No character left behind
So this is the post where I blend a week’s worth of restructured-DC coverage with my own ill-considered thoughts, and try not to sound too naïve and/or obtuse in the process. Should be fun, right?
While it’s a little foolish to attempt any real predictions at this early stage, I’m left with a few general impressions. First, I get a good vibe from new DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson. I don’t know that we’ll be bonding over ‘Mazing Man next summer in San Diego, but for now she’s not saying anything too worrisome.
As Brian Hibbs has pointed out, though, comic books don’t appear in the list of media platforms Nelson hopes to dominate with DC characters. That’s my second general impression — Ms. Nelson doesn’t absolutely need the comics (nor, by extension, does she need the Direct Market) in order to succeed at her appointed tasks.
Nevertheless, the third impression I have is that in the near term nothing much will change, at least in terms of logistics, for DC’s comic books or for the Direct Market. In fact, at the risk of reading my own wishes into Ms. Nelson’s job description, she could very easily change DC’s comics — and yes, even the DM — for the better.
Clearly, where DC’s superhero line has of late been focusing on story, Ms. Nelson’s focus will be on characters. Through its Big Events and mega-arcs, DC has been selling significant parts of its superhero line as a unit, or in chunks — in other words, selling Blackest Night, not Green Lantern. However, if it’s going to reinforce Ms. Nelson’s objectives, the superhero line must change accordingly. Individual books and concepts will have to bring readers back themselves, without counting on a crossover’s rising tide.
This change in focus may, in turn, force DC to re-examine its units of storytelling. If each story is meant to highlight a particular character, then the units thereof — be they individual issues, arcs, collections, or Big Events — must facilitate that. In other words, a random issue of Titans can’t just be an oblique Blackest Night tie-in, but a standalone story about Tempest. Selling that standalone Tempest story won’t be easy, but that’s why Ms. Nelson gets the big bucks.
DC must also examine how format affects not only story, but a potential new reader’s introduction to a character. Regular installments of DC’s ongoing superhero serials now come in a few different flavors, including 22-page lead stories, 8-page co-features, and oversized Annuals and Secret Files which offer even more flexibility. DC must now be even more concerned with what a reader needs to know in order to enjoy a given installment appropriately.
What does this mean for the Wednesday habit? For one thing, perhaps a return to an enforced schedule. Although some books (e.g., Legion Of Three Worlds, Ambush Bug, Flash: Rebirth) still suffer months-long delays, DC seems to have fixed a good bit of its recent logistical difficulties. Most titles come out each month, if not always the same week of every month. However, the more strictly DC follows a set schedule, the more readers will anticipate those particular weeks. If the individual titles hook readers on their own merits, the readers need to be able to rely on those titles’ regularity, just like TV viewers rely on a regular program schedule. If Ms. Nelson intends to hook customers who aren’t used to going to the comics shop every week, they’ll need to know when to go.
And that, in turn, gets to the mechanism of the Direct Market itself. Depending on how you look at it, the Direct Market is a supplement to, replacement for, and/or mutated version of, newsstand distribution. This is not necessarily bad. For fogeys like me, newsstand distribution meant not knowing exactly when the new comics would come in, how long they’d stay on the shelves, or how long they’d stay in good condition. A halfway-decent comics shop provides reasonable reassurance on all three counts. As such, they can be the friendliest places on earth, but over the years they have come to symbolize the exclusion of the general public.
Again, Diane Nelson does not need to use the Direct Market in order to do her job. If DC Entertainment decides to do (for example) an Amethyst, Princess Of Gemworld movie — which, by the way, would be a heck of a shot across Disney’s bow — DC Comics would probably collect the original material and maybe commission some new stuff. Regardless of whatever corporate synergies exist, though, I bet it still wouldn’t make a significant ripple in the DM.
That may well be a plus, because Direct Market success doesn’t always match exposure in other media. Static and Blue Beetle have gotten much more exposure on television than in print. Jonah Hex is set for a Summer 2010 movie while the current series sells fewer than 13,000 copies per month. There’ll be a new “Human Target” TV series on FOX in January, but no signs as yet of a companion comic book.
Nevertheless, in the short term I expect Direct Market sales will continue to be driven largely by the past few years’ big-event mentality. Still, as DC Entertainment starts promoting characters from further down the charts, DC Comics will necessarily follow suit. A new Amethyst miniseries won’t have to sell tremendously in the DM if DC Entertainment sees it doing better in other venues. In this way the main DC Universe line could adopt Vertigo’s philosophy of serializing stories for comics shops so they can be collected and sold through regular bookstores.
