What DC Comics’ revamp really means

This may be a two-part post, though the second part probably won’t be under the “webcomics” heading. If you’re not familiar with comics history, get a crash course before continuing with Part II of “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis”.

This September, DC will effectively reboot its entire universe (well, not really – more on that in a bit), launching 52 #1 issues to, presumably, replace their existing line of titles with a more “modern” DC Universe. DC previously rebooted its continuity in 1985-6’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, and performed “soft reboots” (performing various retcons without wholesale junking what came before) on roughly 10-year intervals thereafter, in 1994’s Zero Hour and 2005-6’s Infinite Crisis. (The in-story justification for this reboot appears to be the ongoing Flashpoint event.) Perhaps more importantly for the general comics industry, they will also release their comics through digital platforms on the same day they come out in comic book stores.

Back in 2009 in my “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis” series, I predicted that eventually, the old monthly comic format would fade away, as webcomics and graphic novels replaced newspaper comic strips and monthly comic books. Noting that Diamond had recently induced a contraction of the market and that further contraction to exclude almost all companies other than Marvel and DC was looking very possible, I proclaimed that the direct market existed solely for the purposes of DC and Marvel, and suggested that most of the smaller comic creators would abandon the direct market in favor of graphic novels in bookstores and webcomics. That DC itself is reinventing the company and embracing the web as a parallel revenue stream is a sign even they may be bailing, or preparing to bail, on the direct market. Presumably, they figure that even more than themselves, the direct market really exists primarily to serve Marvel and Marvel alone, who has had a substantial lead over DC for virtually the entire time since the 1960s.

Or at least, it would… if they weren’t keeping the existing monthly comic paradigm.

The monthly 22-page comic is a relic of the days when comics were published on newsstands, when they were magazines that happened to have comics in them. As the idealists of the time who started futzing around with the concept of the “graphic novel” keenly realized, it became obsolete with the rise of the direct market in the 1970s; Marvel and DC continued publishing them mostly out of inertia, while smaller publishers that took advantage of the direct market published monthly comics because Marvel and DC did (and because they were cheaper and, for a time, less exotic than graphic novels). The only reason the comic book industry accepts that comics should be published in 22-page chunks every month is that that’s the way it’s always been done. If the direct market perishes, it won’t continue to be the way it’s done – even when bookstores stock monthly comics, it’s always segregated from their other magazines on spinner racks, reducing the point of pretending to be magazines.

By keeping one foot in the direct market, DC is shutting themselves out of the creative benefits of a move to digital distribution, at an opportune time to do so, coinciding with the reinvention of their universe. By committing to the monthly 22-page comic format, DC has shut themselves out of using the infinite canvas, or even adopting the webcomic model. Perhaps DC is understandably wary of their ability to make money out of the web alone, or whether their existing audience would follow them. But what’s even more baffling than that DC would go the digital route but not take advantage of its possibilities, is that they aren’t taking advantage of this reinvention to move towards the other comic distribution mechanism of the future, the graphic novel model.

Comic books have come a long way from the Silver Age when an entire story could be told in one issue, often leaving room for one or two more stories besides; “decompression” has become the norm, with most stories taking 4-8 issues to complete, and with the greater depth that most comics creators have started looking for, 22 pages has started looking increasingly cramped for an entire story with beginning, middle, and end. This has only furthered the obsolescence of the 22-page monthly comic, so DC could go far by removing the 22-page constraint from their writers and allow them to go as hog-wild as they wish on self-contained stories released less frequently (perhaps two or three times a year) in graphic novel form. (Xaviar Xerexes wonders at the end of this post whether DC is missing an opportunity by not making these comics for kids again, which at least would justify the length as well as the inherent silliness of the whole concept of superheroes. DC’s more “fantastic” heroes haven’t meshed well with the serious stories told with them.)

That DC isn’t doing any of this makes me wonder what the point of this revamp is – it’s worth noting that in 2009, DC Comics was restructured into DC Entertainment to strengthen the connection between comics and other media, making me wonder if the ultimate impetus for this move is to create new properties for media exploitation and reinvent existing properties to be more exploitable. It’s even more baffling that they would keep a foot in the direct market when no one is going to walk into a comic book store unless they’re already a fan of superhero comic books, and even distributing over digital channels isn’t going to be anywhere near as effective at drawing in new “readers” as said exploitation in other media, as Marvel is doing with its line of movies, which are slowly building towards an eventual Avengers movie. Yet by completely relaunching its existing universe, DC risks alienating their existing direct market audience and throwing out one of their biggest assets – as exemplified in the likely end of four or five titles that can claim their legacy and numbering back to the Golden Age.

While continuity can be a barrier to entry to a story, it can also be a tremendous asset, and DC has leveraged its continuity like no other, creating a sense of legacy around their characters. Several characters that were teenagers in the Silver Age have grown into their own identities as adult heroes, with Wally West, the former Kid Flash, even taking his mentor’s mantle as the Flash when his mentor died during Crisis on Infinite Earths. The most famous of these might be Dick Grayson, the former Robin, taking the identity of Nightwing (immortalized on screen during the later run of the 90s Batman animated series) and, since his own mentor’s death a couple years ago, himself taking the mantle of Batman.

However, DC’s approach to continuity and the passage of time has been rather half-assed (how long has present Robin Tim Drake been in high school again? With all these former teenage sidekicks taking adult identities as early as the 80s, shouldn’t the “original generation” of heroes be in their 40s by now?) – they have an interest in keeping the “iconic” versions of their characters, and although the monthly pace of comic books allows much less time to take place than the actual time between issues, the passage of time can’t be held off indefinitely, and for various reasons DC has frittered away a lot of that time.

The reasons for such conservativism are arguably outweighed by the story possibilities it holds back – of the only three characters for whom it really matters all that much (of their next three iconic franchises, two have had at least three different people hold each of their mantles), two, Superman and Wonder Woman, have been portrayed as effectively immortal (although admittedly Lois Lane is another matter), and Batman has, as mentioned, already been killed off and replaced (a move, note, that has been largely critically acclaimed by superhero comic fans, many of them clamoring for Bruce to never come back, despite the seeming inevitability of returns from the dead in comics). But if DC is understandably committed to the iconic versions of their characters, it seems a reasonable compromise is to start a brand-new universe aimed at new readers alongside the existing DC universe, which is then allowed to grow and change dynamically.

Marvel went in this direction with the 2000 launch of the so-called “Ultimate” universe – while wildly successful, there’s evidence a lot of its fans came from existing comics fandom, and the Ultimate universe quickly became as continuity-choked as the mainstream Marvel universe. Still, what’s to stop DC from launching their own “Digital” universe? In fact, DC’s four Golden Age-dated titles are split two apiece between Superman and Batman, and since the end of multiple stories in a single issue DC has tried valiantly to justify the existence of two separate titles. What’s to stop them from putting the “new” Superman in Superman and the existing Superman in Action Comics, or the “new” Batman in Detective Comics and the existing Batman in Batman, and splitting the rest of their line between their universes?

DC has attempted to clarify that this is “not a reboot“, implying that this new status quo will be overlaid on top of the existing DC universe, but they’ve also released material suggesting even the most iconic characters will be revised, made younger, and given new costumes, leading me to ask: why half-ass it? If you’re going to go this far to sweep aside the shackles of continuity, why not cut them off entirely? I personally will watch at least the start of this new initiative with interest, to see what new twists DC puts on their old characters as well as to watch this revolution unfold, and I intend to devote a future post to my own ideas for reinventing DC’s stable, but the way DC is going about all of this, I can’t help but think it’ll bite them in the ass.

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