Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Anticipation, Half Measures, and the New 52

Having read the first issue of Johns' and Lee's restructuring of the Justice League, which serves as introduction to the rest of the restructured DC Universe, I'm... Well, I'm not sure I'd have gone about it the same way they did, not entirely. I hope that at the end of the proverbial day this is a huge success for DC and in six months time they have a half dozen or more titles selling over 100k each month. Somehow, I don't think that's going to be the case.

Clearly, DC recognized that their flagging sales trends could not continue. Warner Brothers may only need DC Entertainment as an IP generator, but DC (DCE?) and its management clearly felt their needed to do something to justify their continued existence as a small publishing arm of a much bigger corporation. They need (and by extension all of the comics industry needs) a huge influx of new readers. All of comics needs a big shot in the arm.

So let's go then. Let's see DCE attack the marketplace with something bold, and fresh, and super fucking attention worthy.

Two weeks after stores received the finale of the most recent Justice League of America series, we get the spankin' new Justice League #1. And the first issue turns out to be the first part of a five or six part story arc wherein vaguely “All-Star” feeling versions of Batman and Green Lantern tangle with the cops and a parademon and a cliffhanger promising a Batman vs. Superman showdown next month.

 I was going to issue a parenthetical spoiler warning for the above paragraph but then realized that it was unnecessary. The issue read, beat-for-beat, like so many other comics I have sitting in long boxes in my closet that by the end I was just disappointed by it all.

I'm going to assume that the rest of the arc will detail All-Star Batman and company's bickering slowly metamorphosizing into grudging respect as they realize that they must work together to defeat an invasion from Apocalypse. Meanwhile, Vic Stone's transformation into Cyborg will place him in the rookie hero role, acting as the voice of the reader and proxy gateway into this crazy new world of super heroic adventure.

Every beat of the issue, from Batman's in media res introduction to the “Next: Superman v. Batman” caption box felt more like a remix than a reboot. One issue in and the New 52 reads as a stale remix of the familiar.

And I'm left wondering how they could have started this brave new era differently, to make it really different.

DC wants this to be big; the biggest thing ever. I want it to be the biggest thing ever, as a life long comics reader and aspiring comics writer. All of comics fandom should be wanting this to be the biggest thing ever. The New 52 should be hitting the market with all the combined impact of Showcase #4, Amazing Fantasy #15, Fantastic Four #1, Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the launch of Image Comics rolled into a single four-color explosion. This should be the biggest entertainment news of the year.

But how?

DC should have gone away for a while. Rather than the New 52 press release we got, they should have instead announced that they were wrapping up the DCU; announced that they were giving their creative teams another 4-6 months to wrap up their books with satisfying narrative codas. That's it. Announce that they're ending DC Comics. Bombshell. Give that a week to cycle through the internet and really cause a stir before following it up with a press release that the new DC Entertainment is launching after a six month hiatus.

There was a good five or six year period between the Golden and Silver Ages of comics. Ultimately, there's too much money involved for the pantheon of DC's characters to disappear for that long. But a gap longer than two weeks (less if you consider Flashpoint #5 was released the same day as Justice League #1) was needed in order for this soft relaunch to have the impact in deserves. Most all other media goes on hiatus of some sort. TV shows have three month breaks between seasons. Book publishers schedule out their releases far enough apart. Movie studios give their franchises a rest now and then. The market needs room to breathe and readership needed a dose of anticipation. Absence makes the heart something something.

I understand that this is serial publishing and there's a fear that if you take a break your audience might not be there when you return. But this is different than a book shipping late. This is a planned relaunch of the entire line. It's already a deliberate gamble. Half measures aren't enough.

DC wouldn't have needed to shut down completely. They could fill this hypothetical six month gap with a handful of war, western, horror or other genre comics while still stepping back from publishing super heroes for a time. The interim gap could have been used to build anticipation and excitement with coordinated releases, teases, and advertising. With the backing and commitment of a parent company that made over a half a billion dollars off the most recent Batman movie, I'd have gone as far as a television ad campaign selling the new DC Entertainment. The general public need to be reminded that comics still exist, let alone matter.

Go away for six months and then come back swinging as hard as you can and knock it out of the park.

DC Entertainment, and comics writ large, needs a huge influx of new readers. These new readers need to be both young and old and they need to have easy access to comics. New readers, intrigued by the ad campaign, should be able find DC comics everywhere they turn when the relaunch hits. This means comics in every possible venue: the local comic shop, the Kwik-E-Mart, the supermarket, bookstores, and everywhere on the internet. This would mean a real sea-change in how comics are distributed, but it's necessary.

For the LCS, and the buyers who don't need that acronym defined, not much would be different than it is now. They are the hard core. But DC already has those thirty to forty thousand Wednesday customers. They're not going anywhere (not that this means the industry should turn their backs on them either. As long as they're not insulted or ignored, they're not going anywhere). Habitual readers will remain so, and the new DC Entertainment can continue to market high quality editions of the monthly issues printed on glossy paper. The LCS is a boutique shop, not a major marketplace, and should be recognized and treated as such. Give the LCS specials and extras and whatever else; don't forget that it's a premium market and treat it as such. 

