• Rebirth Cover Longform 

    The DC Strategy: “Rebirth” for the Trinity; Status Quo for the Rest

    By | April 5th, 2016
    Posted in Longform | 12 Comments

    As we all know, DC unveiled the entirety of their “Rebirth” line at WonderCon, and much of it looked exciting and new: “Detective Comics” being a Bat-family team up book, “New Superman” from Gene Yang and Viktor Bogdonovic, etc. But there were also parts that were more of the same, some to the point of not even changing creative teams, like “Harley Quinn” and “Batman Beyond.” The momentum of the live presentation abruptly fell off a cliff about half way through, and DC went back on its own word by not revealing every creative team – hell, two books were just flat out not mentioned.

    Add all of this up, and it’s not exactly clear what is going on over at Warner Bros, but one thing is for sure: DC is trying to shake things up, without really changing anything. Put differently, their destination is still the same, but their GPS has rerouted them to a faster path.

    I have no insider knowledge of how DC works, but taking a hint from the way that he has been front and center of both the marketing materials, as well as the presentation at WonderCon, it appears that Geoff Johns is, for really the first time, flexing his executive-level power on the entire line at DC. Sure, he was the writer of “Flashpoint,” but the New 52 was all Jim Lee and Dan DiDio, in terms of execution and tone. But this initiative is really trying to get across that, despite it originating from DiDio, this is Johns’ baby.

    And that can, and should, be a good thing. Johns is a guy who loves comics on a macro level. Johns understands how a comics line can work when all of its books have a shared theme, tone, or concept, and that is what he is trying to do with ‘Rebirth.’ Well, sort of – I think that is the goal from his side of the company, and he put his money where his mouth is: the Bat and Super lines are revamped in exciting and new ways, taking what has been working and extrapolating that across a whole line, while bringing in new talent and not being happy with just coasting. “Wonder Woman,” which falls under the auspices of the Superman group editor, is perhaps the biggest sign from the company that it is taking ‘Rebirth’ seriously: by bringing in Greg Rucka, Nicola Scott, and Liam Sharp, giving a reason for the twice-monthly shipping, and by letting Rucka talk openly about his past problems with DC, the book is shaping up to be the totem for all that is good about ‘Rebirth.’

    If you were watching the DC panel from WonderCon like I was, after Rucka was brought on stage, it felt like literally anything could happen. And then, nothing really did.

    Sure, there were a few really nice announcements: Joshua Williamson on “The Flash” is inspired, Sam Humphries seems like he has a good concept for “Green Lanterns,” Christopher Priest might get me to buy “Deathstroke,” and the previously announced Rob Williams on “Suicide Squad” means that the book will have a fighting chance at doing something creative. But just about every other announcement was a continuation of a creative team, a shifting of a ‘safe’ creative team to a book, or just a reshuffling of the same old players.

    Much like a baseball team, depth is the key to a really successful line. Sure, it is nice to have some ‘stars’ at the top, but when so much of the team is below replacement level, it makes it hard to sustain any real success. According to the invaluable Comichron, in February, DC’s only books in the Top 50 were books featuring the Trinity or Harley Quinn (Green Lantern snuck in at #50, too) – everything else fell below #50. Compare that to Marvel’s Top 50 books: sure, they still feature certain characters more than others (namely Spider-Man and Deadpool), but there’s a real mix there. DC had 16 books in the Top 50 (including 4 issues of a weekly), Image had 3, Marvel had the other 31.

    Now, DC is double shipping more books, which will help a bit – you’ll see two issues of their heavy hitters per month. But how would DC go about getting more titles, not issues, to sell more? There are a few ways, but they all stem from the same place: give people a reason to pick up the books. And the easiest way to do that is to put a quality creative team on it.

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    As I mentioned before, aside from a few inspired choices, the bottom half of DC’s line is featuring more of the same. I know that February is a bit of an arbitrary month to chose, but let’s see how the books that are continuing, more or less, are doing. The biggest success without a change is “Harley Quinn,” which outsold all but three DC titles. Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti are working their magic on that book and, while it is not my cup of meat, I understand DC locking them onto that property for the foreseeable future.

