Sunday, August 12, 2007

The New Johnny DC—There's No Stopping Us Now!

I was surprised to see that DC's biggest news coming out of the this week's Wizard World Chicago convention had to do with their revamping of the Johnny DC line, as I think it's safe to say that cons in general, and a Wizard con in particular, tends to cater to direct market consumers. And Johnny DC, like Marvel Adventures, sell extremely poorly in the direct market. I imagine most of WWC's attendees could give a crap about the Johnny DC line as it now stands—a handful of titles based on cartoons, some of which are themselves cartoons based on DC comics—and are going to be even less interested in the direction it's apparently going. From Jann Jones' interview with, it sounds like they're moving the focus of the line even further away from the direct market demographic to pursue not just kids, but little kids:

When I moved into the role of Coordinating Editor and started doing the sign off on the kids' books of the Johnny DC line, I saw that they were really good, solid books, but I didn't feel like I could give them to a four-year-old or a five-year-old, or just any kid in general. Despite their connection to the animated projects, they were still dealing with the more serious issues—cases where if the heroes don't save the day, it's implied, or shown that people will die. I think that's kind of heavy to put on a younger audience.

Some of them were very serious in tone as well. They were good reads, don't get me wrong, and we had great creators working on them, but they weren't making me laugh. Likewise, I have a very religious sister, and when she would go through my bundle of comics, there was very little that I would feel comfortable with handing her to give to my nephews to read. I wanted to make sure that there was a place for that in the DC Universe.

Couple of surprises here too. I admit I don't read Johnny DC books much, or terribly regularly. I read the first 13 issues of Teen Titans Go!, which was as much as I could take—each issue just seemed like a really bad version of the TV show, which I loved (I would check it out occasionally afterwards, though, when it would feature either a character from the show I really liked, like Aqualad, or a contribution from a creator I really liked, like Chynna Clugston). JLU similarly read like a not-as-good version of the show, but I bought it sporadically, depending on the characters. In both cases, they were visually hard to get behind. Like so many of DC's based-on-the-animation books, they featured poor attempts to draw like Bruce Timm (Even when I knew the creators were actually quite good and had produced great work elsewhere when not trying to act as Timm clones)..

From what I've seen of those two titles though, I never got the impression that people would die or that there was a great sense of danger involved. Certainly much, much less than on the shows they were based on, as well. I assume she's talking only about the Johnny DC books based on DC superhero concepts—surely if Scooby and Shaggy failed to expose a monster or Wile E. Coyote ever catches the Roadrunner, no one would die-die. (And come on, even at three-years-old I knew the coyote was never going to catch the roadrunner, and more likely he was going to die...for a few seconds.)

The other weird bits of the quote are the mention of a religious sister. If said sister finds anything in those books objectionable—Raven using magic? Etrigan the Demon appearing in an issue or two? Superman, J'onn J'onnz and Marvin the Martian's existence seemingly challenging her beliefs in the Book of Genesis as literal, absolute truth and the last word on astrochemistry?—then she's probably not the best example of a typical mother with typical mother concerns you should cater your books to.

Then there's the mention of four- and five-year-olds at all. That's pretty young to be reading comics at all, isn't it? Or, you know, reading. The average kid doesn't start reading-reading until 4-6. I don't think I'd read any comics at all at that age, not even Archie digests from the grocery store,nor would I ever read a comic book until at least grade school. I do remember reading the funnies when I was first starting to read, although in most cases I would skip ahead to the last panel, since that was the important one with the joke. (Alternately, I was watching SuperFriends, Spider-Man, the Adam West Batman, Scooby-Doo and Looney Tunes as young as three, and don't remember ever freaking out about the mortal danger involved).

Finally, the bit about "the DC Universe." I'm assuming she just misspoke, since the Johnny DC books all appear in their own little "continuitiverses" separate and distinct from the DCU as a fictional setting.

Anyway, the gist of the Johnny DC line refresh seems to be the cancellation of JLU (Jones originally mentioned canceling TTG! too, but DC has since said that won't be case). Both shows have ended production so, in a sense, that seems pretty logical, but seeing as the properties will continue to be popular for, like, ever (Mattel's still making new JLU toys, for example), there's really no need to cancel either of them ever (Disney continues to sell things with the faces of characters who's TV shows or film appearances are decades old).

