It was the biggest story of the year: DC started over. They canceled their entire line of comic books and, in September 2011, started over with 52 new titles. It was a bold, unprecedented move in the history of comic book publishing. Of course, DC didn’t exactly start from scratch. A number of the new titles were relaunches of old favorites like Justice League and Superman. A few even continued with their former creative teams like Batman and Green Lantern. Even so, it was a big move and it shook up the comic book industry.
The restart excited a lot of fans and admittedly angered a few. It has been alternately praised as an unqualified success and derided as an unmitigated disaster. The truth- as always- lies somewhere in the middle.
The “New 52” is a qualified success. It’s a success in some ways, but not in others. It’s a success overall, but not in every particular. It’s a success, but it’s not immune from criticism.
A Brief History of Sales
To understand the success of the “New 52,” it’s helpful to know a little about the state of comic book industry in 2011. At the beginning of the millennium, comic books were on an upward trajectory. The industry experienced seven straight years of growth from 2000 to 2007 (don’t let the old cranks and pessimists tell you otherwise). It was one of the longest periods of sustained growth in the history of the medium and it culminated in 2007 with the Marvel’s Civil War and the Death of Captain America. However, 2007 was the peak year.
In 2008, the comic book industry started to come back to earth for a number of reasons, some external and some internal. 2008 was the first year of the Great Recession. Comic book critics had previously theorized that comic sales were immune from recessions as people still needed cheap entertainment but that theory was undone when people cut discretionary spending on a lot of things, including comics. Internally, there was also the problem of diminishing returns as successive- and near constant- crossovers lost their luster.
By 2010, comic book sales had dropped to their lowest level in a decade and the first half of 2011 looked even worse. DC rightly recognized that they needed to do something drastic to turn the market around. Their answer was the “New 52.”
A Smashing Success
The first month of the “New 52” was a smashing success. Every single title sold out and went back for additional printings. The enthusiasm carried over into October as fans gobbled up nearly as many second issues as debuts and as second and third printings reached the stands. By November, DC had clearly turned things around. Three months of the “New 52” was enough to offset eight months of anemic sales from earlier in the year. 2011 ended up ahead of 2010 sales-wise. It didn’t compare to the heights of 2007- though that’s mostly because the “New 52” only accounted for a third of the year.
That success has continued into 2012. The first eight months of 2012 have tracked well ahead of 2011. It’s too early to know for sure (we still have three months to go, after all) but 2012 could rival 2007 as the best sales year of the century. It’s at least in good shape to contend with the slightly off-peak years of 2006 and ’08. There’s no question that the “New 52” has been successful, despite what a few contentious critics have claimed.
And yes, there are a few contentious critics out there claiming that the “New 52” has failed. The problem is generally one of unrealistic expectations: they set the bar too high. It’s unreasonable to think that every new title will achieve equal success. And it’s ridiculous to expect the “New 52” to reverse not only the last 4 years of decline but several decades of decline that preceded it.
Obviously, DC must have done some things right to achieve this level of success. They certainly mustered an impressive marketing campaign. They excited the existing fanbase and reputably drew a lot of new or lapsed fans into the marketplace.
Marvel has noticed. This fall, Marvel is restarting their entire line as part of their “Marvel Now” initiative. They’re doing things a little differently. They’re rolling the restart out over several months. They’re maintaining their current continuity. And they’re exempting a few of their recent relaunches or new titles like Captain Marvel and Daredevil. Yet, as much as Marvel may try to deny it, they’re obviously trying to copy DC’s success with a restart of their own.
So what worked?
The Big Guns
The biggest success stories are DC’s most familiar characters. They successfully renewed interest in their icons. Their top-sellers today are Batman, Justice League, Green Lantern and Superman (in Action Comics). Those characters and titles are the beating heart of DC’s comic book line. As long as they’re doing well, the company is in decent shape.
Two of the more surprising successes are Aquaman, which is currently outselling Superman’s eponymous title, and Wonder Woman, which is outselling the Green Lantern spinoffs. They are familiar, iconic characters but they don’t have a recent history of strong sales. The “New 52” brought some of DC’s oldest characters back into the spotlight.
Diversity of Genres
DC should also be complimented for their commitment to a diversity of genres. Comic books are strongly associated with superheroes yet there is also a rich history of other genres in the medium. DC included war comics and westerns in the initial 52. Those titles weren’t altogether successful but DC didn’t use that as an excuse to give up on other genres. They replaced one war title with another and included a fantasy title in their third wave of comics launched last month. These titles show DC’s commitment to not only capitalize on current sales, but to grow the market. They should be commended for it.
