The New DCU and Its Travails

Posted: September 22, 2011 in Braak, comic books, crotchety ranting
Tags: , , ,

It seems obvious now that I’m writing it down, and I can just see the words in front of me, but the essential problem with DC and their 52-new issue reboot/relaunch/reinvention is that it was really just a huge publicity stunt.

By which I mean:  they didn’t actually change their *product* in any meaningful way; they just tried to generate a lot of hype and notice for their work, and then just continued to do the same basic thing that they’ve been doing for fifty years.

There are exceptions, of course — Animal Man, maybe Demon Knights, maybe Justice League Dark will turn out to be crazy — but the fundamental problem that DC’s comics had wasn’t that no one KNEW about them, it was that no one CARED about them.  And that’s because DC is bascially the bottled water or the Mexican food of comics.

“So, what’s Justice League about?”

“Well, it’s this team of heroes that fights aliens and monsters and supercriminals.”

“Okay, well, what about Justice League International?”

“Well…it’s this team of heroes that fights aliens and monsters and supercriminals.”

“So, what about Red Hood and the Outlaws?”

“…team of heroes that fights aliens and monsters and supercrminals.”

“Teen Titans?”

“Like the other guys, only younger.”

“Stormwatch?

“…”

The problem is that they relaunched something like Deathstroke, but they did it under the assumption that the reason that no one was reading Deathstroke was that it was too complicated to figure out.  But actually the problem is that no one cared about it.  So they reboot all of these titles, and now, great, no one has to worry about continuity, BUT DEATHSTROKE STILL ISN’T VERY INTERESTING.

Even some of the other stuff — like, look at Supergirl.  The solicits for Supergirl talk about how she has Superman’s powers, but doesn’t have his compassion for humans because she’s more alien.  So right away, even though you don’t need to know about a half a century of comics continuity to be interested in Supergirl, the premise still relies very heavily on you having a working knowledge of Superman, his character, and his place in the universe.  That’s because she’s still the same character, and she’s still doing the same things — all they did was say, “Listen, don’t worry about continuity now.”

“What’s Mister Terrific about?”

“He’s a billionaire inventor who fights crime.”

“So he’s like Batman.”

“Well, yes.  Except he’s black and is better at math.”

“What about Green Arrow?”

“He’s…a billionaire inventor who fights crime.  AND!  He has a bow and arrow and wears green.”

“What’s Nightwing about?”

“Batman if he lived in a circus.”

“Batwing?”

“Batman if he lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

“Batgirl?”

“Batman if he was a girl.”

“Batwoman?”

“Look, shut up, okay?  It’s all the same fucking thing, just pick one and read it.”

“What if I don’t like Batman?”

“Are you serious?  Who doesn’t like Batman?  Here, uh, we’ve got this comic here about some vampires.  Teenagers like vampires, right?  Or cowboys.  We’ve got a cowboy comic!  Read those.”

 

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Comments
  1. Erin says:

    “So right away, even though you don’t need to know about a half a century of comics continuity to be interested in Supergirl, the premise still relies very heavily on you having a working knowledge of Superman, his character, and his place in the universe.”

    If you don’t have a working of knowledge of who Superman is, you’re not going to buy Supergirl. Or, for that matter, any comic book published by DC or Marvel.

    Actually, is there anyone left on Earth without a working knowledge of Superman?

    Moving on.

    “…the fundamental problem that DC’s comics had wasn’t that no one KNEW about them, it was that no one CARED about them. ”

    Okay. I know that sales on #1’s are inconclusive by their nature, but… have you seen some of the numbers for the “New 52”? Someone must care. Whether they still care after the novelty’s worn off is what matters, though, and we won’t know for sure for several months.

    But sales are through the roof, and there are a lot more fantastic books than I was expecting. Personally, I loved Action Comics, Batwoman, Wonder Woman, Swamp Thing, Resurrection Man, Animal Man (which you mentioned), Batman (Scott Snyder’s book – the others were nothing special), and Demon Knight. And plenty others are good – Supergirl, JLI, Green Lantern Corps, and Static Shock were solid; Batgirl was mixed and will almost certainly improve (I’ve got faith in Gail).

    That’s a lot of comics that don’t suck, which I consider a major change in direction. I know that there are plenty that still do: Catwoman and Suicide Squad being at the top of everyone’s list (I really need to read those… just to see). But even with those we’ve never had anywhere near this number of great books simultaneously starting new plot arcs (let’s ignore the #1 thing for a minute – yeah, it’s a ploy – but all of these books are still good jumping-on points).

