puncturing the god-like qualities

Comics Or rather some news from the comics coal face.

Wandering through my local comics emporium earlier checking if the first of the new series of Buffy is out (next week), I just randomly, snearily asked the comics man if the new DC Comics were selling, still under the impression it was the worst move the company could have made in this financial environment and another blip in the dwindling fortunes of the big two.

Much to my surprised, he grinned. "Well ..." he said and then entered one of the bubbliest, most ebullient monologues about the power of comics I've ever heard.

He reminded me that the shop usually receives its deliveries on a Wednesday and that within a day and half they'd sold almost all the stock. He showed me the racks which were filled with small fliers apologising for various titles being sold out.

Even titles which under the old regime weren't the most popular in the range, Animal Man or Swamp Thing had flown off the shelves and that within the space of a few weeks Marvel have started to look very old fashioned.

The reason he gave, and I'd be interested to hear if anyone agrees, is that its because the quality of the books has been so high. He said it was as though the various creative teams have been told to let rip and just do what they want without many restrictions.

The writing was sharp, the art spectacular (I'm paraphrasing that bit) (well OK I'm paraphrasing all of this but the sense is right) and that each title has a substance to it which wasn't previously there.

It feels like there's four issues worth of narrative per book. And complex, underscoring the fallibility of superheroes, puncturing the god-like qualities which made them seem rather stale before.

Whilst we stood chatting two customers passed through enquiring about DC Comics. One had become tired with the dozens of Wolverine titles and wanted to get in on the new Batman titles from the first issue and the other took the handy order card with all fifty-two titles listed and said he'd be back.

They're both representative of the kinds of customer they've been getting through this week, people who they'd never visited the shop before and who's interested had been tweaked by the publicity and liked the idea of getting in on this new universe from the start.

In other words, from this anecdotal evidence, the biggest gamble in DC Comics history has paid off.

Well, good.

Not really reading anything without Joss Whedon's name on it, I was never really in a position to properly criticise the decision other than that they'd be throwing out all of those decades of continuous mythology, a multi-faceted monument to narrative for the sake of selling some comic books.

My first reaction had been utter horror and that it was the comics equivalent of demolishing an Georgian building in order to build a mock-Georgian building with new plumbing. It might have better running water, but what good was that with all the history that had been lost?

But amazingly, from this store visit and watching the blogs, DC have managed to do two things:

(a) Not cheese off old fans by making the new material compelling enough that they can adjust and even be curious about what's happened to their favourite characters and the changed status quo.

(b) Simplify the whole process of buying their titles to such an extent that people who haven't bought comics in years are actively seeking them out.

One of the reasons I haven't gone past Whedon is because these comics sections are intimidating. With so many titles and so many books about the same character, it's difficult to know where to begin, and there are few jumping on points.

I'm DC's perfect audience. Multiple jumping on points and a whole new universe to watch develop.

And I'm tempted. I can't quite afford to at the moment (George Lucas has seen to that), but I'll be keeping an eye out for the inevitable graphic novels.

The question is, how can Marvel compete?

Our guess in the shop today was that they'd watch the DC situation for a bit to see if it can sustain the sales beyond the initial curiosity stage and if creativity can be maintained -- not to mention the publication schedule.

If they do, and if it actually hurts Marvel's sales, here's what I'd suggest:

Don't do a total reboot, run Brand New Day across the whole line essentially copying DC. Because it's been done. People will just think they're copying DC.

Plus that was the point of the Ultimates universe and that's apparently run out of steam and been rebooted itself.

But they can simplify things.

One of the problems from a customer perspective is that there are too many universes, so many in fact that it's not entirely clear which is the "main" one. The original, and which titles fit that universe.

Assuming the Ultimate universe doesn't take off and despite murdering their version of Peter Parker, it doesn't look like it has yet from what I've read, I'd simply wind it down.

Indeed, I'd wind down every universe that isn't the "main" one. I'd attempt to absorb anything that is working into the main run if possible but ultimately I'd make it so that if a newby enters the comics store and they pick up a Spiderman comic they know what they're buying.

Next, I'd reduce the number of titles a given character appears in. As I said, the main complaint from the new Batman reader was that he was tired with having to follow a half dozen titles so that he can keep track of one character knowing full well there was half a dozen more.

Be radical. Streamline. Just have Wolverine in an X-Men title and perhaps his own book. Same Spider-man and the rest. One comic to themselves and an appearance in a super-team.

Its worked (just about though its early days) for the Avengers film series. Could be replicated in the actual comics.

I happened to flick through an issue of X-Men and Ben Grimm featured and looked like a regular character. How did we get to this?

With luck readers will still want to read the same number of titles, it's just that they'll be able to read a greater variety of titles. Though I'm aware this could backfire and they'll simply buy less because they can, but these things are always risks.

And stop with the annual events. Everyone I've spoken to hates them. They feel like they're being fleeced and they disrupt the ongoing to story of their favourite characters too much.

Either way, I'm genuinely delighted that so far DC have had a resurgence. Anything which increases the audience for comics has to be good thing for the industry and culture in general.

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