So, it’s common knowledge that DC Comics and I parted ways several years ago. It’s also common knowledge that that is not at all uncommon, and we’ll get to that shortly. Point is, while I delight in the produce of DC Entertainment, I’ve come to view anything from the actual DC Comics division as I would a plate of shrimp that was left in the sun for a day: there’s a high probability that it’s bad and will make me sick if I eat it. You’re free to, of course, but I wonder what the hell is wrong with you (and I’ll just leave the number for the poison control center right here on the counter where you can’t miss it).
Still, DC news occasionally does push its way in front of my eyeballs, and I must say the latest bulletin from WonderCon is… suggestive.
Retro-Active is described as “a wave of one-shots that will pay homage to the spirit of the Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, and Justice League of America stories of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.” These are not simple reprints but a 50/50 mix of new material written into the old continuities presented alongside the reprinted originals.
Now, what immediately pops out at me is the significance of those decades. Bluntly: an era before things were fucked up beyond all repair. There were missteps to be sure, but there was a bottom line respect for the characters, the readership, and the basic tenets of storytelling. What also jumps out is I’m looking at names from those eras – names we haven’t seen in a while. Names that, like the continuities, were not a part of or tainted by the last 10 years of toxicity.
Len Wein, Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle, Marv Wolfman… Wow.
I can only come up with three explanations for a move of this kind coming out of… I’m not sure my fingers will even type it… a move like this coming out of the DC Comics of 2011.
1. Reichenbach Falls
DC has been hemorrhaging readers for a long time, but recent years have seen them deliberately slicing themselves open. I don’t know if the intent was suicide or a troubled teen cutting herself for attention and nicking an artery by mistake, but the result was the same: the readers were going, going, gone. Faster than they could be replaced – and what they’ve been replaced with isn’t worth much. DC has consistently cut loyal long-time fans in favor of imagined new ones: new ones with less disposable income, who are less invested in the hobby and won’t necessarily spend as much on it regardless of income. They do make plenty of noise in forums and blogs. That seldom translates into actual sales because they mostly get the gist from Scans Daily, but hey, at least their excesses further alienate those who have left. You might think that once a reader is lost, that’s the end of it. They can’t spend less than $0, right? But the cost of all those lost readers goes far beyond the simple dollars and cents. Consider: I was at a friend’s house a couple weeks ago and they were showing off their gaming system. They had EA Sports, Assassin’s Creed, and then while the rest of us were talking, they took out Assassins Creed and put in Arkham Asylum. As soon as the DC logo went up, the guy I was talking to looked up, rolled his eyes and threw back his head. He thought it was an ad for DC Online, but then the Rocksteady name came up and he said “oh wait, I’ve heard of this.” When he saw the actual game start, he really liked it.
Now, that’s some seriously bad voodoo. The DC logo = Bad. The Dark Knight was not only a great movie, it was a fantastically popular one. Smallville has been running longer than M*A*S*H. The Green Lantern trailer OWNED WonderCon this past weekend. And yet, the DC logo got this automatic negative reaction – because of the comics. If you’ve ever heard someone talking about a great unsolicited review or great word of mouth for their business and say they “can’t put a price on that kind of advertising” – well this is the flip side. You can’t put a dollar amount on the negative cost of YOUR LOGO = BAD. You can’t put a dollar amount on the real damage DC Comics has done to the DC brand.
So, possibility #1 is that Retro is a concerted effort to lure back those lost readers. If so, it’s a nice start. It really is, don’t get me wrong. However, it needs to be said that you’re not going to undo 10+ years of abuse in 2 months.
In 1893 Conan Doyle decided he was tired writing Sherlock Holmes and attempted to kill off his character in a final battle with Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. To put it mildly: the reading public was not pleased. They flatly refused to accept the destruction of something that brought them such pleasure. Doyle then tried to appease them by telling new stories from the time before Holmes was killed. The reading public WAS NOT SATISFIED. It was not enough to have new stuff if the trail still led to the unacceptable outcome, and Doyle had no choice but to suck it up and undo the damage, bring his hero back to life.
If DC wants to win back readers it lost by its own bad behavior, this is a start, but make no mistake it is only the first step of a long journey.
2. To learn how to get up
A couple years ago, Dan Didio was being interviewed for one of the many specials out just prior to The Dark Knight, and he was going on how “We at DC look on Bruce Wayne as the mask and Batman is the real person.” You could tell he was just so pleased with the line, like they all are, they think it’s so clever… Then one of the real experts came on and said how that’s doing a real disservice to the character and displays a complete lack of understanding: the story of “Batman” is the story of Bruce Wayne, the man. The long tradition of heroes yadda yadda yadda…
Since that time, that lack of understanding has become more and more apparent. The phrase we hear more and more is that the folks at DC simply do not know: they don’t know who these characters are, they don’t know what they’re supposed to be, they don’t know what is non-negotiable part of the mythos and what’s disposable window dressing. They don’t know a good idea from a bad one (or a really bad one) (or a really, really bad one). They don’t know storytelling. They don’t understand women. They don’t understand heroes. They don’t understand how long a story should run. They don’t understand human behavior…
What’s worse, they cut themselves off from the past that did know. They mocked it and belittled it. Now they’re stuck. They know where they are isn’t working. They don’t know how to fix it. They know everything they try makes it worse. When they stumble onto something that does work, they don’t understand why it worked and they try to reproduce it by focusing on all the wrong things.
With Retro: going back to the time before things were broken and BRINGING BACK THE PEOPLE WHO KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING, letting them work in the non-broken continuities, this could be a phenomenally effective way for these guys to LEARN HOW TO DO THIS.
3. Come back here and take what’s coming to ya! I’ll bite your legs off!
Unfortunately, no one who’s seen the storylines of the past few years can overlook the possibility that this series is intended to deliver another attack on old fans by polluting the past continuities. Having done their worst in the present, it’s a way to retro-actively poison the past stories we love and take that last bit of pleasure from us.
Do I believe there is that much malice in the people making decisions at DC Comics? Absolutely. Do I think that’s what Retro is about? Probably not. Because the whispers about Time Warner shutting down print comics have become louder with each new tweak of the corporate structure and each new announcement of another five titles being cancelled. When you’re being wheeled into the emergency room with a collapsed lung, you do not waste the energy to give someone the finger.
Anyway, on a lighter note: Trophies is now available in ebook and print-quality pdf. There’s also a new edition of the epub ebooks on the site. Mobile people in particular should find these load much faster. Iphone 4 newer Blackberry folks, hang tight. Your CSS issues are next on the todo list.