Thursday, June 28, 2007

Countdown to Identity Crisis

As I'm reading Paul O'Brien's "Marvel Month-to-Month Sales" column for May (here's the DC Comics version), it occurs to me just how well Marvel have been building their line of superhero titles recently. Now, obviously, where plausibility, internal logic and the treatment of the characters are concerned, there's some horrible stuff in there. I'm going to review Civil War as soon as I can find the time noting down all the minutiae of what's horribly wrong with the book and its spin-off and tie-in titles. But let's be honest: Those aspects are terribly overrated when it comes to popularity and commercial success. Rather more significant, we know, are subject matter, promotion and timing.

Let's stay with Civil War for a moment. It may be dopey nonsense to anyone willing to invest a moment's thought into its premise, but that's precisely the point: The book doesn't ask you to tax your brain. In the contrary. It hits you over the head with a pseudo-relevant set-up you're likely to accept quickly and without resistance ("Look, it's about civil liberties!"), and which you're eager to accept as an excuse for allowing yourself to be wrapped up in page upon page of attractively illustrated dramatic poses, fisticuffs and explosions. To hell with the fine points of storytelling and character development, the story certainly has all it needs to be a blockbuster. Superheroes Blow Up Schoolful of Kids! Captain America Takes on American Government! Spider-Man Unmasks!

Pseudo-metaphorical claptrap? Perhaps. But it hits all the right emotional notes. Rushing from melodramatic climax to melodramatic climax, from one vaguely outrageous metaphor to the next, Civil War, like any good stupid action piece, never gives you time to stop and ponder its story logic. Plainly, the book wasn't made to be reviewed or dissected any more than The Da Vinci Code. It was made to be devoured, and, like that Whopper you had for lunch, to whet your appetite for more of the same before your stomach notices it's full. In its own way, it's a masterpiece of the genre, not designed to win awards or accumulate rave reviews, but to sell shiploads of copies. Civil War is about civil liberties, you understand, and now please can I watch Captain America sucker-punch the Punisher in peace?

Looking at DC Comics' big event of 2006, Infinite Crisis, by comparison, the difference couldn't be more striking. Unlike Civil War, the series doesn't even attempt to give its reader something - anything - to connect with easily. It's a comic book series about comic books, and not much else. It addresses an exclusive club of readers - an audience already so familiar with the publisher's characters and their universe that no additional incentives are required. Infinite Crisis, so it was made clear, was a "major event" for the DC Universe, just like Crisis on Infinite Earths had been, twenty years earlier. You remember Crisis on Infinite Earths, right? Well, never mind if you don't; you're not part of the target audience anyway, then. Civil War, or so was the message, at least, was relevant, pretty and easily accessible; Infinite Crisis, on the other hand, came across as an arcane, impenetrable exercise in navel-gazing, and proud of it.

Of course, Infinite Crisis was a tremendously successful book. But, looking at ICv2.com's estimated direct market sales of both series, the difference is clearly measurable: Throughout its seven-issue run, Civil War sold a combined 1,875,744 units, with an average of 267,963 per issue; the series peaked with issue #3, and the final issue outsold the first one. Infinite Crisis, meanwhile, which also ran for seven issues, sold a combined 1,423,043 copies, with an average of 203,292 per issue. Its first issue remained the highest-selling of its run. (That's only first-month sales, by the way. Factoring in all reorders and subsequent printings, the contrast would be even sharper.) Infinite Crisis may have been a home run, but it couldn't hold a candle against Civil War. The gulf between the two companies only widened in the aftermaths of their respective events. While Marvel continued to have its finger on its audience's - and the mass media's - pulse ("The Death of Captain America") DC squandered the goodwill of even its most devoted readers with random gimmicks ("One Year Later").

And it's happening again. Marvel's latest big event title, World War Hulk, stars the Hulk as he's punching and smashing himself through their universe, one recognizable superhero at a time. DC's latest attempt, Countdown, is about... well, lord knows, right? I've read dozens of previews, articles and interviews about the thing, at any rate, and I still can't tell you with certainty. What I've learned, though, it that it stars characters with names like The Pied Piper, The Karate Kid and Lightray. I'd never heard of them - and I've been following the genre in one form or other for close to twenty years now. Also, remarkably, Marvel have almost been downplaying the significance of World War Hulk in the past months, referring to it as, essentially, a fun way of cleansing the palate after Civil War. DC, meanwhile, have used every opportunity to promote Countdown as their next big thing, the "spine" of their mainstream line - and, indeed, they don't seem to have any other potential new sales juggernauts in the pipeline in the immediate future.

So how did they sell? In May, the first issue of Countdown (entirely in line with DC's policy of making it hard for potential readers, it wasn't issue "#1," but "#51") sold an estimated 91,083 units; the three subsequent issues, also released in May, went downhill from there, the last one selling an estimated 79,810 units. World War Hulk, meanwhile, began with a prologue issue and a tie-in chapter in Incredible Hulk; the former sold an estimated 111,153 units, the latter 110,192. We don't yet have the numbers for the actual World War Hulk #1, which shipped in June and was drawn by superstar artist John Romita Jr. But presumably it sold better than that. You do the math.

Plainly, DC isn't looking desperately good right now. Industry observers are wondering whether a dismissal of DC Comics executive editor Dan Didio, who seems to be responsible for the current direction of the publisher's mainstream line of superhero titles, may be imminent. (There have been conflicting rumors, according to Rich Johnston.) But that would be be an overreaction. After all, DC's performance in the direct market has improved drastically since Didio took over in 2002 - as of May 2007, the average DC Universe title sells almost 50% more than it did four years ago. For a brief while, it even looked as if DC were establishing itself as a permanent threat to Marvel's status as the direct market's number one publisher. So, bearing this in mind, a dismissal would be premature; despite its recent string of failures and misfires, DC is still much better off than it was before Didio's tenure.

Instead, it may be worthwhile for Didio to recall the project that caused the company's sales to really take off back in June 2004, and was then used as a launch pad for a series of large-scale storylines which still hasn't ended. That project wasn't some complex, sprawling crossover event concerned with the inner workings of the DC Universe. It was Identity Crisis, a self-contained story by a bestselling novelist, who used DC's major characters as the cast of a murder mystery. Or, for that matter, look at DC's biggest success of late, the weekly 52. The predecessor of Countdown, 52 introduced and developed its own little cast of characters and largely resolved their stories within its own pages, rather than in a multitude of spin-off books and tie-ins.

It seems that, somewhere along the way, the people in charge at DC have lost touch with large chunks of the current direct market audience. Their situation is by no means hopeless, and it only seems dire when you compare it with Marvel's current success. But to stem the bleeding and turn things around, some drastic measures will be required. Contrary to popular wisdom, we're not remotely seeing a revival of the 1990s. It's not the big crossover events, the gimmick covers or the tight continuity between titles that make a line, this time around. And, also contrary to popular wisdom, as we now know, it's not the weekly format, either, that guarantees success. Yes, the audience wants all those things - that much is obvious. But it also wants identifiable characters, simple and effective set-ups and the option of not having to buy a dozen comics per week to follow the plot. As O'Brien points out in the column cited earlier, there is no "event fatigue." People clearly still want event books - they just don't want what DC is currently offering them.

Marvel seem to have recognized the signs of the times back in 2000, when Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada began to rebuild the company, slowly but surely, in the image of their Marvel Knights and Ultimate lines. They're still profiting from it to this day. For DC, on the other hand, it's high time to wake up and realize that their assets are not called Crisis on Infinite Earths and Zero Hour, but Superman and Batman.

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