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The New Normal

A few days ago I finally waded through the several stacks of disorganized monthly comic books which had been accumulating in my office since … well, since this time last year. Now they are in bags, their pertinent information is in my omnibus spreadsheet, and an angel has its wings. All that aside, it was an informative experience, reminding me mostly that I bought a lot of books I haven't had time to revisit, like Final Crisis: Revelations, the El Diablo miniseries, and that Howard Chaykin special about '50s Captain America. However, in the midst of my sentimental journey, it hit me: once some of these titles are gone, they're not coming back.

Mostly this has to do with the revamped Batman and Superman lines. I can't see DC reviving Birds Of Prey absent a creative team which could compare favorably to Gail Simone and Nicola Scott. I think it would also be hard for Tim Drake to resume his plain-old-Robin career, given the injections of moodiness he's receiving in Red Robin. Conversely, I'd think Dick would be more than happy to ditch the Batsuit for his comfortable Nightwing duds and his old solo title. Still, what about the other Nightwing, not to mention Flamebird? Do they get their own book when Superman moves back to Earth, or do they stay in Action Comics? Would Batman And Robin continue without Dick and Damian? What about Streets Of Gotham and Gotham City Sirens? (Would the Birds of Prey feel at home in either title?)

My point is not necessarily to predict what will happen to these particular titles once things are "back to normal." Instead, the realization that Birds Of Prey may be gone for good -- or at least longer than we might think -- has made me look at "normal" in a new way.

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DC's main-line ongoing titles seem to cover three types of books. First are the "foundational" books, about which I have written previously.  They are the nine titles upon which Silver Age DC built its current line: Action Comics and Superman, Detective Comics and Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League of America, and Legion Of Super-Heroes. Each has gone on hiatus for brief periods, and all but three have had new first issues, but for almost fifty years none has disappeared forever. If  DC published nothing else, it would publish these.

Next up is the "historic" category, representing mainstays of the DCU bench. These are well-established features like Aquaman, Hawkman, Justice Society, and Teen Titans. Essentially, DC has seen these work well before, and it doesn't take much to revive them. However, they tend to compete with each other, sometimes in apple-and-orange fashion, for spots on the schedule -- whether a Blackhawk book would do better than an Atom, for example.

Last are the "new" books, with their all-new characters and/or unorthodox approaches. Titles like Chase, Young Heroes In Love, James Robinson's Starman, and Gail Simone's Secret Six strike me as good examples of this category. As those examples indicate, a "new" book can have an old name, but it shouldn't be a spinoff or sequel.

Not surprisingly, once you get past the foundational books, most of the remainder of the DCU line is "historic." For example, in July 2008, there were thirty-one ongoing series in the DCU line,* including the nine foundational books. Of the twenty-two remaining, only a handful were what I'd call "new" -- All New Atom, Blue Beetle, Checkmate, Infinity, Inc., Manhunter, and Simon Dark -- and many of those were on their last legs.

By July of this year, the number of ongoing series was practically unchanged. Strictly speaking, there were only twenty-eight ongoing titles,** but that's because the Flash: Rebirth and Legion Of 3 Worlds miniseries stood in for their respective ongoings. Otherwise, over the course of those twelve months, a total of ten ongoing series were cancelled, including all six of 2008's "new" books. Some were pretty much cancelled in name only: Nightwing and Catwoman made way for Batman And Robin and Gotham City Sirens, and Robin became Red Robin. A couple of others were made into co-features ("Blue Beetle" in Booster Gold, "Manhunter" in Batman: Streets Of Gotham). However, of the nine ongoing titles which premiered over the past year, two are revivals (R.E.B.E.L.S. and Warlord), one is a spinoff (Streets Of Gotham, continuing Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen's Detective work) and three are the aforementioned "in name only" cancellations. Power Girl and Vigilante might be considered "new," but the former could be seen as a spinoff of JSA, while the latter is something of a revival. Only Secret Six and The Mighty (which doesn't take place in the DCU proper) are what I would consider "new."

