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Grumpy Old Fan | A different look at DC Comics’ solicitations for December 2010

by  in Comic News Comment

Most months, this is that special week where I take a look at DC’s latest batch of solicitations. This month, though, the solicitations themselves take a back seat to the larger DC Entertainment news — and, specifically, to the end of the WildStorm imprint.

I know I am not the first to point out WildStorm’s slow death. For a while now it has been a disparate mix of superheroes, videogame tie-ins, and other licensed adaptations. As such, it’s been hard for WildStorm to establish (or re-establish) its own identity, even in terms of that diversity. Ironically, the imprint built much of its reputation on creator-driven titles, like The Authority and Gen13, which have now been incorporated into the greater DC Multiverse. They may have new life down the road, but if DC’s treatment of the Milestone and Red Circle characters is any indication, the quality of that life may well leave something to be desired.

Of course, many of WildStorm’s books will continue under the DC bullet, presumably to build up the DC brand in general. On one level I’m happy to see this kind of assimilation, because it instantly — albeit superficially — makes the DC line more diverse. I’ve argued for a while that it needs to be more than superheroes; but even The Authority and Astro City are sufficiently different from the DCU titles.

I have my doubts about that diversity creating new superhero readers, though. Longtime readers may remember that I got back into comic books through DC’s Star Trek. I started reading the Trek comic in the fall of 1984, just before Crisis On Infinite Earths came out, so the timing was good, to say the least. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t count on today’s readers making a similar transition from, say, Gears Of War to Freedom Fighters. If it’s not happening now, it probably won’t happen under a new masthead.

Besides, DC’s focus is increasingly on its most recognizable characters. It may be a coincidence, but for December, DC has solicited more Batman-related titles (21) than all of WildStorm’s ongoing series and miniseries (14). While some of those Bat-books are Annuals and miniseries which won’t be back in January, the December solicits definitely reinforce the perception that DC is taking very few risks. Again, this is why I like even the “involuntary diversification” which comes from putting something like Victorian Undead II under the DC bullet — because it forces the publisher to think about something other than superheroes.

The flip side of that, naturally, is the notion that DC will refuse to publish the next Victorian Undead because it won’t be able to evaluate such a book by WildStorm’s less demanding sales standards. After all, there are plenty of reasons why DC publishes so many Batman books. Maybe I’m wrong; and maybe this is the start of a singular, more genuinely-diverse line of DC comic books. I hope it is … but I’m still skeptical.

* * *

And not to pick unfairly on the Batman line, but I did want to talk a little more about those twenty-one books solicited for December. They include

— 5 ongoing in-continuity Batman titles (Detective Comics, Batman, Batman And Robin, Batman Inc., and The Dark Knight);

— 5 ongoing in-continuity “Bat-partner” titles (Red Robin, Gotham City Sirens, Streets Of Gotham, Azrael, and Batgirl);

— 2 ongoing anthologies (Batman Confidential and Superman/Batman);

— 2 tangentially-related team books (Birds Of Prey and Outsiders);

— 3 issues of Batman miniseries (Odyssey and the two issues of Orphans);

— 1 issue of a Bat-related miniseries (Knight & Squire);

— 2 Annuals (Detective Comics and Batman); and

— 1 Special (the Batman 80-Page Giant 2010).

As mentioned above, this is something of an unusual month even for the Bat-books. The numbers are inflated artificially by the Annuals, the 80-Page Giant, and the two issues of Orphans. However, they’ve also been goosed somewhat by the relatively-recent addition (in November) of B. Inc. and Dark Knight. Furthermore, despite being wrong about the imminent cancellation of the post-“Battle For The Cowl” titles, I continue to believe that we are in the midst of an artificially-inflated Bat-bubble. Out of all the ongoing titles listed above, only Batman and Detective Comics have any kind of long-term staying power. Batman And Robin and Batman Inc. both represent the “Grant Morrison Era of Batman,” although by November Morrison will have transferred his flag from B&R to Inc. Likewise, last year SOG and GCS allowed Paul Dini to continue story threads he’d begun in Detective Comics, which itself had become Batwoman’s new home.

Dini’s gone from GCS, though, and Batwoman has left ’Tec for her own series. Dini’s “Heart Of Hush” arc in SOG will be over in a few months as well; and its end could be a natural place to conclude that series. Streets was #86 on the July sales charts, having sold just under 25,000 copies to retailers; while Sirens was #81, with just over 25K of sales. Both of them look like powerhouses next to Batman Confidential, which at #129 sold some 14,000 copies of its July issue to retailers. With all that in mind, I am still more bullish on Confidential, because I can see more of an ongoing demand for a Batman anthology than I can for two titles each specializing in relatively obscure members of the Bat-cast. (And yes, I know Catwoman isn’t exactly “obscure.”) Obviously, if DC is happy with the numbers for Streets and Sirens, I wouldn’t expect either of them to be cancelled. At the same time, though, neither title strikes me as particularly ambitious. (I still read Streets, but I dropped Sirens a while back.) Streets is decent enough, just as Dini and Dustin Nguyen’s Detective was pretty decent; and Sirens at its best was like a twisted Birds Of Prey. However, Gotham Central was a more distinctive look at the Bat-mythology, and BOP and Catwoman were (and are) better-received than Sirens has been.

Put another way, whenever I see a glut of Bat-books, I always wonder whether the readership might be better-served with fewer titles. If Odyssey had been a Batman Confidential arc, it would have boosted that book’s sales, and it might have gotten some new readers to stick around afterwards. Such an argument doesn’t make financial sense for DC, though. The publisher has no incentive to serialize Neal Adams’ work in the existing Confidential when it can make a bigger splash with a standalone Odyssey — and still profit from readers who buy both books.

The December solicits also demonstrate why DC would rather launch a new Grant Morrison Bat-title than have the writer return to Batman. J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman storyline has already needed one fill-in issue, and Morrison himself has been late on both Batman and Batman and Robin. Clearly DC would prefer to publish high-profile, long-running titles like Batman and Superman consistently every month, rather than risk any more delays; so it gets a fill-in for Superman and lets Batman and Robin run late. More titles also gives DC more flexibility to tell … well, more Batman stories, apparently.

In the end, though, all those Batman books (and the five Superman titles, five Green Lantern titles, three Titans titles, and three Legion titles) can make a local comics shop’s shelves look awfully homogenized. Similarly, the December solicitations give the impression (fairly or not) that DC would rather have one big plate of superheroes than a more balanced diet of genres. I don’t know how long DC can sustain all these Bat-titles, especially since both Batman and Robin and Batman Inc. appear to have lifespans dictated by fairly specific concepts (namely, Dick and Damian and “the franchise”), but surely the Bat-line will have to be pruned back in the next year or two. By then I wonder if DC will have learned anything productive from WildStorm’s decline, or if it will have simply redirected its energies in more familiar ways.