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Grumpy Old Fan | Save The Shade

by  in Comic News Comment

Writer James Robinson tweets that low sales might cut short his twelve-issue Shade miniseries. That would be a shame, because the first two issues of The Shade are tremendously entertaining, great-looking superhero comics. Robinson has returned to the character he revitalized, bringing with him the artistic talents of Cully Hamner and a bevy of high-profile guests like Darwyn Cooke, Frazer Irving, Javier Pulido, and Jill Thompson. The Beat’s Todd Allen has written a supportive post, noting along the way that certain New-52 titles which are selling below The Shade #1’s level (30,648 issues estimated sold to retailers) might also face the axe.

I’m somewhat skeptical of this rumor, despite Robinson’s insider knowledge, for reasons having to do with the 2009-10 miniseries The Great Ten.

Created by Grant Morrison and introduced in 2006 as part of the weekly 52 miniseries, The Great Ten is the official superhero team of the Chinese government. The Great Ten miniseries, from writer Tony Bedard and artist Scott McDaniel, ran for nine issues (cover dates December 2009-July 2010), with a planned tenth issue cancelled due to low sales. Specifically (per ICV2.com and Marc-Olivier Frisch), The Great Ten #1 sold 13,159 copies to retailers, issue #2 sold 8,760, and by the time issue #9 came out sales were down to 5,782. Since each issue included a vignette about a particular member of the ten-person team, the cancellation also screwed up the series’ format, adding a bit of insult to injury. To be sure, low sales might have been expected, inasmuch as the Ten weren’t especially critical to 52’s plot, Morrison wasn’t involved in the miniseries, and it came out over two years after 52 ended. (In the meantime, the Ten had appeared in a few issues of Checkmate.)

Thus, while DC did pare an issue off The Great Ten, that miniseries started off with considerably fewer sales, suffered a 33% drop between issues #1 and #2, and still only lost the one issue. In fact, for whatever it’s worth, the Ten’s August General In Iron is now part of the New-52’s Justice League International.

By contrast, The Shade follows one of the more popular characters from Robinson’s fondly-remembered Starman series. For those who came in late, Starman was one of DC’s 1990s successes, thanks both to the hero Robinson and artist Tony Harris introduced (along with a city full of other new characters) and for the ways in which it examined characters and legacies from all of DC’s superhero eras. It’s been collected in a 6-volume hardcover series, so clearly DC thought there was still an audience for those stories. In that context, a seventh volume with twelve issues’ worth of The Shade isn’t hard to imagine. (Admittedly, perhaps it is a little easier to imagine a slimmer hardcover; but again, I don’t think it will come to that.)

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Naturally, this Shade rumor carries with it a couple of startling implications about DC’s cancellation policies. Put simply, DC may now believe that, after two months of chart-busting New 52 titles, it can afford to hold its superhero line to higher standards. Regardless, just as the Shade rumor is hard for me to believe, so is this notion that DC has suddenly become more draconian.

In April — the last full month of comics sales before DC announced the New 52, and therefore the last full month before the entire line got Senioritis — the charts looked a bit different. As it happens, the superhero line published 52 issues’ worth of ongoing series, miniseries, and specials, led by the 75,780 copies retailers bought of Green Lantern #65. However, most of the rest of those issues sold fewer than 31,000 copies each, including the following ongoing series:

Superboy #6 (30,490)
Birds of Prey #11 (30,270)
Superman/Batman #83 (28,403)
Batman Beyond #4 (26,722)
Teen Titans #94 (25,187)
Gotham City Sirens #22 (24,438)
Batgirl #20 (24,310)
Legion of Super-Heroes #12 (23,419)
Adventure Comics #525 (22,946)
Supergirl #63 (21,598)
Titans #34 (20,590)
Secret Six #32 (19,714)
Zatanna #12 (18,432)
Power Girl #23 (17,071)
JSA All-Stars #17 (16,706)
Booster Gold #43 (16,018)
Outsiders #38 (13,092)
Jonah Hex #66 (10,335)
REBELS #27 (10,014)
THUNDER Agents #6 (9,680)
Doom Patrol #21 (9,435)
Freedom Fighters #8 (8,601)
Xombi #2 (8,345)
Doc Savage #13 (7,426)
Spirit #13 (7,041)

Even then, a number of those were dead books walking. JSA All-Stars, Outsiders, REBELS, Doom Patrol, and Freedom Fighters had already been cancelled, with their final issues coming out in May. In fact, in light of the relaunch, we can lop off just about everything from Titans on down; because except for Jonah Hex and THUNDER Agents, none of it has survived recognizably to the New 52.

And that’s another point in The Shade’s favor: the THUNDER Agents ongoing series was selling fewer than 10,000 copies per issue six months ago, and it’s about to be relaunched as a six-issue miniseries. Perhaps THUNDER Agents is a special case for which the math works out pretty well, albeit in some arcane fashion: in addition to the 10-issue ongoing and the 6-issue miniseries, DC has reprinted all of the back issues in hardcover Archives and is about to start paperback Chronicles reprints. However, it could mean simply that the feature has staying power, and it’s reasonable to contend that Starman and its spinoffs are similar. By the same token, I suppose that if the new THUNDER Agents miniseries tanks, it doesn’t look good for The Shade.

