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Comics

When Rampant Cancelations Become the Standard

Steven Romano

The sudden cancelation of floundering comic titles isn’t by any means a new phenomenon. Yet there’s something to be said about the alarming frequency of titles being canceled under DC's New 52 initiative.

The monthly DC Comics solicitations. What were once a source of anticipation and excitement showcasing forthcoming stories in the DC universe have since degraded into a veritable obituary page for canceled titles. Though their respective plot summaries aren’t exactly generous when it comes to exact details or status quo-shattering reveals, there have, as of late, been two words appearing within these curtailed synopses that leave many of us shaking our heads in collective disappointment with their clear meaning: “final issue.”

The sudden cancelation of floundering comic titles isn’t by any means a new phenomenon. Since the early heyday of the comicbook publishing industry countless series have come and gone from the shelves of newsstands and drugstore magazine racks, making way for superior reading experiences that catered to the changing discernment of readers or simply compensated for a previous book’s lackluster sales. In essence, this is a widely accepted business practice, switching out an inferior product for one that will hopefully reconcile previous profit loss. Yet there’s something to be said about the alarming frequency of titles being canceled under DC's New 52 initiative, with quite a few reaching an expedited, abrupt terminus almost as soon as they’re announced.

It’s disheartening to bear witness to the fact that we’re nearly two years in and the New 52 hasn’t quite lived up to its intended purpose when first spearheaded by DC Comics’ top editorial brass. What was meant as an audacious, albeit necessary, reboot of its entire legacy to broaden the appeal of their intellectual properties and comicbooks as a whole—a medium that, when compared to the consumer landscape of decades past, has been facing sturdy competition more so than ever from electronic media and other digital entertainment outlets—the publisher appears to be more preoccupied with maintaining the distinction of releasing fifty-two books a month. This is regrettably opposed to delivering the quality necessary to spark an interest in not only new readers but fans that have shown staunch support for DC time and again. You can call it a hackneyed expression, but the old economic chestnut “quantity over quality” is apparently the company mantra as evidenced by their playing spin doctor, labeling every group of new comic series designed to fill in the swaths left behind by egregious cancelations as “waves.”

From a public relations standpoint, the buzzword “wave” carries this positive undertone meant to generate interest—and discreetly distract fans and dissenters from the publisher’s shortcomings. Odder still, it can be misinterpreted as though these cancelations were premeditated as part of a multi-phased business plan, titles destined to be replaced by others that will likely be doomed to the same fate if experience is anything to go by. Now, if the series associated with each new wave, on the other hand, were being added to the fifty-two books already in circulation, that would be quite the impressive feat demonstrating the prevalence of the medium in today’s fluctuating culture. But the obfuscation of DC’s inability to churn out fifty-two stable comic series a month through the celebration of new, dubious additions is at worst a denial of serious situation and, in the very least, tacky.

With this incessant change comes the question everyone has been asking since DC’s cancelation epidemic began, why is this happening? The most obvious answer—of which was stated previously—is the one that we all hate to admit: there’s been a diminishing interest for comicbooks that stems from more readily available means of entertainment, typically of the digital variety, that appeal to wider audiences and are neither esoteric, intimidating or a combination thereof.

An alternative and complex explanation, however, falls on DC’s part as it is their editorial staff that ultimately decides which characters are deemed worthy enough of being featured in their own monthly serial. Naturally, they will always be keen on selling titles that place a prominent focus on some of their more recognizable and profitable IPs including—but not limited to—Superman, Batman, Wonder Man, and, together, the Justice League. Irregardless, these heroes alone do not compromise the entirety of the DC universe, as any avid fan of the publisher would say that there are other costumed vigilantes that contribute to the epic tapestry of continuity. In respect to that sentiment, there’s plenty of second-stringers to choose from, but the issue at present is that, given the sorry state of long gone series such as Mr. Terrific and Hawk and Dove, DC didn’t place much forethought into their selection process.

For the record, I am by no means saying that every single character standing in the shadow of their more popular counterparts or simply being under the radar don’t, by virtue, make for viable comic series. Titles such as Swamp Thing and Dial H are consistently proving that even those from out of left field have the potential to find their way into the hearts of fans when given a chance. If this is true, then why did Sword of Sorcery, O.M.A.C. and Blackhawks—among other series no longer on the physical plane of the living—fail to secure a loyal readership? In their defense, a few of them (for the sake of avoiding heated debate I’m going to refrain from dropping the names of specific books and the men and women who worked on them) had some pretty talented creatives taking the reins, so it would be in poor taste to place the culpability squarely on their shoulders.

