Funnybook Babylon

June 18, 2008

Long Summer Days

Filed under: Blurbs — Tags: , , , , , — Jamaal Thomas @ 2:24 am

Wow, I haven’t written anything in a while. I need to adopt Dave’s work ethic, but work is all consuming at the moment. Since I missed the recording of the podcast this week (a compelling discussion of the Bill Jemas era at Marvel), I decided to put some thoughts together in a typically long-winded (and hopefully somewhat coherent) fashion. Come join me for the DC Pile-on!

DC’s problems have been widely reported for the last three years. Management has failed to reverse declining market share, and has been steadily losing the confidence of a large portion of its core audience, through a perceived over-reliance on cross-over events, and the lack of an over-riding editorial vision for the direction of their DC Universe line of books. Many of us thought that the nadir of DC’s problems was Countdown, a year long series that was almost universally panned by critics, but as it turns out, that may have only been the beginning. Grant Morrison conducted an interview last week that began to pull the curtain back on the chaos at DC. This unleashed a furor in the blogosphere, which only intensified with the news that Chuck Dixon (writer of the Robin and Outsiders titles) was summarily released from his contract at DC. Mr. Dixon’s subsequent comments made it clear that something is not working over at DC. Warren Ellis, a writer who rarely backs down from controversy, rather mysteriously pointed at unnamed DC editors (who are ‘afraid of change’) as part of the problem.

So how should we assess this? On one hand, it’s very difficult to have a full understanding of closed institutions as an outsider, which has always been a significant problem for any journalist covering private industries, which have absolutely no incentive to be transparent (This is particularly the case when the company is not public). As a result, the information we receive is distorted by management, which wants to create a positive narrative about their company, or the malcontents who want to further a grudge against some specific person in the company (or the company as a whole). It gets even worse when you consider that any source doesn’t have complete information, and the information that they do have is colored by their perspective. From the outside, it’s impossible to determine which narrative is closer to the absolute truth. This is really obvious, but it seems to be ignored in the storm of speculation surrounding DC.

With all that said, we know that there’s a problem. The lateness issues that plagued the Superman titles didn’t only frustrate fans who wanted to read the upcoming chapters of the Geoff Johns – Richard Donner arc, but created issues with the long-term direction of the character (I think that Johns fully intended to radically shift the tone of the Superman books after OYL, and may have been stymied by these delays). Although Countdown was a qualified commercial success, it wasn’t particularly coherent, and the series seemed to change directions several times for little to no reason (most notably with the Monarch subplot). The statements and interviews issued by the company (and its representatives) made things worse. Executives have been sending contradictory signals to the fanbase over the last year, especially on any issue concerning the long-term direction of the company. In this context, it’s pretty easy to credit Chuck Dixon’s version of events, namely that executives at DC combine the two worst characteristics of management: (1) micromanagement of competent subordinates, and (2) lack of vision. Even if one takes the Warren Ellis critique at face value, the inability of group editors to cooperate with DC’s business plan (which treated Final Crisis as a creative fix for years of narrative chaos) reflects managerial incompetence.

Although we are all inclined to give Grant Morrison the benefit of the doubt due to his creative genius, it would be inappropriate to assume that his version of the controversy is complete or accurate. According to Rich Johnston, DC editorial held an emergency meeting last Thanksgiving over Morrison’s script for Final Crisis #1, which was not what they expected. This doesn’t exactly contradict Morrison’s version of events, which are as follows:

“I started writing Final Crisis #1 in early 2006, around the same time as the 52 series was starting to come out, so Final Crisis was more a continuation of plot threads from Seven Soldiers and 52 than anything else. Final Crisis was partly-written and broken down into rough issue-by-issue plots before Countdown was even conceived, let alone written. And J.G. was already working on designs and early layouts by the time Countdown started. There wasn’t really much opportunity, or desire, to modify our content at that stage.
[W]henCountdown was originally being discussed, it was just a case of me saying ‘Here’s issue 1 of Final Crisis and a rough breakdown of the following six issues. As long as you guys leave things off where Final Crisis begins, we‘ll be fine.’ Obviously, I would have preferred it if the New Gods hadn’’t been spotlighted at all, let alone quite so intensively before I got a chance to bring them back but I don’t run DC and don’t make the decisions as to how and where the characters are deployed. “

It’s entirely possible that the first rough outlines and drafts of Final Crisis did not seriously conflict with Countdown and DONG. Or DC management decided that they needed some serious revelations in Countdown to convince fans that it ‘mattered’ as more than a 52 issue prequel to a 7 issue miniseries. The most innocuous explanation of this may be that there were too many creators working on a single narrative in isolation. I don’t think that DC has established a culture of collaboration for its creators, let alone its editors, which introduces some pretty unique problems. Greg Hatcher has a great article discussing the public relations and editorial failure aspects of this controversy, but I think that the corporate culture at DC is the real core of this problem. Unlike traditional publishers, DC is (mostly) in the business of producing a single over-arching, ongoing narrative that is created by multiple authors. In the past, potential inconsistencies were resolved by the fact that editors were the primary drivers of this narrative. This is no longer the case in the era of the ‘star creator’. Even the less powerful creators have a much stronger voice than in the past. As a result, editors have less control over major inconsistencies.

Maybe the solution is for DC to formally develop an environment in which creators can effectively collaborate. A lot of people believe that DC will fire Didio, or that DC should clarify the responsibilities of its editorial staff. I think those changes might be helpful, but DC should primarily focus on making sure that its corporate culture reflects the status quo, in which Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, and Kurt Busiek have more control over the narrative than Mike Carlin does.

2 Comments »

  1. Mr. Dixon’s subsequent comments made it clear that something was not working over at DC.

    I’m curious how Dixon’s comments make it clear that something isn’t working at DC, rather than things just not working out between Dixon and DC. I mean…things could be not working at DC, but I’m not willing to just go on Dixon’s comments directly after parting ways.

    Comment by Kevin Huxford — June 19, 2008 @ 12:08 am

  2. I was mostly referring to these comments:

    “Not at Paul.
    Warners? The geniuses who merged with a company that was billions in the red? Trust me, most days they don’t even KNOW they own a comic company much less take an interest in running it.
    On the Shooter front—
    Though I saw Shooter in full fledge psychotic editorial rage a couple of times, he did provide leadership at Marvel and didn’t change the company’s direction five times in one day. And the company climbed out of the red and became vital again under his stewardship. I disagreed with many of his ideas when it came to continuity but he was at least consistant and you knew where you stood. And merit was rewarded back then. If you sold well and handed the stuff in on time you’d never go without work.”

    “I’ve worked under tyrants and I can say that I’d prefer to work under a talented, knowledgeable tyrant with a successful plan than a directionless gladhander with a ouija board any day of the week.”

    I think both of these quotes imply mismanagement from the top. And as far as his credibility goes, Dixon is a vet, a writer who’s worked on and off for both companies for a substantial period of time. He’s not exactly a guy who’s never lost a gig, so I have to credit his viewpoint to some degree, even if it’s with a grain of salt. That’s why I didn’t say “Dixon is absolutely correct”, but “something [is] not working”.

    UPDATE: I split the final paragraph in two and corrected a verb tense (I think) for clarity.

    Comment by Jamaal — June 19, 2008 @ 7:49 am

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