The DC Comics relaunch is now well underway, with issue #1 for each of the New 52 having hit comic book store shelves. With all the attention this business move has garnered since it was first announced, I thought it was a good time to take preliminary stock of the early stages of its actual implementation.
Controversy began over the summer based just on the preliminary announcements of titles, creators, and plotlines, including at several of DC’s panels at San Diego Comic-Con in July. More criticisms and concerns emerged once everyone had a chance to see the stories. Others have discussed the full range of positives and negatives of the New 52 in more detail, but these are a few of the topics that most caught my attention:
- Some fans reacted to the new portrayals of Catwoman and Starfire, especially the number of scenes in which they were scantily clad in their first issues. The writer of Catwoman, Judd Winick, took the fans seriously enough to give his perspective on his characterization choices.
- I’ve blogged previously about the struggles of the entertainment industry to use Wonder Woman effectively as a character in recent years. I can’t say I was surprised, then, to see that some fans were underwhelmed by Wonder Woman #1 in the New 52 for some of the same reasons.
- Unfortunately, it also wasn’t surprising to see the results of Greg Burgas’ detailed analysis of character diversity that accompanied his review of each of the 52 first issues. As the expression goes, the writing was on the wall for this well in advance.
For its part, DC Comics has trumpeted the very strong sales of the first issues of the New 52. While those numbers do sound impressive standing alone, the real challenge for any business that relies on a recurring customer base is to build sustainable loyalty from those customers. Movie studios can rely on a mix of one-hit wonders and box-office bombs because most films are standalone stories rather than sequels or prequels in a franchise. Television, by contrast, depends on bringing the viewers back to the same program week after week to justify their sales to the advertisers – and we can all think of examples of TV shows with strong opening ratings that couldn’t sustain viewer interest over the long term.
From what I’ve seen and read about the New 52, my inclination is to be skeptical of the long-term sustainability of DC’s newest endeavor. Although as a woman I have serious concerns about some of the characterization and storytelling decisions, I’m going to take off my woman cap and just think about this as a business person.
From the business perspective, the way the New 52 has been carried out just doesn’t make sense financially. The comics industry has faced declining sales for years. In that environment, even holding onto the existing fanbase hasn’t been enough; the only way to succeed is to expand the market and draw in new customers. Where’s the obvious place for comics to do that? Women. With the millions of dollars women shell out every year on prose novels, it’s clear that they’ll spend money on stories that resonate with them. Sure, the comics publishers would have to start marketing in different venues to really get their product in front of women’s eyes. This means creating welcoming atmosphere within comic book stores so they’ll buy single issues, or drawing them into the graphic novels section of the bookstore to buy the trades. More importantly, though, they’d have to start telling the kinds of stories that large numbers of women would want to read, including having more superheroines alongside those superheroes.
Casting a net into new markets in any business requires rethinking the marketing model. Women often base their fiction selections on word-of-mouth recommendations, which means more than just a great Issue #1 is required to generate faith in the storytellers that converts into long term sales. The reaction to the SDCC panels is good indication of the power of word of mouth, and it can and does work in reverse.
But that’s not what the New 52 is doing, at least from any of the indications I’ve been able to find, like Corrina Lawson’s analysis at GeekMom. The creators and the casts of characters are less female and less diverse. The stories are more of the same, just relaunched. Maybe that will keep some current customers around, and bring back a few previous customers who’d lapsed over the years. I doubt it will do much more than that, and it only confirms my perception that the New 52 isn’t a bold new direction for DC Comics to expand its audience far and wide, but rather a self-serving decision by corporate heads to remake the comic titles of their youth in their own image. If that’s all the New 52 proves to be, they’ll just end up selling to themselves – and nobody else.
A graduate of Duke University, Tricia is a registered Professional Engineer who designs transportation systems as a consultant. In her free time, she shows horses and maintains a website for Star Wars EU fans that creates a safe place for women and men to discuss literature and all things pertaining to geek culture. She is currently writing her first full-length original novel, a space opera based around the heroic journey of a young woman who finds herself in the middle of a deadly terrorist attack by an invading alien force. For information on the book, please check out TriciaBarr.com.