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Grumpy Old Fan | Balancing out the New 52, Part 1

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Balancing out the New 52, Part 1

Note: This week’s post, and probably next week’s, get pretty number-heavy. Also, this week’s post contains a lot of history and background data. I have tried to make it all entertaining, but consider yourselves warned. Either way, there’s still the Futures Index.

Starting this week, the Batman line gets a makeover. Gotham Academy, from writers Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher and artist Karl Kerschl, is a delightfully spry addition to the Bat-landscape. Amid a franchise dominated (not unreasonably) by stylized, unflinching urban avenging, GA’s unique perspective is both welcome and necessary. Waiting in the wings are new Batgirl and Catwoman creative teams, as well as new titles Arkham Manor and Gotham After Midnight. (The three new books apparently take the places of Batman: The Dark Knight, Batwing and Birds of Prey.)

All look promising, and each offers a new look at a seldom-seen aspect of the Batman mythology. Moreover, it’s vitally important for DC to reach out to a diverse audience, particularly one that may have felt underappreciated over the past few years.

However, all this innovation comes at a time when the in-name-only New 52 has been stuck for a while at around 40-odd series. Only 21 of the original 52 ongoings are still being published, although books like Teen Titans, Suicide Squad and Deathstroke have been relaunched with new volumes. Similarly, we might view Grayson and Justice League United as continuations of Nightwing and the New-52 version of Justice League of America.

Still, quite a few series have come and gone. In February I argued that maybe DC should just start rolling out miniseries, as that’s what short-lived efforts like Green Team, The Movement, Katana and Vibe effectively became.

To be sure, any book in the Bat-orbit will likely have a better-than-average run — but that necessarily skews perceptions of their success. If they do well (and I hope they do) the power of the Bat may get the credit; and if they do poorly, their quirks may get the blame. It’s not exactly a recipe for experimenting across the board.

Accordingly, today we’ll look at spinoffs and franchises through the years, and examine whether these new efforts might encourage DC to go further with other such families.

* * *

From the Silver Age into the 1970s, Superman was DC’s main franchise. The Man of Steel and/or his supporting cast starred in Action Comics, Superman, Adventure Comics, World’s Finest, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. In the ‘70s the latter two were combined into the oversized Superman Family anthology, while Superman got his own team-up title (DC Comics Presents) and Supergirl had a short-lived early-‘80s title. The 1986 revamp consolidated the Super-titles into three (and eventually) four monthly series, but by the early ‘90s the spinoffs were ratcheting up with Superboy and Steel. The former even spun off Superboy and the Ravers, while a distinctly different Supergirl series debuted in 1996.

Speculation frenzy in the early ‘90s encouraged DC to build franchises around other series. Deathstroke was a spinoff of New Titans and has arguably become more popular than its parent; but the reverse was definitely not true for contemporaneous spinoff Team Titans. Around the same time, the two Justice League titles (JL America and JL Europe) added Justice League Task Force; Guy Gardner and Green Lantern: Mosaic spun out of Green Lantern, and Flash begat Impulse.

Nevertheless, Batman has been DC’s biggest rainmaker for at least the past 25 years, not just in comics but (as the suits might say) across multimedia platforms. It’s enough to make one fear for the gothificiation of DC’s superheroes generally.

It’s also worth remembering that until the early ‘90s, you could count the number of active Bat-books on one hand. Of course, since 1940 the mainstays have been Detective Comics and Batman, with World’s Finest Comics featuring solo Bat-stories until the 1950s and team-ups with Superman thereafter. The ‘60s saw Brave and the Bold become a Batman team-up title, and when it folded in 1983 Batman and the Outsiders took its spot. 1975 introduced a handful of short-lived spinoffs, including Batman Family (which focused on the supporting cast), The Joker and Man-Bat. After BatFam’s cancellation, ’Tec briefly adopted its format.

