In case you missed it, Geoff Johns confirmed through announcements this week that the DC universe is undergoing another monumental shift in May; gone will be every title presently being published under the DC imprint, replaced with a new set of titles that embrace the one component of the past that DC’s New 52 and DC You initiatives ignored: legacy. But was it really the lack of legacy that led to DC You’s demise?
My answer is: no. There were three other key factors that got us to this point.
First and foremost, there was the fact that the changes to lead characters were so sudden that any reader who found the changes too radical had no reason to challenge their desire to drop the book entirely.
Superman is the biggest example: Johns himself spent months returning the character to his roots. Gone was the Cat and the blog, back was The Daily Planet and Lois Lane. Jimmy Olsen lost his fortune and became Superman’s closest friend in Metropolis, rewarded with knowledge of Superman’s secret identity so that he’d know who to call in case of emergency. And over in Action Comics, Pak was tying Clark’s roots back into Smallville with Steel and Lana Lang needing his help from time to time. There was even a new power, which changed his interactions with the Justice League because they could now view him as a human being from time to time which, in turn, would give them better insight into why he acted the way he did; for Superman/Batman, this was an especially huge benefit because it allowed Clark to rely on Bruce a lot more, strengthening the bond between them even more. Yet, just as we got Clark back to a point where he’d be recognizable to every fan of the movies or television shows, he was suddenly transformed into a powerless outlaw.
As a reader, I was immediately angry by this change. Superman is supposed to be an icon. He is the hero that others aspire to — even amongst Batman’s support crew, as it was Superman that gave Dick Grayson the inspiration for his alter-ego Nightwing rather than the Dark Knight. That is not to say that Superman should be infallible: far from it. But every story that showed him as fallible, including Man Of Steel, keeps that icon status intact. It even gives Clark a goal to aspire to. Transforming him into an outlaw removes his status as exemplar for other heroes and therefore makes him not “the” Superman upon which every other hero is reflected in some manner.
It undermined what DC is about — and it didn’t even come with a warning.
Batman was the only one which had a warning for the change, given that Bruce Wayne was believed to be dead at the “Endgame.” However, even here we run into problems because his replacement (and the manner in which he was replaced) was not given sufficient support within the Batman family of books or the rest of the DC universe to be accepted.
I mean, by this, that Snyder skips past a very important mourning period in Batman to get to the new Batman… and, as a result, misses out on the re-placement of figures across the board. Readers would have benefitted dramatically from a single transition issue that identified how no one else associated with Bruce Wayne was able to step up and fight for what was left of him. Why wasn’t there any team working to try and reverse the loss of fortune in Batman Eternal, even for the under-aged heirs Tim Drake and Damian Wayne? Why would those most loyal to Bruce, such as Lucius and Julia, suddenly switch to working for Powers? and How did Gotham City really realize the absence of its greatest protector? Jim Gordon does not work in Gotham City alone, and yet most of the central players were ignored until they were needed: Bruce and Alfred in the present stories of Batman and everyone else in the new Eternal.
Editorial is fully to blame. Its creative control team — Dan Didio, Jim Lee, Geoff Johns — have enough experience in the business to know that superhero titles are rarely published in isolation: each of the characters’ actions have potential ramifications elsewhere in their fictional world. When changes as radical as these happen, it must echo across other books that are connected to the first because the impact would not be escapable.
Losing the Green Lantern Corps is a supernova-level impact for its interstellar landscape, especially given the years of effort re-establishing their presence in the DC universe and how big an event DC made of the Durlan attack on their reputation as much as their lives. Yet reading the first issue of Omega Men makes it hard to believe they are even connected beyond Kyle Rayner; are we talking core and rim? Sinestro knew it was coming thanks to his seer but neither revels nor rallies right away when he hears of it. The cascading effects of one impact over another deserved more than a series of new titles.
Which brings me to factor number two: unattractive replacements.
Sure, a shift in initiative was going to bring a change in the output, but what attraction did DC give for those new series that were announced? I’ve been critical in the past about DC’s ability to promote secondary titles at the same time they are focused on the main core, but at least with New 52 most of the title selections made sense: these were pillars of a DC character lineup.
