Sunday, May 06, 2007

Four Lessons the Big Two Could Learn From 52

With 52 now officially a wrap, it's time to look back on what proved to be a surprisingly successful series. There has been a lot made of the fact that it simply was never late, which didn't surprise me as much of the fact that it was consistently a great read. Sure there were some mistakes that slipped in and weeks that were less good than others, but as a whole it was an amazing read and, it's safe to say, an unparalleled success. In fact, the numbers it was selling at as it finished (as of March it was still selling over 90,000 copies, outselling almost everything else DC publishes) constitute the single biggest shock of the entire series.

Can it be repeated? Sure, and DC's going to start trying next week with Countdown. I'm not confident this new endeavor will work as well as the last one did, given that it has entirely different creators employing an entirely different creative process, but certain elements from the success of 52 can certainly be successfully employed elsewhere in both DC and Marvel's "universe" lines of comics.

So pull up your favorite arm chair and settle in for the first of two rounds of that favorite sport of the hard-working staff here at EDILW HQ—armchair editing!

1.) IT'S THE WRITERS, STUPID: This book’s stellar sales—remember, not only was it one of only a handful of DC books to pass the 90,000 mark over the last year, but it managed to do so four times a month—put to lie the notion that it’s the artists who drive sales of mainstream super-comics. (And/or any of the other factors that conventional wisdom usually points to as the cheif factor in sales).

Don’t get me wrong—artists like Alex Ross, Jim Lee or even Bryan Hitch sure as hell move books, but when you consider how many books most superstar artists can realistically get to in a year, it seems better to focus a company’s resources on the writing end, doesn’t it? Here was a book with no big name artists attached. The biggest was probably Phil Jimenez, who drew maybe 30 pages or so overall, or maybe Darick Robertson, who couldn’t have drawn many more.

Most of the time the art was provided by reliable talents who aren’t exactly in the same weight class as, say, any of the Kuberts when it comes to name recognition. And the art was never a factor in sales; most of the time, the artists weren’t even announced at the time issues were solicited.

The book wasn’t driven by A-List characters, either. Despite the occasional Batman appearance how many were there, three, over the course of 51 issues?), the book’s stars were all D-Listers (to be charitable) better known as supporting cast-members in other heroes’ books.

And it wasn’t necessarily events that drove things. Sure, it followed Infinite Crisis, and lead to “One Year Later,” but it was a self-contained book, and completely unnecessary to understand what was going on in the rest of the DCU. Because it covers a “missing year,” readers already knew exactly where their favorite heroes (i.e. every DC character not starring in the 52 ensemble) would end up when the story was over, not that they were terribly interested in how they got there anyway (as the sales of the “OYL” books all reflect, the only books that benefited were the Superman and Batman books).

Also, not a single variant cover for 52 issues, and it still landed somewhere between 92,000 and 140,000 issues every week, making the number a little more “pure” than the high numbers for, say, JLoA, which are driven to an unknown degree by collectors snapping up variants. What’s this mean? A single brilliant cover by a great artist is all you really need on a successful comic book. Go figure.

2.) Weekly Comics Are Awesome: This is more a subjective reaction, and purely anecdotal, but from my perspective as a reader, there’s nothing better that knowing that you only have to wait seven short days between reading issues of one of your favorite comics (and week after week, 52 was almost always the book I read first upon returning home from the shop, as it was the one I was most excited to find out what happened next in.

Keith Giffen had mentioned in one of his several interviews about the book with how exciting the weekly schedule would be if applied to big events, and I agree wholeheartedly. Just imagine if Infinite Crisis or Civil War came out in the course of seven consecutive Wednesdays, filling almost a whole summer with nothing but, big, huge events. Business-wise, it might not be good for the publishers’ bottom lines (I know I personally ended up buying quite a few Civil War tie-ins near the beginning of the series simply because the premise excited me and I couldn’t wait a month or three to find out what happened next), but for readers, it would certainly make the events more exciting (and give the bloggers and message boarders less time to think about and pick apart the stories—certainly in a lot of these big, blockbuster type events, the less time you spend thinking about them, the better they seem).

