I’ve been thinking about DC’s Villains Month a lot lately. If you’re a regular reader of the Outhouse, you know we’ve been pretty critical about the whole thing, for a variety of reasons. However, there’s one problem with Villains Month that we haven’t covered, namely the lack of diversity in its comics. No, I’m not talking about racial or gender diversity, but rather a lack of diversity in what comics DC will be publishing come September.
Despite the recent tone of the site, I was a fan of DC’s publishing strategy going into the New 52, one that at least attempted to push a diverse brand of comics into the direct market. With Marvel and DC combining for over 70% of industry sales, I’ve always had this naïve idea that the Big Two should lead the charge on producing innovative concepts and content that expands the market rather than relying on smaller publishers to drag the industry forward. Instead of producing bland rehashes of storylines over and over again, what if Marvel and DC actually tried to produce original, new content? What if comics like Hawkeye were the norm instead of the exception?
Of course, this isn’t the way the industry works. DC and Marvel aren’t caretakers of the comic industry, they’re corporate machines designed to turn a profit. Creators earn paychecks to feed themselves and their family in exchange for producing faceless, identityless superhero comics while whetting their creative appetite on creator-owned work that only sells a fraction of the copies of their mainstream counterparts. This is why I was excited two summers ago that DC was trying its hand at fantasy and war and western comics, genres that largely hadn’t been touched by mainstream comic readers in decades.
Unfortunately, that turned into one of DC’s (many) missteps when executing the New 52. With the exception of All-Star Western, DC’s ‘alternative-genre’ comics were sales disasters and found themselves cancelled before they hit double digits. One could make the argument that those books failed to sell because they lacked any sort of creative spark and seemed to be haphazardly thrown together (a common calling card for most of DC’s comics), but then again All-Star Western isn’t exactly lighting up the sales charts either, and it’s the definition of a quality comic book.
So what does all of this have to do with Villains Month? Well, I think that we’re seeing the inevitable pendulum swinging the other way when it comes to the diversity of comics published by the Big Two. Instead of publishing a Villains Month comic for each and every DC title, DC instead chose to multi-ship many of their best selling comics. So instead of Dial H, we got a Justice League book,simply because Justice League is the stronger seller.
But the disturbing thing (to me) is how much the pendulum has swung. This September, 66% (35 of 53) of DC’s September comics are being published under the Justice League, Batman or Superman franchises. That’s right, two-thirds of DC’s books are being published as one of three brands, two of which have had a big blockbuster movie released in the last 12 months.
This isn’t a new trend amongst the Big Two. When looking back at comic sales from 2008 to present day, there’s a noticeable trend of top sellers (defined here as a comic safely out of cancellation range by selling more than 30,000) coming from one of a select few families of books. According to my calculations, 40% of DC and Marvel’s top-selling comics in May 2013 (defined here as comics selling over 30,000) come from the Batman, Avengers or X-Men franchises. By comparison, in 2008 Batman, X-Men and Avengers comics made up only 30% of comics selling over 30,000. There’s actually a lovely trend chart that I made up that shows the percentage of Batman/X-Men/Avengers Big Two top sellers increasing steadily over the last five years, but I can’t get it to transfer into the article because I’m an idiot.
I know, it’s shocking to believe that DC and Marvel are increasingly relying on their top characters to sell comics. And it’s equally shocking to believe that the Big Two’s readers want that to happen. Who would believe that the comic buying public is more invested in buying books featuring popular characters than anything else? This is why Guardians of the Galaxy is subtitled ‘Tomorrow’s Avengers of the Future’. This is why Vibe’s title is called Justice League of America’s Vibe (which has done nothing for the sales, by the way). This is why we’re getting Avengers AI, Mighty Avengers, Sinestro Corps and Justice League 3000 instead of comics featuring….well, characters outside of Marvel and DC’s signature franchises. Brands sell, and if historical trends are any indication, this isn’t something that’ll go away.
So, at the end of the day, I’m not upset about Villains Month because of the crappy 3D covers featuring photoshopped backgrounds that’ll cost me a dollar more to buy. I’m upset that Villains Month is a cold, hard reminder about the reality of the Big Two, one that values brand advancement and sales over innovation. (Cue a commenter saying ‘You don’t know that Batman and Batman Jr. #23.5: The Anti-Batman Who Bats, Man isn’t innovative! How dare you judge a comic before it hits shelves! Next thing you’ll be telling me that Wolverine and the Wolverine-Men of Wolverineville is just a cheap money grab!’)
I guess there is one bright side to all of this. As Marvel and DC start to run out of ways to publish more Batman and Avengers books, we might actually see them reach back into those fantasy and war and western genres I was excited about. In a few years, we might actually see Justice League Cowboys or Fantasy Avengers or Batman Fights for the US Army after they run out of other ways to exploit their top-selling franchises.