The Trouble with Launching New Titles and Geoff Johns’ Justice League

Justice League #9

Like just about everyone else alive, I (for no discernible reason) am absolutely convinced that I know better than the myriad writers and editors at DC Comics, that my take on the New 52 would have been flawlessly executed, that all the mistakes they made – and I don’t think it’s any great revelation that massive, avoidable mistakes were made in the course of this enormous, ambitious project – could have been turned around if only they would have trusted me.

Which is stupid, of course.  The comic marketplace is a vastly different place than it was even ten years ago, and outside of seriously stepping out of comic shops and back into supermarkets (with the resulting drop in price and increase in age-restricted content that implies) they were never going to get their comics into many new hands… and I’m pretty sure that isn’t a feasible goal anyway.  No, they did a lot right, including the very necessary move to increase digital publication.

But one possible mistake they made that I think would be very fixable is in how they handled some of the relaunches.  Angry fans can and will claim that DC never gave their favorite canceled title a shot – though the relative dearth of this sort of outcry thus far suggests that DC picked the right titles to cancel quickly, and I’d bet the next cancellations will be met with similar silence – but, realistically, they were treated exactly the same as the rest of the New 52, given promotion, in-house ads, equal shelf space, etc….  DC treated Men of War and Batman roughly the same – and that, in my opinion, is the problem.

Now, if I had to guess, I’d say we’re in for another round of cancellations to be announced within the next couple months – and I’d say the titles on the chopping block are Captain Atom, Voodoo, Grifter and Resurrection Man (with Blue Beetle and Fury of the Firestorm very probably joining them, though I wouldn’t be shocked if at least one of them survived for an extra couple months).  It’s not just that they have bad sales figures; it’s that the sales figures are getting significantly worse every month, long after they should have settled down a bit.

What does all this have to do with Geoff Johns current run on Justice League?  It’s this: I predict (and I’m far from the first or only person to predict this) that, when the next round of cancellations and replacements are announced, one of the new titles will be Shazam! and it will be written (or co-written) by Geoff Johns.  And it will sell very, very well.

Congratulations, artist: You have successfully turned Dr. Sivana into Magic Lex Luthor.

And, in my opinion, it will sell because Geoff Johns is very smartly building an audience for that title in his current, monstrously popular Justice League.  This is how you launch a book.  Take a character, feature them for a few months in a popular (or multiple popular) books, and then spin them off.  Now, I wouldn’t do it quite so blatantly as this, generally speaking – fans often rankle at paying extra for a back-up featuring a character they don’t care about – but the idea is the same.  Even as Johns tells quick, engaging action stories featuring some of the most popular heroes on Earth, he’s priming a massive audience to get used to reading the monthly adventures of Billy Batson, and even if I don’t particularly care for the content of his story – and I can’t state enough how much I despise his take on Billy Batson, which I think is by far the most flawed thing about his otherwise enjoyably overblown Justice League – the fact is, Shazam! is probably reaching more readers on a month to month basis now than Captain Marvel has in years, maybe even decades.

Billy Batson truly is a worthy inheritor to the Shazam mantle.

Now, there are problems besides the way the books were advertised, of course.  Of the first six cancellations, only Men of War and O.M.A.C. (and maybe Mister Terrific) had found a really coherent voice – Hawk and Dove, Black Hawks and Static Shock were kind of a mess.  What’s more, those tones were purposely attempting to cultivate a small but loyal audience.  The controlled chaos of O.M.A.C. was a blast to fans of classic Kirby, but it largely just confused many newer readers, which, for a D-list character, is something that isn’t going to bring in the big numbers.

While Animal Man is a more well-known character than most of the canceled heroes, his last book for DC (The Last Days of Animal Man) opened weak (18,976 sold) and ended abysmally (11,271 sold), while the current iteration is hovering comfortably, eight issues in, at over 32,000 copies sold.  And if I had to guess why that is, I’d say it’s because almost every critic as well as a vocal fanbase has been arguing since early on that the book is very, very good.  I’m pretty sure we here at read/RANT were the only critics seriously stumping for Men of War – but, seriously you guys, it’s pretty good and you should check out the upcoming Men of War: Uneasy Company trade! – and I don’t recall anyone seriously claiming that Black Hawks or Static Shock were contributing much to the relaunched DC Universe.

