Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Nu DC?

-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.


Mark Engblom said...

Considering it was Mark Millar who wanted to bring in "Hulk Babies" for Civil War, we need to keep him as far away as possible from the struggling DC at the moment.

Tim O'Neil said...

Don't forget that the multiverse, as popular a concept as it was, almost didn't make it at all into the finished product.

Jumaan said...

I think the comments about Denny O'Neill relevance v. Marv Wolfman relevance are completely spot on. It seems like far too many DC fans are completely married to that exact type of storytelling that needs, compulsively, to know where everything fits, as though that makes a story good. The clawhands have won!

Julio Oliveira said...

Bring someone new. Maybe even a basement dwelling fanboy. Mark Millar doesn't deserve a job in the comics industry. Anyone would be better.

Julio Oliveira said...

As for the sucess of Brad Meltzer, I think he has the same appeal as Bendis: he casts the illusion that comics are a "mature and adult thing" to a public that desesperately needs to believe that they aren't emotionally-stunted adults (seriously, they are a bigger part of the comic book reading population then you think). All the decapitations of Geoff Johns won't give the same illusion... The only thing Johns do is create the impression that the bad comics of the nineties were good. That is why his mancrush on Green Lantern makes him to choose in a quite selective manner what to incorporate in "cannon" of the "Hal Jordan mythos".

You see the Marvel formula nowadays is "The illusion of relevance" (I mean, I was having a discussion today with a person saying with a straight face that Civil War was a good story because of its deep philosophical tone. I mean, totally End of Civilization cenario) + "hot semi-nekkid woman". I mean if it's not Frank Cho, is Greg Land and his pornface.

Marvel, for the most part, produces something that you can say that is adult at the same time it appeases the inner horny teenager of the reader. Is kind like saying that you buy Playboy for the articles.

Anonymous said...

I honestly can't understand how DC shareholders can allow the company to be run in such a haphazard manner, particularly a company allied and being drawn upon by the multi-million dollar movie industry. Does DC employ anyone with any expertise in marketing or branding? Is there anyone with even a business degree? There are some fundamental brand protection and brand building rules that DC must come to grips with if it is to preserve and develop it's valuable intellectual property. Why is this company left in the hands of a small bunch of maniacs?
Gregory Gray

The Faulk said...

After IC, OYL and 52 I got the impression that DC was building up to something. I may not have liked some of the things they were doing (return of the Multiverse) but I could at least respect that they had a direction in mind.

Then 52 ended and Countdown bounced like a dead cat. It seems like they've got everything tied into a series that a) isn't any good b) doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

Does this mean that we have to wait at least a year while they clear the pipeline of all this Countdown related material in order to get to the possibility of something even remotely interesting?

Matt said...

Great post, and something that's been percolating in my own mind as well.

What's most intriguing about the situation to me is that it seems like a train wreck by any objective standards, and yet both the company's top people and its most diehard fans seem to still have this lingering celebratory air of excitement, mixed with unearned optimism, topped off with abject denial.

If it is a train wreck, and I think it is (and only going to get worse, much worse, before it gets better) then it's like there's a mob of passionate train fans cheering on the locomotive as it plows into the station wagon sitting on the tracks. And that mob includes the executives of the train company, patting each other on the back over how well their trains run.

"O" the Humanatee! said...

"What's most intriguing about the situation to me is that it seems like a train wreck by any objective standards, and yet both the company's top people and its most diehard fans seem to still have this lingering celebratory air of excitement, mixed with unearned optimism, topped off with abject denial."

Now, what does this remind me of? Oh, now I've got it! We've all missed the big picture: Didio and co. are doing a massive satirical performance art piece about the Bush Administration! (Maybe all the glorying in death and ultraviolence fits in there too.) And some people thought "Civil War" had real-world relevance! Clearly, I've misunderestimated Didio.

It is surprising, though, that the corporate bigwigs at Time/Warner would let him get away with using one of their companies for this purpose....

Chris Mautner said...

So what type of character are you playing in Oblivion?

Todd C. Murry said...

I think it's an amalgam of the "creaters/characters/stories" in one dynamic - the audience knows that Meltzer "delivered the goods" (note how this phrase is value neutral on the "goods") on a big event comic with the big DC pantheon characters. Ergo, they trust that he'll do it again on JLA, which also contains big "important" stories of the pantheon. They might not follow him if he were on the Martian Manhunter comic, unless DC marketing convinced tham that "big things will happen and the universe will never be the same again" in said comic. So, its the combo of writer, writing certain characters, in a certain context of "largeness" of the events that attract the audience (attract is the wrong word... at this point's it's more "makes the audience afraid to miss" - I think alot of people reading actually don't like his writing, they just know that the Lighning saga will yeild something that is crucial to their understanding of the big DC picturs, and that the book will sell out if they don't buy it when it comes out, and they'll be SOL).

So, provent event comics writer + pantheon book promising BIG THINGS + fanboy fear of missing out = monster hit!

Dick Hyacinth said...

1. I really should have proposed Bill Jemas as a replacement for DiDio. I wouldn't be entirely facetious in doing so.

2. Todd has illustrated a key point which probably deserves more attention: the importance of fear in current comics marketing. Quality is less important than being "in the know," or whatever. It's an attitude which might lend itself to the increasing rate of comics piracy--readers aren't invested in the actual finished comic, but in the act of following a soap opera. I'm going to think about this for a while--I really think there's something to it.

3. In Oblivion, I'm a Breton in a custom class ("Jeepish Knight"--one of our cats is named Jeep (named after the Segar creation, not the vehicle), and my wife and I have developed an elaborate discourse about him--probably a by-product of childlessness). My major skills are alteration, destruction, illusion, restoration, heavy armor, blunt, and sneak.

Might I add that playing Oblivion has sort of put me in the uncomfortable position of having to talk about Dungeons and Dragons type shit in a serious, non-sneering way? I resent that, but it's such a fun game. My wife is even more into it (she's a Wood Elf Agent, I think).

Dick Hyacinth said...

Actually, my wife reminds me that I'm a Jeepish Monk. She using "Jeepsih Knight" to describe her custom class in Morrowind, which she's started playing recently. Also, I'm up to level 17 now.

Matt Brady said...

I think you might be on to something with the "fear marketing". It's an interesting concept, and it certainly suckered me into buying stuff regularly for a while there. In fact, you hit the nail on the head in regards to motivation for piracy, at least in my case. For a while there, I was downloading comics on a weekly basis in order to keep up with what was going on without spending money on it, preferring to save my money for stuff I knew I would want to own. I believe I read both Infinite Crisis and Civil War in this manner. Lately, I've grown tired of superheroics though, so I don't really bother anymore. But you seemed to describe (a past version of) me exactly. Creepy.

Dan Coyle said...

I find the idea that Moon Knight is selling better than lots of top tier DC heroes interesting, because it's the most post-Meltzer/Johns DC esque of Marvel's titles. A first time comics writer goes out of his way- REALLY out of his way, to jack up the violence, retcons to spackle stuff that didn't need to be spackle, the hero's failings, to a laughably absurd degree. It's as if Huston, like Meltzer, is ashamed for still liking this stuff so he's got to g and g it up.

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