Of course, the only way to get a big, event miniseries like IC or CW out on such a schedule, and by the same artist, would be to work, far, far in advance—far farther than either of the Big Two seem to be comfortable working thinking ahdead to at this point. It would necessitate a dramatic shift in the ways both companies work, so that they're more like newspaper offices and less like record studios.

3.) The Way to Defeat Wait-for-the-Trade-ism is to Not Write for the Trade: This should be common sense to everyone at the Big Two, but the fact of the matter is that there are three distinctive audiences for their universe comics—the Direct Market readers who buy their comics in weekly installments from comic shops, lapsed Direct Market readers who have given up on monthly installments and switched mostly to trades (which can be purchased from shops or big box book retailers), and bookstore/Amazon/library customers who exclusively read trades. Oddly, ninety-five percent of the stories the Big Two publish seem geared towards that second group, but they still publish monthly and put everything they release these days in trades to sell to the third group.

But they’re three different audiences with different needs and tastes, and don’t all three want the same stories.

DC, like Marvel, increasingly seems to write story arcs specifically for eventual trade collection, but rather than dense, stand-alone stories that read perfectly well as episodic chapters in a longer story or a story in and of themselves (as quality serial fiction should), far too many simply spread a single story out more spaciously, making for stories that are less TV or short story, and more film or novel. It’s the difference between All-Star Superman and Justice League of America, or the difference between Detective Comics and Batman Confidential.

Despite some noble efforts like A-SS and The Spirit and 'TEC, more and more DC is writing everything for the trade, which leads to a strange market where the Direct Market customer is well aware they’re subsidizing the book store market, but begrudgingly read anyway, out of addiction.

52 is the exact opposite. As a weekly focusing on story over art, told on a gigantic scale (over a thousand pages!) and occurring in rat-a-tat-tat real time, 52 is a book that demands to be read in weekly chapters, rather than in an eventual trade. I was actually a little surprised to hear them say they’re collecting it in trade at all (at the very least, they shoulda waited until now to announce the schedule), as I believe it will read very poorly as a trade (I’ve heard some pretty smart people say the exact opposite of course, so maybe it’s just me). The only other book I can think of off the top of my head that demanded to be read as it was published (rather than in a trade) was Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers experiment, which ended up being traded (rather too quickly, in my opinion), but told a story that needed to be experienced in a very particular fashion, with only tangentially-related chapters occurring near simultaneously in separate books between separate sets of covers. And maybe DC's Challenge, which is a book that really ought to be in trade, but isn't.

4.) Universe Comics Can be Much More Awesome Than They Usually Are: If you’re going to go to the trouble of having a fictional universe like the DC Universe or the Marvel Universe, you might as well use it all—all of its diverse settings, all of its hundreds of characters—and not just a handful of cities and a handful of star characters, who divvy up more obscure characters as occasional guest-stars.

The DC Universe was slowly built up over the course of almost 70 years, and this was the first series that really seemed to even try to use all of it (Crisis on Infinite Earths, Challenge and World’s Funnest being the exceptions that prove the rule). Not that it did use all of it, but it certainly used a lot of it, and it was fascinating to spend time in a world where Booster Gold could stop by and see Doc Magnus, who could then visit T.O. Morrow, who could then meet Silver Age Wonder Woman villain Egg-Fu, Golden Age mad scientist Dr. Sivana, and 2004 Wonder Woman villain Veronica Cale in the space of a few issues.

As I was reading this series, I immediately wanted more like it. I wanted an ongoing, set in the contemporaneous DC Universe, which would seem like a total nightmare editorially, but wouldn’t be impossible, particularly if the team of writers included someone like Geoff Johns, who was writing Superman, Green Lantern, the JSA and the Teen Titans already anyway. (This seems to be the idea with Countdown, to a certain extent). If such a book existed in the '90s, then when Superman died or Coast City was destroyed or Diana lost her Wonder Woman status, we'd see how Elongated Man and Aquaman and Amanda Waller reacted, what Perry White editorialized about it, and how Darkseid hoped to take advantage of it, for example.

