Image: George Pérez/DC Comics
Sometimes a company just needs the money, and sometimes it loses the license to Superboy
Sometimes it feels like Marvel and DC Comics should have signs in their offices reading “It has been [X] issues since our last reboot.” Decades of continuity have forced superhero universes to simplify things for new readers with universe-changing events — but simplification is usually not the only editorial goal.
Behind the scenes of these earth-shattering stories lie equally interesting tales of financial upheaval, licensing nightmares and pure, old-fashioned spite. Here’s what was happening behind the scenes of some of comics’ biggest reboots.
Crisis on Infinite Earths
Universally regarded as the first company-wide “mega-crossover,” 1985’s Crisis On Infinite Earths spent a year collapsing the DC Universe from a tangled mess of Golden Age heroes, modern equivalents, and characters bought wholesale from other companies into one definitive timeline, killing off a few beloved characters along the way.
The common consensus among fans is that Crisis was a top-down decision by the DC brass to desperately remain competitive against a surging Marvel. The company had even floated the idea of shutting down their publishing arm and licensing their top characters like Batman and Superman to the competition in 1984. But the real story goes back years, and one of its most important characters was created decades before.
For writer Marv Wolfman, the desire to clean up the convoluted mess of the DC Universe came in 1981, while he was writing Green Lantern. According to the veteran scribe, he was putting together the book’s letter column when he came across a message from a fan complaining that he’d ignored a previous meeting between two characters.
In his response, Wolfman wrote “One day […] we (meaning the DC editorial we) will probably straighten out what is in the DC universe, excluding that which isn’t in direct reference with Earth One, and what is outside.”
Wolfman then set off to attend a convention in Pennsylvania. On the train, the fan’s question and his response kept running through his head. Having worked at Marvel in the ’70s, he understood how off-putting DC’s multiverse was to new readers, and felt that something definitely needed to be done.
By the time he’d reached his destination, the basic idea for Crisis was already done: A massively powerful entity called the Monitor would gather heroes from across the DC multiverse to prevent its absolute destruction, resulting in a cleanup and consolidation of the timeline into one easy-to-follow narrative. The Monitor was new to the DC universe, but according to an interview with The 13th Dimension, Wolfman had had a version of him kicking around for decades.
As a small child, Marv had created the Librarian, who lived in a satellite orbiting the Earth and kept tabs on the world’s heroes and villains. The Librarian was renamed the Monitor and the series, titled The History of The DC Universe, was slated for 1982.
That obviously didn’t happen — development of the maxiseries took much longer than expected, including DC editorial hiring an archivist to read every single comic the company had ever published (talk about a dream job) and take notes (the notes were not, in the end, used much, but they still exist in a hand-written binder in DC’s Burbank archives today). Eventually, the decision was made to publish the series in conjunction with the company’s 50th anniversary in 1985.
Wolfman also wanted a very different ending to Crisis — with the universe reborn, every DC book would reboot with a new first issue and a completely blank slate. Nobody would remember that the Crisis ever happened at all.
That didn’t happen, and Crisis was just the first of many, many cleanup attempts DC would float over the next few decades.
In 1992 Image, seven of Marvel’s top artists — Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Todd MacFarlane, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, Marc Silvestri and Whilce Portacio — walked out on the House of Ideas to form their own company, Image. The exodus was a tipping point for the industry. Founding Image Comics made them millions, but a few years later Marvel found a way to get them all back in the fold.
In an interview with Newsarama, Marvel editor Tom DeFalco has said that much of the acrimony between Marvel and Image was just for the public — a “work,” to put it in pro wrestling terms. Artists and writers from both companies kept on friendly terms with each other.
There was one time at a convention where we were walking down the hall, and one of the Image guys was coming down the hall with his wife and his baby, and we all stood around, you know, playing with the baby and asking, how’s it going? How’s life? And all that other stuff. And a couple panels opened up around us, and suddenly all the fans came out. And we suddenly realized, “Oh no! They’ll see us fraternizing with the enemy!” And we started moving away from each other.
So, the Image guy says, really loudly, “And I’ll never work for Marvel again!!”
And I said, “We don’t want you anymore anyway!!”
By 1995, Marvel was in dire straits — no amount of gimmick covers or hot characters could keep the stock from tanking, after new owner Ron Perelman’s aggressive expansion saddled the company with massive debt. Marvel had traded at a high of $35.75 a share in 1993. By 1996, it had plunged to $2.38.
It took Marvel’s new president, Jerry Calabrese, a former VP at Playboy with no comics background whatsoever, to make it happen. Calabrese booked a meeting with the Image founders to rectify some of the issues that caused them to leave in the first place: creative control and profit sharing. Most of them declined, but over time he was able to hash out a deal with two, Lee and Liefeld.
