Whatever happened to DC Comics?
Somewhere along the way I fell out of love with DC Comics. With the company's recent announcement of a 2 million dollar projected revenue shortfall, a 10% plus market share lag behind Marvel, and a mostly non-existent presence in the top 10 best-selling comics, it's become increasingly obvious that I'm not the only one. While it's easy to explain away each of these figures with various explanations (i.e. move to Burbank) taken together they start to highlight a depressing trend. Readers just don't seem to be interested in DC Comics these days regardless of the various directions editorial takes their characters with every subsequent brand 'realignment'.
However it wasn't always the case for me; for most of my life I was an unabashed DC 'fanboy' willing to overlook whatever rough patches the company's titles entered over the years. While I dabbled in Marvel and the occasional indie book, the majority of my comics budget went to Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Justice League and the like. When I experimented in new titles it was usually Vertigo or a B or C tier DC character. I suppose in retrospect the change happened gradually but here we are four years into the 'New 52' and I don't consistently buy any DC series.
So what the heck happened? I was cautiously optimistic about the 'New 52' when it was first announced and hopeful that the 'semi-reboot' would streamline titles, create jumping-on points for new readers, and generally launch a bold direction for the company. In retrospect it doesn't seem like the worst idea; DC seemed to survive previous reboots despite some fan grumbling - so why should this time be any different?
Ultimately each lapsed fan will have a personal set of reasons for walking away from certain titles. You can glance around the net and see the full range of emotional responses on display, from outright bile spewing to a more nuanced attitude of ennui towards current products. While I can't speak for everyone, I tried to look back at some of my own comic buying habits over the past few years and why, when push came to shove, other titles from Marvel, Image, and other publishers simply won the fight for my attention.
A Failure to Invest in the Digital Era
Once upon a time I bought trades to catch up with comic series. From the original Secret Wars to Crisis on Infinite Earths, trades were a way to catch up with older stories and get a better grasp of characters and continuity. However for every epic trade volume of comics history that captured my attention, I'd find myself stuck with less enjoyable purchases that I didn't finish and regretted buying.
Fast-forward to 2015 and we are living in the Netflix age. Often consumers don't even know what they are looking for when the mood to try out a new series strikes. When Marvel Unlimited was first announced, I was one of the first to embrace this new way to read comics. Sure it had a lot of bugs (and it still isn't perfect) but it's one of the first Netflix-style services to allow readers to immerse themselves in the rich lore of Marvel without going broke. The ability to binge read series at a flat rate was revolutionary (at least for someone like myself on a budget) and skyrocketed the number of monthly Marvel titles I became interested in each month. It allowed me to check out characters I was curious about but never felt ready to spend money on. It allowed me to jump into crossover events knowing that if I didn't have the funds to purchase every tie-in title I could catch up later on. Finally it created a digestible way for Marvel to curate its own content library and make suggestions to me on where to head next in their digital archive.
DC Comics hasn't made the same investment in their characters. While you can buy digital trades, they aren't priced competitively compared to other books. Even when you take into account new comic 'a la carte' reading services the 'New 52' is noticeably absent from the list. It's simply more difficult to get into DC Comics without laying out a significant amount of income on titles that may or may not be worth it. There's no wiki page and very little in the way of issue background on characters on the website. I used to buy DC and Marvel trading cards to learn about characters as a kid. Now I check out the Marvel wiki page for the same supplemental info. Say what you will about using third-party sites to find out info, there's a noticeable lack of entry points for the casual fan. While other publishers are getting behind Scribd, Hoopla, and other 'all-you-can-read' sites, where's DC's digital platform?
DC just hasn't discovered the value of offering readers an easy digital entry point into their publications and as far as my own wallet goes, they've suffered for it.A Tonal Shift Away from the Iconic
It may seem obvious now, but I was surprised at the amount of hate that the 'New 52' spawned. While many of the objections I read seemed petty at first, over time I've come to see how this attempt at a line-wide shakeup devalued the iconic nature of the characters. You can start quite simply by the 'look and feel' of DC Heroes. Any opinion about 'underwear on the outside' aside, DC Comic heroes have been redesigned by Jim Lee in a way that isn't flattering to their iconic imagery. In an attempt to make them look modern we've seen a variety of gimmicks and over complicated designs. Characters have moved away from simple visuals that worked to looks that seem almost apologetic for being superhero costumes. Anyone unsure about what I mean can take a look at the just posted GARCIA-LOPEZ' 1980s STYLE GUIDE that drew tons of wistful comments from former DC Fans this week. Ultimately Mickey Mouse and The Flash aren't that different. The more you take these properties away from the visual elements that made them iconic, the easier it is to forget their relevancy.
