Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Genre Conventions: DC Comics

Now that the major comics conventions in North America (San Diego and Chicago) are both over, let's have a look at the various announcements that were made.

At DC Comics, the future holds... well, more of the same, really. Which in itself isn't a bad thing, unless you realize that 2007 so far hasn't been going desperately well for them. So, more of the same? Well, not ideal. In Salvation Run, an upcoming seven-issue limited series by Bill Willingham and Sean Chen, mysterious forces are conspiring to ship the DC Universe's villains off to some nasty prison planet for good, instead of going through the hassle of putting them on trial and such. In fairness, the concept seems workable enough and it's a solid creative team. On the other hand, of course, Salvation Run is another Countdown spin-off title, and it's apparently connected to everything else DC are putting out. So that's two big strikes against it which might make it a bit of a hard sell, given the less than impressive sales Countdown itself has been generating so far.

Speaking of hard sells: In another announced title, Countdown: Arena, a weekly four-part series by a bunch of creators you may not have heard of, a shipload of characters are apparently going to fight it out in - you guessed it - an arena for a place among the Countdown bad guy's army. It's another retreat of Contest of Champions or DC vs. Marvel, in other words. Except that in this case, they're not having their popular characters duke it out with each other, but a bunch of alternate reality versions of them. They're even planning to host polls for the fans to decide the outcome of some of the fights. Where Salvation Run sounds intriguing, Arena sounds dull as sourdough - and it doesn't even have a toy line to support, like Secret Wars twenty years back.

The publisher's big announcement was Final Crisis, of course, a long-rumored project now revealed to be a seven-issue limited series by writer Grant Morrison and artist J.G. Jones. Final Crisis is by and large expected to provide some sort of closure or bookend to DC's current approach to their superhero line as one big, sprawling crossover where everything is connected with everything. As much confidence as the creative team inspires (fuck it, it's by Morrison; I'm going to buy the thing), the DC Universe clearly isn't working, neither commercially nor creatively, and I'm skeptical whether they know what they're doing with this. It may well be that the line is heading for a radical makeover that will set things right, but I've yet to see any evidence that the people in charge at DC have an inkling of how to fix things. Either way, Final Crisis won't be completed until November 2008, mind you, so even if they're going somewhere worthwhile, it's still more than a year away.

On a somewhat smaller scale, DC also announced “The Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul,” an upcoming eight-part crossover storyline spinning out of Morrison's Batman. It's going to involve issues of Detective Comics, Robin and Nightwing, and the other writers involved besides Morrison are Paul Dini, Peter Milligan and Fabian Nicieza. Now, each of those creators is, in his own way, at least a competent craftsman with an interesting voice. But, to be frank, it seems to be such an oddball mix of sensibilities that I've got a hard time seeing it working. Nicieza's probably right at home with this sort of thing, having worked on countless crossover storylines at Marvel. Milligan, though? He tends to be fabulous when left to his own devices, but his mainstream work seems to be struggling at the best of times, and I don't recall him taking part in a crossover before. And Dini's work on Countdown, where he also has to collaborate with other writers, largely seems to have failed to capture people's imagination so far. To be honest, I expect this to end up being less than the sum of its parts, rather than more. I've liked Morrison's Batman so far, but instead of pondering whether to get the rest of the crossover, I'm tempted to quit Batman instead. No doubt the story's going to bring a brief sales boost to the secondary titles, naturally.

There also were a number of announcements regarding DC's Vertigo and WildStorm imprints, which are currently having enormous trouble getting any legs on the ground in terms of direct market periodicals. What they're offering in the not-too-distant future doesn't inspire great confidence, however. Vertigo just launched a new ongoing title with The Un-Men (a Swamp Thing spin-off), and more are on the way. In addition to the previously announced original series Northlanders and The Vinyl Underground, upcoming titles include Matt Wagner's Madame Xanadu - apparently the first visible result of editor Bob Schreck's presence at Vertigo - and The Unknown Soldier, both of which are retreats of existing DC concepts. While some of those series look promising, so did the previous wave of Vertigo books, and those aren't faring desperately well commercially. Another Y: The Last Man or Fables hasn't been found in the last five years, let alone another Preacher, or another Sandman. It's not quality or promise that's missing from Vertigo, I think, but focus and a promotional budget.

