Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Brave and The Bold: my thoughts on DC Comics' big announcement...

If you don't know what DC Comics has planned for September, you've either been living like the Amish for the past 24 hours, or just don't care. Yesterday, the news broke that the second largest comic book publisher is planning on ending all of their books in August of this year and then restarting their line in September with over 50 titles, each starting at issue #1.

Whether you realize it or not, this is HUGE. This is perhaps literally a make-or-break moment for the company who is responsible for such iconic characters as Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Not only will DC relaunch their books with an issue #1, but they're also rebooting them in order to make the characters more accessible, relatable, and modern. This isn't a cash-grab for DC, this is a Hail Mary pass with the hopes that the outcome is survival.

Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman all debuted within a window of time between 1938 and 1941. Both in real life and in their stories, they (and their friends) have survived attacks by Super Villians, multiple World Wars (and/or military conflicts), fluctuating economies, and changes in distribution. However within the last ten years or so, they've found themselves staring down a enemy that whether faced together or separate seems undefetable: Their Future.

Comics, on average, used to sell over 150,000 copies a month. Back in the 60's and 70's, they used to sell about 500,000 copies a month. Now, the number one title each month sells MAYBE 100,000 copies. A book is considered 'safe' from cancelation if it sells more than 15,000 copies (as opposed to back in the late 1970's when comics were canceled abrubtly when publication slipped below 40,000).

Here's a little bit of Comic Book trivia: In the not so distant past (and possibly still today, but I don't think so...) Comic Book sales and market share we based off of Batman sales. The way to rank how well a comic sold was to compare the number of copies ordered each month to the number of copies Batman was ordered on a rolling 12 month comparison. Batman was the benchmark that all other titles were compared to...these days, Batman's title barely cracks the Top 50 comics sold every month.

The reason for this failure varies on who you ask. Two of the most popular reasons are that "Kids don't care about comics anymore", because they have TV and Video games. To this end, DC is coupling this line-wide reboot with the ability to get their 'books' digitally at the same time you could go to the store and buy paper versions. Kids like their entertainment digitally? Good, now they can get comics the same way they update their Angry Birds app!

Another reason given...one of the biggest reasons, is 'continuity'. As stated, these characters have been around over 70 years, and when a comic is published monthly for 70 years, you can tell a LOT of stories...some might say EVERY SINGLE STORY imaginable (I'm not going to rehash this...go find my entry about the 'new' Wonder Woman from about a year ago...). This makes it hard for new readers (presumably kids...) to know what's going on because they are walking in to the middle of things, and that it's daunting for a new reader to start reading a book that's at issue #900 or so. Ooookay....but if this were actually the case, then why not just restart the books every year in January with a new #1? The first issue of X-men I ever picked up was #183 and I had no problem figuring out the story, despite having missed out on 182 previous issues...it's a decent argument if the person you're making it to doesn't bother to try and refute it, but there's really no evidence to back it up. It goes hand in hand with the idea that since there are no NEW readers, and that the current readers have been reading forever (BTW, as you've probably figured out, this is kind of valid as I've been reading X-Men ...NOT a DC comic...for like 355 months here...), the stories skew more to adult tastes than kids...but this seems easily dismissable as well. Comics have been written with a sophisticated flair since the 1970s when you had stories like Green Lantern and Green Arrow's teenage sidekick addicted to heroin, and Jean Grey commit suicide in front of her long time boyfriend. And if kids can read Harry Potter with it's more-than-Mickey Mouse level plotlines, or garbage like Twilight, then they can certainly handle what should be normal super-hero fare. YES, you have plot lines that are more complex than Superman helping Lois Lane resuce her pet cat from the Terrible Toy Man, but you also don't have plot lines that are going to turn the children of today into the Jeffery Dhamers of tomorrow...

So, yeah...DC seems to have addressed a lot of problems here with this move: Comics are going to be available digitally, and they're going to be more 'accessible' to people who haven't devoted decades to following the character's adventures. I'm almost exclusively a Marvel Comics fan, but I've committed to picking up at least 5 of these new DC titles in September, even though I don't know for sure that they'll even be published...Good Job DC Comics...too bad I still think this is a move that will only add a couple of more lifeboats to the Titanic that is the Comic Book industry...

