A few months ago I posted on DC Comic’s publicized reboot of their entire comic book franchise and argued this sort of bold action could be a good thing for the industry. Well, the reboot happened, and what’s the verdict? While there have been some very promising new books (I was particularly pleased with Grant Morrison’s Action Comics and Scott Snyder’s Batman), there were a few which, in my humble opinion, were changed for the worse.
But, while my comics fanboi rage might have been quelled had the editorial decision been made in a way to pull in new readers, such was not the case in at at least one notable book which butchered some of my favorite characters, as the following webcomic from Shortpacked illustrates:
Seriously, DC. Even discounting the fact that I’m a big Teen Titans fan (it was one of the first comic book series I actually read!) and that you butchered a great female character who already had a great degree of sensuality in your reboot into some mindless, preening nymphomaniac – how did it ever occur to you to use a character who might have been a nice “gateway comic” for new fans and turn her into something unrecognizable and unlovable? Great one, DC. I hope the next reboot works better…
(There’s a great io9 post which further illustrates the stupidity of DC here)
More so than in TV and movies, there are a lot of really terrible comic books. Even from star writers, output can be uneven in quality, and plot holes and weird, forced character development are fairly common. The forced pace of comic book publishing, and the whole insider-only, boys-only nature of how comics are produced, is often the culprit, leading to bad or crippled stories and shallow characters, especially with female characters. Superhero comics especially bring out the worst in the comic book industry.
One thing that’s often hard for beginners to grasp is that usually there is one ongoing “canonical” universe in comic books, but many stories (and most of the best ones) over the years have accumulated in “alternative” universes, where some details can vary. Don’t get hung up on the variations or contradictions. Continuity (comic-book-nerd speak for preserving and referencing years and years of backstory baggage) is severely overvalued in the comic book industry, and the best stories are often timeless and stand on their own two legs. There’s a reason why many of the books Ben and I both picked are often origin stories or stories set in “alternative” universes outside of the mainstream “canon” of comic books.
It’s worth your time to look around, cherry pick the best stories (which are often not the most marketed), and ignore the impulse to “read the whole story”. Quieter, smaller stories are almost always worth more time than the huge, universe-wide, pack-every-reference-you-can-think-of comic book stories that seem to be the trend these days in superhero comics.
In summary, seek out the gems as best as you can, and skip the oceans of bad stuff.
All very true – I’m extremely proud, not only of getting the shout-out, but to see a guy I helped bring into comics doing the same :-).
The art style is interesting and not all that bad (albeit a little too heavy on the inking in my mind — what do they think this is, a Batman comic?), but the bulk of the comic is told from the first person perspective of Martin Auster, head of business development at the company (that’s Doctor Auster to you, pal!). We get an interesting look at Auster’s life, how he was a medical student who didn’t really want to do a residency, and how and why he joins the company:
And, of course, what annual report wouldn’t be complete without some financial charts – and yes, this particular chart was intended to be read with 3D glasses (which were apparently shipped with paper copies of the report):
Interestingly, the company in question – United Therapeutics — is not a tiny company either: its worth roughly $3 billion (as of when this was written) and is also somewhat renowned for its more unusual practices (meetings have occurred in the virtual world Second Life and employees are all called “Unitherians”) as well as its brilliant and eccentric founder, Dr. Martine Rothblatt. Rothblatt is a very accomplished modern-day polymath:
She was an early pioneer in communication satellite law
She helped launch a number of communication satellite technologies and companies
She founded and was CEO of Geostar Corporation, an early GPS satellite company
She founded and was CEO of Sirius Satellite Radio
She led the International Bar Association’s efforts to draft a Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights
She is a pre-eminent proponent for xenotransplantation
She is also one of the most vocal advocates of transgenderism and transgender rights, having been born as Martin Rothblatt (Howard Stern even referred to her as the “Martine Luther Queen” of the movement)
You got to have a lot of love and respect for a company that not only seems to have delivered an impressive financial outcome ($600 million in sales a year and $3 billion in market cap is not bad!) and can still maintain what looks like a very fun and unique culture (in no small part, I’m sure, because of their CEO).
