I admit I’d been planning to write another post this week about my new fantasy web serial, The Fell Gard Codices, and why I was using the serial form, and how I thought it worked for this particular story. Then DC Comics dropped a bombshell, and since I know some of the readers here are interested in comics, it seemed worth trying to explain what happened and what it could mean.
DC has announced that they’ll be relaunching their entire line of DC Universe comics in September with new first issues. That includes all their big superhero titles — Superman, Batman, Justice League of America (to be renamed Justice League) — but excludes books from the Vertigo imprint, such as Fables. It seems that these relaunches will include some revisions to the character histories; Superman, apparently, will not only have a new costume, but some rumours suggest he’ll no longer be married to Lois Lane.
But DC announced something else as well. Starting with the September relaunch, digital copies of all DC’s books will be available online (legally) the same day they go on sale in stores. This is potentially far more important than the line-wide relaunch, and in fact the two things seem designed to play off each other.
Let’s step back and look at the history of the North American mainstream comics market. The first experiments with comic books debuted in the 1920s, but the form really took off in the ’30s, sold at newsstands, general stores, and the like. These comics typically cost a dime for 64 pages or more of material. As costs rose over the years, comics publishers cut back on the number of pages while still trying to keep the price the same. In Japan the approach was the reverse, letting the price rise while keeping the comics thick; but American publishers knew that their audience was very young, and looking for material they could buy for pennies. By the ’60s a comic was 20-some pages for 10 or, later, 12 cents.
This approach worked, on the whole; into the ’70s, DC Comics and their main competitor, Marvel, kept their product widely available and widely read. But in that decade newsstands and magazine shops began dropping comics. Ironically, the low price of comics was part of the reason: if you as a store could rack a magazine for a dollar, or three dollars, or give that space to a comic selling for 12 or 25 or 35 cents, you probably wanted to go with the magazine, and get more profit from your store space.
What saved comics was the advent of the Direct Market — specialised comics stores. Over the course of almost a decade, the primary point of sale of most comics shifted from the newsstand to specialty stores. This had a number of side effects, some planned, some not. To start with, fans now had a much easier time of tracking down not only back issues of their favourite books, but also the next issue of a storyline or title they were following. Perhaps more important from a creative standpoint, comics sold in the Direct Market were, and are, non-returnable, meaning retailers couldn’t return unsold books for credit with publishers; with the financial burden of unsold books thus shifted from publisher to retailer, small presses and self-publishers were able to flourish in the new marketplace.
But there was a problem with the Direct Market, one that got worse over time. It catered to superhero fans, and increasingly only to superhero fans. Innovative arts-oriented publishers had a difficult time in the market — famously, Fantagraphics Press, publishers of Los Bros Hernandez, Dan Clowes, and Peter Bagge, had to start a porn comics line to survive. But even the superhero books were selling less than they had on the newsstands. Part of the reason for that was that comics were no longer easily available to everyone. If there wasn’t a comics shop in your area, you might not see them at all. Sales dropped; and, in conjunction with other changes, most notably fairer compensation for creators, prices for books had to rise. The average age of the audience increased. Fewer new readers entered the hobby. And over the years even the established audience dwindled as people lost interest in the books, or decided they could no longer afford them. Many titles came to depend on a convoluted continuity stretching back over decades of publication, off-putting to potential new readers.
(All of which is an extreme simplification, but it’ll do for the purposes of this post.)
As a result, where comics in the forties might sell in the millions, and in the sixties or seventies would routinely sell hundreds of thousands of copies, the best-selling titles in the Direct Market today are estimated to sell less than a hundred thousand. This is not to say that the Direct Market was a bad idea, or that it was completely inhospitable to innovation. But it was a creation of necessity, and even Marvel and DC have been trying to find new markets in the face of consistently decreasing sales. Which brings us to day-and-date digital comics.
Both companies have experimented with the digital marketplace. And many people in comics have assumed that day-and-date digital publication was coming at some point. But I don’t know if anyone expected it this soon. Veteran retailer Brian Hibbs saw a presentation by DC co-publisher Jim Lee in February:
Jim held up two hands. In one hand he had a regular 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper, and in the other, he had a piece of dental floss. The former, he said, represented the revenues from print comics. The latter? Revenue from digital.
By relaunching their entire line, it seems that DC’s trying to reach out to new readers, trying to increase the audience for digital versions of their comics. Leaving aside the creative issues involved with the books, DC’s keeping the price of their digital comics at parity with the print versions — $2.99 US up to $3.99 for an extra-sized book (there’ll also be a bagged version of one of the print titles, Justice League, that’ll cost a dollar extra and include a code you can use to download a digital copy). After four weeks, the digital versions will have their price scaled back by a dollar, to $1.99 or $2.99. Will audiences be willing to pay that much for 20 pages of comics?
Maybe not; but DC has to be cautious. The potential digital audience is huge, but it doesn’t exist quite yet. The point of Lee’s analogy is that at the moment, most of the company’s revenue still comes from the Direct Market; that’s what supports the books. In a comment thread, writer Kurt Busiek compared the present transition to digital with the transition to the Direct Market from the newsstand: something that took a number of years. As he notes, DC’s pricing strategy seems aimed at not destabilising their established market while the new market grows.
The potential for that desatabilisation of the comics marketplace is real. About a year ago, Brian Hibbs considered the possibility of day-and-date comics in his regular Tilting at Windmills column at Comic Book Resources (he mentions Marvel here, but the point applies as well to DC):
Here’s the thing: if comics are Day-and-Date and they cost anywhere between 25 to 66% of the print comics you’re going to see some amount of channel migration — that is, customers moving from print to digital. How much? Who knows? But even a relatively small percentage loss could cause stores to go out of business in droves. Comic book stores are small businesses — and most small businesses are perpetually on the edge, almost certainly with average pre-tax profits of under 10%. Lose too many customers in channel migration, and those businesses are going to fail. If those businesses fail, then so does Marvel comics.
