Robot 6

Grumpy Old Fan | DC needs mundane miniseries

Humble beginnings

Humble beginnings

DC’s serialized superhero-style comics operate on two basic levels: First, they’re an array of periodicals, with a different lineup of issues published each week. Next, those installments are collected into distinct volumes and published on a separate schedule. That’s nothing new. The single-issue reader sees the books differently from the collection-oriented reader, and each way has its advantages and disadvantages. These days, however, caught somewhere in the middle is the miniseries.

Since the New 52 relaunch, miniseries have been a lot more scarce in DC’s superhero line. That’s understandable, considering that the New 52 itself began as a group of ongoing series, and (even if DC isn’t putting out exactly 52 of ‘em each month) it takes a good bit of effort to maintain that many regular titles. Nevertheless, not so long ago, superhero-style miniseries were about as plentiful as their ongoing cousins. The last time I looked at the numbers in detail was in the summer of 2008 — when, over the previous five years, miniseries issues accounted for about one-third of the superhero line’s output.

Of course, DC still produces big event-style miniseries — just look at Forever Evil and its spinoffs, to say nothing of the Before Watchmen minis — but those tend to be sure things, as are the recent Damian Wayne and Batman: Black and White miniseries. The kind of miniseries that tests the market’s appetite for a particular character — think Huntress, My Greatest Adventure or Human Bomb — has become considerably more rare since the New 52 debuted. Instead, the New 52 has produced low-selling, quickly canceled ongoing books like Blackhawks, Sword of Sorcery, Threshold and Green Team. That track record isn’t exactly flattering, so today we’ll look at whether DC might want to ease up on the ongoing-series commitments, and put more minis back on its schedule.

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Actually, those low-selling titles might well have had even lower numbers if they’d been crafted and marketed as miniseries. In years past, characters like Batman and Superman starred in standalone miniseries (like Gates of Gotham or Superman/Supergirl: Maelstrom) so as not to interfere with storylines in the ongoing series. I always thought that was a little ironic in light of the number of ongoing Batman and Superman titles, but I suppose it’s easier to produce a miniseries than it is to coordinate a new storyline among all those ongoings. Besides, Batman and Superman are well-known quantities, and it’s not too hard to gauge how well one of their miniseries might sell.

The opposite is true for miniseries like the New 52’s three Freedom Fighters spotlights (Human Bomb, The Ray and Phantom Lady) or My Greatest Adventure, which starred Robotman and a couple of creator-driven characters (Aaron Lopresti’s Garbageman and Kevin Maguire’s Tanga) from the pre-New 52 Weird Worlds anthology. Each mini appealed to a certain existing fanbase, which no doubt factored into the predicted success of each; but it probably wasn’t enough.

The direct market’s conservative macro-tendencies work inevitably against miniseries, because absent the notion that a story is “important,” there’s not much incentive for a reader to take a risk on a story. While an ongoing series requires a certain indefinite commitment of resources from the publisher, a miniseries implicitly asks the reader to commit her time and money for a defined period — and the latter may be too much to ask. That sounds counter-intuitive, but by definition an ongoing series is intended to be around for a while, so readers may feel more free to sample an issue or two before moving on. By contrast, miniseries are rarely cut short (The Great Ten notwithstanding), so readers may feel like they’re being asked to jump aboard for the whole thing — and, by the way, jump aboard at the beginning, because who wants to read just part of a miniseries? Trade-waiting is also a factor, as some readers may skip the individual issues in order to read the story as a whole, especially if it’s a story that doesn’t figure immediately into DC’s shared superhero universe.

Indeed, some miniseries seem to be produced with an eye toward how they’ll fill a particular spot on a bookshelf. Clearly DC wanted the Before Watchmen minis to make a nice set of companions for the original work. Back when the Shade miniseries looked like it might be truncated, I argued that it needed to run its natural course so that it could be collected alongside the other Starman volumes.  Similarly, the just-concluded Damian, Son of Batman and Batman: Black and White miniseries will no doubt be shelved alongside their predecessors. You can’t say the same for the Green Team, Blackhawks or Team 7 collections.

That, in turn, speaks to a larger issue surrounding DC’s publishing philosophy: Is it directed primarily toward the bookshelf, or at the periodical reader? For decades, DC has targeted the stereotypical direct market consumer by promising an interconnected lineup of titles. Ideally, everything would work together (or at least be complementary), thereby encouraging readers to buy it all. Naturally, everything would work on its own too; but where’s the fun in just buying a few titles?

