Monday, January 19, 2015

How would you fix the DC universe?

Assisting me today with a speculative post on how to fix the DC universe is my good friend Scott Simmons. In thinking on the topic, I reached out to Scott because not only is he wise and well-spoken, but he also has extensive experience in comic book sales. (He worked at a local comics shop, Heroes and Dragons, on and off during the late '90s and early 2000s, during which he saw the end of the boom and the beginnings of the shift to digital.)

I notice a trend among commenters on the blog to lament what they see as the sorry state of the DC New 52 universe. While I'm not as down on the current line of DC comics as some people, I will admit that there is a real lack of innovation and differentiation among the titles. They tend to have the same look and feel. As a result, while sales seem okay (bolstered as they are by the weekly series and gimmick covers), there is no denying that, line-wide, DC is in a creative slump that is affecting sales. As proof of this, I offer up the recent mega-cancellation of 13 DC titles coming in a few months.

This saddens me, because as much as I like the Marvel universe, I consider myself a DC fan. So, in typical armchair quarterback fashion, I asked myself how would I fix DC and this is what I came up with:

As I see as the problem - regardless of how many titles DC puts out, they tend to fall into the same category, Superhero Fight Comics. And that's all they are.

What if instead, they actually treated their comics line like a book publisher, with different genres:
  • Humor
  • Horror
  • Mystery
  • Science Fiction
  • Drama
  • Romance (that sounds like a weird one, but at one time Romance comics were huge AND they still hold the record for fastest growing genre/trend in the industry.)
For instance, for humor, they could put out these titles:

Jimmy Olsen
Blue Beetle and Booster Gold
Thunderworld (C. C. Beck-styled Marvel Family adventures)

Then, clearly brand the various titles by genre to make it easy for readers to find what they like. In a way, Vertigo used to work like this (sort of, but I think it got confused as time went on) and I recall many podcasters who said they would always try a new Vertigo title because that was brand they trusted.

With that as my proposed solution, I reached out to Scott to see what he thought of the idea. Here's what Scott said:

Your idea's a good one, and I may surprise you by stealing most of it and claiming it as my own!  If you were hoping for a wildly different answer, I hate to disappoint — though maybe I can redeem myself by explaining that I arrive at a similar conclusion by traveling a slightly different path.

However you feel about DC Comics now, you can't deny the company owned the 1990s.  Or that it had the greatest variety of output any comics publisher has ever enjoyed during that period.  (Yes, even including the late Golden Age, before the super-hero ascended as the one genre to rule all of comics.)

DC's success wasn't just because of Sandman or The Death of Superman.  It was because, as you point out, DC published a wide variety of titles in the '90s and leveraged their corporate parentage to penetrate every existing niche market within comics.

There were super-hero titles, sure — competitive ones, fighting variant-cover-for-variant-cover with Marvel and Image.  Superman #75, the climax of the aforementioned Death of Superman, nearly matched numbers with X-Men #1 and X-Force #1 — heck, it outsold McFarlane's Spider-Man #1 — and it did it on the basis of a story, albeit a gimmicky one, rather than first-issue-fueled speculation.

But there were also horror titles (Hellblazer), science fiction (the Helix line), fantasy (Books of Magic), crime (Road to Perdition), magical-realist autobiography (Brooklyn Dreams), and even a bit of dabbling in war and western genres.  Romance even managed to come up for a breath of air via the hybrid super-hero romance Young Heroes in Love

Back to super-heroes for a moment, though.  DC's titles within the genre were far from homogeneous.  The Flash served up then-unfashionable Silver Age nostalgia, Lobo offered humor, Animal Man brought metatextuality to the fore, and Doom Patrol and Justice League Europe carved out a niche for thought-provoking mainstream comics with a philosophical grounding we might best describe as "art school comics."

The variety didn't stop with the comics!  DC put movies in theaters (though perhaps not ones you'd want to bring up to modern audiences) and beloved cartoons on the TV.  They turned those Dini/Timm cartoons into a beloved line of all-ages Adventures books, at just the moment mainstream distribution was drying up and comics stores were strange, intimidating places for women, children, and civilians to venture into.