JLU specifically seems like one to keep around, as it's a good "gateway" comic to the DCU in general. Pretty much every character in DC's library has appeared at some point (I think. Have we seen Plastic Man, the Metal Men or any Blackhawks there yet? I mean, Doll Man, Zauriel, Natasha Irons-as-Steel and the Millennium freaking Giants have appeared in the title already). That makes it an ideal primer for when kids graduate to reading the actual DCU comics, some of which will be available in trade in perpetuity, in addition to whatever's on the shelf the month they make their transition. Also, while I am a Direct Market customer and a heavy-user of DC's DCU line, I still find JLU appealing on occasion, as it is the one book where virtually everyone can appear, whether they've been killed and replaced in the DCU or not. The last issue of JLU for example, was a Question solo story that just so happened to be the best Question story in, I don't know, years at least. There was even a Vibe spotlight issue for, you know, the one Vibe fan in the world.

Perhaps DC will ultimately rethink axing JLU, or, better yet, simply changing it up a bit, so as to make it less reliant on the designs of the show (i.e. not requiring everyone to draw as much like Timm as they can manage). From Jones' interview, it seems like these books are entirely different animals aimed at entirely different audiences than the current Johnny DC superhero books, and none of them will replace JLU's kid audience, which won't be welcome in the DCU line (and/or their parents might not want them reading about all the cannibalism, dismemberment, rape and torture there) or in the toddler-friendly world of these new books.

As for the new books, they are three in number, and I have mixed feelings about all three of them.

First and most exciting is Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam, a new ongoing by Mike Kunkel of Herobear and the Kid fame, featuring probably the best title construction of any Captain Marvel book in the past 30 years or so.

I'm actually pretty excited about this, as I really like Captain Marvel. I think DC fundamentally misunderstood the character in the '70s when they brought him back into usage and they thought of him as a kiddy version of Superman. Superman's stories from the forties weren't more mature than Captain Marvel's, but because Superman continued publication, evolving with the medium and audience, while Captain Marvel went into decades of hibernation, then when they busted him out of amber (well, suspendium, actually) he seemed dated, old-fashioned and geared towards a younger audience. But comparing 1970s Superman to 1940s Captain Marvel is an apples and oranges kind of thing (or at least apples and pears).

I have a feeling that most people who are Captain Marvel fans tend to be at least 30, since they will have most likely encountered him in the (pretty terrible) '70s live action TV show or in Golden Age comics, and I doubt a lot of kids today are coming across DC's $50 Archives or the long out-of-print Shazam!: From the Forties to the Seventies. Sure, he appeared in an episode of JLU, but just the one, meaning there are probably more Captain Atom, Dr. Fate, Question, Huntress and bearded Aquaman fans among kids with TV sets than Captain Marvel fans.

But if the choice is between high-quality, kid-friendly fare like Jeff Smith's Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil and the current DCU versions of the Marvel Family—their unrecognizable recreation in Trials of..., the new smexy, ebil Mary in Countdown, Black Adam ripping off faces and eating people in World War III and Black Adam—then fine, a kids character he is.

I'm not so sure about Kunkel as a creator though. I know he's a great artist, with a solid fanbase and a great reputation. His designs are really, really idiosyncratic, particularly for a book focused at kids, who don't generally have the sort of sophisticated aesthetic sense as adults (although I should note younger kids have been primed to appreciate a wider variety of styles than I was when I was a kid thanks to the increase in anime and the flowering of different styles of American animation). Still, I wonder if they will take to Kunkel's weird energy and abstracted anatomy as quickly as adults will. I like it quite a bit but, hell, I'm 30. As a writer, I'm less sure of Kunkel's skills. I read a children's book about socks he did within the last few years, and while I've forgotten the details, I remember really disliking it at the time, and being surprised at how bad it was, given all the good things I've always heard about Kunkel.

