Why licensed comics aren't taken seriously (and how to fix it)

Comics based on TV shows and movies were dealt a nasty blow from Image Comics. Here's why they didn't deserve it.

A surprise salvo was fired the other day by Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson. In the midst of a speech at ComicsPRO, where Stephenson decried the industry focus on "The Big Two" and pointed out that the fastest-growing demographic is women, he dropped this surprising bomb:

We talk about being obsessed with expanding our audience, but if publishing lesser versions of people’s favorite cartoons, toys, and TV shows is the best we can do, then we are doomed to failure.

Simply reframing work from other media as comic books is the absolute worst representation of comics.

We can invite readers to innovate with us, but repurposing someone else’s ideas as comic books isn’t innovation – at best, it’s imitation, and we are all so much better than that.

And later:

People come to comic book stores looking for original content, because it’s what we do best, not for comic book versions of things that are done better in other mediums.

And even more specifically:

TRANSFORMERS comics will never be the real thing.

GI JOE comics will never be the real thing.

STAR WARS comics will never be the real thing.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that the folks behind those comic titles (IDW and Dark Horse, respectively) did not take very kindly to the assertion that the comics they are publishing (and are successfully selling) aren't "the real thing."

There's a reason Stephenson said what he did, and there's a reason why, 10 years ago, I might even have agreed with him. In the here and now, however, what he said isn't entirely accurate, and with the right people creating licensed comics, it's only going to become less accurate.

Let's get the obvious out of the way -- not one of us gets to decide what is "the real thing" and what isn't. If one person reads a comic, loves it and thinks about reading more, then that's the real thing, pure and simple.

So does that mean all licensed properties make great comics? Of course not!

But that doesn't make the opposite become true. Just because not every property makes sense for comics (or is handled with the respect it dererves) doesn't mean licensed books can never be "the real thing." Plenty of comics have adapted well. If you've never seen Walt Simonson's version of Alien, it got a re-released not too long ago, and I recommend checking it out. Speaking of Alien, the Alien vs. Predator comics are way better than the movies. While we're on the topic of licenses crossing over, the Robocop vs. Terminator story was way better than it had any business being. And if the more action-oriented fare isn't quite your bag, there's a comic based on a movie Jim Henson never got to make called Tale of Sand that will knock your socks off. So, yeah. Good licensed comics? There's precedent.

So why do many comic pros still think making licensed comics serves no comic fan? Well, for one thing, there are a lot of major hurdles to overcome. Some obvious, some less so.

Here's the most obvious problem -- if I had a nickel for every time I heard a fan of a TV show or movie say that a licensed comic "isn't canon," (aka isn't part of the official narrative) I would have ... well, it would be a lot of nickels. Like, I could melt down those nickels and make one really big nickel that I could then use to squash all the people who complain that a licensed comic "isn't canon." Which leads some fans of the original property to ask, "If a comic doesn't count, why should I read it?"

And, all cards on the table, that is not an unfair question. The answer ought to be "Because it's incredibly well-written and drawn." But licensed comics are, in industry terms, a bit of a ghetto, generally speaking. That means artists and writers who are only just breaking into the comics biz are often the ones put on licensed titles. So a lot of the time saying "this comic is really well-written and drawn," ends up a lie.

But that's just the first layer. Let's talk about one of the most successful licensed comics -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After seven seasons on television, Buffy continued in comics, with creator Joss Whedon leading the charge. Season eight features a number of writers from the original show as well as popular writers and artists in the comic world. You might assume then that Buffy season eight was a rousing success. And you would be wrong. After huge initial sales, the issues slowly stopped flying off the shelves. What happened? Well, a lot of things.

The first problem was that people who were new to comics were struggling with adapting to the format. Instead of getting 42 minutes of show a week, they were now getting 22 pages a month. Readers also had to accept that there were no longer actors involved, and that good art doesn't always mean making the character on a comic page look identical to the actor who originally protrayed him.

And readers weren't the only ones adapting. Many of the people who had written for the show were considerably less familiar with writing for the medium of comics. Recognizing the best, most efficient way to tell a story in comics is a lot trickier than doing it in TV. There are only so many panels that can fit on a page, and only so much space that can be dedicated to speech bubbles.

The third problem doesn't have to do with the limitations of comics, but the lack thereof. Suddenly, a show with a budget now can do whatever it wants! Have giant robots that look like one of the characters trounce around Tokyo! Have an entire new universe be created! Have Buffy and Angel @#$% in space! In short, when a license transitions to comics, it's easy to lose a hold of "reality," at least as it pertains to the parameters established by the original material.

Does all this mean that Buffy season eight was a failure? No. On the contrary, it led to a superior season nine, an Angel & Faith spinoff comic, and there's even a season 10 coming out soon.

But the problems that Buffy the Vampire Slayer went through when transitioning to comics represent many of the problems that most licensed comics face. It overcame them because Dark Horse recognized the need to pay more editorial attention to the property and the writers learned to adapt (both themselves and the show).

So what lessons can be learned here?

  • Make your stories count. Even if they aren't "canon," still choose to write about things that will matter to you characters and, therefore, to your audience.
  • Put out more than one book per month, but keep the narrative cohesive.
  • Have editors who are really ready to draw a hard line with writers who are new to comics.
  • Enjoy the freedom of the comic medium, but don't go so off-the-wall that the comic in no way resembles the property on which it's based.

Ultimately, the Buffy comics prove that licensed comics can count and be great. And there are plenty of other comics that are following suit. IDW has had strong writers and artists on both Transformers and G.I. Joe. Dark Horse has kept Buffy going strong and has done a really stellar job with re-creating the original pitch for Star Wars.

And I'd argue that, with that kind of dedication, licensed comics absolutely do work and have more than earned their place next to The Walking Dead, Saga, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and all the others.

What do you think? Is Eric Stephenson right about licensed comics, or is there room on the shelf for properties translated from other forms of media? Sound off in the comments!