With collected editions, though, the rhythms are different — not automatically better or worse, just different — and the perspective on the shared universe changes as a result. The stories themselves become more isolated, both from the shared universe and even from the other arcs in their own series. For example, the last big Batman Incorporated arc played out in single issues at about the same time as the “Death of the Family” crossover, although clearly “DOTF” happened before the concluding events in Incorporated. Reading those two arcs as they unfolded in single-issue form, a reader might have tried to harmonize them so they made some sense in the larger Batman timeline. Readers coming to those arcs in collected form, months or years after the stories have ended, have no incentive to do that. In fact, while the events of Grant Morrison’s Bat-saga necessarily spilled over into the other Batman series, it’s possible to read Morrison’s work on its own, without having to branch out into series like Detective or the post-Morrison Batman and Robin. Those series are a lot harder to avoid when you’re seeing them in comics shops alongside the newest Morrison issue.

Conversely, those qualities could work in favor of the humble DCU miniseries. If they can’t coast on franchise associations, and aren’t seen in a larger shared-universe context, they must rely on actual merit, good word of mouth, etc., to overcome Direct Market apathy. Moreover, standing alone means not having to stand out among a sea of similar collections — and by that I mean that if you’re looking for “the Character X miniseries,” you don’t have to hunt through a bunch of other Character X books to find it. It’s a backhanded compliment, but it could be a net positive.

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Still, if only the high-end miniseries are destined to thrive, DC must decide what sort of ongoing series it wants to promote. As noted in this space a few weeks back, the April solicitations present a superhero line dominated by franchises (and, at least for one month, no miniseries). Not counting cancellations, the Bat-office has anywhere from nine to 11 series, Superman and Green Lantern each have six, the Justice League has four, and there are four “dark” titles (not counting JL Dark). That’s at least 29 of the 41 New 52 ongoing series which will survive April; and when almost three-quarters of your superhero line is that crossover-friendly, you should probably expect to read some series you wouldn’t otherwise. Right now the “Blight” crossover is why I’m reading Phantom Stranger and Constantine.

I noted at the top of this post that from about 2003 to 2008, miniseries accounted for about a third of the superhero line’s output. What I didn’t say was that the superhero line had a lot fewer ongoing series in those days, ranging from 30 to 35 ongoings (on average) per year. After a couple of years without a lot of miniseries, the total superhero-line output got into the forties, and by 2005 the superhero line was publishing a total of fifty-odd series (ongoing and limited) per month. I haven’t looked at the data between the summer of ‘08 and now, but a quick check of the invaluable Mike’s Amazing World Of DC Comics site shows that in October 2009, DC was publishing a total of 34 superhero-line ongoing series and 20 miniseries; and in October 2010, the number was 33 ongoings plus about 12 miniseries.  October 2011 was the second month of the New 52 relaunch, and it featured three new miniseries: Huntress (which ended up tying into the New 52’s Earth-2 books), Penguin: Pain & Prejudice, and the anthology My Greatest Adventure. Since then, the New 52 superhero line has included only a handful of miniseries per year, from the conclusions of pre-relaunch series Batman: Odyssey and THUNDER Agents to Legion: Secret Origin, Forever Evil and its three tie-ins, the minis already mentioned, and “out-of-universe” minis like Before Watchmen, Joe Kubert Presents, the DCU/Masters of the Universe crossover, and JSA: The Liberty Files — The Whistling Skull. I’m not sure that comes to 20 miniseries in two years, let alone 20 a month.

Ironically, as the number of New 52 series decreases, it gets closer to the publishing output of ten-plus years ago. A good bit of the miniseries DC put out from 2004-10 were Big Events or their tie-ins (for example, in October 2009 Blackest Night was in full swing), and it looks like those may make up the bulk of DC’s miniseries efforts for the near future. However, there’s a lot to be said for using miniseries experimentally, or otherwise in an exploratory fashion, particularly if the ongoing series aren’t finding audiences.

