22 Mar 2013

Thought Balloon: DC NO MORE!

Matt C: I was a Marvel kid growing up. A lot of that’s down to location – Marvel had much more of a presence in British newsagents during the early ‘80s thanks to its Marvel UK operation, which ensured reprints of American comic books were a consistent presence on the stands. Spider-Man Comic Weekly (which went through a number of title changes during its existence) cultivated my passion and then the UK version of Secret Wars turned that passion into an obsession. I don’t recall seeing comics featuring DC characters back then, and if I did perhaps I neglected them because the likes of Spider-Man and the X-Men just seemed a whole lot cooler than Superman, Wonder Woman et al.

The one DC character I couldn’t resist, unsurprisingly, was Batman. The changes he went through during the mid-‘80s, culminating in Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, pretty much made it impossible for even my fledgling ‘marvel zombie’ brain to ignore. So for a while then it was all Marvel comics plus a side order of Batman (I never really got caught up with the Image boom either). Then, in the mid-‘90s, I started to find I had more money in my pocket and decided to branch out into untested waters. This meant I let myself get sucked into the DC Universe fully for the first time and found it to be a more than hospitable place. Marvel was still the mainstay but I now had a new world of characters to explore, and DC titles became a permanent, weekly presence on my pull-list. It’s been that way now for over 15 years… until last week.

At the time of writing I’ve said goodbye to my last DC comic book (Batman). When the publisher launched the much ballyhooed New 52 back in August 2011, I started things off by picking up over 20 DC books; over the last 18 months though, that number has gradually whittled down until there was just a couple of hold-outs for a time (Batman and Flash) and now it's reached a point where I've decided enough was enough. My interest has diminished to the point where I can’t muster enough excitement about DC comics anymore.

So what the hell went wrong?

I pretty much put the blame squarely at the feet of the New 52 and DC’s decision to wipe away chunks of continuity with their so-called ‘soft’ reboot. It seemed like such a good idea at the time, and I should know because I was quite a vocal supporter of the concept – I really thought it would help revive the flagging Universe that was arguably being kept afloat by the popularity of the Batman and Green Lantern franchises. There was a sense that, if handled correctly, DC could make the kind of impact that would leave Marvel trailing in the dust. It was exciting, it offered the reader a chance to get into characters they’d previously ignored, opened the door for new readers, and generally made the DC Universe feel more vital than it had been in a long while. Ultimately though – and I realise there are a lot people who won’t agree – it proved to be a failure.
Since the Batman and Green Lantern franchise were such solid performers already, very little continuity tinkering occurred within them – they pretty much carried on as they were before. Elsewhere though, it was a different story. For starters, the entire Wildstorm Universe was absorbed into the regular DCU (putting the kibosh on Brian Wood’s plans to relaunch the imprint follow the success of DV8: Gods And Monsters) and the end result was a bunch of characters that bore scant resemblance to what they were beforehand (Grifter) or just seemed completely out of place when their inspirations, no matter how twisted the resulting interpretations, already existed (Apollo and Midnighter). Then there were the tweaks and changes to established characters, some just minor amendments, others major overhauls. The most galling thing for me was that I just couldn’t get on with the New 52 version of Superman. I know DC have had trouble for a while now trying to return the Man of Steel to the top again, but the changes didn’t sit well with me. Perhaps they were more in keeping with earlier iterations of the character, but I was rather keen on Clark being married to Lois and not having lost both parents a long time ago. Yeah, you could say that’s just me being picky, and ‘my’ version of Superman isn’t necessarily the gold standard, but that’s the version I connected with, and essentially I’d seen him disappear as the existing continuity was washed away, replaced with someone I barely recognized.

