The Failings of DC

Outside of one month (October 2007), Marvel has been crushing DC in both dollars and market share to the tune of approximately 48% to 33% month in and month out. It seems like everything Marvel is clicking, with Secret Invasion #1 having a lot of positive buzz and the runaway success of the Iron Man movie (which could easily translate into big sales from Fraction’s new Invincible Iron Man ongoing launching Wednesday), and there’s a definite feel that Marvel’s got the momentum. But the question is why. As recently as three to four years ago, all the momentum was on DC’s side. Identity Crisis was a big success, and the addition of Brad Meltzer to the book allowed for wider appeal. At the same time, Brian Bendis’ House of M was seen as grandstanding and Marvel’s response to Identity Crisis instead of an organically grown event. Infinite Crisis was on the horizon, and their tactic of using mini series as a lead-in seemed to be working well. Infinite Crisis launched big, and everything seemed to be going very well on Superman’s side of the table. But then things began to take a turn. Infinite Crisis 7 did not go well, with general fan disappointment as to the content as well as art problems that eventually had to be fixed in the trade. Alongside this, Marvel decided to blitz the media for their new event, and the next thing you know, Civil War is selling 300,000 copies per issue, Captain America dies and Marvel completely takes over market share. Despite the delays to the second half of Civil War and subsequent individual book delays that came from it, and the event’s own fan disappointment over its seventh issue, Marvel took control. And here’s why I personally think it happened.

There is a very big difference between the way Marvel and DC are going about publishing books in their universes. I feel like DC is actively pandering to their already established fan base to the detriment of anyone on the outside. Infinite Crisis was heavily steeped in the mythology of Crisis on Infinite Earths. There is absolutely no meaning or emotional resonance for the main villains (Alex Luthor, Earth 1 Supes and Earth Prime Superboy) for those that did not read Crisis, and the couple pages of backstory in issue 2 weren’t going to cut it. 52 focused on the also-rans of the DCU, and admittedly did a much better job of making the reader care for these people. The build to Final Crisis (i.e. Countdown/DC Universe 0) is messy, confusing and alienating. What we have here is the kind of stuff that’s going to make the DC fans even bigger DC fans, but completely turn everyone else off. They’re going for grand concepts riddled with continuity to the detriment of casual readers. And I’m an example of that.

When I first read Identity Crisis (which was my introduction to the DC Universe proper), I didn’t know who half the characters were. But I loved the damn thing for two main reasons. The first was Brad Meltzer, who did some really fascinating writing, namely from the perspective of literary devices as pertains to the narrative found in caption boxes. The second reason was the overt simplicity of the overarching plot. Pretty simple stuff. Superhero’s wife is murdered. Find killer and deal with him/her. Of course, there are many many many more themes and subplots going on here, but if you boil it down to the essentials, that’s what you’ve got. So when I started buying floppies, I decided to get some DC books, namely Booster Gold, the Green Lantern books, JLA and JSA. I’ve since dropped both JLA and JSA, and came extremely close to dropping Booster Gold. Hell, if I followed my own edict of dropping a book when it pisses me off, I wouldn’t be reading Green Lantern right now. I dropped JLA because I wasn’t digging on McDuffie’s take, which granted, had nothing to do with the thrust of this little article I’m writing. JSA got dropped because I’m sick to death of Kingdom Come, and Johns (to me) completely ruined the momentum of the first six issues because of the Lightning Saga and this Kingdom Come nonsense. Booster nearly got dropped because bringing Ted Kord back smacked of pandering (and it still does, as that book is constantly hovering around my cut list). I nearly dropped the current arc of Green Lantern because the random retconny origin story completely stymied the flow of their slow build to Blackest Night, and it seems like Johns is stalling. A retelling of Hal’s origin for the really big numberth time over multiple issues is a complete waste. It’s writing for the trade and it’s nonsense.

So for me, as a reader, DC is failing to bring me in and keep my business. DC Universe 0 didn’t exactly help. I know for a fact that if I hadn’t gone on message boards and Newsarama/CBR, I would not have been able to understand the big reveal at the end of DCU 0. And even now that I know, I can’t say that I care. Their big gesture to bridge Countdown and Final Crisis while bringing in new readers was a complete and total failure on both counts. It’s an odd situation overall, because DC is making their core audience very happy, and outside of Countdown, everyone who reads DC seems to be enjoying themselves. However, they’re not building the product in a good way outside of their core audience. To celebrate the release of Iron Man, Marvel launches a new Iron Man ongoing the following week the features a villain with strong ties to Obadiah Stane, the villain from the Iron Man film. What’s DC doing for The Dark Knight? Why, a fifth week event, of course! And no one who wasn’t already lining up to buy the thing before it was announced cares. This is not going to grow their market share and let them get within reach of Marvel again. Final Crisis should do big numbers, but I seriously doubt it’ll outsell Secret Invasion past issue one. Hell, their best selling book (All Star Batman and Robin) has basically no schedule and never comes out on time. It’s a frustrating situation, because I like DC, and I like DC’s characters, and I like DC’s creators. But they keep doing thing to alienate me. Marvel, on the other hand, builds from a foundation of generally simple and easy to follow concepts (heroes fighting heroes, Hulk attacks New York, shape-shifting aliens invade Earth) and builds the complexity from that base. DC doesn’t seem to be doing that at the moment.

