Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Everything Old Is Screwed Again

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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11 Responses to “Everything Old Is Screwed Again”

  1. Robert Bazylak Says:

    Don, you’ve presented a very well thought-out and clear perspective on the big news. Thank you for that.

    I agree that arguments of DC implying past stories “don’t matter,” while understandable, are emotional in nature, irrational, and flawed as a foundation for criticism. Can this move be seen as disrespecting the past, and the tremendous and powerful histories of some key long-running titles? Certainly. However, I think that it’s clearly suggested (if not directly stated) that DC is forgoing the past in order to help ensure that there is a future for its stories, and for its heroes.

    Now more than ever, the survival of comics in the digital age seems to be a matter of change or die. By beginning anew, with familiar concepts and heroes in modern times, as well as making strides to reach the largest audiences possible though both print *and* digital mediums, I’d argue that DC is actually showing tremendous respect for all the stories that came before by doing what’s necessary for its characters to continue on, and to be exposed to as large of an audience as possible.

    If giving a new generation of readers stories and heroes that are emotionally meaningful and important to *them* comes at the expense of the stories that were important to me in my childhood, then so be it. I’ll never forget those stories, and I’ll always have those issues and memories as precious reminders. What’s most important is that the industry and the medium itself survives so that others can discover those same joys.

  2. Chain Reactions | DC’s reboot, relaunch and new digital strategy | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    […] Don MacPherson, Eye on Comics: “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. […]

  3. Rob Jones Says:

    This is just another gimmick..the whole reboot thing. They could have done this more quietly which each title where appropriate but instead they are doing a gimmick just like the summer crossovers. It will get them short-term sales but hurt long term but they don’t care about that.

  4. jabrams007 Says:

    I think you make some great points Don, and this is a pretty bold move on DC’s part, but (and I hate to be a glass half-empty type of person) none of it will matter if the only place to buy comics are comic book stores, and if the price is 2.99-3.99.

    I just don’t see the “new audience” that DC is after actually going into a comic shop and paying that much money for a book.

    If DC was really bold, they’d drop the “floppy” format altogether and just have trades. Now THAT would have been a daring step.

  5. Don MacPherson Says:

    Rob wrote:
    This is just another gimmick..the whole reboot thing.

    I think it’s much more than a gimmick. This is a business plan, a major move on DC’s part to grab a larger piece of the market share, to reach out to new readers and to keep its intellectual properties in the public eye. Whether it succeeds remains to be seen, but it’s ambitious.

    Perhaps the most impressive thing about it is how DC managed to keep a lid on it for so long. Dozens of people — if not numbers in the range of 100-200 people — had to have been privy to this plan for months, and there really wasn’t a hint about it online. From a PR perspective, that’s amazing, and DC has certainly reaped the benefits of that secrecy now. It’s controlled the story quite well, and everyone with an interest in comics, either for or against the reboot, is talking about it. “There’s no such thing as bad publicity…”

  6. Howie Says:

    I agree with Jabrams007. The shop here rarely gets “new blood.” Any new person who comes in is, or has been, a collector and has just relocated (or is going to college). More and more of the people here are going trade format eschewing “floppy” types altogether. We’ve often debated how long it would take for the majors to see this as a trend and respond by dropping monthlies in favor of trades.

    I’ve been a fan of DC comics/heroes since I was five. Sadly, I currently pick up only a couple of DC titles, down from 15-20 a few years ago. It was mainly these annual gimicks that drove me away (bad storytelling/art, and far too many “superstar” guest writers/artists had a hand as well). If you write or draw a book, I want you to be on it for several years not a few months. My file is now almost exclusively indies, and this fall will be nothing but indies as I’ll be dropping those last two DC books as this stunt will give me a clean jumping-off point. Yes, the indies cost more, but I feel I get better value for my dollars as well as a more consistent product.

    My sympathies are with the retailers as well. It’s one reason I’ve kept a local file instead of going with web dealers. It’s a bit more expensive, but there’s nothing like going to the store every Wednesday for comics and conversation. If the new generation wants digital, so be it. Just keep mine on paper.

  7. Dennis Mercier Says:

    I’ve always been more of a Marvel fan than a DC fan but I do buy a few DC books each month. I’m cautiously optimistic about this new relaunch. If it brings in new readers and the stories are good I’m all for it. If it’s Heroes Reborn round 2 then I’m scared for the industry. It’s going to boil down to two things:

    1. Does DC have enough talent to pump out 52 entertaining issues each month?
    2. Can DC market this new launch so that it brings in new readers?

    Only marketing these books in comics and comic-related media is a huge mistake. DC needs to give this thing a full court press. Someone recently pointed out the cross promotion that Marvel used to do with the G.I. Joe cartoon. That was one of the things that got me into comics, seeing the book covers on TV and then at the grocery store. DC needs to think outside the box and do something creative like this.

    I am excited for Superman for the first time in my life. I have never picked up the title regularly but Morrison’s All Star Superman was outstanding. If he can bring a similar energy to the new title, DC has a new Superman reader.

  8. Don MacPherson Says:

    Dennis wrote:
    Only marketing these books in comics and comic-related media is a huge mistake.

    But DC isn’t making that mistake. My wife, who knows nothing of comics save for the fact that I love the medium, asked me this morning if I was excited about DC’s fall relaunch.

    “Where did you hear about that?” I asked. She said three of her Facebook friends who aren’t comics people have mentioned it in the past day, and she saw a news story in the ticker that runs along side our channel guide on TV as well.

    I’ve also had two lapsed comics readers ask me about it on Facebook, and these are guys who don’t frequent the comics news sites at all.

    DC has definitely done well with its initial steps in terms of the PR for this new direction. That’s the good news. It remains to be seen if it can keep up the momentum until September. Given the apparent months of planning and company-wide dedication to the initiative, it seems that it’s possible. The only thing that’s missing so far is a brand for the new direction.

  9. Dennis Mercier Says:

    Don wrote:
    But DC isn’t making that mistake. My wife, who knows nothing of comics save for the fact that I love the medium, asked me this morning if I was excited about DC’s fall relaunch.

    “Where did you hear about that?” I asked. She said three of her Facebook friends who aren’t comics people have mentioned it in the past day, and she saw a news story in the ticker that runs along side our channel guide on TV as well.

    That’s good news. I guess I’m to plugged into comics sites that I haven’t seen the marketing in other places. Getting people talking is the first step and with a move this bold DC must have thought this through. We’ll see what they do to keep the momentum rolling.

    Now will this entice fans into shops before the relaunch?

  10. Dwight Williams Says:

    I was mildly surprised to see coverage of the relaunch/reboot strategy at CBC’s web news service.

    Wondering how many of the rest of Earth’s anglophone news agencies were approached with this…?

  11. Don MacPherson Says:

    Dwight wrote:
    Wondering how many of the rest of Earth’s anglophone news agencies were approached with this…?

    The Associated Press ran something today on the four Green Lantern-related relaunched titles. Which means Canadian Press members would’ve had access to it as well.

    And since I’m at work right now, I’ll check Reuters…

    Yep, it ran a few inches on the story Wednesday.