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Grumpy Old Fan | Balancing out the New 52, Part 2

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Balancing out the New 52, Part 2

Last week I laid out a lot of numbers and background on the distribution of character-oriented franchises in the New 52. (Along the way I got confused about the New 52 version of G.I. Combat; it was canceled after Issue 7, but its zero issue brought its total to eight.)

Accordingly, this week discusses whether the New 52 needs to get back up to its eponymous number of titles, or whether a smaller stable of ongoing series is a more sustainable environment. We’ll get into some other concerns as well, but the overarching question — as DC transforms its biggest franchise, the Bat-books — involves how the publisher chooses to allocate its resources.

(Because I forgot to do it directly last week, I want to acknowledge my debt to Dave Carter, who started me thinking about all this when he charted New 52 longevity in January and who, providentially, has just started listing DC rosters of Augusts past.)

* * *

To kick us off, here’s a revised version of a chart from last week:

  • Non-franchise ongoing series canceled after 8 issues = 9 (Blackhawks, Hawk & Dove, Men of War, Mister Terrific, OMAC, Static Shock, G.I. Combat, Threshold, Green Team)
  • Canceled after 9 = 2 (Sword of Sorcery, Team 7)
  • Canceled after 10 = 2 (Vibe, Katana)
  • Canceled after 12 = 1 (The Movement)
  • Canceled after 13 = 4 (Captain Atom, Resurrection Man, Voodoo, Ravagers)
  • Canceled after 15 = 1 (Pandora)
  • Canceled after 16 = 1 (Dial H)
  • Canceled after 17 = 4 (Blue Beetle, Frankenstein, Grifter, Legion Lost)
  • Canceled after 20 = 2 (DC Universe Presents, I Vampire)
  • Canceled after 21 = 3 (Deathstroke, Fury Of Firestorm, Savage Hawkman)
  • 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)

As noted last week, some of these series aren’t exactly dead-dead. Pandora, Deathstroke, Phantom Stranger, Teen Titans and Suicide Squad have been (or will be) relaunched. The Legion is set for a comeback in the pages of Justice League United (where we can also find Animal Man and Hawkman). Amethyst and Frankenstein are part of Justice League Dark. Future-ish versions of Mister Terrific, OMAC, Captain Atom, Grifter, Voodoo, Firestorm and whatever remains of Stormwatch are playing key roles in Futures End. Given their military/superhero mashup formats, and the fact that one followed the other pretty closely in time, G.I. Combat could be seen as a relaunch of Men of War. The final issue of Green Team crossed over with Teen Titans. DC cancels series, but often it tries to keep the characters around.

Now let’s look at the other side. As of the December solicitations (cover date February 2015), there will be a total of 45 New 52 series. Here’s how they break down, longevity-wise:

  • Issue 37 (charter New 52 series) = 21
  • Issue 29 = 2 (Earth 2 and Worlds Finest)
  • Issue 20 = Constantine
  • Issue 17 = Batman/Superman
  • Issue 14 = Superman/Wonder Woman
  • Issue 13 = Harley Quinn
  • Issue 12 = Justice League 3000
  • 8 issues total = 4 (Aquaman and the Others, Justice League United, Secret Origins, Sinestro)
  • 5-6 issues total = 5 (Forever People, Grayson, New Suicide Squad, Teen Titans v.2, GI Zombie)
  • 3 or fewer issues = 8 (Deathstroke v.2, Klarion, Lobo, Trinity of Sin, Arkham Manor, Gotham Academy, Gotham By Midnight, Secret Six)

Counting the four relaunches (Deathstroke, Grayson, Suicide Squad, Teen Titans), 25 series from the New 52’s initial roster will be around in some form at the end of the year. However, only eight of those 25 have no affiliation with the Batman, Green Lantern, Justice League or Superman franchises. These include Titans, Deathstroke, and Suicide Squad, plus Aquaman, Flash, Green Arrow, Swamp Thing and Wonder Woman.

