First DC announced (via the May solicitations) the cancellation of five titles. Now it looks like the “First Wave” line is being shown the door.
Blogger/podcaster extraordinaire Al Kennedy suggests that “First Wave” might have benefited from a little multiversal-crossover action. I tend to agree, although I think including versions of Batman (and other pulpy DC characters like the Blackhawks) was something of a backdoor crossover.
While that's a topic for another day, it made me wonder about the general trends within DC’s ongoing series. Thus, starting today I want to take a much longer look, ‘way back to the start of Big Event comics in 1985. DC has launched hundreds of ongoing series since then, and I want to see what made the difference in those series’ successes. This will take a while -- maybe two to three posts -- but I hope it’ll be worth it.
[Thanks as always to Mike's Amazing World Of DC Comics, an invaluable source of data for any DC fan.]
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Let’s start with a given: certain DC titles are too big to fail. Action Comics, Detective Comics, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have been published pretty much continuously since their Golden Age debuts, and that won’t change anytime soon. Likewise, The Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League of America, and Legion of Super-Heroes represent the publisher’s Silver Age renaissance. These nine titles are the foundation of DC’s superhero line, such that while outside factors may affect their sales numbers, nothing will keep them off shelves for long.
Along those lines, it’s worth noting that each of those titles except Action, Detective, and Batman has had at least one all-new, all-different first issue. Legion has had four (1989, 2001, 2004, 2010), followed by three each for Flash (1987, 2006, 2010), and Justice League (1987, 1996, 2006), two each for Green Lantern (1990, 2005) and Wonder Woman (1986, 2006), and one for Superman (1986). Some of these relaunches, revamps, and outright reboots have been related to events, and some haven’t. Regardless, the foundational nature of these books guarantees that they will have as many chances as they need to succeed. Generally, longevity is a good measure of success, but these series will be long-lived no matter what DC does to try and goose their numbers.
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Such stability isn’t guaranteed for the rest of the superhero line. One of the longest-lived titles from the DC Universe is now a Vertigo book. With issue #277 coming out in two weeks, Hellblazer’s run of continuous publication is fifth across all DC imprints, behind only Action, Detective, Superman, and Batman. (It would be sixth behind the renumbered Wonder Woman.) Hellblazer started out in 1987 as a pre-Vertigo Swamp Thing spinoff, so I think it is worth noting in the context of successful DCU ongoing series -- but by the same token, I wonder how it (and other Vertigo staples like Sandman and Doom Patrol) would have done had it stayed part of the main DC line. Looney Tunes’ situation (approaching 200 issues) is similar, since it started in the pre-Johnny DC days (1994) and now enjoys a different set of sales standards.
The oldest current non-foundational superhero titles include Teen Titans (2003), Superman/Batman (2004), Jonah Hex (2005), and Supergirl (2005). After that you start getting into the Infinite Crisis zone of launches and relaunches, such that the majority of DC’s superhero books are only about five years old. Now, it’s true that many of DC’s current titles represent older series which go back decades, and cumulatively, there are more issues of Green Lantern or Legion than of Hellblazer or Looney Tunes. Still, those big numbers on the covers represent consistency, and specifically the lack of radical reconstructions. That has to count for something.
With all that in mind, let’s cast our thoughts back to those heady days of 1985, when DC started its most radical reconstruction....
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PHASE I: THE RELAUNCHENING
1984-85: Crisis On Infinite Earths. More and more, I am convinced that COIE is the dividing line not just between the Bronze and Modern Ages, not just between the Infinite Multiverse and the 52 Earths, but between a DC which had become content with its publishing practices and a DC eager to try just about anything.
Probably to avoid taking anything away from Crisis, DC didn’t fiddle much with its superhero line during 1985. It dealt mostly in miniseries (The Shadow War Of Hawkman, Ambush Bug, Red Tornado, Deadman, Aquaman); and the few ongoings which debuted were mostly relaunches of existing titles (Hex, Outsiders vol. 2, Elvira’s House Of Mystery). The exceptions were ‘Mazing Man (not part of the superhero line) and the first post-Crisis title, Booster Gold.
