(Note: this op-ed was originally published at DCInfinite.com on April 4, 2014)
DC Comics launched “The New 52” back in August 2011 with Justice League #1 to substantial commercial success. Since then, DC has become the de facto whipping boy by comics journalism, while other publishers have received increased praise. Some criticisms are directly related to DC’s decisions, others are broader, industry-wide criticisms. There is one criticism which is often repeated that bothers me because I personally have not seen it, that being that DC’s titles are too dark and too serious.
I have not seen much of what these specifics criticisms claim DC is propogating because I’m reading titles that are fun – a word which most do not associate with the New 52. Why is that? Sure, the company is in the midst of an event called Forever Evil, but Marvel recently underwent a similar event in Age of Ultron. Both publishers have strong team and individual titles, yet Marvel has positioned itself as a fun alternative to the depressing content of DC. It’s genius on the part of the Marvel, and they continue to eat up market share along with creator-owned publisher Image Comics. It also highlights the failure of DC’s marketing team to do anything to improve the company’s image.
DC Comics, as a publisher, does not need to change much in terms of the titles it publishes. It has a great variety of series and continues to be brave in its choice of series on the racks each week. They had two war-themed series succumb to cancellation, yet they will try again with Star Spangled War Stories. The Occupy Movement-influenced titles The Movement and The Green Team: Teen Trillionaires offered much promise, but fizzled out due to low sales. I, Vampire was one of the strongest titles by the Big Two in recent memory, but not enough people were reading for it to continue. There is an outstanding, diverse stable of creative talent between writers and artists. Unfortunately, casual readers will likely be able to list only a handful of creators because they aren’t the focus of marketing efforts, and that is the wrong approach in today’s marketplace.
Image Comics continues to see increased success, both critically and commercially, in today’s marketplace. Their success is due, in large part, to two major factors. First, editorial* is taking a very “hands off” approach to new titles, which in turn allows for more control by the creative team. The second is the confidence to actively promote its titles well beyond the series’ first issue. Obviously, nearly all titles Image releases are in their own, self-contained universe, so those in an oversight position are not as concerned about events lining up and a character’s actions in Title A affecting the events of Title B. However, the tales of DC’s creator/editorial differences have been well documented and are a topic for another discussion. The fact that Image is able to devote space in its own titles to promote Alex + Ada #5 while DC could not do the same for promising titles like I, Vampire and Dial H is criminal.
Since the launch of the New 52, there have been over 20 titles cancelled, of which only two had the words “Batman” or “Justice League” in the title (not including Batman Incorporated and Animal Man, both of which ended naturally). Why is this the case? Is it because the titles were of poor quality? That can’t be the case. Dial H, Demon Knights, Sword of Sorcery, and O.M.A.C. were all considered to be quality titles, featuring strong writing and art. Were they more of the same old superhero stories? Men of War was the company’s first failed foray into the war genre in the New 52, and its follow-up, G.I. Combat, did not fare any better. The problem is awareness or, rather, lack of awareness by readers. Hardcore fans, particularly of DC, knew these titles existed. However, more casual readers that do not share that level of brand awareness and loyalty were unlikely to give those titles a try. Why should they if the company does not show confidence in these titles as evidenced by the lack of proper advertising?
This problem extends beyond the New 52, as DC and its competitors have spent much time and energy on selling to the current readership without much effort on the mainstream marketplace. The industry may be successful in its current position as a niche market, but there is no reason it cannot extend into the greater cultural consciousness. To their credit, DC did release an actual commercial to promote the New 52. However, it did little to let both current readers and the uninitiated know what this actually was. Those not reading comics responded with the all-too-familiar “they still make comics?” Even worse, the commercial failed to present a way for readers to get a hold of the comics being marketed to them, aside from the confusing “read.dccomics.com” which has since been changed to the clunky “readdcentertainment.com.”. A mention of the DC or Comixology smartphone apps, Discount Comic Book Service, or Comic Shop Locator would have been fantastic items to include in this advertisement. A mention of the first one of those may have caused even 100 people to whip out their smartphones and download the DC app. Even more likely is that much more than 100 people download the app because NCIS (the show airing when the commercial aired) is watched by nearly 20 million people. That’s a huge number in an industry where the top title sells roughly 100 thousand per month. Even one percent of that television audience (for that one show) ups the potential readership by 200 thousand.
This New 52 commercial also falls into the similar marketing traps that has hampered the industry. It was aired with the current readership in mind, such as Cartoon Network during its “Adult Swim” block. This needed to be aired on CBS or NBC during The Big Bang Theory or The Voice for the greatest possible exposure. This was not the case, and as soon as the New 52 launched the commercial was pulled from the airwaves.
Despite an overall increase in sales since August 2011, DC Comics, and other comics publishers, are delusional if they think that the long-term health of the industry is fine. Despite a wealth of creativity, the top comic, no matter how amazing, can barely reach six-figures in monthly sales, which is sad. Even before the infamous speculator boom of the 1990s, comics would routinely hit much higher numbers. It is a height they may be able to reach once more, if the publishers are willing to reach out to consumers, both new and old, to share the great creative content they provide.
*Image is a publishing house for creator-owned content. It has no formal editorial function.