Current state of the comic book industry: DC and the New 52, two years in…
It was about this time in 2011 that the fans started hearing rumblings about major changes in the DC line of books. In late 2009, Dan DiDio and Jim Lee assumed their new Editorial positions after Diane Nelson took overall control of DC from Paul Levitz. It wasn’t hard to see that Big change was coming since you don’t shake things up this much in such a short time without wanting to make major changes.
With Levitz out, fans knew that changes were inevitable. Protections that certain properties enjoyed would soon vanish; Watchmen, which had been almost entirely off limits, was now almost certainly fair game for further exploitation. It was also likely that the general structure of DC’s publishing imprints would be changing. The shutdown of Wildstorm and Zuda lines were already in motion and it was seen as inevitable by many that some sort of shake-up would hit Vertigo.
So let’s take a look at DC Comics as it stands today. There are good things and bad things to report on and change is rarely easy.
The New 52 and the ‘family’ groupings
In June 2011, the official announcement was made that every DC Comic book would be canceled and restarted in September as a new number one issue. This was of course not entirely true, as some titles were being heavily altered or replaced entirely but for the most part DC would still be recognizable as DC. This was not the first time in comics history there had been major or line wide reboots. DC itself , as recently as 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths, reset most of the major plot points and erased huge sections of older DC history. The entire Silver Age of comics at DC was rendered almost completely non-canon and several characters were killed off, most notably the Barry Allen version of The Flash. It took many fans a while to embrace these changes most of which were eventually reversed and even today many feel that the Pre-Crisis DC is better. But then again, Nostalgia can be a powerful distorting mirror.
On this reboot, the new number ones would be divided into ‘family’ groups of like titles connected by a theme or characters. Lets take a look at the groups, how they were when this all started and how they are now tells us a lot.
The JL books initially consisted of Justice League, Aquaman, The Flash, Firestorm, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, DC Universe Presents, Captain Atom, Justice League International, Mister Terrific and The Savage Hawkman. Of these Hawkman was recently canceled, having never found a solid direction for the story or fans interested in reading the character as done by the creators assigned to it. The other earlier cancellations were DC Universe Presents, Captain Atom, Justice League International, and Mister Terrific (was anyone really interested in a book starring Mister Terrific?). As with all the DC titles, there have been ‘waves’ every few months where books are canceled and new ones introduced. The JL family got new books Earth-2, World’s Finest, Justice League of America, JLA’s Vibe and Katana. Of these Earth-2 and World’s Finest seem to be doing very well and are getting fairly positive fan response. Unfortunately, it was recently announced that Earth 2 writer James Robinson will be leaving the title (AND DC Comics) at the end of the current arc so we will have to wait and see how long the book lasts without him.
The remaining original JL books are all still selling well, but have fallen on hard times in the last few months as Marvel books pushed all but Justice League, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman out of the top 40 in April. JL’s overall performance has been very mixed but most of these books (except Vibe and Katana as they are doomed to cancellation before 2013 is out) are likely to hold on for the foreseeable future.
A book does not have to be good to be a hit and the best books in the industry often sell so poorly they are canceled long before they find their audience. The JL books have had very little consistency. They all started out quite strong but quickly faded in quality helped by creative team changes and lack of direction. Only Aquaman and Wonder Woman have been strong in sales AND fan reaction throughout their whole run.
Arguably the most successful of the New 52 family groups is Batman. None of the original first wave of books has been canceled yet and more have been added. While most people seem to agree that Batwing is going to be canceled soon enough, the rest of these books have been embraced by critics as well as fans. The group consisted of Batman, Batgirl, Batwoman, Batman & Robin (recently changed to Batman & a rotating team-up), Batman: The Dark Knight, Batwing, Birds of Prey, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Catwoman, Nightwing and Detective Comics. The real standouts have been Batman, Batgirl and Batman & Robin; all generating huge buzz (both in the story and sometimes behind the scenes) and delivering consistently strong sales and excellent stories. The new additions to this group have been Batman Incorporated (not so much new as a continuation of the previous run of the title-but it is reaching its conclusion in July) and Talon, a surprisingly popular book by most accounts.
The Batman family of books has had relatively few changes from the reboot. The only major change that sparked any real interest was the fact that Batgirl has regained the use of her legs. While fans and critics alike have welcomed most of the books there are books that have begun to falter in an otherwise highly successful line. Detective Comics, Batman and Batman and Robin have been DC’s most consistently successful books, staying in the top 20 for most of their runs. So far-the only other DC book regularly in the top 20 is Justice League. Many of the others seem to have peeked and settled into their regular sales level. Most of the books are in the top 50, regularly selling 40k or more but there are a few such as Batwing (never placing in the top 50) and Batwoman (usually in the top 75) that are on the bubble. Batwing is likely going down in the next wave while Batwoman will hang around for at least another year, I think.
