I’m no fan of D.C.’s current editorial direction. I was all in favour of the New 52 reboot back when it was announced. It was exciting, a chance to do something huge and new. To start again without making the same mistakes. To free comics from the problems of 30+ years of continuity.
What were those problems? Honestly the issues with Big 2 comics as a business are too numerous to go into here but I can highlight a few that are relevant to my point. Continuity was the biggest issue, new readers perceive comics as having storylines going back to the 30’s and whilst this may be technically true, in practise usually only the last decade of comics featuring a character matter to the stories being told with them today. Even so having a big sign that says “you are jumping into this story a decade in progress” is a turn off to the Netflix generation who are used to starting at the beginning of a story and working their way through. Big new number 1’s, characters appearing for the first time, reinventions of problematic characters, changing characters to be more in line with how the wider public perceive of them in media like the JLU cartoon or Nolan’s Batman films. These were all good ideas to get new readers in. D.C. managed to botch nearly all of these ideas in less than a year but that’s a topic for another time.
And bring in new readers they did. Sales were through the roof delivering the highest figures D.C. had seen in a decade. The stunt nature of the reboot, the excellent marketing around it and a general up tick in interest in the public’s interest in comics combined to turn the New 52 into a monster hit.
Now that D.C. had the eyes on them they needed to keep that attention. And to do that they had to fix one of the other big problems with big 2 comics. Lack of diversity.
Let me clarify here. I’m using diversity very broadly. I don’t mean simply that D.C. added more characters of colour, although they did, but to mean that characters were of different races, ages, body types, sexualities, religions, genders, countries, etc. And as well as having characters that were all very different the stories and settings which those characters featured in were also varied and diverse. At some level super-heroes played into everything which is less than ideal but somewhat expected for a superhero publisher, but even within that confine we had cosmic stories, westerns, war stories, spy stories, magic, horror, romance, mythological narratives and whatever the hell Voodoo thought it was doing.
Looking at the initial new 52 line-up it is the most diverse offering from a big 2 publisher, probably ever. You’ve got 8 titles with female leads (not counting team books) which is far from ideal but on par with western pop-culture generally and much better than Marvel which at the time had 0 non-team books with female leads. There are 9 non-team books with a lead of an ethnicity other than white which is pretty fantastic by any standards (although again, much less than the perfect ideal). D.C. publishes its first ever book with a homosexual lead character (Batwoman). We’ve got a range of ages and lifestyles presented including a whole line of teenaged super-heroes and a married Animal Man. Books featuring adult single, male, white leads clock in at 20, less than half the total. I’d prefer closer to a quarter but that’s still a good number.
Now compare it to D.C.’s current line-up.
Justice League 3000
Justice League United
Aquaman and the Others
Batwing (although cancellation has been announced)
Birds of Prey (also about to be cancelled)
Red Hood and the Outlaws
3 Batman books and 1 he co-shares with Superman + Batman Eternal + 2 more that have recently been announced
3 Superman books +1 with Batman and 1 with Wonder Woman
Superboy (also about to be cancelled)
Green Lantern Corps
All Star Western
Infinity Man and the Forever People
Star Spangled War Stories
Justice League Dark
New 52: Futures End
I count 24 books head up by young single straight white guys out of 44 total. More than half the line taken up by young, white males. And it’s about to get worse. Of the two books with a black lead character (I’m counting John Stewart as the lead of Green Lantern Corps) one is about to be cancelled. Of the three books with teenage characters one is about to be cancelled and frankly I don’t think Infinity Man is long for this world either.
Compare that to the starting line-up or some of the second wave titles and the books that show some diversity are overwhelmingly the books that have been cancelled. The only books D.C. have published since the New 52 with a young woman of any ethnicity in the lead are Voodoo and Katana, which lasted 12 issues and 10 respectively. Male ethnic leads? Vibe, gone. Firestorm, gone. Mister Terrific, gone. OMAC, gone. Blue Beetle, gone and on and on. Books with prominent disabled lead characters (The Movement and Demon Knights) gone.
What about Teenagers? Teenagers have always done well in comics, we’ve had teenaged super-heroes holding down their own books since the 40’s. Well books led by teenagers have been devastated in the New 52. That whole line of teenager led books called “Young Justice,” Not one single title from that line still remains. The only teenager led books are Supergirl, Superboy and Infinity Man and I suspect the last two are not long for this world.
So how did D.C. screw the pooch?
Oh, gosh, in lots of ways some of which are their fault and some of which are issues in the industry that nobody has been able to sort out.
