The New Frontier: First Reactions to DC's Clean Slate Approach
Since the news broke that DC would essentially be restarting their universe, the internet has been abuzz with frenzied, often hysterical speculation and snap judgments. Rather than roll out endless covers and tallies of diversity, we at Comics Bulletin decided to instead compile some thoughtful hopes, questions and dreams from our staff. So sit back, take a break from the mob and ponder with us about what DC's new approach might mean for the industry.
So, by now you’ve heard that Detective Comics Comics has decided to reboot their entire publishing lineup. Most of you have stewed on the big news and have formed an opinion about this hugely bold and industry-altering move. Reaction has been mixed, though admittedly a little more positive than I expected, and here is mine.
I am in no way a comics historian. I’ve only seriously read since 2001, when a 14-year-old version of me would huddle in the back corner of a Borders bookstore trying to absorb as many trades as I could manage during business hours. With that said, I can’t help but feel as though this might be an age-defining moment in an era marked (or marred) with events and the "deaths" of big timers like Batman and Captain America.
My first question when the news broke was why? Why renumber your entire line, and redesign some of your core franchises? I think the easiest answer to that complex question is: because they had to. Marvel has consistently outperformed DC for nearly a decade in terms of total sells and arguably in mainstream exposure with the amount of movies released in that time. Additionally -- and maybe more importantly -- the nature of text-based entertainment is dramatically changing around us.
Our hobby world no longer relies on paper and ink and has slowly shifted to binary code and screen resolutions. DC has kicked started that revolution with this aggressive reboot. To me, the bigger, more potent revelation was that these number ones will release simultaneously both in print and digitally. The idea of online comics isn’t exactly new. I can remember reading the entirety of Origin on the Marvel website years ago and the webcomics moment has evolved from a zany idea by some guy named McCloud to a cutting edge phenomenon. However, this decision to digitalize their entire line and release it live cannonballs DC ahead of its lifelong rival in terms of ingenuity and progressiveness.
Yes, DC had to do this. The switch from print to tech is a necessity. The question that remains is if the soft, universe-bending restart was also obligatory. The obvious point is to increase sales by bringing in readers and reaching markets of people that don’t even know comic book stores still exist. The “fresh retro” takes on the JLA and other titles is a massive shift to an ever-present “standard” that allows comics to prosper as much as it plagues it.
Does the potential to garner new readers outweigh the possibility to alienate a chunk of the core fanbase? That is the ultimate question I am sure the execs at DC struggled with. In my honest and unprofessional opinion, many people love comic book characters but aren’t willing to read the actual things. I have more than a few ‘tweener friends who love Batman but have never read an issue of Detective Comics . Perhaps it will change when people can read the happenings of the The Flash with a few taps on an iPad or smart phone. Obviously, we have some time before we know if the big change was the right one.
It had to happen at some point. Kudos to DC for deciding to pull the band-aid off before it fell off from wear and tear. Hopefully, the subsequent scar won’t be gnarly but rather one that looks cool, gets you invitations to exclusive venues and attracts more chicks. I’ll drink to that.
I'm cautiously optimistic. Sales have been lackluster, and many of the titles are moribund at the moment (Teen Titans, Justice League of America, Justice Society of America -- all my former team books I've completely lost interest in). Grant Morrison has been the only bright spot for me for months, if not years. Well, not totally true, because I also loved Shooter on the Legion and currently love Levitz on two Legion titles. They're the ones I'm most worried about losing, as we finally have the "right" Legion back in their books after so very long. I hope it's true that they are fixing what needs fixing and not messing with what doesn't. I don't want that to vanish again for another pointless reboot.
I don't think Jim Lee is the cure-all to everything -- he just added to the laughs on All-Star Batman, and not purposefully, from what I could tell -- and I am cynical enough to think that it will be like Heroes Reborn back in the '90s: a shot in the arm that will result in a return to the status quo within a year. I think it's really hard to do line-wide revamps rather than just fresh individual concepts with inspired creative teams, as so many characters will get short shrift, inevitably. But, I already like the idea better than Flashpoint, and am willing to check it out in the fall.
It turns out that sometimes the rumour mill is right. DC has announced that they are going in a bold new direction and restarting all of their books at #1 in September. What does that mean for us as readers?
It would be easy to say, “Oh, well, they have done this before with the Crisis of Infinite Final Crises, it is meaningless.” Indeed, there are a number of people who have made this point. However, there is finality to this announcement that hasn’t been seen since 1984 with Crisis on Infinite Earths. At that time, DC had wanted to give readers a restart, hacking the tree off at the base, and creating an all-new continuity. Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis made adjustments to the DCU timeline, but not a complete restart. It seems like this is an incredible risk, and an incredible opportunity.