    I’ve seen you reviewing a string of the weaker books – have you read many of the others? There’s a lot of good coming out of this reboot, along with some bad.

  2. braak says:

    “If you don’t have a working of knowledge of who Superman is, you’re not going to buy Supergirl. Or, for that matter, any comic book published by DC or Marvel.”

    Working knowledge of Superman, his character, and his place in the DC universe. It’s about a little more than, “Yeah, he’s a super-powered dude from another planet.” And don’t even try to tell me that his character on Smallville (which is what I would estimate most people these days are most familiar with) is going to provide even a remotely convincing foundation for exploring Supergirl’s character.

    AND, if DC’s numbers ARE through the roof, then are we meant to believe that everyone who’s picked up Supergirl this time around is thoroughly familiar enough with Superman to find this interpretation interesting?

    First issue sales aren’t just inconclusive, they’re probably completely misleading, for exactly the reasons that I am describing here: DC created a lot of hype and a lot of publicity, enough to get people interested in picking up the books, but then since they continued doing the exact same thing, they aren’t going to KEEP people interested in the books.

    I’m not saying that I KNOW will happen, I am estimating what I THINK will happen based on the information that I have at my disposal.

    All that said, what are we talking about? Eight good titles, four solid ones? About a 25% success rate? Is that really that much better than DC was doing before?

  3. Erin says:

    “Working knowledge of Superman, his character, and his place in the DC universe. It’s about a little more than, “Yeah, he’s a super-powered dude from another planet.” ”

    First of all, that’s already plenty of background to follow Supergirl #1. However, I’m pretty sure almost everyone on the planet could identify his costume, secret identity, and basic power set, has at least rudimentary knowledge of Krypton, Kryptonite, Lex Luthor, and Lois Lane, knows he’s a hero who fights for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, and is aware that he’s loved by just about everyone. And anyone with even the slightest interest in SF or superheroes knows a good bit more than that.

    “And don’t even try to tell me that his character on Smallville (which is what I would estimate most people these days are most familiar with) is going to provide even a remotely convincing foundation for exploring Supergirl’s character.”

    I’ve met very few people who haven’t seen the ’78 Superman and I’d say at least as many people have seen an episode or two of the Animated Series as have seen Smallville. Secondly, those who are solely familiar with Smallville aren’t that badly positioned: the version of Supergirl on Smallville wasn’t fond of humans and was likely the inspiration for this series.

    “All that said, what are we talking about? Eight good titles, four solid ones? About a 25% success rate?”

    Well, I’ve read twenty-one books in DC’s relaunch, and at least twelve of those were good or great. So, actually, that’s better than 50%*.

    “Is that really that much better than DC was doing before?”

    Even using the 25% estimate, yeah. I’d estimate that’s still better than Marvel or DC’s done historically.

    *Okay, okay. I admit my estimate’s BS, because the sample size of what I read wasn’t random. But yours is worse, since you’re counting books that haven’t come out yet as part of the denominator. Compromise at 35%?

  4. braak says:

    Listen. You can’t argue me out of this, because you don’t know anything either. I am telling you my theory. I am confident, based on my knowledge of how story works, that DC’s plan is going to fail — that their essential problem actually still remains the same. I actually don’t think that, in the long run, Supergirl is going to be of any interest to anyone that doesn’t already care about Supergirl and know a lot about Superman, and I don’t think that DC is going to end up with a comics spread that’s really that much better than they were doing before, because their creative strategy isn’t fundamentally different.

    What are we doing here? Are you trying to tell me that their creative strategy IS a good one? What is good about?

  5. Erin says:

    I’m not certain what you mean by “creative strategy.” Specifically, I’m not sure what you’re envisioning as the goal. As a business strategy, I think the odds are looking good. If you mean in terms of telling good stories, I think there are as many or more good books now than pre-relaunch (though, personally, I preferred the setting before).

    “I actually don’t think that, in the long run, Supergirl is going to be of any interest to anyone that doesn’t already care about Supergirl and know a lot about Superman…”

    Well, what defines whether someone cares about Supergirl? There are a lot of people out there who like Supergirl (or the idea of Supergirl) who have never bought an issue of her book. If DC grabs and manages to hold onto enough of them, hasn’t the strategy worked?

    I don’t think there are tens of thousands of people who have never stepped into a comics shop in their life who are going to start because of this, but I don’t really think that was ever the intent. I do think there are a lot of people who used to collect one or two issues a month and are about to jump to eight.