The roster of regular Bat-books didn’t start expanding in earnest until 1989, with Legends of the Dark Knight. Three years later, with a Bat-sequel in theaters and an animated series on the way, DC launched Batman: Shadow of the Bat. 1993’s “Knightfall” event spun off solo series for Robin and Catwoman, 1994 brought Azrael, Nightwing debuted in 1996, and Birds of Prey became an ongoing series in 1998. With Gotham Knights replacing Shadow of the Bat in 2000, Batgirl and Harley Quinn launching in the wake of “No Man’s Land,” and Gotham Central debuting in 2003, the Bat-office hummed along nicely for most of the 2000s. Even 2009’s “Battle for the Cowl” reorganization largely swapped one set of books for another, reflecting the Bruce Wayne-less reshuffling: Batman and Robin for Nightwing, Gotham City Sirens for Catwoman and/or Birds of Prey, Red Robin for Robin, and new series Batgirl vol. 2, Streets of Gotham, and Azrael. By cover-date January 2010, Bat-books accounted for at least nine (10 if you include Superman/Batman) of the 37 ongoing DCU series, or a little less than 25 percent. For the February 2015 books (i.e., the ones solicited for this December), the numbers are 12 Bat-titles (not including Batman/Superman) out of 45 New 52 ongoings, for around 27 percent.

Therefore, while we can applaud the creative merits of the three new Bat-books, those very merits can also feed the perception that such experimentation is only possible within the powerful Bat-bloc.

Indeed, the New 52’s history of short-lived titles supports such a stance. From the start of the New 52 (cover-date November 2011) through the latest set of solicitations (cover-date February 2015), DC debuted — or will debut — a total of 93 ongoing series in its main superhero line. In two months, there will be 45 ongoing New 52 series. That number includes

  • the 21 original New 52 series, plus
  • six relaunches of New 52 titles (Justice League United, Grayson, Teen Titans, Deathstroke, New Suicide Squad, and Trinity of Sin); as well as
  • seven relaunches of titles which predate the New 52 (Constantine, Batman/Superman, Harley Quinn, Forever People, Lobo, Secret Origins and Secret Six).

That leaves 11 “original” titles, including the three new Bat-books. Earth 2 and Worlds’ Finest have enough New 52 in them that I didn’t want to call them relaunches (and along those lines, I’m not sure about Klarion). Superman/Wonder Woman and Justice League 3000 aren’t really relaunches either, just different combinations of familiar characters; and Aquaman and the Others is a spinoff relying on New 52 elements. Sinestro has definite Green Lantern connections, but his time as the GL headliner was pretty brief, so it’s not really a continuation of that. Even GI Zombie — one of the few DC books not tied to a franchise and not dependent on preexisting goodwill — is officially a relaunch of Star-Spangled War Stories and recalls both the old “G.I. Robot” feature (from SSWS and Weird War Tales) and the G.I. Combat title (whose New 52 iteration was, by the way, canceled after eight issues).

* * *

Again, the New 52’s history with offbeat titles hasn’t been that great. OMAC and Green Team each lasted eight issues, The Movement and Larfleeze each got 12, and Dial H got 15 issues and a “Villains Month” special. However, that may just be the perils of the mid-list.

When the New 52 started, DC separated it into various categories, like “The Dark” and “The Edge,” but it also included some obvious franchises. These included Superman and Green Lantern (four series each), Justice League (three), the Legion of Super-Heroes (two) and, of course, Batman (11). They accounted for a total of 24 series, or just under half of the New 52; but if you take out the Bat-books, they’d be 13 of 41 (about 32 percent).

Since then, the Superman books have added three titles (the two team-ups and Unchained) and canceled two (Superboy and Unchained), for a net of five series. Both Legion titles have been canceled. The Green Lantern books added and canceled Larfleeze and then added Sinestro, so they’re up to five as well. The Justice League titles canceled JL International, added JL America and relaunched it as JL United, and added JL 3000, so they’re up to four. The Bat-books have added seven and canceled five, for a net of 13. The rest of the New 52 has added 26 titles and canceled 37, going from 28 “unaffiliated” books at the start to a net of 19.

Therefore, it seems better to be part of a franchise. The shortest-lived Bat-book has been Incorporated (14 issues and a Special), but it ended on its own terms. Next is Talon (18 issues), which tied into both Batman and, eventually, Birds of Prey. After that, Batman: The Dark Knight got 30 issues, Nightwing 31, and Batwing 34. Not counting Superman Unchained or JL of America, both which are ending/have ended on their own terms, the shortest-lived titles in the other major franchises have been Larfleeze (12 issues) and JL International (12 issues and an Annual).

