Should comic books emulate the TV biz? Plus: More reviews of 'The New 52'

swamp-thing-1

Image Credit: DC Comics

Pop culture in September. A month of beginnings and renewal. A time when a certain sector of entertainment expends much marketing energy to not just psyche up the public about its products but get them excited about the very medium that delivers those products. We’re talking TV, of course, and the “new fall season” that’s imminent. But this month, we’re talking about the comic book industry, too. Last week, DC Comics began rebooting its entire line of comics via an initiative called “The New 52.” Ongoing hits like Action Comics (home to Superman) and Detective Comics (abode to Batman) restarted with new creative approaches, storylines, and creative teams. Launching with them: A bevy of new series, many starring familiar characters, returning to prime time comics the way TV stars of the past return in new vehicles. (‘Tool Time’ Tim Allen/Last Man Standing = Construction worker Alec Holland/Swamp Thing. Grunt-grunt!)

“The New 52” has been a promo-palooza for the struggling comic book biz, where sales of the monthly, ad-supported periodical – the field’s signature staple – have been slumping over the past three years. Anecdotal evidence – my Twitter feed and recent visits to unusually crowded comic shops – suggests that lapsed fans and new readers are giving these comics a try… unless, that is, a bunch of foolish collectible hunters have convinced themselves that the bonanza of #1s represents a lucrative investment opportunity. DC’s super-sized reboot has certainly generated a massive amount of mainstream media attention, including weekly reviews from no less than The New York Times. This post represents the fifth time this past week that EW.com has written about “The New 52.” That’s some serious Glee-like overkill! Hopefully, “The New 52” will help spark renewed, lasting interest in the medium, and not be remembered as a gimmicky adrenaline injection that will quickly fade. [Note: DC isn’t alone these days in doing newsy-neat things to galvanize comic consumers. Marvel’s recently launched “Spider-Island” saga -- think: Spider-Man meets The Walking Dead  – and Dark Horse’s new Angel and Faith series – based on the Buffy The Vampire Slayer characters – have also generated buzz.]

A proposal for the comic book industry, specifically DC and Marvel, offered by a well-meaning comic book fanboy that wants to see the medium survive and thrive: Build on the positives of “The New 52” by going totally TV. Turn the fall into an annual rite of heavily-hyped rejuvenation. More: Model the entire publishing year after the traditional television season. Market share giants Marvel and DC should launch the majority of their new series – and launch new storylines in all ongoing series – in September. Each season would last 9 monthly issues, or September through May. The three summer issues –June, July, and August – would be used for stand-alone stories or a company-wide crossover event. (Or just something more meaningful and valuable than TV’s offering of reruns, reality, and burn-offs.) Of course, companies should save a few high profile launches for January or February – splashy “midseason premieres” that would bring a secondary wave of publicity to the publishing year. As the season comes to a close, companies should announce their slates for the next season at a major weekend comic book convention (i.e., WonderCon) — the comic industry equivalent of TV’s springtime “upfront” week in New York City. Similarly, the San Diego Comic-Con in July would become something that it already is, but should be more grand – the comic book analog to the TV industry’s late summer press tour in Los Angeles.

I’m far from the first to observe that the comic books have a lot in common with the TV biz. And it’s not like publishers haven’t tried to adopt TV models before. As my colleague Darren Franich notes, before DC’s “New 52” there was DC’s 52, a weekly series written by a team of writers that anchored a company-wide cliffhanger serial/soap opera-esque storytelling event. But my idea is cooler! The TV season model imposes narrative structure on the chaotic amoeba that is the comic book industry, making the publishing year a story unto itself, which in turn makes the medium easier and inviting for the press to cover. More importantly, the TV season model – with a beginning and end; with an annual reboot mechanism — allows for constant, natural, welcome renewal and change. No more grumpy-crusty fanboys cynically crapping on periodic, creatively contrived, commercially desperate reboot events! With the TV model, that dirty word gets a sexy-sunshiney makeover. Goodbye, “reboot.” Hello “renewal.”

“The New 52” could be training/reorienting comic book consumers for the TV season model; the more profound reboot taking place here could be fan culture itself. That’s exciting. Of course, while marketing may help launch a series, it’s quality (or devotion to a character-star) that keeps readers hooked for a whole season. Is “The New 52” delivering the goods? My 10-year-old son thinks so. “The New 52″ represents his first exposure to today’s monthly superhero serials. So far, he’s read six of them, and he wants more. His favorite: Grant Morrison‘s first issue of Action Comics, with its rebel-in-bluejeans Superman, DC’s latest bid to make the icon “relevant.” Whatever that means. If it means “Make the Man of Steel neat to a 10 year old videogame-playing/Star Wars-loving/sports junkie/funky-haired boy,” then well done. His wide-eyed, one-word review: “Cool.”

