The Watchtower
Reviewing the DC Relaunch Part 1 of 3
Chris and Jordan
Here in the comics section of Review to Be Named, we felt that the DC September Relaunch was a big enough event, that it monopolized our coverage for the month of September. After looking at the individual books, it's time to examine the success of the initiative as a whole. This is the first of a three part feature (parts two and three will be published tomorrow and thursday respectively) in which Chris and Jordan will discuss what worked, what didn't, offer up some possible explanations as to why things turned out the way they did, and muse about where the comics industry goes from here.

Last Summer, DC Comics made a shocking announcement. The more traditional and conservative of the big two American comic book companies announced they would relaunch their entire publishing line, releasing 52 new number issues in a single month. New continuity, new costumes, and new ways to buy/read the books were all elements of the relaunch plan. DC had decided to make a big, bold move to revitalize their lagging sales and maybe the comic industry itself. At the time none of us really knew what to make of all this. All we knew was that September was going to be big. Really big.

For me, October 1st felt like the morning after a rager of a house party. Looking back, the past month seemed like a blur of frenzied hype, colors, triumphs, and disappointments. 5 weeks, 52 new #1 issues, one whirlwind of a month. But all parties must come to an end. So here we are, a couple weeks after all of the new books have hit the stands and all of the excitement, anticipation, and questions have (for the moment) died down, leaving us in a calmer place to reflect on how the relaunch has changed DC, how successful the relaunch was in achieving the goals as DC stated them and we perceived them, and our overall feelings as critics regarding the quality of the new DC catalogue.

I was originally going to write this wrap up column myself as an exclamation mark to the coverage my section has been doing of the DC relaunch. But for me, part of the fun of the last month has been discussing the new #1s with Jordan, who like myself, read all 52 of them, week by week as they were released. Also, when you get right down to it, the primary motivating factor behind the relaunch was making the books accessible to new readers. I've been a DC fan for over a decade, Jordan is a more recent convert both to comics as a medium, and to DC as a publisher. I think our different backgrounds will help to gauge the effectiveness of DC's efforts to draw in new readers while retaining their core fan base.

So without any further ado, let's kick things off, Jordan. How are you feeling now that you've finished the last of the new 52?

If you had asked me two months ago, I would have told you I could never see myself being a monthly reader. As someone who didn't read comics almost at all until last summer (the only exceptions being Vertigo books like Sandman, Preacher, and Fables), I never saw monthly reading as appealing, I have always preferred my comics in binge-form, where I can read the entire book (or at least substantial swaths of it) very quickly, back-to-back. If you ask me today, I'd tell you I can't wait for Wednesday, when I will be grabbing several comics from both of the big publishers. So I guess I'd say if this is the morning-after party, I slept with the most beautiful (and most dangerous) girl at the party last night, and we'll see how that worked out for me.

If the main thrust of the DC launch was to get new people talking about, and more importantly, reading comics, it's hard to call it anything other than a fairly rousing success. I have some reservations, all of which I'm sure we'll get into as this goes, but its hard for me not to be fairly positive about the relaunch from a broad perspective. Last month I didn't read any comic monthly, and the only DC series I was excited about getting to was Grant Morrison's Batman Inc. (I was planning to wait until Morrison finished his Batman epic, but I found myself caught up by the end of last month). Now I am going to be reading roughly half of the new 52 again this month (I was generous with my second chances, far more so than I'll be with me third) and throwing in some Marvel books too. I'd have to call that a win for DC.

What about you, Chris? Do you think the relaunch was a success overall? And delving into that first issue you raised, how accessible do you think it was?

Well, from a sales perspective it's hard to call the relaunch anything but a monumental success. DC took home 8 slots of the top 10 best seller list for September, 19 slots of the top 25, and multiple books have gone back to the presses for a third printing. For me personally, I would also have to call the relaunch a success. This time last year I was buying about 7 or 8 DC titles. I'm currently planning on picking up 15 of the relaunch titles with another 2 or 3 on the bubble. However, while the relaunch almost doubled the number of DC titles I plan on buying, I found myself to be ultimately disappointed in many of the choices the publisher made at a time when they had the opportunity to make any number of creative changes, as well as a need to really be certain that every change they made was a good idea in the long run, as DC really isn't gonna get a second chance to do something like this again (and even if they do, there's no way they'll receive the same amount of fan interest and media attention).

