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.
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.
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.
Because it’s important to me to categorize these things, I’ve come up with a new system for measuring the level of rage the outside world provokes in me as I read about it on the Internet. It’s taken from a board game I used to play as a kid. It’s called the HulkOMeter:
Rage levels go from Hulk Level Zero (or Bruce Banner) to HULK LEVEL 5, in which case, HULK SMASH.
Here are the things that are currently sending me from in the direction of HULK LEVEL 5.
- Mel Gibson gets a standing ovation in Cannes while Lars Von Trier babbles about his sympathy for Nazis. Ah, show biz.
- It says the world is ending, but the Apocalypse church will still take checks, money orders and credit cards.
- Oprah apologizes to cheapjack opportunist James Frey.
- Turns out happiness might take a couple years off your life.
- People seem to be taking this completely lunatic story of Stalin and Mengele and the Roswell crash seriously.
- Nobody has gone to jail for crashing the world economy, and it seems no one ever will.
Ordinarily, this would put me at Hulk Level 4.
But there are mitigating factors that help contain the raging fury that dwells within us all.
- The CDC is prepared for a zombie outbreak.
- This article (via BoingBoing) is a treasure trove of weird pseudoscience as covered by Popular Science.
- There are people who are going to do this on Rapture Day. (Via Nell Scovell.)
- Filming has started on The Dark Knight Rises, the third installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies.
- I’m back home from book tour, where I met many great people who were all kind enough to buy my books and say incredibly nice things to me.
- Speaking of which, these reviews from VampChix and Books And Things are pretty nice to wake up to, as well.
- The rights to my books have been sold in China, which means there are potentially a billion new fans of Cade out there in the world.
- And finally, my faith in humanity has been restored by a woman named Alice who works in Delta’s Lost & Found department in the Phoenix airport. Bleary-eyed and distracted, I stupidly left my iPad on the plane after my flight. I figured it was gone for good. I was even composing a few snarky tweets in my head about the jerks I was sure had stolen it. And then, I got a call from Alice and now my iPad is FedEx’ing its way home to me. Thank you, Alice, and thank you, anonymous cleaning crew that chose not to convert my iPad into a few extra dollars.
Overall, this has me feeling downright mellow. Back to Banner. Crisis averted.
1. A dad uses Batman to teach his son about death. I’m not crying. You’re crying. Shut up.
4. In praise of Blackadder. If the only way you know Rowan Atkinson is for “Mr. Bean,” oh, man, you are missing out.
5. Charlie Huston is a great fucking writer. Read this. Right now.
Christopher Nolan gives a look at his plans for the reinvention of Superman, as well as what’s coming up in the third Batman film, in this great piece by Geoff Boucher at Hero Complex.
The big news in the geek world this week: Superman and Batman are starting over. Again.
DC Comics announced it will release new, modern versions of its iconic heroes in 201o, contained in single, graphic-novel formats aimed at the booksellers’ market. This is the latest attempt to bring Batman and Superman into the current century and expand their audience.
With this announcement, DC is taking the same tack that Marvel did a decade ago with its Ultimate line: rebooting its big-name characters without the years and years of continuity. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out well for Marvel. After big initial sales, the Ultimate line eventually turned into just another version of the same characters and the same stories.
This isn’t the first time DC has tried to make Superman and Batman relevant for a new generation. They’ve been at it since 1971, when Denny O’Neil was drafted to show a more human side of the Man of Steel. They’ve done it again and again, most notably in 1986, when John Byrne re-started Superman from the basics: no Krypto, no Superboy, no other Kryptonians at all. (It lasted until the ’90s, when Superboy, Supergirl and even Krypto returned.) More recently in the All-Star line, DC tried to get back to what made its two icons iconic with a masterful run by Grant Morrison, and a horrific embarrassment from Frank Miller. And let us never forget the super-mullet.