The best part about all that diversity, though, the part no one ever mentions, is that (before Vertigo veered off into its own land at the end of the decade), it all happened in the same shared universe.

In the 1990s, when it ruled the world, DC Comics reached the apex of a publishing strategy it had had for a half century:  Letting everything "count."

Notice I didn't say "making everything count," but "letting" — because it doesn't take as much effort as one might think.  DC pioneered the strategy of building a diverse publishing line back in the Golden Age — first by expanding into original material in comic books instead of just publishing reprints of newspaper strips, then by introducing a hybrid genre influenced by the pulps and adventure stories, the super-hero.  Throughout the era, the company expanded its genre offerings to serve every audience it could find: super-heroes, funny animals, horror, crime, Westerns, science fiction, literary adaptations.  Many of those genres eventually faded, but when DC reinvigorated the super-hero during the Silver Age, one of its first moves (via Gardner Fox and Julius Schwartz) was to reference and bring back the heroes of the Golden Age.  All these different comics, conceived for different audiences, existed side by side in DC's stable.

And the company's leadership didn't have to work at it, as such.  They just had to stand aside, remembering wise old Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once cautioned, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

The world we live in is one of diversity.  It's a world that comprises both ISIS beheadings and the city of San Francisco's outpouring of kindness for Batkid.  Neil deGrasse Tyson exists alongside Charles Manson and Pee-wee Herman.  Adherents of Richard Dawkins and those of Joel Osteen leer suspiciously at one another beneath the same sky.

A DC Universe that allows Jamie Delano's vision of John Constantine, Phil Foglio's of Angel and the Ape, and Denny O'Neil's of Batman to breathe the same air is more than fun, more than a novelty.  It's realistic, in a way we rarely use that word.

The 21st century has brought a lot of lip service to diversity, and DC has, accidentally or by design, branded themselves as the anti-diversity publisher.  While many critics focus on the narrow range of ethnic, social, national, and sexual traits among the publisher's super-heroes, we should also consider the monotony and homogeneity of their titles.  Modern DC publishes, relentlessly, for a niche.  What's killing the company (and saddening its fans) isn't that the niche they publish for is the lowest common denominator; it's that it's only a niche, when DC has for decades reached out to publish not just pandering fantasies for a small segment of fans but a four-color representation of the breadth of the world, as seen through the lens of comics' best and brightest creators.

So what does DC need?  I think you've nailed it:  variety.

- Scott


Trey said...

While I'm onboard with what you propose because I think it would be cool, I'm not sure DC is in a "creative slump"--or more accurately, I'm not sure poor sales are due to that. I think the big two are both tied to "big event" life support these days. I'm not sure that Marvel is doing anything particular new or innovative otherwise. I do think that DC has seemed to look back to a lot of 90s talent and 90s style artists in some ways, whereas Marvel's current housestyle seems more modern.

Jim Shelley said...

Perhaps creative slump is a bit harsh - among the recently cancelled titles were interesting ones that should have been given either more time or a higher profile in marketing (Klarion, Swamp Thing, ect)

I think you may be right that the issue is that it's hard for writers to have a really good run on a book with so may interruptions from events (and this is true at both companies) and that leads to run of books that look like they are in a creative slump.

Reno said...

Does it really need fixing? Or is it just us old fogeys who are complaining? In one facebook group I belong to, most of the younger members (30 years old and below) like the New 52 DC just fine. Just something to think about. :)

Secret-HQ said...

Excellent points. "Fix" may be a bit harsh

Neither Jim nor I are proposing DC is in some sort of dire trouble because they're not doing what two yahoos on the internet recommend. We just feel there's fertile ground lying fallow only a few feet from the tired old niche the company is tilling away at.

The perceived gap between DC and Marvel at the moment may have more to do with their trajectories than anything else. Marvel went from backruptcy to cinema dominance during the same period DC went from critical acclaim in bookstores to the butt of internet jokes. Even though the two companies are still competitive, the contrast between the two is stark because of how much Marvel's image has improved and how much DC's has been battered since the turn of the century.

Nathan Adler said...

@Jim: Given the title you should have offered this for my blog as I'd have gladly published!


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