I wanted a period piece, by this very same creative team. Imagine a DCU: Year One that began the year from the point when Superman first went public, and we could see the first adventures and meetings of a lot of these characters who haven’t had the extensive origin treatment that Batman and Superman have, and certainly not in any cohesive or interconnected way. Or imagine a Golden Age version of 52, featuring the JSA, all those characters from the All-Star Squadron on the homefront, and all of those crazy war heroes Robert Kanigher used to write in the ‘60s (though their adventures occurred in the ‘40s). Set in the past, either of these would have the benefit of being bookended as 52 was, without having to worry so much about making sure nothing in the monthlies contradicted what happened in it.

While Marvel has yet to announce a weekly series, I think it would be particularly easy for them to do so. Even more so than DC, they seem to have a stable of writers who act like architects of their universe. It’s not hard to imagine Brian Michael Bendis, Dan Slott, Mark Millar and J. Michael Stracyznski getting together with an editor like, oh, say, Steve Wacker and making a Marvel 52. When you look at a story like “Civil War,” it essentially was a weekly, it was just one that was spread across many different books, which meant many different writers and many different editors, and the results were things happening completely differently in the main mini than in its tie-ins in far too many cases.


Jacob T. Levy said...

"Universe Comics Can be Much More Awesome Than They Usually Are"

Totally true, of course. I was thinking about something related recently: when, prior to 52, has DC most succeeded at being a shared universe?

Through the Golden Age and most of the Silver Age, the solo titles of all the major heroes seemed to exist in separate universes from one another and from JSA/ JLA. Not only was there no continuity from big events in Superman books to, say, Wonder Woman or Flash (partly because there were no big events as such; the sttaus quo ante was always restored), but there wasn't even really a sense that the world was filled with other mystery men and women or superpowers or aliens. Isolating Batman off into an almost-no-powers Gotham in the late 90s, while stupid from a shared-universe perspective, was fairly true to the character's solo titles' history.

Of course, through the same stretches of time Batman might have the weirdest, time-travelling, space-travelling, dimension-hopping, magic-using adventures in World's Finest and Brave & the Bold, but you'd nver have known it from 'Tec or Batman.

Zatanna's Search was a standout storyline for the Silver Age, precisely because there was so little like it-- supporting characters didn't wander across books, and neither did subplots.

The Bronze Age was a bit different-- Elliot S. Maggin's integration of Superman with the Green Lantern mythos, more continuity between JLA and members' solo titles, DC Comics Presents to complement Brave & the Bold. Wonder Woman losing her powers, going through the I Ching era, regaining her powers, and then having to reaudition for the JLA showed for the first time that big character changes could happen, and happen in a way that moved back and forth across a solo title and a team book.

But I really think that the DC line didn't feel like a fully shared universe until the 80s: the New Teen Titans interacted with the JLA, who watched impotently as old Atom villain Floronic Man battled Swamp Thing, who saved the life of Superman, who as a boy had travelled a thousand years into the future to battle 20th-century 4th-world villain Darkseid. Roy Thomas straightened out multiversal stuff in a painstakingly consistent way-- who was on Earth-2 when, and when they left for Earth-X or Earth-1. By the time of Challenge and Crisis, DC finally seemed to have figured out the shared-universe stuff.

Then I'd say that the post-Crisis DCU almost always had at least one Universe-heavy book, from JL titles that drew in characters from Earths 1, 2, 4, S, and the 4th World, to Suicide Squad in which a shared villainous universe got put together, to Robinson's Starman and often Power of Shazam to Chase to Manhunter. Eventually Johns' JSA became the flagship title for Universe-heavy stuff, bringing us basically up to now.

But most of the high-nostalgia-factor eras, certainly including the Silver and Bronze Age JLA, really failed to belong to a shared universe in the same way that we now expect.

Captain Infinity said...

imagine a Golden Age version of 52, featuring the JSA, all those characters from the All-Star Squadron on the homefront, and all of those crazy war heroes Robert Kanigher used to write in the ‘60s

I hate you for putting this idea in my head. My life will never be complete now.