June 2nd, 2011
Comics Cavalcade

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The biggest news in comics this week is, of course, the announcement that DC Comics, the venerable publisher of Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman, will re-start its entire line of books in what amounts to a gigantic do-over. There are comics readers who are understandably skeptical. DC — and the other big publisher, Marvel, now owned by Disney — have a history of doing this every couple of years or so. “Everything you know will change!” is comics-speak for “Yeah, we might put some new costumes on some people.” DC has rebooted its entire universe four times since 1986. This count does not include lots of little revisions and retcons, like the whole sordid history of Hawkman, whose backstory is far more complicated than you’d think for a character who is basically just a big guy with wings.

The news has thrown a lot of Underoos into a bunch. Comics fans — myself included — tend to take this sort of thing seriously. If someone points out, reasonably, that these are all imaginary stories and it’s sort of ludicrous to talk about which ones “count” and which ones do not — well, that person had better not walk around the darker parts of Comic-Con without a bodyguard.

Continuity is not only the structure that supports the suspension of disbelief. It’s also the payoff longtime fans get for investing time and money in years of stories. This is just as true with serialized TV or movies or books as it is with comics. Mess with the continuity, or discard it completely, and you are effectively telling those longtime fans: “Wow, did you waste your life.”1

Of course, there’s a counter-argument. Many fans say that DC’s comics have an insurmountable barrier to entry: decades of stories and details that have to be learned to get through a single issue of Superman. For instance, who exactly is General Zod? Which General Zod do you mean? What’s the deal with Power Girl? Where’s Earth 2? Why is there more than one Earth? Why are there so many Flashes? Didn’t Superman die? And so on.

I’m sympathetic to the urge to wipe the slate clean and start over. Really. But I don’t think it’s going to make anything better until the writing gets better. The biggest ideas in Superman’s books in the past couple of years have been 1) remove him from the books entirely and 2) have him take a nice, long walk.2

It’s possible to write great superhero stories without the history serving as clutter and distraction.3 However, I tend to think a good writer — like, say, Grant Morrison — can take all that history and make it entertaining rather than distracting.4

You can start over with brand-new characters and a clean slate, but it doesn’t guarantee success. One day after DC’s big news, Valiant Comics announced it will return to publishing. Valiant was an early 90s success story. It took forgotten heroes from the past — Doctor Solar and Magnus, Robot Fighter5 — and turned them into million-selling franchises. Sure, part of that was due to the speculator boom at the time — people who believed a foil-covered variant first edition of Solar was going to be worth as much as Action Comics #1. But it also brought in readers looking for something new. It worked.

Unfortunately, it only took a little while to fall apart with its own reboots, continuity mishaps, and corporate struggles.6 Now Valiant is left with titles no one has ever heard of, despite its boast of “some of the most recognizable characters in the comic world.”7 Maybe people will line up to see a movie about X-O Manowar, but not because of name recognition.8

An excessive devotion to continuity is not the industry’s real problem. This is where the real news in DC’s announcement comes in. The company also said it will begin selling the digital versions of its comics on the same day as the print editions. Basically, DC is admitting that comics’ distribution model is broken.

This is more than saying that “print is dead” or that iPads are the future of publishing. Comics have seen their circulation go from millions of copies a month to a couple hundred thousand, tops. Prices have gone up, the content has become increasingly specialized for an audience of aging fanboys9 and the number of readers keeps dropping. Groceries and convenience stores have been more or less abandoned by comics publishers as retail outlets in favor of specialized comic book shops. Forget 76 years of history: the real barrier to entry for new fans has been just been finding comics.10

I’m not sure the solution to that is requiring people to own a $500 iPad before they can read the latest adventure of the Justice League.

The thing is, the audience is there. People want to read stories of ass-kicking, super-heroic, larger-than-life adventure. There are more people than ever ready to accept the idea of men and women in spandex saving the world. Look at the top-grossing movies of the last ten years if you doubt it. There is a chance to bring them into this world and make them fans for life.

I really hope that this works for DC . I hope the company has something more planned than just Superman not wearing his briefs on the outside of his pants because I love comics. And without new kids climbing on board, year after year, comics will never have a billion-dollar phenomena like Superman or Batman again.11 The industry hasn’t produced a new superhero with mass-market appeal since… well, Spawn. That alone should tell you how badly it needs to bring in new ideas and new readers.

Comics cannot survive on nostalgia forever. Sooner or later, someone’s going to have to invent something again.

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1Admittedly, there are people who would say that anyway.

2Given the legal wrangling over the ownership of Superman, it almost seems possible that these were deliberate moves to devalue the property before ownership changed hands — like ripping out the copper plumbing of a foreclosed home. But that’s too much of a conspiracy theory even for me.

3Check out Mark Waid’s Irredeemable, where he gets to play with the idea of a Superman who goes mad and starts wiping out cities.

4In Morrison’s hands, Batman is both a dark, grim avenger in the night and a guy who hangs out with Superman while occasionally fighting saucer-people.

5These relatively obscure super-heroes from Gold Key/Dell actually had a bigger fanbase than they’re given credit for, since they were introduced at the time when comics were still selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

6You could probably say the same thing about Eclipse or Image or any number of the indie comics publishers that boomed and busted at the time.

7Solar, Magnus and Turok, the big three of Valiant back in the day, are now with Dark Horse. Which just cancelled them.

8That said, I would totally love to see Eternal Warrior come back.

9Yes, that includes me.

10A couple years ago, I saw a kid in my local comics shop with his father. He kept saying, “Daaaaaad. I’m booooooooored. Can we go now?” Publishers have made an effort since then to reach out to kids again with Free Comic Book Day and kid-friendly titles. But the majority of sales still come from old geeks.

11Or even Wolverine for that matter.