And yeah, I know one main raison d'être of the New 52 was to make characters more accessible by jettisoning a lot of continuity baggage, but that did have the unwelcome effect of make a relatively longtime reader like myself feel like his investment in the ‘versions’ of the characters they loved was rewarded with them being completely wiped and rebooted, like the proverbial hard drive that just isn’t functioning correctly anymore. There’s an argument to be made that the reboot was necessary to revitalise the line, but if that’s the case, why not apply it to the whole Universe, why leave some areas (Batman, Green Lantern) relatively unscathed? Then there’s the whole ‘five years’ thing, introduced in Justice League. We’re meant to believe all the major superheroes first appeared roughly five years ago, and all the key events in their existence occurred within that time. So, how many Robins has Batman gone through over the course of five years then?! It was too confining a time period, and it became more and more problematic when it became clear that a lot of the writers were finding it to be too confining a time period too.

Saying all that though, I’ll admit I was rather taken with a lot of the #1 issues I picked up, but not so taken with as many #2 issues, and books gradually started getting dropped from that point onwards. Some didn’t pass muster as they went on, but others were perfectly readable, and displayed an impressive amount of creativity. Why drop them then? Well, while they may have been readable, there were other books out there from other publishers that were more engaging, more essential, and when there’s only so much time and money available, something has to give somewhere. If you’re reading a comic book and thinking you’d be happy to read the next issue, but not exactly upset if you didn’t, you realise that book probably isn’t doing what it should be doing for you.

So those are some compelling reasons right there for why it’s time for me to turn my back on the DCU. But there’s more. You kind of expected that creative teams would be locked in for a decent amount of time for all the books that comprised the New 52, but it quickly became apparent that wasn’t the case. There appeared to be a real desire amongst the DC top brass to get these books out on a regular basis, and if a certain creator wasn’t managing to hit his or her deadlines, a replacement was waiting in the wings. Now I don’t want to take everything I’ve read on Bleeding Cool as gospel, but it does look like there were a lot of things going on behind closed doors where sales were the driving force behind decisions rather than creativity. Fair enough, it is a business after all, the shareholders have to be kept happy, but when things like Gail Simone’s unceremonious firing from Batgirl were made public, it does leave a bad taste in the mouth (even though fan reaction lead to DC reinstating her). To add to that, in the last few days, we’ve seen a couple of high profile writers walk away from books before their first issue has even reached the stands (along with controversy over the proposed death of Green Lantern, John Stewart).
Creative teams weren’t the only things that were in danger of getting the chop if they didn’t perform to expectations. It wasn’t long after the launch that the first wave of cancellations came through, followed by the announcement of a batch of new titles. And then the next wave of cancellations and another batch of new titles. And so on. It was ruthless, and more akin to the way new shows are handled on US network TV, but it did beg the question: if you can’t get enough people onboard for a Blue Beetle title or an O.M.A.C. book (a Kirby concept, no less!), why the hell would you think they’re going to be clamouring for Sword Of Sorcery or – for God’s sake! – Justice League Of America’s Vibe! I don’t mean to dismiss the latter two series out of hand as I’ve not read them, but if you can’t make established brands sell in significant numbers, coming out with obscure titles just smacks of desperation and a complete lack of confidence. And then there’s the forthcoming ‘WTF certified’ month which I really have no words for, other than – you guessed it – what the fuck.

Apparently there’s something else lined up for the second anniversary of the New 52 this August, potentially a ‘Villains month’, and possibly this eye-rolling news was the straw that broke the camel’s back, although my decision would have probably come around regardless, but I am at the point where I just don’t care anymore. It’s a decision I haven’t taken lightly, but it’s felt like the right one to make. And of course I always have Marvel to keep me sustained with tales of superheroics, particularly since their Marvel NOW! relaunch has been far more creatively satisfying than the New 52, all without the need to ignore everything that’s gone on before.

This isn’t a decision set in stone. I’m highly likely to pick up Batman again in the trade format, or in back issue boxes, and I’m kind of curious about the forthcoming Man Of Steel series from Scott Snyder and Jim Lee. I will freely admit that there’s good work being done by a lot of creators currently working at DC, and it’s not down to what they’re doing, it’s all those factors I’ve mentioned above, the factors that have clouded my judgement of the publisher’s output somewhat. I will say that, hands down the best thing out of the DCU since August 2011 was the Shazam! backup in Justice League. If that was a regular series it’s highly unlikely I’d want to drop that, but as I gave up on Justice League several months ago the choice was already made to trade-wait for the collection. Oh, and obviously I’ve been talking about the DC Universe here, I’m treating Vertigo as an entirely separate entity and will always be keen to check out anything that catches my attention from that imprint.

