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DC's New 52 - Real Change, or More of the Same?

Can 52 #1's, costume, continuity and numbering changes really be "change" in the comic industry?
I love comics, and have for quite a long time, and have always been more of a DC follower than any other publisher. I want DC’s "New 52" relaunch to succeed, truly, but the industries’ long history of reader mistreatment and disappointment has left many fans, including this one, skeptical to some degree of anything and everything which comes from the mouths of promoters. That’s an unhealthy relationship between creators and readers, to be sure. The comic book industry has reached a point where its back is against the wall, though and something has to give; the thing is, this desperate point has been reached through years of pursuit of short-term sales boosts (read: gimmicks) by the publishers (especially Marvel and DC) which damaged and turned off the readership base tremendously to the point where even if there is true repentance it may be too late. But we can always hope that it’s not too late, and that this time the repentance reboot is real. Let’s take a look.

Pro: Across-the-board fresh start. Obviously there are hopes here of this being something like the dawn of the silver age; updated characters, more relevance to current readers, etc. If this is truly a fresh start, where writers can refine and define characters and their Raison d'être, this could be good.

Con: Across-the-board fresh start. This has been done ad nauseum for decades. Rebooting, updating, new costumes, new continuity. We have almost constant restarts all the time anyway, the only difference here is trying to do it for the whole DC universe at once (but even that is a variation on recent themes - Marvel’s Unlimited books were a universe reboot of a sort for example). After a controversial and widely reviled reboot of Wonder Woman last year (after she was rebooted just a few years prior to that), we’re going to reboot again? It’s not new (new would be actually leaving the characters alone for a while to evolve and develop naturally).

Pro: Fewer titles. Title fatigue has been a serious cancer in the industry for years (how many X-books a month now, 15? 20? I gave up), especially with the constant event crossovers. I’ve found myself in recent years looking primarily for titles out of the mainstream in hopes they wouldn’t get caught up in every single crossover event. There is a desperate need to seriously trim the fat and make sure every book is worth the time and money to read.

Con: Still 52 titles (not counting Vertigo etc.). That’s still way too many; especially as the idea is clearly again having a cohesive universe where stories will again be framed with intent to force readers into reading most of the titles just to keep up. That’s at least $156 a month for just DC comics. I can get Netflix for $8 a month. I can go to the movies every weekend for about $40 a month. Very few people are going to spend $156 a month on comics, let alone have the time to follow 52 books. Give me one or two great Batman books a month, rather than 5-6 regular books plus 2-4 mini-series, cross-over specials etc., and you get me back as a reader. A lot of former readers will say the same thing.

Pro: Digital comics. This is way, way overdue. I read Kindle books, I get my news from Google Reader, my music is all digital, and most TV I watch is Netflix, Hulu, Vevo, You Tube and the like. Most people would be very surprised that ink on paper through a tiny specialty retailer system is how most comics are primarily still made available. Of course, there is the huge issue of how digital books will damage retailers, and the certainly will. As a former retailer who lived through Marvel and DC destroying/taking over the comics distributors, then once the distribution monopolies were in place hitting retailers with higher costs (and openly more or less saying that publishers felt there were too many retailers and the smaller ones needed to go), it is somewhat morbidly amusing to watch them be concerned *now* about the retailers, but they know that digital comics will be the end for many retailers and if they kill off the retailers too quickly before a transition to digital books is complete the industry will simply collapse. However, the industry has to provide timely, inexpensive, accessible digital books if it ever hopes to reach a broad or even sustainable audience again, and probably has to go digital soon just to survive.

Con: Digital comics the same price as ink and paper ones. Digital comics will never work if they cost the same as something you can physically own and resell, and yet the industry’s long-term (maybe short-term) survival requires digital comics. Digital music is cheaper than physical (the music industry has responded by lowering the price of physical CD’s, but when mp3’s at $1 a song became how most people got their music, the music industry was still trying to sell CD’s with 10-14 songs on them for $18-$20, while most people didn’t even want all the songs on the CD anyway). Digital books are cheaper than physical ones. Internet television is cheaper than cable or satellite (I’ve joined millions in cutting the cord, if you haven’t yet, I’m sure you’ve thought about it). Digital comics have to be cheaper than physical ones. For decades publishers have claimed the price increases on comics were due to increased production costs (apparently staple prices are constantly out of control). Digital does away with all the printing costs, and the consumer is smart enough to know the digital version must be cheaper.

