It’s safe to say that DC Comics’ recent week of announcements concerning their publishing and story-universe future represent the biggest piece of comics news in a very long time – possibly even in the internet era full-stop. So much so, that it’s actually inspired some new content on Alternate Cover. I know – shocking. Of course, James doesn’t care about all of this anywhere near as much as I do – but as someone who grew up as a DC fanboy, it’s Quite A Big Deal for me. So with a couple of posts this week, I’m going to be looking over what I think about it all. Later in the week, now that we’ve got official confirmation of all 52 new #1s, I’ll be going through the full list with my comments on what I think about the prospect of each – but for now, let’s look at the major decisions DC have made on the overall publishing side of things, including the renumbering, the “day and date” digital strategy, and what their creator policy has been like…
Going “Day and Date”
Arguably of greater significance than any of the story-based consequences of the relaunch is the impact the new day and date digital publishing policy could have on the industry as a whole. Suddenly announcing that all main-universe titles will be available on digital platforms on the same day as their release to comic shops is a major game-changer that will surely cause a massive rethink of the digital content strategies of all other major publishers.
And while there are of course worries over what this means for traditional comic shops… it’s hard to see it as anything other than a fantastic move. It gets comics out there to a much wider audience – when they’re badly in need of one – it makes it easier for readers to catch up on a series/run that they may have missed the start of, it gives an opportunity to try more titles when they don’t cost as much… the reasons go on. I’m still very much a fan of the comic (and the TPB) as an object, but there’s no denying that (as with my record collection) being able to build a wider library of digital content (legally) to sit alongside the comics that I actually want hard copies of is a very appealing prospect – and one that’s moved a step closer as a result of this.
There will still be question marks over pricing points – I imagine most readers share the opinion that between $1-2, but no higher, is a fair price for a digital issue – and I think DC could do more to avoid people who might want the hard copies but also the convenience of a digital issue having to pay twice for the same thing. But nevertheless, this is an astoundingly great move – and as someone who doesn’t own an iPad, I’m also wondering if it’s the moment for someone to enter the fray with an affordable, dedicated comics-reading tablet…
But while the “day and date” move is undoubtedly a positive one, it’s also perhaps the only thing that justifies an otherwise hugely controversial decision. There’s no denying that for some titles, kick-starting a new “volume”, with a new #1, does some good. It’s perhaps not ideal, but it’s been a simple fact – an economic fact – of the comics industry for a long time, now. And if there were going to be an ideal time to relaunch a whole bunch of them, it’s at a time when continuity has been altered/shifted (of which more later), as that stands the best chance of showing potential new readers just how much of a jumping-on point it is. And with the new digital policy opening up a wider reader-base, telling people that they can start every series with the new #1 – rather than having to list what all the different relaunch numbers are for each title – is unquestionably a useful thing.
But even so, there are a select handful of titles for whom the renumbering simply doesn’t sit well at all. Chief among these are Action Comics and Detective Comics – two series which, within the next decade, would be set to hit a quite astonishing 1,000 issues. Both series have had their publishing tampered with before – either being put on hiatus, or in the case of Action Comics going weekly (which is why, incidentally, Superman’s original book has a higher number than Batman’s despite launching later) – but the numbering system has always been seen as precious. The only “reset” to match it on this scale before now is when Superman took on a new #1 in 1986 – but even then, the “old” numbers were transferred over to Adventures of Superman, and eventually brought back over twenty years later.
What’s more, while DC can point to even the Action and Detective #1s as a full-on “fresh start” (although the latter book clearly won’t see as much of a sea-change as the former), it’s pretty safe to say that the new numbering for those titles won’t even last longer than about 100 issues or so – because you can guarantee that when the time comes to put out what will actually be the thousandth issue of either series, the old numbers will be back with a vengeance. DC can try and pretend it won’t, but it always happens; and chances are, when that time comes, different people – without the same attachment to the current project – will be in charge anyway.
Those aren’t the only two comics that will look bad with a new #1, though – any series that’s only launched in the last year also hardly looks in need of it. Considering that Batman Inc will be a “down-the-line” (i.e. not in September) launch anyway, it seems daft to kick-start that series’ numbering – indeed, why not simply wait for the other books to catch up, and pick up the numbering again at that point? There are others, too, from Batman & Robin to The Flash, that simply don’t seem to justify a new start so soon. But the winner? Surely Batman: The Dark Knight – already something of a forgettable project due to being written, not very well, by an inexperienced career artist, and shipping spectacularly late – which will have managed three issues of its first volume before restarting with the second. Slow clap.
DC have been careful not to call it a “reboot”, and it’s clear that while some characters will be having major and minor retcons to their origins and backgrounds, others won’t – so it’s definitely not a full-on, “new universe” reboot. For example, while Superman seems to be undergoing big changes, it would appear that the various Batman characters will have pretty much the same recent histories – necessary, really, to avoid having to truncate Grant Morrison’s long-form story before its natural conclusion. That one story, after all, is arguably the one area of DC that didn’t need any kind of polish – and although the new books will launch with Dick Grayson having given up his “Batman of Gotham” role (something I expect might not have been part of Morrison’s original plan), and although Batman Inc won’t be relaunching immediately in September, it will be back in 2012 for Morrison to finish his story. So that’s alright.
