Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The New 52 - 2 Years Later

It might be hard to believe, but it's been two years since DC took a big risk and revamped/rebooted/restarted their entire superhero lineup to make it more accessible for readers. Twenty-four issues is a pretty good barometer for gauging the experiment, so hit the jump to see what our opinions are on the whole thing: the good, the bad, and is just plain WTF certified.

Grant's Thoughts

(all numbers below are courtesy of Comichron)

Let's take a step into the wayback machine for a moment, shall we?  In August 2011, the month before the New 52 began, if you ignore the two event issues (and Justice League #1, of course), DC's highest selling book was Batman Incorporated #8, just barely managing over fifty thousand copies in sales.  There were only five other DC titles that broke the 50k, and but three that managed more than 40k.  The rest of their titles sold less than that - often a lot less.  I am admittedly ignoring Flashpoint #4 and #5 here, which sold just under and just over 90k copies respectively, but even with those two titles, that means that DC only had 11 comics that moved over 40k copies (many of which were quite close to that number).

The picture was only a little bit rosier September 2010, a year before the relaunch.  Admittedly, they had four books that moved over 80k (which is nothing to sneeze at), one that sold over 70k, another that garnered over 60k in sales, two that managed to break the 50k mark, and three that were just able to get over 40k.  So that's once again only 11 comics that moved over forty thousand copies, which might not sound too bad, until you know that Marvel actually had 26 comics sell more than forty thousand copies in the same month.  Of those 26 comics, nine of them sold over sixty thousand copies, and of those nine, one of them sold over one hundred thousand copies (the only copy to break that number for the entire month).  Knowing that, things suddenly don't look quite so great for DC.

Why do I mention all of this?  Because in spite of all the many problems that have been associated with the New 52 - the editorial meddling, the tonally identical books, the excessive crossovers, the labyrinthine continuity they've created, the annual September gimmicks, the short lived titles, the shorter lived creative teams, and so much more - the relaunch has been incredibly successful for DC from a business perspective.  The big reason for blowing everything up and starting from scratch was to get more people reading their books, and that is exactly what happened.

In September 2011, the month of the New 52, DC had six comics sell over one hundred thousand copies (with Justice League the month before, which sold over 170 thousand copies, that makes seven).  In total, DC had 29 titles sell more than my arbitrary forty thousand copies.  Those numbers obviously weren't sustainable, but a year later in September 2012, DC still had 27 comics sell over forty thousand copies (two of which sold over one hundred thousand copies).

Last month, in August 2013 (the most recent month for which we have sales figures), DC only managed 16 comics selling over forty thousand copies, so it's clear that there has been a drop off in the past year.  That being said, DC still managed to have three comics sell over one hundred thousand copies (and the month before, they had four).  Indeed, as others have noted, DC now does much better in the Top 10 monthly sales than they did in the months leading up to the New 52, so even with some drop off, on the whole, they are still sitting in a better position than they were before.

I will admit that this is the most cursory of glances at sales data.  I am by no means a number cruncher, but it still seems pretty clear that the New 52 succeeded in its stated aim of bringing in more readers (or at least more comic book buyers) to DC's door than they had before.  And as others have also pointed out, those additional readers aren't only buying DC books.  The entire industry has benefited, with comics seeing overall growth in each of the last few years.  Obviously this cannot and should not be ascribed entirely to the New 52 - such a declaration would be grossly overstating things - but I think it's fair to say that the New 52 did play a role in the whole thing.

Remember when this was supposed to the Justice League lineup? Where did Lady Luck go?
So while I would probably argue that, two years in, most of the New 52 is pretty creatively bankrupt, I do recognize that there has been some upside.  There have been some titles and stories that I have greatly enjoyed (although fewer and fewer as time has gone on) and there have been wider benefits for the industry as a whole.  That being said, the real question will be how sustainable this whole thing is.  The quick list of New 52 problems I threw up above is but a scratching of the surface, and DC does not seem like they're in the mood of changing their ways.  As they continue to make missteps and frustrate fans, will the other shoe ultimately drop?  Will their sales continue at a similar pace another year down the line?  Another two?  Or five?  It's hard to tell, but I'd like to think that readers will demand better stories from the company and better treatment of their creators.  Whether this is idealistic on my part is another matter entirely.

No matter the sexuality, no marriage
All that being said, from a personal perspective, the New 52 has not been overly fantastic.  To be perfectly honest with you, I'm hard pressed to find "The Good" in DC's New 52.  Going into that relaunch way back when in September 2011, DC Comics was my favourite publisher, easily accounting for at least half of my comic book purchases month in and month out (if not quite a bit more at times).  That pattern continued for a few months following the batch of new series, but as the weeks passed, I found myself with fewer and fewer DC books in my pull box.  As of August, the only ongoings that I picked up were Batwoman, Wonder Woman, Animal Man, and Green Team.  Of those, Batwoman was far and beyond my favourite book from the publisher, so the news that J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman are walking from the title due to ongoing frustrations with editorial interference is a little bit heartbreaking.

