DC's New Cancellations: Are Comics Companies Sabotaging Themselves?

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A week ago, DC Comics released its May 2011 solicitations , and those with a keen eye may have noticed that five of DC's monthly superhero titles had an extra detail next to their $2.99 price tags (at which they were drawing the line): the words “FINAL ISSUE.” Yep, just like that, caps and all. The victims? Batman and the Outsiders, Doom Patrol, Freedom Fighters, JSA All-Stars and R.E.B.E.L.S.

Honestly, it's no surprise that DC axed these titles -- sales were plummeting, either dipping below 10,000 issues per month or threatening to enter the point of no return, and getting rid of such low-selling dead weight (regardless of the actual quality of the books) is just an unfortunate byproduct of the business end of comics.

Now, Bleeding Cool is reporting that DC's putting an end to its First Wave line, including Doc Savage and The Spirit, a result of the publisher's new stance on dealing with books – no longer will they let low-selling comic books carry on by virtue of the sales of more popular releases, but instead dealing with books based on their own sales. In other words, no longer will DC let smaller books like, say Conner Hawke and Kyle Rayner: The Forgotten Generation to exist just because Batman and Robin and the Other Batman and the Other Robin is selling enough to justify putting out something that's only selling a fraction of the amount.

Here's the thing, though -- did you know some of these books were still around? As a reader, I happen to know about Doom Patrol because I have friends who are into Doom Patrol. I happen to know about Doc Savage because Ivan Brandon is on Twitter. But, Freedom Fighters? Batman and the Outsiders? I had no idea that DC Comics was publishing these books on a regular monthly schedule.

That's a problem.

First Wave is a particular failure on DC's part. The publisher pushed Brian Azzarello's new pulp-centric mini-universe through preview pages in every DC book and even kicked off the endeavor with a Batman/Doc Savage crossover special before launching The Spirit, Doc Savage and the First Wave six-issue miniseries. After a couple of months, however, the project seemed to fade into obscurity despite all the fanfare the series started out with.

Of course, there are probably myriad factors you could attribute to First Wave's demise. Maybe it's the relative obscurity of characters like Doc Savage compared to currently popular characters like Green Lantern. Maybe Frank Miller's The Spirit film didn't do anybody any favors. Maybe it was the lack of a First Wave: Batman book to draw some attention to the franchise. Maybe the main contingent of mainstream comic readers just don't like pulp.

Mostly, I'd like to blame supreme lack of promotion outside of those few months leading to First Wave's inaugural issues, of course.

Once upon a time, both DC and Marvel had a page in their comics devoted to promoting their books. DC changed theirs way too much for me to keep track, but Marvel's was called Bullpen Bulletins. They revealed the kooky behind-the-scenes shenanigans and gave the editor-in-chief a column to talk about whatever editors-in-chief talk about and -- more importantly -- they had a checklist telling you exactly what was coming out that week.

I just walked across the room and found, coincidentally, a The Shadow Strikes annual from 1989. Their promotional column is right there on the inside front cover: a piece by Jenette Kahn called Don't Call Me Chief! and a checklist called DC List, which tells me exactly what came out this week: Hellblazer #25, Hawk and Dove #7 and -- egads! -- Dragonlance #14. Each issue is even conveniently marked, with an accompanied legend noting what's a graphic novel, trade paperback (or “collected edition” as was the parlance of the time) and mature readers book, among others.

Even a couple of years ago DC used to include, like, three notable books coming out that week. Nowadays, the DC Nation page consists of an obscenely large image (possibly a still from the upcoming Green Lantern film) and a quick little blurb from Dan DiDio or Ian Sattler or whoever. Over on Marvel's end, the new issue of Invincible Iron Man promotes two books: Iron Man 2.0 #1 and next month's issue of Invincible Iron Man, complete with information about when each book comes out. To wit, “3/16” and “Now!” Not much, but at least I know when to pick up two books I might be interested in. If they told me what was going on in Incredible Hercules and why I should pick it up, I'd probably be reading that, too, instead of ignoring it until the thing is canceled and it's too late to follow it, so why bother?

People are extremely lazy, and often unwilling to indulge in the unfamiliar unless given decent reason. I don't seek out French films all willy nilly, but I'm likely to watch a new movie by Jean-Pierre Jeunet because I saw Amelie and A Very Long Engagement and liked them enough to check out the director's next work. Meanwhile, someone had to tell me about Irma Vep to pique my interest in it. If I didn't lose you already after that bit of pretension, the point is someone told me about something unfamiliar and I sought it out because it sounded cool to me. That's what DC and Marvel should be doing -- telling me exactly what books they're putting out in a given week so that I can pick them up.

Hell, look at the Iron Man film -- a movie starring one of Marvel's lower-profile characters became a smash hit. Sure, part of the film's success was superb casting and it's loose, by-the-seat-of-their-pants filmmaking, but we didn't know that until the thing came out. Before that, all we had to go off of was a trailer, which told us what we needed to know to decide whether we wanted to see this movie: he wears armor, blows shit up. It will be awesome. And it was.

Now, one could make a case that there's no need to promote other books in the comics themselves thanks to the Internet -- that DC and Marvel post their solicits months in advance and have their publishing schedules readily available on their website, but not all of us engage in in-depth research to buy our funnybooks and have The Source on our RSS readers. I'm willing to bet that most people go to the shop on Wednesday and grab whatever they want off of the shelves. At most, they're going to know the release dates for books they're already interested in -- and sometimes not even that. Maybe if the comics themselves told us what else was out, some of us would be making return trips to the shop, presuming the checklist blurb for Sonic Disruptors Returns succeeds in enticing a reader.

Ultimately, what I'm saying is this. Comics can't afford to not promote themselves as aggressively as possible. I shouldn't not know what a publisher is putting out in a given week. Look, guys: you want to sell your shit, we want to buy your shit. Now tell us what you're selling.

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