  6. braak says:

    “If DC grabs and manages to hold onto enough of them, hasn’t the strategy worked?”

    Well, “enough” is the question, isn’t it? How many do they need? What’s the ROI on their creative costs?

    And let’s say for the moment that a large portion of the audience is a set of people who regularly buy comic books with finite funds; what’s the percentage of those people who are already buying comic books? Are they already buying DC books? DC doesn’t win if all they’ve done is shuffled their fans around, and, frankly, I don’t think their “creative strategy” — by which I mean, “the strategy that they are using to create their books” — is one that is going to retain readers. I think their “marketing strategy” was strong enough to get people in, but it’s a short-lived respite.

    Hell, I bought comic books this time around, and there’s not a one of these that I’m planning to collect monthly.

  7. Jesse says:

    Weird … was JUST talking about this this afternoon, asking a coworker, “Is it just me or does the whole reboot thing just not feel very new?” You nailed the feeling: expecting new and exciting for three weeks, and then realizing you didn’t get it but you still have less money.

    Basically, amid a flood of DC books, I find only the “Vertigo” titles and two or three odd expressive or fun superhero books compelling and . . . that’s exactly what i did before. Actually, this is the first week i caught myself only buying books with favorite characters by favorite creators (Batman and Wonder Woman), which is quite literally the opposite of new reader, take-a-chance behavior. It’s a strategy comics aficionafos have honed over years of wasted money.

    I’m not exactly sure DC ever promised completely bold, new, unseen before stuff, but somehow, I decided that was what it should be yet it’s toally exactly the same as things were in August.

  8. Erin says:

    “And let’s say for the moment that a large portion of the audience is a set of people who regularly buy comic books with finite funds; what’s the percentage of those people who are already buying comic books? ”

    While everyone technically has finite funds, very few readers have a set “comics budget” which can’t increase. Even if they did, prior to the relaunch, DC’s market share was significantly less than Marvel’s. To put it another way, there’s plenty of opportunity for DC to increase revenue without increasing the overall number of comics readers at all: they just had to lure some from the competition.

    “I think their “marketing strategy” was strong enough to get people in, but it’s a short-lived respite.”

    I see where you’re coming from, but I disagree. Overall, the response to the the reboot seems to be positive (at least for most books). And don’t forget that each book sold is an ad in itself for the next issue: I’m expecting DC to outsell Marvel for the next few months at the very least. Whether they can keep that up longer depends on maintaining this level of quality, but the for the first time in decades, they’re better positioned than Marvel.

  9. Jeff Holland says:

    @Jesse: “Basically, amid a flood of DC books, I find only the “Vertigo” titles and two or three odd expressive or fun superhero books compelling and . . . that’s exactly what i did before. ”

    Exactly. At best, the ads and increased previews/reviews has made me more aware of books I might like, and the festivity around the “New 52” has made me more inclined to pick up the few that look good.

    By which I mean, given how many perfectly good books I’ve seen cancelled before their time, I wouldn’t have wanted to get attached to Animal Man or Frankenstein. But I picked them up because of the promotional push – and in six months or whenever, I’ll definitely buy the first trade. I can’t say I would’ve done that had they been released without the 52.

    But what I’ve really come across are two interesting new books, a good handle on the Big 3, and a whole bunch of the same damn crap I didn’t want to read BEFORE the reboot. Which isn’t to say many of them are awful, they’re just…the usual.

  10. braak says:

    @Erin: it is true that DC can increase their profits by luring away Marvel readers. So what, exactly, are they doing in terms of their creative strategy that’s going to do that? If we assume for the moment that the reason that most regular readers of comics are such because of the creative content of the books (not a completely true assumption, I know, but for the sake of argument), what is it that DC is doing that’s going to make their books more attractive to people who were only reading Marvel comics?

  11. Erin says:

    Resetting every issue number at 1 may be pure marketing, but requiring every title to start with a new story arc impacts the creative side. Together, these make the issues approachable, which I believe is why they’re selling as well as they are.

    But if you’re looking for something less ephemeral, the relaunch included a noticeable tone shift towards a darker, grittier setting. There’s more blood, more sex, and more violence in the DCnU, making it “edgier” and more appealing to teenage boys.

    In other words, Marvel fans.

    This is, incidentally, my least favorite aspect of the relaunch (yes, even worse than folding Wildstorm into the DCU).