This is one way in which Marvel misses out. Their “Marvel Now” titles emulate DC’s success by concentrating on familiar iconic characters. There’s Captain America and Iron Man and Thor. There are multiple versions of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four. But Marvel isn’t showing the same commitment to strengthen the marketplace by appealing to non-superhero customers. There’s no horror comic or western despite their strong history with those genres. Marvel will probably maximize their sales but it would nice to see them stretch a little.
Integration of Vertigo
DC’s diversification included the integration of characters from other lines. Several characters who had been loaned out to their Vertigo line for the past two decades returned to the DC mainstream. They also tried to incorporate characters from Milestone- a 1990s imprint distributed by DC- and Wildstorm- a company they purchased at the turn of the century.
In this case, the results were mixed. It worked with the former Vertigo characters. Swamp Thing and Animal Man have been welcome successes for DC. They’re strong mid-level sellers- well ahead of the typical Vertigo title. But it didn’t work with Milestone and Wildstorm. Characters from those imprints have been some of the earliest cancellation casualties and now there are rumors that Milestone will be leaving DC entirely.
An Issue of Pace and the Pace of Issues
The earlier zenith of comic book sales had been driven in part by the expansion of trade paperback collections as a secondary market. As a result, comic books began to be “written for the trade.” A slow moving deconstructed style proliferated and six-issue stories that could be conveniently collected became common.
That style of story was already on the wane before the “New 52” but the restart widely abandoned it. A few “New 52” titles opened up with six issue stories but most opted for shorter tales of two or three issues. After a couple of months, done-in-one stories were common again while individual chapters of longer stories made sure to have enticing cliffhangers and significant plot progress in each issue. The improved pace is a welcome side-effect of the “New 52.”
The change in pace has impacted the industry. Although it can’t be entirely credited to DC’s “New 52”- as I noted, the deconstructed style was already on the wane- other publishers have also abandoned the practice of “writing for the trade.”
It’s not as important but DC has also done a good job of maintaining a monthly schedule. They haven’t had a late book in an entire year. And they’ve also eschewed the practice of double shipping that’s common at Marvel. Marvel defends double shipping by claiming that it doesn’t affect sales. That’s only partly true. It may not hurt individual titles but it affects the entire line. Double shipping concentrates sales in a few top titles and cannibalizes others. It’s a big reason why Marvel’s mid-list is almost non-existent.
Bridge to Digital
The previous style of storytelling had been a by-product of format and this reversal is no different. The “New 52” was also DC’s major initiative to bridge from paper sales to digital. In the digital market, DC has to make sure that every issue is satisfying in itself so that the customer will come back for the next installment.
This is not a coincidence, by the way. The future is digital- although it’s hard to predict exactly when that future will arrive. DC knew that they’d have to switch to digital eventually. But they also knew they’d need a time of transition. They couldn’t simply abandon the print market or the brick and mortar stores that they’ve relied on for so long. The “New 52” provided a huge boost to the market that undercut potential complaints from storeowners about DC’s digital forays.
What Went Wrong
A lot of things have gone right for DC over the past year. But that doesn’t mean they have a perfect track record. They’ve made more than a few mistakes along the way. That actually puts Marvel in a good position. They’ve been able to watch DC and learn from their mistakes. Their restart might be more successful in the long term because of it, even if they don’t reach the phenomenal first month sales of the “New 52.”
Haste Makes Waste
DC’s biggest problem was that they rushed into the “New 52.” Earlier in the year, they had looked to their big crossover “Flashpoint” to turn things around. The crossover was going to be accompanied by 17 different tie-in titles. It still sounds crazy. The early sales and orders showed that another big crossover wasn’t going to cut it. As I already noted, there was a case of diminishing returns when it came to big crossovers. You might call it “crossover fatigue.” “Flashpoint” was not the game-changer DC needed. So DC decided to use “Flashpoint” as the launching pad for their restart.
However, due to their desire to keep up with a monthly schedule, DC needed to give the new creative teams several months of lead-time. DC pulled multiple creative teams off of their “Flashpoint” series in order to get them started on the “New 52.” They pulled other creative teams off of their current series for the same reason. Fill-in writers and artists were asked to finish the “Flashpoint” minis and outgoing titles. DC essentially punted their sales in July and August while setting up for a big September.
