Posted by Don MacPherson on May 31st, 2011
Reaction to DC’s announcement Tuesday that it’s revamping its entire line of super-hero titles and relaunching with 52 new titles featuring its familiar characters (some perhaps tweaked to be a little less familiar) was met with immediate reactions, and many of them were highly negative, leery or outright hostile.
Some of the thumbs-down comments were understandable. Comics retailers are faced with a major shake-up of one of its top two product lines, a spike in the number of titles and the task of trying to assuage their customers’ concerns so they can hold onto those sales in the months ahead. DC’s announcement will have a direct impact on the livelihoods of the owners of comics shops and those working there, so one can’t begrudge them the valid comments and concerns than have arisen in the hours (and days and weeks to come) since the bomb was dropped.
The more puzzling reactions I’ve read online were those from readers. Many have complained that since DC continuity is getting some sort of a reboot (or at least a partial reboot) in the fall, all of the stories unfolding in DC titles now, in recent weeks, and in the months and years that have passed “don’t matter.” Somehow, a retooling of the DC line, its characters and continuity means those stories didn’t happen, that having read them and invested in the adventures of DC’s heroes and villains was time and money wasted.
Here’s the problem with that argument: those stories never mattered in the first place. They never happened at all. And many people would argue that money spent on those comics was wasted, that there were more important, more valuable and better things for us to have invested in or purchased.
Rebooting, restarting or retooling beloved super-hero genre characters doesn’t revise history for the reader, only the fictitious, two-dimensional figures in the comics themselves. The Batman: The Brave and the Bold and Young Justice cartoons are seen by a much wider audience than the readership of DC’s various super-hero titles. Does that make the incarnations and interpretations of DC’s characters in those TV the “real” versions? Does that render the comic-book continuity moot? Of course not. These are stories… fictional stories about men and women wearing spandex, capes and implausibly gaudy jewelry.
While the approach to this promised reboot is different and more aggressive than what we’ve seen in the past, the actual practice is just business as usual, especially for DC Comics.
Did the debut of the Barry Allen Flash in Showcase #4 in 1956 the stories featuring a helmet-wearing Flash in the Golden Age of comics never happened? Did Hal Jordan’s adoption of a ring of power from a dying alien mean engineer Alan Scott’s discovery of a magic lantern didn’t happen? Did the establishment of the Justice League of America overwrite the existence of the Justice Society of America?
If rebooted or retconned continuity renders past super-hero stories illegitimate, why DC does make so much money from collected editions of those old stories that “don’t matter”? Why do new and longtime readers alike buy black-and-white Showcase editions of Silver Age stories and more expensive hardcover “Archive” editions of Golden Age material?
Now, if DC’s creators somehow fail to wrap up ongoing storylines before the fall relaunch, that’s a different matter. Readers who have invested their money to follow a story should be given the courtesy of an ending; they shouldn’t be left hanging because of an arbitrary turning point set by a publisher.
There are so many comics enthusiasts out there having an emotional reaction to a business decision. I can understand why — I don’t agree with it, but I understand. As a life-long comics reader — and specifically, a life-long reader of DC super-heroes — I also have cherished memories of favorite stories, of moments in my life that I’ve connected with moments from DC’s rich history of storytelling and myth-making. But when DC wipes the slate clean — and it’s done so time and time again over the decades — it’s only wiping that slate going forward. Memories are untouched by decisions made in the boardrooms and Skype conferences of one of a multi-national corporation’s publishing divisions.
In the past, when DC’s embarked upon these new directions for its characters, it’s served as a turning point in comics. The introduction of the Barry Allen character in the mid-1950s is seen as the beginning of the Silver Age of comics. This new direction — whether it’s good or bad for the industry — could also serve as a turning point. Given DC’s announcement that it’s new line of 52 titles will all be available online in downloadable form as they are physically in stores, maybe this will be seen as the true beginning of a new age, the Digital Age of Comics. While this fall is far from the dawn of digitally distributed comics, DC’s move is by far the biggest commitment we’ve seen to that new form of delivery.
That’s another reason why my sympathies are with comics retailers. It’s my hope that DC realizes that it’s those retailers who have sustained its base since the 1980s and 1990s, and that their fortunes are intertwined. DC has demonstrated it’s willing to make radical changes to its publishing line and to its properties. Hopefully, it will follow that up with a willingness to change the way it does business with direct-market retailers. Returnability, improved discount levels, and adherence to a steadier, more evenly distributed product-delivery schedule are all ways that the publisher can work with its retail partners to give this initiative the best possible chance of success.
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