Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hopes and Fears for the DC Relaunch

Since news broke on June 2nd of DC's plans to relaunch their entire line of titles come September, it's clear that there won't be another comic book news story quite like this one for the rest of the year, and perhaps for years to come. Though countless speculation, opinions, rants, and other varied thoughts already exist on the internet concerning this huge announcement, I wouldn't be much of a comic book blogger if I didn't put in my two cents! If you don't follow comic news too closely and need more details, there is a great rundown of all of the title announcements here.
The Good

-People are talking about the relaunch / comics in general.
Before I get into any of the anticipated titles, it's exciting to see a story like this getting attention. Fans are discussing it in shops, non-comic book related websites are covering it, it's getting some genuine buzz. Whether this will bring anyone into shops off the streets is yet to be seen, but here's hoping this bold move from DC will motivate curious fans and former fans alike.

-Batwoman will FINALLY be released. All of those vague reasons for delaying the book now make sense. "When the market is more favorable for a #1 release" has a whole new meaning. However, it is going to be interesting to see how the title will fit into the relaunch considering everything else is "starting over" and Batwoman's book continues from her stint in Detective, but I guess we'll find out. I am just damn happy to finally see this book released.

-Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang to take on Wonder Woman. Oh man oh man, am I excited for this book. I love me some Chiang artwork, I thoroughly enjoyed Azarello's 100 Bullets, and it's refreshing to see DC put some more offbeat creators on this title. I myself have had little interest in reading Wonder Woman, especially when they do shit like turn here into a 22 year old who wears Lisa Turtle throwaways. In the first promo image for WW #1, Chiang even manages to make her new costume work by simplifying Jim Lee's overly busy design (Jackets! Chokers! Bangles! Pants! More more more!). Azzarello, known best for his hard-boiled noir stories, is not an obvious choice for this title, which could make it a really fresh take on the character or...something else. Either way I'm excited to find out.

-Justice League Dark. Need I say more? Okay. So all of this character licensing re-shifting DC has been doing with Vertigo totally makes sense now. Why didn't we see this coming? John Constantine and Madame Xanadu on the same occult themed Justice League team? Yes, please. Also, now that I've seen a few covers from Milligan's original take on Shade the Changing Man, I'm definitely interested in checking out more books about this character. Mikel Janin will be the artist, and though I am not familiar with his work but I'd imagine his pairing with Peter Milligan implies he may have an alternative style. Also good to keep in mind that the last team books Milligan wrote were X-Focre and X-Statics for Marvel.

-Red Lanterns to have their own title. This is another Peter Milligan book to which I am looking forward. Anyone that read Blackest Night and the preceding stories of Atrocitus and his Red Lantern Corps have been hoping for this book. I forsee a lot of blood spattered splash pages. Also, this may be the only corps with a cat lantern (makes sense).

-Action Comics written by Grant Morrison. Three words sum up my excitement for this book. All. Star. Superman. Morrison clearly has a lot of respect for the character, and I'm excited to see what new in-continuity stories he will tell with Supes. Even though it is not part of the initial releases in September, DC has also stated that Morrison's Batman Inc. will continue but the release won't happen in September. Rumor has it Chris Burnham will be the regular artist once the series relaunches at #1. Did you really DC would sign him as an exclusive artist and not utilize his talent?

The Bad

-Very vocal fans are PISSED. Understandably, there is a group of fans that feel alienated by the announced relaunch. DC has repeatedly stated their desire to bring in new fans to the books, and that makes current fans feel a little jilted. I am not one of those fans myself; in fact, I'm totally okay with DC courting as many readers as possible. Current readers are fickle and small in numbers. Sorry, but we need more readers, even if it means pissing off a few of the current "loyal" readers. What seems most outlandish is the repeated mantra that current and past stories "won't matter" once the universe is relaunched. I can't understand the absurd notion that new stories make old ones irrelevant. The idea of the relaunch is to create new views of classic characters. Without being influenced or informed by previous stories, there would be nothing to re-make, it would just be creating new characters. It's also worth mentioning that the past 80 years of stories can still be enjoyed by readers new and old. Last time I checked, DC wasn't going to stop printing their back catalogue.

-A lot of books being released I still don't care about.
But I guess that will always be the case. I'm still planning to pick up more DC titles than I currently read, which makes it a win if enough readers feels the same way.

-Jim Lee re-designing all major character costumes. This particular part of the announcement had me cringe. I think Jim Lee is a very talented artist that hasn't really pushed himself to new levels in a long time. On All-Star Batman, the critically lauded Frank Miller book, Lee's work felt lazy and overly familiar. Much of the imagery seemed like recycled designs from Batman Hush. More troubling, his recent re-design of the Wonder Woman costume was almost comically outdated.  His Justice League #1 cover is a little too Michael Turner inspired for my taste, and I doubt his interiors will be much of anything new. The relaunch is meant to entice new readers, but those new readers better like early to mid 90's artwork cause there's a whole lot of it. Even Rob Leifeld has a book!