But now, with DC You, some of those noticeable pillars were missing — and it made no sense, especially with characters like Firestorm, Vibe, Hawkgirl, Supergirl, and even Lucifer getting a bigger profile in the upcoming television season. Why miss out on the opportunity to gain new readers from the television series?
Instead of characters appearing on Fox, CBS and The CW, we got characters that were more aimed at Cartoon Network with mini-series for Bat-Mite and Bizarro… only for those same characters to be rare in animation as well. If you’re looking to diversify the audience of the DC universe, one comedy book makes sense but not two, especially when that spot could be filled up with a title like Supergirl that brings greater access to the upcoming star of Monday night television.
Still: at least both characters had connections to the rest of the DC superhero universe so that they could play off those connections for the jokes. All-Star Section Eight has no roots in the DC universe, so its basic premise of being long-lost heroes is difficult to swallow at best. Worse, there is nothing redeeming about any of these heroes presented in this attempt at satire, which makes it even less appealing to the buying public than any other book out there: at least Howard The Duck has some redeeming qualities.
If DC really wanted to delve into heroes that are less than capable, Booster Gold would have been a far more attractive title. Hawk & Dove is another title about heroes on the outside that could use a bigger spotlight, especially with a pre-existing fan base.
Doomed is a book that should have had a pre-existing fan base if done right, but it wasn’t at all: it rises out of a less-than-celebrated Superman event with a character that wasn’t present during that event. Had the character showed up in the background or been given some sort of lead in via Superman, there would be a readership who might want to read more. Instead, we got a character that — like Blue Beetle beforehand — spent so much time working on the origin that it wasn’t moving fast enough in establishing just why we should care about this character.
Omega Men faced a similar problem as well: we have reason to care for Kyle Rayner because of his starring role in Green Lantern: New Guardians, but the first issue of the new series reads as if Rayner is the plot device for these other heroes who you have no idea about — and no reason to care for. When two issues in leaves you barely an idea of who the Omega Men are and why they have come together, you have little incentive to keep reading the book. When Kyle becomes his Green Lantern self and/or gets rescued by the others, then the book might have relevance to the rest of the line.
Omega Men should have learned its lesson from Infinity Man & The Tomorrow People: audiences for books that haven’t been on shelves in more than a decade need more than name power to draw audiences in. That it didn’t is tragic insanity. Better sales would have been achieved had Lucifer felt recent events in Justice League Dark were an incentive to escape Hell, or Hawkman and Hawkwoman reunited in the wake of the interstellar war in Justice League United.
Doctor Fate had more than name power — had DC bothered to continue the character from Earth 2. But it didn’t. Instead, Doctor Fate presented the Earth Prime counterpart of the hero, without connection to the rest of the world when there had to be one. New York City is more than a major center on Earth Prime, it’s also the established home of the world’s most sensitive mage, John Constantine. Constantine would very likely be able to sense the helm of Fate, and Xanadu had been established as being able to pick up on magical happenings around the world. Why none of DC’s major magic players are not shown responding to the crisis is beyond me.
Especially when there’s a far better candidate for expanding the magical corner of the DC universe: Zatanna. Zatanna deserves her own book — the fan base is there, the back story is there, and she fits the demand for a more diverse fan base because she’s not white and not male.
Instead of Zatanna, we got Starfire. Starfire is a book that bothers me because DC established with another star character that they didn’t have to remove her from her team book in order to do the solo. Harley Quinn appears in both a solo book and New Suicide Squad without upsetting the readership, yet Starfire had to be removed from Red Hood & The Outlaws to make her solo book — and at the worst possible time: Starfire had only just gone survived an emotionally difficult journey because of her two closest friends, yet here she was abandoning them to live a carefree life in Miami.
It would have been far more beneficial for DC to have played loose with the continuity around Starfire: like Harley Quinn, her solo book could fit in any break that the team book has — or, better yet, fit in before the events of New 52 because it’s never quite established what Kori was doing between arriving on Earth and being on the island with Jason and Roy (other than a relationship with Dick hinted at during “Death Of The Family”). As an alternative, DC gave us a retitled book that filled her absence with the less appealing Joker’s Daughter.