More new ongoings appeared in the several months between the end of COIE and the start of Legends. Hawkman picked up from the Shadow War miniseries and a subsequent special, and Teen Titans Spotlight spun out of the still-popular New Teen Titans. Secret Origins (which debuted the month after Crisis #12) was, perhaps, the closest thing Crisis had to a direct spinoff, since its first issue starred the Earth-2 Superman and its second featured Blue Beetle. Indeed, DC’s Blue Beetle #1 debuted the month after Secret Origins #2. Finally, a month before Legends, the biweekly Man Of Steel began the post-Crisis era in earnest.
1986-87: Legends. The event miniseries started over the summer of 1986, but beginning with September's new Superman #1, and for the next twelve months thereafter, a character or title was relaunched just about every month. Wonder Woman, The Question (38 total issues), Captain Atom (59 total issues), the Shazam: The New Beginning miniseries, The Spectre (32 total issues), Justice League, Suicide Squad, Flash, Young All-Stars (32 total issues), Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’ Dr. Fate miniseries, Mike Grell’s Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters miniseries, Andy Helfer and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Shadow (21 total issues, following Howard Chaykin’s 1986 miniseries), the Wild Dog miniseries (from the popular Ms. Tree team of Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty), Doom Patrol (89 total issues, most by Grant Morrison), an Amethyst miniseries, John Ostrander and Del Close’s proto-Vertigo horror anthology Wasteland (18 issues), and Hellblazer all had first issues during this period.
They weren’t all successful, but even outside the foundational relaunches, many became staples of the superhero line. Still, of the 13 books launched after Legends ended, only three had any direct connection to the event miniseries (Justice League, Suicide Squad, and Flash), and of those, I’d say only Suicide Squad (67 total issues) really rode its coattails.
PHASE II: MAINTENANCE
1988: Millennium. After Crisis and Legends, apparently DC was sufficiently relaunched, so its next event miniseries spun out of Green Lantern and spawned only two new titles, the short-lived New Guardians and the plucked-from-obscurity Manhunter. Oh, there were still new titles, but they didn’t have much to do with Millennium, and they were concerned mostly with giving old characters new opportunities. These included Green Arrow (picking up from the Longbow Hunters miniseries), Roger Stern and Dwayne Turner’s Power of the Atom, Stern and Tom Lyle’s Starman, a Hawk & Dove miniseries by Barbara & Karl Kesel and youngster Rob Liefeld, the Legion spinoff Wanderers, and Grant Morrison and Chas Truog’s Animal Man. Original fare included Checkmate! and the outside-the-DCU Haywire. Longest-lived of this bunch was Green Arrow (a total of 146 issues, including annuals), followed by Animal Man (90 total issues) and Starman (45). In fact, New Guardians’ 12 issues were the fewest of all the ongoings in this group, since Haywire and Wanderers had 13 each.
1988-89: Invasion! Millennium might not have had many offspring, but its format -- eight weekly issues over two months -- was designed to get readers more involved in the existing superhero line. Invasion! looked different (three oversized monthly issues), but it too sought to build up the current titles, not launch new ones. Accordingly, only L.E.G.I.O.N. and maybe Justice League Europe proceeded directly from the big event. Each had respectable runs of over 70 total issues, and each was cancelled five years later as part of Zero Hour’s reorganizations.
Not surprisingly, the most successful ongoings from the Class of 1989 were Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight (222 total issues) and the “Five Years Later” edition of Legion of Super-Heroes (134). LSH was a foundational title; and LOTDK was the first ongoing Batman book since Batman itself, debuted during Batman’s 50th anniversary year, and capitalized on movie-fueled Batmania. Neither were huge risks.
Other titles launched as the ‘80s ended included Dr. Fate (42 total issues) and Mister Miracle (28), both Justice Leaguers written by JLI scripter J.M. DeMatteis; another New Gods relaunch (28 issues); the Kesels’ Hawk & Dove ongoing series (30 total issues), Martin Pasko and Rick Burchett’s Blackhawk (18 total issues, continuing the Chaykin-influenced Action Comics Weekly feature); and Gerard Jones and Mike Parobeck’s El Diablo (16 issues). El Diablo was one of 1989's more atypical series, in the sense that it owed nothing but a name to a previous DC feature. (We’ll get to the other atypical series in a minute.) Near the opposite end of the spectrum was Huntress, an ongoing series which gave a post-Crisis origin to a pre-Crisis character. Also relaunched via miniseries in 1989 were Aquaman (by Keith Giffen and Curt Swan), Green Lantern (through Gerard Jones and M.D. Bright’s Emerald Dawn), and Hawkman (Tim Truman’s Hawkworld).
