Posted by Don MacPherson on June 29th, 2008
As was evident in a feature I posted on the site a few days ago, I find myself frustrated by a reluctance among North America comics publishers — specifically Marvel and DC — to answer straightforward questions about one aspect of the business. So it was with some interest when I read that another comics journalist, the esteemed Tom Spurgeon, had a similar experience.
During the course of researching other topics, he discovered that DC Comics refused to include an excerpt from a Paul Pope Batman project in The Best American Comics 2008, an anthology that obvious aims to celebrate achievements in the medium. Spurgeon wrote:
DC was given a chance to formally respond — they were also given several weeks’ heads-up on the possibility of this short news story — and that response was, “No comment.”
Now, this editorial isn’t meant to debate whether or not DC should have allowed the Batman Year 100 excerpt to be reprinted by another publisher. While I think DC’s missing out on a promotional opportunity and a chance to maintain good will in the industry and specifically with Pope, a high-profile, sought-after talent, its decision is likely in line with a company policy to protect its intellectual properties above all else. Declining the anthology inclusion is easier as well, as saying “yes” would lead to some extra work for an editor or two, as someone would have to co-ordinate with Houghton Mifflin on various minute details of the partnership.
So my problem isn’t with saying “no” to the anthology. It’s with saying “no comment.”
“No comment” doesn’t mean “We’re saying nothing.” It invariably means “There’s something we’re not telling you.” It opens the door to speculation, hard feelings and suspicion, and that’s just among comics readers, let alone industry pundits and stakeholders.
Marvel, DC and others comics publishers have media-relations and public-relations people on staff (several in some cases), but for some reason, they’re not relating to the media or the public.
Had I been in the role of a DC communications official, I would have offered Spurgeon a slightly longer answer, maybe something like this:
“We here at DC Comics are flattered and thrilled to have been offered the opportunity to include Paul Pope’s Batman Year 100 among the year’s best comics. The request is a testament not only to the appeal and versatility of an icon such as the Dark Knight, but especially to the strength of Pope’s storytelling and art. Unfortunately, we’ve had to decline the invitation to participate in the anthology due to company policy/legal concerns/in-house discussions we’re not at liberty to discuss at this time.”
The “no comment” makes it seem as though DC doesn’t want to play with others, is taking its ball and marching off the playground. The above suggested response offers no more information than the silent treatment, but it’s positive in tone rather than negative. Furthermore, it promotes Batman Year 100, the Batman and the DC brand in general, and it even manages to drop the name of a DC movie slated for release next month.
In a comments thread elsewhere online about my comics subscription piece, it was suggested that journalists have no business asking questions such as the ones I posed of private businesses. I disagree. Comics publishers, especially these days, pump out news releases seemingly at the same rate that fruit flies reproduce. Marvel Comics issues several every business day; I know, I receive them. If a publisher’s PR flacks scramble to generate free publicity for new projects and second printings in comics-journalism venues (online, broadcast or print), they open themselves up to questions they may not find comfortable. They have to take the good news stories with the bad.
One of the reasons I opted to write my piece about the stonewall I encountered when researching comics subscriptions was the recent online discussion about a real-world discussion about comics journalism. At the recent Heroes Con, a panel discussion about comics journalism yielded some interesting information. Among the comments that caught my interest was the suggestion that bigger comics publishers (again, Marvel and DC) are working to control what’s being reported about their projects and properties, even employing threats to maintain that control. If memory serves, Matt Brady and Heidi MacDonald noted they have to worry about maintaining access to company sources, so they’re careful about how, when and why they’ll ruffle feathers (if I’m misrepresenting that position, please let me know, guys).
What the comics-journalism community — and especially the higher-profile members who actually earn their living reporting on the industry — needs to realize is that Marvel and DC (and Tokyopop and just about every other publisher, big and small) need access to it more than the community needs access to them. Brady was the one who broke the news that the late Jerry Siegel’s family sued over the rights to Superman and Superboy. He still has access. DC (and every other publisher) still wants readers to know about its new titles and initiatives. A publisher will still make a big splash and dole out plenty of information about the next Geoff Johns or George Perez project. The initial scoop might go somewhere else from time to time, but you won’t be left out of the loop.
My day job is a courts/crime reporter. I’ve developed strong and valuable rapports with police officers, lawyers, even judges; I’ve even developed friendships. Nevertheless, access and amiability sometimes get trumped by a story. There are times when I’ve written stories that have angered the police and prosecutors, judges and defence lawyers. I still have access. I still have friends. Eventually, people let go of the anger or realize that the story had to be told, that there was nothing personal about it.
Yes, the publishers and other industry players ought to answer questions, but we have to ask them as well.