In January, Dave Carter at Yet Another Comics Blog published a handy chart detailing the sales and longevity of each New 52 title.  It shows that from the start of the New 52 through the March solicits, DC launched a total of 76 ongoing series — 52 originally, and 24 subsequently — and canceled 33. What’s particularly striking is the short lifespan of many of those 33 series. G.I. Combat was canceled after seven issues, and it basically replaced Men of War, which had just been canceled after eight issues. Seven other series were cancelled after eight issues, two were cancelled after nine (Sword of Sorcery and Team 7, which started with issue #0 and ended with #8), two series were canceled after 10 issues, and five were canceled after 12 issues (plus a zero issue or Annual). Not counting Batman Incorporated volume 2 — which ended largely on its own terms after 13 issues and a Special — that’s 18 out of 33 canceled series that didn’t make it to Issue 13.

Adding in April’s five new ongoings and subtracting its six cancellations brings the overall total to 81 launches and 39 cancellations, with one more (Superman Unchained, ending at Issue 9) canceled before it reached Issue 13. Justice League of America will get to Issue 14 before being replaced by Justice League United, so it’s pretty much a wash. Still, that’s 19 short runs (13 issues or fewer) out of 39 canceled series.

To be sure, DC didn’t launch all these series at the same time (although 26 of the initial 52 series will have been canceled as of April) and didn’t cancel them all at once. Regardless, that doesn’t say much about the supposed permanence of an ongoing series. If the argument against limited series is that they’re easy to ignore, it might not be much better for the ongoings. In the long run, is cancelling all those ongoing series really better than losing a handful of sales “because it’s a miniseries?”

As DC’s superhero line coalesces around its franchises, it may be a good time to take those kinds of risks. Birds of Prey started out as a one-shot (from Chuck Dixon and Gary Frank) and lived on in a series of miniseries before becoming an ongoing title. Secret Six likewise started off as a tie-in miniseries (Villains United) before getting its own miniseries and, later, its own ongoing series. Instead of being defeated by the direct market’s alleged apathy, DC’s marketing department should take it as a challenge, and work to turn it into excitement for what could be the next fan-favorite.

For whatever reasons, the New 52 has favored ongoing series over miniseries. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, it doesn’t seem to have paid off. The different formats imply different levels of commitment, both from publishers and readers, and now it looks like DC has been overconfident with regard to a number of series. However, I don’t think DC should take this as a sign to retreat behind the barricades of Batman, GL, Superman, and Justice League titles. Rather, it’s a good opportunity to try different approaches and storytelling styles. In this regard, more miniseries might allow DC to go in multiple directions simultaneously — and over a shorter period of time — rather than committing to a new crop of ongoing series which might take a while to develop a fanbase. At the very least, it would know definitely when the miniseries would end, as opposed to deciding when to drop the hammer. Besides, a successful miniseries always leaves fans wanting more.

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13 Comments

Interestingly, DC’s recently switched to do a series-of-miniseries for SMALLVILLE and have started doing their compilation-of-digital-first books in “season” volumes that are basically minis, if not given the usual “issue X of Y” treatment. With Marvel switching to the short run/replace with new #1 model nowadays, one has to wonder whether DC is playing with models on their non-52 books to meet halfway between the benefit of the miniseries and the continuity value of the ongoing.

I remember the days of miniseries-heavy DC. Looking back, it was a period that was easy to get in on and hard to get out of — there’s less feeling of weight to buying #1 of a a 4- or 6-issue run than of a new ongoing, but its also harder to drop a storyline that you feel you owe yourself seeing the last one or two issues of. Given how many minis all tied into each other too, that was a LOT of books that I found myself buying before I used the coming of the New 52 as an excuse to cut myself off from the Weekly Wednesday Run!

I loved those 90s miniseries and one shots like Sword of Azrael and Vengeance of Bane, along with the way the “out of conitnuity” stories in Legends of the Dark Knight (in this example Venom) would end up being part of the continuity. This allowed the readers to get the best of both worlds, with a story that was fresh and played around with story telling techniques AND a story that “counted” ! I remember the excitement I felt in seeing Azrael showing up in the Batman books, and Bane being the mastermind behind the Knightfall arc – characters I enjoyed in their original appearances (I was definitely left wantig more of them after the minis), appaearances which were now canon !

I wonder whether doing something like this again would have DM readers more interested in miniseries, as any of the minis publiashed may be a lead-in to an important storyline down the track, or whether we are all too old and/or cynical to “fall for” that marketing tool.

