An Awfully Big Adventure: Wrapping Up DC’s Extreme Makeover

In June there was a great disturbance, as if millions of fanboy voices suddenly cried out and were suddenly left aghast. Their fear was something terrible was about to happen. DC, a company struggling with sales just like the rest of the industry, announced it would reset all of its series and reintroduce all of their characters.

Fast forward to August-September, Justice League #1 sells over 200,000 copies, going through several printings, and several other titles sell over 100,000 copies – an auspicious number by modern industry standards. It’s a successful launch for DC’s New 52, but arguably one of the largest and most impactful moves by a major publisher was not without controversy. Editorial, public relations and retailer issues each presented a different challenge that the powers-that-be behind DC seemingly overcame to record their best sales month (or five week period) in decades.

Certainly DC’s decision to go day and date with digital releases of their comics scared retailers. Early print sales numbers certainly limited those fears. Best estimate is that digital comics represent less than one percent of industry sales. Without releasing numbers, DC has indicated downloads were strong, but unless DC’s digital sales for September break almost every accepted principle of economics, brick and mortar retailers have nothing to worry about…for now.

DC’s public relations onslaught that accompanied The New 52 is a different story altogether. While there have been hiccups, DC’s success in dominating the comic news cycle for the last several months, including gaining mainstream media attention (The New York Times reviews comics?), has been impressive to say the least.

The hiccups have been many. The first official image of the new Justice League was colored wrong. Fan concerns over of the fate of their favorite characters were met with condescending dismissal. Reader questions over the reasoning for renumbering their favorite books were obnoxiously answered. But DC has used some of their superstars very well to quell the tides of fanboy revolt.

Newly minted Batman writer Scott Snyder has done so much press that it’s hard to believe he ever sleeps, much less can finish his quota of written material. Gail Simone, sensing the controversy and concern over Barbara Gordon walking again, stepped up and addressed fans directly. Comic convention panels were used as marketing-advertising venues to promote the new books, but also as public relations forums. This is all evidence of a fairly sophisticated corporate public and media relations strategy. Fitting, really, for the type of marketing gimmick The New 52 is. Relaunching characters doesn’t take the type of effort DC put into it, but as a marketing effort it certainly takes on a new light.

The question of whether this decision is economics or a creativity will undoubtedly be argued for some time to come. It calls into light the editorial direction of the new books.

While some of the books, particularly the Batman and Green Lantern books remained fairly intact, other books including Wonder Woman and the Superman family of titles changed direction drastically. Then there were the books on the periphery that went into another territory.

The word sexist has been floated numerous times by various outlets regarding Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws. There is no doubt that these books have taken a more adult path, but does that mean they must contain salacious characterizations of women? Perhaps “salacious” is not the right word. Childish is a bit better.

It would be easy to dismiss these titles as simply being sexist, but there seems to be something more dysfunctional at work. While we can directly accuse neither the creators, nor the editors who greenlit the work, of producing man-boy sex fantasies for the sake of some self-stimulus, we can certainly question their taste level and ability to function in a 21st century world. Perhaps it’s easier just to call them sexist – would certainly eliminate the need to examine their psychological make-up. Just who were these stories aimed at?

That question leads to another topic: the recovery of a lost audience. One part of DC’s effort was to attract new and lapsed readers. Would those lost readers be the fanboys who stopped when the 90s finally ended? That’s been the speculation and the evidence seems to suggest so as well. Many of the new creative teams are either throwback to the 1990s – many of them had their hay day back then – or comprised of artists and writers influenced by that extreme decade. The appeal is undeniable.

To put it bluntly: Many of The New 52 titles should have been called [Blank] Extreme. Teen Titans certainly falls into this category. The book, while somewhat compelling, was a strong combination of 90s X-Men and Wildstorm’s Gen 13. We’ve seen it before, especially the artwork which has blurred the line between the extremes (there’s that word again) of the 90s and the modern adulation of detail in videogames and movies. But where we needed more pockets and shoulder pads we got Red Robin’s wings.

There have been some very good titles. Batwoman was excellent, though largely unchanged since The New 52 announcement. Batman was another good book. Swamp Thing and Animal Man were surprisingly good, which, given the creative teams behind them shouldn’t be a surprise.

Action Comics as well, presenting a Superman closer in tone to the original intentions of creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was well executed. While in a certain respect Superman’s Action Comics characterization cannot be called original, it certainly is enough of a change in direction to warrant interest. He’s now (and again) a champion of the oppressed, Moses in a cape. That’s a Superman in touch with people he must protect, reflective of a street level understanding of the world.

But can the same be said of DC?

The larger market share Marvel holds over DC must be seen as the chief reason for the New 52 marketing gimmick. Simply put: you don’t need to a universe-wide reboot to tell good stories. That’s the key. Tell good stories and the rest will come…or it will come anyway.

For the most part, the New 52 books were unremarkable. Yet the overwhelming response from much of the comics’ press was not consternation or criticism, but a Pollyanna-cheerleading response so sugary sweet it could rot your teeth. Of course there was also the other extreme (stop using that word!) where a small contingent of rabid fanboys cried murder and deceit. Jubilation or rage, those are your choices. Where’s the balance and serious examination of these cultural artifacts? Where is actual criticism as opposed to just being critical? Guess you have to wait until next month’s issues.

Now that the number ones are over with, what comes next? Will sales continue to be strong? Conventional wisdom would say not, but DC’s top shelf executives are hoping that doesn’t happen. They’ve staked the hopes of the industry on this effort. If it were to fail, what kind of industry would exist where the number two publisher goes out of business? The void would be nearly impossible to fill. It would be an endgame to end all endgames as far as comics go.

The best (or worst) is yet to come. The follow-up issues will cement or sink DC’s effort to revitalize their publishing fortunes. In the vacuum of an awe-inspiring creative revolution, we have an artificial production of a new comic age. When the Golden Age ended and the Silver Age began, there was a natural progression accompanied by the societal changes and other cultural progressions. Here, while society has certainly changed (just listen to what counts as political debate now), that change that would seemingly usher in a new comic age has swept past with only a fleeting glance toward the sales numbers of long gone yesterday. Give your best to the 90s, gentlemen and lady. It’s as far gone as beepers.

Repudiation of 1990s comics aside, the strength of any universal reboot would seem to solely dwell in the hands of the creators…no matter what the logo on the covers says. DC will live or die based on the output of these folks. Cream always rises to the top, and with these “new” DC titles, we should expect the same. Good titles will continue and bad will not.

Just below the public discussion is a mumbling that the new continuity is not long for this world. Give it 18 months and this New 52 will be a pocket universe. When is Superboy punching a hole in the fabric of space time again? That’s highly unlikely, but it’s a good joke for the comic shop.

It does cast a light on what’s next? Speculation could put the next steps anywhere, but suffice it to say, over the next several months there will be adjustments. DC will, to some extent, heed fan reactions. Characters and editorial directions will be tweaked. They have to. Too much is riding on this adventure. But they’ll be pushing forward. Give DC points for resolve. They felt their universe was broken and they fixed it. They demonstrated the full power of their operational station by delivering sales numbers that haven’t been seen in quite some time. Month one was a complete success. See you in month two.