One thing is clear – DC is desperate. Looking at sales numbers at the end of Q4 2010, DC fell to a 34% market share. The media has reported how Marvel has dominated DC from 2002 onward, and given that DC Entertainment through Warner has produced two of the highest earning superhero films in the last five years, it is pretty damning that people are not picking up at least Batman titles.
So what to do? DC tried replacing writers, such as putting the strong female character writer Gail Simone on Wonder Woman after Greg Rucka left, and they paired her with fan favorite Terry Dodson. It should have been a formula for massive sales, but the book struggled to gain followers. Superman titles seldom made their way into the top 10, and sometimes not even the top 20. Batman titles seemed to stay strong, possibly due to Grant Morrison’s followers. However, we all know that the big story was the rise of Green Lantern over the last decade as the only serious contender to challenge the Marvel decade of dominance.
Why did DC find themselves in this state? There are probably several different reasons, and I will explore only a few here.
First, there is the extended problem of a lack of editorial direction for most of the decade. Dan Didio never seemed to know what was coming next. Each convention panel showed plans that didn’t seem to hook up, with the only serious plans being pet projects like the return of Jason Todd. While I appreciate I may not have a full picture, Didio never oozed confidence like Joe Quesada does at Marvel. Certainly, when Joe speaks, it is with authority-- when he listed his three-item manifesto for the last decade of Marvel, people took notice.
There was also, behind Didio, a more malevolent force at work. There were always rumors that Warner Bros. President Alan Horn did not like the fun light touches of the DC Universe. They are just rumours, but something forced the sudden end of Young Justice and Teen Titans. Something promoted the sudden and strangely written killings of silly characters like Ted Kord and Ronnie Raymond, which left a bad taste in fans' mouths.
However, there was another angle to those deaths. These deaths tied in with the sudden introduction of more racial diversity in the DC lineup. This, along with an increased and fair representation of women, is something that both myself and many others have argued for in comics. The problem with this particular issue is that DC did it so suddenly -- with no lead in, the characters did not have a following. There was nothing to make people feel connected to the new characters of Jason Rausch or Jaime Reyes, both of whom were very well written. Firestorm and Blue Beetle both struggled to find audiences, along with Marc Andreyko’s fantastic series Manhunter. There is, of course, the deeper problem: how do you attract new readers who have previously been turned off of your comics due to the lack of representation by different people and lifestyles? How do you let them know that it isn’t a boys' club anymore? How do you let them know that people who represent their cultural background have been introduced? DC floundered, not knowing how to market these books.
So now, we find ourselves at another opportunity to change the DCU. We have new books, new continuity and new characters. Cyborg is going to be a founding member of the Justice League! A favorite character of mine being integrated into the mainstream! Firestorm is back! Wonder Woman is wearing trousers! These are all good things.
However, I find myself wary. I know that many of the things that I have cared about for 20 years are gone. Conner Kent may very well still exist -- but if he does, is it my Conner Kent that I enjoyed reading in Young Justice? With Wally West likely returned to the Kid Flash persona (given that Barry Allen is young again), what happens to Bart Allen? Tim Drake? Stephanie Brown? Kyle Rayner? These characters all have legacies of their own after 20 years of being in comics. What happens to them? Do they just blip into nothing? It will be a bit of a sad day if that is the case, at least for me.
I do wonder what the new DCU will be like. I am both excited and wary. One thing is clear: DC had to do something big. Something really drastic to fix their lot in the comic industry. How they handle this, and whether Dan Didio, Jim Lee and Geoff Johns can get traction with readers, and gain proper momentum to recover, will decide the future of DC. Already with some fans, like me, they have had problems. The lack of female representation in the first set of solicits -- and the lack of additional women in the Justice League “core members” -- is unfortunate. hey are looking dangerously close to wanting to have their cake and eat it too. Maintain the old, while claiming it is new. That is not what is needed. They need to shake things up, and convince people it is different. Replacing Martian Manhunter with Cyborg, with a few others having costume changes, hardly feels like the kind of incredible change they are promising.
Personally, I would be sad to see DC comics disappear all together. I dearly hope that this change brings in some new fans and new readers, and brings back some old fans. I personally will be along for the ride.