Additionally, DC Entertainment's return should be including an aggressive return to corner stores and supermarkets. Every kid in the country should be able to tug on their parent's sleeve and beg for the latest issue of Batman or Justice League. Make these newsstand editions as inexpensive as possible. Print them on newsprint. Fill them with ads. Do whatever it takes to give them the most palatable price point possible; a buck a shot for a parent to give their kid something to read in the car on the way home. Limit these editions to four or five core titles, tops, and make it easy for stores to commit to stocking them. Make these the “gateway drug” comics has been missing since they threw all-in with Diamond and the direct market. If Archie can do it, so can DCE.

Then there's digital and the internet. Today when I go to the iTunes store and search for “Batman” I'm offered the feature films, cartoons, audiobooks, podcasts, some ancillary nonsense, and the DC Comics iPhone and iPad apps. But there's no direct link which I can click on to buy digital editions of Batman comics or graphic novels. Yes, I'm aware of the app but that's a bottleneck DC (and again, comics writ large) shouldn't be putting in place. I should be able to go to iTunes, like millions of users do every day, search “Batman” and be able to click, buy, download, and read a CBR or PDF of any of DC's back catalog of Batman graphic novels instantly using any reader I choose. And the very first search result should be for the monthly Batman book with a “subscribe now” button. Make the digital editions cheap, easy to get, and hook people in with subscriptions, just like people are already accustomed to with podcasts. How many tens of thousands of extra readers are likely to subscribe to “Batman” in iTunes for $0.99 per month (or save and subscribe for only $9.99 per year!) that would never consider walking into an LCS?

Sell monthly comics in the LCS; comics printed on high quality paper with alternate covers and packed with extras, letter columns, and back matter. Sell them for $2.99 or $3.99 or whatever the direct market can bear.

Sell monthly comics in Safeway and Wegmans and the Kwik-E-Mart; a small selection of comics with “regular edition” covers on cheap paper with an impulse buy level price point.

Sell monthly comics online through iTunes, Amazon, an app, direct download from, from everywhere. Sell them cheaply at ninety-nine cents apiece for single issues and more for trades or OGNs.

Most of all, sell comics.

So, in this ever more long-winded hypothetical, DC Comics has gone on hiatus. They've fueled their hard core base's anticipation with hints and teases, and built up a mainstream ad campaign to match. They've positioned themselves for a giant coordinated premiere with books being available in every possible marketplace. Remember, no half measures.

This brings us to the actual delivery. “The New DC: There's No Stopping Us Now!”

DC Entertainment's big premiere should fulfill the promise and make us all believe the hype. Premiere Day should have hit with a one-two-three-four punch of Justice League, Batman, Action Comics starring Superman, and Wonder Woman, and each one should have been a stunning 96 pages at a bargain two or three dollar price. Hit us with impossible to ignore comics; four books that set up the senses-shattering new status quo for the entire universe. Do it by telling four complete stories right out of the gate using the four most marketable properties you have, told by the biggest and brightest talent you have.

Hook new readers with excellent writing, even better art, and fun, complete original stories that lure them in and leave them wanting to sign up for more.

Instead, DC is back and they're stumbling out of the gate with a convoluted, staggered approach. JL#1 has a “five years ago” setting. Action is apparently starting out set further back than that, and most of the other books are taking place in the narrative present day. Day one, and casual readers are being tasked to deal with a simultaneous, multiple time-lines barrier to entry and the daunting commitment of a six month wait before the completion of a single story.

I'm left wanting, thinking of an alternative wherein DC could have offered four complete stories to hook new readers and then capped each one with a “Read The Continuing Adventures Monthly” caption at the end. So far, it all feels like more of the same, with an approach that still encourages waiting for the trade collections.

This new beginning should hook us, reel us in and never fucking let go. New stories and a brave new direction featuring iconic characters. No looking back, the future's over there!

Instead, at the beginning of this issue I'm reminded of Batman chasing a monster from Apocalypse in the first issue of Cosmic Odyssey. I'm reminded of Batman & Green Lantern bickering in the pages of All-Star. I'm reminded of rookie hero Cyborg being instrumental to the Super-Friends defeating Darkseid in his introduction and expect rookie hero Cyborg to be instrumental to the Justice League defeating Darkseid in this introductory arc. At the end of the issue I'm reminded of all of the times Batman and Superman have clashed in forever. 

 And, at the end of the proverbial day, I suspect that comics on the whole are going to come out the other side of DC's shake-up with a lot of sound and furor amounting to nothing much more than cosmetic uniform changes and a temporary sales bump accompanying the renumbered first issues and same-old sales tactics.

I wanted innovation. I wanted risk taking. I wanted to buy and read the distillation of everything that makes comics, and DC Comics in this case, incredible. I wanted to experience the rush of DC's icons being folded and tempered, being honed to a new cutting edge. I wanted to read something new. I wanted streamlined, purposeful, daring, original comics. I wanted (still want) the best stories told with the best characters. Most of all, I want everyone to be reading these comics.

It's the first day of DC's New 52. There's room for growth and change and course correction, but so far all I see are missed opportunities and half measures.