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DC Comics’ New 52 Edges Towards Landmark 52nd Cancellation [Analysis]


DC Comics
announced via its August solicitations the cancellation of six of its lowest-selling New 52 titles: All-Star Western, Batwing, Birds of Prey, Superboy, Trinity of Sin: Pandora, and Trinity of Sin: The Phantom Stranger. The books’ final issues ship in August, one month shy of the third anniversary of the New 52 initiative that rebooted the entire DC superhero line with fifty-two new or relaunched series.

The total number of New 52 titles cancelled or discontinued in that three year period now stands at 47, which means just five more cancellations will tip the company over into a new New 52; fifty-two books that didn’t work out. That seems like heavy turnover for such a  high profile relaunch, but what does it tell us about DC’s strategy?

The “52″ number was always a weird totem for DC. The publisher latched onto the number for its hit yearlong weekly series 52, published in the wake of the Infinite Crisis soft continuity reboot of 2006. Within that series the publisher established 52 parallel realities, downgrading from its previously established “infinite” Earths (but upgrading from its separately established rule against any parallel Earths… it’s complicated).

After the 2011 continuity-obliterating Flashpoint, DC relaunched its line with 52 titles in a single month, and the number that once applied to the weeks in a year was now a sort of vestigial trademark, as strongly associated with the DC brand as “57 Varieties” is associated with the Heinz brand.

“57 Varieties” doesn’t mean anything. Henry J. Heinz reportedly picked the number as a way to indicate the range of Heinz products on offer, but it was never an accurate accounting of the company’s products. There were more than 57 Heinz products when he came up with the slogan, and there are far more than 57 Heinz products today.

DC may have come up with the 52 number as a similar exercise in showcasing its range, yet range is a limited virtue for a publisher whose output tends towards a narrow demographic reach. For a while DC maintained its relaunched core line at 52 titles, always announcing a new series at the cancellation of an old one, but the strategy was obviously a limiting one, and at some point the actual number of titles comprising that 52 became muddy. With multiple miniseries, event comics, weekly titles and one-shots (and more if you count the out-of-continuity digital-first projects), there hasn’t been an unambiguous DC 52 in a long time. Like Heinz 57, DC’s 52 doesn’t mean anything any more.

Yet it provides a useful landmark for judging DC’s current strategy. With convention season upon us and a host of announcements doubtlessly coming down the pipeline, it seems certain that DC will hit its 52nd New 52 cancellation sooner rather than later. As it stands, the publisher averages one final issue almost every three weeks.

Generously, such high turnover may indicate a willingness to try new ideas on DC’s part. Less generously, it may indicate a poor understanding of a changing market.

Marvel has averaged about one final issue a month since its Marvel NOW relaunch began in October 2012. DC, of course, has had more time to see its books fail, but most of its discontinued books have been real cancellations — as opposed to strategic conclusions. Justice League of AmericaNightwing, and Teen Titans were among the only books discontinued specifically so they could be relaunched. (It remains to be seen if any of the six latest discontinuations will also lead to relaunches.) Batman Incorporated is one of the only titles ended at an author’s insistence. Animal Man is one of the only titles afforded extra time to tell a real ending. Most of DC’s cancelled titles ended swiftly and unceremoniously, and in some cases acrimoniously.

Marvel’s discontinuations have had a different flavor. Books like Young Avengers and Superior Spider-Man ended because the authors were finished telling those stories, and cancellations that pave the way for relaunches are much more common at Marvel; see Captain Marvel, Daredevil (both pre-NOW titles), Indestructible Hulk, Wolverine & The X-Men, Secret Avengers, the two X-Force books (recently replaced by one), the two Fantastic Four books (also replaced by one) and Avengers Arena, which told a complete story but led in to a new book, Avengers Undercover. Even titles like X-Men: Legacy, Avengers A.I., and Fearless Defenders, all of which felt like true cancellations, were allowed time to resolve their stories.

Marvel has proved an indulgent caretaker of its books since its major line-wide makeover, and benefited from taking a different approach to DC. Marvel didn’t flood the market with a whole new line of books in a single month; it released them slowly to give smaller titles more of a chance. The publisher never bound itself to the idea that every cancellation had to be matched with a launch. It pitched books to different audiences, relied on creators to make the titles distinctive, and gave creators room to tell whole stories — and, at least in some cases, end them if they so chose.

