June 1, 2011

,   |  

52 Pick Up: Some Thoughts on DC's Announced Changes

There’s nothing more fun (fun being a relative word here) than logging onto Twitter, seeing an almost unbelievable announcement, and having the words, “DC just did what now?” leave your lips, making those around you wonder just what it is you’re talking about.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person to have this experience at some point yesterday, when the news leaked that DC comics is doing two major things as students begin their return to school: Re-numbering all their comics to number one and becoming the first major comics publisher to go to a simultaneous digital and physical copy release for their comics line.

Some folks are really upset about the first part of this announcement, but that’s a tempest in a teapot. Comics are re-numbered all the time, and other than making for confusing organization of long boxes (more on long boxes and their plethora of disadvantages momentarily), is not really an issue at all. DC might very well go back to original numbering, ala Marvel, and honestly the only folks who will care are a few purists who really need to get a life. Given all of the changes to characters from Aquaman to Zatanna over the years at DC, arguing for a historic legacy that goes back to the 1940s is just silly. These are not your great-grandfather’s comics, and pretending they are by sharing a numbering scheme is wishful thinking and misplaced anger. Unless, of course, you want to give Batman his gun back and turn Superman into a really, really powerful kangaroo. (Both of these would be better ideas than Azrael and Electric Superman, come to think of it…)

So if you’re looking to me for thoughts on the re-numbering, you’ve come to the wrong place.

What the new number ones do imply, however, is that DC is starting over with the characters and giving readers a chance to jump on. This may not end up being entirely the case, but I can’t help but think it’s part of the grand scheme of things. Number ones are always a chance to try again, and here DC is going with 52 first issues.

If I trusted DC to do this right, I’d be excited. I know there are plenty of people who like these iconic characters (or perhaps know them from their cartoon counterparts which are sadly being written far better than the comics they sprung from) who, like me, more or less jumped off the DC bandwagon years ago and might be inclined to jump back on now that things are looking to have a fresh start.

It’s hard not to see that Lee JLA, with Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg (I’d have preferred J’ohnn, but I understand why Cyborg is a better choice), and not feel a rush. THAT is the Justice League of America, just as the Avengers need Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man in order to truly feel like an Avengers comic. It would be awesome if DC’s restart of their titles also meant a chance for old readers to come back and see stories that are, in the words of one of my twitter friends, actually fun and heroic while new readers saw a version of these characters that was more in line with Batman: The Brave and the Bold than something more closely resembling a torture fetish magazine.

There’s only one problem: Look at who is putting this all together. I’m afraid I don’t have any confidence that Geoff Johns, who writes really good comic books that I personally don’t much like, is capable of doing anything other than the string of hyper-violent, splash-page filled comics that he’s been bringing to the DC world for almost a decade now.

As I told someone else recently, I’d be a lot happier about these changes if the people who were going to take over in September weren’t the same old crew. I like Grant Morrison, but I don’t care for comic after comic where villains eat faces or lobotomize their victims and I especially don’t like it when it’s Batman in the title role. Dark stories are fine, but make them good dark stories. Johns turned the Green Lanterns into militarized killers, making them the fascists that Oliver Queen always said they were. Along the way, he gave us characters who vomit blood. This is not good storytelling, but this is the man entrusted to reboot DC comics. You’ll excuse me if this part of the plan doesn’t fill me with confidence.

Once in a while, darkness and violence are needed. Put in the right context (Brubaker’s Sleeper or Waid’s Irredeemable or Vertigo’s DC’s Constantine) it works just fine. But we’ve seen so much of this senseless violence from DC (and Marvel) that I’m just tired of it. Ripping off limbs and threatening to do physical harm to female characters is the new Kryptonite. It’s an idea that’s so played that all but the most hard-core fanboys roll their eyes at it, when they aren’t outright disgusted.

I read plenty of violent comics, dark comics, mature comics, whatever you want to call them. What they share in common, however, is the quality of the storytelling. Messner-Loebs does a great job with Boom!’s Lovecraft world. There’s all sorts of violence and gore, but it aids the story. It’s not there to shock, it’s there to reinforce the narrative. That’s a difference I don’t think Johns and his ilk at DC can make, and that’s going to harm this reboot. Robert Kirkman can go from ripping out eyeballs in Walking Dead to slaughtering planets in Invincible to the cutest all-ages material like Super Dinosaur. I don’t think DC’s main set of writers can do that.

I really wish we would see a new set of writers coming on board with this change. It’s time to stop the one-upmanship of gore and violence and shock. This reboot is a chance to try telling stories, and whether they’re violent or all-ages, I want them to appeal to more than the small, roughly 50,000 or so people who keep asking for more of the same. With Johns at the head of the wheel, I don’t see this happening. I don’t think these new number one issues will give us a way to get new readers. I’d love to be proven wrong.