If Vertigo's chances at another breakout hit are slim, WildStorm's are worse. The imprint's recent history is littered with embarrassing commercial, editorial and logistical failures, so it's a little odd that what they're offering for the immediate future is, essentially, more of the same, as well. Didn't like our recent wave of horror film adaptations? Well, here are more of them. Annoyed that the latest revamp of our superhero line turned into an utter disaster? Hey, how about we try again, only with less popular creators. At this point, the entire WildStorm Universe line seems to be written by Christos N. Gage - certainly a competent writer with promise, but, let's face it, hardly the kind of name or visionary force to single-handedly save a struggling line from its impending commercial collapse.

The decision to follow the recent "WorldStorm" cock-up with yet another line-wide revamp event (one chapter is titled, get this, Tranquility: Armageddon) seems utterly wrong-headed. And with the announcement that Gail Simone is off Gen13 after issue #12 and Brian Azzarello implying that he's wrapping up his stint on Deathblow, that leaves us with Gage, as far as the original creative teams of the "WorldStorm" books are concerned. Kind of disappointing for a creator line-up that included names like Azzarello, Simone, Grant Morrison, Jim Lee, Garth Ennis, Mike Carey, Whilce Portacio and Chris Sprouse when it was launched ten months ago. In fairness, there's the upcoming video game adaptation World of WarCraft. Perhaps that'll work out for them.

Overall, the impression that there's a certain cluelessness on DC's part on how to halt the downward trend that set in about a year ago and reclaim some lost ground in the periodical direct market persists. There may be something accessible and appealing coming up after Final Crisis, but who knows? So far, there's no evidence. And while Vertigo at least have collection sales to fall back on, WildStorm's future looks bleak, as well, if more crossovers and horror titles are the best they can come up with.


Tom Mattson said...

I love your posts. Even if I'm a bit too mentally zapped to have a great deal to say once I finish reading, I felt like I should still say something. Keep it up, I check back consistently.

Justin Boatwright said...

Good to have you back Marc-Oliver, it had been a while since you last post so I was wondering if you had been on vacation or something, but you came back in top form.
Even though Countdown is actually getting incrementally better, the more DC ties into it the bigger the hole they are digging and the more work Final Crisis is going to have to do dig them out. Granted, like you said Morrison and Jones are a dream team but they need to start doing things right before then.
Their one announcement I did latch onto was Francis Manapul as new Legion of Super-Heroes artist (minus Supergirl apparently). I really liked Dennis Calero's first issue and was hoping he would stick around but that preview art from Manapul was gorgeous.
Lastly, I wish DMZ would start getting more attention. It should be one of Vertigo's tentpole books but is maybe too political to reach a broad audience. Northlanders has me excited though, any new Brian Wood comics are a good thing.

Tom Mattson said...

Is Vertigo really struggling all that much? I am very excited about Northlanders, I think it's going to be great. Honestly I don't quite know what to think of Vinyl Underground yet, though I'm holding out hope for that one as well.

I am putting a great deal of faith in Scalped, speaking of Vertigo. For a series that I was so uncertain about in the beginning, it has gone a long way toward changing my mind and is now one of my favorites.

Honestly, I buy more Vertigo and Wildstorm titles than I do regular ol DC ones each month. Granted, some of that has to do with the fact that I'm not following Countdowns continuity. I guess I haven't looked at any actual numbers anytime lately, but it just feels a bit weird that Vertigo would be struggling when they're putting out so many books I love. Then again, if I go look at their release schedule every month, I don't want a lot of what they're offering.

So I'm contradicting myself here now I guess, but really, I suppose Vertigo could have some better books happening. Army@Love doesn't interesting me, nor does American Virgin, Crossing Midnight, or the Exterminators. Instead of Un-Men, I would much rather have had a new series to jump into that isn't a spin-out from an older one.

Wildstorm clearly has to change something. They're doing considerably less than Vertigo to get my attention. I still read Ex Machina, but I think that is all I'm following with them (though the Highwaymen mini has been fun).

I don't remember if I had a point to make. Hm. Oh well.

Christos Gage has been trash lately, by the way. His contributions to the Marvel U have I've read have been some of my least favorite issues in months.

matches said...

I think Brian Wood is on record as saying the first DMZ trade has sold in excess of 25,000 copies. I'd say that's the new Vertigo tentpole book, even if its month to month sales aren't so hot.