And I agree. Action was a ripping read. I also thought the first issues of Batgirl and OMAC were witty fun thanks to their impish scribes, Gail Simone and Keith Giffen. But the other #1s haven’t impressed this 41-year-old grump the way they’ve impressed his son. So far, most of them remind me of this year’s slate of TV pilots (that I’ve seen): Lots of solid, competent stuff, but way too safe, way too set-uppy, and nothing that blows me away or leaves me convinced: “This will be around for seasons to come.”

My biggest beef with many of the #1s is that they read more like expressions of tightly-synchronized brand management than artistic vision. There’s very little verve and risk, even from the line’s edgier titles. Perhaps that will come in time. Baby steps! Animal Man has the sensational Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth, Essex County) at the helm. His pilot issue begins with a clever magazine article – a Q&A from The Believer – that suggests a colorful, complex central character. But the Buddy Baker we get to know in the storytelling that follows doesn’t deliver the intriguing personality suggested by the prose. Maybe Lemire was going for paradox; alas, in this issue, it plays like muddled execution. Good news: The creepy-compelling final pages – concerning the introduction of the story’s villains and a revelation about Animal Man’s daughter — ignite the whole thing and make you want the next issue NOW. I have high expectations of Lemire. Such is the price of producing extraordinary previous work. I want him reinvent and rock Animal Man and DC’s supernatural mythos with his peculiar, emotionally rich voice the way Jonathan Hickman has rocked and reinvented the Fantastic Four and Marvel’s science hero mythos with his uniquely heady sensibility. Here’s hoping he can step it up in the months to come.

“The New 52” has also annoyed me with its overt effort to cultivate a Marvel-esque shared universe. I don’t dislike the concept. But when it gets in the storyteller’s way of establishing a vision – or just telling a damn story — it pisses me off. Scott Snyder is a talented scribe, but his first issue of Swamp Thing included a momentum-killing four-page sequence in which Superman flies in to chat with Alec Holland about his titular alter-ego’s strange life and even stranger relationship with a woman that fans know to be Abigail Arcane. The scene told us something about Holland, for sure. But it missed an opportunity to hook us by engaging our emotions with real drama, which is to say, by giving us a scene between Alex and Abby herself. The first issue needed to accomplish this mission:  Explain and make interesting to new readers not familiar with recent events the central character’s core conflict — his tricky-murky relationship with the heroic earth elemental that borrowed his identity for a couple decades worth of comics. Snyder might have succeeded if he had four more pages – or could have made different use of the four pages given to Superman’s intrusive special guest start stint.

The other complaint I have about “The New 52” reboot: Not enough “new.” With a couple exceptions, like Morrison’s Action Comics, many of the titles – Animal Man and Swamp Thing included — seem too indebted to past work to count as bold new takes. As I said earlier, I enjoyed OMAC, which did what I wanted Swamp Thing to do: The first issue is one long smartly designed action sequence that serves to reveal, via drama and incident, the central character’s surreeal identity crisis. But I hope the comic has grander ambitions than merely being an affectionate recycling of Jack Kirby quirk. I also hope it can rise to the standard of Godland, a soon-to-end indy series and superior Kirby homage published by Image Comics.

I have singled out Swamp Thing, Animal Man and OMAC this week because once upon a time, in their previous iterations, each of these titles represented, in some symbolic way, the energy that the comic book industry needs more than anything: Inspired, intelligent, gutsy, gonzo, go-for-broke creativity. It would be great if “The New 52” could develop into an HBO-esque showcase for daring showrunners challenged to do capture-the-imagination work – the kind of stuff Hickman and Nick Pitarra are doing on The Red Wing or Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba & Fabio Moon on Casanova.

Still, I understand and even support DC’s bid to streamline and simplify its universe to attract a new generation of consumers and fans. The future of the biz is my son, not me. Kudos to DC Comics for the energy they are bringing to the medium. Hopefully the messages become stronger and bolder In the year – or season – to come.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

Comments (35 total) Add your comment
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  • DavidJ

    Nice article. I’m also onboard with the reboot idea, but I agree that with the exception of Action Comics, not much has really felt NEW enough so far (a few slightly altered costumes doesn’t count). Still though, while I was hoping for some fresher ideas, it’s enough for me that I can finally jump into these stories without getting lost in tons of backstory like before.

    • Flip

      In a world with Google and Wikipedia, there’s no possible way to get lost in “tons of backstory” unless you’re a lazy reader.

    • Melinda

      Truly horrible article. Transparent poser job. Chidish analysis.

      • Realist

        Don’t be an idiot. Not only has Jeff Jensen covered articles for years, he’s written an X-Force mini-series. Don’t be a joke.

