Confession time: the last DC title I bought on a regular basis was Dial H. It was cancelled almost a year ago.
I hadn’t really thought about this until today, when I was reading the AV Club’s comics reviews round-up and was blown away by Oliver Sava’s description of DC’s new weekly event comic Futures End, a series seemingly centered around dismemberment, starting with its Free Comic Book Day Release:
In the opening fight sequence, Captain Cold has both of his hands cut off by a spider-robot-Wonder Woman, and because this is the company that ripped the Joker’s face off, Black Canary has had her head sewn into Frankenstein’s chest. Later in the issue, an elderly Batman has his arm cut off by a spider-robot-Knight, which leads to one of the funniest comic book lines of the year when Bruce Wayne’s protégé, Terry McGinnis, tells the dying man to hang on. “With what, Terry?” Bruce asks before sending the Batman Beyond into the past, where he will try to stop Mr. Terrific from sending the Earth plunging into a techno-apocalypse.
I’m a lifelong comic reader and not only did nearly nothing in that paragraph make any sense to me, my gut reaction was that I needed to check out the comic just to find out where it sat on the Room level of trashy hilarity and that’s probably not what DC was hoping for. Admittedly, the first superhero I obsessed over was Marvel’s Spider-Man, but I’ve never considered myself loyal to one publisher or another. Part of that was because I mostly purchased my comics through bargain bins, which allowed me to get a lot more bang for my buck than a brand new issue of the stands did. But over the past few years, my interest in DC has dwindled to subterranean levels. I don’t spend as much as some comic fans, but I would consider myself an ideal reader to target. I have a hard time going to my local shop without spending around $50 and I probably spend as much replacing comics I’ve loaned out to others as some people spend on comics in a year. I’m a comics evangelist who forces comics into the hands of friends and writes regular reviews begging people to get on board with series I love. So how is it that one of the two largest comic publishers doesn’t have a single title that commands my interest?
Part of it stems from DC’s questionable devotion to a certain kind of traditionalist comic fan, the type of reader who sees a write-up about a bunch of iconic characters losing limbs and other appendages and buys into it not because it sounds like a great release, but because it might have “important” repercussions for the DC universe. When I spoke to Sava on Twitter about the DC issue, he summed it up pretty well:
.@Nick_Hanover Was just talking to my LCS manager about this. He says DC is only selling to hardcore DC readers, who buy begrudgingly.
— Oliver Sava (@OliverSava) May 21, 2014
These “hardcore” readers buy out of obligation, not interest. These are fans going through the motions, desperate to stay on top of continuity regardless of the actual quality and when you target these kinds of readers almost exclusively, it’s not surprising that titles that feature lesser known or newer characters, or don’t feature important “events,” are less likely to sell as well. This devotion to this kind of fan has resulted in a terrifying cancellation phenomena that Andrew Wheeler at Comics Alliance masterfully documented. Wheeler painstakingly navigates the wave of cancellations that have plagued DC since the start of the New 52, a problem that has resulted in almost enough scrapped titles to make that 52 function as a kind of macabre memorial rather than a trumpeting of the number of quality titles readers can expect. In three years, DC has cancelled 47 titles, and shows no sign of slowing down. Some of these titles, like Dial H, All-Star Western and Animal Man, offered up some of the only bright corners of the DC universe that new readers could enjoy without worrying much about the New 52’s convoluted continuity. Others, like Superboy and Batwing, struggled to define themselves and where they fit into the larger families they were a part of. As Wheeler points out, Marvel has seen a number of series end as well, but these mostly fall into the category of series that ran their course, whether it’s Superior Spider-Man concluding a long running event with its finale or Avengers Arena, which built up to a deliberate conclusion and then went through a metamorphosis that resulted in a new series, Avengers Undercover.
Both of those Marvel titles also serve as handy examples of why Marvel isn’t struggling to retain new readers at the same rate DC is. As one of Marvel’s most hyped events, Doc-Ock’s possession of Peter Parker’s body and mind in the pages of Superior Spider-Man was that rare comic blockbuster that deliberately courted new and old readers and more or less pulled it off. New Spider-Man fans were given a brand new status quo that had just enough iconic milemarkers to keep them grounded while retaining a freshness that hopefully brought them into the Spider fold permanently. For old fans, it was packed full of easter eggs and twists that rewarded intimate knowledge of Spider-Man’s history constantly. Avengers Arena more specifically targeted new readers, particularly with its YA novel-referencing covers, but it too had a lot to offer to readers who had been following cult favorite series like Runaways and Avengers Academy. The point is that Marvel is extremely aware of the position its lucrative film franchises have put it in and the company has put an incredible amount of effort into seducing new readers who were introduced to Marvel characters through the films without ignoring their longtime readers.
Marvel’s motto seems to be “Let them have their cake and eat it too.” Marvel readers have a multitude of genres, styles and formats to choose from. Like Fast and Furious but also like horror? Here’s All-New Ghost Rider, a series that has a Latino street racer inheriting the Spirit of Vengeance in order to take down his killers and the gangs plaguing his neighborhood. Like Wes Anderson’s flair for precise aesthetics and Steven Soderbergh’s knack for self-deprecating action? Here’s Hawkeye, a comic that shows how everyone’s favorite sulky Avenger’s worst enemy is usually himself. Like heady sci-fi action flicks that don’t make much sense but are pretty to look at? Go read everything Jonathan Hickman has ever done for Marvel. By contrast, DC’s buffet offerings are frequently of the meat and potatoes variety, endless variations of grim seriousness that declare themselves important and backwards facing juvenile fantasies that pull comics on the whole back by serving up ample reinforcements of every comic cliche you’ve ever heard. The company’s PR problems amplify the issue, whether it’s the constant internal complaints about how the company treats its creators, or debacles like the rape threats even the most benign criticisms of the comics receive, DC desperately needs to fix its image within the industry and to readers. DC seems to be stuck so firmly in an unsuccessful past era of comics that they’re not that dissimilar to that friend of yours who still thinks rock and roll is going to be saved by The Vines.
Just as there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with The Vines, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with what DC publishes, the problem is that there’s so little diversity in what they publish that they basically shut out potential fans and readers who have tried to give them a chance. And that’s a huge problem when even the post-launch afterglow period of the New 52 offered plenty of proof that DC had backed itself into a corner where its fans were mostly comprised of traditionalists. There isn’t much room for DC to win back market share it has lost post-New 52 to Marvel and indies like Image and Dark Horse if its fanbase is almost exclusively made up of already committed fans. There are talented people working at DC and the company has a huge number of great characters, and the company’s excellent digital offerings prove they can reach new fans when they put effort into it. But unless they start putting effort into winning over new readers soon, the Big Two might become the Big One.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover