Not So Cool Comics
You’ll have to indulge your PopCulteer this week as I put on my nerd helmet. I’ve kept quiet on the “big comic book story” this summer because I wanted to see how it played out. This week it has, and now I’m going to take a look at the hows and whys of the great DC Comics reboot.
For those of you who don’t follow comic books, DC Comics, one of the “big two” publishers, the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, decided to start over. They ended all their books, some of which had been running for more than 75 years, and are starting their core line over with 52 first issues, which will take all their heroes back to square one…sort of. Readers of books that are doing okay, like Batman and Green Lantern, will barely notice the change. Superman and Wonder Woman are getting drastic make-overs. Most of the heroes are getting redesigned costumes, ranging from minor tweaks to major changes.
This is not a bad idea. It’s not even the first time it’s been done by DC. One of the problems of producing serial entertainment is that your audience ages in real time, but you can run into all sorts of trouble when you try to deal with the passage of time in your comic book “universe.” On TV it’s no problem. Bart Simpson is ten years old. He always will be, even though “The Simpsons” has been on the air for over twenty years. Audiences accept that.
For some reason, comic book readers, who have no problem accepting the concepts of aliens living among us or colorfully-costumed vigilantes catching super-powered villains, get all upset and obsessed over what is known in the hobby as “continuity.”
Back before rabid comic book fans took over the industry and began to slavishly cater to continuity freaks, the folks who made comics didn’t really care about such things. All they wanted to do was tell an entertaining story within the established parameters of their character. There were rules: Batman never fired a gun; Superman didn’t let Lois Lane know he was also Clark Kent; Aquaman…..lived underwater. Nobody cared if Batman was allergic to roses in one story, and gave them to a girlfriend in another story, five years later.
They were just relieved that he wasn’t giving the roses to Robin.
However, when the first generation of comic book fans grew up and started working in the industry, they started to pay close attention to such things. Following the lead of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who were the first comics creators to effectively establish a common universe where the characters were consistent from book to book in the 1960s heyday of Marvel, subsequent creators bent over backwards to try and make their books more relatable to the real world.
And to be honest, they made comics into a complete mess. After a couple of decades of tight, almost incestuous continuity, too much baggage had accumulated. Too much time had passed, and the major comic book universes, both DC and Marvel, needed a huge housecleaning in order to maintain any kind of mainstream appeal.
What I’m talking about here is not the current DC reboot. Comics were a convoluted mess thirty years ago. By 1980 the whole Stan Lee model of setting comics in a more realistic world was starting to show a major weakness. Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider as a high-school senior in 1962. That means Spider-man would be pushing 70 now if he aged in real time. Back in the 80s he would’ve been forty-something and probably balding. Keeping him college-aged means that you invalidate his early stories (brilliantly co-created by Steve Ditko). Reed Richards and Ben Grimm, Mr. Fantastic and The Thing from The Fantastic Four, met when they served together in World War Two. You either have to age your characters in real time or every so often, you need to hit the “reset” button.
Mort Weisinger, the often-villified editor of Superman comics in the 1950s and 1960s was ridiculed by continuity-minded comics fans for declaring that Superman was “always 39 years old,” and for recycling plots from old comics because he felt the fan base turned over every five years. The thing is, he was right back then. Almost every kid growing up in America read comic books…for about five years, then they discovered the opposite sex and that was all she wrote.
There was a tiny percentage that stuck with comic books (sadly, many of them never discovered the opposite sex, or even the same one for that matter). That tiny percentage stuck with comics so devoutly that, as the prices increased and comics fell out of favor with most children, the fans who cared too much became more and more important to publishers. What was once primarily a children’s medium has became primarily a medium catering to middle-aged men suffering from arrested development.
People may attack Weisinger, but when he was in charge of Superman, the book sold more copies in a month that it does now in a year.
In 1985 DC Comics published “Crisis On Infinite Earths,” which they felt streamlined their universe of characters and would carry them into the twenty-first century with a clean slate upon which comic book writers and artists could tell exciting new stories using iconic characters.
Of course, they got it wrong. DC used the event to wipe out their Multiverse. See, in DC comics they had established that their main universe was “Earth One,” and that the continuity where Superman arrived on Earth and began fighting crime in 1938 was a parallel world called “Earth Two.” This way they could keep all the old continuity while explaining that the current Superman was not some old guy who’d been flying around since before WWII. Over the years, DC added other parallel universes to explain where characters from other comic book companies that DC had acquired along the way were based.
By the mid-1980s the powers-that-were at DC listened to the criticisms of a small group of fans and decided that having multiple universes was too confusing, and was leading to lower sales for their books. Little did they know that thirty years later the idea of parallel universes would be an easily-understood mainstream concept.
Back in 1985 they decided to have a huge company-wide catastrophe and merge all their universes into one big clump. The 12-issue series, “Crisis On Infinite Earths” was a fun story. Written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by George Perez, who were allowed to kill off a couple of major characters (Supergirl and The Flash) and several minor characters, and they even had Wonder Woman revert to clay so she could start over (with a new #1 issue). They succeeded in getting rid of the DC Comics multitude of universes.
Which turned out to be a huge mistake. They got rid of the one literary device that would allow them to not only start fresh every few years, but also to keep the old universes valid (and marketable) so that loyal readers would not feel betrayed.
If DC had simply used “Crisis” to say “Starting now, all of our books will be set on “Earth Ten” but all the stories you know and loved still really happened.” they could just reboot every fifteen or twenty years without creating a huge logistical mess.
But they didn’t do that. Instead they created a merged DCUniverse, which had all sorts of major continuity problems arising from the fact that they had to completely rewrite history several times. Superman survived the Crisis intact,but was rebooted one year later in a manner that left a lot to be desired. He was no longer the first superhero on the planet, which was always a key component of the DC story. Characters like Aquaman and Hawkman had so many continuity reboots that nobody could make any sense out of them. The Flash and Green Lantern were killed off, replaced by proteges, then brought back to life so they could reclaim their costumed identities.
Don’t get me wrong. There were some great stories told in the years following “Crisis.” We had “Batman: Year One” by Frank Miller and Dave Mazzachuli; Superman by Wolfman, Perez, John Byrne, Dan Jurgens and Jerry Ordway; Wonder Woman by George Perez; The Flash written by Mike Baron and William Messner-Loebs.
However, the sales figures on “Crisis” were so high that company-wide crossovers became a common gimmick. Death became a selling point, and almost every major character at both DC and Marvel has been killed off and resurrected in the last 25 years. Every summer a huge crossover story with Earth-threatening scope and major characters getting “killed” would happen across the DC Universe.
Imagine living there, and having a disaster a million times bigger than 9 11 happening every year. There were interplanetary wars, alien invasions, exploding suns, time-space disruptions, It was like the world would be if suddenly Michael Bay became God.
Meanwhile comic book sales have plummeted. For a three-month stretch this year, not one regular comic book sold more than 100,000 copies. To put that in perspective, about thirty years ago, when the major comic book companies started paying royalties, those royalties didn’t kick in until a book sold a minimum of 100,000.
Back then comic book writers and artists were buying second homes and traveling around the world on their royalty money. Today they either have day jobs, or they’re taking commissions via eBay to draw naked pictures of Wonder Woman.
Most of the blame for this goes to a changing world. Kids have more entertainment options these days. Comic books, which used to cost less than a candy bar are now three or four bucks each for the most part. You can’t find comic books all over the place like you used to. The direct-sales market, in which comic books are sold on a non-returnable basis directly to comic book stores, has ghettoized the hobby. Kids can get their super-hero fix on TV or at the movies. They don’t need comics for that any longer. Everything can be found for free on the internet, legally or not. The comics industry has failed to embrace other genres besides superheroes that could be commercially viable, like war, Westerns, romance, horror, or even procedural medical or police dramas. Plus they won’t advertise comics on television.
The result is that, today, comic books are nowhere near the mainstream of PopCulture, even though comic book-derived properties are earning billions of dollars at the boxoffice.
Now, there is an ulterior motive for DC to restart their entire line over with new #1 issues. First issue comic books sell way more because speculators buy up extra copies, hoping that they’ll increase in value. New readers will jump on to see what all the hoopla is about. People who quit reading comics years ago will drop a few bucks on a new #1 just to see if they managed to capture the old magic.
In the next month, DC is publishing 52 #1 issues. The first of these, Justice League #1 had advance orders of over 200,000 copies, more than any DC comic in five years. Six other DC titles in the relaunch have advance sales over 100,000. So from that viewpoint, this gimmick is a success. Whether or not that success sticks depends on how many readers decide to keep up with the new books. This week DC Comics released only two books–Flashpoint #5, the book that ends the old DCUniverse, and Justice League of America #1, our first taste of the new DC Comics.
Now you know why DC Comics has taken the drastic measure of rebooting their entire line of superhero comics. They created (yet another) company-wide crossover event mini-series, “Flashpoint,” wherein The Flash goes back in time to prevent the murder of his mother, and breaks the timeline of the universe. When he fixes it, everything is different. That’s a simplification, but it’s a merciful one. The full miniseries is god-awful. It’s nothing but dark, extreme violence set in an alternate timeline where basically Aquaman and Wonder Woman are at war and are literally destroying the world. The other superheroes are unable to stop them.
When you consider that the Flash who did this is Barry Allen, the guy who was killed in the original “Crisis” and returned to life just recently in another company-wide crossover, you can see that this turn of events is a bit underwhelmening. Some would say “half-baked.”