Compare that to the rest of the New 52, where almost a fourth of the 37 cancellations have happened within 8 issues (the aforementioned GI Combat getting the ax at seven, plus eight others canceled after eight issues) and almost a half (18) have happened after 13 issues or fewer (with the 13th perhaps being a “zero” or other special issue). The biggest chunks of cancellations come after eight issues (eight canceled series), 13 issues (four series), and 17 issues (four series).

Here’s a chart:

  • Canceled after 7 issues = 1
  • Canceled after 8 = 8
  • Canceled after 9 = 2
  • Canceled after 10 = 2
  • Canceled after 12 = 1
  • Canceled after 13 = 4
  • Canceled after 15 = 1
  • Canceled after 16 = 1
  • Canceled after 17 = 4
  • Canceled after 20 = 2
  • Canceled after 21 = 3
  • Canceled after 23 = 1 (Phantom Stranger)
  • Canceled after 24 = 2 (Demon Knights, Legion of Super-Heroes)
  • Canceled after 30 = 2 (Animal Man, Stormwatch)
  • Canceled after 31 = 2 (Teen Titans, Suicide Squad)
  • Canceled after 35 = 1 (All Star Western)

Obviously, these numbers aren’t perfect — for one thing, they include titles which have already been relaunched, and probably shouldn’t be counted as “canceled.” Even so, the critical point for many non-franchise books seems to be significantly lower than their franchise-oriented counterparts.

* * *

It all demonstrates the risk involved in launching any new series, juxtaposed against the relative conservatism of a franchise-oriented approach. If the other new Bat-efforts are half as good as Gotham Academy, the Bat-line will be much better for it. However, these numbers don’t make me as optimistic for the rest of the superhero line.

What to do? Sadly, that’ll have to wait until next week.

+++++++++++++++++

And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 22.

  • Story pages: 20
  • Jason Rusch pages: 5
  • Ronnie Raymond pages: 1
  • Voodoo et al. pages: 4
  • Batman/Plastique pages: 4
  • Stormwatch pages: 6
  • Double-page layouts: 2 (4 pages total)
  • Characters not seen in several issues: 8 (Jason, Ronnie, Dr. Yamazake, the entire Voodoo cast)
  • Marvel Family characters: 2
  • Marvel Family characters who are the subject of some sort of Superman comparison: 2

NOTES: Picking up right from last week’s Brainiac-related shenanigans, here’s the “Blood Moon” we’ve been hearing so much about. Thanks to Patrick Zircher, Brainiac and his new digs look sufficiently spooky, reinforcing the steady drumbeat of hopelessness which has permeated this miniseries virtually from its first page.

The issue also checks in with characters about whom I’d almost forgotten. We can see the first hints of what will bring Jason and Ronnie back together, but I’m not sure why exactly we’re checking in with Voodoo, Mercy, and Bangers and Mash (ugh). I’m unaware of the latter two, and Google isn’t very helpful either. Presumably they’ll come back in contact with Grifter, and try to bring down Cadmus Island; but again, not that optimistic.

I will say that I thought the Ronnie/Jason scenes improved on their subplot. That may just be a function of its absence, but it’s probably the idea of a happy outcome, as opposed to all the fussin’ and fightin’ from earlier on. See what happens when you show a little hope, FE writers?

Also, I appreciate the steady stream of clues connecting the Asian temple to Brainiac, Pandora’s skull, and probably Despero. It makes me think there’s an actual plan behind all of this, which would be nice. (But I kid the sometimes-haphazard nature of DC event miniseries!)

Speaking of positive outcomes, I think this is the first time in the New 52 we’ve actually seen Ray Palmer in full Atom costume, shrunken-down and clean-shaven to boot. Too bad he’ll probably get blasted into oblivion next issue….

NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Tim stalks! Atom jumps! Stormwatch fights! Mister Terrific meditates! And … Creepy Brainiac is creepy!

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