  12. braak says:

    I know it impacts the creative side. I didn’t say that they didn’t have a creative strategy, I said that it wasn’t a GOOD creative strategy, because they started over with new stories without actually making new premises.

    And I think they’re selling as well because people have an idea that they’re more approachable; obviously it can’t be the quality of the stories, because no one’s read them before they start buying them.

    So, more sex and violence, but isn’t that exactly what the premise of the entire Identity Crisis and Final Crisis and the assorted Crises that DC has been managing for the last ten years? Wasn’t Darkest Night a series in which all of the dead came back as zombies and waged psychological warfare on the DC heroes? Are the new books more grim than that? More grim than Sue Dibny going insane after being raped, and the Spectre melting Dr. Light to death for raping her?

    But is it actually the sex and violence that keeps people attached to Marvel? This seems like a blunt and ultimately foolish creative strategy, even if it’s really accurate.

  13. Erin says:

    “…obviously it can’t be the quality of the stories, because no one’s read them before they start buying them.”

    That’s not true. Many people read comics before buying, right in the store. Others read reviews beforehand to get an idea of what’s worth buying. And, if these really weren’t appealing to people, why did they come back after the first week?

    “So, more sex and violence, but isn’t that exactly what the premise of the entire Identity Crisis and Final Crisis and the assorted Crises that DC has been managing for the last ten years?”

    Yup. Those were some of DC’s best selling stories. But that tone wasn’t the norm. Actually, the overall tone feels more like Vertigo books than those events. But I think you’re on the right track towards getting at their strategy.

    On the other hand, (in my opinion, obviously) the top third of the new DC books are far better than the core books on any of those events (though I wouldn’t say that if you’d included the Sinestro Corps War on your list).

    “But is it actually the sex and violence that keeps people attached to Marvel?”

    No. I’d say it’s more the overall impression that the Marvel Universe is a darker, more intense place. That seems to appeal to younger readers who ironically want to feel like they’re reading something more mature.

    In reality, I don’t think Marvel was much darker than DC, just less interesting. But DC seems to have a stigma with younger buyers. Older comics fans, in my experience, seem to pick up both Marvel and DC fairly evenly.

  14. Erin says:

    I know you want someone to ask, so here you go:

    I’m a little confused what you think a good creative strategy would have been. What editorial mandates do you think would have worked better at bringing in new readers without pissing off existing fans?

  15. braak says:

    I actually don’t especially care whether or not anyone asks, because I was actually under the impression that the creative strategy’s shortcomings were pretty obvious, but Holland did a pretty good job illustrating exactly how this should have rolled out:

    https://threatquality.com/2011/07/29/my-new-dc-comics-or-work-smarter-not-harder/

    Frankly, I think that DC’s problem is their fear of alienating fans. I think it’s an ultimately dangerous and degrading spiral that will cause them to, however often they manage to pull themselves up, continue to produce increasingly inferior product.

    And they came back after the first week for the same reason that any regular human being would: DIFFERENT BOOKS ARE RELEASED IN THE SECOND WEEK. 52 books come out, a lot of them seem interesting based on the solicits, so just because the ones you read in week one are bad doesn’t mean the ones you read in week two will be.

    Furthermore, it’s true that people read reviews, but it’s completely crazy to suggest that they can get an idea of whether or not the books are any good because of that, because DC’s reviews have been very VERY heavily weighted towards the positive (for example: every single review of Suicide Squad didn’t say that it was completely brainless sludge). No one is getting a good idea about what the books are like based on the reviews.

    So, finally, and again I’m not sure what you think you’re doing here; is your argument really just, “Nope, this reboot WILL be successful, because the only reason no one was reading DC was because the continuity was too complicated; if they go back and do the same stuff they did before, everything will work out”? Well, whatever, I don’t agree, but what, exactly, are you trying to convince me of? Or to prove to me? You’re seriously not trying to defend that half the crap that’s churned out is dumb bullshit, and my premise is that the fact that it’s the same dumb bullshit that they’ve churned out before is going to hurt DC in the long run.

    Listen, I’m going to go a step farther: by the end of the year, DC’s sales will have flattened back out. By spring, Dan Didio will step down as EIC.

    THERE. It’s my theory, and it’s factually impossible for you to disprove. The only thing to do is to WAIT AND SEE, and I am no longer entertaining arguments to the contrary.

  16. Erin says:

    “By spring, Dan Didio will step down as EIC. THERE. It’s my theory, and it’s factually impossible for you to disprove.”