Basically, they went to great lengths to invalidate all the stories that they’ve been telling for the last twenty-five years for the sake of a cheap gimmick, which is launching 52 first issues. First issues always sell well, but there are easier ways to do this.
It would have been so much easier if they’d just said “Meanwhile on Earth Ten, a rocketship carrying an infant crash lands near Smallville.”
But no. Instead we get “The Flash who was dead for more than two decades breaks the time-space continuum.” However, it is a valid device for a new start, so let’s forget how they got here, and see what the results are.
“Dumb As Hell”
Judging from “Justice League ” #1, the results are a big ball of “meh.”
This is supposed to be the starting point for the new DCUniverse. It’s set five years in the past and it’s supposed to detail the formation of The Justice League, including the first time the members meet.
This comic book is dumb as hell.
That doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to be successful. Some of my favorite superhero comics are dumb as hell. Being dumb as hell does not mean that this comic book will not be a hit with the target demographic. Dumb as hell is popular right now. Look at the Tea Party.
But JL #1 is really dumb as hell.
We don’t get to see the Justice League in this issue. Most of the book is the first meeting between Batman and Green Lantern. I normally enjoy Geoff Johns’ work, but the dialogue here is dumb as hell. It’s his worst work. There is not a complete story in this book. Essentially it’s Batman meets Green Lantern, crap gets blowed up real good, then they go to Metropolis where Superman runs out and says “Howdy.” The end. Oh yeah, some kid plays football, but his dad never goes to his games.
DC Comics chose THIS to launch their new universe? It’s not even a decent part of one chapter of a story. Despite having Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg on the cover, none of them appear in the book. The football kid becomes Cyborg, but not in this issue.
The artwork is by Jim Lee. If you like Jim Lee, then you might like this book. If, like me, you find his work to be soulless and somewhat ugly, then be advised that this is pretty typical of his other stuff.
Justice League #1 looks and reads like an Image Comic from 1993. There’s no story, the dialogue is bad and the artwork is typical Image Comics ugliness, slathered-over with overdone computer coloring.
I hope to hell this is not an indication of the rest of the 52 #1 issues DC is publishing in the next month. I still have hopes for some of the titles, but I have a feeling that DC is basically giving me an excuse to spend way less money on comic books. Either this is a skillfully-executed highly-calculated ploy to appeal to video-game-obsessed teens, or it’s a bunch of guys my age desperately trying to appear hip to kids, and failing miserably.
I can’t tell.
The Digital Issue
Much has been made about how, starting with this new “#1” initiative, DC Comics will now be available digitally on the same day that the book is published. This doesn’t effect me much, since I really don’t like reading comics digitally, but I can see a major problem with this plan.
DC is charging the full cover price for a digital download. Keep in mind that there is hardly any overhead in selling digital downloads. There is no reason for DC to charge full price other than to placate nervous comic book retailers who are afraid to compete against cheap downloads.
DC will have to determine if it’s worth the effort to hurt their own potential sales just in order to keep retailers, who treat DC like the ugly sister of Marvel most of the time anyway, from potentially losing a sale.
DC is selling their digital comics through Comixology, which strikes me as odd, since it inserts a middle man in the process where DC could be pocketing way more of the profits by selling their books directly. Even with that, DC has to be clearing a good fifty cents or more extra per book on a digital download.
Which would be good, if the books were worth it. I know that if I’d spent four bucks on a digital download of JL #1, I’d be hard-pressed to ever pay for another digital download of a DC Comic book again. It’s a ten-minute read, if you go slowly.
If DC put their books online for quarter, they’d sell millions. Charge ten bucks a month for unlimited access to their library and they’d clean up. Until they do that, digital comics will not be an issue. Why pay four bucks for something you can’t even hold in your hands? The first company that understands how internet pricing works will make a ton of money. Until they come along digital downloads will be a non-factor.
More On The DC 52
There are all sorts of other reviews and articles on the new DC Universe. Hiedi MacDonald offers up her review here, and has some great background stories here and here. You should probably just check her site, The Beat, for continuing coverage.
Friday night at The Boulevard Tavern, InFormation will have their CD release party. The show kicks off at ten. It’s five bucks for guys, but THE LADIES GET IN FREE!
Madame Mem will debut Saturday night at Sam’s Uptown Cafe. This brand-new band features Michelle Melton from Rubber Soul, plus Ryan Kennedy, John Ingram and T.J. King. They start playing at 11 PM, and I’m guessing that there’s a modest cover, but I didn’t get any info about that.
That’s it for this week’s PopCulteer. Check back next week for all our regular features plus a brand-new episode of Radio Free Charleston devoted to Mission Coalition!