Character design aside, the basic elements of what made these characters 'larger than life' has also been devalued by DC Comics in recent years. Superman is perhaps the best example of this change going from a symbol of confidence and well-adjusted example of a hero to a confused and angry character that seems to run away from his core identity as the rock of DC Comics. I went from purchasing every relaunched New 52 Superman title to dropping the character in its entirety. He just didn't feel the 'same' to me and instead felt like an also-ran of which there are quite simply too many variations. We don't need Superman to be conflicted - we need him to be a symbol of the best of what it means to be a hero. Sure that can be a bit 'stale' at times but there are ways to challenge those ideals while still crafting exciting stories. Contrast him against the way Captain America has undergone significant character shifts since 2004 (Civil War - Rebirth - Head of S.H.I.E.L.D. - 'Old Cap') while never giving up his core character. Perhaps that's simply a lack of vision on the part of DC editor's or a fear that fans won't embrace what's worked for 75 years. Either way - it just made it easier for me to drop many titles I used to read religiously. That's not to say the character can't change (and this is coming from a guy who enjoyed Electric Blue Superman) but he needs to keep the same 'core' character qualities that makes him resonate with readers.
The final nail in the coffin away from the iconic look and feel of DC Comics was the general line-wide imposition of a dour and depressing house style that removed any sense of joy from reading about these formerly inspiring characters. Colors seemed to be darker in general with more grimaces and a sense of doom in across the line. Forever Evil was the breaking point - from the story to the art I saw which way the wind was blowing in terms of the new DC Universe and quickly lost interest. For all of its attempts at being modern, the entire era has reeked of 90's nostalgia - and not the good parts. I don't necessarily think readers want that from comic characters at this point.
While for a moment it seemed that DC was going to start to 'right' the ship with the launch of the DCYOU line, I don't see the leadership taking any steps to create a sense of 'wonder' for comic fans. It may sound cheesy but at this point it's that sense of fun that makes Disney's characters (including Marvel and Star Wars) so much more interesting to me than Warner Brothers. This seems to be the case across movies, TV, and comics. While there are benefits to a bit of both light and dark in comics, sales seem to reveal which is more on target for the current tone of the consumer market.
The Rise of Viable Alternatives
The astonishing thing is that I read 10x more comics now than I ever did growing up. While my anecdote about Marvel Unlimited might make you think I'm a pure Marvel guy now, the majority of my comic budget goes to indie titles. The alternatives are almost overwhelming and at the top of the pack in my opinion is Image Comics. I'm astounded by the fact that, with the sheer breadth and quality of the work they produce, Image still only captures 10-15% of the comic market each month. Sure not everything is a hit but they seem to have crafted a formula that leads to higher rates of success per title. Letting creators bring their own ideas and pursue their passion has worked, and these kinds of new stories swiftly defeat uninspired concepts from the old guard.
I used to buy whatever new Vertigo series would launch next. I loved books like Scalped, 100 Bullets, and Transmetropolitan and heck I still do. But when I look for their descendants I'm not finding them at DC's sub imprint with the same frequency. Instead I'm finding my new 'favorite titles' in surprising spots and for the first time I'm purchasing more Dark Horse, IDW, BOOM! Studios, and Valiant than ever before. I think the reality is that consumers simply have more options when it comes to trying new titles and if the 'big two' can't keep readers invested in the stories they sell, that income will go elsewhere.
The irony is that this really feels like a great time to be a comics fan. It seems like each month I find a new comic project that catches my eye from a previously unknown publisher. From Black Mask Studios to ComixTribe (and heck even our sponsors over at DOUBLE TAKE) new publishers are frequently capturing that buzz that used to surround DC Comics titles. With the current state of things I don't see that changing over time.
While some people may kind of laugh or mock the sorry state of DC Comics these days, to me it's more depressing than anything else. It's like loving the Mets and knowing they'll never be as good as the year they won the World Series. One internet comment I stumbled across really summed it up by comparing DC to Microsoft being "large, lumbering, and unable to satisfy a vocal segment of angry consumers". It's easy to beat on DC with their seemingly incoherent management, frequent PR disasters, and confusion about their core audience. I suppose that makes the competitors Apple and Google with many readers willing to put up with more questionable products because of a love of the 'brand'. I like to consider myself above that sort of brand identification but I can't deny that my own buying habits have shifted away from my once favorite publisher. I don't want to pick a side I just want good stories that capture what made comics exciting to read as a kid. With the sheer amount of options - mediocrity just won't suffice.
My hope is that this is more of a 'dark decade' and that eventually the right executives will come along who understand these core values and help right the ship. Maybe it has to get worse before it gets better. But if even the WWE can find a way to find cultural relevance again, maybe DC Comics will one day find its way out of the desert in which it currently wanders.