DC Comics relaunched the vast majority of their line this week with the first of 52 new number 1 issues. It was heralded with midnight release parties at comic shops around the country for the first book in the new line, Justice League #1. Here in Los Angeles, fans came out for a big party at Meltdown Comics, as well as other shops in the area.
Still, despite the fan enthusiasm for this kind of event, the numbers for the comics industry don't look pretty. Comics writer Grant Morrison (who recently appeared on KPCC's "AirTalk") did an interview with Rolling Stone that the magazine decided to headline "Grant Morrison on the Death of Comics." As Morrison said, "comics sales are so low, people are willing to try anything these days. It's just plummeting. It's really bad from month to month. May was the first time in a long time that no comic sold over 100,000 copies, so there's a decline." When asked if he thought comics were in a death spiral, Morrison gave a frank yes.
Comics have become a niche, luxury good. Comic prices have outpaced the rate of inflation, with the average comic cover price tripling to quadrupling over the past 20 years. DC tried keeping prices down, reducing most prices to $2.99 while competitors Marvel sold comics for $3.99, but they didn't reap much of a reward in their sales numbers.
So what's DC, one of the top two comic publishers, doing about these problems? They're reimagining their characters and trying to broaden the appeal of their characters. Through their Flashpoint crossover, they provided a time travel, alternate timeline story with a deus ex machina ending leading in to their new world.
The first issue of Justice League offers a brand new version of the coming together of the Justice League with the first meetings between Batman, Superman and Green Lantern (coincidentally enough, the three DC characters appearing in successful films). It's an action-driven story, doing its best to grab readers viscerally.
It's a return to interior art by an artist who rose to becoming co-publisher of DC Comics, Jim Lee, and his style still provides the detail and dynamism that allowed his rise. It's written by Geoff Johns, DC's chief creative officer who's written notable runs recently on the Flash and Green Lantern, as well as serving as a consultant on the recent Green Lantern movie.
Does it work? As a comics reader, I thought it was very good, but not a book that blew me away. The story isn't super original, but it's certainly solid, good storytelling. It felt like it was building toward something greater, but whether any readers who hear about this relaunch thanks to a massive media blitz stick around to see where that story goes is the question.
I'm not the target audience though. The question is if anyone new is going to come in, and if they'll be able to retain that core audience while eschewing the history that's both kept those fans there and made comics feel somewhat inaccessible to new readers.
DC's also broadening their books ethnically. There's a new comic with a superhero based in Africa, Batwing; Latino superhero the Blue Beetle is getting his own book despite lackluster sales the last time he had a book; and the new Justice League is getting an African-American as a founding member, which the old continuity featuring a team that started in the early 1960s didn't have.
Here's hoping these changes can broaden that enthusiasm out from the comic store faithful who come out for midnight parties to a more mainstream audience, and that comics can become more than a niche artform. The chances don't look great, but the alternative of not doing anything isn't an option.
Oh, and I'm hoping my explanation of what's going on didn't sound like this: