As my colleague Becca pointed out yesterday, the loss of Dark Horse as Star Wars’ comics licensee strikes deep. Dark Horse treated the Star Wars license with deep love, intense attention, and consummate professionalism.
As I look at what Dark Horse’s departure means for Star Wars going forward, I am struck by the ways this move potentially signals the new way of doing business under Disney, and by the way the larger move to Disney may resound going forward. In particular, I fear the move from an artistically-driven model headed by filmmaking auteur George Lucas to a profit-maximization-driven model headed by a boardroom of corporate suits.
I said that Dark Horse approached Star Wars with deep love. Dark Horse is, of course, a business. It needs to make a profit, and it makes business decisions with an eye toward raking in money. There’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s not all there is to Dark Horse; it is not a soulless corporation. For Dark Horse is in the business of making art, and from its output and the statements of its personnel over the years, it is clear that the people at Dark Horse care about their art. The people who worked on Star Wars for Dark Horse had passion for the stories they were telling, and they were making decisions on an artistic basis, not purely on a business one. The man in charge of the license for the bulk of Dark Horse’s run was editor Randy Stradley, a creator who worked his way up in the industry as a writer and continued to write comics during his tenure.
The decisions Stradley made as senior editor evince the fact that he was thinking about the art he produced as an artist, and not just a bottom-line businessman. He commissioned risky, niche, and unconventional projects like Legacy, Agent of the Empire, Invasion, Knight Errant, and Dawn of the Jedi. And that’s not even getting into Dark Horse comics like Tales of the Jedi, X-wing: Rogue Squadron, Crimson Empire, and Tales that were launched before Stradley’s tenure. Dark Horse was not a company of simple, safe, lowest-common-denominator choices. It didn’t pump out endless Luke-Han-Leia comics — in fact, it made remarkably few. Instead, it blazed a trail into new eras and made bold choices in the pursuit of producing the best art possible.
Dark Horse, as a creative-driven rather than marketing-and-accounting-driven company, is emblematic of the way Star Wars business was done under George Lucas. George Lucas may have gotten rich selling toys, but he simply isn’t a bottom-line-focused kind of guy. He is an artist, a filmmaker with a vision. You can say what you like about the quality of that vision as time went on, but Lucas was always an artist first and a businessman second. He didn’t sit in his office at Lucasfilm trying to figure out how to drive up profits in the third quarter. If he had wanted to wring every last dollar he could out of his franchise property, he could have churned out a Star Wars movie every third year, could have leaned on his subordinates to make sure their video games and comics and books were surefire mass-market hits, could have test-marketed his movies to make them as slick and popular as possible.
But he didn’t. He made movies only when he had a story to tell, and he made the stories he wanted to make and hoped the public would like them. He was a self-made millionaire who answered to no one and did what he wanted, and he didn’t have to worry about pleasing shareholders or keeping the stock price up with good quarterly earnings reports. George Lucas wasn’t a studio boss — he was an auteur who happened to have his own studio. He wasn’t an executive trying to make his boardroom of millionaire investors happy about the return on their money. He was a writer-director trying to entertain kids and adults, to carry across his own idiosyncratic vision in a way that would connect with the imaginations of others. And that attitude set a tone for all the Lucasfilm subsidiaries — they made their books and comics and games with an eye on profit, of course, but also with an eye on art, on creating great stories that would connect with audiences. They didn’t have to worry that Lucas would stomp in, demanding to know why they weren’t making him even more money, demanding they play it safe. Would we have gotten the bold, the wild and wonderful, of Tales of the Jedi, The New Jedi Order, Dark Forces, and Starfighters of Adumar from a business regime in which editors were relentlessly leaned on by suits to maximize profits?
Some people, reading this, may not see the distinction I’m making. They may not believe that there’s much of a distinction between artistic and corporate leadership in the making of corporate art. They may wonder what the real difference is between a franchise selling toys and a franchise being run to sell toys. Obviously, I could point to Hollywood, and the growing stifling of original stories and difficulty of making unusual or challenging art in an environment increasingly dominated by the corporate quest for huge box office returns. But I think the single best evidence to point to right now is Paul Dini’s interview with Kevin Smith, transcribed and summarized here, among other venues. In short, suits canceled a kids’ TV show because it was too successful — with girls, whom they assume don’t buy enough toys, or enough of the right toys. They wanted it to be dumber and louder and more sexist because they didn’t care about the quality of the programming, they cared about making money off it, period. That’s the state of a lot of creative big business right now. That’s the danger in a company that isn’t being run by creatives, doesn’t have a great deal of concern for the quality of the product separate from its ability to put money in their pocket — a company that’s being run by executives whose outlook is dominated by Marketing and Accounting departments.
And my concern is that Disney is one of those companies. Whatever its charming origins in the hands of Walt Disney, is currently a ruthless, monopolistically-inclined corporate behemoth. It’s run by executives who want to make money and run the competition into the ground. We saw the first fruits of this right away, when Disney announced yearly Star Wars films — because there are so many Star Wars stories Disney is dying to tell? More likely, because they want to milk a cash cow. Similarly, there’s little sign that Dark Horse had the license taken away because Disney was dissatisfied with the job it could do. No, Disney seems to have handed the license to its subsidiary, Marvel — in many ways less well-suited to the franchise than Dark Horse — so that it could make the most money possible off Star Wars. The purchase of reprint rights to Dark Horse’s material — unlikely to even be used — suggests that this decision was more about undermining a key competitor to Disney’s comic company than about doing what’s right for Star Wars comics.
I fear that, going forward, we’re going to see more of this bottom-line, executive-run way of doing business as the artistic integrity of Star Wars’ product takes a backseat to full-bore exploitation of a rich intellectual property. I’m worried that increasingly, decisions will be made by number-crunching suits rather than the artists. And the dismissal of Dark Horse only reinforces that concern.
This illustration of the consequences of Star Wars’ transition to a boardroom-driven corporate model leaves me mourning not just Dark Horse, but the primacy of creative talent in general under Lucas’s leadership. I had plenty of problems with where Lucas’s vision went in the last two decades, but as we face a future without him, I can increasingly appreciate the ways the Expanded Universe benefited, even indirectly, from his hands-off, art-first administration.
I’ll miss you fiercely, Dark Horse. And I guess I’ll miss you too, George.