DC Comics has never been shy about branding, their long line of multiverse spanning event comics don’t always feature the same titular influence, but it always seems like there’s some new form of Crisis looming on the horizon. While the Crisis nomenclature has come to be acquainted with the company’s universe spanning events when DC decided to re-launch their entire line of ongoing superhero books they settled on extending a different naming convention, 52. It’s not a bad move, the year long weekly series 52 was an event comic of a wholly new breed that garnered attention simply for being published in a different fashion than any other book DC was putting out. DC’s plan to start fresh and plaster a big fat #1 on every book it released in the wake of Flashpoint attracted a similar amount of attention for its unique nature and the potential impact it could have on the industry as a whole. One of the things both 52 and The New 52 focused on in the lead up to their releases was an attempt to bring in new readers, The New 52 much more than 52, admittedly.
While there are a few similarities between the two 52s, their approaches to creating an event that would draw in new readers were quite dissimilar. Where 52 attempted to create a spine that would draw new readers into the DCU by creating a book that would come out each and every week, and hopefully draw readers to the store with that same regularity, The New 52 banked on giving readers a world of possible choices. All of The New 52 books are synchronized so that each week brings out 13 new books all with the same issue number, and DC pushed hard to inform potential new readers that they could drop in on any new book and find an enjoyable entry point into the labyrinthine stories of comic book super-heroes. It’s an approach that doesn’t require the kind of commitment that 52 did, but it’s also an approach that favors DC’s more recognizable characters rather than the supporting players of the DCU. 52 made the bold decision to brand itself as the story of a year without Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman, and while those characters appeared every so often in 52 they were never in costume when they did so. It was a book that thrived on the backs of characters that weren’t supposed to be able to support their own books.
One of the reasons 52 thrived even with its lack of iconic DC characters was that it was perceived as a major part of the DCU. Comic fans love being told that a book is important, if it matters to continuity it matters to them, and usually that’s enough to drive sales. It’s why both DC and Marvel had almost yearly mega-events once series like Identity Crisis and House of M proved that the market would respond with big sales numbers. 52 was a fairly remarkable success in regards to sales, the book debuted in the top ten, selling roughly 140,000 copies in its first issue and dropping off only slightly to around 120,000 by its fourth. While sales continued to trend downward the drop off was only minor and the series consistently sold around 100,000 copies per issue in a market where only major events like Civil War or the biggest comics such as New Avengers or Justice League could routinely break the 100,000 mark. DC was pleased enough with the sales that they immediately launched into a new weekly series when 52 ended titled Countdown and then later revealed it as a lead in to the event, Final Crisis. That series couldn’t match 52’s sales but was still a success, debuting at roughly 90,000 copies and routinely selling around 70,000 copies per issue. DC tried the weekly format once more on the heels of Countdown with a series called Trinity, but this was the series that proved the format wasn’t a guaranteed seller, or simply that the market had grown tired of year long, weekly series after the questionable quality of Countdown and the fact that Trinity wasn’t explicitly important beyond simply being a story one might like to read. Trinity debuted at the same level as Countdown had consistently sold, roughly 70,000 issues, but by the series end it was selling an unremarkable 30,000 copies per issue.
What DC had found was that series like 52 would galvanize the existing market, but wouldn’t necessarily prove to be a source of new readers. Their most recent attempt at a series of this type was with two alternating bi-weekly series Brightest Day and Justice League: Generation Lost, two series that flowed out of Geoff Johns’ major event comic, Blackest Night. Brightest Day sold quite well, debuting in the 100,000 copies range and then dipping slowly and holding at about 70,000 copies per issue, the exact threshold that Countdown found. Justice League: Generation Lost debuted at 50,000 copies per issue but declined until it sold roughly 30,000 copies per issue, essentially the same per issue range that Trinity found itself at. Part of the reason for why these disparate sales occurred is likely that Brightest Day had a more high profile writing team, consisting of Peter Tomasi and, most notably, Geoff Johns. Justice League: Generation Lost on the other hand was penned by Judd Winnick and Keith Giffen. It was a pairing of a controversial if not untalented writer in Winnick with a veteran in Giffen who would be handling a batch of characters, The Justice League International, that he had once helped shepherd to critical acclaim. That kind of nostalgia can’t quite compare with the pull of Geoff Johns though, especially when Brightest Day was pitched as the successor to Blackest Night and as a through line to whatever major DC event was coming next.
What these series seemed to prove quite conclusively was that a weekly series could sell respectable numbers, but to do so it would need to be tied to an event series, it would have to “matter.” These weekly events didn’t seem to be bringing in new readers though, they were merely books that pre-existing fans would flock to so they could keep up with their favorite characters and the universe they inhabited. There was also the problem that the event series themselves had begun to reach a point of diminishing returns after the yearly cycle of events grew to be frustrating even for the most continuity obsessed fans. When DC finally launched the event Flashpoint it seemed clear that they had something major in mind for what it would mean to the DCU as a whole, and when The New 52 was unveiled they proved to have an ambitious alternative to weekly comics to move forward with their line. When DC further announced that they were going day and date with their digital versions of the comics it was clear that The New 52 was DC’s go for broke attempt to revitalize their line of comics both creatively and commercially.
