This week marks the end of the DC Universe as it’s currently known. The fifth and final issue of Flashpoint, this summer’s big DC Comics crossover, rewrites the very fabric of the company’s fictional universe. Afterward the publisher is canceling and relaunching its entire line of superhero comics. It’s the Passion of the Batman, followed by an immediate rebirth.
Best-selling characters like Batman and Green Lantern won’t see that dramatic of a change. Underperforming big names like Superman and Wonder Woman will be notably retooled, with writer Grant Morrison recrafting the Man of Steel’s early years in Action Comics and Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang introducing horror elements into Wonder Woman. Many critically acclaimed but lesser-known titles like Secret Six, Xombi, and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents will end altogether, replaced by a plethora of new series that, as DC Comics co-publisher Dan Didio explains, “shows the depth and breadth of the DC Universe.”
Starting with Aug. 31’s Justice League #1, DC will release the first issues of 52 different series before the end of September. Not even Action and Detective, the longest-running comics in history and the traditional homes of Superman and Batman, are spared, restarting at #1 just years shy of thousandth-issue milestones. For the first time in decades, copies of Action Comics #1 and Detective Comics #1 will cost less than a college education.
As the oldest comic book publisher in America, DC Comics is known for its rich history and iconic characters like Batman and Superman. It’s also known for periodically breaking with continuity and significantly rebuilding its fictional universe. From the Silver Age reboots of superheroes like the Flash and Green Lantern to the major changes wrought by the mid-’80s series Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC has never shied away from sweeping company-wide changes to the status quo.
Still, there’s a hint of desperation about DC at the moment. Comic sales in general are perpetually down, Marvel holds a commanding lead in the market share every month, and other than Batman, no DC superhero can gain any traction in Hollywood. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Morrison, a DC stalwart and one of the few creators who can sell books solely on the strength of his name, suggested that comics have entered their final death cycle. Times are tough, and DC’s answer is simple but drastic: they’re blowing everything up and starting over.
It wasn’t a hasty decision. “[The relaunch] is something that’s been in the back of my mine and Jim [Lee, DC Comics co-publisher]’s minds for quite a while,” says Didio. “We had a writers’ meeting last October, looking for new ways to reinvigorate our line with a new dynamic type of storytelling. We got a strong response from creators, but we knew to really get the fans’ attention we needed to jumpstart everything. If we really wanted to do this and do it in a big way relaunching the line was something we had to do. DC discussed this in the mid ’80s after Crisis, but they didn’t pull the trigger. Today’s market and audience has changed and it felt like a good time.”
Rebooting a fictional universe that prioritizes continuity and depends on the on-going devotion of faithful readers is a creative and commercial risk. Just as significant, though, is DC’s decision to go day-and-date with their digital comic releases. Starting on Aug. 31, every DC comic will be available for computers, tablets, and smart-phones the same day the physical copies arrive in comic shops, and for the same price. After four weeks an issue’s price will drop a dollar.
“It felt counterproductive to go out and make so much noise and put this effort into relaunching the entire line without having a thoroughly modern and contemporary pipeline,” says artist-turned-co-publisher Lee. “Updating the way we deliver comics is just as critical and important as the changes between the covers.”
The goal of DC’s new digital initiative is to reach new or lapsed readers who don’t have a local comic shop or don’t enjoy visiting one. It’s a sizable challenge. Comic sales have plummeted for decades. A best-selling title is lucky to move 100,000 issues a month. As with the broadcast television networks, the audience for America’s big two comic book publishers is in constant decline, even as their characters and properties star in successful movies and TV shows and make millions in merchandising. America loves superheroes but barely remembers comic books even exist.
An enhanced digital presence might attract new readers, but it might also damage the direct market, the network of comic book shops that is responsible for the overwhelming majority of comic book sales. Lee recognizes retailers’ fears, but notes that “unlike magazines or newspapers, DC’s core audience prefers reading on print. There’s a collector factor that is nullified by going digital.”
“Everything we do with marketing and PR will benefit print the most because they are the biggest part of our business,” Lee continues. “When you breakdown the program and what we’re trying to do it’s clear that we’re trying to spur the business and incite as much excitement for comics. At the end of the day more readers is good for the entire business.”
A line-wide reboot makes a good jumping-on point for new customers, but it also could provide a clean break for current readers. Superstar creators like Morrison, Lee and Geoff Johns should draw an audience, but many of the other creative teams and titles debuting in September could struggle, especially with such a large number of new comics starting in such a short period of time.
Still, several titles are intriguing. Azzarello and Chiang promise a very different take on Wonder Woman, with a horror bent that draws on her mythological background (as Chiang promises, “we’re going to play on the audience’s idea of who Wonder Woman is”). Jeff Lemire, creator of the acclaimed independent Essex County trilogy of graphic novels, will be writing two ongoing monthlies starring off-beat characters associated with Morrison—the metafictionally aware Animal Man and DC’s version of Frankenstein. Morrison himself will team up with artist Rags Morales on a new Action Comics series that focuses on a young working-class Clark Kent that Morrison calls “a Bruce Springsteen version of Superman.” Military, espionage and Western comics like Blackhawks, Men of War, and All-Star Western will carry on DC’s non-superhero traditions.
Few things are permanent in comics, but no matter the risks, DC is committed to the new direction. “This is our plan for the future of [DC Comics],” Didio asserts. “This isn’t just an event that we can turn back from.” No matter what happens, September will be a fascinating month for the comic-book industry.