That’s one end of the longevity spectrum. The other is the group of 17 series that will have produced eight or fewer issues by the end of the year. Among them are the four newest Bat-books and fellow franchisees Sinestro and JL United. Admittedly, it can be hard to predict which of the new books will find a welcoming audience, particularly when many of those haven’t yet debuted. However, the middle of the chart — books between 12 and 20 issues — is almost all franchisees, and all familiar characters. It all amounts to a lot of competition for a title and/or concept that’s fairly new.

* * *

Now, if you want to reduce shelf-space competition, you could reduce the size of the New 52 itself — but that’s easier said than done. Even trimming the Bat-line seems daunting. Batgirl, Batwoman, Catwoman, and Harley each have pretty loyal fanbases. Grayson seems to have improved on Nightwing. Robin’s impending return gives Batman and Robin renewed energy. You can’t cancel Batman or Detective; and it’s way too early to write off the three new books. That leaves Red Hood as arguably the weakest link, but it’s still just one book out of 12.

The Superman line is perhaps easier to prune, at least as long as you’re not too attached to the two team-up titles. (Also, Worlds’ Finest’s format change makes it a little redundant alongside Batman/Superman.) That would leave Action, Superman and Supergirl. Likewise, getting rid of New Guardians, Red Lanterns and Sinestro would reduce the GL franchise to the main book and GL Corps. Finally, Justice League 3000 seems like the most superfluous League book, but it sounds like some interesting things are about to happen there.

Sentiment aside, canceling all those titles would mean losing a total of seven franchise-based series (assuming you don’t replace one franchise book with another). Replacing them with non-franchise titles means more exposure for the non-franchise books, but the amount of shelf-space competition remains the same. That means Quirky Book A may be competing more directly with Quirky Book B, and not so much with Ancillary Franchise Book C. Still, it improves the odds of at least one quirky book surviving.

Another possibility involves combining two or more features into (gasp!) an anthology. Longtime readers will no doubt remember that my affection for anthologies is not only a minority view, but often comes up short against direct market realities. DC has tried a handful of multi-feature titles in the New 52 (such as DC Universe Presents, Men of War, GI Combat, Threshold, and Sword of Sorcery) without much success. However, as Caleb suggests (see the footnotes), the Green Lantern line could replace some of its ongoing monthlies with a weekly series, a la Batman Eternal. That could make the hypothetical Rainbow Lanterns Forever “important” enough for the market’s tastes.  A similar analysis applies to other potential combinations. Nevertheless, both anthologies and weekly series come with implied commitments — one for content you might not otherwise have chosen, the other for a concentrated period of time — so the question then becomes what sort of commitment DC wants its readers to make.

The last option (for today, at least) is the newest. Over the past few years, DC’s digital-first series have dealt exclusively with out-of-(current) continuity settings. Here, anthologies have apparently been more successful — Legends of the Dark Knight led to Adventures of Superman, and then to the current Sensation Comics — as have multimedia tie-ins like Injustice and Smallville Season 11. It may only be a matter of time before an in-continuity series debuts as a digital-first offering. Such a series wouldn’t have to compete for physical shelf space, but it would also be divorced from the every-Wednesday mechanics which drive crossovers and other marketing maneuvers. Regardless, as readers rely more on collections, those mechanics are becoming less important. Accordingly, the first in-continuity digital-first series may come sooner rather than later.

* * *

Whatever DC decides to do, it still needs to diversify. Relying on four big franchises — or, more accurately, 12 Bat-books and three other franchises with a combined total of 14 books — can’t last forever. While it’s promising that the Bat-books are diversifying (this week’s Batgirl was even better than last week’s Gotham Academy), DC needs to ensure that the next Quirky Book succeeds on its own merits. In other words, DC needs to change to accommodate these hypothetical new series, rather than only supporting series which reinforce a certain house style. Talking about setting the new Batman arc in the post-Batman Eternal future, Scott Snyder told Comic Book Resources:

the point was to try and give [the upcoming Arkham Manor], and all of the Bat-series, room to function singularly. One of things we’ve tried to do with Batman from the beginning, from “Court of Owls” to now, is to give other books the opportunity to tie-in if they wanted, but not to force anything we’re doing on them. Here, part of the fun of starting at the end of Eternal rather than somewhere in Eternal — or starting in some point that Batgirl and all of these books would immediately have to tie-into — is to give elbow room to each book to have its own character, to have its own arc, to have its own personality, and still reflect a shared universe.

