Robot 6

“Earth” tones

Grumpy Old Fan

Grumpy Old Fan

DC’s upcoming series of “Earth One” original graphic novels has garnered a good bit of commentary, much of it tepid to negative.

Brian Hibbs says it doesn’t make the best economic sense.  Chris Butcher explains the various hurdles to successfully cracking the bookstore market.  Living Between Wednesdays notes that the current Superman: Secret Origin miniseries hasn’t even finished.

Because DC is prone to revamps and relaunches, “Earth One’s” format is the story (see also Wednesday Comics). Not only does “Earth One” present A-list characters in something other than 22- page installments, it seems geared more directly towards bookstores than towards the Direct Market. I dinged DC for not distributing WC more widely, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

However, to repeat the blindingly obvious, DC must try to find exactly the right format, and therefore the right price point, to capture these hypothetical bookstore browsers. Will they be more inclined to pick up a $25.00 hardcover or a $9.95 digest? While the latter would surprise both me and Mike Sterling, I’d rather see DC aim a little lower. After all, the first few Harry Potter books were pretty thin.

As for the content … well, DC has such a strange relationship with its prospective readers. Any time it tries to cross into a new market, it does so with the millstone of an existing fanbase around its neck. This is the constant lament of the superhero-comics adapter: how to satisfy the people who know the details while omitting as many unnecessary details as possible. At best you end up with the graceful respect of the “Justice League” cartoon or the distilled power of The Dark Knight; at worst you get a muddled mess like the “Birds Of Prey” TV series.

Unfortunately, the “Earth One” label is one of those details. Obviously, to someone who knows nothing of DC history, the term carries no Silver Age associations. Maybe to those uninitiated it even sounds like shorthand for “new.” In fact, if what I suspect (and what I’ve been told) turns out to be true, then this new setting is the same Earth One which came out of the end of Trinity — but this too is a distinction which makes no difference. While it would let these OGNs cross over with the rest of the Multiverse at some point, there’s absolutely no reason for them to do so, because such a crossover would probably be fatal to “Earth One’s” mission.

Still — and skip to the next paragraph if you’re not sentimental about DC — it could be kind of sweetly poetic, since Trinity showed the “deified” Trinitarians jump-starting Earth One’s proper history with the last of their godly powers.  Earth One is what it is because of the regular Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. If these OGNs become so popular that they eventually lead to the monthly books being retired, making that connection would be a nice part of the sendoff. Clearly, though, as long as DC is celebrating monthly-comics milestones, the periodicals aren’t going anywhere.

Anyway. Right now I am inclined to like this idea, and not just because its lack of specifics lets me idealize it. At this point “Earth One” combines four factors: a new potential audience, (relatively) high-profile creative teams, DC’s most familiar characters, and no restrictions from existing continuity. To be sure, “Earth One” shares these factors with quite a few esoteric DC projects, from Wednesday Comics and Solo to the All-Star books and The New Frontier. (Most of those projects also used unusual formats.) Unlike those books — and with all due respect to the creative teams — “Earth One” doesn’t seem so concerned with artistic merit. Instead, it apparently aims to tell stories which will attract a non-comics-reading audience. While these hypothetical folks may like Superman and Batman, they know only the basics and don’t especially care about the nuances. In that respect I’m not at all surprised that DC turned to two writers who’ve also worked in film and television, because that’s the kind of crossover appeal it wants. If Geoff Johns’ and Gary Frank’s Batman makes readers think of Daniel Craig’s James Bond, or if J. Michael Straczynski’s and Shane Davis’ Superman reminds them of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, that’s perfect.

Accordingly, where we lifers groan at yet another alternate universe (so soon after the pulp-influenced “First Wave,” too), the new folks don’t necessarily know the difference … and again, if they do, they may not care as much. Besides, these changes seem more fundamental than cosmetic, on the order of the 1986-87 Superman and Wonder Woman relaunches. Indeed, recently DC has been restoring a good bit of those characters’ Silver Age/Earth-1 elements, like the Superboy career and Wonder Woman’s history with the Justice League. (At times I wonder whether this is motivated more by nostalgia or by an attempt to sync up with its more voluminous Silver Age library.) It’s no stretch to say that mainline DC is trying to “modernize its past” so as to satisfy both new and old readers. Ironically — and I know this is the start of a familiar rant — DC’s renovation efforts have given the line the reputation of a continuity-heavy quagmire from which no coherent story can emerge.

Thus, “Earth One” apparently chucks all of that, but not just to be different. Both Straczynski and Johns told AICN about the creative freedom that the new Earth gives them. Johns mentioned “unlimited creative freedom” right away, and Straczynski went into more detail about his take on the Man of Steel:

If [Clark] keeps his background secret, as he’s done for the preceding 21 years, he can be the best athlete the world has ever known, he could be the next Stephen Hawking, could take away the golf crown from Tiger Woods, create patents that could earn billions. He can finally step out of the shadows and into the light.