Con: $3 comics. DC has just about broken its arm patting itself on the back about “reducing” comics from $4 to $3. Of course, they also reduced the page count, so the real price-per-page barely budged, but it really had the feeling that the main purpose of the $4 comics was to make us not feel so bad about $3 comics. However, $3 for a comic is widely perceived by the public as an absurd price. Stand on a street corner with a comic and ask non-comics people how much they would be willing to pay for it, assuming the story and art were so great they just couldn’t put it down. They aren’t going to say $3, or even close. They’ll be shocked when you tell them the book is $3, and even at $3 instead of $4, the price of a comic is way out of line with prices of other forms of entertainment. It’s part of the spiral - the higher prices go, the more readers drop out, so the more publishers have to jack the price to make up the difference. Price resistance for physical books actually sets in at around $2 (just compare sales now to when books were $2). If it’s truly impossible (and it may be) for publishers to return to the “glory days” of $2 ink and paper books, they’ll have to do it with the digital versions. Of course, there price resistance sets in somewhere between $1 and $1.50 (the same as for music). A $2 digital comic is a tough sell, and a $3 digital comic is a non-starter (especially since most comic buyers get a 10-15% discount from their retailer’s pull service).

Con: New costumes. Yes, some of the characters probably do need updated looks, but changing the costumes again is just more of the same. Rabid comic fans have a history of high interest in costume changes, but success stories like Spider-Man’s black costume storyline are exceedingly rare, and costume fatigue is just one of many fatigues plaguing the current market. Costume changes also have a terrible risk/reward profile. The idea of these costume changes is to attract new (presumably younger) readers. The problem is the public expects iconic costumes. Even younger readers watched the excellent Justice League cartoon series of a few years ago, and they expect the characters to look something close to what they have seen on TV and in movies and are comfortable with that look. They are not sitting around thinking “If they’d just drop Superman’s red trunks, I’d start buying comics”. If the intent of a costume change is to attract new readers (ones not currently reading comics, rather than simply cannibalizing readers from other titles), there’s little chance of that happening. On the risk side, though, alienating current readers with costume changes is a high likelihood. DC ditched Wonder Woman’s iconic costume for a civilian-looking outfit straight from the 90’s last year; all in hopes of selling a WW TV show that ended up being killed before it saw the light of day. Clearly the majority of those who stuck with the comic book after the costume change did so despite the costume not because of it. Curiosity and controversy attracted some new readers, but the sales curve showed WW quickly returning to its old dismal sales levels, but minus a significant number of long-time readers put off by it all. Now we’re changing the costume and rebooting again, so for those few who liked the change a year ago, they may not like the current changes and the risk is that now two sets of fans have been alienated in just a year. Comic fans get uptight about costumes, the general public barely notices. Costume changing is not a solution, it’s part of the problem.

On costume specifics, we’ve only seen a few of the new costumes in JLA #1 but quick personal reactions: Batman, not much change, so not bad. Superman, bleh. Red trunks are gone, who really cares? Cyborg - looks like Liefeld’s Cable. Unbelievably bulky. Looks like what cybernetics would be in the 1980’s; so big they get in the way. I would think 21st century comic book cybernetics would be miniaturized and unobtrusive, like the computers we have in our hands still quaintly called “phones”, but really, really cool. Let’s face it, real cyborgs are going to be every day things pretty soon. There’s a real challenge making Cyborg a forward-looking, cool 21st century super hero when many of us will probably be wearing computers soon - in our glasses, our clothes - maybe implanted, and be cyborgs ourselves. Aquaman, Green Lantern, bleh. Not much change, but what is the deal with the collars? Is there a super-hero fashion trend at work? It’s a little disturbing. Flash, bleh. Different artists will interpret the curved wings differently; some may make it look cool, but not yet. Wonder Woman; well, it sucks less than last year’s new costume. But considering how really bad that one sucked, I’m not sure how much this is saying. The overall trend is towards identical collars (even Wonder Woman’s choker? What gives?), and armor rather than spandex. On Batman, that makes sense some. He’s on the streets, no powers, crooks have guns. On Green Lantern and Superman, armor is just redundant. On the Flash and others, it’s impractical. Like knights in armor trying to play volleyball. Flash is all about movement. Anything which hinders that is bad design.

