DC Launches Earth One; Reaction Not as Positive as Hoped

Superman Earth One

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.

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.” :) )

Superman Earth One

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?

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.

Batman Earth One

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 (no longer available), 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.

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