How I Would Handle the DC Universe Reboot

Cover for Justice League #1, this SeptemberThe major comic news of the past month has been DC’s plan to cancel every title in their line and launch 52 new titles, all starting at #1. Some of these will be titles that existed before, but with a new numbering system and a change of creators. Others are new titles, or bring a new focus to previously-minor characters. It’s still not clear exactly how much these “#1″s are restarting the stories and how much they are continuations of what went before.

Relaunching, renumbering, and other gimmicks are hardly new to superhero comics. But this is a bigger deal than normal because of how widespread it is. Also, this is the first major change since DC Comics was restructured underneath parent company Warner Entertainment, and DC will be starting a new digital distribution plan that is aimed at attracting new readers. No one knows for sure how well this digital outreach will work, but a lot of current readers are outspokenly against it. That’s not surprising; comic readers are outspokenly against almost every change that has happened in the past generation. Whether or not this new line of titles succeeds, I think that DC will hold on to most of their current customer base. However, that fanbase is slowly shrinking, and I think this is widely regarded as DC’s last real chance to stop the bleeding. If this fails, things will go on much as before, but DC probably won’t have the goodwill to allow them to try any other bold moves for the next 5-10 years. If they are shackled to the current system for that long, I doubt they’ll be in any shape to try again afterwards.

From what little we know, this could be a huge success. It could also be a catastrophe. Unfortunately, the clues we have don’t make me very confident:

  • I agree with DC that there is a large market out there of potential new readers. However, DC apparently believes that the way to bring them on board is with a “#1” on the comics and a way to read them on your iPad. I’m sure that will bring in a few new people, but I think that the real hurdle is the general skill level and approach of many of the current creators and editors. The lineup of new titles has the same names attached, with the writers and artists simply shuffled to different books. If Judd Winick wasn’t bringing in new readers with his Batman comic, why expect him to do any better with Batwing?
  • To the extent that a relaunch could bring in new readers, I think the problem is with convoluted backstories. DC has a long record of re-writing history by saying “some things have changed, but others are still the same”. In every case, they make the characters more complicated, as readers need to figure out what the new status quo is, and how one story from the past could be central to a character’s history, even though that story involves another character who has been written out of that time period. This time is no better: DC is quick to assure readers that most of the past stories we’ve invested time and money in still matter, but that they’ve been streamlined and made new-reader friendly. How does that even make sense, when the full history has also been compressed to a five-year stretch of time? DC wants the heroes to be new, untested, and edgy, but also have a rich history in which they gained experience. This isn’t impossible, but we’re given no reason why this “soft reboot” will work any better than the past ones.

If I were driving this initiative at DC, I can think of a few things I would do differently. Obviously, it’s easy for me to say all this when I don’t actually have to put my job on the line for it. But if I can’t ramble about how something should be done on the internet, where can I ramble about it?

First of all, I would start all the histories over from scratch. Yes, this will upset a lot of the fans. But guess what? Those fans are already upset. This way, we can truly have the excitement of new stories, without the logistical distractions that are currently dominating the discussions.

Then I would commit to having consistent stories, without the delays and creator changes that have made comics difficult for casual fans to follow. I would re-write DC’s contracts to stipulate that all the creators commit to staying on their titles for at least a year, and that the monthly deadlines will be met. This may mean starting a few months early in some cases, but we’re at one of the few times in comics history where things are actually being planned out with some lead time. It’s a lot easier to subscribe to a series you like if you know that it will keep coming out, and that the people who made you like it will still be there.

Most importantly, the plan for 52 new titles in September is ridiculous. Yes, DC is hoping to bring in new readers, but this is something like a 150% increase in title count before they have any indication of the actual customer base. Since most of the current titles barely sell enough to justify their existence, DC will need even more than a 50% boost in order to keep these 52 comics running smoothly. Obviously, this isn’t going to happen. Even in a best-case scenario, in addition to those delays and creator changes that we know to expect, we’re going to see new series being canceled within a few months. That’s not going to make the (hoped-for) new customers very confident.

Instead, I would start small, with a focus on quality over quantity. Imagine if the first month had just ten titles, with the big names (Justice League, Detective, Action, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash), and maybe a couple side characters that we hope would do well in the spotlight (Blue Beetle, Mr. Terrific, or others that bring diversity and have a real history of quality comics). With a sudden focus on the main characters, with the best writers and artists working on them and an atmosphere of importance surrounding them, I’m sure a lot of people would buy all ten comics. I probably would, even though there are a couple characters in that list that consistently disappointed me in the past. The total sales would be almost as much as DC is going to have spread across its 52 actual titles, but the focus will make them ten best-sellers with a long future ahead of them.

The next month, I’d add five new titles. These would probably be the “grim and gritty” ones. I don’t usually like the edgier stories, but a lot of the new readers will find the idea of anti-heroes and “realistic” situations intriguing and vital. This is where the Blackhawks, Suicide Squad, Red Hood, and Wildstorm-based titles come in. I’d try to get one written by Warren Ellis (but only if he could work with that 12-month commitment to timeliness).

I’d continue with five new titles each of the next few months, probably adding in the B-list heroes and expanding the “families” (Superman’s, Batman’s, and Green Lantern’s extra titles) next. The fans will need to see these soon. The weird and magical titles like Swamp Thing and Justice League Dark would flesh out the line before long. And of course, by the time I’m committing to the titles for month five, I’d have some solid sales figures from the first month or two for guidance. Maybe I’d have the numbers support 52 comics after all, or maybe I’d know to scale back before then. I’d be taking on less risk, though, and the slow build-up will give each comic a chance to be noticed rather than lost in the shuffle. (Not to mention that people who learn of this initiative a month or two too late will still have a “#1” to let them feel they are entering on the ground floor.)

One thing I would not do is dilute the brand. There’s no need for both a Batgirl and Batwoman, even if both of them are appeasing different parts of the fanbase. And while I’m personally excited about the Paul Cornell-written Demon Knights, set in the historic Middle Ages, it has no place in the stories about how the modern superhero universe begins. (Even the Legion of Super-Heroes would take a few months to get started, since it should be a story about how the teenagers of the year 3000 were inspired by the stories of the new Superman and Justice League that we’re just now being introduced to.)

I know, this is a risky strategy. I don’t know how it would affect the writers and artists that are not going to have a DC comic to work on for months, and I’m not sure what kind of shock this slow build would be for the comic shops. But I do know that the current system has way too many creators who don’t deserve the books they’re working on, and that comic shops are slowly disappearing as the customer base loses interest. I think it’s a shame that a bolder refocusing, with a true break from the mistakes of the past, isn’t being tried. As I said before, DC probably won’t get another chance to do anything like this.

  1. September 28th, 2011
  2. January 1st, 2012
  3. November 22nd, 2012

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