Anyway, at the very least it looked like DC in April had accepted a good bit of its line selling at or below the 30,000 mark. However, in October DC had jumped to an average issue selling (by my calculations) 56,851 copies, up almost 89% from April’s 30,148. As Todd noted, if The Shade’s 30K puts it in danger, then October’s bottom four New-52 ongoings (OMAC at 29,434; Static Shock at 29,124; Blackhawks at 28,534; and Men Of War at 28,301) should be a little nervous too.

For now, though, I’m more concerned with October’s other new miniseries. Legion: Secret Origin and Huntress debuted with sales of 38,248 and 36,099 respectively; and Penguin and My Greatest Adventure charted below Shade with numbers of 26,380 and 17,222 respectively. I note that while neither of the latter is a 12-issue miniseries, no one is talking about them ending early.

There’s also Neal Adams’ Batman: Odyssey vol. 2 #1, which charted just below The Shade #1 with 30,410 copies. No one seems especially worried about its future either, but it picks up about where Volume 1 left off in terms of sales. Plus, you know, Adams is apparently indulging every gonzo impulse he’s ever had. Again, though, the fact that Odyssey seems safe, selling about what Shade #1 did, argues against a stricter sales standard.

Somewhat counterintuitively, so does the news of Marvel’s recent cancellations. CBR’s Kiel Phegley summarized the grim details:

[R]egular series Daken: Dark Wolverine, Ghost Rider, X-23 and Iron Man 2.0 have all been cancelled. Miniseries Destroyers and Victor Von Doom were scuttled before their first issues even saw print, while All-Winners Squad was cancelled before the completion of its life as a limited series. Alpha Flight was downgraded from an ongoing to a miniseries after being upgraded from mini to ongoing earlier in the summer. And monthly series PunisherMAX and Black Panther: The Most Dangerous Man Alive will cease publication once their current, long-gestating storylines wrap in February.

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For the most part, titles that remain untouched are those built off of properties and franchises that have proven to have long runs in the market, be they spin-offs of popular titles or series that have lasted for hundreds of issues, even through market fluctuations and creative changes. Even the lowest selling comics that remain, such as X-Factor, have shown a level of sales consistency from month-to-month, pointing toward a dependable place in the market. It is logical to assume Marvel is relying on steady, stable performers first and foremost rather than banking on newer, unproven titles bucking their downwards sales trends and building an audience over the long run.

Among the titles listed above, X-23 sold the most copies of its October issue (24,043). With that number as a guide, it’s not surprising that these books were cancelled; but at the same time, it’s hard not to think that if The Shade were a Marvel book, it’d be pretty safe. For the past several years, Marvel has dominated the sales charts both through popular titles and sheer volume, so its standards are going to be a little different from DC’s. Still, if DC aspires to those kinds of numbers, Marvel has just established its own cancellation threshold, which the vast majority of DC’s October superhero titles would be well above. Moreover, thanks to its Starman pedigree, The Shade arguably has that “dependable place in the market” Kiel mentioned. While DC may want better monthly numbers, it would probably be just as happy with consistent sales on the inevitable collection.

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Naturally, for this kind of title, trying to arrive at an appropriate sales “sweet spot” is tough. Starman was a great series, but it’s been over for ten years. Not all of its collections are in print, and as nice as the Omnibus hardcovers are, they’re pricey too. Besides Starman’s eighty-plus issues, The Shade picks up a little from Robinson’s run writing Justice League of America, so depending on the amount of minutiae involved, it may not be too new-reader-friendly. In short, it can be a hard sell — and yet, DC solicited twelve issues of the stuff, of which two elegantly-written, exquisitely-drawn installments have been published so far. Additionally, DC ordered those twelve issues knowing they would run alongside the New-52’s almost-completely-different continuity. DC may be expecting more from its New 52 titles, but I’m not sure it’s fair to measure The Shade’s success the same way.

Having said all of that, certainly The Shade could use more readers. It’s a nimble, great-looking spotlight on a character who started out a Golden Age villain and ended up a peculiar sort of antihero, and it offers another glimpse into the unique world of Robinson’s Starman. If you haven’t read issues #1 or #2, they have my official endorsement (as does Starman, but that pretty much goes without saying). Heck, Gene Ha is the guest artist for issue #12, and he’s stoked about drawing it, so the book needs to be supported for that reason alone.

On one level I’m not overly worried about The Shade making its full allotment of issues. DC is still a fairly conservative company and I have to think it went into The Shade knowing the New 52 books would make market factors behave a little differently. However, the fact that a book’s writer is concerned about its fate this early is unusual enough to warrant some attention. Save The Shade, I say; and enjoy some great comics while you’re at it.