Robot 6

No character left behind

Grumpy Old Fan

Grumpy Old Fan

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?

Yeah.

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…)

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Comments

9 Comments

Mysterious Stranger

September 17, 2009 at 3:20 pm

I think you’re reading way too much into this. I believe DC Entertainment’s goal is going to be duplicating the success of Marvel’s movies. Say what you will about Marvel’s comics, their entertainment division has done a bang-up job of making movies. From doing deals with studios like Fox and Sony and then taking their properties in-house they have done what DC, who has a built-in studio, has not – make successful movies.

Nelson’s job is going to be the same as what Kevin Feige does at Marvel Studios, shepherd the DC franchises onto the big screen. Anything more than that is a bonus. DC already has great merchandising. They don’t need any further brand recognition. WB has proven it can make cartoons and TV shows if they want to. But they can’t seem to get their crap together in the motion picture department (Batman aside). They want multi-million dollar movies plain and simple and Nelson and the new DC Entertainment will (hopefully) do just that.

As far as the comics, they’ll most likely do what Marvel has done. When the Green Lantern movie comes out we’ll see some GL one-shots and minis to help get the brand out there in case folks want to check it out just like Marvel has done when their movies come out. I honestly don’t see Nelson interfering in DC publishing except when it comes to promoting films. And if they are smart they’ll stick to the formula Marvel has used. Sure odds are most of those new readers who come in to a comic shop because they heard about a Green Lantern movie might not come back after that first visit. But that’s up to the comic shops themselves to hook them. DC, like Marvel, will provide the bait. Its up to the shopkeepers to hook the fish and reel them in.

‘mazing man and amethyst mentioned in a single column?! you sir, have yourself a new friend!!

It’s not up to the comic shops so much as it is up to the comic publishers to keep those readers coming back… The store is the just vessle. It’s DC and Marvel making the books, and they need to make books that people outside of the hardcore comics buyer actually wants to read. Case in point: Ms. Nelson working with DC to help promote Green Lantern when the new movie hits. Great, obvious idea…. But what did DC do to capitalize on The Dark Knight last year? Nothing.

Well, that’s not completely true. They had a bunch of Batman stories that were pretty much non-friendly to new readers (and to some old readers and Bat-fans like me). And then they killed him off. Nice job, DC… Aside from that Joker OGN, pretty much one of the few Bat-books I bought last year, DC didn’t do anything that might interest a prospective new reader who enjoyed TDK, or keep a returning old reader who wanted to jump back in (as I did after seeing Batman Begins back in 2005). DC does a nice job selling old books to those readers. Look at the sales charts on Amazon, for instance, and see that people still love The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, etc. But the new stuff? Meh.

Anyhow, I’d like to see a lot less Big Event crossover mania, and character arcs that cross multiple platforms, such as the ones Tom describes here. I enjoy the characters, and I want to read good, concise stories with the characters I love the most. But I’m not going to go through a mess like Final Crisis and RIP, wondering just what the hell is going on, just to find Bruce Wayne taken off the table. Sorry, I’ll go over to Marvel and read the really great stuff Ed Brubaker’s doing on Captain America and Fraction’s doing on Iron Man instead. Best of all, I don’t feel like I have to waste my money on any of the other Dark Reign stuff if I don’t want to. The stories are good, but also easy to understand without having to buy a stack of others.

And I’ll continue to make my way through great books like Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina in trade. BKV has yet to let me down. Again, great, concise stories with great characters.

Not to be a contrarian, but Captain America’s death was part of Civil War, a mega-cross-over event. And he’s been off the table for quite a while. It’s some of the only Marvel stuff I’m reading, but I’m just saying.

To the actual article here: Nelson simply isn’t going to be any more involved with DC Comics (DCE, yes) than Alan Horn. While a changing of the guard is invigorating and can mean positive change, aside from exploiting ideas like “corporate synergy”, Nelson just isn’t going to get involved with any of this stuff. That’s not her business or interest. If a hot seller is $3.99 at 150,000 units… I assure: she does not care about the comics or comic distribution. To believe otherwise is like believing the president is checking in on the goings-on of the Parks department on a daily basis.