Desperate to cut costs and raise sales, Marvel tried something totally new: outsourcing every single aspect of the production of Avengers, Fantastic Four, Iron Man and Captain America to Lee and Liefeld’s studios, Wildstorm and Extreme. The books would be written, drawn, and even edited and promoted completely outside of the Marvel bullpen. And the money was very good — according to a writeup in the Comics Journal, Lee and Liefeld would each see a million up front, plus either 40% of profits or $2 million, whichever sum turned out to be bigger.
(Meanwhile, the company laid off 275 employees after they returned from their holiday vacations.)
In a CompuServe chat held in January of 1996, Calabrese referred to the Image collaboration as “the first reworking of Marvel’s core characters in 30 years.” In Heroes Reborn, Marvel’s biggest characters would be shunted off to a pocket universe, where they had new histories and their past adventures had never happened. The investment initially seemed worth it for Marvel, as sales rose rapidly for the new books. The first issue of Lee’s Fantastic Four nearly tripled what the past series has been moving. But it wouldn’t last.
Lee and Liefeld, the marquee talents, fell off of art duties on Heroes Reborn almost immediately. Liefeld only pencilled a single issue of Avengers, and Lee only drew a few more of Fantastic Four. Marvel broke the deal with Liefeld’s studio at the six-month mark, giving Lee all four books to manage. Sales also began to sink, and by the end of Heroes Reborn, the new books were almost back to Marvel’s baseline.
Lee has said that despite that, Marvel was interested in keeping the Heroes Reborn books going, under the condition that he return to pencilling at least one series. He declined, and editorial collapsed the pocket universe and returned to the original numbering of all four books, ending the experiment.
One interesting coda, from an interview with Lee on Kevin Smith’s Fatman on Batman podcast, reveals what the company wanted to do next: give Lee’s studio another four books to relaunch. This time it would have been Punisher, Nick Fury, Doctor Strange and Defenders. Lee walked away from that gig, but up-and-coming artist Joe Quesada lobbied for it, and in 1998 the company put him in charge of the Marvel Knights line that brought several of those characters to new creative peaks.
In the aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths, many fans came to believe that the cure had been worse than the disease. Sure, DC’s tangled timelines were cleaned up, but there were so many loose ends left behind that had to be brought in line with the new status quo that writers spent half of their time rectifying them.
The company tried to fix things multiple times with small resets like the Zero Hour event, but by 2005 editorial realized that the No Parallel Earths rule had probably been a mistake. So writer Geoff Johns, one of the company’s most dependable pens, was brought in to make things right. Infinite Crisis featured the rebirth of DC’s parallel universes, making huge changes to the status quo. Wonder Woman was now a founding member of the Justice League, Joe Chill was arrested for the murder of Batman’s parents, and several dead characters returned to life.
One of the biggest alterations, though, was mandated by a force even more powerful: the American legal system. It wouldn’t be a Crisis without carnage, and the crossover saw the death of Connor Kent, the hero known as Superboy, at the hands of an evil Superboy from another universe.
To understand why DC took Superboy off the table, you need to go all the way back to 1938, when young writer-artist team Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were paid $130 for the rights to a new character they’d created: a guy called Superman. In 1947, after the character had became a national success, spawned a host of imitators, and created an entirely new genre of comics, the two tried to sue the publisher to get the rights back, only to be told the contract was iron-clad.
But there was a caveat. The judge ruled that Superboy, introduced in 1945, was not covered under that deal, and belonged to Siegel. DC settled, paying $94,000 for the character rights, but the two sides continued to fence with each other over copyright and ownership.
Things came to a head in the early ’00s, when, according to the terms of the Copyright Act of 1976, Siegel’s heirs were allowed to terminate DC’s license of Superboy’s copyright. Two years before the deadline, DC denied the notice, kicking off another lawsuit.
Behind the scenes, DC realized that, according to the terms of the law, Superboy could be yanked from their hands at any time. This was not only a disaster for the comics, but also for the CW’s Smallville show, which ran throughout the ’00s. As an attempt to mitigate that possible loss, editorial took the heroic new Superboy off the table and made the old one an irredeemable villain who changed his name to Supeman-Prime, leaving no Superboys left in the DC universe.
Johns and then co-publisher Dan DiDio both denied that the death of one Superboy and renaming of another was motivated by the suit, but the timing is awfully close — just a week before the issue with Superboy’s death hit stands, the court ruled in favor of the Siegels.
The saga didn’t fully end until 2013, when a judge ruled that DC’s past agreements had established a full rights transfer of Superman, Superboy and others in perpetuity. The writing was on the wall a little while before then, with Connor Kent being taken out of mothballs in 2008’s Final Crisis: Legion Of Three Worlds. These days, DC Universe has a Superboy once more. Two of them, in fact!
