-The 90s series returns tomorrow. I still haven't dug through my old comics, which I really need to do to jog my memory on some of this stuff. On the other hand, my character is at level 16 on Oblivion now. I'm still compiling links related to all this, BTW, so keep me informed of any posts you have made on the subject.
-I've been critical of DC in the past, many times in fact. I always feel a little self-conscious about it, as though I need to include some criticism of Marvel to balance things out. I hate Big Two partisanship. It's one of the three or four worst phenomena of the comics-related internet (along with, off the top of my head, (1) taking aim at easy targets in a glib/facile way, (2) ignoring the importance of art in comics, and (3) passing off personal/professional vendettas as thoughtful commentary; faithful readers will note that I've probably been guilty of at least two of these offenses, maybe more).
But man, DC is really fucking up right now, isn't it? I mean, it's on multiple levels; it's both a business and creative problem. By now most of you have heard the news that the dude who was doing the Countdown blog has called it quits, and is actually no longer reading the series. Nobody seems to like Countdown. And yet, take a look at DC's solicitations: tons and tons of miniseries spinning off from Countdown. Presumably these were all commissioned and scheduled before the sales figures started rolling in, but still--DC is flooding the market with a bunch of series nobody wants. If the sales on the core title are slipping fast, what can we expect for the multitude of spinoffs? This is especially dire if one considers the potential effect on sales generated by the poor quality of World War III (though, to be fair, I've heard some people say they actually enjoyed WWIII--never underestimate the allure of continuity porn, I guess).
Shockingly, the sales figures paint an even bleaker picture. (Bleaker still if one considers how much Marvel and DC still dominate the charts, but let's stick to one depressing conundrum at a time for right now.) You know, it wasn't that long ago that DC was running neck and neck with Marvel, right? Around the time of Infinite Crisis and the early months of One Year Later, right? Now they appear to be hopelessly behind.
Put it all together: the critical reception to Countdown, the glut of Countdown tie-ins on the horizon, and the declining sales figures. There's no way to look at these figures and not question the effect on DC as a brand. DC is not giving fans (of any stripe, really) what they want. Their line-wide identity is tied into a loser of a maxi-series; many of their highest profile books are perpetually late, leading to clumsy/destructive schedule-juggling; their biggest intellectual properties are selling fewer books than Moon Knight. To his credit, Dan DiDio is not so incompetent as to maintain the disastrous status quo. But does anyone expect Waid on Flash and McDuffie on Justice League to turn things around? Shit, Justice League is DC's only consistent, monthly bestseller; if anything, Meltzer's imminent departure will see sales drop by a significant amount.
And that's the interesting part--Meltzer's JLA is quite possibly less popular than Countdown among the internet cognoscenti, but it's a spectacular hit by the standards of the contemporary Direct Market. Clearly, the comic-reading public is still enamored with DC's intellectual properties. I'm not sure what makes Justice League better than any other title featuring Batman, Wonder Woman, et al, but a lot of people obviously feel that way. There must be something about the current DCU that's turning people off in droves; thus, it's logical to examine JLA in order to figure out what it's doing differently. Some possibilites:
The creative team: Meltzer might be that much more popular than Geoff Johns, Mark Waid, and Grant Morrison. I'd be sort of surprised if this were true, but who knows. Maybe the infrequency of Meltzer's comic work has created demand, whereas one can buy comics by Johns, Waid, and Morrison every month (or practically every month, in the last case). I seriously doubt that Ed Benes can be credited for the massive sales. I'm not saying he doesn't have fans; I'm just saying that he doesn't have that many fans.
The characters: There's something very attractive about all-star teams, and the Justice League probably has the most mystique of all such super-teams. Why, then, did the previous volume not sell as well? I think readers had come to view the title as secondary. The rotating creative teams suggested an endless parade of inventory stories--which, as best I can tell, cuts pretty close to the truth. JLA didn't seem to matter, and today's superhero fans desperately want their comics to matter (not in a Denny O'Neill sense--more in a Marv Wolfman sense). So the relaunched Justice League was essentially filling pent-up demand for a high profile comic featuring the Justice League, much as Grant Morrison's JLA did a decade ago.
The stories: I think most fans are aware that comics are not Brad Meltzer's day job. Thus, there's an expectation that his comics won't be contorted to fit into the crossover du jour. (I'm not saying this actually reflected reality so much as fan perception. Maybe.) At the same time, the centrality of Identity Crisis to the current DCU may have led readers to expect Serious Shit to go down in Justice League. And yet this Serious Shit would not be incomprehensible without reading of seventeen related mini series and crossovers. (Again, we're talking perception here.)
In any event, DC really looks to be in some Serious Shit of its own. This is potentially more than a short term problem--DC is in danger of turning off readers longterm. Think Marvel c. 1993. Many (most?) of these readers will gravitate to Marvel for the time being, perhaps returning when their confidence in DC has been restored. A precious few will graduate to more challenging fare. The rest, sadly, will probably give up comics altogether. Regardless of what you think about Brad Meltzer, Dan DiDio, or corporate comics culture in general, the Direct Market needs those readers. One day the comics industry will outgrow the hobby shop market, but who knows how far away that day is? In the meantime, most comics shops depend upon the dude reading Justice League so they can take a chance on Sammy the Mouse. What's more, DC provides a crucial bridge between spandex and literary/art comics, via the Vertigo imprint. (In the future, it might provide a bridge between manga aimed at a juvenile audience and literary/art comics, via the Minx imprint.) If you're reading this, chances are that you need DC, at least for a little while longer, whether you like it or not.
This is why so many of us were floored at the Rich Johnston column suggesting DiDio is in no immediate danger of being canned. One would think that the latest sales figures might change this, but maybe DiDio is the Matt Millen of comics. DC really, really, badly, really needs a complete overhaul. They have to do something to reestablish confidence in the comics they publish, especially since Countdown--the center of their publishing plans for the foreseeable future--seems to be lurching toward unmitigated disaster territory. Replacing DiDio would be a good start, but DC really needs an infusion of new talent with fresh perspectives on its intellectual properties.
Anyone remember a few years ago when Mark Millar was blathering about having a plan to "save" DC? I remember laughing at him at the time--Infinite Crisis and OYL suggested that DC already had a plan. Sales and buzz were both on the incline; the future looked bright. Now I'm not sure that DiDio and the DC brain trust ever really had a plan. Infinite Crisis featured a lot of multiverse junk and it was a hit. So, rather than using it as a launching pad for a wave of compelling, novel approaches to its characters, DC editorial has instead given us all-multiverse, all the time--and it's mostly crap. 52 featured an atypical format and a wide cast of characters; again, DC's editors have copied these surface elements without replicating the true appeal of the original, and again the result is garbage. 2005 was a year of innovation for DC (at least by its standards); 2007 has been a year of imitation. It would be a hard pill for DC partisans to swallow, but it might be time to bring in Millar and see what he has to say. It couldn't be any worse than what's happening right now.