Starfire quickly became a target because it made her closer to Batgirl at a time when other characters were also receiving the same treatment — and there are better candidates to have received that treatment which could have gotten bigger audiences, like Stargirl and Supergirl. And then there’s Prez.
Prez is the absolutely most frustrating title in the DC You offerings, hands down. Why? The last time we dealt with a teenage President of the United States, it was a man in present times who spoke for the youth culture of the late sixties and early seventies that American leadership was not. He failed because that role transferred over to the Teen Titans. Now, we were getting a brand new take on the same concept, but with a science fiction twist: in the far future, a YouTube star is able to gain more popularity than the existing candidates that she becomes the write-in winner of the federal election.
Changing character, gender, setting, theme… it should have had “failure” written all over it but it doesn’t because the central character turns out to have a certain charm that makes her worth reading. She’s tragic, she’s spunky… she’s got that unique combination of circumstances and personality to make her complex enough to warrant a leading role. In many ways, she’s the DC version of Tank Girl, who may not be for everyone but is certainly strong enough to resonate amongst the readership enough to keep coming back from time to time when a story can warrant it.
Unfortunately, being a character that appeals to a segment of the audience requires that extra effort be made to reach the segment and let it know the book exists… and DC didn’t do that. It classified the book as a step away from the traditional DC output like Bat-Mite and Bizarro do while carrying the same intended college girl appeal of Batgirl, Starfire and Black Canary.
It’s a benefit to DC that they’ve decided not to cancel the book entirely, but they shouldn’t have had to split it into two runs of six in the first place if they’d treated the book right from the onset. DC went for batch marketing because they had so much to put out there, and the identity of this book got drowned out as a result.
Which brings me to the third, final and most important factor of them all: timing.
DC Comics could not have timed the launch of DC You any worse than it did, because it coincided with another major initiative at its rival: the All-New, All-Different Marvel Comics. Marvel Comics did not have an initiative when DC did its last major overhaul of the line, The New 52, so they didn’t experience the fight for top of the charts with rival number 1s as they did this time.
More importantly, Marvel learned from its first response to New 52, “The Heroic Age.” The Heroic Age was a cross-line imprint that, like DC You, offered some changes that weren’t attractive enough for the readership to see a significant shift to those books celebrating it. They saw better results from first issues, especially if there were radical shifts that could be marketed to segments of the public it wasn’t reaching regularly.
As a result, DC found itself competing with new interpretations of its star characters in a way that could not possibly be derided by the comic press or the general comic audience in the way that DC’s was. This was before the modern cynicism over Marvel’s changes had set in; this was the beginning, where it was being freshly celebrated that the core of Marvel’s heroes were no longer all white males in the way that, say, The Justice League was.
Thus we had B-listers and C-listers fighting for sales against A-listers with a major press push behind them. There was no possible way that DC could win. Even Cyborg, a Justice League member with visible presence in animation, video games and an upcoming role in the Justice League feature film was not able to garner the attention he deserved against the now black Captain America, female Thor, Hispanic Spider-Man, or Asian Hulk.
Worse, DC had tried to learn from its mistake with New 52 by doing an extended launch, only to have Marvel do the exact same thing with both its main universe titles and its license books. If it’s not a Marvel superhero scoring the number one slot with its first issue, it’s Star Wars, a cleverly run license that used multiple mini-series (and therefore multiple first issues) to propel the story ahead on top of its two core books. It was, and is, a constant barrage that delivered the death knell to DC You because no success could be propagated to another title through advertising and connection.
Its final gasp is Legends Of Tomorrow. Not a spin off from the television series, this run of oversized issues compiles four of the mini-series that were to advance the DC You initiative forward. DC lost faith in its books and so now has to look backwards to find where it lost its readership in the first place… without losing all the steps forward it made in New 52 for film and television production.
Will DC Rebirth work? Only time will tell — but one thing I believe DC has done right from the onset is time the rebirth to coincide with Dawn Of Justice. That feature film may bring the spotlight to DC’s output in a way Marvel cannot counter, much as The New 52’s pronouncement did five years ago.