By contrast, if he chooses to become Superman, then Clark must live forever in the shadows, dedicated to a life of service and self-sacrifice that could eventually get him killed. That’s a hard choice for anybody to make, let alone a 21 year old kid who wants to look after his mom and is lured by the idea of money and success and fame.

Clearly that view of Clark/Superman differs immediately from other interpretations. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster originally presented their creation as a socially-conscious crusader. The Silver Age saw “Clark” become even more of an act, an idea ratified and expanded by 1970s writers like Elliott S! Maggin. Their Superman knew he was set apart from humanity and used “Clark” to connect. In 1986, John Byrne and company turned this on its head, grounding Clark firmly in his human upbringing and making “Superman” the public performance. Now Straczynski (whose ideas sound like good fits with Johns’ Superman: Secret Origin) appears to be finding a middle ground between those two approaches: an outsider well aware of his abilities who (obviously) chooses a higher calling over worldly success. That’s a reasonable starting point for a Superman story, and it’s something which Straczynski can develop on his own terms.

Indeed, another big advantage for the Earth One setting is the notion that its creative teams won’t see their work “diluted” (for lack of a better term) when their characters show up in someone else’s title. This can work acceptably well in the monthly setting; but not where one wants to tie particular creative teams to particular character interpretations. DC can’t really say that Batman “belongs” to Grant Morrison when he also appears (or will also appear) regularly in books written by Judd Winick, Paul Dini, and James Robinson. However, Straczynski and Shane Davis can keep Superman fairly exclusive to their OGNs, at least until the inevitable Earth One versions of World’s Finest or Justice League.  (And yes, Wonder Woman should be the third series of Earth One OGNs, ahead of The Flash or Green Lantern.)

Furthermore, unlike Marvel’s Ultimate line, no monthly schedule to satisfy means no pressure to keep the OGN series going in perpetuity. Freedom from the monthly schedule also means more freedom to deal with the passage of time, so these OGNs could well progress in real time and even bring their characters’ stories to definite ends.

Hmm … not much more to say now; not until more details emerge. I realize too that I haven’t said much about the Johns/Frank Batman, and I think that’s because we know so little about it. Johns seems to think that seeing Batman’s pupils is a major change, and he’s right about how that can be used; but particularly in the 1970s Neal Adams and other Bat-artists did the same thing. I get the impression that Johns wants to bring all the familiar Bat-elements into some grand unified theory, where the “twisted origin behind Gotham City” probably ties into the design of the Batmobile. Again, it’s hard to gauge whether the average bookstore browser will appreciate that kind of thing, despite it being something of a theme in Batman Begins. It probably works better for Batman than for Superman, since Batman plays off his setting and Superman plays off his supporting cast.

As it happens, perhaps a quote from today’s DC news offers a telling bit of commentary on “Earth One’s” opportunity. “I’m hoping,” says new Action writer Marc Guggenheim, “that by the end of the ‘War of Supermen’ event I’ll be able to tell some true and classic Superman stories.” The emphasis is mine, because DC keeps teasing a simpler, lower-key style, but never seems to break the event cycle.

Thus, despite their differences with the main DC line, the “Earth One” books look like the publisher’s best chance simply to tell such “true and classic” stories to the general public. I think that’s any fan’s ultimate bottom line: just tell me a Superman story, and make it a good one.

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Comments

9 Comments

I remain excited for the Earth One titles, though I do begin to feel like I might be the only one. If readers are perfectly content with their monthly titles, I can understand how the Earth One books seem unnecessary or confusing — and I agree that “Earth One” is an unnecessarily confusing moniker.

But for those of us who’ve turned to waiting for trade collections — and at times, waiting and waiting, all the while the rest of comicsdom raves about a title in monthly form — the Earth One concept is a breath of fresh air. DC Comics superheroes, in a universe with continuity, published twice a year in graphic novel format. Real comic books, if you will (not collections of already released comic books) with a spine and without advertisements every other page — just imagine.

I entirely get why this might disturb the monthly comics fan. For me — pure heaven.

More of my take: http://collectededitions.blogspot.com/2009/12/dc-earth-one-superman-batman-original.html

“But for those of us who’ve turned to waiting for trade collections — and at times, waiting and waiting, all the while the rest of comicsdom raves about a title in monthly form — the Earth One concept is a breath of fresh air. DC Comics superheroes, in a universe with continuity, published twice a year in graphic novel format. Real comic books, if you will (not collections of already released comic books) with a spine and without advertisements every other page — just imagine.”

I couldn’t have said this any better myself. As someone who’s dropped all Bat and Supes books for a while now, because I hate the directions they’ve taken the past couple of years, this seems like a great idea. Not sure I like Afred looking Sam Elliott, but I’ll give it a try at least.

Most of the comics I still buy are now in trade anyhow, so the format is perfect. Will it reacher a wider audience? I’d say that they’ll reach people like me, who come to sites like this one and know about it, but they’re only going to reach new readers if they advertise in places that don’t normally see comic book ads and market the hell out of these titles.

