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Surviving the Strike: TV Comics

November 12th, 2007 | Derek Johnson

Buffy Season 8 #1       BSG #12

Need new narrative television content, but not sure where you’re going to get it if, come January, the strike is still on and the tap runs dry?  You might try your local comic book shop-where you can find illustrated versions of such shows including Battlestar Galactica, 24, Heroes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Star Trek, and CSI.  So I thought I’d offer a strike survival guide and introduce Extratextual readers to a couple of these tie-in titles–perhaps soon the only place where new “television” is being written, though not without its own set of constraints. 

First, of course, I should apologize for my long and untimely absence, which itself may have seemed like a writers’ strike of sorts.  I’ve always been a lurker at heart, and I should learn to lurk less on my own blog, but mostly I’ve just been swamped with other things.  All good reason for our collective approach here, so we never go too long without updates, even when some of us drop off the face of the planet.  

Anyways, on to the point of this entry: comic books based on licensed television properties.  As in the video game realm, licensed comics in general are usually considered an inferior breed: the result of greedy attempts to cash in on a concept that’s successful in another media market.  Connoisseurs of the “graphic novel” form certainly wouldn’t be caught dead reading them.  But I’m no high brow connoisseur.  In general, I still Make Mine Marvel.  Moreover, I like my TV franchises fine, thank you, and I’ll follow those properties to the licensed realm if that is where the currents of commercial creativity take them.  I long ago learned to stop caring about what the guy at the comic book shop thinks of my tastes.  And despite our tendency to value transmedia objects like Lost or The Matrix that bear the mark of a strong, unifying authorial presence across multiple platforms, I find it fascinating to see how more marginal, tentative, and unprivileged creative personnel negotiate the constraints of a license.  Limited in what they are allowed to do creatively, authors of licensed comic books must often find niches within the narrative to explore that don’t step on the toes of what the heavy hitters are reserving for their own use in film or on television.  I suppose it’s like fan fiction-but with corporate rules that present their own set of creative challenges and drive their own range of creative responses. 

Still, it’s no fun to pay $2.99 to $3.99 per issue to find out that a comic book has squandered the license or somehow treated it in a dissatisfying way.  So for anyone interested in exploring this field, here’s a quick analysis of how two comic titles-both with new issues as of last Wednesday-have negotiated the creation of new “television” narratives, and the questions of authorship that entails: 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8 (Dark Horse) – This title has recently become a darling of the popular media’s attempts to discuss comic books and comic book creation.  While Dark Horse held the license long before launching this new series, this title is significant due to the direct participation of Buffy creator Joss Whedon.  Although Whedon did have some involvement in those previous comic efforts, his role was largely that of an authority figure with the power to approve or deny directions that other licensed writers proposed.  Whedon held executive power over the creative decisions of others while reserving a great deal of creative power for himself.  Licensed authors had to find moments within an existing chronology to fit their narrative contributions, but only the primary author had privilege to expand that universe to any significant degree-notably in Fray, a 2001 comic mini-series written by Whedon that extended the vampire slayer mythology into the distant future.  Similarly, Whedon now serves as “executive producer” for the new comics series, personally charting the story arc for a “season” that builds from the conclusion of the television series. 

Buffy Season 8Having Whedon in command gives Dark Horse creative license (literally) to explore and most importantly expand Buffy to a greater degree than most television comics are allowed.  And don’t get me wrong-I like having Whedon in that privileged role.  Based on his star power he was able to assemble an A-list roster of writers and artists to help bring his vision to life (including Brian K. Vaughn, a veteran of both comics and Lost).  Plus, Whedon brings a unique storytelling style quite reminiscent of television to both Buffy and his work writing Astonishing X-Men (indeed, the last issue of the latter arguably expanded the repertoire of comics narration by openly lifting a narrational technique from a seventh season episode of Buffy).  I can’t quite capture it in words, but the dialogue hooks and intercutting between different scenes in his comic panels just screams television to me.  Yet in some ways, the success of this title irks me-it suggests that Buffy can only be good if Whedon writes it, codifying the idea that only an auteur can make worthwhile contributions to an ongoing franchise.  Still, if you’re looking for a TV comic of “good taste”, this one’s for you. 

Battlestar Galactica (Dynamite Entertainment) – If Buffy is the classy exception in the licensed comics world, BSG comics represent the economic excesses and unruly over-production of licensing.  Dynamite Entertainment, the current comic licensee for the NBC-Universal-owned BSG property, can by no means be accused of failing to fully leverage its investment, publishing not just one title, but an entire sub-franchise of titles.  In addition to one ongoing series based on the original 1970s series, and one based on the contemporary reimagining, Dynamite has offered Battlestar Galactica: Season Zero (an ongoing prequel to the first season of the reimagined series), Battlestar Galactica: Zarek (a mini-series based on the history of a secondary character), Battlestar Galactica: Origins (a series that delves into the more distant backstories of the reimagined characters), and Battlestar Galactica: Pegasus (a one-shot featuring Admiral Cain’s crew prior to the Cylon attack).  Compared to Marvel or DC Comics, Dynamite is small potatoes, and BSG represents a substantial portion of its monthly output.  Further, its non-BSG offerings include several comics based on the Red Sonja and Lone Ranger licenses.  Ultimately, Dynamite’s bread and butter is the licensed comic, and it makes no bones about churning out as much product it can based on valuable television properties.  In that sense, the BSG comics are pretty insidious, and indeed, the stories that result from this economic arrangement can be pretty unimpressive-either contradictory given the television mythology (Admirals Adama and Cain knew the Cylons were on the offensive prior to the mini-series?) or sometimes downright silly (Zak Adama returns to life as a Cylon replicant?). 

BSG #8 cylon vs cylonYet, there’s something about these often mediocre comics and their use of television narrative that impresses me more than Buffy Season 8 does.  Simply put, Joss Whedon can do anything he wants with that comic.  But BSG comic writers like Greg Pak and Brandon Jerwa have to play by a specific set of constraints, so when they do accomplish something satisfying, its feels like more of an accomplishment, more of a creative feat.  Eventually, anything they create with the license arrives on the desk of BSG executive producer Ron Moore to make sure that it doesn’t harm his own television-centric creative interests in the property.  Moreover, because the serial mythology of BSG is constantly evolving on television (at least until the strike started, and work on the final episodes’ scripts ceased), licensed comic writers have had to remain flexible to work with a constantly changing mythology they could not control.  Most often this means working in the past, rather than exploring the future still uncharted by television, exploring the time between seasons and using prequels to develop new spins on the mythology.  Most compelling to me has been the way in which these comics have reintegrated the 1970s Cylon designs into the storyworld of the new series as earlier models of the reimagined Centurians and Raiders-eventually culminating in a multi-issue conflict between the old men-in-silver-suit Centurians and their more sleek, modern CGI descendants.  It may be a more constrained, rule-driven form of authorship, but there’s an underdog quality to the work being done here that I can’t help but respect.  And in terms of expanding and unifying the historically bifurcated BSG property as a franchise, it is these licensed comics that first found a narratively significant way to bring together the imagery and iconography of both the old and the new. 

Licensing and licensees raise a number of important questions in regards to authorship that may seem peripheral to television narrative proper.  But until the strike ends, these realms may be one of a very few arenas in which a form of television authorship continues-and I’ll continue to take what I can get. 

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