The reason you get this constant reinvention of characters that have been around since 1938 has a lot to do with the economics of the comic-book world. You’d never know it from the movies, but comic books are losing readers every year. They’ve gone from selling millions of issues per title to selling a couple hundred thousand at best. Comics are mainly targeted to a very small, specialty market: aging fanboys who go to comic book shops on a regular basis.
The fanboy market, for the most part, doesn’t want to see new heroes. (Comics haven’t come up with a new franchise character since… I don’t know, Spawn. Is there even a Spawn comic book anymore?) Nor do they want to see the same Silver Age and Bronze Age stories they grew up on, since those are childish. The publishers give the audience what they want, which turns out to be the same characters in slightly different, modern and “adult” situations. Without a distribution channel to a broad market, a new character doesn’t have a chance to crack the audience, because the audience isn’t made up of people seeking novelty. They want the familiar brands.
As a result, comics aren’t just for kids anymore. These days, they’re barely for kids at all. Which may explain why Gen Y — the biggest, fattest marketing target in history — has walked away from comics to manga and other forms of entertainment.
So in the absence of actually inventing a new character or finding new stories to tell, I’m all for reinventing the franchise. But as the AV Club says, it doesn’t mean anything unless you really change things:
The last thing the genre needs are more drawn-out revisitations of old mythology. (“Oh look, Krypto’s back. Again. And here’s how Clark Kent met Lex Luthor. Again.”) Enough with the nods and winks to the fans. Here’s hoping that if this series is really aimed at new readers, it’ll actually be new.
I’m one of those few, mildly delusional people who believes that Superman, one of the most successful fictional characters of all time, should sell a million copies a month. Everyone in the world knows who he is. The fact that his own book hasn’t even included him for over a year should tell you that the execution of the franchise has gone badly off the rails. (Ditto for Batman, who is currently dead. Yup. Dead.) Like all the reinventions before it, this one will not work if it’s just shifting a few details, like making Clark Kent a blogger instead of a reporter. There is something fundamental to the Superman mythos, something that appeals across generations. It’s a matter of revealing it, rather than hiding it under the latest fashions.
Here are my modest suggestions for getting Superman back into the air again.
- Get rid of Lois Lane. Not permanently. But when Lois and Clark got married, one of the most enduring love triangles of all time was shattered. The whole point of Clark Kent is that he can’t get a woman like Lois. Elliot S! Maggin once wrote that Clark Kent is Superman’s Hawaiian vacation. That’s why Superman has Clark: so he can be the normal guy on a daily basis. If you let Lois in on the big secret, you’re destroying part of what makes Superman appealing — the part that’s actually human. We can always bring Lois back later. But for now, Superman has to stay single. And Clark needs to see other people.
- Change the rules. Remember, this is a character whose basic operating instructions were set back in 1938. If you’ve had seventy years of stories showing the limits of superhuman strength, do you really need kryptonite as a weakness? Superman’s limits have never been about what can be done to him. Instead, he limits himself by what he’s willing to do. I think it would be interesting if the storytellers would forego any obvious weaknesses for a while. Let’s see what happens when you put an indestructible man in an all-too fragile world. And then, when someone finally does fire that kryptonite bullet, it will be surprising and new.
- Time for new villains. And this applies to Batman as well. I propose a five-year moratorium on Lex Luthor, the Joker, Two-Face, the Parasite or any of the other old familiar faces. They’ve become crutches. There’s no dramatic tension because they’ll always survive to fight another day, since they are franchise players as well. Let’s see what you can do without spending the credit of other people’s stories, guys.
- Speaking of which, could we not have Superman and Batman fight this go-round? I know, the fanboys love it. But it’s stupid. Frank Miller did it best in The Dark Knight Returns over 20 years ago. We don’t need a rerun.
- Lighten up. Plenty of people have done the dark implications of the super-hero, from Alan Moore’s Miracleman to Warren Ellis’ current mini-series, Supergod. Superman and Batman are the bright side of that. They’re supposed to be fun. Try to keep that in mind when you get the impulse to include a graphic rape scene to heighten the dramatic tension.
That said, there is one more thing: the new version of Alfred looks pretty badass.