The Superman family of books started out small, only four titles. It is also the group with the largest wholesale changes and the angriest fans. Clark is now a single guy, the marriage to Lois having never happened. Ma & Pa Kent are dead and what they did to poor Krypto just seemed mean at first, but they have softened that recently. The main Superman book started out weak and never really found its footing. Action Comics was mostly well received at first but has declined in readership steadily as fans have lost interest in the story Grant Morrison is trying to tell. The real bright spot here has been Supergirl. Cleverly written and fun, the reader almost immediately likes the main character. Earlier versions of Supergirl had been very bitchy for no reason which made it difficult for the reader care, but this Supergirl is one you immediately want to root for.
The four books that started in the group are Superman, Action Comics, Superboy and Supergirl. They have sold reasonably well but will never get the top spot away from the Batman books, a franchise that has been DC’s top dog for decades now. Given the various legal issues surrounding this franchise it is unlikely that DC will rock the boat much; they need to keep these trademarks as active as the market will allow. With two new books joining in June of this year, both by top flight creators, the near future looks stable if not entirely bright for the Superman family.
Like the Batman books, the Green Lantern family of titles did not really change much with the reboot. Mostly the stories from pre-reboot wee just continued. With only four books to start (Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, GL: New Guardians and Red Lanterns), there was not much that DC would have even wanted to change. The GL books have sold well for a few years now as the post reboot books were generally well liked by the fans and more or less ignored by the critics, except to notice that not much of substance had changed.
Geoff Johns and Peter J Tomasi have been the caretakers of this franchise for several years but their story is ending, with both writers leaving for other projects once the current storyline wraps up. That change combined with a new title called Larfleeze, about the Orange lantern, put these titles in a precarious state (Larfleeze is getting his own book, really? The only thing that makes this even a little interesting is Keith Giffen writing it). Before Johns came along and revamped the GL universe in 2004, the characters were not all that popular. The franchise had lost its focus and with Johns leaving now, the fear is that will happen again.
These books were something of a mixed bag thematically. Younger heroes but little or no other connection to each other, and they have NOT fared well. Of the first group of books only Teen Titans is left; Blue Beetle, Hawk & Dove, Legion Lost and Static Shock were all canceled before the two-year mark (Static Shock and Hawk & Dove only made it to eight issues each). The Ravagers was launched in the second wave and was canceled after issue 12. Recently, Legion of Superheroes was canceled leaving just the Titans.
These books have generally been a mess. Editorial shifts and last minute changes hurt these books early on and none have ever really found their stride. Teen Titans has limped along fueled by things other than the actual stories or characters (mostly sex and skimpy costumes). Even the books that were well done like the Legion books just never grabbed enough readers to justify their existence.
Like the Young Justice line, The Edge group was a mix of story types that also included several other genres. This line became the home for most of the Wildstorm characters that were folded into the DCU. The canceled first wave books were Blackhawks, Grifter, Men of War, OMAC, Voodoo and Deathstroke. The good news is all the Rob Liefeld books have been purged. The bad news is that most of the real variety of the DCU was also canceled. Men of War was replaced by G.I. Combat, but canceled by the seventh issue. Stormwatch is the only Wildstorm-centric book left. Stormwatch, Suicide Squad and All-Star Western are all that remain from the first wave of books. However, if Jim Starlin cannot save the ‘on-the-bubble’ Stormwatch it will soon be gone.
Subsequent waves have introduced the titles Threshold (canceled recently after eight issues) and Team 7 (recently canceled); those along with G.I. Combat mean the fans of the more unusual heroic adventures need to look elsewhere. The recent addition of The Movement and The Green Team: Teen Trillionaires is a nice step towards maintaining the variety in this line but I honestly do not see either book lasting a full year.
The Dark line of books contained DC’s biggest surprise hit with Animal Man, a book that is still selling fairly well. With this line, DCs expectations seemed to be very different. Books that would have been canceled in any other line have hung on here far longer than seemed appropriate given their sales figures. Frankenstein: Agent of Shade was popular at first but faded very fast, lasting at least eight issues longer than it should have. DC has been very slow to cancel books in this line and the only other first wave titles to have been canceled so far are Demon Knights (just canceled in mid-May), I, Vampire and Resurrection Man (a series brought back from several years ago that started strong and just sort of dropped off the face of the Earth sales-wise). Aside from Animal Man, the other first wave books left are Justice League Dark and Swamp Thing (Swampy is not likely to last much longer).