    Actually, it’s easy to disprove factually. Dan Didio can’t step down as EIC of DC Comics, because that’s Bob Harras’s job. Dan’s the Co-Publisher. Here’s the official DC Comics Masthead:

    http://www.dccomics.com/dccomics/about/?action=masthead

    I can’t disprove the other half yet, but it’s really unlikely. I refer, of course, to:

    “…by the end of the year, DC’s sales will have flattened back out.”

    Flattened back out, as in pre-relaunch numbers? By the end of THIS year? Even if the books are as bad as you think they are, a portion of the people buying the first issue will stick around for two or three more, just to ride it out. There’s almost no way those numbers could possibly be less by the end of this year.

    My counter prediction is that DC does better than Marvel every month between now and the end of the year.

    I look forward to seeing whether either of our predictions turn out right.

  17. braak says:

    OH FOR FUCKING FUCK’S SAKE.

    WHOEVER is in charge of this shit show is going to get hung out to dry when DC sales flatten back out again in three months, yes. That is how long I am giving it.

    Also, who gives a fuck whether or not DC is doing better than Marvel? You don’t pay your salaries based on how much someone else is failing. It only matters whether or not DC is doing better or worse than itself.

    DC does better than Marvel? Dismissed, no, no one cares.

  18. Erin says:

    “Also, who gives a fuck whether or not DC is doing better than Marvel?”

    People who follow comic trends. It’s the primary benchmark that’s been used to illustrate how poorly DC’s been doing. Diamond releases numbers every month, and the key metric to get a sense of what’s going on is the % of the overall market each company controls.

    I mean, I’m sure analysts at Marvel and DC are more interested in year-over-year trends in gross and margin, taking into consideration the number of Wednesdays in each individual month… but I really don’t have the patience to compile that.

    Besides, looking at who’s “winning” is way more fun.

    I don’t think DC’s had a month at #1 in years, maybe decades. Three months in a row would have been considered huge for them. Now, I think it’s kind of expected, because most people believe the relaunch is going to be successful.

  19. John Jackson says:

    Also, um, I’m sure Marvel wants to still be #1 in comics for the next three months, but look at their past three years of corporate strategy. They “built” a movie studio. DC still only gets licensing/royalty money from WB and others who adapt their comics. Marvel gets a much larger share of the box office, which, if I’m not mistaken, has only been a let down in the case of The Hulk.

  20. Erin says:

    @John: When Marvel built their movie studio, they were an independent company. DC was owned by Warner Bros., who already produces films based on DC’s properties.

    In other words, DC wasn’t allowed to make its own studio or movies. Now that Marvel’s owned by Disney, they need to get permission, as well. For the time being, Disney’s giving them relative autonomy, but that could change down the line.

    That said, I suspect that making their Universe more “film-friendly” was one of the motivators behind the relaunch. The majority of the DC books that came out this month are easy to imagine as the first fifteen minutes of a movie – something which wasn’t true beforehand.

  21. Jesse says:

    On the subject of reviews (because I’ve been ruminating on this a bit this month), I absolutely rely on them. However, I’m kind of choosy about how, and I definitely don’t feel that it’s ever a sure bet on an enjoyable experience when I do buy a book after reading a positive review — I’m still buying them mostly sight unseen. The perceived quality of the book leads to a purchase, but I don’t know if the quality is actually there until I’ve read it.

    If a book gets trashed, I ignore it. If it’s well-reviewed, I’ll flip through it and, unless I’m horribly turned off on page 1 (like with Green Lantern Corps) I’ll buy it. But of those, I think I’ve only truly been happy enough with Frankenstein, Animal Man, and Batman to come back for #2 next month. Out of maybe 15 comics bought so far. None of that has anything to do with the point of the essay (that the comics aren’t very new), only that I’m still buying about as many DC books as I was before.

    Also, I’ve learned to limit my review intake, because most sites seem to judge comics against a fan service checklist rather than literary quality. So that means I’m pretty much relying on Threat Quality and Comics Alliance as my guides.

  22. Jesse says:

    Oh, and another point about the market share part of the discussion: I think DC’s stated goal of reaching new readers can legitimately be interpreted as readers outside the existing comic book reader realm, in which case, the Direct Market numbers aren’t as important a benchmark as the digital and bookstore sales.

    The only reason I think the “regaining DM market share” interpretation isn’t as sound is because the principals are usually quoted saying they want to lure back people who “used to read comics” or “have never read a comic before,” not “people who used to read DC comics.”

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