DC Launches Earth One; Reaction Not as Positive as Hoped

Yesterday, DC Comics announced Earth One: two direct-to-book-format stories, one each for Superman and Batman, retelling the origin in modern day, in a “new continuity”, created by names well-known to current comic readers.

The reaction was generally negative, although the reason WHY it was disliked varied greatly depending on the speaker. And before I get into all that, note that key details are missing from the announcement, like price point, marketing plans, and release dates, so a lot of reaction, including mine, is speculation, informed or not.

Superman Earth One

Lots of people are assuming that this is DC’s way of experimenting outside the direct market and the model of periodical serialization. It’s been discussed for years how many customers don’t care to visit a specialty shop for overly confusing, high-priced-for-what-you-get monthly comics, although they do like the characters and would read stories about them if there was a clear entry point that provided stand-alone entertainment. (Latest example: Long-time superhero readers talk about how they think comics are worse this year. Those of us who gave up chasing books that were clearly no longer written for the mainstream reader think, “it’s not that the books are worse, it’s that your tastes have finally grown up.” :) )

Anyway, I’m digressing. When it comes to this particular Earth One effort, I’m glad to see DC considering trying something new. Putting out comics for the bookstore market and their readers, stand-alone single-volume experiences that capture what’s good about the characters while ditching the accreted baggage, is a fabulous idea. However, in this case, I think it may be (as so many of their past outreach attempts have been) too little, too late. Note that I’m only assuming that this IS an outreach effort. And the company has lots of inertia in leadership and customer reaction (remember, direct market shops are DC’s customers, not the comic readers) that makes it hard to try something really new. Baby steps are a lot easier, even if such lukewarm attempts are doomed to fail.

Me, I don’t think that the world needs yet another origin retelling (this is like the fifth one for Superman in recent memory), but maybe that’s just a starting point. DC does say that this will be an ongoing series, so maybe they felt they needed to “set the rules”, although the kind of new readers they need for this project to be successful won’t care about such details. Regardless, don’t we all already know how Superman and Batman came to be heroes? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to see them living their heroism in modern day? And will the Earth One title mean anything to new readers? Are the connotations too continuity-bound?

Batman Earth One

I don’t care for the work of writers J. Michael Straczynski (Superman) and Geoff Johns (Batman), so I don’t think they’re particularly good choices for this effort. I don’t think they write well for readers more interested in story and characterization than nostalgia and status quo.

It doesn’t solve the biggest problem with “converting civilians” (and isn’t that interesting language that’s commonly used?) — what do they read NEXT? There’s little to recommend to someone attracted by one of these books as a starting point. (Compare, for example, Vertigo, where someone can read 10 Sandman volumes and then move on to similar books and keep going.) If the line succeeds and continues for a few years, there would be several items to choose from, but there are enough problems with the idea as presented that that survival doesn’t seem likely.

I’m not sure I’m still part of the target market for any effort like this, though. I’d rather see a story about one of the lesser known characters with potential, although I do think I’d read a fresh, stand-alone take on the core heroes — I adored Superman: Secret Identity, for example — but maybe I’m too picky to be worth chasing. Let’s go to the retailers.

Forward-looking Christopher Butcher postulates that DC has chosen their language carefully so that they won’t turn off existing readers, which allows them to use those near-guaranteed direct market sales as a kind of safety base while reaching into bookstores. (My opinion: trying to please both audiences when their interests are almost diametrically opposed is a bad idea, or at least an overly cautious one, that will cause neither to be satisfied.) Says Chris:

[T]his is all speculation and analysis, but looking at the announcement as it stands, it seems like a half-measure at capturing a new audience (at best) with product that’s indistinguishable from their regular releases, or recent initiatives. Possibly worse.

He also wonders how that hypothetical book shopper will know that Earth One is the best choice for the new reader when faced with a shelf of Superman: This and Batman: That collected volumes. In other words, there’s a huge marketing hurdle to overcome.

Mike Sterling thinks they’ll sell well if they’re under $10 each and tie into a hypothetical upcoming movie. Then there’s Brian Hibbs, who runs some guesstimates and concludes that he’ll make less money with original graphic novels than he does with serialization. This is likely true, since selling comics and then their collections gives the retailer two bites at the (often) same apple (customer). The bigger question is: is a customer that will buy the same story in two different formats just to keep their collection complete the future of the industry?