The outlook for future "new" books generally isn't much better. Upcoming ongoing series include the latest Batgirl, Doom Patrol, and Azrael titles, as well as Kid Flash (a revival/continuation of Impulse), All Flash (reviving the Golden Age title), and the spinoff JSA All Stars. Magog looks "new," but it is a spinoff from both JSA and Kingdom Come. Indeed, the new Adventure Comics will hit something of a revival trifecta: it brings back a venerable DC title and features both Superboy and the Legion.

Naturally, you can see what you want to in this: it gives readers what they want; it panders to a shrinking fanbase; it's a conservative strategy in a dicey economy. Again, though, I don't see much in the way of "unfamiliar" coming from DC in the next few months. With that in mind, I surfed over to the always-reliable Mike's Amazing World Of DC Comics to get some data on the venerable titles DC hadn't lately exploited.

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In fact, DC's nine most prolific titles are the foundational ones: Action Comics (now at issue #879), Detective Comics (#855), Superman (#690), Batman (#688), and various incarnations of The Flash (616 total issues so far), Wonder Woman (591 total), Justice League of America (537 total), Legion of Super-Heroes (I count 531 issues of the team's own title), and Green Lantern (495 total issues). Other prolific titles are still being (or will be) published, in one form or another, by one DC imprint or another: Adventure Comics, Superboy, World's Finest Comics (now Superman/Batman), House of Mystery, (New Teen) Titans, Hellblazer, Strange Adventures, Green Arrow, The Brave and the Bold, Legends of the Dark Knight (superseded by Batman Confidential), All Star Comics (succeeded by JSA), Catwoman, Outsiders, Doom Patrol, Supergirl, Jonah Hex, and Warlord. Hex and Warlord both clock in at a little over 150 total issues, which I suppose is as good a lower limit for "prolific" as any.

By the way, I am well aware that your totals may vary. I wasn't going to get into a whole big thing about how to count the Legion stories, whether to count the Green Lantern backups in Flash, or what to do with books like My Greatest Adventure which switched to one feature mid-run. I'm just trying to keep this simple.

That said, Our Army At War's 301 issues come in right behind (New Teen) Titans' 311. All but 80 of those 301 feature Sgt. Rock, and the book ran for 121 more issues after being retitled accordingly. Clearly this 342-issue total is a strong argument for a new Sgt. Rock ongoing -- Warlord's total is significantly smaller -- but DC may well be meeting the needs of Rock's audience with periodic miniseries. Other longstanding DC war comics include G.I. Combat (245 issues), Star Spangled War Stories (202 issues), Blackhawk (187 issues, not counting the Action Comics Weekly strips), and Our Fighting Forces (181 issues). Of these, Blackhawk seems to have the most staying power, I imagine due to its integration into the regular superhero line. Otherwise, I don't know how the market would react to an Our Fighting Forces revival. It wouldn't necessarily compete with a book like Vertigo's Unknown Soldier -- the Sgt. Rock miniseries probably don't -- but there are no doubt a host of factors arrayed against such a thing.

For whatever it's worth, romance comics are also well-represented in the list of prolific DC titles. Girls' Love Stories ran for 180 issues, Girls' Romances rang up 160, and Secret Hearts ran for 153 (just ahead of Showcase on my scoreboard). However, considering that the last of these series hit newsstands in 1973 with Girls' Love Stories #180, I doubt that any amount of persuasion will get DC to make another serious run at them.

That leaves us with only two prolific superheroes unrepresented in DC's present lineup: Aquaman has 231 total issues (behind Swamp Thing's 244), and Hawkman/-girl has 187. Showcase's 152 total issues may make a case for its revival, but I'm told readers don't like anthologies. Besides, the Showcase name is already in use over at DC's reprint library. You have to go below the 150-issue mark to find (among others) Firestorm (145 total issues), Birds Of Prey (139), Lois Lane (137), The Spectre (131), Starman (126), Challengers of the Unknown (119), Sensation Comics (110), The Demon (105), and Shazam! (105, clearly not counting any Fawcett issues). Below the 100-issue mark are Atom (97) and New Gods (90).