Dial H was introduced in the second wave for The Dark line and is book a lot of old time fans were rooting for. Unfortunately, Dial H was recently canceled along with the Amethyst reboot Sword of Sorcery. Fortunately there is a fair bit of hope for this line in some of its new and forthcoming books. Trinity of Sin: Pandora is coming soon and should draw in readers from all over the New 52 books because of the ongoing mysteries of the character. The Phantom Stranger looks as though Dan DiDio has found a book he has a flair for which has created some interest. Then there is Constantine, a book that has drawn some anger from fans of the now canceled Vertigo series Hellblazer. One of the most successful books DC has ever had, Hellblazer has been folded into the DCU proper once again as the new ongoing Constantine and many fans are not thrilled. Only time will tell if their fears are justified but if anyone at DC can make this book more DCU compatible without killing its edgy, raw style, it is writer Jeff Lemire.
With all these recent cancellations, the New 52 (can we stop calling it ‘New’ yet?) is looking like the New 40-something! I imagine DC has that number well in hand though.
Then we have some of the other stuff…
As mentioned at the start of the article, DC was certainly going to exploit the Watchmen properties now that Paul Levitz was no longer there to safeguard it. Many fans were upset, feeling that any expansion would somehow cheapen the original work. That has always been a concern with expanding properties that don’t involve the original creators. Fans often forget that the work they originally loved is still there, unchanged on the shelf, just as they remembered it. They were not being forced to read these new books, but judging by the sales many did. The prequels sold fairly well, in some cases getting into the top 25. On average the titles all sold well enough to justify themselves and DC could shoot down any nay-sayers, something they really didn’t do much to their credit. The books were allowed to succeed or fail on their own merit and most were very well received. On every book, top-notch creators were in place to tell these back-stories and it went better than expected. The usual problem of artists missing deadlines was there too but one of the things that make these people so popular is the dedication and time spent on their craft. To this fan, GOOD books win over on-time books any day.
It is hard for me to picture a comic industry without Vertigo. It has been 20 years since the imprint’s creation and while it has not been flawless, it has certainly been a model to follow. Currently Vertigo’s future is uncertain. DC has stripped away all the titles and characters that originated in the DCU (Constantine, Swamp Thing, Shade etc.), and the imprint is now exclusively for creator owned properties. This is not all bad, despite what some fans may tell you. The DCU characters had a mature readers presence in Vertigo but they were still subject to occasional restrictions created by the corporate need for viable franchises. Now they are where they belong in that respect and the owners of the characters can do what they please.
A focus on creator owned books could allow Vertigo to do what it does best but changes to the line could hamper their efforts. With three current series running and three more coming over the next several weeks, the line is a manageable size but it has a limited overall potential now that some of the stalwarts of the line are gone. The departure of long-time head Karen Berger has lessened some of the draw for top tier talent. Berger built Vertigo and was responsible for drawing in creators like Neil Gaiman and Peter Milligan, with her gone the real star power of the line may depart as well. Presumably, the forthcoming Sandman book by Gaiman will be a Vertigo book and Kurt Busiek’s Astro City will begin its new run as a Vertigo title. 100 Bullets is returning soon so there is still some hope.
The rise and fall…?
The goal of the New 52 was to increase market share. DC succeeded in this for about 3 months but then lost it to Marvel again. Many of the new books sell better than their pre-reboot versions and many have a stronger media presence than before. Unfortunately, many readers that were willing to give the changes a chance have since dropped the books. Titles that had very promising starts (Action Comics springs quickly to mind) soon became incomprehensibly bad while others never really came together at all. The Batman books are excellent for the most part and sell very well but since there were only a few changes to the books it is not a surprise.
DC seems to be struggling to stay in the spotlight even with the re-launch. Failed gimmicks like ‘WTF?!” month (which has since been dropped when branding proved to be too much), smaller crossovers taking place instead of the monster event crossovers, have smelled of desperation not as evident in the other comics publishers.
DC is at a crossroads. It was fairly evident that it was ‘make or break, time when the reboot happened but it is not entirely clear what the outcome has been. Ultimately, I cannot say all that much has changed from just before the debut of the New 52. The same books that sold well before are still selling well now and the new books have met with very little real interest.
Wish list for DC’s immediate future
1. Let the Wildstorm characters rest until something interesting can be done with them.
2. Get off this need to have the arbitrary 52 books in the line unless there is something really worth the effort.
3. Stop the ‘characters are everything’ mode and keep quality teams on books whenever you can (last year’s’ firing’ of Gail Simone from Batgirl and her now almost untouchable status is a great example of editors needing to leave the really talented creators alone when things are going well).
4. Schedule is not the most important thing. If you have a slow but otherwise good team on a title, just revise the schedule to fit them. Good books=GOOD; Fill in issues with crap between the covers=BAD!
5. Renew the emphasis at Vertigo. Keep the creator owned works coming and give readers the variety that has been missing in the last few months.
Warner in general and DC specifically have never been good at making the most of what they have to work with. Here is my hope they get back on track and renew the already fading momentum of the not-so-new 52!
What do you think? Leave a comment.