The biggest change, however, is the move to same-day digital. This is the one where DC brings the elephant in from the living room and dumps it on the head of single-issue comics retailers. As if the idea of 52 first issues is not daunting enough, now Dc is giving readers a chance to pick up their comics on an electronic device instead of at the comics shop, with no waiting. Previously, there has been at least some delay for most books, meaning that those who have to have the latest capering need to go to the store to get it. Not so, for DC books after August.

If you are going to spend a lot of time analyzing DC’s move, this is the place to do it. Since the 1980, comic book stores have been the place to go to get your comic fix. But now that we live in a world where downloading a comic is almost as easy as downloading an e-mail attachment and applications like Comixology make viewing those comics as good of an experience as reading a paper version*, the business model was bound to change at some point. The thing that caught us all by surprise was the idea that “at some point” became “in a few months.” Not even the most digitally inclined people could have predicted that DC or any other major publisher would make such a move this quickly.

DC has a strong presence on the Comixology app, and is not restricted to Ipad/Ipod only. Either they are taking an enormous chance or something in their existing sales tells them that going digital will help their bottom line. And understand, that’s what this move is all about. Comics retailers can be unhappy all they want, but if the average mid-range DC book goes from selling 25,000 copies to 40,000 copies by adding digital and it wipes out several comic book shops in the process, well, frankly DC just doesn’t care, and I don’t know that it should, either. I’m sorry if that seems harsh to those who work on the retail side of the industry, but this is a business, and DC should be thinking about how to sell more comics and get more readers, not how to ease the pain for those working retail.

Comic shops were a great idea, but I think readers are moving past them. People want trade paperbacks so they can read complete stories. They can get those in bookstores or online. Writers are telling tales by the arc, not by the issue, with rare exception. Individual comics are going so far up in price that it’s not value for the money.

Space is another consideration. I had 27 longboxes in my attic at one point in time. 27. Now with the age of digital comics, I can have 270. Or 2700. I’m sorry that there are people who will lose their jobs as a result, but I can’t be a museum for comic books. If I can get good stories for two or three dollars and be able to hop online to access them anytime I want, I’m a very happy customer. I’m back into the buying habit again. That’s what DC wants and needs, and clearly they think (as I do) that moving to simultaneous digital is the way to do it.

Now will they hook me in particular? As I said above, probably not, given who’s running the show. But do they have a better chance by allowing me to go digital if I like what I see? They sure do, and I’m betting there are thousands of potential me-like people out there, maybe even tens of thousands. Why not give it a try? This is a low-risk (might lose sales from closed shops), high reward (might get many, many new readers) decision for them. This gives them a leg up on Marvel as well, and I’m sure that was part of the thought process.

Giving fans a chance to buy digital comics legally the day they hit paper is a great idea, and those decrying it as the end of “the way things always have been” might as well lament payphones for all the good it will do. (One also should ask each of these people to prove they’ve never been to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Target.) Paper will be there for those who want it, but stores that focused on comics only are going to need to consider trying other avenues, such as more regular books, more events, more sales, adding gaming nights or something to keep going. It won’t be the end of the world for retailers to adapt and change. The last comic book store I frequented was already doing that, by adding more signings in-store and taking two thirds of their space for trade paperbacks.

Digital comics and DC’s move to simultaneous release will not kill paper comics. They might change the way stories are told (just as trades have impacted on single issues), but for those wanting the feel of floppies, I don’t think we’re in danger of losing them anytime soon. Why anyone would want them is beyond me, but since my feeling is that this move by DC is all about choice and increasing market share, they would be stupid to cut off those who like paper better. At worst, there will be (and should be) a price difference, with those wanting a paper copy paying more. Unless DC opts to go the New York Times route, where a paper subscription is inexplicably cheaper.

The industry will survive adding digital comics, and it might even thrive a bit when the barriers to participation are lowered. There are a lot of potential negatives to the digital comics world, but that’s not my point here. What I’m trying to get across is that this is not the end of the world, it’s a beginning. Before condemning the whole thing, open your mind to what good may come of it. (Off the top of my head, two come to mind: Less printing costs mean a better chance of low-selling titles to continue and the ability to vary prices so that less popular titles can still exist, if readers pay a bit more to get them.) I say that as a person who is not all that high on the quality of DC comics, keep in mind. If I can find positives, then they must be on to something.

I could go on for ages about the different things this change by DC could mean. As we get closer and details are clearer, I’m sure many will do so and do it better than I can. My main point is this: All three parts of this plan (reboot, renumber, re-market) are a great move for DC, a great move for comics in general, and none of it is irreversible. (Not even the comic shops. If the economy calls for it, shops can return where they previously closed.) Sure there are reasons to be concerned, especially about the quality of the reboot, but this is not the end of the world. Far from it. These changes might even put the comics world on the cutting edge instead of picking up the rear. Given the science fiction nature of a good portion of the medium, that would be a nice change of pace.

*Opinions will vary, of course, but I’ve read Irredeemable both ways and the only difference I can see is that I can’t take the Comixology version in the bathtub.