DC Comics risks everything to re-boot its 52 major titles later this summer. Will this reimagined world bring in younger readers or spell "Last Day" for the comics giant?
Most comic book readers associate the name "Logan" with Wolverine, the claw-popping mutant of Marvel Comics’ X-Men. Now, fans of comics can associate a "Logan" of a different sort in regards to Marvel’s rival publishing house, DC. In this instance, that "Logan" would refer to Logan’s Run, a 1976 sci-fi film in which residents of a futuristic utopian society must willingly die at age 30. While DC isn’t killing off all superheroes over a certain age, they’re certainly doing all they can to make them younger.
On June 1st, 2011, USA Today reported that, in September, the 76-year-old comics publishing house would be rebooting 52 of their titles back to #1 and introducing all-new stories and origins for all of its major characters. Explaining this bold move, DC’s Senior VP/Co-Publisher, Dan DiDio stated that "This 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."
On the surface, it would appear that this is a clever marketing ploy to try to attract those all-important new readers, creating a jump-on point for newcomers to the DC universe. As part of the announcement of its planned 52-title reset, DC also mentioned that all of their newly-rebooted titles would be available for digital download through an app or online on the same day and date that printed copies of the comics hit the stands. This would mark the first time one of comics' "Big Two" would be offering something of this sort.
According to Diamond Comics Distributors, DC has ranked consistently at Number 2 both in terms of Dollar Market Share and Unit Market Share behind its rival Marvel. This is even after DC had lowered their prices from $3.99 to $2.99 per 22-page issue in January of this year, a move that seemed to have been designed to attract more new readers.
DiDio’s statement, however, is somewhat off-putting, assuming that younger versions of established characters will automatically yield stories that will resonate more strongly with today’s audience. In an already youth-obsessed society, it seems ludicrous to make superheroes -- which have always stood as ageless figures -- even younger than their perennially youthful appearances may indicate. By doing so, DC Comics is perpetrating a Logan's Run on its superheroes. The company’s latest move won’t eradicate DC’s storied history by any means, but may devalue it in regards to continuity and storytelling.
DC and DiDio's announcement begs the question as to if there is a deeper reason behind hitting the reset button. Action Comics, which debuted in 1938 and featured the first appearance of Superman, just celebrated its 900th issue in April. Many of DC's titles have already attempted to give classic characters a more modern feel: Wonder Woman was given a new, more streamlined costume. Batman Beyond received its own title this year, featuring an elderly Bruce Wayne passing the torch to teenage Terry McGinnis as the new Batman, mentoring him from the superhero sidelines. Although DC has received critical acclaim for some of their recent storytelling efforts (including Greg Rucka's excellent take on Batwoman), their numbers haven’t been as high as those of Marvel’s. With so much progress in terms of storytelling, why is there now such a push to make these superheroes and their storylines "younger"? Will this mean that the Teen Titans will become the Toddler Titans? Will Bruce Wayne's wizened butler Alfred Pennyworth now be a decrepit 29 years of age? Furthermore, how can Batman still live at home with his parents when his parents are dead?
It’s not that DC is short on reader loyalty. A late 2010 advertising demographic breakout from comic book news website MajorSpoilers.com shows comic book readers as predominantly (80%) male with the largest age grouping (33%) of readers falling into the 30-40 age range. The site also mentions that this info, when compared to a poll DC Comics conducted in 1995, shows that the average age of readers who comprised the largest audience were 25 in 1995 and reflects the current largest age demographic (30-40) as having been loyal readers since the mid-‘90s when the DC poll was taken. The 2011 poll shows readers in the 22-25 and 25-30 age ranges each account for 19% of readership. Comparatively, both the age categories of "40 and older" and "17 and younger" each received 7% of the poll numbers.
Scott Beatty, author of several guidebooks on DC characters, noted that "the temptation with the genre is to negate certain character aspects or turn back the clock in order to 'stir the pot' and keep things lively in a reboot/reset minded culture with limited attention spans." With Beatty's comment in mind, it seems to be lazy marketing to assume that a reset is the answer to DC’s lofty readership goals – particularly at the risk of alienating the most loyal segment of their fanbase.
In 2008, Marvel Comics' Amazing Spider-Man created a storyline that effectively retconned Peter Parker’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson in an attempt to appeal to a younger audience. Marvel's back-tracking over a decade or two of important character continuity was limited to only one character, albeit a pivotal one of the publishing house. Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, Joe Quesada, the mastermind behind this move, saw it backfire with angry readers walking away from the title. Recently, Amazing Spider-Man has made a surge in sales thanks to writer Dan Slott’s “Nobody Dies” storyline, three years after the retcon that sent Spider fans packing.
