DC Comics Goes All In

June 18, 2011
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DC Comics’ plan to “relaunch” its comic line in September with fifty-two #1 issues is a bold move predicated in part on the assumption that there is a large untapped audience for monthly comics.  Each component of DC’s new publishing strategy attempts to broaden the company’s readership while simultaneously avoiding the alienation of its loyal readers.

First, DC will try to attract younger readers by expanding its digital distribution system.  Each new comic will be released at the same time as its print counterpart, and after a month the digital versions will drop to $1.99 (vs. $2.99 for the print comic).  However, it remains to be seen whether static, non-interactive, “old media” like superhero comics will suddenly become attractive to the youth of America simply by virtue of their digitization.  Additionally, most contemporary comic art still translates poorly to the iPad’s relatively small screen – splash pages, for instance, are practically illegible and need to be zoomed and scanned, which undercuts their impact.

DC is also trying to appeal beyond the conventional white male demo by introducing titles starring black characters like Batwing (“Batman of Africa”) and Mr. Terrific (“the world’s third-smartest man”).  And the publisher hopes to hopes to shed the air of juvenile sexism often associated with superhero comics by dressing its female heroes in less-revealing costumes.  (However, only three of the 160 creators associated with the relaunch are women.)

The “new DCU” might appear to be born of desperation; indeed, because sales of the top monthly comics have shrunk from approximately 150,000 copies each in 2008 to about 100,000 copies today, it may seem as though the comic industry is in freefall.  In fact, due to price increases and the industry’s long tail publishing strategies, overall sales have shrunk only modestly — sales in the direct market (i.e. specialty comic stores) were down 3% in 2010, and 2% in 2009.  The poor economy is a more likely culprit for these declines than a mass exodus by comics readers.

While DC surely looks to reverse these negative trends by attracting non-comics readers, a more immediate and realistic goal is likely the recovery of market share from Marvel.  Since 2007 DC has been dominated by its rival in terms of sales, with only about 30% of the market to Marvel’s 40%.  By positioning September’s titles as ideal “jumping-on points”, DC courts Marvel readers as well as comics neophytes.  In the words of Executive Editor Eddie Berganza, “Everything is meant to be enjoyed and read without footnotes or looking up back issues.”

However, by jettisoning the past DC eliminates one of its defining characteristics as a comic publisher.  More than Marvel, DC emphasizes the narrative continuity and history of its shared universe.  The very inaccessibility of the DC Universe that discourages potential new customers is a source of pleasure for die-hard DC fans, who accumulate subcultural capital through their mastery of obscure trivia or their ability to identify references to decades-old storylines.  These readers might consider September’s “jumping-on point” as a perfect excuse to jump off.  To address this danger, DC has taken pains to explain that the relaunch will be a “soft reboot” that will retain select stories from the past (the less popular the character, the greater the changes, it seems)  — but it remains to be seen whether this will pacify longtime readers.

Finally, although some retailers are concerned that DC is flooding the market in September, the relaunch of so many titles should help DC in a key weakness – the midlist of the sales charts, where Marvel utterly dominates.  Marvel has fostered a number of successful publishing franchises, including the Avengers, Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man, the Hulk, Deadpool, and Captain America, all of which have multiple monthly titles in the top 100.  (Nineteen of the top 100 titles in May 2011 were X-Men related.)  DC’s Batman and Green Lantern franchises are strong, but none of its other characters sell particularly well.  By revamping two underachieving properties (Justice League and Superman) and making them part of a line-wide relaunch, DC might be able to generate interest in C-list characters like Blue Beetle or Firestorm, both building the publisher’s market share and creating new valuable multimedia properties.  If the poorly-reviewed Green Lantern film flops, DC will need those second and third-tier characters if it hopes to compete with the Marvel Studios juggernaut.


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7 Responses to “ DC Comics Goes All In ”

  1. Kitchener Waterloo Home Staging on June 18, 2011 at 10:16 AM

    hmm, interesting… I’m sad that the old stories lines will be changed, but it would be nice to have a fresh start for the younger gen, who don’t know all these back-stories. I love DC, and prefer a lot of the characters over Marvel. My love of comics has moved to my blog, where in the next update, I’m creating a little comic strip to go along with it, lol!

