Pure Unvarnished Bunkum, Brought to You By the New DC Comics

Every so often we here at the Junk Shop like to change things up by having a guest writer drop by to do a piece for you. Today we bring you the mighty Pol Rua, of the late and much-lamented comics podcast Mike and Pol Save The Universe! and also a frequent panelist on Radio Vs. the Martians.

By day Pol is a comics retailer, and upon reading this article detailing the plans DC Comics has to “save the comics industry,” he wrote this point-by-point takedown of it… that we loved so much, we thought it deserved a wider audience. Enjoy.

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Representatives from DC Comics say that the comics industry is on the verge of collapse.

I say that’s Pure Unvarnished Bunkum.

But let’s indulge them, shall we?

“We have to stop the collapse of the comic book industry.” When an industry veteran like Jim Lee puts it as bluntly as that, comic book fans across the world sit up and listen. The comic book market isn’t in a good shape; sales are dropping, and market leader Marvel is repeating short-term sales strategies that caused the ’90s comic book bubble to burst.

Sales on individual titles are dropping, but sales overall are up. Basically, companies are selling fewer copies of, say, Green Arrow, but, overall, including digital sales and trade paperback sales (neither of which figure into DC’s sales figures), more comics are being sold.

So no.

Marvel’s successes are coming in things like Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur and Black Panther (both of which are performing poorly in direct market sales, but are selling in extremely high numbers through Marvel’s digital service) and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl rather than in high-profile ‘events’ like Secret Empire.

And if we want to talk “short-term sales strategies that caused the ’90s comic book bubble to burst”, well, it isn’t Marvel who’s currently got Bob Harras on its payroll now, is it?

DC Comics publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio were absolutely open about the challenges they’re faced with today. They also talked at length about just how they aim to turn the market around.

This should be good.

Spearheaded by Geoff Johns, the DC Rebirth initiative has been a tremendous success. DiDio openly admitted that while the company’s previous ‘New 52’ relaunch had allowed them to reexamine characters and try new things, they realized that something had been lost along the way.

DC’s current marketing strategy is to reboot everything and start from scratch. In the 3 decades since 1986, they’ve done it almost a dozen times.

They paint themselves into a corner, then burn the corner (and indeed, the whole house) down and start building anew using the same materials in slightly different configurations.

What was that about “repeating short-term sales strategies that caused the ’90s comic book bubble to burst”?

The lesson of this is that readers LOVE DC Comics’ characters. They love Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Flash, and each time DC reboots these characters, readers leap on board, hoping to be able to get back into the characters they love, only to be thrown off again by DC editorial’s need to rewrite, rework and in other ways “fix” characters who weren’t “broke” in the first place.

The whole [Rebirth] arc is in part a repudiation of everything comics have been doing for the last couple of decades. It rejects the pessimism and darkness that was en vogue in the aftermath of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and positioning the characters of Watchmen as the villains who’ve stolen life and hope from the DC Universe is a glorious meta-narrative.

Ludicrous. It wasn’t Watchmen which created the ‘grim and gritty’ wave of superhero comics. It was people reading Watchmen and wanting to replicate it without putting in any of the work… skimming off the surface and ignoring any of the deeper concepts and themes.

Don’t blame Moore (who went on after Watchmen to do the gloriously loving tribute 1963, and the wild imagination of America’s Best Comics which showed that you could present complex, vivid and divergent narratives without resorting to hackneyed ‘grimdark’ nonsense). Blame the man who said “In a post 9-11 world, anyone seeing Superman should have at least a bit of fear in them,” or that a scene where Green Arrow realizes that the price for having Green Lantern’s magical wishing ring – an almost pure childhood wish fulfillment fantasy – is almost unendurable pain (Hint: It wasn’t Moore, it was DC Publisher Dan DiDio).

Lee talked about the importance of what he called the ‘evergreen’ stories — the tales that never grow old, like Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. The challenge facing DC is a simple one; how can they make the next generation of ‘evergreen’ stories, that don’t require in-depth knowledge of superhero continuity, but that stand the test of time and transform the genre?

