Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Questions and Answers

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.

12 Responses to “Questions and Answers”

  1. joecab Says:

    Translation: this story and art style are not representative of the usual Batman story, so we weren’t comfortable putting it in an anthology.

  2. Don MacPherson Says:

    Joecab, if you read Spurgeon’s full report, I think you’ll find that the result would likely have been the same regardless of which DC story/character had been selected for inclusion.

  3. Simon DelMonte Says:

    I work in non-profit PR, and have to add that “no comment” has never been a phrase we use. We try to be forthcoming, and when we can’t, we are never dismissive. It’s not always easy, but it helps us not look like we are stonewalling and aids in our reputation down the line.

  4. Evan Says:

    Unfortunately this is why I tend to view the companies nowadays only seeing the fanbase as lemmings who they know will their products without fail no matter what they say or don’t while they tend to have a “You’ll buy it when we release it and like it!” old man attitude.

    I don’t know what it is about not letting anyone know anything that actually is a good question and deserves an answer.

    It’s because of this attitude that Rich Johnston is as popular as he is as well. If the companies were more open there wouldn’t need to be a rumor column.

  5. Michael Says:

    Of course, cops, lawyers and judges aren’t generally the touchy, grudge-holding little bitches most comics people are. Which is what you get when you staff a company entirely with die-hard nerds.

  6. Don MacPherson Says:

    Michael wrote:
    Of course, cops, lawyers and judges aren’t generally the touchy, grudge-holding little bitches most comics people are. Which is what you get when you staff a company entirely with die-hard nerds.

    I’m uncomfortable with such wild generalizations about people who work for comics publishers. Personally, I think people are people. You’ll find petty ones and reasonable ones in every field.

    Johanna Draper-Carlson makes a similar point on her blog in response to my above editorial, and I was uncomfortable with it as well. Mind you, she’s worked at one of the Big Two, so she has some experience upon which to base her contentions.

  7. Dan Larkin Says:

    I’m curious to know if this is this simply a matter of DC being tone-deaf in the PR department or is it indicative of a Time Warner corporate policy that forces them to be? How forthcoming are the branches of the company while dealing with similar inquiries?

  8. Don MacPherson Says:

    Dan wrote:
    I’m curious to know if this is this simply a matter of DC being tone-deaf in the PR department or is it indicative of a Time Warner corporate policy that forces them to be? How forthcoming are the branches of the company while dealing with similar inquiries?

    Well, I don’t think it’s fair to just point to DC Comics. If you look at my previous feature on comics subscriptions, you’ll find Marvel can be just as tight-lipped and dismissive of media inquiries too.

    One element I forgot to explore in my editorial is the fact that I suspect these comics publishers are discriminating against the media (and especially online media) dedicated to covering the comics industry itself. I’m sure when CNN or The New York Times comes a-callin’, the PR types fall all over themselves trying to accommodate them. Mind you, the mainstream media isn’t exactly doing in-depth articles that explore negative developments in comics publishing.

  9. Kris Black Says:

    For those interested, the Dollar Bin recorded the Heroes Con panel, Covering Comics, that Don mentioned in his article above.

  10. Aaron Poehler Says:

    The problem is that there really is no ‘comics journalism’ per se, there are really just a bunch of sites that effectively rephrase and issue official press releases as ‘comics news,’ so there are no repercussions for stonewalling inquiries and staying ‘on-message’ per the Bush administration.

  11. Don MacPherson Says:

    Aaron wrote:
    The problem is that there really is no ‘comics journalism’ per se, there are really just a bunch of sites that effectively rephrase and issue official press releases as ‘comics news,’

    Then you’re not looking hard enough. Yes, what you describe is prevalent, but there is comics journalism out there. Start with Tom Spurgeon’s Comics Reporter. His reporting and analysis pieces are insightful and well written. Tom’s far from the only one doing this stuff, but he is probably the most consistent in what he does.

  12. John Ring Says:

    I’m curious to know how much control DC has over responses regarding their intellectual property, and how much of that is TW’s apparatus predating their ownership of DC. Not to shift blame; just a more-than-academic question that you or someone else might be able to answer for me.