If I didn’t think I’d said enough already, I could also get into why the whole Before Watchmen enterprise – regardless of the motivations and the end products – fits into the way DC don’t appear to have confidence in what they’re doing (huge hype at the start, then it just quietly slips out without much comment) but perhaps that’s a conversation for another time. For now, I’ll wind this up by saying I still love a lot of these characters, and I can’t imagine a future where I don’t read any new stories featuring them again, but as of right now, with all that’s happened in the last year and a half, I’m quite happy with my decision to say I’m done with the DC Universe.


Andy C said...

A pretty provocative piece, Matt! Harsh but sadly fair.

It could be considered that the general radio silence in the lack of comments is representative of general agreement?????

I still rate Batman and Batgirl amongst the best I pick up but I have also dropped New 52 titles along the way. I would totally agree that the titles DC are bringing out to plug the gaps of those they have cancelled seem totally unappealing and it's difficult to imagine any of them being big sellers.

I don't know the facts behind it but the Gail Simone thing seemed farcical and smacked of piss-poor management.

The zero issues were largely pointless and the gatefold covers just smack of insecurity in the quality of what's inside.

The New 52 wasn't all bad but it has totally run out of steam. It's time for DC to just concentrate on releasing great comics even if that means having 'just' 20 titles.

I desperately hope DC can find their way in comics as well as their seemingly bumbling strategy for movies. Batman is my 'first love' in comics and I tend to prefer the darker side of DC compared to the generally lighter Marvel feel. But there is no doubt Marvel are rocking it at the moment and Image are also putting out some amazing titles.

Time for catch-up, DC........

Tom P said...

I have to agree with what your say, Matt. I've lost interest massively in the DCU. I've written on this site of my problems with Batman and Superman. Both books keep missing the mark Batman won me back at one point but its still not for me and I've decided to leave it for now too. I am still getting Wonder Woman which I love but it seems to have nothing to do with the rest of that world so that works fine for me. So yeah I'm all finished too... Except for WW and like you I will check out Snyder's Superman I hope he can get a good story from the "New 52" mess.

I.Walker said...

Wow,that's some article Matt and I can fully understand your reasons for leaving the DC Universe behind for now,but I can't say I agree with all that you have written, especially the bit about laying much of the blame for your decision on the New 52,I for one applaud DC for taking such a bold move with their universe, and have DC messed up in places,sure they have and it's a pain in the arse when they bring out titles that I enjoy reading only to cancel them months later,but that's the comic book business for you,as for wiping away the continuity of the old,that's not such a bad thing to some degree,yeah some continuity is a good thing but surely the story is what matters,and are Marvel that much better than DC at the moment,no not to me each company is publishing some great comics at the moment and as I collect 9 more DC titles each month than Marvel it says a lot to me about what Marvel are doing at the moment,but I'm sure that will change when Marvel begin phase two of Marvel Now and as for the ever changing rota of writers and artists,again that can be a pain in the arse as well but for me it's never been about who's writing or drawing the comic just as long as I'm reading the adventures of my favourite heroes each month, that's all I care about,and I've maintained the same stance about comics for many years and that is not to take them too seriously,besides when you start to analyse something like a comic book and brake in down surely that takes most of the fun out of reading them,I've always read comics for the fun, adventure and escapism that they give me and that's the way I will continue.
Happy reading Matt.

Matt Clark said...

Just to emphasise, as I'm not sure I made it clear enough, my main beef is with the editorial team - the folks in charge - at the moment. It's their highly questionable decision-making that's soured me towards the DCU as a whole, not the creators actually working on the books (and yes, I realise there's some crossover, but that kind of makes it worse, don't you think?).

And I know I left Vertigo exempt from all this, but I do worry about their future, especially when the likes of Swamp Thing and John Constantine have been removed for reinsertion into the DCU...