Now for me, the first odd choice DC made in planning the relaunch, was the decision to make "soft" reboots of their continuity. Certain characters came through the relaunch with much of their backstories intact. Others have had their slates wiped completely clean. This is problematic for a shared universe, as now that certain characters have been altered or erased, the only thing that is certain is that we really don't know what the history of any of these characters is anymore, and just how pivotal events in the history of the old DC Universe (that seem to still be canon) were supposed to have happened. Now maybe it's unfair to expect DC to lay all their cards out on the table in regards to the new history of their new universe, but I found myself to be very preoccupied with questions of just what changed how, that left me more annoyed and confused than intrigued. Now maybe this is a problem exclusive to long time fans or maybe just to myself, but I found the overall accessibility of the new books to be undercut by sheer number of questions about their new status quos.

I think we both agree that in the short term this is a big win for DC. In the long term, however, I think your concerns are completely valid. For the most part, any single issue in the DCnU was decently accessible (there were exceptions, of course. I had NO IDEA what was going on in Legion Lost or Legion of Super Heroes and a few others left me completely confused as well), but as you said, I often had problems viewing these books as part of a "shared universe." Something like Resurrection Man (a book I'll be checking out again, though I thought the first issue was very iffy) is fine on its own merits, but very tough to take if you try to imagine the battle between Angels and Demons for the soul of our hero occurring in the same universe as a more grounded hero like, let's say, Nightwing. I think both of these stories can be told, and I think both were told decently in this relaunch, but I'm not sure the two fit in the same universe.

This brings up the problem of overlap, which for me is a huge issue in comics. I know you've heard me say this before, but as I see it, every comic book should have a reason to exist beyond "this character sells." I get that people like Batman. Batman is my favorite super hero, bar none (and few even come close). But having read every Bat book this month, I can tell you that at least two of them seemed completely irrelevant (Batman: The Dark Knight was a total dud, and unfortunately, Tony Daniel's Detective Comics was sub-par). I think the issues you raise about continuity and shared history are valid (especially for a character like Green Arrow, whose #1 was downright awful, but who I'm told was an elder statesman of the DCU before being de-aged and turned into a neutered Tony Stark), but I don't know if that was a huge issue for most new readers. For me, the long term continuity issues didn't matter as much as the books that didn't seem to fit into this universe at all. I loved Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.(a book I'll be sticking with for a while, I think), but I'm not sure how the mission statement there differs from the overall mission of, say, Justice League: Dark (a book I also really wanted to like, but was less sure about overall). I would contrast this with DC's chief competitor. Marvel has the same trouble with over-programming ( I know there are 9 X-Men title currently, which is insane, even if I love the X-Men nearly as much as I love Batman), yet whenever I read a Marvel book, I understand how it fits in the same universe as every other Marvel book I've ever read. DC seems geared towards character who work well alone (or within their family of titles) when the relaunch is a perfect time to make sure the whole universe plays well together.

Do you think this is a problem DC has, or is this just the blathering of a newbie? Similarly, did you feel the catalogue was diverse enough, or was there too much overlap for your taste?

I completely agree with your assessment of there being too much overlap between books. With Voodoo, O.M.A.C., Resurrection Man, and Teen Titans to name a few, we see offbeat heroes on the run from some sort of clandestine organization (and given that this only accounts for a third of the top secret government or private paramilitary groups introduced into the DCnU, one would have to assume that the DCnU economy is booming thanks to what appears to be limitless growth potential in the espionage sector). Men of War and Blackhawks did very little to convince me that they wouldn't be telling the exact same types of stories, and oddly enough Blackhawks even shares a mission statement and origin with Justice League International. As for the bat books, I also agree that books like Detective Comics, and Batman: The Dark Knight are suffering from a lack of clear mission statement other than "people buy Bat books." I almost wonder why DC didn't take the same approach they did with Action Comics, and set one of the Bat books in the past.

I don't think that overlap is a problem exclusive to DC (though I will say that Marvel has gotten better at resolving it in recent years). However I think the overlap problem this time around stems from the publisher trying to launch so many books at the same time, and that so many of these books tried to adopt a darker, edgier, more modern tone. When looking over the number of relaunch books it almost feels like DC was stretching a bit trying to hit that 52 titles mark and at times almost adopted an attitude of letting the actual sales sort out what works and what doesn't.

When you look at Marvel's solicitations, they publish somewhere around 40 ongoing titles each month, give or take a few. They make up the numbers in double shipping some issues, and in a sheer glut of miniseries, but as we stated before it seems to work for them as they definitely don't have the overlap problem to this extent right now (with the possible exception of the X-Men). Perhaps in an industry of never ending stories that constantly needs to put new twists on classic plot devices, it's not unimaginable that there is a carrying capacity for how many books can exist simultaneously without there being some toe stepping.

