When Warner Brothers hired Tim Burton to direct the first Batman feature film in 1986, he had only directed a single motion picture for theatrical release, 1985’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, a whimsical low-budget vehicle for an off-beat stand-up comic. It was the work of a director who already had a singular visual style. Burton was capable of producing images that imprinted themselves upon the subconscious of the audience (as young Superadaptoid’s vivid memories of “Large Marge” can attest), so certainly he was well suited to work on a character who, in one of his earliest appearances, described himself as “a creature of the night, black, terrible….”
Burton was a visionary, entrusted by Warner Brothers with the task of imprinting the iconic, jagged silhouette of the Batman into the minds of the movie-going public. The marketing of the movie relied on pure iconography: the stylized black bat in a yellow oval.
The climax of the film is a clash of icons: the jagged silhouette versus the rictus grin, a black demon seeking revenge against a brightly colored clown.
And it was a huge hit. A commercial success with the unmistakable imprint of a unique talent. Warner Brothers was able to have their cake and eat it too.
Gambling on an eccentric, expressionistic director had paid off. So much so that Warner Brothers hired Burton to reinvigorate the Superman franchise ten years after hiring him to direct Batman. His unique personal style, they believed, was the perfect fit for the DC Comics characters that Warner wanted to put on the big screen.
This willingness to entrust a film franchise to such an individual talent had the potential to create works of art that could transcend the super-hero genre, yet still be commercially successful, like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. It also had the potential to create works that were so unrestrained (Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin) or so insular (Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns) that they failed to connect with a mass audience.
Whatever the outcome, it was an approach that was deeply rooted in the history of DC Comics.
As far as mainstream comic book companies go, DC had usually been fairly accommodating of creative eccentricities and unique personal styles, at least more so generally than had Marvel Comics, its chief publishing rival. Regardless of whether or not it resembled the comic books that inspired it, the 1989 Batman film was an effective extension of DC Comics’ editorial practices onto the big screen. Its success constituted an implicit endorsement of those practices.
Creating a major motion picture is an incredibly complex process that involves lots of different people and lots of different institutions. These people and institutions have a wide range of goals and methods, many of which might conflict with the goals and methods of other people involved in the movie-making process.
Creating installments of a comic book series on a monthly basis is perhaps not quite so convoluted, but nevertheless it’s still a complex process that involves carefully balancing a number of divergent interests. That process is currently in flux thanks to the advent of the digital age, but historically its components are as follows:
Writers and Artists
The people who write the stories and draw the images that make it onto the printed page are usually a mixture of permanent staff employed exclusively by one comic book publisher alongside freelancers who are constantly turning out work for whatever publisher will take it.
The writers and artists submit their work to editors, whose job it is to get the issue to the printing press on time, making sure that each page not carrying advertising (which usually comprises around 1/3 of any given issue) has some sort of entertaining content on it. Appealing content helps sell comics, which helps sell ads, which together generate revenue for the comic book publisher.
The printers are the people responsible for actually producing the physical object that the reader will buy and hold in their hands. The printing company may or not be part of the same corporate structure as the publishing company that supplies them with content. The main interest of the printer is to keep their printing presses running. If the presses aren’t turning out product, the printer is losing money.
The distributors transport the finished product from the printing press to wherever it will be sold, be these bookstores, newsstands, or specialized comic book retailers. Like the printing company, the distribution company may or may not be affiliated with a particular comic book publisher. The main interest of the distributor is to keep their fleet of vehicles running. If their trucks are idle, the distributor is losing money.
In charge of the editors working for a comic book publisher will usually be an editor-in-chief, but this person’s job description varies depending on the individual company. Both Marvel and DC early in their history had extremely influential editors-in-chief, Stan Lee (1922-present) and Whitney Ellsworth (1908-1980), respectively. These men set the paradigm for how each publisher would manage their content and market their intellectual properties for decades to come.
The creative cultures that Lee and Ellsworth established at their respective companies endured for decades. The rhythm of successes and failures that both Marvel and DC have had at getting their characters into media outside of comic books largely began with these two men. Their careers will be the topic of the next installment.
My current writing rhythm means that I’ll usually post new entries on Monday and Thursday.
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