That is, of course, a Chinese curse, and I’ve seen many of my fellow fans reacting in that spirit. But in spite of the turmoil, I have to admit, I’m kind of excited. Sure, on the one hand, the industry is dying. Sales are terrifyingly low, and getting lower. Partially, that’s because of the recession, and partially because of competition for the audience’s leisure time from more novel (and free!) on-line content. I mean, even I must admit that I’ve spent more time reading about comics in the last month than I have reading actual comics. But that, in part, is because of anticipation for what’s coming up in the immediate future. Which brings me, in roundabout fashion, to my topic for today: The DC Reboot. Now that all the solicits are out, and some of the basic questions have been answered, it's time to take a look at the plans and try a little "big picture" analysis based on what we know so far...
Reboot? Relaunch? Rehash?
Come September, DC Comics will be starting all their comics over from number one, with an altered history and a different attitude. Some characters will be different, some won’t change, and still others won’t exist at all anymore. They’re insisting that it’s not a “reboot” of their shared universe, that the continuity the Fanboy Nation holds so dear to their hearts still “counts.”
And, sure. They’re not changing much for Batman or Green Lantern (rather wisely not fixing what ain’t broke), but you know… It sounds to me like they’re making some pretty significant changes here. No super heroes in World War II? An aloof Supergirl who doesn’t like Earthlings very much? The Authority (okay, Stormwatch) exists alongside the Justice League? The public doesn’t like or trust masked heroes? Wonder Woman in pants?!
And then there's this:
|Wh- Where are his underpants?!??!|
Sounds pretty much like a reboot to me.
Now, the full scope of the thing is not yet clear. Some of the changes are definite, while others are just “Year One” approaches. They’ll tweak and modernize the origin stories on those books, and the books will jump back to the present-day once that’s done, the continuity we know mostly intact if perhaps a bit… simplified. And as yet it‘s not clear which are which. Like, is Green Arrow’s restored wealth his new status quo, or are they just updating the origin? Regardless, we’ll be looking at a very different DC Universe this fall, and there’s a part of me (a pretty big part, granted) that wishes they’d just call a spade a spade and be done with it. They’re hitting the reset button in hopes of fixing characters who aren’t selling as well as they’d like. Which is most of them.
Of course, I can understand why they might want to hedge their bets like this. Stories that “count” are very important to the Fanboy Nation of today. They’re why Big Crossover Events That Change The Status Quo For-Evah!!! are the only things selling in anything you could call good numbers without giggling behind your hand. So I’d imagine that DC editorial recognizes the importance of maintaining this “all the stories count” impression with their core audience.
Makin' Room at the Funnybook Table
Of course, DC’s also setting things up to wean themselves off that Fanboy Nation teat at the same time. Their admitted purpose here is to streamline and modernize their characters to give them better appeal to a 21st Century audience. An audience that’s not currently reading very many comics, and an audience that DC hopes to reach through same-day digital release of all their comics.
This move into digital publishing, to me, is the real news here. Continuity changes are ephemeral things, easily fixed or undone. But DC going so aggressively after the digital market is big. This is the first attempt they’ve made to go after anything that could be considered a mass market in a very long time. You could debate the strengths and weaknesses of the various devices out there all day long, but here’s the bottom line: sales of the IPad alone dwarf the comics shop market many times over. And when you toss in the sheer number of cell phones, computers, Kindles and Nooks out there in the hands of people who don‘t currently read comics… Even one percent of that market represents more people than those of us willing to walk into a comics shop.
(For my money, by the way, tablet computers and dedicated readers are the best option. Their screens are very close in size and dimension to print comics pages, which will make the transition as painless as it could be, both for publishers and readers.)
At any rate. Seeking this new potential mainstream audience means more than just getting the comics into their hands. It also means presenting them with recognizable versions of the characters, and stories that make sense to people without a life-long funnybook habit. Which, if sales are any indication, means producing comics that don’t cater to what DC’s core audience responds to best. It may be a delicate balancing act for them. They need the Fanboy Nation buying month-in month-out to keep the company going if the mainstream audience doesn’t respond the way they hope, but they’ve also got to cater to the interests of casual readers who just want a good Batman story every now and again.
Of course, that balance may not be quite as tough as people think. Do the hardcore fans really want uber-complicated continuity of interest only to the people in their special club of funnybook lifers, or do they just want satisfying stories starring their favorite super heroes? I think there’s evidence for both, and evidence for the popularity of fresh takes on old characters, all in the same comics: Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern.
Johns’ detractors (myself among them) lambast him mercilessly for his reliance on the minutiae of 30-year-old continuity in Green Lantern, but really? That book’s success can really be laid at the feet of the sweeping changes Johns made to the Green Lantern concept. Yellow fear demons? Rainbow Lanterns? Hello?! Johns has transformed that book utterly. While the base concept (“space cop”) is the same as always, and fans of the character from the 1960s would still recognize him as the same guy they read about back then, the series itself is about completely different things. And it’s that new stuff that’s made it one of the best-selling books on the market.
Johns’ clear, by-the-numbers storytelling (much as it doesn’t appeal to me personally) is a major factor in the book’s success, as well. His stories move very clearly and precisely from one point to the next, and (as the psychotically angry reactions to Grant Morrison’s narratively-dense Final Crisis showed) Fanboys want their stories delivered to them with a minimum of fuss, bother, and things that make them think. In this, they have an awful lot in common with the mass audience DC’s now hoping to court on-line. So maybe this won’t be as difficult a match as it looks like on the surface.
Of course, to appeal to either audience, the books will have to be good. And that, at last, brings us to the juicy bits: the comics themselves, who’s doing them, and the new status quo we’ll be seeing come the Fall. Which is what we’ll be discussing in part two…