That’s not to say she isn’t going to hire someone to replace Levitz who won’t upset the applecart and make all sorts of changes. But Nelson is not going to know about or care about Silver Age Earth-2 Continuity. She’s going to be figuring out how to turn the JLA into a movie franchise and building a theme park witha Themysciran rollercoaster and Batman-themed snack shop.

But Nelson is not going to know about or care about Silver Age Earth-2 Continuity. She’s going to be figuring out how to turn the JLA into a movie franchise and building a theme park witha Themysciran rollercoaster and Batman-themed snack shop.

Even if it’s true that her main concern is the marketing of the characters, it still begs the question of synchronicity. If the the Ryan Reynolds Flash movie goes through, for example, which Flash will it be? I’ve heard rumors of Barry, Wally and Jay. If it’s either of the latter two, you have to think that Barry may be sidelined to focus on one of the other two.

If she wants to promote a Wonder Woman movie, and she finds out that there’s a storyline where Wonder Woman snaps the neck of a former ally on worldwide television, she may not look too kindly on that kind of characterization.

As both Disney and TW look to market super-heroes to a wider audience, tighter controls will be placed on the representations in the comics themselves. Not necessarily “for the children,” but for a general audience.

I don’t know about all that with Wonder Woman. The Wonder Woman example is pretty specific, but also relies on the moral box DC has insisted upon (I think rightly) for their characters. That was much more of a shock for die-hard comic fans than for your general audience who expect their heroes to pop people’s heads off their shoulders.

If you look at franchises like Star Wars, Han Solo and Leia are shooting people left and right. The general audience has no expectation that their heroes don’t kill in all-ages entertainment (heck, Batman “killed” a few guys in the Burton-directed Batman. And my understanding was that Iron man killed a few guys.). Out of context, saying “Wonder Woman killed a guy” sounds extreme, but if there’s a story around it… And I might also direct you to the recent Direct to DVD WW feature for what passes as okay for PG-13.

No doubt Nelson will become aware of the multiple Flash’s or Green Lanterns, but I’ve no doubt she’ll ask for simplicity and recognizability. You simply cannot assume that anyone is going to put a $150 million dollar movie on the line and spend time worrying about DC continuity. I would expect we’re getting Barry Allen, just as we wound up getting Hal Jordan. Just as I suspect that DC as a wing of WB has known that if movies need to get made, they need the most straightforward pitch possible.

Oops. Meant to say:

Just as I suspect that DC as a wing of WB has known that if movies need to get made, they need the most straightforward pitch possible, which is why we’re seeing the Super Friends versions of the DCU brought back to the fore (not to mention that it can be an easier sell to actual comic readers).

I dunno that the whole arguement about synchronicity between comics and movies isn’t much ado about nothing. There really isn’t any data to suggest that any movie has helped to spark interest in a comic book franchise. Granted, DC hasn’t done much to try this approach, but nothing that Marvel’s done seems to have had any impact. And IIRC that has included giving out free comics at movie theaters, and realigning franchises to make them more like the movie versions.

To me it seems pretty obvious that as intellectual property, the DC and Marvel superheros have more value in movies, merchandising, and other media than they do as comic books. Thus there will be little inecentive to institute wholesale changes to the comic industry. It will hold value as an R&D lab…but as long as a best selling comic can only generate less than one tenth of one percent of a blockbuster’s opening weekend…comics will be too small to draw much attention.

“Superfriends versions of the DCU brought to the fore”

Thanks toethe JL/JLU toon, I would be willing to bet that the non-comics reading public would more easily recognize John Stewart as Green Lantern than Hal Jordan, and possibly Wally moreso than Barry (though an identical costume with a mask makes it almost moot). “The Batman” toon featured who I beleive was supposedto be Barry Allaen, but he seemed to have the temperment of a younger, Wally-like character. THe Brave & Bold cartoon avoided it altoghetehr so far by having an obviously different Flash, Jay Garrick, appear.

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