  2. Colin Burnett on June 20, 2011 at 10:19 AM

    Thanks, Brad! I am one of the “new readers,” I must admit. DC set the trap, and I will definitely be falling in. And, from a strictly personal standpoint, I think that DC’s belief that mythological or narrative continuity stands as an impediment to new readers is a sound one. Heck, it’s THE main reason that I tend to stay away from ANY comics these days.

    I hope this doesn’t seem like a tangent, or a rant, but I wonder whether there is a niche market out there– for TV or any other artistic medium now tending toward increased serialization– for EPISODIC storytelling. For instance, I miss the old X-FILES “monster of the week” format interspersed with some “serial” storytelling strains. Or early SEINFELD when situations, rather than characters, were the focus. (At least, that’s what my memory tells me.) And that’s when I watched these shows the most!

    In other words, have networks and comic companies gambled too much on serialization at the expense of a viewerships/readership that might prefer LESS continuity, or very little at all? Anyhow, I could be alone in this preference, but the fact that I DON’T need to know anything about the past of these characters– I need only be intrigued by the costumes, powers, skills, villains, situations– is what’s encouraging me to jump back on the bandwagon.

    I already seem far too nostalgic for my liking, so I might as well admit: I think that animated childrens’ series like GI JOE and TRANSFORMERS had it just right. Mainly episodic storytelling, with some accumulated history for characters and “mini-series” from time-to-time. Again, isn’t there a taste for this out there? Perhaps an unanswerable question.

    But, more to the point, I think that this is a risky speculation on DC’s part. Again, just my point of view: I can’t imagine that I’ll get hooked to DC comics for the long term. My hunch is that this will give them a big– perhaps VERY big– spike in sales initially, and then a huge dropoff when johnny-come-lately’s like me return to business as usual.

  3. Colin Burnett on June 20, 2011 at 10:59 AM

    One more thing, Brad! I found someone who agrees with me. At the same time, it occurs to me now that I may have simplified matters just a tad. (Live and learn!) I just read this blog, from a webcomic writer: http://frostykzink.com/?p=608.

    In this piece, he briefly weighs the pros and cons of increased and decreased serialization in TV and comics. First, do you agree with him that X-MEN and FANTASTIC FOUR are, or were at one point, less serial and more episodic? I suppose it depends on the series.

    Now, whether or not this is a reputable source, the author does make an interesting suggestion: serial and episodic options are not two isolated, airtight strategies, but rather exist on a spectrum of increased or decreased serialization. Perhaps nothing revolutionary, but a good reminder.

    What he says about serial storytelling is also interesting. Serial storytellers, he says, are burdened by the Big Ending problem. A writer who favors a more episodic format is freed from concern for “where this is all going.” If the Enterprise is on a 5-year mission, a writer can focus energy on a tight, short story, and doesn’t have to sustaining interest in a single arch that drives 5-6-7 episodes.

    Of course, in the case of superhero comics, you need storyworld rules– even when you favor episodes. It would make no sense to suddenly give Thor a power he never had before. Storyworld rules are, I suppose, a kind of “continuity”– but they somehow seem easier to digest for non-specialists like me.

    So, perhaps this is where DC will take advantage of the subcultural capital you mention. It won’t be on the level of detailed character continuities in terms of past events and development, but rather in terms of storyworld rules. A longtime fan will know them, be able to appreciate nuances and commonalities; a neophyte like won’t.

    I can’t help but feel that I look like a comics philistine right now. So be it.

  4. Brad Schauer on June 22, 2011 at 7:55 PM

    Thanks for the comments, Colin. Your first point brings to mind the recent trend in television toward serialization — all the networks wanted their own LOST or 24 or ALIAS until they realized that serialized shows perform poorly in syndication. Whoops! Episodic shows, even if they inspire less fervent fan enthusiasm, or lend themselves less to synergy opportunities, can be more lucrative in the long run.

    I don’t agree at all with that blogger’s suggestion that X-MEN et al. are episodic. For me, X-MEN is the definition of impenetrable seriality. However, even when comics were serialized in the seventies and eighties, they were much easier to pick up and read without prior knowledge because of the extraordinary amount of redundancy and emphasis on exposition. The first 3-4 pages of each comic would be spent recapping the storyline, and you’d get charmingly clunky dialogue like a villain showing up and saying “What a shame you forgot how limitless my power is! How I can absorb all forms of solar and nuclear energy!” –also lots of thought bubbles and characters talking to themselves, to make sure the reader is up to speed.