On Wednesday, August 31st, DC Comics will launch a historic renumbering of the entire DC Universe line of comic books with 52 first issues, including the release of JUSTICE LEAGUE by NEW YORK TIMES bestselling writer and DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns and bestselling artist and DC Comics Co-Publisher Jim Lee. The publication of JUSTICE LEAGUE issue 1 will launch day-and-date digital publishing for all these ongoing titles, making DC Comics the first of the two major American publishers to release all of its superhero comic book titles digitally the same day as in print.
While the decision to do this has been met with some controversy amongst the existing comic book fan community, I think this is a great idea.
But, the truth is I think this is the sort of thing which the comic book industry needs to do to stay relevant. For too long, the industry has taken the easy way out:
Cater to the most hardcore of fans: Its the classic Innovator’s Dilemma problem: its always easier to sell the same customers more and more profitable products than it is to pull in less profitable customers. In the short-term, this is fine – but over the long-term, this can be a disaster as the industry sees its user base dwindle. And, as I’ve mentioned before, as much of a fan as I am, even I’m finding the medium less appealing as this trend plays itself out.
Recycle old stories to make movies, TV shows, and cartoons: if the traditional comic medium itself is in danger (as I think it is if things keep going the way they are), the comics industry has adapted by pursuing movies, TV shows, and cartoons (case in point: Smallville). Now don’t get me wrong – I love that there are so many comic book-related movies. There is nothing a comic book fan wants more than to have other people interested in the characters and the stories (and, if there are fans out there who are anything like me, they revel in being able to answer questions about the backstories and characters involved). But, the problem with this approach is two things. First, this sort of medium is a classic long tail business: its great if you get a hit, but its really hard to make sure you have a hit – and, as a result, its really hard to bet the future of your business on. Secondly, unless I’m mistaken, the vast majority of the people watching these movies and shows are not becoming comic book/collectibles buyers or comic convention goers.
To me, the way forward for the industry is something that is hard and may even partially alienate the existing hardcore fanbase: but its to disrupt themselves. Yes, its easier to keep the hardcore fans happy and buying, but there’s not only a lot more money to be made by catering to a wider fanbase, if it doesn’t happen, sooner or later, something else will.
And that’s why I think that DC’s announcement is promising, for what I think the big guys need to do is:
Embrace digital: Yes, your traditional business model is tied to Diamond for distribution. But, digital will change this business the way its changed the music, movie, and newspaper industries – and unless you are quick to embrace it intelligently, you may find yourself in a very poor position.
Change your publishing schedule: Have your stories come out on a weekly basis, not a monthly one. The way to get people engaged (and to spend money) is to have them visit the comic store/website/digital store regularly. A bad 3-part story takes 3 months to finish with today’s monthly publishing schedule: that’s taking a huge risk that a fan will drop the book and forget to come back after 3 months. If the same 3-part story were finished in 3 weeks, then you have a different equation.
Be smart about product/pricing: Hardcore fans are willing to pay more for more. So, sell them trade paperbacks full of complex, intertwined stories and creator interviews/sketchbooks. Sell them 20-part stories which are full of cameos and references. Sell them special editions. But, for the mainstay storylines that should be accessible? Make them cheaper. After all, they’re the gateway drug to the full-on addiction :-). Think about new pricing models: how about $20 for “all you can eat” for one month on the digital comic store? Or how about buy a mainstay storyline and get 20% off of a related story? There’s plenty of room here.
Rationalize movie vs comic: I’m not a fan of twisting comic book storylines to fit movies. But, similarly, I worry about any casual comic book readers who pick up an issue and think to themselves: “what the heck?” It’s not easy, but the industry does need to find a way to bridge the two while staying truthful to both types of media. One idea: a free comic book “guide” (with movie stub) to smooth over the differences between the movie version and the comic version?
Get back to the character: Too often today, comic book storylines are about packing in every possible way for the world to end into a storyline. While this is something that is cool every so often, doing it too often is overkill and is oftentimes done at the expense of developing the character of the hero, the villain(s), and the supporting characters. Perry White, Aunt May, Alfred Pennyworth, and Jane Foster are not Lex Luthor, the Green Goblin, Joker, or Loki per se, but they are still important and deserve to be more than just the “scenery”.
There’s still more detail to be revealed in DC’s reboot, and its still not clear to me how much they live up to what I’ve outlined. Sadly, the pessimist in me is pretty sure they’ll fall short. But, as a fan of the medium, I hope they don’t.