If DC's smart, they'll see that this is a continuation of some sort of Smith's series, allowing them to sell Kunkel's series to fans of Smith's, and they'll go ahead and say both books were/are set on the new Earth-5. Not within the context of the book itself, of course—Kunkel's book need not start with a dateline reading "Earth-5" each issues—but they can establish it elsewhere as an Earth-5 book (With Smith's being the "Year One" story of Earth-5's Cap). I think that will convince a lot of older fans that these stories count for something, which is a stumbling block a lot of us just can't get over when it comes to buying DC comics not set in the DCU proper (Including DC execs like Dan Didio, who did away with Elseworlds and is now giving some of the old Elseworlds like Red Rain and Kingdom Come their own dimensions/Earths in the new multiverse). As for worrying about older fans at all, I think it's important to note that the very best (and most successful) all-ages comics are the ones that are truly all-ages, selling to kids and adults.

And maybe that's the plan after all, as Jones again uses the term "DC Universe" in discussing the book: "With Jeff's miniseries, we really established that we can have different versions of Shazam and the other Marvel Family characters co-existing within the DC Universe at the same time. So Mike is really picking up where Jeff left off and it's amazing."

Next up is Tiny Titans, which boasts a terrible, terrible, terrible name.

I'd be more likely to be interested in a book with the word "Tiny" in the title now than I would have been as a kid. I might have watched and loved Muppet Babies, but I wouldn't have fucking bought a comic book with that title on it. I mean, the word "babies" is right there. A two-year-old toddler turns its nose up at the word "baby," and I would think "Tiny" would have a similar effect on kids. I also watched Tiny Toons religiously, but I wouldn't want to have been caught dead spending money on something with that tile, or carrying around a book with that title where someone might have seen me.

The two images from this book up at look cute as hell, and I just love them. The artist, Art Baltazar, is responsible for small press book Patrick the Wolf Boy and Disney Adventures feature Gorilla Gorilla. I have a lot of confidence in Baltazar as a designer and storyteller.

Here's what Jones says about the new TT:

Art's stories with Tiny Titans are so funny and cute, and they use all of the things that little versions of the Titans would do. In issue #2, the girls use Cyborg as an Easy Bake Oven. Beast Boy gets a puppy. Everyone learns not to play tag with Kid Flash. It's little storylines like that that bring in the magic of childhood, that excitement and innocence to the stories.

It sounds darling. As someone so far outside of the target audience, I know I would like to read it—or at least an issue of it. I can't imagine it would be terribly compelling enough to keep me interested issue to issue and month to month (Maybe as an occoasional digest/trade collection, though). Nor do I see it doing even as well as the last Johnny DC Titans title in the direct market. But then, that's not the market for this anyway; bookstores for the eventual trade collections would be the true market.

Finally, we have Super Friends. This is the one book I can't imagine myself ever buying or reading. The designs look like those horrible Star Wars Jedi Force abominations, the rather inappropriate Marvel Super Squad (A Punisher toy? Really?) and those fun-free Rescue Heroes toys, all of which are just repellent to me. Their big, abstracted faces and heads on muscular bodies with giant feet? Man, I hate them. I've always hated these toy designs, and the prospect of seeing them lose a dimension to appear in print only makes them more repellent. At least with previous Johnny DC lines being forced to adhere to a design, it was a good design originally (The Timm desigsns, the looks of the latest Batman cartoon or Teen Titans).

The design is, of course, based on Mattel's upcoming Super Friends line, which makes repulsive toys out of DC superheroes.

This one seems to be geared for the youngest of kids. Jones says it will consist of "a collection of vignettes, along with puzzles along the way and things to keep kids occupied and hopefully catch and keep their attention." It sounds more like an activity book with a comics component then, based on a toy line. Which makes it seem like an odd thing for DC Comics to be publishing instead of Mattel or an imprint of DC's parent conglomeration.

Oddly enough, a previous DC tie-in to a toyline based on DC heroes was Total Justice, which I turned my nose up and skipped until I found the series for cheap in a back-issue bin. And man, that series was so deep into DCU continuity I couldn't believe it. I don't think the series actually counts as continuity—at least, I've never seen any DC comic since refer back to it—but it featured the Justice League Task Force, the Extreme Justice team and the-then Justice League, serving as a sort of grand send-off to the four-book era of Justice titles that immediately preceded Grant Morrison and Howard Porter's relaunch of JLA. The focus of the book is Batman, Robin, Green Lantern, Flash and Aquaman vs. Darkseid using goofy-looking accessories developed by Blue Beetle, but it's chockfull of guest appearances from Leaguers of the time, most of whom weren't actually in the toy line.

