A month ago DC Comics came out with a big announcement: they are ditching the New 52.
That is, they're ditching the branding and editorial focus that's been the standard at the company since late 2011, that manifested in an infamous hard reboot of DC Comics continuity. The New 52 has been criticized for its lack of diversity both on the page and behind it, plagued by creator changes as numerous writers and artists quit, citing far-too-regular clashes with restrictive editorial oversight. The first Nielsen poll of DC's comic-buying audience showed that the rebranding had mostly increased sales from folks already reading DC books rather than grabbing new readers, and in the intervening years companies like Marvel and Image climbed the sales rankings with unexpected hits decidedly outside of the New 52's standard superhero mold.
Marvel's biggest surprise hit of late is Ms. Marvel, which has seen a young Muslim woman from Jersey City fill the boots (metaphorically) left behind by the original Ms. Marvel after she assumed the unused (due to being dead again) identity of Captain Marvel. But the House of Ideas has shown other commitments to diversity on the page by bringing back Runaways, with all-female Avengers and X-Men teams and with taking chances on a host of lady-led ongoings featuring the likes of Storm, Elektra, Black Widow and She-Hulk. Image Comics has been so successful at producing the industry's biggest creator-owned series (like Bitch Planet and Saga) that last week they announced that they'll simply be increasing overall print runs in the future to make sure that stores aren't running out so often. Image's Sex Criminals #1 went to an unheard of six print runs.
This is the context in which DC co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee are speaking. And what they're saying is: It's time to leave the New 52 behind and try something else. That something else is another line of new books to shake up DC Comics publishing, but with a significantly different audience goal, an emphasis on character over continuity and a commitment to taking risks. It spells big changes for the publisher, but changes in a very exciting direction.
DiDio and Lee's detailed remarks about the relaunch, which will kick off properly in June after DC's Convergence cross-over event, have become available beyond the small group of comics press who got to listen in on them, so let's break it all down:
It's about character
Lee and DiDio outline a new DC Comics editorial system that focuses on individual characters or teams, and revitalizes the idea of each title having a solid cast of supporting characters outside of its main hero, an aspect of comics that's marked some of the New 52's greatest successes, like Harley Quinn and Batman: Death of the Family.
And in a move that will have many readers sighing with relief, they promise less crossovers and event tie-in comics. Events and crossovers are proven to bump sales in the short term, but, they say, too many events can hamstring character development. Character development and getting readers attached to the leads of new titles is the name of the game.
"The last thing we want to do [with our new titles] right now," says DiDio, "is cross over a bunch of books, or remove them from our stands while we're trying to let them grow, and take form, and shape, and find their audience. We're giving everybody some running room to really be able to establish themselves, and to build themselves solid series." Allowing individual titles the time to "build" a sense of direction, a supporting cast and an independent audience is the foundation of this new DC Universe. DiDio and Lee want to get back to a place where crossovers and events are rare enough to feel special.
Lee calls it a focus on "canon" over "continuity," on creating the best stories about a character without being restricted by a larger continuity to the degree that was attempted with the New 52, noting that being set out of continuity hasn't kept The Dark Knight Returns or Kingdom Come from captivating creators and fans. In fact, that captivation has driven elements of those stories into the main timeline. Continuity, he says, is something the readership is too concerned about, citing the lead up to the New 52, when DC editors were peppered with questions about what parts of the old universe were still canon. And while I agree that comics suffer when storyline trumps previously established character development, I think it's perfectly understandable to want to know how there could be four Robins if the present of the DC Universe was retconned to be only five years from the first appearance of Superman, or, in the same case, under what circumstances Bruce Wayne and Ra's al Ghul's daughter Talia would have conceived a son half a decade before he became Batman.
It's about diversity
The co-publishers are unequivocal about their audience goals for the relaunch: it's not just about getting more readers, it's about making books that appeal to demographics who have not previously been on DC's radar. The direct market for comics, long assumed to be "monolithic" (ie., young white men) is growing swiftly beyond those bounds in a way that can no longer be ignored. There are readers who are ready to buy DC books, and DiDio says it's absolutely up to DC to take the initiative to attract them.