      • PDDB

        This is a confusing post. Why is this article “horrible” and why is the analysis “childish”? Comments like these are too biased and lacking in concrete examples to be taken seriously. On the other hand, Jeff Jensen, unlike others on EW, consistently provides well prosed articles that superbly articulate his knowledgeable opinion on the subjects about which he writes. He admits to his bias of being a fan and admits to wanting the comic book industry to succeed. But in reviewing some of the issues here, he also discusses the comics that could have been better AND why – an essential component of any critique. Now that I got that off my chest, here’s my take on the “New 52″. I agree that these kinds of “event” publishing can be helpful to the industry. And the idea of synchronizing similarly to the television industry is interesting. My biggest problem is, in these budget conscious times, it would be hard for most fans to be able to collect all of “the New 52″. I would guess that Jeff, like other professional writers, probably received these issues free for review purposes. And as Jeff noted, the future of the industry is in the younger readers like his son, who I imagine would be hard pressed to buy all of these issues they might want. As far as comparing the television and comic book industry, most tv shows are free and supported by advertising. Most comics are also supported by advertising but are not free. Of course the audience sizes in both mediums are vastly different. Ultimately, I think the biggest problem with “the new 52″ is that there are just too many to buy or afford.

    • sandaya

      Man, I love super heroes, but rinaedg comment threads for current super hero comic book reviews is more fun and entertaining than actually rinaedg current super hero comic books. There’s no unbearable slog through the boring zone of redundant expository dialogue. No stretched-out narratives and issue-after-issue of set-up for disappointing plot developments, which could’ve been resolved in a page or even a few panels. Just a high concentration of self-contained, free-wheeling, fast-paced explosive expression of ideas and concepts. Just mind-blowing, face-melting, lightning-bolt-strike-to-the-frontal-lobe, unpredictable, pop-culture entertainment fun. And all the heroes aren’t saddled with self-doubt to make them appear more real. They actually are real. Plus, you got guest appearances from Gene Ha, swooping in like a caped-avenger and regulating on fighter plane facts. Brynocki C dishing out witticisms and wisdom like a sagely wizard of comic relief. The presence of the specter of Santoro ever-lingering, threateningly from a perch high above. Also, rinaedg comments threads makes more economic sense than buying super hero floppies.

  • Robert Taylor

    The idea of having comics go along a TV schedule makes no sense, because you PAY for comics. You don’t pay for television. If you are shelling out 4 bucks a comic, and on a budget, you simply wouldn’t have money to buy all the “relaunch/new storyline/new creative team” books that launch over the course of one month. If the big moments, big events, and creative team changes, are parceled out over the course of the year, a comic buyer has more money to spread around and try new things that he or she wouldn’t normally try.

    You’ve got 52 books launching within the next month. How many will be cancelled within a year because fans just didn’t have the money for an extra book or two?

    As much as I admire Jensen’s writing, he doesn’t seem to understand how EXPENSIVE comic reading is, probably because he gets them for free, and how price hikes have really impacted potential buyers.

    • Flip

      3 bucks a pop for a DC title is not that expensive. If you wait for the trade paperback collection (which usually collects about 6 issues), it ends up costing less than $3 per book.

    • Jeff Jensen

      You are right: This proposal of mine should have considered issues like price of comics, as well as digital distribution. I will follow up on those ideas in next week’s column.

      • Melinda

        Poser.

    • PDDB

      I obviously agree with Robert’s comment which I didn’t read before posting my comment. My annoyance with rude posters took unfortunate precedence. Thanks Jeff, for acknowledging the cost factor.

  • hkr

    52 again? man i quit comic books(DC atleast) because they keep rebooting it so much especially DC , marvel is better after all.

  • darclyte

    I agree that Batgirl # 1 was well done, but I wasn’t that thrilled with Superman being some sort of “Robin Hoodesque” personae. Detective Comics # 1 was REALLY good…and surprisingly quite bloody. I also thought JLI was better than JLA, but I think JLA is going to “build” whereas JLI seemed more to “jump right in it.”

    • Flip

      If you want to read a good Batgirl series, go read the Stephanie Brown book by Bryan Q Miller.

  • Flip

    I am against the reboot and this is basically the end of monthly comics for me. I will pick up Catwoman because I love the character and have every issue of her previous two ongoings. I will also pick up New Guardians because I love Kyle Rayner, but everything else will remain on the shelf. I have loyally collected DC every month for the past 18 years, but now I’m down to two titles. DC screwed themselves out of my money.

    • Locke

      Just walk out of mom’s basement, open the door, and smell that fresh air, Flip. It’s all going to be ok. It’s been a long 18 years, huh. Look…real life girls!!

      • Flip

        I don’t like girls. Fail.