It has kind of snuck up on me, but it seems that as much as I used to dig DC, they are no longer interested in making the types of comics that I want to read.  So it's offputting to know that their sales are better than they've been in years when I don't see anything in their catalogue that appeals to me.  I'm glad that the industry is flourshing and that the New 52 had a role to play in that, but it is a little sad for to know that two years ago DC was my go-to publisher and come October I won't be buying a single one of their comics.

Ken's Thoughts

In many ways my own feelings echo Grant's.

Since the reboot, comic sales in general have been on the upswing, and it feels like the industry as a whole is on a renaissance that feels familiar to the beginning of the millenium. And I really don't think that would be the case had DC not done such a drastic step as restarting their universe. For good and bad all eyes were on DC and people were interested in seeing what happened, going beyond the internet talk and actually picking up the new issues to see what wet their beaks. And when DC was able to seize dollar and market share from Marvel for consecutive months, it made the House of Ideas try and do something similar, ushering in their own ground-up relaunch that shuffled the chairs into a much more accomodating arrangement than earlier. Hickman is a much better fit for Avengers than Bendis, and Bendis is succeeding on the X-Books in under a year when he was floundering on the Avengers titles for nearly a decade.

Pants or no pants, Diana's book is still going strong
And for a few titles and characters it feels like a big success. Wonder Woman's book feels relatively self contained (as admitted to by Brian Azzarello) but is the best the title has been in years, offering a truly innovative take that might not have been able to be done without starting over. Batman returned to being the top title on the strength of Scott Snyder's writing ability. Here was a guy who was slowly making waves on American Vampire and his classic Detective Comics run, and based on that success and praise got to helm the flagship title with Greg Capullo and it's been a Top 10 success ever since.

What the DC reboot also brought about was the full acceptance of digital day-and-date comics. We now have a thriving digital marketplace that has spurred on creator owned works such as Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin's Private Eye, and specific digital initiatives like Batman '66 and Marvel's Infinity line of webcomics. The reboot gave DC a chance to not only start over but open up the doors and windows for people to try their product without even going to the comic shop, and it's spurred the current growth.

Now, outside of a few titles there remains so much more on the bad side of the ledger that it's almost baffeling how DC still has maintained such sales. Creators hop from book to book, editors feel much more like the driving force than the writers and artists do, characters change wildly and without purpose despite being in existence for 24 issues, it's just fighting your basic understanding of how something can succeed. Is it a trainwreck factor that keeps people coming back? Is DC the Kardashians of the industry now, openly mocked on one end yet they continue to profit from their behavior?

As a longtime DC fan, I never really got how it was confusing compared to Marvel. Hawkman had a lot of stuff happen to him since Crisis on Infinite Earths, but it was very segmented and easy to plot from A to B, and was cleaned up when JSA was being published. Batman had a few Robins, and then he had a son, Damian. Hal was Green Lantern, then a badguy, then the Spectre, then a Green Lantern again. The illusion of change existed and was easy to understand. Yet in the two years of the New 52 (is it new anymore?), it really feels confusing.

Because DC wanted to maintain the works of Morrison and Johns on their respective titles, it wasn't a hard reboot. We were told that it was a relaunch, that what came before still happened, but bigger stuff like Superman and Lois being married wouldn't exist. The #0 issues seemed to make it even more confusing, as we saw Guy Gardner's origin change drastically, there was confusion as to when exactly did each Robin don the mantle, all in such a tight predetermined timeframe of five years. A Superman who couldn't even fly is now bench pressing the equivalent of the Earth, a secret organization that controlled Gotham for years now seems so out in the open you wonder exactly how poor a detective Bruce Wayne really is. And after all these head scratchers, we were told it was a complete reboot. Instead of alleviating questions it made it seem like one hand doesn't know what the other is doing.

Fold-out covers, 3D covers, covers inside of covers!
Finally, you see things that just don't seem good no matter what. For as upbeat as Green Team is, The Movement completely balances the scales with a very dated, cynical feeling that I hoped would remain in the 90's. Villain's Month brings us 90's style covers that seem to be more gimmick than anything else. We have DC trying to offer new creators a chance to draw a page in Harley Quinn's new series by not understanding the ways it depicts suicide, days before National Suicide Prevention Week. Gail Simone is fired then rehired on Batgirl while we are told she never was fired in the first place. And not only can Batwoman not get married, no one else can, even Aquaman. All these events keep coming with such a regular pace over the past twenty four months it just leaves me wondering if DC is run by different people on different days. When marketing events such as a month of covers being WTF Certified becomes a joke rather than something to look forward to, you have to wonder when people will say enough's enough.  And it seems a few creators have jumped across street to Marvel because of all this uncertainty.

