Listen, the relaunch, reboot, refresh, whatever you want to call it has been a boon. Comic shops are selling books, and it’s been a little like a sweeps month around here with five DC Picks of the Week in a row. There’s always something to talk about, and there’s a touch of air under our feet in comics all around. Even the folks who “hate” mainstream comics have had to give DC a little credit with backhanded compliments like “well, at least it’s getting people into comic shops.” It can’t be argued that they didn’t sell a lot more books than they do normally. Whether than can be sustained is a question, but for now, hey, backpats all around. It’s a complete success right?
I suppose that depends on how you look at it.
As we finished up this fourth week of #1 issues, I couldn’t help but notice that all these books, every one of them, is for the same audience. Most of them are incredibly violent and adult themed. The ones that aren’t dripping with blood and just-short-of-fucking scenes are throwbacks that read completely anachronistic. These books were written for comic book fans, both already existing and lapsed. All that marketing and advertising was for people who already liked comics, or did at one time. Was there an all-ages book in there anywhere? Was the idea of genre books sufficiently explored? What did this do to get actual new readers, besides a slew of the same old tricks.
This has nothing to do with quality. Like in any publishing line, there are good comics, and bad comics, and comics that go on for days and days with no end and introduce a billion characters, and look like they came with a holofoil cover. I’m talking about who these books are for, and they’re for comic book readers.
I think DC had to make up their mind one way or another to do something meaningful in terms of really going after a market of people who didn’t give comics a chance before. They decided against it, probably figuring that it was too unlikely to make them any money. But if anyone has the clout to make a full-on dedicated movement to turning the comic book into something bigger than it is, it’s a company like Time Warner. They can sustain the early losses while backing up a massive media push, and really give it a go. They didn’t do that at all. They wanted to retain the revenue they’re getting, instead of risking it for a different revenue.
The genre books, which looked like the most able to convince people that comic books don’t necessarily have to mean superheroes. Yet they all tied back into the shared universe, making sure to appease the existing comic book reader. Hell, Jonah Hex went from being a completely stand-alone book (that admittedly sold for shit and was saddled with an even more shit feature film), to being tied into Batman’s world in All-Star Western. Again, it’s not that it wasn’t good. But I’m a comic book reader. I was going to read it anyway. But this move was done to attract comic book readers. That’s it.
Then there are the big titles. Did you read Superman #1? He’s arguably the most famous superhero of all time, and that book was an incomprehensible hodgepodge of panels and words and it went on forever. Suppose someone comes into the store and picks that up as a safe bet? They’re never coming back. Who thought that was a good idea?
What if they had decided to take some of the books and really do genre stuff. Make a crime book that Batman isn’t ever going to appear in. Make a romance book for people who like TV drama. Use the massive resources, and be prepared to take the hit. Then we’ll know once and for all if comic ever have a chance of growing again. DC went with the road that said they don’t. They gathered all their ducks and instead aimed for every comic book reader there is, and ever was. They were the target market. If the mythical new reader wants to, they can buy their comics in iTunes, where they’ll find exactly what they’re expecting.
In six months, when this hoopla is faded, and we have a new continuity that has replaced the old continuity, we’ll be sitting in the same boat we were in, possible with a slight shift in market share in DC’s favor, but no real change. They’ll have good books everyone is talking about and bad books that seem to stay alive and good books no one is buying, but it’s going to feel pretty familiar, and we’ll be left pining for that audience that might be out there, but we’ll never know for sure.