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.
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.
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.