Still, how many slots on DC's ongoing-series schedule do we need to fill? Assuming it's in the low thirties, and eliminating the Vertigo-ized titles, we get the nine "foundational" books, plus Adventure, Superboy, World's Finest, Titans, Our Army At War/Sgt. Rock, Strange Adventures, Green Arrow, G.I. Combat, Aquaman, The Brave and the Bold, All Star Comics/Justice Society, Robin, Star Spangled War Stories, Blackhawk, Hawkman, Catwoman, Our Fighting Forces, Outsiders, Doom Patrol, Nightwing, Supergirl, Jimmy Olsen, Showcase, Jonah Hex, and Warlord.

Cutting out all the war books except Blackhawk, and figuring that Jim Starlin has the Strange Adventures slot to himself, frees up five spots. Again, going only for the superhero(ish) titles, these five could hold Firestorm, Birds Of Prey, Lois Lane, The Spectre, and Starman. That's thirty-four ongoing series -- maybe a little on the high side in terms of what DC wants to produce, but each title rests on a solid publishing record.

Mind you, I am not suggesting that DC adopt this sort of model. For one thing, remember how we were talking about Birds Of Prey? It started out in 1996 as a series of occasional one-shots (and one miniseries) before being "promoted" to an ongoing in late 1998. From there it was a fixture on DC's schedule for over ten years. Regardless, to someone taking a longer view of DC history, BOP might merely look like Lois Lane: an artifact of an era whose time has passed. DC will always need The Flash, but it can do without Birds Of Prey.

Of course, the pursuit of a nominal DC schedule -- say, when Bruce and Clark are back in their regular positions, Blackest Night is over, and all the right people are alive again -- is something of a fool's errand, given the publisher's behavior over the past several years. Still, I don't believe that DC's lineup will look anything like the ones derived above.  Therefore, it seems just as foolish to think that the "historicization" of DC's ongoing series will result in anything but ratifying a particular person's (or group's) memories.

To be sure, DC does give some of these "historic" features exposure through miniseries and the occasional revamp.  In theory, this should give it room to develop new characters adn new approaches.  However, the more DC focuses on spinoffs and revivals, the harder it will be for the next Birds Of Prey to come out of nowhere (relatively speaking) and earn an ongoing series. (Secret Six took a similar path to ongoing-series-dom, but it started out as an Infinite Crisis lead-in.) While DC has more than enough dormant series (superhero and otherwise) ripe for revival, at some point the publisher will have to consider making some new memories.

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* [Action Comics #867, All New Atom #25, Batman #679, Batman and the Outsiders #9, Batman Confidential #19, Birds of Prey #120, Blue Beetle #29, Booster Gold #1,000,000, Brave and the Bold #15, Catwoman #81, Checkmate #28, Detective Comics #846, Flash #242, Green Arrow/Black Canary #10, Green Lantern #33, Green Lantern Corps #26, Infinity Inc. #11, Jonah Hex #33, Justice League of America #23, Justice Society of America Annual #1, Legion of Super-Heroes #44, Manhunter #32, The Mighty #6, Nightwing #146, Robin #176, Simon Dark #10, Superman #678, Superman/Batman #50, Supergirl #31, Teen Titans #61, Titans #4, and Wonder Woman #22.]

** [Action Comics #879, Batman #688, Batman and Robin #2, Batman Confidential #31, Batman: Streets of Gotham #2, Booster Gold #22, Brave and the Bold #25, Detective Comics #855, Gotham City Sirens #2, Green Arrow/Black Canary #22, Green Lantern #s 43-44, Green Lantern Corps #38, Jonah Hex #45, Justice League of America #35, Justice Society of America #29, Outsiders #20, Power Girl #3, R.E.B.E.L.S. #6, Red Robin #2, Secret Six #11, Supergirl #43, Superman #690, Superman/Batman #62, Teen Titans #73, Titans #15, Vigilante #8, Warlord #4, and Wonder Woman #34.]

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