The first and biggest mistake they made was that most of the New 52 comics were garbage. They represent the nadir of comics published by D.C. in the better part of a decade. Some stuff was good (Demon Knights, OMAC, Batman, Animal Man, Swamp Thing) but a lot of it was worse than similar work creators were doing before the new 52 (Blue Beetle’s New 52 series was worse than his pre-52 series, ditto Firestorm, Green Lantern, Stormwatch, etc) or just downright dreck (Suicide Squad, Batman: The Dark Knight, Voodoo). Of the initial wave of casualties with the exception of OMAC all the comics that got cancelled were bad, and unfortunately many of these bad comics were also the ones where D.C. tried something new.
But as always happens in comics, some good comics got cancelled too. Demon Knights was a fantasy-superhero comic with disabled characters, characters of different ethnicities, a trans-character and it was great. It’s first arc was probably its worst, sadly, but once it hit its stride Demon Knights swiftly became my favourite comic D.C. were publishing. It was fun, smart and unique in comics at the time and it was cancelled due to low sales. And only that, low sales. D.C. actually fought hard to keep this book on the stands, giving it second and third chances when other titles had got the chop. I’m not suggesting for a moment that D.C. cancels comics for any reason other than that these books have low sales.
The sad truth, however, is that nearly every title with a lead that isn’t a young, single, straight, white male has tanked hard in the sales charts.
But I don’t think that’s because they’re minorities.
I think it’s because they’re relatively new concepts.
My evidence for this is twofold. Firstly it isn’t just the books with diverse characters in them that have been cancelled. We’ve also seen plenty of young, white single dudes get the chop. Grifter, Deathstroke, even Talon. Talon was a Batman character spinning off a big event., short of launching it with a super star writer like Geoff Johns you can’t ask for a better push in this marketplace than Talon got, and it still failed.
Secondly, if you look at the titles with diverse characters that have stuck around then you’ll notice a trend. Batwing, Batwoman, Supergirl, Green Lantern Corps. They are all spin-offs of more popular characters with large, established fan bases.
And when D.C. have had to cancel books for low sales they have doubled down on these popular core characters. Every time a Voodoo or a Mister Terrific gets cancelled we get a new Batman or Superman book.
I don’t begrudge D.C. that as a creative or a business decision. They need to maintain a certain level of sales to keep operating and if that means publishing 1 Superman title to recoup the same sales as 3 lesser known properties then they need to do that.
The problem is D.C. knows these books will sell at a certain number regardless of the creative content. Flash, Green Lantern, Batman, Superman, Green Arrow; some variation of these titles will always be published at D.C. and will always top the 40,000 sales mark even when the stories have been actively terrible. D.C. knows this, and used to have a rough policy that if these books sold regardless, let’s make these books the place to put more diverse characters. Now I’m not saying Superman should turn into a black guy but not everybody needs to be a young, straight, white, single dude. Superman used to be married. Flash used to be married with mixed-race kids that he went on adventures with. Green Arrow was old enough to have an adult son. Green Lantern used to be Korean. Batgirl used to be in a wheelchair and was the most prominent disabled super-hero outside of Prof X or Daredevil. The Justice Society now is fairly diverse with a gay lead, a mixed race Hawkgirl, a mentally ill mixed race Dr Fate and a black superman analogue but it used to be massively more diverse with a cast drawn from all over the world and octogenarian leads.
All that diversity meant more diverse stories. You could tell a story with Wally West, super-hero dad that could be told by no other character in the DCU. Green Arrow used to be defined by his regret, his infidelity and his hypocrisy as much as his liberal politics but without the long history you get from a character pushing 50 those stories all disappear. Oracle used to serve such a useful narrative function that she would make as many guest appearances as Batman but now she’s just another bat vigilante character.
The net result of the New 52, a project which aimed in part to increase the diversity of the DCU, has been to reduce it. In only 3 years we’re back to a level of homogeneity that D.C. comics hasn’t possessed since the 70’s.
And that is the clue to the real problem.
Because this problem actually started before the New 52. Really the problem starts with Green Lantern Rebirth. That storyline brought Hal Jordan back as Green Lantern, replacing a young Korean-American artist with another young white single dude. And it sold. Buckets. Green Lantern Rebirth turned Green Lantern from a 40,000 a month book to a 70,000 a month book and one that routinely topped 100K when timed with events. It turned it from an also ran to the spine of the DCU.
The reasons Green Lantern Rebirth worked are complicated and hard to replicate but not mysterious or magical. D.C. did it right. They promoted the book as an event with house ads and plenty of promotion in the comics media. They started with a mini-series and then a brand new number one for a character with a book whose issue numbers had been in the hundreds, always a good way to draw attention. They put a high profile artist and a superstar writer with a proven track record of hits on the title. And the superstar writer seemed like the first guy in years who was passionate about the character and wanted to write Green Lantern specifically. Even better, he had some genuinely new and exciting ideas for the book and the character and these caught on with the audience. It’s all these factors that made Green Lantern rebirth a success.
