Everyone Back to 1: Thoughts and Theories on DC Comics relaunching superhero comics synched with digital initiative

Justice League #1 by Geoff Johns & Jim Lee (DC Comics) - Hitting the cosmic reset button

In a bold gamble, DC Comics announced yesterday at their own blog The Source, USA Today (part 1 and part 2), and a letter to comic retailers that they would be replacing all of their long-running superhero comic books with relaunched stories starting over at issue #1. Each issue will be released digitally across DC Comics’ multiple platforms the same day as the print version’s release, a major shift in policy that was protecting comic shops from digital competition.

Digital comics provider Comixology has confirmed via Twitter that it will be continuing their partnership with DC Comics on this new digital initiative. New issues will appear simultaneously on Apple’s iOS (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch), the Android and their web-based DC Store, although exact pricing has not been revealed. Digital comics are generally priced at $1.99 for a standard comic book that’s been converted to their guided view digital form. Past experiments with day-and-date releases have been priced at the higher cover price of print comics, usually $2.99.

As for the books themselves, exact details of what’s changing, what’s staying the same, and who will be working on what books, are slim. More will be revealed throughout June.

What is known is that starting August 31, 2011, a brand new Justice League #1 will be released. The following weeks, it will be joined by relaunched Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and other titles. In total, DC Comics will debut 52 comic books, approximately 13 a week! The stories will feature younger versions of their recognizable heroes, redesigned by artist and DC Comics Co-Publisher Jim Lee, and are meant to be ideal for new readers.

Justice League will be helmed by Lee and DC Comics Chief Creative Officer/writer Geoff Johns. Both Lee and Johns are responsible for a lot of popular titles from DC, so it seems only natural to team them up for the comic about their premiere superhero team.

Comic Book Resources has rumors on other titles, including Superman being written by Grant Morrison, an award-winning and critically acclaimed writer that has been shepherding Batman for the last several years. He wrote All-Star Superman, a quintessential take on the iconic character, to nearly universal acclaim in 2005-2008. A previously announced new Aquaman series by Geoff Johns and artist Ivan Reis is also expected to be part of the new universe. The two had previously collaborated on successful Green Lantern stories, including the big Blackest Night event.

The question of course: Will this work? In many ways, it better. DC Comics has been second fiddle to Marvel Comics for years now both in sales and market share. More significantly, comic sales across the industry have been falling all year and were struggling before then. In many ways, the comic book industry can’t afford to have one of its strongest publishers crash and burn because of an over-eager line-wide publishing experiment.

The monthly comic book issue is already not in good shape. Last decade the book market embraced comics in a big way, providing a big incentive for publishers to provide material best suited for longer form narratives (graphic novels). So Marvel, DC and other publishers, and/or the creators they employed, began tailoring their stories for this format. It arguably made for better reads and a fresh look at the craft of comics, but it also marked a shift away from the serialized storytelling methods that drove the industry for decades. In many ways, the art of compact stories and cliffhanger endings is almost entirely gone.

And now comes digital comics, which in many ways puts the focus back on individual issues, but not on the comic book store, which has been the primary seller of comic books since the ’90s. Comic book stores can and do sell graphic novels, but they can’t really sell digital comics. However, conventional wisdom is that the people downloading and reading digital comics isn’t necessarily the same people going to comic book stores every Wednesday. And some store are reporting increased sales from comics that are available digitally, likely from people sampling digitally first before committing to the print versions. Additionally, digital sales, while growing fast, are but a fraction of print sales. Despite this evidence, a lot of retailers fear digital comics taking over the industry and eliminating them. In response to yesterday’s news, LA-based Meltdown Comics posted on their Facebook page, “Always knew the end would be spearheaded by a fellow retailer/comics creator. Very ‘Sun Tzu’ really.” (The reference is to Geoff Johns, who co-owns the comics shop Earth 2 Comics in Sherman Oaks and Ventura, as well as being a writer and co-publisher for DC Comics.)

Needless to say, angering the people who sell your comics is risky. At the same time, DC is also risking angering their loyal readers by dumping their character’s long histories. The devoted fans that remain have invested money and often a lot of emotional commitment to these characters. Wiping the slate clean could end up wiping away too many who grew up with characters that will now be gone. A lot of online response has been pretty unhappy so far. Plenty of references to nails and coffins are being made.

However, the stunt is not without precedent. DC Comics relaunched their universe in 1986 in an effort to clean up a lot of contradictory narrative threads. That relaunch didn’t result in the entire publishing line starting over at issue #1 though. And for a surprising number of superhero fans, the number on the front of the comic holds a lot of significance. It’s a symbol of the long serialized history of the characters that has been stacking up for decades and also a badge of honor of how long they’ve been reading. Relaunches have become more and more common as publishers came to believe that people were more willing to buy Wonder Woman #1 than Wonder Woman #325. But as John Jackson Miller points out, relaunches don’t often translate to a sustained sales increase. According to his figures, sales typically return to where they were before a relaunch within 3-4 months.

So is DC trying to boost sales for a quarter before returning everything to how it is now once sales settle back down? Entirely possible. It’s similar to temporary publishing stunts Marvel pulled off in the ’90s with the X-Men event Age of Apocalypse and their Heroes Reborn mini-line where long running titles were replaced with new series set in new universes, only to revert back to the familiar after several months, which bumped sales again for several more months. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Marvel’s editor-in-chief at the time was the current DC Comics Editor-in-Chief Bob Harras.

That theory aside, could an entire relaunch work? Maybe. DC seems to be making a genuine effort to reach new readers, a crucial move going by sales trends. The digital element is smart but people aren’t going to magically intuit that this is happening. Coverage from mainstream media needs to be compelling enough to get people to buy. And then the stories have to be good enough to get people to stay month in and month out, and unfortunately there isn’t a lot of precedent of DC pulling that off successfully. Past efforts at providing jumping-on points for new readers have been largely mixed at best. The One Year Later publishing initiative from 2006 was one of the more glaring recent examples. The compulsion to entangle stories in convoluted references to past stories is apparently too irresistible for a lot of the creators frequently hired by DC. Or maybe its their editors who can’t resist. For those that have been following these stories for so long and those that are wired for researching intricate mythologies, it’s fun. Superhero comics are a great big sandbox with rich mythologies. But for people more casually curious because of movies, TV shows and video games, the very people necessary to stop the downward sales trend, it can be a turn-off. In short, complicated superhero stories only entertain the slowly diminishing faithful. Sales numbers back this up every month. Maybe eliminating the history altogether will free up DC’s creators to write better than ever. They’ll have to if retailers and longtime readers feel too burned by the relaunch to keep buying.

Like I said in the beginning, this is a bold gamble.

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