That applies just as much to the larger DC line — but it won’t work if the market isn’t friendly to those personalities, or doesn’t welcome those new approaches.

Accordingly, if DC is serious about transforming the Bat-line, and from there the rest of the New 52, it needs to either back away from the franchises, or try to make them a little less monolithic. That may mean reducing the number of ongoing series to give the newer ones room to breathe. It could mean radical format alterations like anthologies or weeklies. It could involve bypassing the Direct Market and going digital-first. What it shouldn’t involve is chasing market share, “winning September” every year, or relying too heavily on the tastes of one demographic. Clearly DC has the tools to break these old habits. It just needs to show more of a desire to do so.

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

And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 23.

  • Story pages: 20
  • Black Adam/Stormwatch/Brainiac pages: 6
  • Tim/Madison/Ronnie pages: 5
  • Las Vegas pages: 4
  • Future Mister Terrific pages: 5
  • Date of the latest real-world “Blood Moon”: October 8, 2014
  • Number of different Earths represented on the cover: at least 4 (main DC-Earth; New 52 Earth-2; pre-New 52 Earth-2; pre-New 52 main DC-Earth; possibly a separate Earth for the classic OMAC, who’s peeking out from behind the “RE”)
  • Opening-sequence narrator: unknown
  • Odds of Madison becoming part of Firestorm: 2:1
  • Odds that Hawkman’s “rescue” will backfire: 10:1
  • Number of panels showing Tim trailing Madison before he’s fully revealed: 6
  • Number of panels showing Ronnie in Madison’s vicinity before he’s fully revealed: 0

NOTES: On balance, I thought this was an effective issue. There’s a long time left in this series — sometimes I think almost too long — but at least this week there’s some momentum. Stormwatch is inadvertently bringing Brainiac’s forces to Earth; ex-Sergeant Rock wants Fifty-Sue dead; and in the future, Batman’s joined brains with the Joker.

However, each of these feels potentially like cheap thrills. Don’t we all expect the series to put off Brainiac(s) fighting (versions of) Superman until the very end? (Solicitations suggest December at the earliest.) Based on what we know to date, do we really think Voodoo and company will take out Fifty-Sue? Won’t a Bat-Joker-borg look awfully conspicuous in the world of Five Years From Now?

There were some distracting technical concerns as well. I liked the character-description captions, but I have no idea where they came from. I do wish their sense of playfulness extended to the rest of the issue, particularly in the Madison/Tim/Ronnie and Las Vegas sequences. And speaking of Ronnie’s “I saw you coming and turned around,” the panels don’t bear that out. As much as I like Aaron Lopresti’s pencils, and the Stalker!Tim misdirection, that sounds like dialogue patching a storytelling hole.

Still, I did appreciate seeing the classic Atom (although does this mean he was inspired by the Earth-3 spy?), especially “we’ve all got swords now.” I like the monstrous Brainiac design, and the fact that it’ll repair the hole Black Adam punched through it. It’s always good when DC can work Frank Rock into a storyline, although here he sounds (and looks) a little too Nick Fury-esque, and not much like the Bob Kanigher/Joe Kubert original. Again, here’s hoping Futures End can weave some coherence around all these elements, and not just be content with a series of “cool moments.”

One more housekeeping note: I will be reading Earth 2: Worlds End, but probably won’t be covering it unless/until it intersects more concretely with Futures End. It just doesn’t look as quantifiable as FE.

NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Bright light! Parasite! Fury fights! Black Adam’s might! And … part 2 of the cover triptych!

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