"There's a massively changing audience going on here. There's new readers coming in. Anecdotally, we pick up from the fact that we hear it from our talent — they see it at the different shows, they're getting a level of contact that's not just the traditional audience that we've seen up to this point. It's for us to try and find out where the growth is, and who the audience is, by casting the net as wide as possible, with as many ideas as possible, as many tonalities as possible."
It's about trying risky new things
A large part of casting that net is going to be taking risks, and you can clearly see those risks, and the widening of that net, in the 24 books launching from DC in June. The New 52 launched with a very clear focus on homogeneity of tone and art across titles: characters were aged down, happy romances were stripped out, Superman lost his trunks, and characters settled in for what were predominantly serious-all-the-time crime fighting books. Those new 24will be given free reign to "shake things up a bit" and introduce new "flavors" to DC's lineup.
Risk is often baked into the creation of a new lineup of books, or, at least, it's understood at the editorial level that some of the lineup will be swiftly cancelled. DiDio stresses that this is to some extent even more likely with the new titles. "I can tell you exactly what I'm going to get out of a Justice League book, I can tell you what I get out of a normal Batman book or a Superman book. I can't tell you [what the hell] I'm going to get out of Prez or Black Canary." But, the co-publisher adds, he's finding that kind of fun.
The New Lineup
In June, 25 of DC's core books will remain, and 24 will be new first issues. When the initiative was announced in February, Dan DiDio boldly stated: "Whether you've been a DC fan your whole life, or whether you are new to comics — there will be a book for you beginning in June." So what's new? You name it. Old talent on new books. New talent on new books. Fresh, new-to-DC-Comics talent on old books.
Gene Luen Yang, the creator behind the lavishly awarded graphic novel American Born Chinese and the writing on Dark Horse Comics's Avatar: The Last Airbender comics will be taking over writing duties on the DCU's best known immigrant: Superman. Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher's hit turn on Batgirl will be spun off into a solo series for Black Canary with art from Hawkeye's Annie Wu. Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner will follow up their success on Harley Quinn with two titles, Harley Quinn/Power Girl and Starfire. Ming Doyle, James Tynion, IV and Riley Rossmo are all revitalizing Hellblazer together. Garth Ennis returns to the characters of Hitman. Veteran Dan Jurgens will be writing a Bat-Mite ongoing, of all things. Scott Snyder is promising his biggest shakeup of Batman yet. Batman Beyond is going to be made the canonical future of the DCU. There will be ongoing titles for Bizarro, the Midnighter (a vanishingly rare example of a solo comic title for a gay male character), a team made entirely of Robins and a teenage girl who becomes president of the United States, in what is actually a throwback to a little known DC title from 1973.
And that's just a few things that jumped out at me. You can read a comprehensive list with creative teams here.
Forty nine free stories for everyone
Though they may be committed to taking risks themselves, DC is taking steps to eliminate it for readers, with an unprecedented release of material for every one of their June issues. The month of May will see the release of forty nine contained 8-page stories, one for each series that the company will be publishing in June, and the goal is to get them into as many hands as possible so people can sample before buying. They'll be available in print with issues of DC's Convergence storyline and its tie-ins, and simultaneously for free on DC's website, Comixology and other digital comics distributors. DiDio says "We're encouraging our readers to download them and make them available to their clientele," which I would guess means that digital versions will be available DRM free.
As yet, the new initiative doesn't have a snazzy name like "The New 52," though you shouldn't be surprised if it turns out to go by "Divergence." That would make it a reflection of this summer's Convergence event, where various timelines and eras of DC Comics continuity are being resurrected for that most time honored of comics traditions: putting characters in a jar and shaking it until they fight. For any long-time superhero comics reader, reboot fatigue is a real thing, and DC's relaunch is no exception. But a mere four years ago, DC execs and editors were laughing off fans' questions about diversity in front of entire rooms at San Diego Comic Con, if they deigned to answer them at all. The fact that they're being this candid about deliberately reaching out to women and (as is implied by the new titles) LGBTQ readers and readers of color is incredibly heartening. And a crazier lineup full of comedy as well as adventure, not to mention books for teens and maybe even kids is almost as exciting.