One way would be to stop mining ‘evergreen’ stories for content (the fact that they’re using a 30 year old story to drive their current sales figures in Watchmen and felt that another 30 year old story was the way forward for their film universe with Dark Knight Returns speaks volumes) and focus on telling the best stories with the characters you have now.

Another way is to stop thinking about ‘transforming the genre’. Stories like that rarely start in those terms. They begin as an interesting story that someone wants to tell. It’s 90s thinking: Trying to create “instant collector’s items”. And the fact that they’re trying to do it by recruiting 90s comics icon Neil Gaiman to do it, instead of groundbreaking modern creators is very telling.

Plus, they’re talking about hiring diverse creators, but sidelining them in a side-project (a comics ghetto, if you will called *ahem* ‘Dark Matter’). How about taking those creators and letting them bring in new perspectives and new ideas to familiar comics, just like British creators like Moore, Gaiman, Ellis, Ennis, Milligan and Morrison did?

As Marvel Editor-in-Chief, Joe Quesada once said, “…they have Batman and Superman, and they don’t know what to do with them.”

They have all the best toys, but they won’t play with them until they decide once and for all what colour the toybox should be.

Stop hitting yourself, DC Comics. Stop hitting yourself.

12 Comments

  1. Le Messor

    “The whole [Rebirth] arc is in part a repudiation of everything comics have been doing for the last couple of decades. It rejects the pessimism and darkness that was en vogue”

    I hope so, in this case! If so, we may get to a stage where I’m reading more DC than Marvel.
    (Wherever the blame for the trend may fall, ditch the trend, I say!)

    “Lee talked about the importance of what he called the ‘evergreen’ stories — the tales that never grow old, like Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.”

    … and then he goes on to praise the kind of pessimistic dark stories that are (for me at least) the problem. Hunh.

    “Another way is to stop thinking about ‘transforming the genre’.”

    Part of the problem with that is, transforming means making it something else. There has been a big problem recently (that mostly seems to be going away, thank God), with people making genre works for people who hate that genre – so those of us who love the genre have nothing. (eg: Superhero comics without superheroes; fantasy novels without fantasy, etc… because it’s ‘unrealistic’ or ‘hokey’ or something.)

    … Oh, and then they tell us we’re ‘winning’ because our mainstream people love ‘our genre’ now (uh, no. They love the same stuff, we’ve just given up everything that makes our genre what it is so it will ‘survive’.)

      1. Le Messor

        Game Of Thrones, not to put too fine a point on it.
        (I’m informed that if you read the second book, there’s actual fantasy somewhere in it, but I’ve never figured out why anybody ever read the second book.)

          1. Le Messor

            Oh, *both* those things killed my interest. Probably the grimdark cynicism more, like you; but the combination was what really did it.

            I’ve read the first book 1½ times. I don’t remember what I thought after the first, but about halfway through the second, while I was slogging through a nasty, cynical, horrible story about a bunch of nasty people doing nasty things to another bunch of nasty people, I kept asking myself ‘Um… we are going to see some fantasy in this fantasy book, aren’t we?’

            Then I thought, ‘Uh, Mik… you’ve read this book. No. We aren’t.’

            That’s when I put it away and hated it. (I don’t remember what I thought between those readings; mostly ‘meh’, I think.)

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Part of the long problem of DC and Marvel, to varying extents, is the incestuous nature of comics fans-turned-creators. Mostly, it’s in the superhero genre. You have guys who grew up mostly reading superhero books and little else, who get into the business to create them; but, all they want to do is redo the stories they loved, with the characters they loved. That’s all well and good if you have a fresh take on it. Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway wanted to play in the Marvel pool; but, they also brought their own toys. Some of the generations that followed just want to play the exact game over. It’s like someone wanting to play baseball vs someone who only wants to play Game 3 of a particular World Series. (same hits, strikes, catches, etc…) I’ve seen more and more of that since the 90s.

    Guys like Geoff Johns can write a decent superhero story; but, he spends a lot of time trying to redo 80s DC. Jim Lee never struck me as anyone innovating anything. Personally, I don’t think he ever really progressed much as an artist and definitely not as a storyteller. About the only difference I see is his choice of stock poses. As a publisher, he has never been focused and never had a vision.

