03 June 2011

The Digital Domain (or Here is the cake I own. Now go away so I can eat it.)

Jim Lee's redesigned Justice League
includes lots of raised collars.
This week, DC Comics (1) announced that it will be restarting all of their series at issue #1, introducing costumes redesigned by Jim Lee in order to "to make characters more identifiable and accessible to comic fans new and old." The press release announcing this new initiative implies that the characters will be rebooted to some unknown extent since the company plans to tell stories that are "grounded in each characters' specific legend but also reflect today's real world themes and events" and also stated "[t]his was a chance to start, not at the beginning, but at a point where our characters are younger and the stories are being told for today's audience." The line will begin with a new Justice League drawn by Lee and written by DC golden boy and Chief Creative Officer, Geoff Johns. Finally, starting in September when DC launches all 52 "new" series, all titles will be available digitally on the same day as release, a stark contrast to both DC and Marvel's current digital stance.

(1) It always strikes me as odd whenever I call DC Comic by that name because DC stands for Detective Comics, it's old flagship title. When you say or type DC Comics, you're actually saying Detective Comics Comics. And I am a nerd.

So what does this mean? There are two things to consider here: the creative side and the business side. And the two overlap to a degree since I fall into the category of lapsed fan that DC would love to bring back to the fold, although that is actually up for debate.

From a creative standpoint, this appears, like many ideas brought about by Dan DiDio, the co-publisher of DC Comics, to be a quick fix plan that hasn't been thought out very well. If the plan were given much consideration beyond "let's blow everything up and start over but only sort of," then I'd imagine that the architects of the plan would have more concrete answers for their chief fan base about the kinds of things they care about, namely continuity and timelines that allow the readers to know what "counts." This is mostly because comic book fans are a bunch of negative, self-hating, twenty to fifty-something sticks in the mud who are overly concerned with making sure that the stories they read change the status quo but also keep everything exactly as it was when they first got into comics.

In gambling to bring in a new audience, the DC brass also risks losing the existing one. Providing such a short time before everything changes forever again doesn't allow for the excitement of the new line to take effect or for the fans of the current status quo to see their stories wrapped up. Plus, no one who follows trends in the comic industry honestly believes that the status quo will change. Between Crisis on the Infinite Earths, Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis, there have been four major events since 1985 that have reconfigured the timeline to make everything more reader friendly that has only caused things to be more confusing. There used to be a multiverse, but the first Crisis changed it all to one Earth. Zero Hour attempted to make sense of the timeline that resulted. Meanwhile Infinite Crisis brought the multiverse back because Superboy punched reality (2), and Final Crisis...well, I don't know what that did except make Batman a cave man and a pirate (3).

(2) Seriously.

(3) No, seriously.

See, all of these "fixes" tend to not fix anything when the goal should be to just tell decent stories that are exciting and out of this world and make them available to the largest audience possible. And starting from scratch could do that, but it makes the existing audience feel like a bunch of chumps for not being good enough for the company already since what they like will be abandoned to attempt to capture new customers. To placate them and prevent their departure, DC has stated that some of the existing continuity will still be around. DC wants to have its cake and eat it, too.

The comic industry needs a shot in the arm if it hopes to survive because they face an actual crisis similar to the one the music industry failed to confront ten years ago. They need to grow a new audience but are afraid to lose the one they have. However, the audience they have is old, getting older, and shrinking.  While their characters are more popular than ever thanks to the boom of superhero movies, toys and cartoons, the medium from which they originated isn't faring so well because it's often cost-prohibitive and daunting to become a new fan. Instead of embracing the new audience by catering to the different ways they take in content, they've shunned it and only focused on the direct market. The comic book industry has become the Ouroboros. Add to this the fact that the violent content in some comics isn't necessarily inviting to the kids that would otherwise might want to become fans, or at least it's not to their parents. The answer might be to embrace digital content and market it effectively, but DC, in going the with same day digital release, still isn't doing that because they (and Marvel, too, for that matter) haven't managed to figure out that digital content should be cheaper. Instead, they're charging the newsstand price for new issues and exorbitantly higher prices (in comparison to the original cover price) for older issues.

The numbering of a series and whether or not Superman wears a turtleneck ultimately doesn't matter. The first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man that I bought was in the high 200's; Action Comics and Detective Comics were both in the 400's when I started  wanting to read about Superman and Batman. The fact that the stories were accessible and good is what kept me coming back and the numbering didn't keep me from reading. Having convoluted stories that required me to read five other concurrent issues just to understand what was happening to the one character I cared about is what forced me to stop buying comics on a regular basis. Digital distribution does matter, but it has to be incorporated in such a way that it doesn't deter new customers from trying out the product. I originally bought an iPad over a Kindle because I wanted to be able to read comics on it and felt it would be more cost and space-effective compared to purchasing single issues at stores. This doesn't mean that comic book stores have to die in order for comic book companies to live, either. Just like books will always exist in a physical format of some kind, so will comics. But avoiding progress and the new audience that progress can bring only serves to make things worse for everyone involved who stand to make a living in the industry.

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