I know, I’m making as many assumptions in that word picture as he does. But my point is that trying to keep wringing money out of outdated business models may work in the short term but lose you the future. The existing serialization is not bringing in new customers, and it’s increasingly losing the old ones. The publishers have tried to make up for that with bigger and bigger events (so the same people have to buy more comics) and higher prices, but that’s not an effective long-term strategy, because it burns out old customers and doesn’t bring in new ones.

Retailers like being able to sell to the same customers every week or month, and so it’s important to them to bring them into the stores consistently. People who load up on book comics every three or six months or so go elsewhere, to bookstores or Amazon.com, so they’re already not part of the direct market strategy. In the comments to his post, Hibbs says, “there are significantly more people who are willing to spend $2.99 for x minutes of entertainment, then there are who are willing to spend $20+ for 6x minutes of entertainment.” In comic shops, sure. Comic fans have notoriously been cheap. But it seems to me that there are enough people willing to spend $10 on two hours of entertainment to make The Dark Knight a $600 million-grossing movie. Again, a lot depends on the price point of these original graphic novel comics. And problematic as Earth One sounds, I kind of want to see it succeed just to support book-format comics.

26 Responses to “DC Launches Earth One; Reaction Not as Positive as Hoped”

  1. Rob McMonigal Says:

    I think it’s a great idea on their part, and maybe it won’t work, but at least they’re trying something. If it’s cheap enough, I’ll give it a flier.

    But then again, I “grew up” over the past year so I am hardly doing capes at all these days. ;)

  2. tyler Says:

    I’ve been wishing for years they’d do something like this – but without the ‘continuity reboot.’ I like Batman and a few other superhero characters still and if I could easily pick up a 150-200 page story every once in a while I would. a more radical notion would be to stop publishing 4 or 5 monthly titles and just put out 4 or 5 GNs spread out over the year – each book a complete story. that I would definitely go for. (but I know the monthlies bring in a steady, regular cash stream so…)

  3. THE BEAT » Blog Archive » EARTH ONE: Frank and Davis speak Says:

    […] And Johanna Draper Carlson, with DC Launches Earth One; Reaction Not as Positive as Hoped . […]

  4. TimCallahan Says:

    This project doesn’t excite me either, but it’s clearly meant to address two questions a new reader sparked by the movie superheroes might ask: “Um, where do I START?” and “What do I read next?”

    Glad to see that you’re aware that Chad and I are all growed up now.

  5. Johanna Says:

    I was joking! I even put in the smiley!

    Moving on, Tim, I disagree about the “read next” part. If someone really likes the Superman book, for example, maybe they read the Batman… but then what? Anything else is either retelling the story they just got (like Batman Year One) or has a different version of the character, which is the problem with trying to convert movie viewers now.

    Rob, I don’t think these books are going to be as cheap as everyone hopes. Last time DC did original graphic novels with these characters, they were $25 hardcovers.

  6. Ed Sizemore Says:

    I don’t like the two art examples above. It’s too shiny, like everything has been dipped in shellac. I hope that is just promotional art and not what the books will look like.

  7. Where’s Wonder Woman? » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] the coverage of DC’s new Earth One announcement, many people have noted that there’s no mention of the missing member of DC’s Big […]

  8. Joshua Macy Says:

    I’m not particularly interested, but I’m not the target audience, am I? No problem with that, vast fortunes are made all the time by excluding me from the target audience…but I do kind of wonder what audience do they think really needs another retelling of the origins of Batman and Superman?

  9. Chad (But Not That One) Says:

    As a longtime reader who’s jumped on and off the Superman and Batman wagon trains more times than I’d like to admit (I’m currently off Batman save the Morrison book, and I’m about to hop off Superman for the umpty-millionth time), I kinda like this idea. For whatever reason, I seem to want the occasional new Batman and Superman comic in my life, and this’d be a way to get that without signing on for the latest “War of the Supermen” or whatever. And the format is appealing. I wonder how many other longtime readers out there might view this as a way to drop the monthlies yet keep reading about these characters regularly.

