After last week's Internet wildfire news about DC's impending relaunch (if you've been either living under a rock or don't care about the world of comics, then just know that DC will release 52 titles starting at #1, with origins being redone, heroes being made younger, creative teams changed around, and who knows what else) I thought it would make sense to look back at some of DC's past bold moves.
One of the main points about the relaunch is the fact that all these new #1 issues will begin the new trend of DC comics being released at the same time in print and in the digital medium. This is easily overlooked by a fanboy such as myself who cares mainly about the characters I love, does not own an iPad nor can see any possible near-future where the necessary iPad purchasing funds would become available, and is a traditional, old fashioned, 50yo in the body of a twenty-something who believes books should be smelly and tangible (shout-out to Giles) and comics should overflow from boxes and slowly take over my apartment.
However those who know more about this sort of thing--distribution, sales, Diamond, comic retail business, etc.--say it is an inspired idea, one that has the potential to help DC reach their goal. The goal being, of course, to beat Marvel in the top spot of comic sales for the first time in many years. Apparently the double-purpose of attracting new readers through the accessibility of digital printing and the non-threatening interest of character re-starts, as well as not completely alienating the stalwart fan who buys off the rack every Wednesday, has an actual chance of working, and could very well be the shot in the arm the industry needs. Granted, it could fail miserably after a few months, but the security of comics is that even reboots can be rebooted, and after all fortune favors the brave.
Reading so much coverage about DC's big brass testes made me think, and re-read, about their recent bold moves. From 2006 to 2007 they put out a weekly comic with a hugely ambitious cast and numerous plot-lines called 52 (if you see a pattern, that's because it's the number of universes in the DC multiverse.) Not only was the idea of putting a new issue of a single title on the stands every single week frankly unheard of and revolutionary, but this title would be expected to sell without any major characters. No Batman, no Superman, no Wonder Woman, (they were each taking a year off post-Infinite Crisis) not even any of the A-list Justice Leaguers. Instead the title revolved around people like Booster Gold, Steel, the Marvel family, Metal Men, Renee Montoya--a collection of B or even C-list heroes and sidekicks whose popularity, if they ever had any, was decades ago.
And yet by all accounts it was a success. I don't think it beat Marvel's sales, but people bought it, critics loved it, and the press wrote about it. DC got their best writers to collaborate on it (Johns, Morrison, Waid, Rucka, Giffen--I'd love to know how those duties broke down,) they had good, consistent art, they made the story tie to in to major DC events from the past and more heavily to upcoming plots, and they included a backup 2-page origin story on various relevant DC heroes. It was so successful that multiple spin-offs were born, and another yearly comic, Countdown, quickly filled the void of 52 ending.
Business-wise, it was brilliant. It had all the qualities of a great publishing plan; novelty, simplicity, accessibility and excitement. Storywise, I personally didn't care for it. Unfortunately story is paramount for me. A weekly year-long comic is a fairly substantial commitment, one that requires a satisfying pay-off. Unfortunately by the end it felt as if I had spent money on a series of year-long Prologues. There might as well have been a banner "The Road to..." World War III and Final Crisis. It started well, and I love getting to see Renee Montoya post-GCPD and how she becomes the Question and the first pages of Batwoman, and the Lex Luthor/Infinity Inc. storyline was great if not completely original, but as time went on it got tired. And then things just got increasingly grim.
After all the effort spent on humanizing Black Adam and getting the readers to empathize with the Black Marvel family, the climax of their story was like a gut-punch. Or worse, below the belt. And not in a good, Joss Whedon emotional rollercoaster way, just in a nauseating I-can't-believe-they-did-that, what-was-the-&^$#!ing-point way. The eventual brutal ending for that family was upsetting, Booster Gold as a hero never interested me, and I can't even recall what happened to Starfire. In the end it felt like a gimmick just to lead up to the next DC event, which again might not sit well with me in terms or story, but as a marketing ploy it was certainly effective.
DC knows that people like me, their fanbase, won't go away. What they need is new readers. Their characters are icons. People who have never read or bought a single comic know intimate details about Batman and Superman. In order to get these people to join the fold, something different has to be done. When it comes to trying new things, DC is much braver than Marvel. In recent years they've tried many unorthodox tactics. They made weekly comics with 52 and Countdown, and it was successful and got media attention, but not enough. They made Wednesday Comics, old timey classic serial stories of various heroes all printed beautifully on newspaper, and it did well and got press, but not enough. They hired best-selling authors to helm some of their biggest titles (Brad Meltzer on Identity Crisis and JLA, Jodi Picoult on Wonder Woman) which weren't critical successes although they got decent sales and stirred up interest, but still not enough.
So now they're starting over. Instead of just writing simpler stories, and I can't tell you how often I've read comic-writer interviews where they extol how "new-reader friendly" an upcoming issue is, they're actual redoing characters. With such a strong public knowledge of these heroes to act as a foundation, they are entirely rebranding their well-known properties. With small issue numbers, new origins, even redone but recognizable costumes, they are for once making these characters completely accessible. And by taking advantage of new technology to release the issues as digital comics instantly, they exponentially expand their reach. Suddenly new customer bases are appearing, and the results could be huge.
Not only could they increase their own sales numbers, but they are potentially revitalizing the floundering comic book business. Where Marvel does a reboot by renumbering Avengers #14 to Avengers #1, while maintaining both the team line-up and the writer, DC is truly refreshing their product. Marvel may still be getting bigger numbers, but in a new digital age where superheroes are everywhere and blockbuster films breed new fans, who is to say what the comic industry will look like next year? Adapt or die.
As a fanboy, I have several major anxieties about what will happen to the characters I love. As a cold, calculating, business-savy (Yes, I'm a businessman. I have pens) adult, I am slightly in awe of DC's courage, and I can't wait to see what happens. Regardless, both versions will be in my comic story every Wednesday, reading and buying. It's an exciting time to be a fan.