DC is Re-Branding (or De-Branding) Its Universe. So What?

Note: This is a “companion editorial”—of sorts—to the “Marvel Is Rebooting Its Universe. So What?” piece I wrote for Sequat on Wednesday, January 21st.

Apparently there’s something of a PR war going on between the “Big Two” comics publishers at the moment, and a “relaunch” war going on as well. As proof of this, I offer the events of earlier today (Feb. 6th, 2015):

As is generally well-known in the comics community by now, Marvel is using its upcoming Secret Wars mini-series as a springboard for revamping its entire line of books and hitting the “reset” button on their entire corporate universe. How much that really means in terms of change at a company that re-boots every one of its series with a new first issue every year or two remains to be seen, but we’re promised that the “Marvel Universe” as we knew it will be ending and that a new one will be taking its place. So far the only confirmed semi-big change that we know about is that the parallel so-called “Ultimate Universe” will be getting scrapped and that its most popular character, Miles Morales (the Ultimate Spider-Man) will be making his way over to the new, consolidated “reality” (hmm, will it still be called the “616” Universe?) Beyond that, things seem a little bit up in the air and the general consensus is that, cosmetic changes at the margins aside, things probably won’t be that much different once the dust settles.

Still, even if not that much ends up changing, one can see how the headline of a “New Marvel Universe” might have some traction beyond the comic book world and, to that end, a representative or two from Marvel were apparently going to be on the popular daytime talk show The View today to hype the “news”—and you just know their cross-town (for a few more weeks, anyway, until they pack up and head west) rivals weren’t going to take that lying down.

As any astute—or, hell, even casual—observer of the political world can tell you, “controlling the news cycle” is key to “winning the day,” and to that end, DC rolled out a press release at 6:00 AM this morning (Eastern time, no less!) to announce some rather massive changes of their own. As it turns out, the announcement probably could have waited until Monday since the Marvel segment on The View ended up being scuttled, but whatever—DC has “dominated the news cycle” and “won the day.” But will they win much of anything in the long run? That remains to be seen. Here’s a brief run-down of what DC had to say that’s got so many folks talking—

First off, “The New 52” will be going away—in name only. The much-ballyhooed complete re-launch of their universe that happened five short years ago is here to stay (for now, at any rate), but, according to co-publisher Dan DiDio, its distinctive logo will no longer be appearing on the cover of DC’s comics (just as well since it wasn’t really all that “new” anymore) and the company will be shifting its editorial emphasis to one that favors “story over continuity.”

Now, that’s obviously a pretty open-ended statement, but it’s one that I certainly welcome—my biggest beef (among many) with “The New 52” has been how formulaic and standardized it all is, with many books looking and feeling almost identical to each other. “The New 52” universe bears all the stylistic hallmarks and trappings of the WildStorm universe of the 1990s (no surprise given that WildStorm’s former head honcho, Jim Lee, is DC’s other co-publisher), only with more-established characters, and it’s all been so tightly controlled on an editorial level that many series seem flat-out interchangeable. There’s been very little room for anything “outside the box,” and DC has suffered—not only creatively, but commercially—due to this dull, uninspired uniformity.

In recent months, though, that’s begun to change, albeit ever-so-incrementally. Titles like Harley Quinn, Gotham Academy, Gotham By Midnight and Justice League 3000 have shown that “breaking with convention” can equal respectable sales, and that re-injecting a bit of humor and levity into DC’s stodgy, staid, morose line-up isn’t necessarily the end of the world. Have the powers that be gotten the message? It would appear so.

At the core of DC’s announcement today was the news that 25 currently-running series will be continuing, with a further 24 being added over the course of the year (for a grand total of 49, rather than 52, titles) and that editorial is determined, with these new series, to “empower creators to tell the best stories in the industry.” Words like “fresh,” “contemporary,” “inclusive” and “accessible” were thrown around, as the publisher claimed that it was hell-bent on diversifying its line and appealing more to a younger, supposedly “hipper” crowd. DiDio stated that “—what we’re trying to do is embrace all our audiences, and  to create product that I feel talks to everybody.”

My response (for what it’s worth)? We’ll see. In addition to the recent “unconventional” successes previously mentioned, DC also tried breaking their well-worn corporate mold recently with books like Arkham Manor, Klarion, Infinity Man And The Forever People and Star-Spangled War Stories Featuring G.I. Zombie—all of which were cancelled in less than year. (Shit, a few of them were even axed after six months, with the announcement of their demise coming after their second issues, which means they spent more time being published after it was public knowledge they were being scrapped than before it).

