Saturday, May 31, 2014

Dynamite Entertainment Gets the Shaft and Other Literary Deals

In a flurry of press releases over the past several days, comics publisher Dynamite Entertainment expanded their work with licensed properties, re-affirming a few of their existing agreements and adding new ones, most notably the estate of the writer of the Shaft novels.

A complete run-down of the agreements, with links to the full releases:

Now before you think I'm just parroting some PR stuff here, there's some really notable content here. For example, John Carter of Mars was recently made into a movie by Disney. You'd think that one would head to the House of Ideas to adapt, but instead, it's Dynamite who is not only maintaining the rights but has the ability to more than their previous deal allowed. From the release:

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., the company founded by the author to protect and maintain his literary creations, and one of the comics industry's leaders, Publisher Dynamite Entertainment, announced today a comprehensive agreement that will see the return of Burroughs' original "John Carter: Warlord of Mars" to the pages of comic books, comic strips and graphic novels.  The agreement allows for the world-wide publication of the John Carter universe as well as "Lord of the Jungle" and ERB's library of archival material. 
The initiative comes on the heels of the reacquisition of comic book rights by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. that had been held by Walt Disney Pictures and its Marvel Entertainment subsidiary, as well as a recent legal settlement with Dynamite that cleared the way for Dynamite to introduce key characters and plot elements from the John Carter backstory that were, until now, absent from recent comic book interpretations. 

"It was important to us that we reacquire the comic book and comic strip rights from Marvel Entertainment so we could reintroduce them in the market place.  We're excited to see the exploits of Edgar Rice Burroughs' first science fiction adventure hero brought to life in their fullness by the passionate creative talents assembled by the folks at Dynamite," said James Sullos, President of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. "They're true fans - and it shows on every page and in every idea they've shared with us.  Now fans everywhere will be able to appreciate the original adventure stories that later spawned Flash Gordon, Superman, Star Wars and Avatar."
I quote this at length because I think there's some really interesting notes there that relate back to my opinions on licensed comics (and why Star Wars fans should be very, very concerned). Look at this sentence again from Sullos, emphasis mine: "They're true fans - and it shows on every page and in every idea they've shared with us."

Now of course that's a bit of hyperbole, and I bet that if John Carter the hadn't been snake bitten and focus grouped to death, Disney would have pushed harder to keep things. Still, it's good to keep in mind that it's usually in the best interest of the property involved if the folks doing it give a damn.

While I don't have an attachment to the character, the comics historian in me is interested primarily in the reprints of the original comics, which the release notes include "1940s comic strips by John Coleman Burroughs, the son of Edgar Rice Burroughs." That's just the sort of thing I love to try out!

John Carter fits the strong pulp vibe Dynamite already has with Lone Ranger, Green Hornet, Shadow, Flash Gordon, Doc Savage, and others in various stages of print. It's good to see this one find a home that works and fans should be able to look forward to.

The other significant item here among deals for comics based on popular properties is the acquisition of the rights to publish comics based on the iconic--but also controversial--character, Shaft.

Again, pulling from the release, which I am quoting at length for a reason:
Dynamite Entertainment announced today their agreement to bring John Shaft into the Dynamite fold!  The agreement covers not only original comics and graphic novels, but also new prose, and includes the right to re-print all existing Shaft novels.
John Shaft is a fictional character created by writer Ernest Tidyma.  A tough, take no guff detective who composer/singer Isaac Hayes described him, in the Oscar-winning Theme from Shaft as: "the Black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks."
Most people are familiar with John Shaft via the movies, the original 1971 film, and it's two sequels, all starring actor Richard Roundtree in the title role, which helped spawn the 70's blaxploitation film movement, and make Shaft a household name.  There was also a Shaft film in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson reprising the role as Shaft's nephew.

But between 1970 and 1975, Ernest Tidyman actually wrote seven Shaft novels:
  • Shaft (1970)
  • Shaft Among the Jews (1972)
  • Shaft's Big Score (1972)
  • Shaft Has a Ball (1973)
  • Goodbye, Mr. Shaft (1973)
  • Shaft's Carnival of Killers (1974)
  • The Last Shaft (1975)
These novels have long been out of print, and Dynamite intends to bring these back and make them available again.  In addition, the new prose stories and Original Graphic Novels will be the first new Shaft stories, outside of the movie, since Tidyman's passing.  Further editorial plans for new comics and prose will be announced at a later date.
Ernest Tidyman was quoted on the origins of Shaft: "The idea came out of my awareness of both the social and literary situation in a changing city. There are winners, survivors & losers in the New York scheme of things. It was time for a black winner, whether he was a private detective or an obstetrician."
 Now here's the thing on this one. While Shaft has certainly come into the consciousness of just about everyone and the song was even lampooned during the early years of the Simpsons, it's also very, very much a product of its time and because of its links to stereotypes and the explosion of Blackspoitation films, this has the potential to be political dynamite for the publisher, if you'll pardon the pun.

The press release seems to recognize that, and tries to both emphasize the popular culture points (like referencing the song) while also putting it in the best light possible by using a quote from the author that shows his well-intentioned affirmation.

Well yeah, I'm pretty sure the original Luke Cage comics were designed to be a positive role model, but there's also clearly racial stereotyping going on in those early issues (a black hero who uses his power for pay when all the white heroes did it for free sure seems like a problem to me, looking back). Similarly, no matter how much Mr. Tidyman wanted Shaft to be "a black winner" there's some parts of that mythos that are going to be troubling for a modern reader.

Unlike updating Flash Gordon, where the clear racism surrounding Ming can be blunted by emphasizing his alien nature or even Vampirella, who can be given  makeover where she controls the sexual power of her character, it's going to be a lot more tricky to put together a Shaft that both retains the things that popular culture wants to see but also removes the racism. Whoever takes over the title is going to have their work cut out for them, because it's very easy for Shaft to devolve into the unreadable and blatant racism of (ironically another Cleveland white writer) Brian Azzarello's 100 Bullets.

I'm not saying it can't be done. After all, (yet another Clevelander) Brian Michael Bendis found a way to make Luke Cage retain his essential nature while showing him as a modern, self-confident African American hero who can and does lead teams of other heroes without care for pay and yet worry about the safety of his family or protecting parts of New York City that other heroes might forget. My point is that it's got to be right from the start and Dynamite needs to tread carefully. Otherwise, they could be facing a serious backlash.

Or maybe there's a market for playing to the stereotype, in which case, I just weep for comics. Please don't make me weep for comics, folks.

All in all, it looks like Dynamite is making a major play to be a force in the link between prose and picture with these moves. Adaptations of prose properties is a tricky proposition, and Dynamite is betting heavily on making it work, giving them an identity that they've been building with the creation of a large pulp line. Only time will tell if this was a smart approach, but with Boom! marketing to the hipster crowd and Dark Horse looking to other parts of the television/movie spectrum, ramping up their part of the literary adaptation genre seems like a smart plan.

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