For nearly half a century, the X-Men has been one of Marvel’s most dependably exploitable franchises. The merry band of mutants set sales records in the ’90s and continued to thrive for some time, until the mid-2010s saw them suddenly pushed out of the spotlight, their population decimated, and their most popular characters, including Wolverine, killed. How could this happen?
It all goes back to Marvel’s attempts to climb out of its 1990s slump. For just $2.6 million, the comics company licensed film and animation rights to the X-franchise to 20th Century Fox. That would prove a mere pittance, as 2000’s X-Men movie brought Fox $160 million in profit, and many sequels followed. Marvel’s take on each? A paltry two percent of ticket sales.
Despite the money disparity, the Fox deal wasn’t something Marvel management got too upset about. But in 2008, when Marvel Studios started to make their own extremely successful movies, being denied access to some of their most famous characters started to stick in the company’s craw.
According to a Nerdist podcast interview with long-time X-scribe Chris Claremont, in 2014, Marvel editorial passed a directive down through the ranks: No more mutant characters. The reason? According to Claremont, any mutant created as part of the X-franchise would not be exploitable as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — instead, they would go right to Fox as per the terms of that deal.
No less a personage than Marvel SVP of publishing Tom Brevoort echoed that statement, answering a fan question about the X-Men on his Tumblr with “If you had two things, and on one you earned 100% of the revenues from the efforts that you put into making it, and the other you earned a much smaller percentage for the same amount of time and effort, you’d be more likely to concentrate more heavily on the first, wouldn’t you?”
But mutants were an ultra-reliable part of the Marvel universe’s structure, able to provide a quick explanation for a new hero or villain. So what was the company to do to replace them? That would be Inhumanity.
In the pages of this 2014 crossover, the alien Terrigen Mist was released onto the earth, latching on to humans bearing Inhuman DNA and… well, mutating them. But these weren’t mutants, they were “NuHumans,” so Fox didn’t own them and Marvel Studios could exploit them. Oh, and just to make the symbolism more obvious, the mists were fatally toxic to mutants.
Eventually Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox would bring the X-Men back into the company’s good graces, with most of the NuHumans (with one notable exception) swept under the rug to never be seen again.
The history of comics is full of upstart publishers who burned hot and faded away fast, and one of the most notorious was Valiant. Funded by the Triumph venture capital firm at the beginning of the ’90s speculator boom, chief Jim Shooter and a host of ex-Marvel artists rebooted the crusty old characters of Gold Key Comics with a modern slant, and racked up mammoth sales. But the company’s mid-90s reboot was prompted by a very unusual foe — Mortal Kombat.
According to an interview with Valiant editor-in-chief Bob Layton, “Once Triumph had made sufficient profits, they ordered (founder Steve) Massarsky to sell the company. They wanted out. They were in the venture capital business, not the publishing biz. They didn’t give us a choice.”
The company had a few suitors, but in 1995, Acclaim spent $65 million to buy Valiant, a company with a $30 million valuation. The video game publisher was flush with cash, having dominated the early part of the decade with an aggressive production schedule that was equal parts low-quality licensed shovelware and ports of popular arcade titles.
The problem with that business model was that Acclaim didn’t have anything it could truly call its own. Valiant was purchased as an intellectual property “developer.” But comics sales were already starting to drop precipitously by 1994, with a report from distributor Capital City showing Magnus: Robot Fighter, one of Valiant’s most popular books, selling a mere 10 percent of what it had just one year earlier. Why buy them then?
Because Acclaim had been running out of options. According to a New York Times article, the Valiant deal was signed in a hurry, just a week after Acclaim was informed that its extremely profitable licenses for arcade giant Willams’ NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat were going to expire. Williams had just signed a new exclusivity deal with Nintendo — a much bigger fish. Acclaim had a single year to come up with new franchises to build its games on, and after Image laughed their offer right out of the door, Valiant was their best possible bet.
The new owners quickly moved to tighten purse strings, trimming down the Valiant line and cancelling lower-selling books. But nothing could stop the slide the whole industry was experiencing, so they went to a very familiar well: the reboot.
“V2” took the line’s most popular characters, hired new creative teams, and gave them new backstories and secret identities, which begs the question: If you were just going to hire people to make up new heroes, why pay $65 million for Valiant at all? Nobody had an answer.
Bob Layton says in his interview that the real reason for the reboot was to cancel all of the expensive contracts that the current creative teams enjoyed and replace them with more industry-standard wages. The new character origins were just a side benefit.
By 1998, Valiant was virtually dead, publishing a handful of one-shots to keep copyrights alive. Acclaim would soldier on for a few more years, filing for bankruptcy in 2004. Although at least one of the V2 titles, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, would inspire a hit N64 series, the majority of them passed without notice. Luckily for Valiant, the company’s intellectual property was purchased in 2005 by more reasonable owners.
Although they did make that Bloodshot movie.
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