The sudden changes also gave the “New 52” the look of desperation rather than a long-term strategy. If DC had been planning this as long as they claimed, they wouldn’t have put so much energy into 17 mini-series that would be abandoned before they were completed. It didn’t hurt the September sales, which were impressive. But it did turn a few pundits against them unnecessarily.
Marvel learned the lesson. They’ve taken more time to get things together going into the restart. They’ve made sure that current creative teams have the opportunity to wrap up their stories and go out on a high note. They’re even promoting these final issues. Naturally, some cynics are skeptical of final issues for titles that are coming back next month but I see them more as final issues for the creative teams- some of which were critically acclaimed- rather than the titles themselves.
Shuffle Up and Draw
Another noticeable problem has been the changing of creative teams. Now, some of this is overstated. It’s unreasonable to expect that 104 writers and artists would all remain on their respective titles. There are going to be different opportunities pulling people away and the inevitable conflict of creative ideas. Even so, the “New 52” has had a remarkably high turnover rate. Titles have been reassigned and then reassigned again. Writers have left DC entirely- and publicly. Some of the titles are on their third creative team in thirteen months. The monthly consistency on the stands belies a surprising lack of stability on the creative end.
This is one of the reasons why I’ve called the “New 52” a marketing success, but not an editorial one. This might be a by-product of the rush into the restart but these aren’t good signs for the health of the company. It’s unfortunate that DC has burned so many bridges with creators, pundits and fans while trying to turn things around.
Once again, Marvel looks to have learned the lesson. It’s too early to know for sure- Marvel might have high-level defections in the next six months that affects our impression of “Marvel Now”- but there isn’t the same kind of public carping going into the restart.
I’ve saved one of the biggest questions for the end. As a fan, comic book sales don’t have an immediate impact on my enjoyment of a book. It doesn’t matter to me if a book is selling well or not except in the sense of whether it might be canceled. The real question for me as a reader is simply “Is the comic any good?”
The answer is unfortunately mixed. Some have been really good. Some have been really bad. Most have been fairly pedestrian.
I was excited about the “New 52.” I sampled broadly at first and bought a bunch of extra titles. Yet, a year later, I’m buying the same number of titles as I was before the restart. That’s partly because of budget restraints. But, honestly, it’s due more to a lack of interest. The only new titles I’m still getting are Aquaman and Batgirl- and I would have bought those anyway because of the creative teams irrespective of their place in the “New 52.” I’ve been disappointed in some titles and bored by others.
The quality simply hasn’t been there. Again, that’s possibly a by-product of earlier problems- the hasty way they went into the restart and the shuffling of creative teams. Yet it’s been a year and those excuses no longer hold water. For me, personally, there’s been no real progress in the “New 52”- even though it’s been good for the industry as a whole.
The Rising Tide
That last point is true, by the way. DC’s restart has been good for the industry. There’s an old axiom in comics that a rising tide lifts all boats. That’s not universally true- a specific title or publisher might flounder while others enjoy success. Yet it is generally true. IDW experienced significant success last September, such as multiple sellouts on a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles title. Image has experienced broad success this past year launching new series such as Saga. And Valiant has enjoyed a successful return, after a couple of aborted restarts in previous years.
Some of this can be attributed to DC’s widely publicized restart drawing new readers into stores. The publisher at IDW certainly gave credence to that claim. Some of this can be chalked up to older readers dissatisfied with “corporate comics” abandoning DC for creator owned fare. That seems to be the case with Image’s slate. In either case, DC’s success has not come at the expense of other publishers. Many are experiencing their own revivals, even as they live in DC’s shadow.
The one publisher who hasn’t been a part of the rising tide is DC’s rival for the top of the ticket: Marvel. Marvel has struggled to keep pace with DC over the past year which is why they’re jumping into a restart of their own. They try to deny it, claiming that they’re doing something completely different. And there are key differences, though that can be partially attributed to the luxury of learning from DC’s mistakes. But it’s clear that Marvel was sufficiently feeling the heat to motivate them to build a new kitchen of their own.
It’s the New DC versus Marvel Now. And nothing will ever be the same.
(note: for comic book sales numbers, I consulted John Jackson Miller’s Comichron at http://www.comichron.com/yearlycomicssales.html and icv2’s top 300 index at http://www.icv2.com/articles/news/1850.html)