-True relaunch or just an over-hyped renumber? Until the books show dynamic and engaging new takes on the classic characters, it could prove to be more of the same thing. They've shifted around a lot of artists and writers, but for the most part September sees the same creators working in the DCU as we have now. Considering the stakes, I am hoping artists and writers will rise to the occasion and bring their best work forward.

-Retailers are nervous. It is hard enough trying to gauge the anticipation of a new book, let alone 52 new titles in one month. Speculators tend to pick up number ones in hopes that it will become highly sought after (yes, these people do exist), and it is a good jumping on point, but never have so many new books come out at once. Will only the bigger books garner a lot of attention? Will the numbers for DC remain soft compared to Marvel's hefty market share? All books for the relaunch are returnable, but that initial cost for ordering will come from the store owners, and credit for returns isn't instant. This is a big gamble that DC is taking and expecting comic shops to make it with them.

-Can DC survive if this fails? If fans don't buy these books en masse, it could be catastrophic for the nearly 80 year old company. Of course, much like the launch of "New Coke", the triumphant return of the "Classic" could be more profitable than the initial relaunch. However, comic book readers seem a little less forgiving than soda drinkers and may not return if their favorites are changed too drastically.

The As Yet To Be Seen

-Same Day Digital Releases For All DC Titles.
DC is hoping this will entice readers to try more titles, but retailers fear they will pick up digital copies rather than buy books in store, which is a valid concern. Publishers really do need to do this if they want to seriously combat pirating. I don't think anyone that currently pays for comics now would go all digital just because it's suddenly an option. I would think that the most DC has to gain from digital comics are people who currently don't buy comics or trades because they don't want to "collect" but simply want to read (think people who travel for a living). Overseas readers that pay top dollar for imported books will benefit from this option as well. Until they actually target these customers, retailers will continue to accuse publishers like DC of poaching the already loyal weekly readers that frequent their stores. As stated in my musings on the industry earlier this week, anything that makes comics more accessible is okay by me.

-Barbara Gordon to return as Batgirl. More than any other title, this announcement has garnered the most attention by far. (When Fangirls Attack has a very comprehensive list of the fan reactions to the return of Batgirl.)It is an unsurprisingly controversial decision, as many have come to love Barbara's current role as Oracle. Nearly my whole life Barbara has been in a wheelchair. For many in the differently-abled community that have come to look at Oracle as one of the few positive role models in comics, or pop culture in general, this is a hard change to accept. The creative team they have behind the title, Gail Simone as writer and Ardian Syaf as artist make this a must read, but I can understand why so many are hurt and may pass up on the book altogether. One twitter user summed up my feelings pretty well when he said in so many words that anything done to change the character of Barbara Gordon can't be any worse than what was done to her in The Killing Joke. Couldn't agree more, and any feelings about this huge change go back to my comments on fans that are pre-emptively condemning DC's decision to relaunch. Any new stories told of Barbara as Batgirl do not change the ability to enjoy and find inspiration in the stories of Oracle from the last 20 years. More than any other book, DC will have to prove to fans this change is worth making.

-Will this really bring in new readers?
We will find out come September, but I really hope this works in everyone's favor. DC is not too savvy on reaching out to younger readers, as evidenced by the decision to exclusively break the news via USA Today, but the story is getting attention. I just hope DC has more planned to get the word out to potential readers.

The Verdict

-Overall, I am more excited than I am skeptical.
Let's get one thing straight, there is no way that all of these books will be worth reading. There aren't 52 creative teams amongst the entire stable of living artists and writers that would make that possible. But this is still an attempt at some much needed change, and that's something I can get behind. I've never heard the same topic discussed so heavily amongst fans, so thoroughly covered or dissected. Expect to see my opinions here on the new books come September!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Chicago Comic Vault Stores Closing

Only a few short months after the opening of their downtown location in Block 37, both Chicago Comic Vault locations will be closing. The first to close will be the downtown store, then the uptown location. Effective this week, both have stopped ordering new merchandise. Until closing, everything in both stores is 35% off, with some items (like toys) at 50% off.

My time with Comic Vault as an employee and customer has been short-lived. Owner Matt Sardo has stated personal reasons for the closing of the stores, and though I may be privy to more details than the average customer, I won’t go into details as those are irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Owning and maintaining a comic book store, or any small business, is a very time consuming stressful endeavor, and I don't think less of anyone who decides it is not for them. At the end of the day, business is not an altruistic endeavor; you can't be in it for anyone but yourself. But I do hope for the comic book community's sake that Matt will find his way back to the industry in another facet. With a dedication to bringing more exposure to local artists and writers, I would not be surprised to see Matt's name show up in some promotional aspect a few years from now. Creators can always appreciate incites of a person like Matt who know firsthand how the direct market works.