Unless you can guarantee them they’ll see at least the same revenue from the digital distribution.
Presumably, DC’s done enough market research that they’re convinced offering day-and-date comics at full price, with a later reduction, won’t cause a catastrophic migration. But who knows how it’ll turn out? Will fans conditioned to invest in a specific continuity continue to buy the adventures of characters after they’ve been changed (to whatever degree) in the relaunch? Will they buy the books currently on store racks, investing in a continuity that would appear to end in August? Fans are conditioned to buy books that continue the stories of their favourite characters, not end them. How’ll these books fare? Note that for three months DC will allow returns on 41 of the 52 new titles, and offer deeper retailer discounts for most of the rest; that, at least, will help retailers trying to decide how to place orders for so many new books, many of them without a sales track record.
But this leads to the other component of DC’s news. What’s happening to the books creatively? DC currently publishes just under forty regular titles per month, plus several miniseries. So this represents an expansion of their current line-up. And as yet they haven’t announced the names or creative teams of more than a few of the titles.
DC has said that it’ll be using the relaunch to introduce or highlight characters with diverse ethnic backgrounds and sexualities; that’s been a problem for them in the past, as their most commercially successful characters date from forty years ago or more, and for the most part are straight white males. Along the same lines, rumours suggest that DC will be redesigning the costumes of many female characters with an eye towards practicality. They’ve also said they’ll be adding more genres to their line-up, again suggesting that they’re looking beyond the superhero-oriented Direct Market.
They don’t, however, seem to be restarting their universe from scratch. Rather, it looks like they’ll be joining at least some stories in progress. In fact, DC has a habit of reworking their characters on the fly. To understand that, we have to dip back into history again.
DC’s first comics were published back in the 1930s, before the idea of a ‘universe’ as such really existed. Some of their characters came together in a loose club called the Justice Society, but for the most part each individual title was allowed to have its own tone — The Flash was more humorous than Batman, say. When the market shifted away from superheroes after the Second World War, most of the super-hero books were cancelled. In 1956, they began making a comeback, but with slightly different characters in familiar roles — where the original Flash was a college student named Jay Garrick who gained super-speed powers by breathing in chemical fumes, the new one was a police scientist named Barry Allen who stood too close to a shelf of chemicals that was struck by lightning. The original Green Lantern, Alan Scott, had a ring powered by a magical Chinese lantern; the new one, Hal Jordan, was part of a corps of cosmic policemen assembled by superintelligent aliens called the Guardians of the Universe (an idea loosely based on E.E. Smith’s Lensmen series). And so on.
In the 60s, DC decided that the earlier stories took place on an alternate Earth, called Earth-2. The current adventures took place on Earth-1. This started a tradition of heroes of past and present crossing over and having adventures with each other; it also started a tradition of confusion, as creators and fans alike would misremember which character belonged to which earth. The confusion only got worse as more earths were added. For example, when DC acquired rights to characters formerly published by Fawcett Comics (Captain Marvel/Shazam and others), they were put on ‘Earth S’. When they acquired characters from Charlton Comics (Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and others), they were put on ‘Earth C’. Add Earth-3, Earth-X, Earth-Prime (an earth where superheroes only existed in comic books), and on and on, and you can see the problem. Finally, in the mid-80s, the confusion was deemed to be too great. A 12-issue series, Crisis on Infinite Earths, destroyed most of the earths and combined the others into one. There would be no more multiverse.
The problem was that while the creators of Crisis intended for DC to relaunch its entire line when the miniseries wrapped up — much as DC is actually doing now — DC was not then prepared to take that step. So characters and stories continued from month to month, except that their origins and backgrounds had been retroactively changed between issues. Superman had no longer been a Superboy. Wonder Woman hadn’t helped found the Justice League.
While that was disorienting for fans of those characters, it rapidly got worse for many others. The early tales of the Legion of Super-Heroes prominently featured Superboy; if he no longer existed, how did those stories work? Editorial errors made matters worse; for example, contradictory versions of Hawkman were published, creating continuity confusion that made the character literally unusable for many years.
DC’s repeatedly tried to fix their problems with more retcons. Zero Hour, a 1994 miniseries, and the 2005 series Infinite Crisis are perhaps the most notable. Many people presumed that the new DC relaunch was another attempt in this vein, especially as the relaunch seems to be spinning off an altered-timeline story called Flashpoint (currently still running). DC, though, has stated that “it is the launch of the New DCU. It is not a ‘reboot.'” The specific distinction they have in mind is unclear.
To sum up: DC is cancelling all its current books, and launching 52 titles with new first issues in September. There will be some revisions to their characters, and possibly their histories, in the relaunch; but how much is not yet known. Some observers have questioned whether DC can marshal that many writers and artists with the talent and proven sales track records to make so many new titles a success. Others have suggested that both Marvel and DC are producing too many titles as it stands; DC expanding their line, however marginally, looks dangerous. And, in addition to all these creative risks, DC’s also venturing into digital distribution on a large scale, with potentially staggering consequences for the field as a whole.
DC’s traditionally lagged behind Marvel in sales and market share. This would seem to be an aggressive move to try to overtake their longtime rival. It could work. Or it could turn out to be, in the end, a relatively minor, incremental change; some retailers have said that titles from smaller publishers that have been made available digitally day-and-date haven’t shown much variation in sales. But then, it also could cause a cascade failure that could bring down the American comics industry. We’ll see what happens over the months to come.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His new ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.