The lesson D.C. took away from Green Lantern rebirth though was, make everything like it was in the Silver Age.
You see the real reasons GLR worked are hard to replicate. Good artists, promotion and press cost money and writers who are both talented and passionate about your IP are rare. And you never know if what they want to write will click with the readers. But the surface reason it seemed to work is easy. GLR was all about brining Hal Jordan back right? Well let’s just bring back all the Silver Age guys. And so in the years to follow we got the Silver Age versions of the Flash, the Legion of Super Heroes, Supergirl and many more back, each time replacing the more modern versions which had been careful to add more diversity.
Then comes the New 52 and gives D.C. the excuse to de-age Green Arrow, divorce Superman, un-cripple Barbara Gordon and every other backwards looking decision they’ve made since. Why not make Amanda Waller skinny or The Justice Society young?
So now we have a problem.
The diversity that D.C. had prior to the New 52 was the result of approximately 30 years of slow growth and acceptance, small changes to improve the line that built upon each other gradually to bring the core DCU books more in line with the real world. With the New 52 D.C. undid all of that growth in one fell swoop and gave us the Silver Age plus a load of new concepts, none of which stuck. Now D.C. is in a situation where it’s core group of reliable sellers all feature straight, white, unmarried dudes in their 20’s + Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Catwoman and a few Justice League books. Any new concepts and books they launch seem doomed to fail because this economy is hostile to new ideas from the Big 2.
So D.C.’s choices going forward are;
1. Burn it down and start again.
Which they won’t do. Doing so would be a tacit admission that the New 52 failed. It did fail of course, it increased sales in the short term but it has added no diversity, brought it no new audiences and launched few new concepts. The only long term successes are to give Batman a shot in the arm, add Cyborg to the Justice League, launch Batwoman, boost Wonder Woman’s sales and maybe Justice League Dark. The only one of those that required the reboot explicitly was adding Cyborg to the Justice League and really that’s only important when and if a Justice League movie gets made. Nonetheless they can’t reboot again in such a short time frame. The audience would call shenanigans and the massive sales boost they got from the last time they tried it would undoubtedly not reoccur.
2. Admit defeat and go back to the pre-52 universe.
This seems to be all negatives. Doing this would have all the bad press of admitting the New 52 failed without the benefit of a deck clearing exercise or a sales stunt. Plus there is no guarantee that the more diverse elements of the old universe would return or would be successful if they did. Asian Batgirl, family man Flash and Octogenarian Justice Society were all already cancelled once, there is no guarantee that bringing them back would do anything other than see them get cancelled and replaced with young straight single white people again.
3. Make a big push for new concepts and give them a buy until they build a readership.
I’m not an economist nor am I privy to the inner workings of D.C.’s finances but my feeling as an outsider is that if this worked then they’d have done it already. Look at any sales chart and you’ll see that even the most critically acclaimed titles with the most popular characters still generally lose sales month on month. The mechanism behind this isn’t arcane either. Readers have a limited ability to buy titles and new titles are always coming out. As you read a comic you may decide that you no longer enjoy reading and drop it. You can now put that money into a new title. Now you could put that money into issue 7 of Captain Marvel since you’ve heard it’s good but you’ve missed the first 6 issues of story already, and oh this issue is part way through an arc too. Maybe I’ll try that new Marvel Number 1 instead.
People almost never start reading a series after issue 1 anymore. If they hear it’s good but its already part way through the run they might buy a trade but that won’t impact on the month to month sales and that’s still the cornerstone of the big 2’s business. Critically acclaimed books with low sales can sometime stick around when the economics dictate that similar books would be cancelled if the trade sales are big enough (see, everything Vertigo publishes for evidence) but generally your best bet if you have a critical hit with low sales is to cancel it and then relaunch it with the same creative team. Marvel does this trick a lot and it works for them to varying degrees of success.
With the New 52 Future’s End seemingly being based entirely around some of D.C.’s better received cancelled concepts I suspect this approach is coming. At the end of Future’s End I would not be surprised if we got new Mister Terrific, Frankenstein, Grifter and Firestorm books. The thinking being that the audience gets to know these characters in a big event and then is interested to buy them when their new series launches.
4. Fuck it, cancel everything and just sell Justice League, Batman and Superman.
This is inevitable if D.C. doesn’t try to do something. On the plus side whilst total sales might decrease I’m sure their average dollar share will shoot through the roof.
5. Slowly grow the DCU’s diversity back through supporting characters and gradual changes,
This, in combination with number 3, is what D.C. is doing to try to fix its diversity problem. that’s why we’re getting a new black Wally West as a supporting character in Flash.
This approach has the massive advantage that it is going to work. We know because it did previously. It also has the big disadvantage that last time around it took the better part of 30 years.
Let’s hope it’s a little quicker this time.