People know when a new Stephen King, Jodi Picoult or James Patterson book comes out. But how many know about a new comic/trade/graphic novel. Mostly, unless it’s the death or Robin, Superman or Captain America, just comics readers. That’s what needs to change. Just putting these books on a shelf at Barnes & Noble, mixed in with all the other trades/GNs, won’t do it.

Anyhow, even if I liked these mega-events DC can’t seem to stop doing I don’t have the kind of time I used to for following that stuff. I would happily make the time for some really good, epic, stand-alone stories in a larger graphic novel 2-3 times a year, free of the baggage that DCU continuity carries with it. WIth the writing talent involved, I’d hope for some really great, classic stories here.

I’m almost done with the traditional montly, floppy comic anyhow. I say, “Bring it on!” in regards to Earth 1. Confusing name aside, I hope this becomes what Marvel’s Ultimate line was in its early days. Just as long as it doesn’t end up like the Ultimate line eventually did.

I’m really excited about the Earth-One OGNs too, and not just because of the talent involved but mainly because this seems to promise to be DC’s “Ultimate: line of books. I love the ageless feel of the DCU and its characters, but at the same time I’d love to see a more modernized version of Batman and Superman. Losing the underwear on Batman’s costume, that’s a great start. Having Clark actually dress like a twenty something year old would today AND having a Daily Planet that actually reflects modern media, that’s great too! I mean I’m not rooting for them to drastically revamp them like Millar’s Ultimates would, but it would be nice to see a more modern spin on the characters that isn’t in a movie or TV show.

“I’m hoping,” says new Action writer Marc Guggenheim, “that by the end of the ‘War of Supermen’ event I’ll be able to tell some true and classic Superman stories.” The emphasis is mine, because DC keeps teasing a simpler, lower-key style, but never seems to break the event cycle.

Heh. Almost everyone who writes a traditional character at Marvel or DC ALWAYS says that. “We want to get back to basics,” “we want to take Character XYZ back to his roots.”

How often does a new writer come on board and say “frankly, I didn’t care much for what’s come before on this series anyway and it’s gotten really stale besides; what I want to do is get away from the ‘true and classic’ version of this series,” really?

The long and short of it: we are not DC’s target audience. We will read this and gab about it, but the audience is one that is not currently even aware of this project. It’s DC trying to do what it needs to reach beyond the 100,000 or so who come every month. And by using two of the few writers who are known even a little outside comics fandom, they are making that clear.

If DC can’t be bothered to make the two monthly comics for
Superman worth reading I’m certainly not going to hunt down a new OGN series to find stories that are esp. when the first volume is yet another take on the origin story.

With Batman I’m perfectly happy with the amount and general quality of product already available.

I’ll leave the Earth One OGNs to the layabouts who sit in Barnes&Noble and Borders for hours doing nothing but dog earing the merchandise and reading their comics for free while wearing flip flops in the middle of winter and buying $4.00 coffee because they are too unskilled to be able to make their own.

OutriderC@gmail.com

December 10, 2009 at 8:26 pm

Julius, you’re exactly right about the kind of people who read free shit at bookstores.

I remember waiting in line to see X-men 2, with a gazillion other people on opening day. Someone from the theater walked down the line handing out a promotional X-men comic from marvel, which was a horrible “story” about Wolverine, bearing NO relation to the movie and featuring none of the other characters. The story referenced the (wacked-out) continuity of the current comics, and ended on a cliffhanger (to be continued where…?).

This is an example of the folly of both DC and Marvel, where they fail repeatedly to take advantage of the enormous amounts of exposure their characters receive in other forms of media. Sure there’s Jonny DC, and Marvel Adventures, but nothing to attract the huge numbers of people who saw Iron Man, Hulk, Spider-Man, Dark Knight, etc. The comics featuring these characters are the equivalent of an inside joke at a party that leaves everyone else feeling excluded.

I don’t know what the solution is, but it surely isn’t creating yet another splinter universe, with new origins, costumes, and a darker, edgier attitude. This seems to be DC’s version of the Ultimate Universe, by way of Supreme Power. I personally would rather see a complete reboot of the entire DCU than more of this dark, depressing, fanboy wank. Sure would be nice for someone who sees the next DC movie to be able to go out and find this thing that they KNOW and RECOGNIZE at their local Barnes and Noble.

And to be able to show it to their kids would be a bonus, but that’s another rant.

I’m kind of surprised at how polarized the reactions have been to this announcement — seemingly evenly split between enthusiasm and cynicism. Much of the latter seems to be focused on the business side of the equation, though… “Will DC really attract new readers with this? How will they market it? Will it make more money than floppies?”

Honestly, those aren’t my problems to worry about. Looking at it strictly in creative terms, I’m really jazzed about this! Straczynski is a writer I’ll follow pretty much anywhere, and I know how much he loves Superman, so that one is pretty much presold as far as I’m concerned. I’m a lot more skeptical about Geoff’s ability to do a good Batman story, but Gary Frank’s art in enough that I’ll at least give that one the benefit of the doubt. And overall, I like the whole semi-annual OGN concept, assuming the price point isn’t too exorbitant. So I’m looking forward to these. Serisouly, as a reader, where’s the downside?

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