My first reaction to the news about DC’s post-Flashpoint reboot was “awesome.” I’m a big fan of a number of DC’s characters, but it’s been clear for some time now that no one is particularly excited by anything they do. If a reboot is going to allow DC to get the characters back to their roots while branching out and trying new things, then great.
But then details of the reboot began to slip out. And it’s become apparent that this won’t be just some tweaking of what we currently know with some additions from the Flashpoint universe. No, it seems like we’re going to get massive changes that will remove a number of beloved stories from continuity.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m no slave to continuity. I have followed the Legion of Superheroes through 3 different versions. I still love the stories of the “Five Years Later” Legion, even if most of those stories are no longer considered canon. But I feel like DC is throwing the baby out with the bath water here.
All that fantastic evolution of characters and purpose we saw in the Bat-books? Gone. The Wolfman/Perez Titans? Gone. The amazing journey of Barbara Gordon from Batgirl to Oracle? Gone.
And, you know, maybe I wouldn’t have a problem with any of that – maybe I could learn to live with it -- if DC were giving me anything to get excited about to balance it out. Sure, a Morrison Superman book sounds amazing, but can it really hold a candle to All-Star Superman?
It seems like yesterday’s theme was shock and today’s is disappointment. DC needs to get a handle on this and make sure that tomorrow’s is excitement, or by the time September rolls around, no one will care.
I owe no loyalty to any publisher (except maybe Grove Press…) but here's the thing about Marvel: they take risks. I'm not saying the majority of those risks pay off (read Trouble lately?) or that they aren't as prone to gimmicky big events as DC, but Marvel consistently launches experiments that DC won't.
That appetite for creative remixing that Marvel has made its stock in trade since their triumphant victory over bankruptcy has given us the MAX imprint, which bucked the Comics Code and gave us continuity-clean, creator-driven books from the likes of Brian Michael Bendis, Brian Azzarello, Garth Ennis, Robert Kirkman and others. There was an entire era where folks like Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely and Peter Milligan and Mike Allred were twisting the X-world to fit their perverse, brilliantly insane visions. Indie creators now dominate the publisher's roster. Big heady concepts run free.
And amidst all that we got the Ultimate line, perhaps the best and most successful Big Two reboot in history. Ditching all the continuity in a way that kept anyone from getting their knickers in a twist, the Ultimate line had a strong, creator-focused vision that enabled it to be relatively easy for new and old fans to get onboard alike. It was the polar opposite of the previous era of Marvel's attempt at the same thing, Heroes Reborn. And even better, it stayed away from silly, temporary costume changes from artists still best known for their work driving comics to the brink of speculator-fueled disaster.
What, instead, did the Ultimate line focus on? Well-crafted, engaging writing that first and foremost told a story, without concern to what may be the most novel way to lure in media attention or what trend to hop on board. It didn't feel forced, it didn't feel like a necessary last gasp from a dying industry, it didn't feel boring or old or indifferent. It felt new in the best possible sense, lively and excited and ready to conquer the world.
It may be far too early to tell how much leeway DC will give the creative teams it's tasked with this universe rebuilding but take a look at what's getting the most attention at the moment -- the cover of the new Justice League book, and which Batman it is we're seeing under that mask, where the Martian Manhunter is, the pants Jim Lee has given Wonder Woman, the gigantic green phallic symbol Green Lantern is sporting… in short: ridiculous, inane things. People are tallying up the number of minority characters like it was some kind of affirmative action bingo. Quite a few of the writing teams are old hat, the biggest shakeup is the addition of Cyborg to the founding roster of the JLA and the redesigns are all handled by Jim Lee, who may be a huge name but is considered by exactly no one to be a brave, revolutionary mind.
Which leaves all the adventure to be in the announcement that DC will also be publishing at least these first issues digitally on the same day they see paper publication. For traditional comic fans this is a big deal, sure, but for the new readers DC is theoretically courting, does it mean much? Will a first-time comic reader absolutely need to have their issue of Justice League International on a Wednesday? I'm willing to be the answer is no. And considering the huge coup Marvel just scored on their digital front (a front that was one of the first in comicdom in another sign of their relatively revolutionary spirit) in the form of Starbucks adding them to their wi-fi service making their comics available for free to anyone using the network, that big deal stops looking so big.
I want to see DC succeed, I really do. I want there to be better competition amongst these houses. But I want to see most is true revolution, a sign that things are changing in a way that actually matters and holds water, handled by people who have fresh thoughts and pursue risk not just for its eventual payoff but for the thrill of it all. So surprise me, DC.
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