OF COURSE the DC Universe would be better if every book was up to the standard set by the excellent art and writing of Animal Man… but that’s not a realistic goal to set.  So if they want books to sell, and if you want your favorite B-list characters or new heroes to get the feature they probably deserve, a new system for launching books needs to be devised.  Because, even as one of the most critically revered new comic books in years, Animal Man is still reaching a fairly small audience.

So many professionals in the comics industry came there from television.  And it makes sense that they’d be drawn to comics – television and comics are two of the only mediums around where long-form, serialized storytelling coupled with the attempt to create character- and plot-driven perpetual motion machines is the norm, after all.  But while they’ve brought a lot of interesting ideas to the table, one thing that I’ve noticed is that comics series are increasingly being launched like TV shows (or like books… which is probably where a lot of other editors come from).  And that doesn’t work.

Presumably, very close to every household in America (by now) has either a TV or a computer.  It costs you nothing to tune in and check out a new TV show, and you’re dealing with millions upon millions of eyeballs, so networks can toss new shows on the air with relative certainty that at least a few million people will watch.  There are concerns with scheduling, of course – finding out what shows dominate what time slots and either abandoning them, counter-programming or try to overtake them, and finding good shows to lead in and close out nights so viewers will stick to one network rather than jumping around – but the basic idea of launching a TV show is pretty simple.

Comics have none of those advantages.  You have two-to-three hundred thousand readers at most, and, to sample your new product, they must fork over 3-4$ for a completely unknown quantity.  And while I wish fans would branch out and take risks more often, because comics needs more than just Batman books and Avengers books, their reluctance to drop a pretty huge amount of money on something they have no reason to think will be excellent is understandable.

The advantage that Marvel and DC have over their competitors and a huge part of the draw they have over television is their shared universe.  It’s the idea that Batman and Wonder Woman can team up to save Green Lantern’s hometown, Coast City.  It’s the thrill that comes from seeing Barbara Gordon or Matt Murdock call in favors from the dozens of heroes they’ve worked with, saved and befriended over the years to get them out of a tight spot.

One of my favorite moments from Gail Simone’s excellent run on BIRDS OF PREY, as every Bird past and present shows up to support her.

And it’s that very same excitement that makes Johns’ strategy here such a smart one.  He’s not thinking like a network TV producer; he’s thinking like a comic book creator.  He’s using the strengths of the medium and DC’s brand – iconic characters in a shared universe – to build an audience for a book that doesn’t yet exist.

Spinning new books out of events is a longstanding tradition.  In a way, that’s what the entirety of the New 52 was.  But one needs only check out the sales of mini-series’ that came out OUTSIDE the New 52 wave of media attention and collector’s frenzy to see that, for a B-list character (or new creation) to thrive, they can’t just be dropped unceremoniously out into the wild.  That’s the mindset that sees Night Force #1 (13,174) undersell Voodoo #7 (13,587) in the same month, or that finds the surprisingly critically acclaimed The Ray #1 (17,779) underselling Hawk and Dove #4 (18,014), or that sees James Robinson, the writer of much-loved maxiseries The Shade, suggest that sales are so bad his title faced cancellation before even finishing even its short run.  Spinning off a successful franchise is what takes Green Lantern from a character who can’t support a single book to a franchise that can support multiple spin-offs, each successful in its own right – and look, that’s another franchise shepherded largely by Geoff Johns.

The thing is, Green Lantern isn’t unique (much as his oft-too passionate fans wish he was).  Before DC figured out how to market the franchise off of a high-profile event (Green Lantern: Rebirth), spin that off into a pair of successful ongoings (Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps) and then keep it afloat with a series of smartly constructed crossovers (The Sinestro Corps War) and events (Blackest Night), each of which had its own spin-off potential, Green Lantern was dead in the water.  It’s not Hal Jordan that saved the character; it’s smart marketing, consistent writing and a continuous media presence all masterminded by a longtime fan.  The same thing could easily be done with Wonder Woman, or Superman, or any number of other characters whose star seems to be on the decline… if the same care and attention to detail were put into the building process as went into GL.