My take away from all of this is that DC changed. The internal point of view seemed to be that just slapping the word “new” on would attract attention. As a loyal diehard DC fan, some of the “new” ideas should have been tried out as a mini-series. Grifter? Mini-series. Blue Beetle? Mini-series. The Savage Hawkman? Mini-series. Those were the titles I decided to try and invest in. Titles like I, Vampire, just to name one that comes to mind. Mini-series. I’ll probably pick up both The Shade and the Solomon Grundy mini-series, to fit into my Starman library. There was nothing broken about DC that warranted an overhaul and reboot in The New 52. Maybe this is a poor analogy, but you don’t scrap the ship when all you need do is scrape off some barnacles.

Wait for trades for all mini’s now.

I think DC needs to have a New 52 Crisis and reincorporate the old DCU and have some Anthology books that tell tales of the other worlds. Then the old fans like myself can enjoy the pre-new 52 dcu Superman & Green Lantern stuff while also enjoying the barely changed Batman of the new52.
also out of those anthologies, tell tales that matter to the over all arc of the new 52 in order to make it relevant for people to pick it up.
lastly, stop with the origins! tell a good story, and if you’re story doesn’t work well in the “present”, tale a tales from the past or future that could have been.

When buying miniseries, I wait til they’re all published before reading the whole story. With my limited budget, it’s easier for me to spend four bucks a month over four to six months than twenty bucks for the trade at once. Most times I do read the first issue just to make sure it’s worth collecting. However, I didn’t read Damian #1, just taking for granted it would be good, and was left scratching my head and cursing the lost sixteen bucks for this ” story”. The story wasn’t very good (or coherent at times, as I had to read the first issue twice to know that Batman in the beginning of the story was Dick Grayson, as Kubert didnt make it clear) and had art that was substandard to what I expect from Andy Kubert.
At least today’s miniseries are far superior to the first minis published in the 80s (with Claremont/Miller’s Wolverine being a clear exception).

I think some characters do better in a series of miniseries/maxiseries. Dreamwave and IDW did that with Transformers for years and it worked great. Image, Dynamite, Boom, etc. have a much more fluid policy with regards to minis vs. ongoings. Image has some very long term books like the Walking Dead and Savage Dragon (is that still going?) as well as a lot of minis and maxis.

Over the last 5-7 years Marvel and DC have eroded the idea of longevity in a title – Marvel with their constant renumbering and DC with their entire universe reboot. With Marvel I think they just need to make it an explicit policy that there are no ongoing series. Bill it exactly like what is (and they’re starting to). I agree with your ideas about DC. A lot of these ongoings should be introduced as a mini. Honestly did anyone expect GI Combat or Sword and Sorcery to last all that long? Also, when a title gets canned so quickly, that puts a stigma on it. Makes some weary of approaching it again (both creatively and as a reader). However, if the ending was expected because it was a mini I think that puts a different spin on it, That’s just my take on it though.

I definitely agree with Tom. If DC wants to diversify its output and generate new IP the mini-series is the way to go. I also believe mini-series would be the perfect vehicle for DC to explore some of its other Earths. Multiversity (whenever to arrives) will definitely spur interest in the other Earths. Hopefully DC will be smart enough to ride Grant Morrison’s coat tail. Worst case scenario you could end up with a lot of trades that could sit next to Multiversity on the book shelf (similar to Watchmen).

I also wonder if the language used to promote titles could be the reason why mini-series are considered irrelevant? Instead of labeling something a mini or limited series. Why not take a page from Marvel and say, the creative team have x number of issues to tell their story/stories. If the sales are strong enough, additional stories will follow.

Since the New 52, mini-series have done poorly for new concepts. I would agree that a mini-series could do well, but it has to feel like something special… good writer, good artist, a good push, maybe a connection to another series, etc. Most of these mini-series feel like filler or as a way to retain the copyright on a particular title. When they were doing the Freedom Fighter mini-series, they should have figured out ahead of time which characters they wanted. If they had structured it more like Morrison’s 7 soldiers and had several going at once with a promise that they will all dovetail into something great, it may have worked better. Instead you got one series after another that seemed to be building towards something, but it was happening too slowly.

In many ways, Marvel does this. By definition. But I don’t want them to do it. Here’s why.

I like what DC is doing with The New 52. I personally believe it makes no difference if its either an ongoing or miniseries. If the character attracts, or the book, then he/she will buy it and invest on it. The miniseries label, I would argue, does no favor to DC. Part of the main reason why they give the ongoing labels to some of these titles, like GI Combat or Grifter, is to test the market share of these titles. How strong it is. And let’s be fair: they ain’t as popular as Damian Wayne, whose miniseries title sold extremely well.