    Less appealing, as you note, is the fact that they’re retelling the origins yet again. But I’m probably not the primary target for this.

    In any case, I’ll give it a shot, despite any misgivings I may have about some of the creators involved.

  10. Thad Says:

    I’m in the “good idea in theory, but skeptical about the way they’re doing it” camp. Sick of origin retellings. Some of the best, most accessible versions of these stories have foregone them altogether, or held off on them for later (I’m thinking of the current Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon, which left the origin to the end of the first season, and pretty much every TV iteration of Batman). Hell, even the ORIGINAL comics didn’t tell Batman and Superman’s origins until a few issues in, and then spent all of two pages on them.

    I’d like to see something that takes the origin as read (or summarizes it very quickly in the off chance the reader doesn’t know it) and then just hits the ground running for a good self-contained story.

    JMS is actually pretty good for that, if his recent work on The Brave and the Bold is any indication; he’s had two absolutely wonderful stories teaming Batman up with obscure characters (Dial H for Hero and Brother Power the Geek).

    Don’t care much for the art I’ve seen so far, but I usually like Gary Frank’s work.

    Anyhow, interested, at least, in seeing what happens.

  11. Prankster Says:

    You nailed it particularly on two points, Johanna: the hope that this will lead to more book-length comics, and the lack of more obscure characters. I think DC is playing it safe with their two heaviest hitters, but as you say, it’s too little, too late.

    This would be a far more effective format for something you don’t get enough of in pamphlet form; in particular, DC’s female characters, who seem to have trouble sustaining their own books (especially when they’re actually aimed at their natural target audience, young girls) would be natural fit with this format and distribution model. Unfortunately, DC seems to be so locked into the geek audience that they’ve forgotten how different things are outside the direct market.

  12. Chris G. Says:

    It’s just so…bleh. The line is named after a concept that DC stopped using 25 years ago. The costume tweaks are silly: The needless seams on both costumes, replacing Batman’s trunks with a zipper, the general muddy cast to both designs…all of these things say “THESE BOOKS ARE EMBARRASSED BY THEIR CONTENT” to me. And Superman oddly resembles Brandon Routh to my eye, which strikes me as odd since everyone at DC and WB seems to want to forget that movie ever existed.

  13. James Schee Says:

    I’m going to take the opposite view Johanna, and say this is actually something that interests me. Which is a first in a long time from DC.

    On using Superman and Batman, well really who else are they going to use to start out? As much as I may personally like Booster Gold, you put him out as a launch title and its going to get completely ignored. Its going to be hard enough to get people to try this with the marquee brand names people know and generally like.

    On origin stories, I wouldn’t be so sure that everyone knows it or at least knows the details well enough that this will seem rehashed. Sure we comic nerds know it all and may be tired of them, but this isn’t being targeted towards us. Plus honestly, for these two characters their origin stories are probably their best stories.

    The name Earth One we agree on, it doesn’t make much sense. It would seem better to use a title like “Superman/Batman Now” or even simply “The (All?) New Adventures of Superman/Batman.”

    I’m honestly kind of hoping the format and price make the books look like regular novels. People aren’t going to be concerned about price, as much as value. Have it in a format that gets it put on the New Books shelf in bookstores, and get it in Wal-Mart and Target stores on their shelves.

    You ask what they buy after they read these and enjoy it. I think this is where the comic company has to take a different approach to their customer. In the past it was “enjoy this and then you try our other lines and become a regular weekly comic reader!” That doesn’t work, and in fact usually turns the customer off.

    Instead be like a real book publisher, while you bring out other series and hope they try those. You mainly work to build anticipation and get the reader excited about the next volume in what series they like. You make it a special event, just like the new releases of Harry Potter or Twilight volumes were.

    Will it work? I have no idea. Who knows what will happen, the books could get lost in the crowd of books or become big hits. I still don’t know why books like the Twilight or Harry Potter series took off like they did either. I applaud DC for trying though, as what they’ve been doing certainly wasn’t working.