    To me, DC’s problem, more than Marvel’s, is a complete lack of leadership. It’s been that way since Paul Levitz was forced out and even before that, after Jenette Kahn left. The editors who were real leaders either left (like Karen Berger) or died (Archie Goodwin)and were not replaced by people who were leaders, with a vision of where they were going next, or where they could go, potentially, based on the talent they had and saw in the marketplace. DC’s best period, post-Silver Age, was the 80s. Look at the leadership then: Jenette Kahn, Paul Levitz, Dick Giordano, Denny O’Neill, Mike Carlin, Karen Berger, Joe Orlando and (eventually, after he gave up Epic) Archie Goodwin. Even the younger editors, like Barbara Randall Kesel and Kevin Dooley and Andy Helfer had an idea where they wanted to go with their books. It didn’t always work; but, they were in there swinging for the fence, not just taking batting practice over and over again.

    1. frasersherman

      This is a problem I’ve heard people in many fictional forms complain about, once the genre gets old enough that people can grow up reading/watching it. But yeah, it’s particularly bad in comics, like the “Well Character X was perfect when I read him as a kid so clearly that’s the definitive version” rationale for so many retcons and reboots.
      People talk about fans not wanting change, but it seems like fans-turned-writers are a lot worse.

    2. Le Messor

      “DC’s best period, post-Silver Age, was the 80s.”
      For me, the problem with that statement is, I think the best period for all comics was the 80s, so I really can’t discuss it objectively.
      But I’m gonna agree.

      The thing is, the comics of today feel nothing to me like the comics I came to love – the 80s comics. Which isn’t to say ‘comics today suck’ – there are still great ones being produced – but whenever people tell me the creators of today are trying to do 80s comics, I get whiplash. (I’m not gonna argue they aren’t, but what they’re creating isn’t 80s.)

      1. Jeff Nettleton

        They aren’t trying to redo the innovation, just repeat the storylines, in a more cliched form. Crisis has been done to death, Watchmen too. They do their Judas Contracts and Mutant Massacres, etc, etc; but, without any kind new hook. The thing about 80s DC (which I read more than Marvel) was that the management encouraged them to do something different, truly different, and they did. They also offered financial incentives to encourage creativity. So much of that got reined in in recent decades (not to mention the sales levels now vs then) that I don’t see the same motivation. It all went to the indie world.

        A bigger thing is that the focus, in the 80s, was on producing comics, not content for other media. They were trying to get movies and cartoons made and made more money on t-shirts and sleeping bags; but, those existed because of the comics, not the other way around.

      2. frasersherman

        I don’t know I’d pick them as “best’ (I’m lousy at picking best anything) but no question the average was higher than it’s been since. I reread the Millenium crossover last year and I was surprised how nostalgic I felt looking at all the DC characters from that era.
        This is another perennial problem I guess, that people’s response to successful innovators isn’t “Let’s innovate!” but “Let’s repeat everything they did!” Kirby, I’ve read, wished people who wanted to “honor his legacy” would create new stuff the way he did rather than just working with his old creations (apparently it’s a universal trend. A history book I’m in the middle of says Nelson’s innovative naval tactics convinced his successors they should do things exactly his way).

        1. Le Messor

          Jeff – full agreement. Which is probably why recent Marvel ‘events’ have been Contest Of Champions and Secret Wars (admittedly, different to the originals).

          I especially agree about focusing on making comics; which is (apparently) why we now have arbit’ry rules like no thought balloons, no captions; boring covers, print for trade.

          Fraser and Jeff – innovating is better than copying, but copying is easier than innovating. Sadly, people go for easier. I think I heard once that Tolkien said much the same thing about wishing people would copy him by doing their own thing, rather than by copying him.

          OTOH, I think the things we’re talking about are as much the problem as the solution. We’re nostalgic for those 80s characters, so that’s what we want back, so they bring that back and they’re copying.
          (Actually, me, I’m more nostalgic for the 70s/80s style than the characters, but I quibble. Actually, I just like to say quibble. Quibble quibble quibble…)

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