You, Me, and DC Comics
DC Comics is rebooting. Again.
However, it seems like DC has learned their lesson from the strangest of places. There’s an old wedding expression that goes, “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a silver sixpence in her shoe.”
Instead of a line-wide reboot or even last year’s refresh (DC You), DC Comics seems to be finding its groove with Rebirth. There’s something old, there’s something new, something borrowed, and definitely something blue. They just need to work on the silver sixpence in their shoe.
Geoff Johns, the man responsible for the DC Universe Rebirth, stated in an interview with CBR that he plans to bring legacy back to the DC Universe. Legacy. A trait long absent from the publisher housing some of the most heralded characters in pop culture. Legacy, being the ignored, rich history of the DC universe before The New 52. Legacy, being the integral missing component of the failed DC You initiative. A Rebirth, the return of legacy.
And with the first wave of Rebirth titles now behind us, DC Comics must be pleased with the results. Taking 43.5% of the market share from the month of September alone, Rebirth has given DC Comics a massive surge in monthly sales, including taking eight of the top ten books sold for the month. It’s quite clear that Rebirth has been very successful. Then again, The New 52 was received as a success as well, before slowly tapering off in sales. To avoid the same outcome of the ill-fated New 52, what must DC do to keep Rebirth a success? As is the custom to find a something lost, retracing DC’s steps offers a clear insight as to just where The New 52 went wrong.
I should begin by noting that I was in favor of The New 52. At first, anyway. And as I find few people who are willing to defend the company-wide reboot, allow me to explain my relatively unpopular opinion.
The comic book industry is just about the same age as television. Consider that for a moment. At the time of the inception of Superman and Batman, I Love Lucy and Leave It To Beaver made their television debut about ten and twenty years later, respectively. Now imagine, what if I Love Lucy never ended? What if after several seasons of the hit sitcom, the network’s producers decided to cast new actors to portray the main cast of Ricky, Lucy, Fred, and Ethel? And what if, after several seasons with the new cast, the network’s producers decided again to recast and this time reboot the series to a time just before Ricky and Lucy wedded? To state the obvious, this would have been a disaster. Instead of viewing the show as the timeless classic it is widely regarded as, we may have come to view the series with the same deride we regard the Rocky film franchise with. So while I Love Lucy and Leave It To Beaver were never destined to such a dismal outcome… Destiny would have another outcome in mind for Superman and Batman.
Unlike American television for decades to come, comic books have had almost no definitive endings to their stories whatsoever. The working method for caped crusaders was quite simple. If a character’s book sold well, their story continued. If it didn’t sell well, it was canceled. So instead of closure for the characters we love, we instead watched them play into the same storylines over and over again, never really developing as characters. That is why I really liked the concept of The New 52. Clearing the slate would allow for both heroes and villains to be reimagined and new stories could be told with these iconic characters. And giving them definitive stories to tell would provide the needed closure for readers.
This is, perhaps, an overly simplified view of the industry. A view that has been challenged time and time again, as I meet more and more longtime comic book readers who regard the reboot with almost complete disdain. But the premise behind the reboot had merit and was something I genuinely supported.
The trouble is, it never really happened. Sure, all the titles got relaunched. But were any of these classic characters given a definitive story to tell? Put differently, did the working method in comics actually change? Of course not. Instead of focused storytelling, we received a muddled experience between the idea of The New 52 and the reality of it. Nothing was new. But the real trouble, I would find, was that nothing was old, either.
So what went wrong? While there were many misfires in the company-wide relaunch, the greatest failure of The New 52 was its emphasis toward new readers and the de-emphasis toward continuity. This new reader-friendly approach is a great way for new readers who are looking for a good starting place to begin reading these classic characters. Which especially made the reboot make sense. I myself am looking for a good jumping on point for most of these titles. But contrast my relatively small pull-list with that of longtime readers, whose pull-list has been well over thirty titles for the past ten, fifteen, or twenty years. All of the stories they have read and cherished over the years have suddenly been pushed aside and ignored. So while I personally appreciate the new reader initiatives, it comes at the great cost of the legacy of the DC Universe.
Faithful readers feel a sense of entitlement to the books they have followed over the years. And rightfully so. After all, it’s that loyal readership that has kept the industry alive for all these years. Which makes their burden all the greater when editors parachute in new creative teams to breathe new life into the characters that were already being used to tell great stories. These readers ask who this fresh perspective was added for. Certainly not for them. They were already happily purchasing the book.
It’s entirely fair to say that DC Comics is looking for a new audience to tell their stories to and is politely asking their old audience to sit in the back. This is the other side of the coin to The New 52. They are literally throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Now, again, I tend to favor the new reader-friendly approach to comics. That is why I embraced The New 52. Or even DC You’s attempt to de-emphasize continuity, which also seemed like a logical approach to achieve these means. But the trouble is that it wasn’t long before longtime readership abandoned the new reader initiatives and began looking elsewhere for their comics. And there are plenty of comics on the market to choose from, including the growth of the independent comics scene which fills the void rather quickly.
It’s a difficult challenge, to be sure. The industry is pressed with the goal of chasing after unicorns. That is, gaining the mythical new readership while satisfying longtime readers. A game of tug of war between new readers and old. And as DC Comics monthly sales had continued to decline, it became quite clear that The New 52 just wasn’t working anymore.
As he’s joked before, this isn’t the first time he’s rebirthed. Having been the architect of both Green Lantern: Rebirth and The Flash: Rebirth, Geoff Johns is the go-to guy for DC Comics. He was propelled to this status because of his unique ability to retool and rebuild vintage DC properties with a fresh, new take. And it was his careful attention to detail that brought Teen Titans as well as Justice Society of America back to prominence after his highly successful runs on both titles. A deep emphasis on rich character history and a watchful eye toward fresh perspective to tell the stories with quickly became Johns signature form of storytelling. Enabling both new and old readers to enjoy classic characters, Geoff is the single most trusted writer to handle a status quo shift for the company. In fact, he was placed at the helm of The New 52, as well. The difference, I believe, is hindsight.
A company-wide reboot has been done. The trouble was, for new readers — it wasn’t new enough. And for longtime readers, it didn’t honor the legacy the characters enjoyed prior. The answer is quite simple at this point. The missing ingredient to a successful relaunch is legacy.
You, me, and DC Comics. We need stories that benefit both new readers and old. Legacy with a built-in jumping on point, bringing something to the table for everyone. Not a reboot. Not a refresh. Just a Rebirth.