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Grumpy Old Fan | DC needs mundane miniseries

by  in Comic News Comment

DC’s serialized superhero-style comics operate on two basic levels: First, they’re an array of periodicals, with a different lineup of issues published each week. Next, those installments are collected into distinct volumes and published on a separate schedule. That’s nothing new. The single-issue reader sees the books differently from the collection-oriented reader, and each way has its advantages and disadvantages. These days, however, caught somewhere in the middle is the miniseries.

Since the New 52 relaunch, miniseries have been a lot more scarce in DC’s superhero line. That’s understandable, considering that the New 52 itself began as a group of ongoing series, and (even if DC isn’t putting out exactly 52 of ‘em each month) it takes a good bit of effort to maintain that many regular titles. Nevertheless, not so long ago, superhero-style miniseries were about as plentiful as their ongoing cousins. The last time I looked at the numbers in detail was in the summer of 2008 — when, over the previous five years, miniseries issues accounted for about one-third of the superhero line’s output.

Of course, DC still produces big event-style miniseries — just look at Forever Evil and its spinoffs, to say nothing of the Before Watchmen minis — but those tend to be sure things, as are the recent Damian Wayne and Batman: Black and White miniseries. The kind of miniseries that tests the market’s appetite for a particular character — think Huntress, My Greatest Adventure or Human Bomb — has become considerably more rare since the New 52 debuted. Instead, the New 52 has produced low-selling, quickly canceled ongoing books like Blackhawks, Sword of Sorcery, Threshold and Green Team. That track record isn’t exactly flattering, so today we’ll look at whether DC might want to ease up on the ongoing-series commitments, and put more minis back on its schedule.

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Actually, those low-selling titles might well have had even lower numbers if they’d been crafted and marketed as miniseries. In years past, characters like Batman and Superman starred in standalone miniseries (like Gates of Gotham or Superman/Supergirl: Maelstrom) so as not to interfere with storylines in the ongoing series. I always thought that was a little ironic in light of the number of ongoing Batman and Superman titles, but I suppose it’s easier to produce a miniseries than it is to coordinate a new storyline among all those ongoings. Besides, Batman and Superman are well-known quantities, and it’s not too hard to gauge how well one of their miniseries might sell.

The opposite is true for miniseries like the New 52’s three Freedom Fighters spotlights (Human Bomb, The Ray and Phantom Lady) or My Greatest Adventure, which starred Robotman and a couple of creator-driven characters (Aaron Lopresti’s Garbageman and Kevin Maguire’s Tanga) from the pre-New 52 Weird Worlds anthology. Each mini appealed to a certain existing fanbase, which no doubt factored into the predicted success of each; but it probably wasn’t enough.

The direct market’s conservative macro-tendencies work inevitably against miniseries, because absent the notion that a story is “important,” there’s not much incentive for a reader to take a risk on a story. While an ongoing series requires a certain indefinite commitment of resources from the publisher, a miniseries implicitly asks the reader to commit her time and money for a defined period — and the latter may be too much to ask. That sounds counter-intuitive, but by definition an ongoing series is intended to be around for a while, so readers may feel more free to sample an issue or two before moving on. By contrast, miniseries are rarely cut short (The Great Ten notwithstanding), so readers may feel like they’re being asked to jump aboard for the whole thing — and, by the way, jump aboard at the beginning, because who wants to read just part of a miniseries? Trade-waiting is also a factor, as some readers may skip the individual issues in order to read the story as a whole, especially if it’s a story that doesn’t figure immediately into DC’s shared superhero universe.

Indeed, some miniseries seem to be produced with an eye toward how they’ll fill a particular spot on a bookshelf. Clearly DC wanted the Before Watchmen minis to make a nice set of companions for the original work. Back when the Shade miniseries looked like it might be truncated, I argued that it needed to run its natural course so that it could be collected alongside the other Starman volumes.  Similarly, the just-concluded Damian, Son of Batman and Batman: Black and White miniseries will no doubt be shelved alongside their predecessors. You can’t say the same for the Green Team, Blackhawks or Team 7 collections.

That, in turn, speaks to a larger issue surrounding DC’s publishing philosophy: Is it directed primarily toward the bookshelf, or at the periodical reader? For decades, DC has targeted the stereotypical direct market consumer by promising an interconnected lineup of titles. Ideally, everything would work together (or at least be complementary), thereby encouraging readers to buy it all. Naturally, everything would work on its own too; but where’s the fun in just buying a few titles?

With collected editions, though, the rhythms are different — not automatically better or worse, just different — and the perspective on the shared universe changes as a result. The stories themselves become more isolated, both from the shared universe and even from the other arcs in their own series. For example, the last big Batman Incorporated arc played out in single issues at about the same time as the “Death of the Family” crossover, although clearly “DOTF” happened before the concluding events in Incorporated. Reading those two arcs as they unfolded in single-issue form, a reader might have tried to harmonize them so they made some sense in the larger Batman timeline. Readers coming to those arcs in collected form, months or years after the stories have ended, have no incentive to do that. In fact, while the events of Grant Morrison’s Bat-saga necessarily spilled over into the other Batman series, it’s possible to read Morrison’s work on its own, without having to branch out into series like Detective or the post-Morrison Batman and Robin. Those series are a lot harder to avoid when you’re seeing them in comics shops alongside the newest Morrison issue.

Conversely, those qualities could work in favor of the humble DCU miniseries. If they can’t coast on franchise associations, and aren’t seen in a larger shared-universe context, they must rely on actual merit, good word of mouth, etc., to overcome Direct Market apathy. Moreover, standing alone means not having to stand out among a sea of similar collections — and by that I mean that if you’re looking for “the Character X miniseries,” you don’t have to hunt through a bunch of other Character X books to find it. It’s a backhanded compliment, but it could be a net positive.