  14. Joshua Macy Says:

    But James, if you don’t know Batman’s origin then not only are you not a comics geek, you’ve never seen Batman Begins…which leaves who exactly picking up this comic-book about Batman? I can understand marketing to people who’ve seen the movie but never read the comic-books, since there are so many more of them and they’ve shown at least some interest in the subject matter, but I’m a bit puzzled about marketing to neither…

  15. Johanna Says:

    James, thanks for sharing the no-longer-reading viewpoint, but I have to say, DC only WISHES it could have a Twilight-level success!

  16. TimCallahan Says:

    (I know you were joking, because clearly there are no juvenile-minded adult comic readers.)

    The whole point of these books, I believe, is that it will answer the “what’s next?” question because these are just first volume of a projected series of books. So readers will get a new Superman graphic novel each year, or whatever. If that’s not the plan, then it REALLY seems like a foolish idea.

  17. James Schee Says:

    Joshua I think there’s a difference between people who like something, and those that are just REALLY into it.

    Given that I’ve started working in a new roles with the public, I’ve seen a fairly wide variety of people. One thing that really struck me is how many people that don’t really invest their total focus, even in entertainment they like. I’ve talked with people who will say they loved The Dark Knight, but when I’ve tried to talk about it with them don’t remember certain key scenes or even characters names. Yet will show me all this Batman junk they have because “they love Batman!”.

    Johanna, well I was hoping to just provide a different view! ha ha I used to be a big comic nerd, went to the shop every week, etc. Yet these days I couldn’t for the life of me, with all the time and money on Earth ever see myself wanting to do that again.

    Yet I do still have some affection for some of the characters. If it was possible that once or twice a year I could pick up a nice GN that was structured to be one story by one creative team. Well that would have me very interested in picking it up.

    Oh an yeah I was trying to be a little… overblown(?) in my comparison to Twilight and the like. Yet like I said who knows what might happen.?:)

  18. Alan Coil Says:

    $20 or $25 would be a good price for a mainstream OGN. $10 just isn’t going to happen. Many comics fans will likely not buy them because “the price is too high”, but that won’t stop the general public at all, especially when it comes to gift giving.

    This line seems created for the book store crowd.

  19. Johanna Says:

    $25 would likely wind up about $18-20 with typical bookstore online discounting. And that is in line with hardcover novels these days, right?

    Tim, I hope planning is extending that far in advance. I do wonder whether these hypothetical new readers will wait a year or so when this launches, though.

  20. “Earth” tones | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

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  21. Kenny Cather Says:

    For this to work, DC needs to clear off the million and one Superman and Batman trades on the shelf. Those are just clutter that will confuse the person looking for “the beginning of Batman.”

    I don’t think comics are going to survive as weekly floppies, so I’ll be happy to see some other approach to succeed, but this has all the warning flags of Minx.

  22. Does no one want to visit Earth One? An editorial musing of sorts | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    […] Johanna Draper Carlson: "When it comes to this particular Earth One effort, I’m glad to see DC considering trying something new. … However, in this case, I think it may be (as so many of their past outreach attempts have been) too little, too late." […]

  23. Joe Says:

    Sooo… I’m a little surprised no one is making the obvious Ultimate comics comparisons. I enjoyed the first few story arcs of both USM and UXM. In addition, I loved Morrison’s All-Star Superman run. I waited for the trades on each of these titles, so getting the E1 trades isn’t too different than what I’ve been doing.

  24. Don Solo Says:

    I think you guys on a whole & ESPECIALLY the original poster who bedsides his apparent TOTAL LACK of knowledge on good comic writers (JMS &Johns are in mine &MANY fans opinons two of the best out there) was adamant on giving more of a finance lecture than ACTUAL ideas, I think you may have gotten the completely WRONG idea about this project.. Its NOT simply a “reboot” but a brand new “reality dipped” telling/take on the old mythos that stands apart from the original & sometimes cluttered & confusing Supes/Bats continuities.. Its also a hyperrealistic modern day look into what these characters would look like if they existed today RIGHT NOW.. In natural order the only other idea that comes close was the original Ultimates Take on the Avengers etc.. Before they (Marvel) got greedy & complacent & turned it into the mediocre shock tactic driven farce it is today.. Hopefully DC known for their levelheaded (&sumtimes downright SLOW)approach to these things will learn from the mistakes THAT platform made & apply it to their remolding of these their two most precious icons.

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