Don’t turn comics publishers into IP factories

Over the past few decades, comic books have become Hollywood’s most reliable well for source material. It’s easy to see why — not only is comics one the most vibrant storytelling mediums in the world, but the books themselves offer built-in storyboarding, providing writers and directors a visual template on which to build a film.

This past week’s news that Netflix would purchase independent comics publisher Millarworld is hardly an outlier. It echoes larger moves made by Warner Brothers and Disney, when they purchased the two largest comics publishers, DC and Marvel, respectively, cementing their own cinematic comics universes. And while the specifics of those deals differ, both have kept their comics publishing wings most in tact. 

In the case of Netflix, however, the decision seems a bit more crass — or at least, it’s a decision that has very little to do with the comics themselves. There’s no doubt about the company’s motivations here. Seemingly spurred on by Disney’s plans to launch its own streaming media platform(s), Netflix went ahead and bought its own comic book universe.

It’s a sort of preemptive measure. Netflix says it’s still in talks to hold on to Star Wars and Marvel titles, but if Disney opts to pull Marvel properties from the service, the service now has a Plan B in place.

Unlike the DC and Marvel acquisitions, Netflix appears to be making no bones about the fact that it didn’t purchase Millarworld to get into the comics publishing business.  Yes, it says “Millarworld will also continue to create and publish new stories and character franchises.”

But also appears to be the key word here — as the press release spells out, the publisher’s main value to Netflix is in its IP: “The acquisition, the first ever by Netflix, is a natural progression in the company’s effort to work directly with prolific and skilled creators and to acquire intellectual property and ownership of stories featuring compelling characters and timeless, interwoven fictional worlds.”

Deals like this risk undermining the source material. It’s in line with a growing fear in recent years that, the comics industry has becoming something of a farm league for Hollywood films. And indeed, it seems that many prospective screenwriters and directors have come to view the comics industry as a back door into Hollywood.

Eric Reynolds, Associate Publisher of alternative comics house Fantagraphics, bluntly sums up the opinion of many in the indie comics community.

“I have never read a Millarworld comic and as such have no clue and don’t really give a shit about this stuff, but of course it’s bad if media companies see comics as nothing more than IP factories,” he told TechCrunch. “I mean, if you actually care about the medium of comics, anyway, and believe that it has its own intrinsic value as an art form.”

This may all sound a bit alarmist, prompting the skeptical reader to quote crime novelist James M. Cain, who responded to concerns that Hollywood had ruined his novels by saying, “They haven’t done anything to my books. They’re still right there on the shelf. They’re fine.” Similarly, we might hope that no matter how many titles get pulled into the studios’ universe-building schemes, the comics themselves will be fine.

Except these larger corporate decisions are affecting the comics. Look no further than Marvel, where comics featuring the Fantastic Four and X-Men (characters whose movie rights were sold to Fox before the publisher started making its own films) have languished in recent years.

Sure, long-running titles can benefit from a break, but former Fantastic Four writer Jonathan Hickman was pretty open about the fact that that’s not what’s happening here: “I think it’s pretty common knowledge at this point that Marvel isn’t publishing Fantastic Four because of their disagreement with Fox.”

Might other comics publishers get bought up in similar deals? It doesn’t seem likely. Prominent companies like Image and Dark Horse have plenty of potential source material for future films, but the characters and stories are usually owned by creators, making it more difficult for a studio to acquire the rights in a single deal like this one.

Millarworld is an unusual publisher in that respect, making it perhaps an ideal target for Netflix. After all, the company doesn’t exactly represent the kind of organically developed universe built up over the course of decades as in the case of DC or Marvel. Nor is it a portfolio of disparate, mostly creator-owned titles like Image. Instead, the publisher is explicitly the vision of a single writer, Mark Millar, who launched the company in 2004, in order to develop his own work outside the world of Marvel, where he cut his teeth.

Over the past decade, Millarworld has become far better known for its IP than its actual books. While Millar’s early superhero work like The Ultimates and The Authority has its fans, you’d be hard-pressed to find Millarworld titles like The Secret Service, Kickass and Wanted on anyone’s list of their favorite comics. Instead, they were “successful” in the way that Millar probably intended: They were de facto pitches for blockbuster films.

Really, Netflix hasn’t so much purchased a publisher as it has the characters and services of one of the comic world’s best known writers. It’s a more roundabout version of the deal Amazon just made with Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead.

“The thing that’s most curious about Millarworld is that in my opinion it isn’t a brand except insomuch as Mark Miller wants it to be a brand,” TV Guide Managing Editor (and comics podcast host) Alex Zalben told TechCrunch. “[The Millarworld imprint is] a sign that Mark Millar is working with a name artist to get them to try something outside the Marvel/DC realm, not an interconnected series of stories, or universe. There are some great stories that can make excellent TV shows, but the only thing acquiring Millarworld does is let Mark Miller say ‘Netflix acquired Millarworld.’”

We’re not trying to be snobs or purists about this, insisting that comics and Hollywood remain completely separate. Even beyond the realm of corporate behemoths like Disney/Marvel, we’ve enjoyed cinematic adaptations of creator-owned comics like Ghost World and Hellboy (not to mention the Broadway version of Fun Home, where at least one of us cried). Nor do we begrudge indie luminaries like Dan Clowes and Marjane Satrapi, who have built successful new careers in film.

But we risk undermining the importance of the comics medium when movie studios — or even worse, comics creators — view them as only a commodity. This is the art form that gave us Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust memoir Maus, the sprawling epics of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets, the formalist heartbreak of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, on and on and on.

And yes, those titles might eventually be turned into movie or TV shows, perhaps even good ones. But the best comics aren’t just a proving ground for characters and plot lines. They take advantage of the medium’s unique combination of prose and graphic imagery, telling stories in a way that can never be fully replicated elsewhere. Their success is not measured in their contribution to Hollywood’s bottom line. It would be a shame to forget that.