On 8 May 2005, DC Comics unveiled its new logo — the first in 30 years or so.
What’s in a logo? Does it matter?
Some have scoffed at the attention paid to this change, but we must remember that something like a generation and a half grew up on the DC bullet — the previous logo.
It not only appeared on Superman, Batman, Action Comics, Detective Comics, and the like since most present American comics readers were children, but it also appeared on Watchmen, on The Dark Knight Returns, on Moore’s Swamp Thing and Gaiman’s Sandman. The DC works of the 1980s and 1990s that changed the industry were branded by that bullet. The direct market rose during that bullet’s tenure. Comics went from newsprint to glossy paper stock, to the prestige format, to the trade paperback, and to deluxe hardcovers. Even Kirby’s Third World had the bullet. The bullet presided over an industry that changed so much as to become unrecognizable, and it has stood the test of time.
The famous DC bullet is not, in fact, a bullet at all. In an ingenious design, it embraced the past circular emblems of the company, typical of the previous decades, with another perfect circle. But this one was different: the central “DC” was titled to the left, on the bias. Gone were the Superman references DC had previously embraced in its logo. As was the even earlier references to “National Comics,” DC’s old name. But in their place was a thick circle around the deceptively simple logo’s two letters, and on that circle were four stars. Each element was then surrounded by hairline outlines — accents so subtle that the eye didn’t consciously pick them up at first.
Today, the logo may seem simple or even bland. At the time, it was radical. Stripped of any unnecessary words. On the bias. It even was meant to be cropped off the top and left of the cover, as if sliding into the frame, a part of the very structure of the book, reaching beyond the mere newsprint paper and staples. Subtle with its hairlines yet featuring bold, strong letters in the center. The thick circle conveyed volume, weight, and the stars within it recalled DC’s history — as well as the words of previous logos referencing DC’s stable of all-star characters. Yet, for all this, it could be instantly apprehended and understood.
The bullet changed color freely, adapting to whatever cover it graced. With time, it would even change size, shrinking on occasion. It slipped more or less off the upper-left corner. But the essence remained the same.
While the DC bullet stood still, Marvel tried different designs, largely with slight variations. For some time the simple word “Marvel” stood atop a vertical banner featuring some character, usually from the book in hand. The issue date, number, and price could be featured just under this. It was a powerful combination of various elements that DC had to split up.
Then, in the 1990s, Marvel added the word “Comics” under the word “Marvel.” Logical enough, but “Comics” was written in a silly script, one doubtlessly designed to be dynamic but which looked simply childish. Perhaps not coincidentally, the few “adult” comics — or comics that adults might appreciate (such as Nth Man or the good Punisher or Daredevil material) seemed to become increasingly dumbed down. The logo’s colors changed, but whereas the flat “Marvel” held the various colors well, the “Comics” superimposed over the flatly colored bottom of the logo jumped out in often garish colors. The logo was a disaster artistically — mirroring the artistic pit into which Marvel was seen to fall.
The comparison with Marvel is particularly germane because DC’s new logo clearly responds to Marvel’s. At the millennium’s end, Marvel shifted to the flat red logo it presently uses — a simple but effective design. That logo’s colors don’t change, and the red typically stands out.
Most importantly, however, Marvel’s string of movie hits — starting with Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man — brought popular consciousness of Marvel to a new level. Beginning with Spider-Man, Marvel’s logo began appearing at the start of its movies. Comics pages flipped back and forth before the camera, terminating in the memorable red logo. And TV shows were filled with movie actors clamoring to star in super-hero movies and praising comics — but also praising Marvel and its many characters.
DC had to respond. And it clearly found that doing so required a new logo.
It’s not that the company hadn’t considered changing the logo previously. The mid-1980s even saw a trial return to a logo focused on Superman, a throwback to the 1950s, though the test logo only appeared on variant covers that subsequently became collector’s items. The 1990s reportedly saw another attempt — but nothing seemed quite right, despite DC reportedly pouring untold thousands of dollars into the redesign.
The real problem with the bullet, as DC personnel have admitted, was that it didn’t animate well. It was designed to look flat and to appear on comics. But DC characters are also licensed for video games, movies, and virtually countless varied products. Consider a video game screen in which the various game’s associated corporate logos appear: most moved and drew attention, while DC’s flat circle looked like a seal and was easily forgotten.
Not to mention that DC hopes it will have a string of successful movies to rival — or surpass — Marvel’s recent record. DC needed an animated sequence akin to Marvel’s, and the bullet didn’t lend itself to animation.
So, in essence, DC animated the bullet by turning it into something new.
The DC spin, as it has come to be called by some, deserves a certain amount of admiration for its closeness to the bullet. It also features a strong, central “DC” — but now horizontal and italic, rather than tilted. The “DC” is larger in proportion to the overall logo, allowing readers or viewers to take in the letters from a great distance — and it was precisely designed for this.
Also keeping with the bullet is the circle around the central “DC.” Only here it is that circle, and not the “DC,” that is on the bias. It is this element that most gives the logo its three-dimensional effect, its animated possibilities. Tilted not just to the side but towards the camera in three-dimensional space, the circle grants the logo its needed potential while preserving the spirit of the original. And the stars, while reduced to one of larger proportion, are even preserved in a manner that also lends itself to animation.
DC has promised that the logo will stay in a more limited color palette than the bullet famously assumed: blue will dominate, black will be used for white-and-black applications, and red could be used on comics covers where blue simply would not work. Presumably, this is intended to increase its recognizability across media.
But, while I have praised the new logo, the spin’s strength is also its weakness. It certainly appears more “dynamic,” to employ that marketing buzzword. And it certainly will lend itself well to animation, moving more naturally than Marvel’s logo — a coup DC certainly intended. But its very dynamism suggests a different feeling…
The logo has already been seen as representative of DC’s move towards being an entertainment company, a mighty jewel in the crown of the sprawling AOL / Time-Warner empire. In this, DC is also following Marvel. But one must remember that Marvel’s focus on movies, video games, and the like has had its share of critics. In the 1990s, Marvel officially classified itself as a trading card company that also sold comics. In the decade following, many would suggest that its comics existed to create and test characters that might be developed elsewhere — on screens large and small.
It may be premature to lob the same criticism at DC. But the logo’s three-dimensionality can even be read as anti-comics. Sequart is, 3D experiments notwithstanding, a flat medium. It is a literary medium. And though sequart shares many similarities with motion pictures, particularly in terms of the combination of image in frames / panels with text / sound, one is primarily visual and the other — at least in the United States — primarily literary.
We read comics alone, and experiments at making them more visual may result in characters who leap off the page — on some mission so obtuse and poorly written that we hardly care.
DC’s strength has long been in its carefulness, in its very lack of movements. The company plans much more precisely than Marvel. In total contrast with Marvel, DC traditionally keeps finished issues ready to slot between others if schedules are blown. While not all of this is changing, certainly, the logo does not convey this precision the way the old bullet does.
And perhaps the tone of the company will change, though whether the new logo unconsciously spurs this or whether it is merely a symptom, or both, is left to the historians. It may well be that today’s symptom becomes tomorrow’s unconscious spur.
If Freud was right and biology is destiny, perhaps a logo plays some of the same role for corporations.