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Still, if only the high-end miniseries are destined to thrive, DC must decide what sort of ongoing series it wants to promote. As noted in this space a few weeks back, the April solicitations present a superhero line dominated by franchises (and, at least for one month, no miniseries). Not counting cancellations, the Bat-office has anywhere from nine to 11 series, Superman and Green Lantern each have six, the Justice League has four, and there are four “dark” titles (not counting JL Dark). That’s at least 29 of the 41 New 52 ongoing series which will survive April; and when almost three-quarters of your superhero line is that crossover-friendly, you should probably expect to read some series you wouldn’t otherwise. Right now the “Blight” crossover is why I’m reading Phantom Stranger and Constantine.

I noted at the top of this post that from about 2003 to 2008, miniseries accounted for about a third of the superhero line’s output. What I didn’t say was that the superhero line had a lot fewer ongoing series in those days, ranging from 30 to 35 ongoings (on average) per year. After a couple of years without a lot of miniseries, the total superhero-line output got into the forties, and by 2005 the superhero line was publishing a total of fifty-odd series (ongoing and limited) per month. I haven’t looked at the data between the summer of ‘08 and now, but a quick check of the invaluable Mike’s Amazing World Of DC Comics site shows that in October 2009, DC was publishing a total of 34 superhero-line ongoing series and 20 miniseries; and in October 2010, the number was 33 ongoings plus about 12 miniseries.  October 2011 was the second month of the New 52 relaunch, and it featured three new miniseries: Huntress (which ended up tying into the New 52’s Earth-2 books), Penguin: Pain & Prejudice, and the anthology My Greatest Adventure. Since then, the New 52 superhero line has included only a handful of miniseries per year, from the conclusions of pre-relaunch series Batman: Odyssey and THUNDER Agents to Legion: Secret Origin, Forever Evil and its three tie-ins, the minis already mentioned, and “out-of-universe” minis like Before Watchmen, Joe Kubert Presents, the DCU/Masters of the Universe crossover, and JSA: The Liberty Files — The Whistling Skull. I’m not sure that comes to 20 miniseries in two years, let alone 20 a month.

Ironically, as the number of New 52 series decreases, it gets closer to the publishing output of ten-plus years ago. A good bit of the miniseries DC put out from 2004-10 were Big Events or their tie-ins (for example, in October 2009 Blackest Night was in full swing), and it looks like those may make up the bulk of DC’s miniseries efforts for the near future. However, there’s a lot to be said for using miniseries experimentally, or otherwise in an exploratory fashion, particularly if the ongoing series aren’t finding audiences.

In January, Dave Carter at Yet Another Comics Blog published a handy chart detailing the sales and longevity of each New 52 title.  It shows that from the start of the New 52 through the March solicits, DC launched a total of 76 ongoing series — 52 originally, and 24 subsequently — and canceled 33. What’s particularly striking is the short lifespan of many of those 33 series. G.I. Combat was canceled after seven issues, and it basically replaced Men of War, which had just been canceled after eight issues. Seven other series were cancelled after eight issues, two were cancelled after nine (Sword of Sorcery and Team 7, which started with issue #0 and ended with #8), two series were canceled after 10 issues, and five were canceled after 12 issues (plus a zero issue or Annual). Not counting Batman Incorporated volume 2 — which ended largely on its own terms after 13 issues and a Special — that’s 18 out of 33 canceled series that didn’t make it to Issue 13.

Adding in April’s five new ongoings and subtracting its six cancellations brings the overall total to 81 launches and 39 cancellations, with one more (Superman Unchained, ending at Issue 9) canceled before it reached Issue 13. Justice League of America will get to Issue 14 before being replaced by Justice League United, so it’s pretty much a wash. Still, that’s 19 short runs (13 issues or fewer) out of 39 canceled series.

To be sure, DC didn’t launch all these series at the same time (although 26 of the initial 52 series will have been canceled as of April) and didn’t cancel them all at once. Regardless, that doesn’t say much about the supposed permanence of an ongoing series. If the argument against limited series is that they’re easy to ignore, it might not be much better for the ongoings. In the long run, is cancelling all those ongoing series really better than losing a handful of sales “because it’s a miniseries?”

As DC’s superhero line coalesces around its franchises, it may be a good time to take those kinds of risks. Birds of Prey started out as a one-shot (from Chuck Dixon and Gary Frank) and lived on in a series of miniseries before becoming an ongoing title. Secret Six likewise started off as a tie-in miniseries (Villains United) before getting its own miniseries and, later, its own ongoing series. Instead of being defeated by the direct market’s alleged apathy, DC’s marketing department should take it as a challenge, and work to turn it into excitement for what could be the next fan-favorite.

For whatever reasons, the New 52 has favored ongoing series over miniseries. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, it doesn’t seem to have paid off. The different formats imply different levels of commitment, both from publishers and readers, and now it looks like DC has been overconfident with regard to a number of series. However, I don’t think DC should take this as a sign to retreat behind the barricades of Batman, GL, Superman, and Justice League titles. Rather, it’s a good opportunity to try different approaches and storytelling styles. In this regard, more miniseries might allow DC to go in multiple directions simultaneously — and over a shorter period of time — rather than committing to a new crop of ongoing series which might take a while to develop a fanbase. At the very least, it would know definitely when the miniseries would end, as opposed to deciding when to drop the hammer. Besides, a successful miniseries always leaves fans wanting more.