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DC Comics Number One Stunna: The Ballsiest Move of the Decade

I’m sure you’ve all seen the news posts that blew up the comics Internet yesterday, but in case you didn’t: DC Comics is relaunching their entire line, post-Flashpoint, while simultaneously moving their entire superhero universe publishing operation to same-day digital distribution (also known as day-and-date). It’s easy to look at these two decisions as separate, but really, they’re completely intertwined. One wouldn’t make sense without the other. So let’s see if we can’t figure out where DC is going with this.First off, as I said, the decision to relaunch every title with a new #1 is inextricably linked to the decision to move all superhero publishing to digital. While it’s easy to view it as a cynical attempt to grab new readers with a false “start,” or say that they’re throwing away decades of publishing history for a quick buck, consider that the new #1s represent not only a reboot of continuity, but a reboot of the publishing model. They’re drawing a clean break not for the people coming into the stores, but for the much hoped-for new readers who will soon be following the entire DC Universe on their iPads and GalaxyTabs.

Make no mistake, this entire endeavor is focused on the digital market. DC isn’t dumb. They know print is dying. They know they have no chance at beating Marvel in the print market, as years and years of examples have proven. Rejuvenating the characters (literally) and providing a fresh start all across the line isn’t about a quick sales bump in the direct market; it isn’t about the direct market at all. It’s so that people logging into comiXology to check out these digital DC comics they’ve heard about don’t see an issue number in the 900s after Action Comics and throw up their hands.

With regards to the continuity reboot, I doubt it will be as complete as people fear. The August DC solicitations promise too many continuations, and they definitely knew this was in the work. Solicitations for titles like War of the Green Lanterns: Aftermath and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents promise more to come; Batman Incorporated #10 is concluding on a “surprise ending.” In an interview with USA Today, Dan DiDio stated that while roughly three-quarters of titles will see a creative team switch-up, one quarter — the books that are working — won’t be touched by the reboot.

There’s no conceivable reason to mess with high-selling moneymakers like Batman Incorporated, Green Lantern, Batman: The Dark Knight and, well, other Batman titles, and to do so would be a huge mistake, especially since Grant Morrison’s major Leviathan uber-arc is, alongside Geoff Johns’s Green Lantern, the only major DC title with ongoing stories continuing past August. The Superman and Wonder Woman franchises, on the other hand, are in desperate need of a shake-up. J. Michael Straczynski absolutely murdered any narrative momentum those books may have had before.

Unfortunately, while DC is unquestionably making a bold risk, it could blow up in their face just as easily as it could drag comics publishing kicking, screaming and tantruming into the twenty-first century. DC isn’t launching a manageable line of high-class titles that they can slowly expand; they are flooding the market with fifty-two new series. Fifty-two. I’m not sure there are fifty-two exemplary creative teams in all of comics. Inevitably, a large number of these books are going to be a complete bust, and the new casual digital fan they’re courting with this initiative won’t have any idea which those will be.

I know I’m hardly the first pundit to say this, but launching with a core grip of incredibly high-class titles with top-flight creative teams and trademark powerhouses, and then slowly expanding to introduce the new books in the months to come, would be a far safer bet to ensure that each title gets appropriate attention. As it is, they’re making no bones about approaching this relaunch as a line — it’s not “come check out the new Superman book,” it’s “come check out the new DC Universe.” They want to get people in for a penny, in for a pound. I can’t help but think that with this deluge of books, they might be better off with some sort of universe-wide bulk pass so readers can grab the entire line at a flat rate, although I’m sure that would make retail partners even more apoplectic than they undoubtedly already are.

And, of course, I’m making one major assumption here: that DC isn’t dumb enough to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As much as presenting a shiny new veneer to draw people in is important, much of the storytelling strength of the DC Universe comes from its long, detailed, brilliant history. The key here shouldn’t be to destroy that history, but to provide a new entry point for readers to enjoy the universe built on it. If DC can manage this formula, they’ll be able to push comics into the digital era with one fell swoop, making Direct Market marketshare meaningless and therefore practically eliminating the DC/Marvel sales competition in the eyes of the readership.

If they can’t, they’ll have utterly demolished their entire publishing line, and their credibility in the eyes of longtime fans. Even comparisons to the original Crisis are understated – that was a slow reboot, and many titles just kept doing what they were doing. By completely restarting every title’s numbering and providing a fresh jumping-off point as much as jumping-on, they’re practically playing the Game of Thrones here, because you win or you straight up die.

However, there are definite downsides to digital publishing, too. First of all, I was told last year at the New York Comic Con DC digital comics panel that, from their experience with Justice League: Generation Lost (their day-and-date pilot project), it took longer to get a comic approved by Apple and posted for download than it did to just print and ship the damn thing. With all the hubbub around Apple’s digital distribution in-store purchase requirements, not to mention their infamous morality police, DC is placing their future in the hands of a notoriously difficult partner.

Indeed, they’ll have essentially supplanted the Jell-O hand of the Comics Code Authority with the actual iron hand of Apple’s content restrictions. One of the theoretical benefits of digital distribution should be decreasing overhead time; by working through Apple, they’re just going to make things worse. It’s in the best interest of DC, comiXology and the entire industry to find a way to get around Steve Jobs and his draconian approval process — or establish some kind of partnership that will allow them a higher degree of creative autonomy.

DC also now has to compete, directly, with illegal scans. Due to the new Wednesday release in Great Britain, books are being scanned and posted earlier than ever before, with a deluge of the top-ranked titles tending to hit every Wednesday morning at 11AM courtesy of the good old “digital comics preservation” crew. If they post titles at 12PM or later, as they’ve been tending to do, they’re not giving the retailers a head start, like they probably think they are — they’re giving the pirates a head start. One of the major advantages of legal digital distribution is the opportunity to undercut the pirates at their own speediness game. If DC is smart, they’ll make sure all their titles are up at midnight EST. Otherwise, they’ll be continuing to play second fiddle to their own plunderers and thieves.

And what about those struggling retailers that, as Brian Michael Bendis so bluntly put it, are getting “f—ed in the ass” by this decision? Well, it’s like we’ve been saying for a long time here at ComicsAlliance: evolve or die. If your shop is a small-town glorified UPS depot that makes its living off of pull lists, you’re probably not going to make it, but maybe you don’t deserve to. If you’ve built a loyal clientele, are savvy enough to get to know your customers’ tastes and hand-sell them titles, and maintain a consistent backlist of high-selling, high-quality trade paperbacks and hardcovers, then chances are you have nothing to worry about. The Beguilings and Isotopes of the world are likely fine, and if the dank, unwelcoming Android’s Dungeons of the world hit the skids, it’s as much due to their unwillingness to adapt to a collected-edition-heavy environment and move past being a single-issue distribution center as the publishing shifts of DC.

On top of all this, what if it goes wrong? DC is burning a lot of bridges in the interest of building this new one, and if both the direct market and digital consumers don’t come to this in sufficient enough droves, this is going to be an incredibly difficult, if not impossible, car to turn around. They’re risking losing the support of both their existing retail partners and their hardcore fanbase in the interest of drawing an entirely new readership. While this is exactly the sort of drastic action digital comics proponents both here and elsewhere have been praying for for years, make no mistake, if this blows up, DC is completely screwed.

In conclusion, I present this hilarious Let’s Be Friends Again strip and memorialize it, since, thank God, it’s now an artifact of a bygone era.

I’ve got to admit, though, I expected Quesada to be the one to break the stalemate. Well done, Dan DiDio, Jim Lee, Hank Kanalz, Geoff Johns and crew. Well done.

Now don’t screw it up.

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