A commenter directly above has a pretty good point. Why not started Grifter or Blue Beetle as a miniseries instead of respecive ongoing titles? That’s a good point, but I argue that part of DC’s vision with The New 52 is to coalesce these many, many characters into the universe. That’s the initial plan, but since these books didn’t sell, changes and tweaks would have to be made in the process. And if you look at past canceled books, you’ll see how many of the characters have transitioned into other different roles. Look at Frankeinstein(who I got disappointed when they canceled it); or look at how Animal Man will still be around after his book is canceled. He will be in Lemiere’s new JL title, Justice League United.

Of course, many fans want their favorite superheroes to have their own independent titles, but this is a business. I for one want these heroes like Hawkman — who is my second fave DC hero behind Bats — to have his own solo adventures and not be in these sociological driven titles. But group titles work. They always work.
DC has done a magnificent job having some of these characters relevant in The New 52. Some do need a comeback(Static Shock), but others are just naturally given, with Ted Kord making his New 52 debut in a matter of months. And I think we should applaud them. They could just ignore these characters, like they did to Grifter, but they have not. These are popular heroes, and DC deserves a lot of credit working in variable ways to still make them prevelant in The New 52. Think about it. The major events is hard work in itself, but to still have Animal Man, Frankeinstein, Batwing(who may be the luckiest of all, lol), Hawkman, etc still in important roles, after their bad sales and cancellations, is something we should all welcome as fans. It speaks how strictly organized DC is, but also how mentally strong you need to be to still do your projects. Miniseries can’t do that.

Wait, so DC needs to come up with something that’s mundane? Hmm, somehow I don’t think that’ll be a problem…

Maybe you giys didnt notice but the current financial environment doesnt exactly leave people with the luxury lf buying mini series with no real significance nor does it leave the publisher with the ability to take that kind of risk

Brian from Canada

February 17, 2014 at 11:42 am

Great idea, bad examples.

New 52’s intended goal was to modify the classic DC universe for modern audiences. Titles selected were all strong performers in the past — characters that had ongoings over several years. The fact that many failed is more a testament to the poor production of the book at conception point than market preference for mini-series.

When you bring up Our Men At War, for example, you need to mention that this new Sgt. Rock wasn’t fighting in a war zone, he was doing secret missions with supernatural/metapowered enemies that came out of nowhere — and lacked the personality to drive the book forward with this change. GI Combat, its “replacement,” was headlined by a version of “The Land That Time Forgot” that forgot how to give us characters to care for.

All-Star Western is the only split book that survived, and it did so because the opening story dedicated all pages to the central character first — and did it right. When backups were introduced, they were done with characters that appealed to the same audience because they were of a similar genre. The same did not happen with Sword Of Sorcery, where Beowulf is post-apocalyptic science fiction taking pages from a fantasy world that didn’t have enough pages for its own exposition.

Tom also fails to mention DC Universe Presents, which was New 52’s concept for rebranding the mini-series. It was to put them in sequence under one title, and its failure is more demonstrative of WHY the mini can’t survive these days on its own.

DC Universe Presents was bought according to character. If you were a fan, or interested in the character, you may have sampled the first issue and decided after that, but few who bought one story would automatically stick around for the next.

Mini-series used to get around that by launching the first issue with fanfare so that retailers would buy a lot of the first issue and, by the time of their discovering it wasn’t selling so strong, they were already seeing the end. For a lot of buyers (and I worked in comics retail roughly a decade ago), it got to the point where the mini-series orders would be steadily dropping because there was only so many times a reader could get burned.

THEN we didn’t have an event cycle that was constantly throwing new ongoings that spun out of world-shattering events. THEN we also didn’t have the trade market now, where most readers will sample the issue in store and just buy the whole series when collected. The mini-series of the past had to be strong enough in sales to get to a trade; today, every single book gets collected into a trade, and you can order it from Amazon for cheaper than your store will discount it for.

Should DC do mini-series? Absolutely. I would love to see some more minis, but there would have to be set rules for them as well. Those rules: emphasis of new and upcoming creative teams, not established ones all the time; characters that aren’t starring in their own series elsewhere; and only 1-2 minis per month, with strong promotion of the characters and stories when they launch — and an idea of what to do with the characters after they are introduced.

That might mean a mini-series on Hawk & Dove, Unknown Soldier, Lois Lane, Freedom Force, Vixen, Vibe or Captain K-Rot. Not another Batman, Superman or other lead hero.

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