Con: Event fatigue. In recent interviews, co-publishers Lee and Didio have been refreshingly honest about some aspects of the challenges the industry faces. On some topics though, they still don’t seem to get it. When event fatigue was brought up, they dismissed it as just a way of saying the story wasn’t great. No guys, that’s not it. Event fatigue is real, and ignoring it is a peril to the industry. It’s so bad that my gut reaction is to cringe at every event announcement, even before I know what the event is about. It’s so bad, I walked away from Flashpoint entirely, even though such a wide-open self-contained Elseworlds-style approach is usually what I’m attracted to. I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the time sorting through the dozens and dozens of books to try and figure out which ones might be worth nibbling at, and buying them all just isn’t going to happen. Even if an event is really good, say Blackest Night, it’s still a lot of effort for a reader to jump on board. This effort happening occasionally (every couple of years max), OK, but now events are more than continuous, they are concurrent! We’re seeing multiple events at the same time! Lee claims that the New 52 isn’t an event. Of course it is. It is a little different - it doesn’t have a defined ending point (but then, most events actually don’t - Blackest Night didn’t end, it just morphed into Brightest Day), but perception is reality, and readers perceive this as another event. It might be a good thing in and of itself, but as an event in a barrage of event stories, it is in danger of being just another event and a jumping off point for many current readers.

Con: 52 #1’s. Puh-leeze! Constant #1’s are a very old form of reader abuse, a quick fix to pump sales (mostly to speculators and collectors, not new readers), and of course they are higher-than-normal price. I understand that DC wants to convey that this really is a reboot - that everything is really starting over. But 52 #1’s in one month runs a high risk of being looked on as simply the ultimate sales gimmick rather than a commitment to a fresh start. It would be a big bite, but if DC is serious about re-launching, it needs to be done slowly to allow interest to develop, and to prove a true commitment to a fresh start. Introduce only one or two #1’s a week, until a line-up of 26-30 books is reached. Instead of overloading fatigued readers, leave them wanting more. Less truly is more here. More sales (per title), more interest, more focus.

Pro: In interviews, Lee and Didio have hinted at some title focus, and on keeping creative teams together and keeping them on titles. This is very good if it comes to pass. The disappointment for readers in the recent JLA/Eclipso storyline of having the creative team switched mid-story is a small example of a big problem. Readers are attracted to the vision a creative team has for a character/book. Playing musical chairs with creative teams discourages readers. Over time it drives them away. And let’s face it, comics are skewed to visuals, and artists have followings more so than writers. There are some artists I will likely pick up no matter what book they are on because they can take average writing and still make it an interesting book. Get them a great writer, and it’s nirvana. Put a great writer with a poor artist though, and try as I might, it becomes a chore to read rather than a joy. An emphasis on putting good teams together and keeping them together is a significant business model change, and kudos to DC if they can make it happen.

Bottom Line: The comics industry is in need of serious change, but business model and infrastructure change much more than more costume and origin changes. There are hints in the New 52 of addressing title overload, moving towards digital books, addressing price stress and keeping creative teams together and on titles. Those hints are where the hope really lies. My concern is that all the new costumes, new origins and new #1’s are where the attention seems to be focused - and while those things could be part of changes that actually turn the industry around, if they are mostly all that we’re getting here, then it’s only going to make things worse in the long run. I pray not, and put a lot of faith in those hints from Didio and Lee that the captains of this industry are finally beginning to understand and do something about its many ills. But, the skeptic in me sees all these costumes and #1’s and says DC’s actions going forward, after the dust of the New 52 has settled, are going to be what reveals whether this is truly a new beginning, or just more of the same.
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