    After that, it gets a little murkier. Robert Venditti is sticking with the Green Lantern property, a book that sold just over 35,000 copies in February, good for #50 on the sales chart. While that’s not a number that would signal cancellation anytime soon, consider that for a solid half decade “Green Lantern” was second only to Batman in terms of sales and fan love. Let’s go back 6 years to the peak of Green Lantern fandom – in February 2010, the best selling book was “Blackest Night” #7, which sold almost one hundred thousand more copies than “Green Lantern” #49 did six years later. “Green Lantern” #51 (different volume than the current run) was the third best selling book that month at 95,000 copies sold!

    Now, the market is absolutely different today than it was then, but let’s face facts: “Green Lantern” is capable of being a sales monster, but not under (the perfectly cromulent hand of) Robert Venditti. But I hear you, fair reader – it isn’t fair to look at the peak of DC’s “Green Lantern” popularity, pre-film flop and all. OK, I got you – let’s look at February 2013, on the tail end of Geoff Johns’s run on the book. Well, that month, it sold 71,000 copies, good for #17 overall. Even after Johns left the book, sales were better than we’re seeing now. I’m using March instead of February 2014 due to a weird double sized, $2.99 edition of “Red Lanterns” and “Green Lantern” being paired together in February of that year, but “Green Lantern” #29 sold ten thousand more copies than #49 did two years later. Venditti’s run on the character isn’t doing well critically either, only two issues of Venditti’s run have averaged a review of 8.0 or higher, according to Comic Book Roundup.

    I’m not trying to pick on Venditti here, but this is emblematic of what DC did outside of their biggest books heading into ‘Rebirth.’ Dan Abnett is staying on “Aquaman,” a book that sold less than 24,000 copies in February. He’s also taking his “Titans Hunt” group over to “Titans,” but DC hopes it’ll sell more than the not quite 23,000 copies it sold in February, not counting the effect that the much derided Brett Booth is on “Titans” with him. The team behind “Batman Beyond” is sticking around too, despite not cracking the 20,000 plateau. “Green Arrow” has his own TV show, but his book (which is remaining under the pen of Ben Percy) sells 22,000 copies.

    Now, this isn’t to say that some of these series won’t succeed on their own merits, and that a fresh start is all they need – that could very well be the case. But something is rotten here – the Bat books were already selling like hotcakes, and yet the care put into those titles is evident from jump street. Why wouldn’t DC use their considerable resources to prop up some of their books that could really use the love?

    Sure, part of it is that, no matter what, “Cyborg” is probably never going to sell 90,000 copies. But “Green Lantern” can. Hell, a year into the New 52, “Aquaman” was still healthily above 60,000 per month. Again, that was a Geoff Johns joint, but that proves that the proper creator can revitalize a property. Instead of resigning yourself to middling sales of your lower-tier books, throw Scott Snyder on a smaller book and watch the money roll in. Wouldn’t DC rather take a chance on building a character than stop gambling all together. Look, if “Batman Beyond” is key to your line, I get letting it flounder a bit. But that book doesn’t touch a single other DC book, so why are you sticking with it? Who does Dan Jurgens have pictures of doing what to whom?

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    DC either cares about its lower tier books or it doesn’t, and their recent actions show pretty clearly what the answer is. I sincerely hope I am going to proven wrong come this summer, when “Red Hood and the Outlaws,” still under the pen of Scott Lobdell, all of a sudden is a critical and commercial success. But until that happens, DC is going to be stuck in this creative miasma of a few (now double shipping) hits, and a sea of books slogging through the lower half of the Top 100 books, poorly reviewed, received, and purchased.

    Brian Salvatore

    Brian Salvatore is an editor, podcaster, reviewer, writer at large, and general task master at Multiversity. When not writing, he can be found playing music, hanging out with his kids, or playing music with his kids. He also has a dog named Lola, a rowboat, and once met Jimmy Carter. Feel free to email him about good beer, the New York Mets, or the best way to make Chicken Parmagiana (add a thin slice of prosciutto under the cheese).