As for the rest? Well, depending on what the changes are, I don’t think it’s hugely problematic to try and kick-start a lot of characters with a clean slate. And I even include Superman in that, although I don’t like the idea of the twenty-five years of story that have actually happened consecutively since the John Byrne relaunch just being flat out ignored. A fresh perspective on the character in his main ongoing could actually be welcome, and although the new costume in Superman is questionable at best, there’s no doubt that the little we know so far of Morrison’s Action Comics sounds intriguing. Are we moving to a continuity where an ageless Superman first showed up in the 1930s and is the DCU’s “first” superhero once again? I’ve seen Justice Society fans getting upset with the notion, but I’ve got to say, that’s something I’m cautiously in favour of.
If there’s one thing that’s disappointing, really, is that any changes seem to have been on an individual character-by-character level – tweaking origins here, redesigning costumes there, giving the odd missing limb back, that sort of thing. But if anything, given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that the continuity-scrub presents, you wonder if they’ve been a bit too conservative – there’s suddenly an opportunity to bring back lost characters (in this new continuity, Ted Kord still appears to be dead, for example), put others in dramatically new circumstances/lineups/etc, or even introduce entirely new characters as having been around for longer than we’ve actually seen them. Arguably the only book that that’s really happening in, though, is Stormwatch – which is bringing Apollo and the Midnighter into the DCU, teamed up with the Martian Manhunter, in probably the biggest example of such company-merging since the Charlton heroes joined the DCU in the ’80s.
But why not go a bit further? There are a number of good characters kicking around who, for one reason or another, are unable to take on the identity/role that they’ve previously had, due to prior retcons or resurrections booting them out. Wouldn’t this be the ideal opportunity to take the characteristics of people like Wally West and Tim Drake and give them entirely new names, costumes and purposes?
Finally, it’s perhaps a shame that this epic continuity-restructure is taking place after a relatively small-scale story like Flashpoint. It’s not that it’s a bad comic – it’s actually been surprisingly entertaining – but it wasn’t pushed in advance as an epoch-shattering event, is specifically a “Flash” story rather than a “DC Universe” story, and has little of the scale of something like Crisis on Infinite Earths that would justify such a major “year zero” start point.
I’ll talk about specific titles and creator combinations in my second post on the subject, but in a broader sense, this is an element of the DC relaunch that troubles me slightly. There are two parts to it, really.
First of all, if you look down the list of names that have been put on the books… well, it basically looks like a set of DC solicitations from any time in the years 2010-2011 with the names shuffled around. There are barely any new and exciting creators in new and exciting places – instead, a lot of the familiar, same old names are kicking about. In many cases, that’s of course right and proper – the likes of Gail Simone, Paul Cornell, Sterling Gates and many more have turned in solid and at times excellent work for DC in recent years. But it also feels like a selection of writers that haven’t really successfully proven themselves – yes, I’m looking at you, J.T. Krul – are getting an inordinate amount of high-profile work that could be going to new and challenging creative voices. Where are the big name coups snatched from Marvel’s grasp? Where are the rising inventive indie stars? Where are the new Matt Fractions, Kieron Gillens and Nick Spencers? And why is Geoff Johns still writing so many of the major books?
And secondly, when there are so many good up-and-coming voices not being given a good shot at the mainstream stuff, it’s a shame to see so many career artists, without a wealth of writing experience behind them, being given top-drawer writing gigs. I’m not saying artists can’t be good writers, of course – that would be ridiculous – and I don’t mind someone like George Perez getting Superman (as Perez does at least have a lengthy run co-writing the brilliant New Teen Titans on his CV – although the twin concerns on that particular book are firstly that it’ll feel too old-fashioned, and secondly that he’s not even drawing it). But Tony Daniel has been given a fair shot at Batman for a while now without doing anything special – so how has he earned the prestige status of writing the new #1 issue of Detective Comics, the oldest currently-published comic in the world (as well as getting a second monthly title to himself in the shape of Hawkman)? Why does David Finch still get his vanity-project Batman book when there are already FOUR other titles starring the character? Why would you hire an artist as good as Dan Jurgens, as with Perez, to write something and not to draw it at the same time? And why does all this come at the expense of work for respected writers, with established recent histories at the company, like James Robinson, Matthew Sturges and Brian Wood?
Obviously, I’m not saying that established artists shouldn’t be given a chance to break out into writing top-tier books – but just like any writer who comes to the company “fresh”, they should work towards the opportunity first. This relaunch is a big deal, and a slot on any of these books should be highly-prized and well earned. Frankly, unless their name is Grant Morrison (or Geoff Johns, I suppose, since the guy is EIC), I don’t think anyone should be writing more than one of the new series, but especially not some of the names that have been given multiple books. Basically, it’s just a shame that with the opportunity to make such a dramatic and unprecedented thrust towards fresh and contemporary creativity, DC have come out with a lineup of creators that (the odd exciting exception aside) feels over-familiar, old-fashioned and ultimately underwhelming. But more on that when we look at the full roster in part two…