All of which tempers the “dramatic” impact of this news somewhat. Sure, forthcoming series like Black Canary by Brendan Fletcher and Annie Wu, Martian Manhunter by Rob Williams, Ben Oliver and Paulo Siqueira, Section Eight by Garth Ennis and John McCrea, and, my personal favorite (sight unseen, mind you), Prez By Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell (based on Joe Simon’s legendary “also-ran” character), all sound interesting, fun, and maybe even groundbreaking, if DC plays its cards right, but let’s face it—they’re all going to be on a very short leash and will probably be given only a handful of months in which to either prove their commercial viability or find themselves replaced by yet another Bat-book.

Or maybe not? Amongst the veritable onslaught of new titles, the Dark Knight Detective is notable only for his absence—we’re getting monthly Bat-Mite and Batman Beyond books, both based on popular cartoon iterations of the character, as well as Robin, Son Of Batman (apparently a successor to the very-good-selling and well-regarded Batman And Robin) and the downright confusingly-titled We Are Robin—but there’s no sign of “Batman Proper” (as in the Bruce Wayne version) to be found anywhere. Even the weekly follow-up series to the soon-to-be-concluded Batman Eternal appears to have been scuttled for the time being, although that could have more to do with simple logistics than anything else given that DC is moving to California and their editors and production staffers probably need some time to get settled in before undertaking the rigors of another weekly series.

Speaking of hard work—Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti had better get used to it, since the fan-favorite writing team on Harley Quinn will also be handling the scripting chores on the new Harley Quinn/Power Girl (there’s an unlikely duo for you) and Starfire books, as well. I realize that the writing output of Charles Soule in recent months is goading others on to heavier workloads, but there’s still such a thing as spreading yourself a bit too thin.

Other random observations: the lousy, toned-down Constantine will be ending in favor of the new Constantine: The Hellblazer, which promises to fall somewhere between JC’s earlier Vertigo persona and his more recent, watered-down version tonally; Bizarro is getting his own book; Justice League 3000 is aging by a year to become Justice League 3001; and we’re about to get a “New 52” (even though they’re not calling it that anymore) version of The Omega Men. Again, it doesn’t take a Nostradamus to predict that all of these comics will be having their sales figures closely monitored.

So—what does it all mean, then? Well, it was already announced that DC would be suspending its regular publishing schedule for two months while they traded coasts and that a pre-planned crossover “event” called Convergence, set in multiple universes (many of them pre-“New 52”) would be supplanting their normal output during the move—and it was widely rumored that events in Convergence would somehow spiral out of the resolution left in the wake of Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity—so, once all that is (mercifully) over with, some kind of “soft reboot” would be a natural enough next step. The Multiverse appears to be a concept that’s fully on the rebound these days—and may be utilized as something of an “out” by the publisher for telling some of these less continuity-obsessed stories they’re promising—but it remains to be seen just how many of these new books actually are actually set outside the confines of the “main” DC universe. A handful probably will be, but the vast majority certainly won’t be, and if that proves to be the case then basically what we’re looking at here is DC axing roughly half its line and rolling out a slew of new replacements that they hope will sell better. Any grandiose statement made by DiDio or the other “suits” are just window dressing, we all know that business is business.

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Ryan Carey maintains a B-movie (with occasional comics-related content) blog at trashfilmguru.wordpress.com, and writes about films and comics for sites such as unobtainium13.com, dailygrindhouse.com, geekyuniverse.com, and now Sequart. You can follow him on Twitter @trashfilmguru.

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  1. “A handful probably will be, but the vast majority certainly won’t be, and if that proves to be the case then basically what we’re looking at here is DC axing roughly half its line and rolling out a slew of new replacements that they hope will sell better. Any grandiose statement made by DiDio or the other “suits” are just window dressing, we all know that business is business.”

    Isn’t this a pretty amazing and unprecedented move, though? To cancel half the line in hopes of making the entire DC lineup more diverse and story-oriented sounds like exactly what you wish comics publishers would do more of. Even if most of those titles technically take place in the “main” continuity, it sounds like they won’t be as beholden to a “company style” as most of the original New 52 has been. It sounds like a loosening of continuity, a chance for some fresh ideas to get tried out. Not all of them will stick of course, low sales will still kill a series, that’s hardly surprising. The same thing happened at Marvel recently. Ms. Marvel has shot to the top while She-Hulk was cancelled after a year. I’m glad they were both given a chance, and new series are always coming in to replace the old. As long as publishers are willing to take chances, that’s what really matters. I wish DC the best!

  2. Ryan C. says:

    I certainly hope that proves to be the case and that the new line-up is as diverse as Dan DiDio promises it will be, but given the track record of his and Jim Lee’s regime to date, I’m taking an “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude for the time being.

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