Posted on by Scott Delahunt

It’s been about a week since DC Comics called a meteor swarm upon itself, and things are starting to quiet down. What happened is easy to find; over at Jessica Banks schools you, Jessica and her husband Cam detail the latest problems quite nicely. Why it happened is another question.

A quick version of what has happened:
End of August 2011, DC Comics rebooted its universe, resulting in the New 52; fifty-two monthly titles, all starting with issue #1. The goal was to give new readers an easy place to jump into a title. Commendable, given that comics lately have been mired with continuity porn requiring readers to have near-encyclopedia knowledge of every title ever released by a publisher. Behind the scenes, though, creative teams turn over rapidly; some teams not even getting to their first issue. John Gholson at Gutters & Panels has a timeline of staff turnovers.

The execution of the reboot left a mixed audience. Of note was how female characters were treated. In particular, Starfire of the Teen Titans became Ms Gratuitous Fanservice, while many new readers may only remember her from the animated Teen Titans series, where she was a naive outsider and wore clothes. The blog comicbookGRRRL has a full review of the titles.

January 2012 saw DC adapt a new logo. Rob Barba commented fully about the change at the time. A phrase Rob used, “It communicates nothing,” Keep this in mind. The logo change came over four months after the reboot.

During this, DC’s parent company, Warner Bros, is doing well enough with Christopher Nolan’s Bat-trilogy, but other movies based on DC’s top tier either flop at the box office (Green Lantern) or keep getting placed on the back burner (Wonder Woman). Meanwhile, DC’s rival, Marvel, had finally gotten their act together when it comes to making movies. Fox has a good win-loss record with the X-Men and related characters while Sony managed to reboot Spider-Man. Marvel Studios, despite problems with The Fantastic Four, finds what it needs in The Avengers Initiative and built up to a successful blockbuster featuring Marvel’s mightiest heroes. But, hey, no pressure for a Justice League movie, Warner, even though Green Lantern, one of the founding seven of the League, had his movie tank.

Something to note, though. On television, the animated series based on DC properties are doing well. They’re getting into people’s mindspace. Batman had two more cartoons, The Batman and Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Young Justice was critically acclaimed for its two seasons before cancellation. In the tradition set by Batman: The Animated Series*, the Aqualad of Young Justice was brought into the DC print universe in Brightest Day #4.

Things quiet down a bit. Marvel has success by getting television and movie scriptwriters to work on titles. Notable are J. Michael Straczynski on Thor and Joss Whedon on Astonishing X-Men and Runaways. The idea isn’t a bad one; the writers will bring in new readers, fans of the writers, and teaching the writers to work within the format of a comic won’t be too difficult. The author approached, though, caused problems. DC hired Orson Scott Card to write a digital-first Adventures of Superman. Card, though, is well known for his anti-gay stances. If the choice was meant to generate controversy, DC succeeded. If the choice was meant to add to sales, oops. Card’s beliefs led to at least one comic shop to drop both Adventures of Superman and all of Card’s own works. Worse, the illustrator also walked.

Not helping matters was Man of Steel. While DC Comics doesn’t really have pull with Warner Bros. beyond being a creator of intellectual property, the darkness of the movie, ending with the destruction of Metropolis, didn’t help the publisher. Warner, with the lack of success with any other DC superhero except the Bat, has concluded that all superhero movies must be dark. Or they must all have Batman, explaining why the next movie in the DC setting is a Batman/Superman film.

Fast forward to a week ago. DC has two separate controversies explode at once. First, the pending nuptials between Batwoman Kate Kane and her partner Maggie Sawyer got the kibosh by editorial. As the fallout spread, it finally came out that DC editorial doesn’t want any of their heroes married. However, the creative team left the title because of ongoing and last-minute interference. It’s not like the wedding was going to be a surprise; Kate proposed at the end of the Medusa storyline. Why weren’t the creative people told then that there was a “No Marriage” rule in effect?

The second controversy was the Harley Suicides. Potential new talent to be fired were invited to send in a page with four panels for the upcoming Harley Quinn title. In what looked like a different take from The Bunny Suicides, each panel featured Harley trying to kill herself. Panel four created the outcry. Quote:

Harley sitting naked in a bathtub with toasters, blow dryers, blenders, appliances all dangling above the bathtub and she has a cord that will release them all. We are watching the moment before the inevitable death. Her expression is one of “oh well, guess that’s it for me” and she has resigned herself to the moment that is going to happen.

Yeah. The Bunny Suicides worked because of the black humour of cute, identical, nameless bunnies killing themselves through Rube Goldberg methods. Harley, despite a hairstyle that invokes rabbit ears, isn’t nameless, is one of a kind, and, critically, isn’t indestructible. Marvel doing something similar with Deadpool? Funny, because Deadpool is indestructible**. Harley doesn’t have Deadpool’s healing factor; dead is dead. Eventually, Jimmy Palmiotti, one of the creative team for the new Harley comic, explained the context. The panels were meant to be part of a dream sequence with Harley talking to the creative team, where the team was giving her a hard time. Go back to the contest description again.  Nothing is mentioned of the context the panels exist in.  DC Comics has finally apologized.

Noticed something going on in all these cases? Lack of communication. Creative teams are finding out they’re off a title through solicitation listings. A Co-Publisher got his Batwomen confused. A wedding proposal didn’t signal that a wedding was forthcoming. Last minute editorial mandates. A loss of context on a controversial contest. Are there regular meetings that are being missed? No email? Phones, they must have phones, right? Offices that someone can go to? They can’t all be working in isolation.

A key quote:

“Unfortunately, in recent months, DC has asked us to alter or completely discard many long-standing storylines in ways that we feel compromise the character and the series. We were told to ditch plans for Killer Croc’s origins; forced to drastically alter the original ending of our current arc, which would have defined Batwoman’s heroic future in bold new ways; and, most crushingly, prohibited from ever showing Kate and Maggie actually getting married. All of these editorial decisions came at the last minute, and always after a year or more of planning and plotting on our end.

“We’ve always understood that, as much as we love the character, Batwoman ultimately belongs to DC. However, the eleventh-hour nature of these changes left us frustrated and angry — because they prevent us from telling the best stories we can. So, after a lot of soul-searching, we’ve decided to leave the book after Issue 26.” — J.H. Williams III

The problem is systemic at this point. Last minute editorial decisions that throw off the plans and plots of the creative teams. There doesn’t seem to be any communication between what editorial wants and what the creative teams are doing until it’s too late.

What we can learn, as geeks, is that there has to be good communication within a team, between teams, and between teams and management. The creative people need to be able to tell their stories without having to make a sudden change that, narratively, comes out of nowhere. Management needs to be able to not only set guidelines but recognize when the creatives might cross the line with a plan being developed. If DC’s editorial staff noticed the proposal and told the team, “Hey, wait, we have the ‘No Marriages’ guidelines,” the Batwoman creative team could have taken the characters involved down a different route. If communication existed, the turnover of creative staff would have been lower, negating the need that prompted the Harley Suicides contest.
* Characters Renee Montoya and Harley Quinn were designed first for Batman: TAS, though lead times on both the comic and the cartoon led to them appearing in print first. Mr. Freeze’s tragic background also came from Batman: TAS and has since been introduced in the comics.
** For you fanartists out there, try the same four panels, as described, with Deadpool. Yes, that does mean naked Deadpool.

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