I guess the main reason why I wrote this article is to throw out some insight as to why you folks barely, if ever, see me reviewing DC books. It’s not due to a hatred for their universe as a whole. It’s just that when a company keeps kicking you in the balls, you’re eventually going to stop coming back to them until said ball-kickers are no longer present.

I’m interested to see if I’m the only one who feels this way. Any thoughts from the peanut gallery?

4 thoughts on “The Failings of DC

  1. Definitely some things to think about.

    I used to be someone who thought DC was an impossible nut to crack. I slowly started finding books and characters that I’d like and casually follow, and eventually (I’m not really sure HOW it happened…) I was buying more DC stuff than anything else. But thinking back, and thinking about the things I like now, a lot of what you say resonates. There was a distinct acclimation period–a time spent becoming invested in characters and stories.

    In our podcast I often decry Marvel’s oft used technique of hijacking titles to tell a big event story that I think should be told in a mini of it’s own (Hello? MIGHTY AVENGERS #12? Why isn’t this the kick-off to a Nick Fury series?), but I have to admit that Marvel does have a much better marketing eye than DC does.

    Yeah, now that I’m really thinking it over, you make a great point. Does that make me love DC any less. No, of course not; as you’ve pointed out, DC’s doing everything right for ME. It does however pose an interesting problem: How do I, a strong DC fan and a person who likes to share my interests in comics with others, get other people acclimated to the DCU as I was? Or even can I?

  2. I agree with all your your reasoning, you’ve got it absoultely right. What pulled me into the DCU (Past the odd random Batman graphic novel) was a friend of mine wandering stunned into my room and saying “Blue Beetle’s dead” as he dropped a comic onto my desk. I had no idea who Blue Beetle was, but I picked it up and it was fantastic. In one great comic I grew to love Ted Kord and mourned his death. The other Countdown to Infinite Crisis titles and Identity Crisis had the same effect on me – they brought me in and hooked me. And then… I wasn’t kept hooked. 52 was good, and I enjoyed it, but I felt myself being less invested. The heavy on the continuity stuff was cloying. And Countdown… countdown was just awful, and I’ve dropped right out of the DCU since then.

  3. I’m more of a DC person right now, as my reviews may hint. That said, I’m definitely something of an oddball when it comes to buying habits.

    I used to be a hardcore Marvel Zombie. You know the type, they’re at every comic shop – Marvel was MY company and DC was garbage as Woo! 80s Claremont X-Men is the pinnacle of comic book storytelling! – but, it began to wear thin and I found myself reading less and less. Disassembled was unsatisfying, House of M was a bad joke. A writer I had formerly loved, Bendis, began to do all this stuff I hated. The Ultimate Universe was taking off, and boy did that piss me off, and I just said, “Okay. That’s it. I’m done.” I stopped reading comics, outside of occasional Vertigo trades.

    Meanwhile, Countdown to Infinite Crisis. It was a blast. On top of that, Villains United and Shadowpact were AWESOME. Then I read Infinite Crisis, and there was some cool stuff in there, but…eh, very largely a let-down. A friend loaned me some of Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol, and I fell in love. First Marvel comics I bought after the year+ long boycott were Morrison’s New X-Men trades.

    What really solidified me was 52. 52 was an ambitious, heart-breaking masterpiece. I compared it to what was going on with Marvel – Civil War, a by-the-books betrayal piece that featured everyone losing about 20 points off their IQ and a whole lot of bad alpha-male posturing (aka 90% of everything Millar’s ever written). I began to look at Marvel and DC’s Big Events, and realized how damn similar it all was. Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis were all about the League, specifically the Trinity. Disassembled, HoM, Civil War, Secret Invasion, etc…were all about the same damn characters doing the same damn things. 52? The lead-up to Infinite Crisis? That’s how I wanted to see things done. And while Marvel was pandering to the same crowd over and over again, DC seemed to just say, “Okay, you know what – screw this. Let’s make Pied Piper the main character.” DC’s insane stories like that aren’t always good (re: Countdown), but they’re inventive and ballsy, and I definitely appreciate that.

    That’s how we get to my pull list now. Books like Blue Beetle and Checkmate, Immortal Iron Fist and Criminal. The good books that get run-down in the stampeded of mediocrity that is the core books at the two companies.* How big my pull is depends largely on how many books on it have been cancelled recently.

    But, you know, it’s actually made me happier. I love (my corner of) the DC and Marvel Universes right now!

    Now, there are a few things. First off, Marvel’s marketing department kicks DC’s ass so hard. Second, Marvel is REALLY good at pandering, even better than DC – only Marvel panders to teenagers, while DC keeps pandering to an ever-shrinking older fanbase. DC’s tried – Identity Crisis was a Marvel story told in the DC Universe, and look how insanely well that did! But DC can’t maintain a consistent effort, generally just falling back on how awesome everyone thinks Batman is.

    …wow, that was rambly. I should probably edit this down to something meaningful, but…class.

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