Though the change is much less drastic, Morrison managed a similar feat with Batman – the issue before Morrison took over Batman, the title sold 76,525 issues; when he left, it was selling over 90,000 issues and launching successful ongoing spin-offs in Batman and Robin, Batman Incorporated and miniseries’ like Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne.  Bendis and a dedicated team pulled a similar trick with the Avengers at Marvel, turning them from a mid-selling team book to Marvel’s most dominant franchise, with Mighty Avengers and New Avengers and Dark Avengers and… well, you get the point.

None of this is new information, of course.  What’s going on in Justice League is not unheard of.  It’s not even particularly rare.  But it is smart, and it should be the rule, not the exception.  The days of Marvel or DC successfully launching a franchise by just tossing it out there and hoping for the best are approaching their endpoint, if they aren’t there already.

Now… all that said, one of the main difficulties of doing this lies in finding the right creators.   Part of why Geoff Johns’ revitalization of Green Lantern was so successful was because it was a project about which he was immensely passionate.  That kind of care and attention to detail can’t be faked, and if something is driven more by corporate’s desire to sell more t-shirts than by the creator’s desire to tell the best story they can, you’ll wind up with another high-profile travesty like Countdown to Final Crisis.  Nobody wants another Countdown.  Especially not comics bloggers.  Trust me on that.

It’s interesting to note how similar Johns’ strategy with Shazam! is to his revitalization of the Green Lantern franchise – and how different it looks  at first blush.  Like GL, Billy Batson and company are getting a pretty high-profile initial showcase that drops the parts of the mythos Johns doesn’t like (Hal was a flawed human being; Billy was a fundamentally good kid) in favor of a more media-friendly take (overcoming possession with Hal; a redemption narrative with Billy).  And, what’s more, Shazam! was featured in a few different ways in DC’s Free Comic Book Day offering a few weeks back, which teased that the New 52’s first event, apparently titled Trinity War, may heavily involve the Shazam! family mythology.

Maybe it won’t work.  Personally, I hope it does.  DC and Marvel are getting too invested in single franchises, to the point where a bad run for the Avengers (not likely right now, I know) or Batman (also not likely just yet) can cause some serious trouble.  What’s more, there’s a point of diminishing returns that I think both companies are approaching.  While the New 52 did a great job of giving us, for example, relatively risky books like Animal Man, Men of War or I, Vampire (to name three of my favorites), it also gave us TWELVE Batman-related ongoings (almost 25% of DC’s total ongoing output… and more, if you count the fact that Tim Drake is leading the Titans and Batman is on the JLA and JLI).  I like seeing the new story concepts, the small changes in the shared universe, and the new flavors created and new chances taken when something different becomes popular and everyone attempts to catch that same lightning in a bottle.

Chasing that kind of narrative diversity is a smart move.  Hell, chasing all kinds of diversity is a smart move for an industry that’s rapidly losing its focus in favor of its more populist film counterparts.  I respect what DC attempted with the New 52, giving Jaime Reyes, Virgil Hawkins, Priscilla Kitaen, David Zavimbe, Jason Rusch, Kate Kane and others their own ongoing books… but, of them, only Batwoman proved to be a sales success.   It’s not that Voodoo is a bad book, but it is a book that can’t survive without support, without building a fanbase first.

And that, to me, was the greatest mistake of the New 52, and one I hope they are working now to correct.  Not the missteps in continuity, or the behind-the-scenes spats that hurt books like Static Shock, but the fact that DC had the opportunity to really diversify their line, they ran with it… and it didn’t work, because they didn’t work to build enough support.

– Cal C.