Which brings me to my final musings: I used to love DC. Now I really only look forward to books that don't even exist in the DC universe, such as Astro City and Fables. And it has had a knock-on effect with other comics as well, even though I know it shouldn't be the case. There is so much amazing stuff coming from Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, Boom, IDW, Valiant and others, yet at the same time I get a little depressed that DC isn't consistently in that group. Worst of all I just haven't seen anything from DC that shows they're even attempting to put the ship on the right course.

Hansel's Thoughts
Where did Captain Atom go?

It is difficult to not sit here and moan about the plagues DC has brought upon me. Where are my Men of War? Where is dear old Captain Atom? Where is my Hero to Dial? So many books have fallen to the wayside. Perhaps I read the fringe books, those that aren't too centered on capes and quickly burn out in the new DC atmosphere.  I am more than happy with Flash, Wonder Woman, Batman and Detective Comics (Layman only), Jonah Hex, and a few other titles that are fun, exciting and easy reads. Within their self contained stories I could follow the adventures of my favorite heroes and not be bogged down with decades of continuity, endless crossovers and sometimes annoying marketing ploys.

After two years of New 52 the old pattern remains. It really does not matter what cape, cowl or mask DC markets, it is the creators that fill me with wonder and excitement whose books I'll keep reading.

I hope there is something out there for you.

So there you have our opinions on the current state of DC Comics. Let us know below your own thoughts, whether you're picking up more books or not, and what you feel DC is getting right and wrong since 2011.

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Eric van Schaik said...

Unfortunatly for DC I'm with you guys.
I started with more serie's but after the Batwoman switch Batman will be my only DC montly left. Superman Family Adventures TPB 2 will (for now?) be my last in trade waiting.
I don't count Astro City as a DC comic, more like an ex-Image book.
I hope they will, somehow, see the light again.

drawmein said...

A lot of great points brought up and I agree with the general consensus. Despite the sales boost the only thing I liked post Flashpoint was the merging of the Vertigo and Wildstorm universes. But... we already got Swamp Thing and Constantine with Brightest Day which revamped a lot of great (and previously dead) characters. DC already gave up the Red Circle characters and now it seems they're giving up on the Milestone characters. Which is a shame because a lot of DC mainstays were brought in from other companies.

Whatever DC is trying to accomplish, it is slowly alienating a big chunk of it's pre 52 fanbase. DC was my "starter drug" into comics... it has always been my original universe. In the last month I cut several DC titles from my pull list, and for the first time in 20 years of collecting I'm picking up more Marvel books.

I can keep complaining, but it won't help. DC isn't listening. There may still a few good titles, but without the past continuity no longer canon I feel I've only been holding on due to brand loyalty. Guess I'll ride it out until there's nothing left for me. I still love my comics... it just seems weird and disappointing that DC is no longer getting its share anymore from me.

Also it's been two years... how much longer is "The New 52" going to be on the covers?

Unknown said...

Is it that New52 kicked off an upswing in overall comic sales across the industry, or was there a growth already in the works, and the New52 numbers are (partly) an artifact of that?

Personally, I'm reading less DC books than I was a year ago (I'm now reading zero), and while it's only anecdotal, I've witnessed people flocking to my local store to buy multiple copies of the incentive/3D/variant covers, especially during this Villains month stuff. I'd be interested to see how the increased sales relate to new readers (above the "normal" level) have become DC readers, as compared to old readers over-buying/coming back to the well.

Adam said...

Oops! That last comment was mine. Didn't mean to comment anonymously.

Barry Shaffner said...

It strikes me as funny that a very clear posting about the numbers shows that business-wise this move was a success for DC and kept it viable in a very niche industry. I understand your feelings of abandonment. I could write your mirror column and use Marvel as the subject. You showed that Marvel sales is great, but I hate what they have done since Civil War. I read only the "classic" stuff I buy at flea Markets and the like.

One thing that frustrates me right now is that it always seems that independent books and very grown up books are compared to DC. You had it in this post, DC is a capes driven product. As to fringe titles being cancelled, were all of them? Mr. Terrific was a book I didn't read, but seems to have been a set up series for to of the best reads I think DC has right now, World's Finest PowerGirl and Huntress and Earth-2

Still you give a great look at the New 52 overall.

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