Go back a little father, and you'll see that Jack freaking Kirby did some DC Comics based on a toy line. I haven't read any of these Super Powers comics, but would love to. In fact, I'd kill to. I'd kill you to!

Given that Super Friends doesn't seem to have any connection to DC's other lines (Tiny Titans, Jones said, will be a show the "real" Teen Titans watch on TV) and looks to have zero appeal to kids older than...I don't know, six, maybe? seems like an odd use of DC's resources. Surely Jones could be doing something more productive for the health of DC Comics in general, like trying to talk Dan Didio out of killing more characters, or reading my proposal for an Alpaca Man story.

In other, far less interesting WWC news, this looks totally awesome, this sounds like the worst idea ever (Imagine that villain that doesn't make any sense pitting characters from the new and different multiverse you know nothing about which is maybe actually just a bunch of old Elseworlds stories duking it out to form an army to fight in that series everyone hates! And we’ll choose the winners in the same manner as that DC/Marvel series that nobody remembers as being any good at all! From the writer of the universally loathed World War III!) and I can't actually believe Marvel is giving their historical flagship monthly to the one team in comics guaranteed to not be able to keep a monthly schedule (I mean, there’s optimism, and then there's insanity).


B.G. Christensen said...

I'm intrigued by Tiny Titans. I'm wondering, though, how a book intended for young kids (which therefore I would imagine being light on complicated continuity) is going to have two Wonder Girls.

SallyP said...

I agree that it is a shame that they are going to be dropping JLU, which I have read intermittently, but enjoyed.

I am however rather looking forward to the new series Arena, since it is going to be written by Keith Champagne. I don't understand why you think it will be slow, he's actually a pretty fast writer. And his three-part story in Green Lantern Corps was sensational.

Captain Infinity said...

There's so much great potential for the Johnny DC line that it makes me very sad how badly DC is botching it.

And you couldn't price Countdown: Arena low enough to get me to buy it.

Caleb said...

Mr. F.,

I'm kinda wondering if that image with the current Titans in it is something for the book, or just an image to promote it. Because, yeah, one Wonder Girl can be hard enough to wrap ones head around. And I see Kid Devil in that image--if Jann Jones' sister doesn't like JLU because she's so religious, I can't imagine her liking Kid Devil, the superhero who sold his soul to the devil. No matter how cute he is. And damn, he's cute in that pitcure.

I'll have to recheck what I wrote, but I don't think it will be slow (I think the Millar/Hitch FF will be a scheduling disaster though...maybe I linked to the wrong story...?)

I missed Champagne's GLC story (I don't like Green Latnern butts as much as some people in the blogosphere, so I've only been reading GL GL butt's all I can handle a month), but his JSA fill-in wasn't bad, and I actually like WWIII better than most of the Internet.

I don't think the there's a lot of hope Arena will be good though, even with a fantastic writer involved. I assume Champagne will be given a list of plot points/characters to include, and then fans will write the outcomes through voting, I guess?

And it's foundation is something I don't even understand. Who is Monarch? He's Captain Atom now? Only an evil Captain Atom? Is he, like, Earth-3 Atom or something?

Captain Infinity,

Really? Not even 25-cents? I'd buy any comic for 25-cents. Wait, that's not true...I've yet to buy a Warriors of Plasm, and they're always in 25-cent bins.

Jacob T. Levy said...

sounds like the worst idea ever


I could barely believe the announcement of it wasn't a joke.

"You know, Marvel's Contest of Champions is universally revered as the greatest of all comic book events, but it could be made even cooler if all the heroes fighting each other were Batman."

It makes me wish, fervently, that the Elseworlds line would be forgotten and left for dead-- constantly robbing its grave to make zombies is unseemly.

It also drives home how far my enthusiasm for DC has fallen. The nonstop stuff that started with Countdown to IC and ran through 52 and OYL had a lot of dreck but a lot more fun excitement. The Countdown/ Amazon Attacks 1-2 coming right after the climax of 52 feels like my enthusiasm drove into a brick wall at 90 mph.