Alternate Cover: Licensed Comics

James takes a look at the world of licensed comics - movie and TV show tie-ins - and concludes that, er, they're not very good, really

In the world of computer gaming, nothing screams “quality” like a licensed tie-in. Unfortunately, it’s also prone to scream the word “bad” immediately beforehand. This is an accepted truth in the world of computer games – you don’t buy a licensed title expecting anything more than a cheap, rushed, shallow cash-in. It makes sense – with licensors hovering over the creative process, and usually a time limit in the form of, say, a cinematic release date to synchronise with, there’s no room for error, and that means no room for invention.

Licensed comics are rarely any different. Where movies tend to have licensed computer games, there’s a decades-old trend of TV shows having a licensed comic. Even so, after over 30 years of trying, they’re still almost universally crap. With the time and storytelling restrictions vastly different to game tie-ins, what is it that makes licensed comics the utter quality black hole that they so frequently are? I’ve been considering it and I think I’ve identified the three mistakes that licensed comics make. A few case studies, and I hope to illustrate exactly why only the most dedicated fan should go within 10 feet of a licensed comic.

1. “No budget” syndrome – One of the first things you can be guaranteed to read when someone brings an existing property to comics is a statement along the lines of “Well, of course, since we have no budget restrictions, we can do anything we want, as long as it can be drawn!” A fair enough statement, yes, but on closer inspection, what does it really mean?

In the case of IDW’s comic-based “Season Six” of Angel, it means taking Los Angeles to hell and having Angel fight a ludicrous number of massively-proportioned demons every issue – something that makes the series almost impossible to take seriously. After all, the Angel show we remember featured a small number of demons, almost always human-like in appearance. It was absolutely a budget restriction, but one that kept the show grounded in believability, as much as a show about a vampire detective could be.

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With this new freedom to depict demons of all shapes and sized, the reality constructed over five years of the TV show has been utterly discarded in favour of bigger, better things… that don’t remotely match what the viewers of Angel remember. The solution to this one is simple – let the TV show that you’re adapting inform the look of the comic, and stick religiously to that. Any time you’re thinking “wow, we could never have done this on TV!” that’s a sign that you shouldn’t be doing it.

2. No Actors – A hard one to get around. The appeal of any TV show is basically down to two things. The acting and writing. A comic has plenty of writing going into it – comic and TV scripts are fairly similar, after all – but the acting, well, that’s another matter. IDW are currently publishing a continuation of Star Trek: TOS, but really, what’s the point of Kirk without Shatner? (JJ Abrams, I’m looking at you!)

Even Dark Horse’s fantastic Buffy: Season 8 comic struggles with this one. The artist on that series, Georges Jeanty, does brilliant work, recalling the look of the actors while still drawing the characters, rather than the people who played them, and the dialogue in Buffy was always so well-defined that you can almost hear the characters speaking their lines, even on the page.

Almost, anyway. Even in what is arguably the industry’s best ever licensed comic, there’s something missing. A voice here, a facial expression there – no matter how good it looks, part of the essence of the characters is always going to be locked into the actor, somewhere. You can no more draw the “real” Buffy than you can replace Sarah Michelle Gellar with another actress. The two are inseparable, and that’s one element a comic can never compete with.

3. No Canonicity – This one is what really does it for me. The problem lies in the fact that the comics, no matter how good the stories in them are, simply don’t count. It seems a bizarre claim to make, but let’s face it – we’re all geeks here, and we all understand the difference between a story that “did” happen – i.e. anything in a Star Wars film – and stories that only happened until a film says they didn’t – i.e. anything in a Star Wars comic, novel, computer game or god forbid, CCG.

As a result, you’re left wondering whether there’s any point to what you just read. The characters can’t change and the plots can’t really be advanced. Is the story itself enough? Often, the answer is “no”. Again, there have been stabs at addressing this. The creator of cult-hit Disney cartoon Gargoyles is telling new, in-canon stories set after the end of the cartoon. Buffy: Season 8 is written by Joss Whedon – it doesn’t get any more official than that – and yet, Whedon recently admitted if he had the chance to make a new TV show, all bets were off and contradicting the events of the comic wouldn’t keep him up at night.

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One wonders just how important even an in-canon comic can really be – after all, they’re a small industry – on TV Buffy was measuring its viewers in millions per episode, but the comic series is doing well to be selling over 100,000 copies per issue. Even with the best intentions, comics are way, way down the ladder of importance. Why worry about upsetting 100,000 fans if another 4.9 million are happy? Kevin Smith proved as much when he cannibalised massive sections of his own “in-continuity” Jay and Bob comic into the movie, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. The comics, no matter how official they might be, no matter how much good faith they’re written in, only happened until something more important says they didn’t.

Ultimately, there’s very little that can be done to make a licensed comic stand up to reasonable quality. While Buffy: Season 8 is fantastic, it’s a small ray of light in a field plagued with half-arsed cash-ins. Only the most obsessed fans should bother with anything else – that’s the way it’s always been, and unfortunately, despite genuine attempts to legitimise tie-ins – that’s pretty much the way it’s going to stay.

James will be back with another Alternate Cover next week; you can read last week’s column here.