By contrast, what DC has planned for September 2011 will wipe close to 70 years of continuity for not just one character, but its entire universe in favor of a more "youthful" appearance.
When readership lagged for DC in the mid-‘80s, they came up with Crisis on Infinite Earths to simultaneously re-start and revive many of their biggest characters and titles. As revolutionary as Crisis was, it was not without its flaws, creating several continuity issues of varying degrees.
In 2006, DC came up with something new and utilized some of its minor characters to great effect with a year-long weekly series, 52, creating a build-up to a universe-wide event. While it took a while to catch on, 52 became both a critical and commercial success for DC. Attempting to catch lightning in a bottle again, DC recycled the weekly format the following year with a series entitled Countdown, which would lead to yet another major DC event. Unlike 52, Countdown was a flop and interest dropped off.
With the universe-wide reset, DC is taking a major risk that may not pay off, given their uneven history with massive storylines.
When examining DC’s top-selling titles, youth-oriented storylines or characters are not a constant. Diamond Comics’ Top 100 rankings for April 2011 revealed that of the 38 DC titles that made the Top 100, comics devoted to younger superheroes fell into the lower half of the list. Red Robin came in at #49, Superboy at #55, Batman Beyond at #64, Teen Titans at #66, Batgirl at #72, and Supergirl at #83. Diamond Comics’ chart shows these titles having gone up in rank since the previous month, however, so have the other higher-ranked DC titles (Green Lantern and Batman Incorporated, among others) on the list.
Sales are still not what DC would like them to be. However, this may be due in part to a failure to release installments of titles on-schedule. Titles have hit the stands later than originally planned, having not been completed on-time. In a world where you’re only as good as your last storyline, to have a monthly installment of a title arrive 30-60 days later than anticipated creates a void. In turn, it makes even the most loyal reader forget what story is being told and move on to the next superhero tale.
Bearing in mind the critical acclaim many of their titles have received, DC’s problem is not with their characters or storylines feeling archaic. The problem lies with their marketing. Marvel, with its plethora of successful superhero movies, has a built-in marketing device for their books whenever a movie advertisement or trailer is shown. In recent weeks, Thor pulled in beaucoup box office bucks. Ditto for X-Men: First Class.
With few exceptions, comic book sales seem to mirror the publicity generated by bankable film counterparts. DC's Green Lantern, due for a theatrical release this month, has already received a surge in book sales. Yet another film adaptation of Superman is planned for the big screen, hopefully erasing the disastrous Superman Returns from recent memory with this reboot. While DC has had some colossal film failures (including Jonah Hex from its Vertigo imprint, which deviated significantly from the comic it was based on), they've also had one of the most critically and financially successful franchises with Chris Nolan's take on Batman.
In terms of its books, DC has turned their eye towards Marvel’s inclination to go for younger incarnations of their marquee heroes with their films and is co-opting that idea for their monthly titles. Similarly, DC is falling into the “youth sells” mindset espoused by the media. Although this sales approach may work for television and film audiences, statistically speaking, comic book readers seem to prefer more mature storylines.
Prior to DC’s announcement of their planned reset, comics seemed to be the last bastion in which 76-year-old characters (historically speaking) had as much to offer as their younger, newer counterparts -- if not more value in terms of storytelling and market share. In the context of comics as an escapist form of fantasy, is this yet another message being sent to its readers that astonishing feats can only be performed by those under the age of 40 -- that even superheroes can be considered over the hill?
The beauty of storytelling -- be it in comics, film, television, or novelization -- from the point of view of a young protagonist is watching the mistakes they make and ultimately learn from on the road to a greater understanding of life and the world around them. Somehow, this has been supplanted by the media painting a picture of a world in which the youth have the answers to questions they have yet to ponder. Batman -- a perennially successful figure in the DC universe in terms of comic sales, box office bankability, and acclaim -- mentored Dick Grayson as Robin, who eventually became Nightwing. Grayson did not become a solo superhero immediately and did not have all the answers right away. He arrived at these answers through experience and toiling in the trenches alongside Batman. At the end of the day, however, comic fans still gravitate more towards Batman as a leader than Robin or Nightwing.
Perhaps there isn’t anything as nefarious as a cultural disdain for our elders lurking in the subtext of DC’s announcement. Perhaps this reset is just a result of the publishing house’s impetuous marketing strategy that barely lets a fiscal quarter go by before changing the game plan if they don’t see immediate results before discarding it and trying something else.
Time will tell as to how DC’s current fanbase reacts to the reboot and if these more youthful versions of characters and ensuing storylines will boost them to the top of the comics pile... or not.