7 thoughts on “The Trouble with Launching New Titles and Geoff Johns’ Justice League

  1. nice post.
    I didn’t realize how close Resurrection Man was to the chopping block. I’d put that in my top five of the new 52 along with Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Batman and Aquaman. I’d probably swap Aquaman for Dial H but it’s a little too early in that run to make that call. I really was digging Justice League Dark untill this crossover with I Vampire really slowed down what I felt was a well paced series. With Lemire taking over writing duties in the next issue I think it will quickly be becoming one of my favorites again.

    Anyway most of that has nothing to do with your thesis but there it is. Excelsior true believers.

    • Resurrection Man is extraordinarily close. I’m surprised the trade isn’t coming out until August, because I would have bet previously that trade sales would have been a huge factor in what gets canceled next for the bottom six or seven titles. Hopefully it’ll pull out of its tailspin soon.

      Dial H was definitely interesting. Can’t wait to see where it goes next, though, like you, I’m waiting a few more issues before I make a general judgment on the series.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. I’d say that Hawkman and Deathstroke are on the chopping block as well: their sales are normal, but the decision of putting them in Liefeld’s hands is a strong clue. About the series Liefeld is working on, I wouldn’t care if he led Hawkman to fail, but I would be very sorry if this happened to Grifter and Deathstroke. They are two of the best New 52 comics, especially Grifter. Static Shock and Hawk and Dove had a great potential, in my opinion: I loved SS when it was a Milestone title, and, if you read the last 2 issues of H & D, you can see it had a lot of unexploited starting points.

    • Hawkman and Deathstroke are both definitely on the bubble, but (unless Liefeld is really expensive to hire, which wouldn’t shock me at all… though, as a writer…?) they both outsell the genuinely dire books by a good amount. What’s more, there are currently TEN (if you can believe that) lower-selling titles than Hawkman and Deathstroke… and I can’t see DC jumping quite so high up the list in one swoop.

      Even sparing DC Universe Presents (whose anthology format could let them try and jump for higher sales), Blue Beetle (for Jaime’s multimedia presence), Fury of the Firestorm (for having one of the very few minority leads left in the line) and I, Vampire (which reads like a Vertigo title anyway, so should have a decent trade life), that still leaves 6 books more likely to be canceled right now than those two.

      DC BADLY needs to pull the bottom of the line up somehow, and fast.

  3. Excellent piece Cal (yes? I can’t see a byline). You;re right, giving likely new titles a showcase prior to launch makes sense. I remember back when Marvel would feature characters such as the Inhumans across the line for years before trying them in their own strip, And then in an anthology title. I’m all for back-ups so long as the quality is high – which is subjective, I know – and don’t mind paying for them.

    I do want variety, though. Suddenly bumping a Batman book by a dollar and giving us the history of the Waynes, tying into the overdone owls opus, has me likely to drop that book. I realise a Bat-book suggests a Bat-back-up, so why not Robin or Flamebird?.Or even Batrwoman, Lord knows that book needs a tighter focus.

    • Yeah, it was me. Sometimes I forget to sign these longer articles. And thanks!

      I understand that Snyder wants to make the Court of Owls story have a much broader, more epic scope, but I agree – an extra dollar for a multi-part ‘history of the Waynes and the Owls’ story is largely unnecessary, in part because the Court of Owls is a very one-note bad guy. They’re interesting as a behind-the-scenes manipulative organization, but that’s not what they are anymore. Hopefully, when the Owls stuff is over, they will move on to featuring other characters and new ideas.

      And I definitely agree – the Inhumans are a great example of the kind of slow-burn that’s ideal for building buzz and making characters last. Andrew Bennett and Mary, Queen of Blood in I, Vampire are both excellent characters, and I bet they’d be vastly more popular if they first popped up in books like Batman and Wonder Woman (since the ‘War of the Vampires’ thing was wrapped up in the first 8 issues and barely touched on the outside DCU) as a crossover before earning their own book.

      I get that it’s not always possible from a storytelling point of view, but the sheer number of books that are just tossed out onto the racks without rhyme or reason is maddening – especially since many of them are pretty great!

  4. Pingback: New 52: The Next 3 Cancellations (and 4 New Titles) « read/RANT!

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