    These days, writers eschew that kind of narration (for good reason). However, today’s more “sophisticated” writing can also be nearly incomprehensible for first-time readers, as you are often plunged into a storyline with very little sense of the plot or character relationships. If you stick with a story for a few issues (or arcs), you will likely become more comfortable — but how many new readers will make that kind of commitment? People won’t even watch soaps regularly, and they’re free!

    DC has gotten more and more insular since the mid-eighties, to the point where the biggest “events” each year would center not around some conventional character or plot point (Batman finds his parents’ killer, for instance) but rather around a change to the existing continuity (e.g. Superboy never existed!) They’ve messed with continuity so many times that long-time fans are understandably skeptical.

    Another interesting thing about the “new DC” is that many of the marquee books are being written by writers who are known for their interest in arcane DC history and ability to juggle complex continuity. We’ll see to what extent they will be able to put that aside. Geoff Johns is currently the Chief Creative Officer at DC and will be writing 3 monthly books — and he also shepherded the GREEN LANTERN film. One of that film’s many problems was its assumption that audiences would have a fanboy-like investment in the GL mythos.

  5. Jennifer Smith on June 28, 2011 at 6:29 PM

    This is a nice summary, Brad, though I wouldn’t say that DC focuses more on history and continuity than Marvel does — Marvel, after all, has never done a full reboot, and DC has its history of “crises,” including the Crisis on Infinite Earths that rebooted everything in the mid-80s.

    It’s becoming increasingly evident, furthermore, that DC isn’t actually targeting a new audience; they’ve outright admitted they’re seeking the male 18-24 demographic.* (And, given the overwhelming whiteness of the books, this is implicitly WHITE males 18-24.) Despite the fact that this is ALREADY their target market, the one that’s small and shrinking, it’s ludicrous that they refuse to even try marketing to the rest of the population, especially women (who ARE comics fans, but can be easily turned off by the rampant sexism and lack of strong female characters in lead roles) and children (who could potentially be hooked on comics young, if the company actually tried).

    Given all this, I can’t see how decreasing the dependence on continuity is actually going to increase their readership. The digital idea is a good one, as it partially removes the other burden to new readership — the hard-to-find and frequently unwelcoming distribution model of hole-in-the-wall comic book shops. But despite all the fanfare, this is still essentially an incredibly conservative move.

    (Oh, and as for the one-and-done, non-serialized stories — every time Marvel or DC has tried that in recent years, the books have failed to sell because the core readership doesn’t think those stories “count.” It’s a catch-22 — they need those books to get new readers, but they need new readers to be aware of the books in order to sell them, and with the direct market distribution model, that’s been heretofore next to impossible.)

    *Link to the target demographic quote: http://www.bleedingcool.com/2011/06/21/dc-roadshow-hits-dallas-million-dollar-ad-spend-justice-league-beyond-and-black-people/

    • Jennifer Smith on June 28, 2011 at 6:31 PM

      That would be 18-34, this is what I get for typing without looking at the keyboard!

    • Brad Schauer on June 28, 2011 at 7:11 PM

      Thanks for the comments, Jennifer. When I say DC is more focused on continuity, the incessant rebooting and events based entirely around continuity changes are exactly what I was thinking of. There’s a fetishization of continuity that I don’t see to the same extent at Marvel. Part of it is because Marvel never got into the alternate Earths game that makes DC simultaneously so fun and so frustrating. Marvel’s alternative Ultimate universe was meant (initially, anyway) as an escape from continuity.

      I do think that DC can target a new audience without targeting a new demographic. “Young white guys who don’t read comics” is a pretty huge untapped audience. DC, of course, will argue that they don’t publish as many books aimed at non-white men because they don’t sell. (Watch as the books starring African-American heroes are the first to be canceled.) But I also think DC could make an effort to foster these books despite low sales — plus they need to expand their notion of female-targeted books beyond “whatever Gail Simone is currently writing.”

      And I agree the reboot is pretty conservative stuff — I guess that’s what happens when you’re trying to recreate the magic of ’90s Image Comics. Some of the neo-Vertigo books by Lemire, Cornell, and Snyder look promising, though.