  • ComeonMan

    I think Doc Jensen has a good idea with this TV season thing in comics. It makes sense and anyone who says we don’t pay for TV then I ask you to look at your cable bill. If you don’t have one well then please share with me the miracle of how you do that?
    As for others who say statements like the reboot ruined your love of comics well then I question your love of comics. Seriously. Give them a try, I was skeptical of the new 52 at first but guess what i’m all in now because you have to understand comics are a business and their business is to grow. So I’m sorry you want comics to always be what they were for you but that’s just not realistic.
    Good article, I hope the new 52 will lead to a growth of comics, and frankly I think Marvel could stand a reboot like this too. Frankly I don’t think Marvel is as good as the “Zombies” constantly claim it is. It certainly isn’t as innovative as it may have once been (besides a Black Spider-man which I think is brilliant).

  • JamesLHowlett

    The problem with DC’s reboot is that it keeps being done over and over and over and over and titles constantly get ret-conned within 12 months. My onboard starting point was the Crisis on Infinite Earths and the John Byrne Superman from 1986 which was supposed to correct this once and for all and create a more Marvel-ized type of continuity. Since then, Superman’s universe expanded to what it was pre-Crisis and the multi-verse returned once again. Doing this all over again is just a waste of time, and for me, money. All those “new” readers are probably nothing more but speculators, and we all know how that ended up in the 1990s.

  • Avie

    I’m down with everything BUT the “annual event” suggestion. If anything it’s these “events” that tune out casual fans and leave all but the most loyal fanboys bored.

  • Eric

    Sorry Jeff,

    I have to disagree on your take here. As a longtime comic fan, I am rather skeptical of this “soft reboot” of the DCU. But so far DC has been putting out some quality product so far. The first issue of Detective Comics was amazing and featured one of the best final pages I have ever seen in comics.

    Also, you singled out two of the best single first issues I have read in a long time with “Animal Man” and “Swamp Thing”. They both did what they needed to do, engaged a new reader and enticed an old reader. I think some of your bitterness over this reboot is coloring your opinions of these fine comics. They are both great examples of why Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire are fantastic comic book writers with long careers ahead of them.

  • Idviceroy

    I have to agree with this comment about the cost. I collected for years from around age 9 (when I read Marvel’s Star Wars) through my teenage years when I had a paper route (spending my disposable income on about 30 titles monthly) and on into my 30′s until I bought a house and a mortgage seemed more important. But I continued to dabble, picking up high profile projects and trade paperbacks. But as I’ve walked into three comic shops the last two weeks, I’m floored at the cost! Why some $2.99 and others $3.99? Averaging that at $3.50 a title, I’d have to shel out over $180 plus tax monthly! That having been said, I’ve been choosy at the shops. But thanks for the coverage, or otherwise I wouldn’t have picked up Animal Man, which I think is headed for something great.

  • ACE

    I actually thought the reboots were pretty good. I’m glad that they didn’t touch the Dark Knight. its new and I’ve been collecting since March.

  • mark

    I enjoyed the article within its idiom. But I enjoyed the reboot of Action’s Superman a great deal. Best reboot since I started reading in 1958. Detective was also a gripping read. If we want out comics to stay the same, you can always go back and read the collected issues. But I’m willing to try a new take to keep the business alive. In the case of Superman, I can’t wait to see what happens and I’m not a huge Morrison fan. Comic’s prices have always been going up as when I moved to America in 1961 they raised the price to 12 cents !!!! Be selective but support reading as it certainly opens up new idea’s.By the way Dynamite comics are also a good read and put out some wonderful stuff like John Carter , Warlord of Mars. Brubaker and Pak are my only reads at Marvel as they write some good stuff, Pak’s Red Skull origin is a must read and at $2.99 a bargain.

  • Dw Dunphy

    “The monthly, ad-supported periodical – the field’s signature staple – have been slumping over the past three years,” because comic book companies have been relying on crappy stunts like interconnected story arcs (that really aren’t), variant covers (buy them all), and the most egregious one: death that doesn’t quite stay dead.

    The monthly, ad-funded periodical would rise again id the companies insisted on good story and good art. They don’t. They rely on special effects and slight-of-hand to substitute for the hard work of making something people would want to read and, for that, they’re paying a price. This company-wide reboot is just another example that DC (and Marvel too, in their own way) just don’t get it.

  • JPX

    I stopped collecting comic books a few years ago when I realized how much money I was spending on them monthly (I had been collecting them since the 1970s). Comic books have simply become too expensive. These days I buy used graphic novels off of Amazon for very cheap prices.

  • Robert M

    I am not so sure that imitating TV is a good idea, since that is a waning media being replaced by the internet. Instead, it would be nice if the comic were in a real usable format online. Marvel took a stab at it, but they are clearly not committed, as they often do not have new titles and the titles that interest me just do not seem to be available. Also, the interface makes it difficult to follow the story and the price is rather high for a download.

    The idea of a new launch every September is ok, but there needs to be improvement and not just change. The best launch, IMO, was the Ultimates line.

    Oh, and “Melinda” — mind your manners.

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