Allowing a low-selling title to continue so that the story can resolve may seem like an unsound business decision, but the good faith it establishes with audiences and creators may benefit the publisher’s relationship with both, encouraging writers to commit to a publisher they know will give them room to reach, and encouraging readers to try new titles that they would otherwise expect to fail. Allowing for an ending may also net rewards in sales of book collections — the comics equivalent of a TV show reaching enough episodes to be sold into syndication. Completed stories are a more appealing book sales prospect than stories with no ending.

DC quietly dropped its strict commitment to a 52-title line and freed itself from that churn, but the publisher still seems more committed to volume and turnover than to soliciting the affection of readers or creators. There is potentially some virtue to a high turnover approach; it allows a publisher to be radical in its exploration of concepts.

But “radical” is not a word many would use to describe DC’s current output. Indeed, the New 52 line has been marked across its three years by such stark homogeneity that even writers and artists known for bringing personality to their work have been largely subsumed into a house style that renders them flavorless. The creators who still stand out are either those with the most power and/or acclaim, like Geoff Johns, Greg Capullo, Scott Snyder, Francis Manapul and Cliff Chiang, or those who don’t seem to last long at the company.

That’s not to say that DC takes no chances. Within this latest raft of cancellations are a few books that DC tried to find an audience for long after the point where they might have understandably pulled the plug. Female-led team book Birds of Prey, separated from its most famous author Gail Simone (and from its founding character, the wheelchair-using hero Oracle), struggled for a long time to find an audience. Batwing, DC’s last solo title led by a character of color, was a first wave New 52 title that never performed well yet still made it to 34 issues. (In the process it swapped its African lead character for an African-American lead character more closely tied to the established Batman mythos.)

DC couldn’t find an audience for these books. That may be because that audience couldn’t find these books, rather than because the audience isn’t there. DC’s monolithic house style and devotion to event-driven storytelling do not create an inviting environment for new or diverse readers. That would be fine if DC’s old familiar readers could support a 52-title line (or something close to 52 titles), but the rate of cancellations suggests this isn’t the case. DC’s core audience can’t support such a sprawling line, but DC’s editorial approach can’t reach a wider audience.

Marvel once again provides the natural point of comparison as the only other publisher doing what DC does on the same scale. While DC says farewell to its last solo POC hero title in August, Marvel will have seven such titles on the stands that month – Ghost Rider, Iron Patriot, Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel, Nova, Spider-Man 2099, and Storm – as well as the minority-dominated team books Mighty Avengers and All-New Ultimates. Marvel will also have six solo titles with female leads in August — Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Elektra, Ms. Marvel, Storm, and She-Hulk, plus the female team book X-Men. DC only just retains its established lead for female heroes thanks to the addition of a digital-first Wonder Woman anthology, Sensation Comics, joining World’s Finest, Batgirl, Batwoman, Catwoman, Harley Quinn, Supergirl, and Wonder Woman.

Most of these Marvel titles are very new — Storm and Spider-Man 2099 haven’t even launched yet — so we’re in unproven territory. It’s possible that all of these titles will be gone within a year, and it’s unlikely that any of them will sell Avengers numbers.

Yet Marvel’s approach to publishing seems to give these books a better shot at success than they’d have at DC. Post-NOW, Marvel has shown a willingness to give new books the spotlight and the time they need, and a commitment to creative teams that encourages confidence and distinctiveness. Marvel also shows a greater sensitivity to creating minority-led books that might actually appeal to a minority audience — for example, presenting most of its solo female heroes in a way that isn’t designed to pander primarily to straight male readers.

On paper, Marvel’s rate of cancellation isn’t wildly different to DC’s, but in practice Marvel’s measured approach to scheduling and promotion creates the appearance of greater stability. When Marvel cancels a book, it’s usually a sign that a gamble didn’t pay off. DC’s 47 cancellations in the past three years aren’t evidence of a willingness to gamble. They’re evidence of a market that simply doesn’t have room to accommodate 52 titles predominantly built around the same conservative audience and aesthetic models.

A new line of 52 titles was an ambitious idea for a relaunch, and many industry insiders and commentators credit that initiative with injecting a much needed if short term commercial boost to the American business. But that fast-approaching 52nd cancellation shows that DC didn’t have what it takes to follow through on its ambitions.

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