Monday, June 13, 2011
Thoughts on DC Comics' Recent Big Announcement
For those of you that haven't heard, DC Comics (publisher of comics starring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, amongst others) recently announced that in September, they would be canceling all of their existing comics (including, presumably, Action Comics and Detective Comics, two series which have been in continuous publication since the 1930s) and replacing them with fifty-two new comics starting with issue #1, some to be re-launches of existing titles while others will be entirely brand new. Additionally, the new comics will feature DCs existing stable of characters in new or altered costumes designed by superstar artist Jim Lee and feature "updated" origins, and Lee would be providing the regular art for the re-launched Justice League, featuring all of DC's "big guns". Also, it was announced that with the debut of the new comics, DC will launch a new digital comics policy, which will enable readers to download issues of the comics on the same day the print issues hit stands.
It was an announcement that, pardon the cliche, shook the comic book community as questions flew left and right regarding the extent of the re-launch and the details of the digital downloads. Since then, as DC has slowly released more and more information (to date we know the titles and creative teams involved with almost all of the fifty-two titles), all corners of the internet have been buzzing about DC's announcement. For the most part, I intended to stay quiet and let other, better writers discuss the situation (here is an exceptionally good piece on the subject, and I encourage anyone slightly intrigued by this post to read that one) but recognized that, surprisingly (and humbly), some of our readers look to this blog for the bulk of their comic book-related information, so I figured some kind of rundown and reaction was in order.
To me, this chunk of news breaks down into two significant pieces: the "re-launching" of titles and the digital piece (Jim Lee's costume designs are pretty hit or miss, but I have no doubt they'll be replaced with classic looks should this whole thing bomb, and his involvement as the regular artist of one of the re-launched books is a non-story for me; if anyone expects him to turn out more than six issues of a comic on a regular basis, I have some magic beans to sell). With that in mind, let's discuss them one by one, starting with the comics themselves.
This isn't the first time DC has tried something like this. Most notably, in 1986's Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline, DCs sprawling "multiverse" of alternate earths (like Earth-1, where the present day Superman and Batman played, or Earth-2, where time had passed since the debut of Superman and Batman in the late 30s and their children and heirs were now grown heroes) was condensed into one singular Earth, resulting in slightly different origins and backgrounds for certain characters. In the wake of Crisis, DC relaunched a number of their titles with new #1 issues (though numerous titles, including Action and Detective, remained in print and simply began to reflect the new post-Crisis setting).
The changes post-Crisis weren't universal however, and while some characters truly started over fresh (such as Wonder Woman or Superman) other characters remained largely unchanged (Batman was more or less left alone). As a result, there were stories in one comic featuring a neophyte Superman while stories in other comics required the character to come off as more seasoned. Over the course of the next several decades, DC tried to clean-up their line-wide continuity several more times (humorously, in some cases to fix the continuity problems brought on by Crisis itself), but like Crisis, none of those stories went far enough, and continuity remained a slightly muddled hodgepodge of new and old character histories and origins (all of which, of course, got further muddled with each subsequent attempt at "clean-up").
So my first thought after hearing DC's September plans was, "will this be an honest-to-God reboot of continuity, or another half-ass attempt that accomplishes very little of what the re-launch is intended to do?" As more and more details have come out since the initial announcement, it seems clear that this is, at most, yet another half-asss attempt at cleaning up continuity. While DC will invariably use this opportunity to change things they currently don't like about certain characters (or which they believe inhibits the marketability of a character) or restore the childhood status quo of a character one of their writers loves (for example, it looks like the long-paralyzed Barbara Gordon will once again be walking as Batgirl), the event seems to be more of a marketing one than a story-driven one. DC is clearly trying to generate buzz and use this cornucopia of #1 issues to attract new readers (especially the people that turn out in droves for comic book movies but never pick up a comic book).
While there is a part of me that is glad DC isn't rebooting their entire fictional history from scratch (one of the things I enjoy the most about DC's characters is the sense of legacy they have, of one hero passing on his mantle to another, which goes away the instant things start over from the beginning; also, how many times do we need to see Batman and Superman meet "for the first time" before it becomes tedious and boring? Answer: we're long past that point), any story that is primarily driven by marketing concerns rather than creative ones is dubious. Ultimately, we've seen DC try this same thing before (attract new readers by "streamlining" continuity and launching a bunch of new comics without entirely starting over from scratch) and there's nothing here to suggest it will work any better this time.
There is also a downside to re-launching books with a new #1 issue. It provides a great jumping on point for new readers, but it also provides a great jumping off point for existing readers. As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I read and buy a shit ton of comics, but over the last several years, I, like many in the comic book community, have begun buying less and less single issues and more trades/graphic novels (that is, bound collections of multiple single issues). More and more stories these days are "written for the trade", and shelling out upwards of $3.99 a month over six months to get a complete story is less attractive than waiting for those issues to be collected (usually within a month or two of the story's completion, sometimes less) and sold for around twenty bucks (or even less via online sources or used bookstores).
I love the single issue comic book (or "floppy") and will continue to buy the monthly issue of Uncanny X-Men for as long as Marvel publishes it, but lately I've taken any opportunity I can to switch from reading a title via the floppy to reading it via the more economical trade. Canceling a title and restarting it is a great opportunity for me to make that switch. That way, I have a complete run of the title in single issues up to its cancellation, then can start my collection fresh with the first trade of the re-launched title, rather than the first issue of it, and the anal-retentive geek in me is happy (and let's be honest, there's a lot of anal-retentive geek in me). Is the number of existing fans who jump ship as a result of this re-launch greater than the number of new fans who are sucked in by the allure of a fresh start? Probably not. But it's another variable in the equation.
Holy crap. I rambled on about that much longer than I intended to (and longer than anybody likely wanted to read). So let's call that good for now, and look at the other part of this announcement (the digital part) in another post.