I tend to think of Sandman (76 total issues), the other series alluded to above, as something which stood apart from the regular superhero line. However, I forget that initially, it was pretty firmly rooted in the DC universe. (In the first arc, Morpheus inspires the Golden Age Sandman and, after visiting the Scarecrow, Mr. Miracle, and J’Onn J’Onzz, ends up fighting Doctor Destiny.) Although the series depended less and less on its superhero connections, especially after it moved to Vertigo, surely those connections didn’t hurt it early on.
Without an event, and with relatively few new ongoing series, 1990 was fairly quiet. The biggest launch of the year was probably Green Lantern vol. 3, which ended up running (mostly with Kyle Rayner) for the next fifteen years (193 total issues). Shade The Changing Man (70 total issues) revived one of Steve Ditko’s ‘70s creations and eventually moved to Vertigo, while Alan Grant and Val Semeiks’ The Demon had a very respectable five-year run (61 total issues). Hawkworld received an ongoing series, which ran for 35 total issues before being retooled. DC also launched a handful of quarterly anthologies in 1990, namely Ms. Tree Quarterly (10 issues), The Question Quarterly (5), and Justice League Quarterly (17). Finally, miniseries for Robin, Lobo, and the Justice Society prefigured their future ongoings, and The Atlantis Chronicles laid the groundwork for Peter David’s upcoming Aquaman series.
PHASE III: CULTIVATION
1991, part 1: Armageddon 2001. Considering that the main goal of this summer-annual-sandwich event -- an evil Captain Atom -- was abandoned at the last minute, and considering further that said goal wouldn’t really have spawned any new series (since Captain Atom had just been canceled and he was being written out of Justice League Europe anyway), it’s hard to see A2K1 leaving any kind of legacy. Still, it did have a couple of sequel miniseries, one of which (1992's Armageddon: Inferno) led to the Justice Society being available again. (They’d been put in Limbo, pretty much literally, shortly after COIE ended.) Furthermore, down the road, the introduction of Waverider helped set up his future (ha ha) with the Linear Men, and thereby informed both Zero Hour and the current Rip Hunter/Booster Gold/Flashpoint plot thread.
Otherwise, the first half of 1991 was about as quiet as the previous year had been. DC plugged the last big gap in its Superman coverage with Superman: The Man Of Steel (142 total issues): no longer would Superman readers lament that new Superman books only appeared three weeks out of every month. The other big release was Deathstroke the Terminator (65 total issues), spinning out of the tenth-anniversary “Titans Hunt” storyline in New Titans. Just outside the main superhero line, DC tried to get something going with Archie Comics’ superheroes, calling it !mpact Comics. However, Legend of the Shield (17 total issues), The Comet (19), The Fly (18), The Jaguar (15), The Black Hood (13) and The Web (15) didn’t have much staying power.
1991, part 2: War of the Gods. The only thing which came out of this event was a revamped Wonder Woman, more superhero-y (Deathstroke guest-starred in the transitional Special) and without George Pérez’s input for the first time in five years. Still, I’m not sure what else WOTG could have produced, other than a new Captain Marvel book.
Nevertheless, there were new ongoing series during this period, including Aquaman (not the PAD version; 13 issues), Black Condor (12 issues), and the Green Lantern spinoff Mosaic (18 issues). Launched to take advantage of Batman Returns hype, Batman: Shadow of the Bat (101 total issues) was a showcase for the hot Bat-team of writer Alan Grant and penciller Norm Breyfogle. Meanwhile, the Robin II miniseries came with a blinding array of cover enhancements, and the Ray miniseries paved the way for an ongoing series.
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That’s probably enough for today. We haven’t gotten very far into the post-Crisis era, but I think certain patterns are already starting to emerge. For one thing, truly original series -- ones which weren’t relaunches of, or spinoffs from, existing DC features -- were rare. DC was trying to figure out what would work in a marketplace which was becoming both more conservative and more jaded ... and that’s as good a segue as any into the ‘90s, next week.