for Top Cow, “Prophecy” for Dynamite and his creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.