But when it comes right down to it, a handful of the chosen characters in question just didn’t have the unique brand of staying power and public familiarity needed to keep a monthly ongoing series afloat, with a few of them, in the past, appearing either in limited runs or strictly as a part of team book with no titular comic to call their own. In a way it’s wasteful that DC pushed these characters to the forefront of an ongoing merely for the sake of holding to a pledge to publish fifty-two titles a month. I’d very much like to say that these rejected few would more than find a happy haven in DC Universe Presents as stories in small intervals, but judging by the April 2013 solicitations, well, that’s definitely not going to be happening.

This trend of peddling series focusing on virtual unknowns for the purpose of meeting a lofty quota continues even now, with Vibe and Katana being both prime and current examples. To DC’s credit, the publisher had the decency to learn from past mistakes and throw these titles a life preserver of sorts by attaching them to the newly re-envisioned Justice League of America... for all the good it did. Not even an association with a title featuring heavy-hitters saved the books from drowning in the waters of mediocrity.

According to Diamond Comic Distributor’s top 100 list of comic book sales for February 2013, the premiere issues of Vibe and Katana fell flat on their faces from the starting line, coming in at a humiliating #78 and #80, respectively—that’s far below My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic #3 which, if you really must know, came in at, in comparison, a respectable #45. Granted, if this was the fifth or sixth installment of Vibe and Katana there wouldn’t be such a cause for alarm as sales numbers always fluctuate from month to month, but these are the first issues—perhaps the most crucial of them all as they act as indicators for their performance in the marketplace for the rest of the year. Again, like previous canceled titles, Vibe and Katana are characters that are best relegated to team books and, were it not for the book’s unexpected farewell later this month, featured in a limited capacity within the pages of DC Universe Presents.

Ever vigilant in their duty to duct tape the cracks left behind by the damaging effects of so many canceled titles, DC waits patiently in the wings to introduce two more books that prominently feature the very money-making mascots of their company: Batman/Superman and Superman Unchained. They’re definitely not playing around anymore as it’s blatantly obvious that even the publisher is fed up with its own blunders, whipping out the proverbial big guns to ensure that they won’t have to announce yet another wave of new releases whilst masking their displeasure with a content smile. It’s a safe move for certain, but it’s also inadvertently serving to create a lack of diversity on the shelves of comicbook stores.

When it comes to Batman and Superman-centric titles, they are and always have been a safe bet as their names became deeply associated with an assurance of quality. Whether the following side effect is unintentional or otherwise, this also instills a reluctance to branch out from one’s comfort zone and plunge into something new as a means to avoid financial risk. With Batman/Superman and Superman Unchained, DC might actually end up making it harder for itself to convince the readership to check out new titles, especially when one takes into consideration their previous track record of handling obscure characters.

Should we abandon all hope for DC and its IPs? Absolutely not, but the decisions and business practices they are currently engaged in today can back them into a corner from which they will be hard-pressed to remove themselves from tomorrow. As a matter of fact, this wouldn’t be the first time they’ve done so as the New 52’s cancelation notoriety is highly reminiscent of DC’s late ‘70s expansion initiative known as the “DC Explosion,” an attempt to regain market share from Marvel via the increased output of monthly series numbering at fifty-seven. There were many nails in this haphazard attempt’s coffin, but the final and major one was the rampant lack of quality that a vast majority of the defunct New 52 titles succumbed to. The parallels between then and now aren’t mere coincidence—if anything, they should be taken as prophetic. DC may have walked away from it the first time with a bruised ego and playing second fiddle to Marvel Comics, but taking into consideration how the industry is currently finding itself in a tight spot, the publisher may not have the good fortune of experiencing the same outcome a second time.

It is imperative at this point that DC put the same amount of effort they place in topshelf books as they do with ones that feature B-list or no-name characters, taking those extra strides to hire on truly dedicated writers and artists in addition to improved promotional tactics. Moreover, it would perhaps even be in the publisher’s best interest to start dropping their unwavering vow to release fifty-two titles a month as the entire business angle is to their own detriment. In the long run, it goes without saying we’d be content with forty solid books on a monthly basis rather than an obnoxious surge of titles that suffer from tepid sales and derision.

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