Note: these thoughts represent one Multiversity writer’s thoughts, not Multiversity as a whole.
Monday, January 14, 2013. For all intents and purposes, this should have been a pretty innocuous day for comics. It’s pre-con season, so announcements are traditionally pretty light. It’s not a new comic day, so we’d hardly expect anything offensive to come out of this world. Hell, you could argue that comics are on their greatest upswing since the early 90’s, as sales have increased dramatically – and over a prolonged period of time – leading us to believe that there is some semblance of sustainable success behind it.
Things were pretty damn rosy, all things considered. Even recent bad news turned around a bit, as Peter David, stroke be damned, managed to write a script using Dragon Dictate.
Then, the skies turned red and the hits started coming from DC Comics.
In one day, word hit that:
- Original New 52’ers “I, Vampire” and “DC Universe Presents” were canceled
- Beloved all-ages series “Superman Family Adventures” from Franco and Art Baltazar was canceled
- “Saucer Country,” one of the few remaining Vertigo titles, was canceled much to the chagrin of writer Paul Cornell and artist Ryan Kelly
- Before their runs even started, Jim Zubkavich and Robert Vendetti were removed as writers of “Birds of Prey” and “Constantine” respectively, to be replaced by Christy Mark and Jeff Lemire/Ray Fawkes
What was a normal day became a very busy, very surprising (in a bad way) one for comic fans/creators/pundits. But for those that have been paying attention, it’s par for the course for DC Comics, and has underlined the theme of disposable, interchangeable creators DC has been running with recently.
When you think about it, this day was easy to predict, as it was preceded with all kinds of overtly negative actions (most high profile, of course, being the unceremonious disposal – and eventual rehiring – of Gail Simone as writer of Batgirl) and increasing murmurs amongst industry types about the struggles and bottoming out morale of the once riding high DC over the past few months.
It seems to me that every day brings out a different anecdote about just how broken DC is, and I’ll get down to exactly how bad that is in a minute, but first, I want to share a quick thought from someone who has worked with both Marvel and DC. I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of the idea is this: both Marvel and DC fails, but when Marvel does it’s tied to their desire to do something exciting tied to their love of comics, while DC fails because they are trying to feed their bottom line.
It’s easy to see that when you look at the two highly comparable relaunches the two underwent over the past couple years. Let’s look at the tale of the tape.
DC’s New 52: over one month, DC launched 52 new comics with some A-list teams but far more head scratching ones, while generally approaching their populace with a surly disposition and a mocking tongue. This wasn’t just new #1’s – this was continuity clean-up in the least clean way.
Marvel Now!: Marvel kept some titles, but they also relaunched many of them with a perfect blend of A-list talent and exciting up-and-coming names like Sam Humphries and Dennis Hopeless involved. They approached it with genuine excitement and infectious passion, and their aim was to approach these stories in a way that genuinely worked for long time fans and newcomers.
When both launched, I was excited. Actually, to be fair, I was way more excited about the New 52. Really, nothing like that had ever been done before. But my excitement waned with each passing month, and by the 8th month, I was out on every DC book. Interestingly, the last books I kept around – I, Vampire, The Flash and Wonder Woman – were arguably the three books that most had their creators stamps on them and amongst the rare few that didn’t face creative changes aplenty.
On the other hand, Marvel Now! has me buying – and being excited to buy – books that I never expected I’d want or love. Not only that, but the books we knew we’d be all about – Hickman’s Avengers work, Aaron’s Thor – look like they’re on paths to be on legendary runs, and ones that stand entirely on their own as original comic book storytelling. Sure, Marvel Now! has already faced a number of art changes – Cassaday being off Uncanny Avengers, for example – but that’s to be expected when you put some of the heavyweights of the industry on books. People have responded overall withe excitement, and that’s resulted in increased sales.
Back to the point though, but the beginning of the New 52 led us to where we are. While the New 52 bumped DC – and the industry – up to heights long thought unreachable in this modern era, Marvel quickly reestablished dominance of the industry by December of 2011, just three short months after the full launch of the New 52. By February of 2012, DC had slipped back below 30% market share in dollars and the industry, to lack a better term and to steal one from sports analytics, regressed to the mean (while still maintaining the higher overall sales that were previously established).
As you can see above, the New 52 has more or less steadily declined since its early months. Save for temporary spikes based around new title launches or their vaunted “Zero Month,” It’s been a progression that has clearly raised panic in their offices and triggered…well, a lot of bad decision making.
