Thursday, September 15, 2011

The DC Relaunch and The Digital Future of Comics: Will It Work?

The comic book world was stunned last May when DC, home of some of the medium's most recognizable and iconic characters, announced that it was stopping publication of all its titles and relaunching the entire DC Universe with 52 new series all starting at issue 1. The announcement, which was posted on the company's blog, sparked myriad reactions among fans, retailers, and creators, some of whom expressed interest and excitement about the plan, while others reacted with doubt and frustration. Many fans were dismayed at the idea that long-running series such as Action Comics and Detective Comics, which have spanned decades and several hundred issues, would now be starting over. Others wondered if such a massive creative overhaul would, like so many other epic world-changing storylines that have saturated superhero comics over the last decade, fail to live up to the hype. Regardless of the reaction, one unifying comment from supporters and skeptical critics was that the company was taking a significant risk. As noted by the New York Times in an article written by David Itzkoff: 
"The success or failure of this plan will have far-reaching implications: it could alienate longtime fans for the sake of new readers. And it could portend a more widespread exhaustion with film and television projects that are adapted from comic books and that are constantly starting over from scratch."
Two weeks ago the relaunch began with the release of Justice League #1, written by Geoff Johns with art by Jim Lee, with some comic stores having midnight launch parties to celebrate the event. Since then DC has added over a dozen other titles with more to be released throughout the month. Fans and critics have received the books with mixed reviews (so far I've enjoyed a lot of what I read) but one thing is for certain, DC is generating a lot of buzz and many comic stores are reporting selling out of titles hours after they are released. 
While the ultimate success or failure of the relaunch will take a long time to completely gauge, it is clear from the multiple interviews and press releases that the company has provided that this more than a typical 5th week event, designed to excite fans and get them to add a couple of more titles to their Wednesday buy-pile. Instead, this is a concerted effort to grab new readers and increase the emphasis on DC's digital publishing platform. 
The plan seems to have two principle means of achieving these goals, supported of course with a massive marketing campaign. 
The first means is naturally the relaunch itself. As a former comic book store manager, I can attest that the medium can seem a little daunting for new readers. One of the characteristics of the culture, a result of its decades as a marginalized and niche group, is that casual readers often feel overwhelmed at the amount of titles, the requisite knowledge of continuity, and the recurring trips to the comic store that keeping up with everything requires. I remember talking to customers who looked at the back stock of trades and the fact that Batman was in the 600's and decided that it simply wasn't worth the energy and commitment to start reading comics or to get back into them.
The second part of DC's plan is the increased focus on their digital comics which are available to download on your computer or onto a smartphone or iPad/iPod through comiXology or directly through the publishers own app. Prior to the relaunch, DC had always waited a week after the titles were released in comic book stores, before making them available in a digital format. Now, the comics are accessible for immediate download the same day as their paper release. This has caused some concern from comic store owners who already contend with multiple other issues threatening their businesses, including online sites and chain stores able to offer large discounts on trades, declining readership, digital piracy, and multiple other issues. 
Two things must be considered though when trying to gauge the impact the synchronized release dates will have on brick-and-mortar stores. First, both comiXology and Diamond Comics Distribution have both been working on programs to allow comic book stores to sell digital comics and receive a portion of the proceeds, similar to the program Google has created to allow independent bookstores to sell e-books. These programs are still in their infancy, but might create a way for the stores - which are useful for upselling and cultivating a customer base - and the publishers to both benefit. 
The second issue to be considered when determining if digital comics will hurt comic book stores is the question of reader demographics. Who is actually buying digital comics? While there is still no exact certainty in this issue yet, some have argued that there is no overlap in customers. Many people who read digital comics are not the type to go to their local comic store every Wednesday, buy a stack of books, and then preserve them with bags, boards, and long boxes. Many have claimed that the people who will read digital comics constitute an untapped market that will not take business away from retailers since these are people who would never commit that much energy to comics. However, they will download books onto their iPad from the comfort of their homes. 

One important criteria that is will be necessarily when evaluating the success of the Relaunch comes from the concern Itzkoff raises in the quotation above. In order to achieve their goals DC must appeal to new readers, while simultaneously avoiding alienating their notoriously fickle fans. New readers can't feel lost in a backstory they know nothing about, yet fans likewise, can't be made to feel like their knowledge of the history of their favorite characters is now null and void.
So far this issue, like the relaunch itself, has been met with mixed reviews. Historian Julian Chambliss, who I interviewed here at the blog last month, argued that he didn't think it would attract new readers, contending that, "To create new readers they need to continue to innovate, but I'm not sure innovation is the goal here." Comic Book Resources created a "New Reader Litmus Test" in which they concluded that, "there were only two titles the new readers both understood and said they would voluntarily buy the second issue of: "Detective Comics," and "Action Comics." Certainly not the results DC were hoping for. 
I do think that there is a chance for DC to be successful even if they are not able to find an exact equilibrium between old and new readers. First, in many of the books I read, such as Swamp Thing (which I reviewed for popmatters, check it out here), it appeared the creators had taken a layered-approach to their story. I enjoyed the book because it linked back to the Alan Moore run from the 80's that I loved so much, but I think it did it in such a way that new readers wouldn't have even noticed that there was something they were missing. There were subtle cues that fans would pick up on, but simultaneously nothing that would necessarily have a new reader scratching their head. 
Additionally I think DC might be successful simply because they have generated enough enthusiasm - particularly with the success and ubiquity of superhero movies - that might carry new readers over any continuity learning-curves they might encounter. I have spoke to retailers who said they have a lot of customers new to comics who are excited about the prospect of getting into the medium, and today while waiting for my local comic store to open I spoke to a couple of people who said they were coming here for the first time to pick up the new books. Hopefully, that enthusiasm will keep them reading long enough to hook 'em.
But will it work? And will it breathe new life into the paper side of the industry or is it ushering a new era of digital comics? What do you think?