When I was a kid, I picked up my first Super Hero comic (the aforementioned Uncanny X-Men #183) from a wire spinner rack near the front door of a drug store in my hometown of Davenport Iowa. Right down the street, was a 7-11 store that had not one, but two comic book spinner racks. They were $.65 each, and I only had a vague idea of when the next issue would be out. I would ride my bike or walk down to one of those stores weekly or so to see what they had available, and would get excited when there was something that looked cool or that I wanted. I would buy them, take them home, read them, and re-read them, and cut out pictures, and step on them, and just enjoy the living heck out them. It was probably a year or two before I even knew that comic book stores existed, and a year or two after that before I cared enough about my comics to put them in plastic bags with cardboard behind them in order to protect them from getting 'ruined'. Sadly, while this is something that millions of kids did alongside me and before me, this is NOT an experience that can currently be recreated by future generations. In case you weren't aware, Comic Books, are basically extinct.

It is extremely difficult, if not literally impossible, to accidentally stumble upon a comic book these days. If you want one, you have to go looking for them. They're sold almost exclusively at specialty stores because they're distributed through a single source that tightly controls where you can buy these books. And they're not $.65 anymore either. A single comic book will cost you at least $2.99. To collect these things in this day and age, a consumer has to be dedicated to finding them and paying for them. Kids today know who Batman is, but they know Batman because of cartoons and movies, not because they picked up a Batman comic at the grocery store to look at while their mom was busy chit-chatting with a friend from church.

A perfect example of this is the name 'Batgirl'. If you say 'Batgirl' to someone who isn't a comic book reader an image is immediately conjured up of a girl in a black, yellow, and blue costume with a mask like Batman's and with long red hair hanging on her shoulders. This character has appeared in multiple Batman cartoons and video games, had action figures hanging in toy departments, and adorns retro apparel for girls and women in major retail stores from Hot Topic to Walmart...of course as any comic book fan will tell you, this character hasn't 'existed' in the books for over 20 years. If this isn't a decent example of the relevancy of the Comic Book medium to the characters themselves, I'm not sure what is...

As a comic book reader, and a proponent of the industry as a whole, I'm excited to see a company try something this bold and daring. And, quite frankly, I'm eager to see Marvel's almost mandatory response to it...It's almost a given that DC will dominate sales for the last 4 months of 2011 as the readers they have, new and curious comic book fans, and retailers try to figure out their new status quo, but ultimately, I have concerns about how 'successful' this move will be. Yes, the books are going to be available on line, but for how much an issue? You don't have printing costs, so the $2.99 price tag should come down...however, you don't want to make it too skewed in favor of digital copies, lest you risk screwing over the comic shop owners of the world. If a digital copy of Superman only costs $1.00 who won't opt for that over a $3 hard copy? Heck, like I said above, I plan on trying out at least 5 (right now imaginary) titles...if their siginificantly cheaper online, I may expand that selection accordingly...BUT, that's all speculation. In order to save the comic book industry, these books MUST be priced affordably. Even taking into account the rising cost of goods and services, $.65 for a comic book was a good deal back in the 80's. A cassette tape was $10, a CD was $15. Movies (then on VHS) were $20, and video games were $30. You could buy 46 comic books for the price of one video game. Today a CD is $10, a DVD is $15, and a video game is $50. Meanwhile, a comic book is $3. Someone who wants to buy a gift for a kid who likes superheroes can go to Target or Walmart and buy an entire season of cartoons based on these characters for $30...that's more expensive than a comic book, yes, but less cost effective. $50 for 22 hours of entertainment versus $3 for 22 pages of a story that WILL continue next month, and the month after, and the month after that...

And then of course there's the fact that, digitally available or not, these comics are still unavailable to a new audience. Comic Book shop or digital store, a person who wants to buy a copy of the new Batman #1 still has to go looking for the story to purchase. There still won't be a handful of these on display at Walgreens or HyVee for kids to flip through and decide it they want to take it home and then hunt down the next issue when it comes out. People can not, and WILL NOT buy something if they don't even know that they're able to...and that doesn't seem to have been taken into account too much with DC's relaunch.

So, yeah...good idea, but it seems to be executed with "not quite there" precision. It's all over the news today, but you can't go get the 'new' comics until September...there's a problem there as well. Again, I'm a bigger Marvel Comics fan than I am DC fan, but that's not necessarily why I'm waiting to see their response to this, and hoping they do it better. I'm hoping they do it better so that this 'big step' can be improved upon, allowing the industry to continue on a thrive.


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