As to the actual diversity of the new line, I have to say, I really applaud DC for making a good faith effort at bringing back genre books. Looking at the new 52 I see war books (Men of War), westerns (All-Star Westerns), kooky sci fi MOW smash ups (O.M.A.C), and lots and lots of horror (Swamp Thing, I Vampire, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.). Not all of these books were hits but at least DC recognized the potential to tell other kinds of stories with this medium and the possibility to connect with fans who just weren't that into the cape and cowl set.

That being said I would have liked to see some more offbeat Indy creators brought in to tackle a wider array of genre books. A couple years back DC published a newspaper sized anthology called Wednesday Comics where you had Paul Pope writing/illustrating a wildly imaginative (and 50s sci fi serial reminiscant) story starring Adam Strange, or Adam Kubert teaming up with his father for an untold story of Sgt. Rock and Easy Company. I would've liked to see some more genre books focusing on different genres (SciFi, Kung Fu, Noir, Period War), with some of the same forethought and imagination in recruiting creative teams that I witnessed in Wednesday Comics. I think DC's Dark line of titles (Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., Resurrection Man, I Vampire, Justice League Dark, Demon Knights) was one of the biggest success stories of the relaunch, as it produced some really great titles and there really wasn't a flop among the bunch. However now a sizable portion of DC's catalogue is super hero/horror books which makes an interesting statement about the identity DC is striving for as a publisher.

What do you think of DC's efforts to revive genre books? Do you agree with my assessments of the Dark line?

I like the idea of genre books as a rule. Part of this stems from that fact that I wasn't drawn to comics as a "capes and tights" reader (I blame Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men for my transition) initially, and so I am less tied to the idea that stories being told in this medium of necessity must involve a super hero. I think the idea of playing around with what stories can be told is great if it is possible to also address my concerns from above about the idea that all of this is happening in the same shared universe. DC has side-stepped this for a while with the Vertigo line (where I did all my comic reading before my super hero conversion), but now many of the Vertigo and Wildstorm characters are back in the DCU proper. I think in some cases this works wonderfully, and in some it causes confusion, but as a whole, I applaud the idea and many of the efforts.

I never thought I'd be one for a war book, but I thought Men of War was solid stuff (at least the lead story. I wasn't sold on the back-up, and after #2, I'm still not), and the second issue confirmed that I will see where this book is going for a while. I also thought All Star Western was very impressive, giving us a genre-soaked story that felt more organic than gimmicky. Plus, I really like the idea that DC is bringing back its anthology, and while DCU Presents wouldn't make the top of my list this first time out, I'll probably stick around for an arc or two to see if the title can be as variable and interesting as an anthology really should be.

As for the Dark Line, it's hard to disagree that DC knocked it out of the park. Swamp Thing and Animal Man were two of my favorite books all month (Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire are also the two writers that get me excited at the moment, based largely off of their work here, though I did read Snyder's stellar Detective Comics run and Lemire's heart-wrenching Essex County prior to these debuts), Frankenstein, Demon Knights, and Justice League Dark were all definite returns for me, and I'll probably be checking back in on Resurrection Man and I, Vampire as well (the latter I was torn on, but I think there's potential there), so yeah, I'd have to say the Dark Line is a win. If the whole DCnU looked as good as the Dark Line, I think your wallet would be in a lot more trouble Chris, and I'd probably fail out of law school right quick.

That being said, the whole DCnU doesn't look like the Dark Line. If you're going to publish a line as wide as DC is at the moment (and I think their obsession with the number 52 made them stretch a bit beyond their reasonable limits), I think there is plenty of room for experimentation, and while I liked most of what I saw, I have to say I felt all too often like DC was playing it safe. There should have been more genre titles out there, and some of the more mainstream titles should have tried something a little bit different, just to spice things up. Wonder Woman is a good example of a title that tried something new, and I think that paid dividends. I wish we'd seen more risks like Wonder Woman and less flaccid "reboots" like Green Arrow, Blue Beetle, and even The Flash (I loved the art, and I know you liked the story, but to me it just seemed...safe). In short, I guess I wish the DCnU was a little more Action Comics and a little less Superman.

***Tune in tomorrow for the second installment of our three part examination of the overall success of the DC relaunch where Chris and Jordan will discuss whether or not DC played it too safe in planning their relaunch.
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