Comics fans across the pond have plenty to frown about. Since May of last year, DC Comics has been building to an enormous event that intersects the worlds of the iconic Watchmen with the traditional DC Comics universe. It may not sound like much to the casual reader but the merging of these two worlds is something that comic geeks have debated about for decades. As with all great stories, comic readers and collectors are just as excited about the accompanying cover art for the issues that will span the course of this arc. However, that art will not be available to fans in Europe. Why? The short answer is because the special covers that DC is releasing feature the unmistakable blood splattered smiley face that is the hallmark of the Watchmen and in Europe, that’s a “no-no”.
Any comic fan will tell you, the best tales have to begin with an intriguing origin story, and this is no exception. In 1970 French businessman, Franklin Loufrani trademarked the smiley face. Yes, the same smiley face that we are accustomed to seeing practically everywhere. Two eyes, big grin, yellow circular background. That one. Of course, the smiley face had been around across the globe for years and whether his story was true or not, Loufrani convinced European officials that it was his invention and consequently, he was awarded the trademark. Despite this coup, Loufrani didn’t do much with the smiley face other than utilize it in his newspaper. He ultimately created an entity called “The Smiley Company” to handle the management of his trademark and later left that company to his son. In a move worthy of Lex Luthor, the younger Loufrani began vigorously pursuing licencing of the smiley face trademark throughout Europe. By 1996 he had created quite the successful corporation, but there was a bigger fish to fry, its name was Walmart and it swam in the retail oceans of the United States.(http://www.cbr.com/comic-legends-why-cant-batmans-button-appear-in-europe/)
Walmart had been using the smiley face for years as an integral part of its logo and Loufrani now argued that its Smiley Company was owed big bucks for that privilege. It sought to have its trademark honored by the United States and promptly brought suit. The case was the stuff of trademark litigation legend, dragging on for 11 years before the matter was ultimately decided in 2008, wherein the Court agreed with Walmart that in the U.S., the smiley face was part of the public domain. As a result Loufrani’s trademark would not be honored. Defeated, but not destroyed, Loufrani rested comfortably in the fact that its trademark was still safe and sound in Europe where it would continue to be enforced and The Smiley Company could continue to collect licensing monies. (https://www.law360.com/articles/251976/wal-mart-settles-trademark-fight-over-smiley-face-logo)
Now comes the part of the story that impacts our dear European comic fans. In order to feature a smiley face on the cover of any publication, including comic art, you’ve got to pay the piper. DC Comics was not willing to incur that expense in the European market, instead, opting to scrap the blood splattered smiley face from the cover of its graphic novel, Watchmen which had become synonymous with the wildly successful book. The differences between the cover art in the States and Europe were unmistakable, making the original graphic novel cover a much sought after collectors item in the U.K..
That same frenzy is now about to take hold again with the release of Batman Rebirth #21. On that much anticipated cover, the Caped Crusader is depicted holding the famous Watchmen smiley face button, signifying the beginning of a story that has been teased since the DC Rebirth launch last year. Fans in Europe will not be seeing that cover art in their local comic shops due, once again, to the same licensing issues that have resulted from Loufrain’s trademark and DC’s unwillingness to pay. Of course, this has only driven up demand for this cover art, causing some sellers to flout the law and actually smuggle in the U.S. version of the comics, via pre-orders well above cover price. Ltd Edition Comix is just one retailer cashing in on the smiley face conundrum. (https://www.bleedingcool.com/2017/03/27/buy-watchmen-smiley-batman-flash-covers-live-uk/)
All of this serves as a stark reminder that even in the world of fantasy and escapism that epitomizes comics, business is business…and Superheroes are big business. It’s the fans, however, who are caught in the crossfire while trademarks are litigated, dollars are counted and smiles are turned upside down.