Perhaps the most unfortunate part of this whole ordeal is that this will displace many loyal readers and the short notice will have some deciding to quit reading comic books altogether. Since I personally broke the sad news to several regular customers and club members that had yet to hear about the closing, I can attest to this reality. For some readers (let's face it most), convenience and price are the deciding factors for continuing to read, not enjoyment. This is especially true for those fans that can't pick up Fear Itself without compulsively buying every tie in. Several club members even said they continued reading as long as they did because they liked the store so much (the 35% off discount program helped as well). But when one is faced with dwindling disposable income or increasing domestic responsibilities, having your local comic shop close can be an excuse to leave comics altogether. These were weekly club members saying, "You know, I was thinking about quitting reading anyway." This is a troubling reaction from customers that are the backbone of the industry.

Now we're going to take a trip to "Rantville" where I express a few thoughts on the direct market in general. In order for the industry to thrive once again, readership for comics needs to increase. Despite an unprecedented number of television, film, cartoon, amusement park, Slurpee tie ins, demand has not increased with awareness. Retailers are a little busy these days with pressing questions such as "How will a complete line relaunch from DC effect my business?" "How does one order appropriately when all new titles from DC will be available digitally the same day?" "How do I get more readers off the street to buy books?" is so daunting a task it is not frequently considered when one is trying to keep the customers they already have. Even large scale events designed specifically for this task, such as Free Comic Book Day, is still by and large enjoyed by people who already read comic books to begin with. DC's recent announcement to relaunch their entire line of books is a huge change, one that could possibly bring in more readers to DC. But it sounds like the same game of musical chairs that comic book companies have been playing for years. DC is more likely to gain readers from Marvel than off the street. It's the same pie being cut up differently but unfortunately, we are running out of pie, folks. For variety's sake, in readers and material alike, we need more pie, a larger audience to sustain diversity. I truly believe when it comes to comics there is something out there for everyone, so why isn't every demographic being targeted by publishers? When this big announcement from DC was made exclusively through USA Today, my first thought was "Who on earth are they targeting?" When they speak of this relaunch as a way to entice a younger audience, did they consider the irony that they were making this announcement through a dying medium? If they said they were going to give away a copy of Justice League #1 to every person who bought a ticket to the new Green Lantern film, I might think differently. Instead, this announcement has a lot of regular readers saying "You know, I was thinking about quitting reading anyway."

I don't want to be the last generation of regular comic book readers. As much as I love the relationships that result from their unique retail experience, comics need to come out of the local comic shop. So many individuals won't even consider stepping foot in the doors of a comic shop, or simply don't know about them. Maybe they would if they could get their hands on some books and fall in love with the medium. If a comic shop is further away from your home than the local grocery store, bank, or 7-11, for many that would be too far out of their way. Digital may be a start, but at the moment I can count on one hand how many people I know with iPads, and the number gets even smaller of the ones that are willing to put pay content on those devices. Getting books into more schools would raise awareness, putting comics in book mobiles. Seeing trade paperbacks and comics in more of the big box stores. Having more than one non-monopoly distributor would help heaps in this endeavor. Comic books used to be ubiquitous with disposable entertainment but they have become this highly specialized item. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked "Are these collectible" or "Will these be worth money someday" by a curious shopper. These people usually ask if their soggy comics from the 80's are worth selling, and often seem confused when you tell them most people read comics to enjoy them, not to collect them. In the eyes of the Average Joe consumer, comic books need to be re-branded. Unspecialized. Accessible. I am not even talking content (that’s a post all its own) comics are not physically accessible. DC and Marvel could do more about this as well. Why not make deals with big box retailers that carry the toys, giving them more incentives to carry the actual books (like making them returnable if they don't sell)? Or how about local shops working directly with local schools to provide access to course reading material, educating the parents on the value of comic books as learning tools? College level courses are not the only classrooms that should have comics in them! Nothing is more disheartening than seeing a parent drag their kid out of a comic book store empty handed. A child's enthusiasm for books, any books, is a wasted opportunity. Parents easily forget that the comics their children are enthusiastically clutching are the source and inspiration for their toys and favorite cartoons - but those comics can actually enhance their child's knowledge beyond mindless entertainment. Rodney Dangerfield had it right. (We) get no respect.

I know many retailers would support these endeavors in theory but if they actually ever saw comics being sold at say Wal-Mart, they would not be too happy for the competition. For those concerned that an additional marketplace poses a great threat to their business, consider this. If comics were to become widely available, local comic shops would still be the same entity we see today: specialty stores that cater to hardcore fans. I'm one of them. I would never consider getting my books anywhere else but from a local store. But there’s a whole world of individuals who would never go out of their way to buy comics. I want to live in a world where people ask you "What comics do you read?" and not "You read comics?" That won't happen until more people discover the difference between what they think of comics and what they know to be true of comics.