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Why DC Comics can’t use the most iconic Watchmen image outside of America

Let’s put a smile on that face!

From Rebirth #1
Phil Jimenez and Gary Frank/DC Comics
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

DC Comics’ The Button storyline is being closely watched by comics fans — and well-promoted by the company. The four-part crossover between Batman and The Flash is teasing itself as the next step in the slow arc of DC’s Rebirth storyline, which promises to reveal Doctor Manhattan — and possibly other Watchmen characters — as the secret architects of the destiny of the entire main DC Universe.

It makes sense that a comic event of that magnitude would have some fancy covers, and The Button does, with a set of variant covers for each issue and lenticular versions of the main covers. But the first two issues of the crossover, Batman #21 and The Flash #21, each have an extra “international edition variant cover” available only outside of the United States.

Why? Because the main covers of Batman #21 and The Flash #21 can’t be printed in many countries outside the United States. Can you guess why? It’s a reason that may impact many of DC’s Watchmen-related titles going forward.

Batman #21
Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson/DC Comics
The Flash #21
Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson/DC Comics

The answer is something that Americans can safely take for granted, because in the United States a yellow circle with a stylized smiling face is a public domain image. Outside of the U.S., the Smiley Company owns the trademark on the symbol in 100 countries.

Founded in 1972 by Franklin Loufrani, the first person to legally trademark the “smiley face,” the Smiley Company has since grown in to a multinational corporation. The Company attempted to secure the U.S. trademark in the late ‘90s and ran up against another financial juggernaut, Wal-Mart — which was in the middle of its “Rolling Back Prices” add campaign, which heavily featured a smiley face character.

Wal-Mart and the Smiley Company wouldn’t settle the dispute until 2010, and the terms remained confidential. But the status quo didn’t change: The Smiley Company failed to secure the U.S. trademark. The smiley face remains in the public domain in America, while anyone who uses it in a country where the Smiley Company owns the trademark would have to pay licensing fees.

Which is all very relevant to DC Comics, as it continues to lean on the sales, characters and visual motifs of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. A bloodied, yellow button bearing a stylized smiling face was a major visual device in the influential 1986 comic, and has been a prominent design motif for physical editions of the book ever since. In the story of Watchmen, the smiley acted both as a symbol of the murder mystery that kicks off the plot, and of the murder victim — the retired costumed crime fighter known as the Comedian — himself. That button, and how it came to be lodged in the wall of the Batcave, as seen in Rebirth #1, the comic that kicked off DC’s new editorial direction last year, is the central focus and namesake of the current crossover.

And that’s why, outside of the U.S., this is the art you’ll see on the covers of Batman #21 and The Flash #21:

Batman #21, international edition variant cover
Mikel Janin/DC Comics
The Flash #21, international edition variant cover
Mikel Janin/DC Comics

Honestly, I’m kind of jealous of international markets. Mikel Janin’s art is amazing.