Furthermore, a DC which is not as concerned with Direct Market sales strikes me as a company more willing to take chances in the pursuit of new audiences. If a successful Amethyst movie translates into increased sales of Amethyst collections, fans might reasonably expect a new Amethyst series. Now, those fans could either wait several months for the first paperback collection to hit Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or they could read it as the Good Lord intended, in serialized comic books. (Consider the early success of Buffy Season 8, or imagine if J.K. Rowling had serialized all or part of the Harry Potter books.) And where will those fans find those comics but in their neighborhood comics shop?
Granted, DC could also serialize a new Amethyst series electronically (as IDW did with Star Trek Countdown), which would make some sense for readers who didn’t want to have duplicate print versions. However, by and large I still see local comics shops as a new customer’s point of entry. All of that might sound like every wishful-thinking theory of how comic-book adaptations help comics, but the difference this time may be that it’s the goal of a coordinated plan, and not just wishful thinking. Put another way, the difference may be between hoping a concept will break out, as the Direct Market does, and guiding it to a breakout, as Ms. Nelson is charged with doing.
See, while Ms. Nelson doesn’t need to rely upon the Direct Market, she might as well use it for the specific delivery vehicle it is. Furthermore, through her influence over what DC publishes, she can make DC’s portion of the Direct Market more friendly to those hypothetical new customers. That way, they won’t be met in the DC section only by a wall of insular superhero books. (Ideally, the superhero books they would find wouldn’t be particularly insular anyway.)
Speaking of insularity, Steven Grant muses that DC Editorial’s longstanding conservatism, and attendant reliance on its “hardcore superhero fans,” will lead Ms. Nelson to look elsewhere if she wants to revamp venerable characters into more exploitable properties. Again, I think DC’s approach to macro-level storytelling needs more work than the characters do. Wednesday Comics seems to stand for the proposition that a 14″ x 20″ page provides ample room to introduce the players, advance the story, and hold the reader’s attention for a week. Contrast that with the current Question, whose development starts at least with the end of Gotham Central, goes through 52 and the Crime Bible miniseries, takes a detour through the Final Crisis: Revelations miniseries, and finds itself presently in a Detective Comics co-feature. Similarly, bringing back the classic Legion of Super-Heroes involved a Justice League/Justice Society team-up, an Action Comics arc, and the Legion Of Three Worlds miniseries. The Legion may end up headlining Adventure Comics once more, but it will have taken a long and winding road to get there.
While there is something to be said for serialization, whether or not it’s in 22-page chunks, the sort of shaggy-dog serials DC has been telling can’t be sustained endlessly. After all, who will guide Dirk Deppey’s hypothetical bookshelf browsers? More importantly, will they stick around through multiple paperbacks?
The good news is that Dan DiDio and company have, however clumsily, been cultivating a more “definitive” stable of DC’s characters — Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, etc. The bad news is that the general public may not share DiDio’s definition of “definitive.” Somewhere between those extremes is the public’s general apathy about the details of DC’s characters. This may not be something which commands Ms. Nelson’s attention — Tom McLean summarized her mission as “help[ing] the company make more money off the DC library rather than micromanag[ing] the ins and outs of comic book continuity [or] … meddling in the creative side of the comic books” — but I’d imagine she doesn’t want her job made harder by labyrinthine continuity. Basically, Ms. Nelson must make the public care not so much about Hal Jordan or John Stewart, but about Green Lantern. The more Ms. Nelson can concentrate on the characters’ core attributes, the easier that job will be.
Ironically, I think Diane Nelson’s hiring may therefore do more in the long run to reinforce a particular status quo than all of DC’s combined attempts at forced nostalgia. Where DiDio has been trying to sell the “DCU” as an exciting, anything-goes, quasi-grown-up fantasyland, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Nelson wanted nothing more than to keep it in a perpetual state of new-reader-friendliness. That may frustrate longtime fans who value meaningful developments, but if the rookies outnumber them, DC won’t care.
For years, if not decades, DC and its customers have achieved a self-reinforcing symbiosis between the superhero line and its marketplace. The overarching message I take from DC’s restructuring and Ms. Nelson’s arrival is that the relationship is about to get a lot more open. The main sign of that new openness could very well be the resurgence of characters who might not have flourished under a more conservative regime. That alone should produce some fascinating changes at DC, and I believe such change will be for the better.
(Now, about that ‘Mazing Man cartoon…)