Some of the decisions are inarguable, of course. Over the span of the past year and a quarter, DC has canceled nearly 29% (15) of the original New 52, with many of the remaining titles featuring a rotating cast of creators behind them. This is understandable. It’s a business, and it’s hard to support books that struggle like “I, Vampire” even if they are critically acclaimed and beloved by a passionate audience (although it is strange when the lower selling Firestorm lives to see another day).
For that reason, it makes it entirely defensible, sadly, that universally loved books like Franco and Art Baltazar’s “Superman Family Adventures” can be canceled as it was. It’s selling a little more than half of what “I, Vampire” was at this point, and even though it’s aimed at an entirely different audience, it’s still coming in the red for DC, more than likely. You can float books like that for a while, but at a certain point it becomes apparent that the market for a book like that – sadly – is too small. Which is a shame, as it’s a perfect book for someone like MC writer Brandon Burpee to share with his 4-year old son Dex.
I can keep going – “Saucer Country” also arguably could not continue on, as its sales were lower again on top of “Superman Family Adventures” – but there’s no real point. Cancelations are part of the industry, and unless books establish a profitable baseline for their publisher, they’re going to get canceled.
The issue with all this, it seems to me, is they screwed themselves from the get go. Instead of rolling these books out in waves, they simultaneously rebooted and launched everything, and it continuously forced hard economic decisions on readers and that naturally favored those books who had pre-established audiences. It was pretty easy to figure out which books would get axed early on, as sales rarely have anything to do with who is making them (except for “Saga”) and whether they’re good, rather who are the characters within the book’s pages (except for “Superman Family Adventures” which fits into the inexplicable rule of “fun all-ages books don’t sell”).
Perhaps if DC rolled everything out in a different way, it would have made decisions easier for audience’s and books of quality like “I, Vampire” might have survived longer, but that’s not DC’s deal. What they’re doing right now seems more akin to mad science based around the idea of “let’s throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks.”
Tying back into that, when the New 52 launched it seemed like they were kind of leaning on titans of yesteryear like Scott Lobdell, and surprisingly, what came out were flat stories with uninspiring sales. Excitingly enough, this led DC to a new experiment – trying out more writers/artists who had profiles like “I, Vampire’s” Josh Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino. Up and comers who might have exciting things to say about the characters.
So, the new waves featured creators like James Tynion IV, Justin Jordan, Ray Fawkes, Charles Soule, Jim Zubkavich and Robert Vendetti. The internet rejoiced – DC is actually using newer talent for their New 52, what an astounding concept?
But then, before Zubkavich and Vendetti ever were able to release one issue, they were removed from their books only to be replaced by Christy Marx (currently writing the fastest declining book in all of the New 52!!! Get excited!) and Jeff Lemire/Ray Fawkes (note: Vendetti chose to leave Constantine).
To me, this was akin to Simone-gate. Unceremoniously cutting writers before they even had a chance to release one issue when they were just announced as the writers what…a month or two ago? I think the only thing that could explain the rash actions of DC at this point is that, secretly, they’re filming a challenge based reality show with their creative staff in which you lose a push up contest and get kicked off “Birds of Prey.”
That’s the strange thing that about all of this. From day one, with the way they rebooted everything to how they rolled it out to how they chose their creative teams to how they handled those to how they micromanaged them and to how they effectively trolled their entire fan base, DC seems like they have no idea what they’re doing. There is no overriding logic behind these decisions. There’s just ready, fire, aim all over the place, and what we’re left with is a publisher that really only draws attention for its angry fans and foolish decisions and not much else.
What is happening to them in front of them is they are being left behind.
DC’s sales are dropping precipitously save for artificially boosted crossover titles (thanks Batman!) and the critical response is dropping even faster. When you scour the comic book best of 2012 lists, besides the occasional appearance by Snyder and Capullo’s Batman and Azzarello and Chiang’s Wonder Woman (and I, Vampire, but that’s neither here nor there), DC’s presence is hardly even felt. Their new waves of books besides, really, “Earth 2,” have been met poorly by fans or ignored entirely, and it feels like we’re on track for what they said would never happen to avoid a nosedive into irrelevance: a reversal to the old continuity.
Would that really be so surprising? To steal a line from sportswriter Bill Simmons, DC has completely entered the “Tyson Zone,” meaning they have so established themselves as insane that nothing will surprise us at this point.
I think that’s the most shocking thing about yesterday, and the way it was handled.
It wasn’t surprising at all.