In terms of raw sales, The New 52 has been a massive success, catapulting every member of The New 52 into the top 100 comics sold each month. Sales jumped from the previous month, August 2011, where series like Jonah Hex, the lowest selling book to be repackaged as a member of The New 52, went from sales of 10,000 issues to nearly 40,000 issues sold as All Star Western. Sales have of course dropped off over the passing months, issue #3 of All Star Western sold just shy of 30,000 copies, but the book is unquestionably a better seller now that it has been tied into this major event and been renumbered from #70 to #1. Other DC books have slipped further than All Star Western, but few are outside the top 100 and none of The New 52 branded books are selling fewer than 20,000 copies an issue. The top books have rocketed up in sales as well with series like Justice League, Batman, and Action Comics all selling well in excess of 100,000 copies per issue. (As of issue #3 Batman and Justice League are hovering in the 150,000 issue range while Action Comics is at about 135,000. Those numbers are down from the roughly 180,000 copies they sold during their #1 issues but is still a great deal higher than their pre-New 52 issues which were roughly 40,000 for Action Comics and Justice League and 50,000 for Batman.) Those are the titles you would expect to sell though, and while the increased sales are great for comics as a whole and representative of an interest in the medium that likely comes both from the regular readers and some new drop ins, I’m not convinced that the jump in sales actually signifies a new batch of converted readers.
I’m also not sure that The New 52 has creatively justified itself on the whole, while there are more DC books that I’m interested in now than I was before the launch, the majority of the books simply don’t take advantage of the blank slate that The New 52 offered. Instead they’re content to pump out the same generic superhero stories that DC was offering the month before, simply cleared of the clutter that existed before Flashpoint wiped it all away. The best of the re-imagined books are ones like Wonder Woman, Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Batman, Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E., Demon Knights, Batwoman, and Men of War. They’re books that change things around or boil down the character in question to their purest essence. They’re also, with some obvious exceptions, much lower selling books. The books that are selling are the books that always sell, the big names and characters such as Superman, Green Lantern, and Batman. They’re selling more copies than they did in the previous months, but the numbers aren’t so astronomical as to indicate that DC has finally managed to get a new group of previously un-indoctrinated readers into comic shops. Much like how 52 did more to strike a chord with the pre-existing readership than invite new readers I believe that The New 52 has largely managed to bring pre-existing comic readers into the shop and focus them on all of DC’s product rather than simply one weekly series. That’s not something to scoff at, but it’s also not a market that’s going to be infinitely sustainable in terms of the sales DC has been enjoying over the past few months.
The reason for this to my mind is that comics are simply a difficult hobby to stick with. It’s not as easy to partake in as TV, the time investment is much greater than something like movies, and the cost is not negligible. It’s a hobby that can’t be engaged with half-heartedly and it breeds passionate, dedicated fans for just that reason. The kind of fans who refuse to miss going to their comic store every Wednesday for fear of having their favorite book sold out and slip through their fingers, the kind of fans who obsessively go over the intricacies of 60 some odd years of complex continuity ephemera, the kind of fans who find space in their homes for thousands upon thousands of single issues in long white boxes. The problem with finding new readers is that the kind of people who are going to read comics for the long term are the kind of people who are going to start reading comics regardless of whether or not they’ve been provided with an easy entry point. The fans of comics are the ones who become excited at the notion of universes so vast that they’ll never have the time to read every single story, they’re the ones who feel that obsessive need to collect, and they’re not ones to be scared off by the fact that a comic doesn’t have a #1 on the front.
The first issue of a comic that I bought with my own money was Uncanny X-Men #393, it’s an unremarkable issue but it’s also part of a crossover that spanned between multiple books, and as I read that issue a sense of infinite possibility overwhelmed me. Here was a story that had been going on without my knowledge, a huge seemingly world ending conflict that was spanning multiple titles and huge amounts of characters I’d never heard of before, and the effect wasn’t off-putting, it was engrossing. I pored over that issue time and time again trying to glean more details from it, figure out who the characters were, and imagining the events that had led to this story. By the time I put that issue down I was hooked, the world it promised was so big and so involved I couldn’t help but want more even if the issue itself was sub-par.
Events like 52 and The New 52 may engender some outside attention, but it’s hard for me to believe that the people who aren’t enthralled by the breadth and depth of the worlds Marvel and DC have created are likely to be permanently ensnared by what those events offer. The advent of digital comics will help new readers adverse to making a trip to a comic store every week and they’ll allow a reader to house a massive collection of comics without need for huge amounts of physical space, but the final stumbling block to becoming a fan of superhero comics is one that can’t, and shouldn’t, be removed. It’s that little box in the corner of a comic that points the way towards another story, another event, a hint that there’s always more to uncover and see. The worlds of superheroes and their stories are endless, and while 52 and The New 52 tried to say that anyone could hop in and read a superhero story, three years from now the people who will still be reading them won’t be the ones asking, “What did I miss?” They’ll be wondering, “What can I read next?”
All sales figures sourced from http://www.comichron.com/monthlycomicssales.html