Is Rebirth DC’s last, best hope?

I haven’t tended to keep up on comics news of late. But it’s been difficult to avoid the news of DC’s newest line-wide relaunch, Rebirth, which had been rumored for a while, but was made official at ComicsPRO this week.

The short of it is:

  • The entire line is getting a relaunch, starting with (mostly) new issue #1s.
  • There will be a series of “Rebirth” one-shots to introduce the new titles.
  • Several titles will be going twice a month.
  • Action and Detective, DC’s longstanding legacy titles, will resume their original numbering
  • Total number of titles will be 32.

In a lot of ways, this feels like another New 52, although it’s being framed as not starting from scratch like that was, and there’s an effort to connect with past continuity and to respect everything that’s come before. So, potentially, it will at least appeal to old fans who got jaded that time around.

The big question is, will it work? DC’s sales have been pretty consistently poor, they’ve lost the trust of retailers, and their efforts to bring in new readers have not been met with success. Last year’s DC You was pretty much a failure all around, despite apparently having some very innovative and good books in the effort.

Based on that past history, I’m skeptical. I can see things that look neat and interesting, but I also get the sense that DC is failing to learn from past mistakes. They aren’t identifying the true core problems. And so even if the Rebirth line is good, it still may be doomed to failure.

One big problem is DC has consistently been unwilling to have an open discussion about their plans with outside sources. The New 52, Convergence, and other line events seemed to come out of nowhere, with little warning or indication about what they were thinking. This seems to possibly even be true with their creative talent.

There are obvious problems with editorial and the decisions they’re making. I don’t know if that’s an issue with DiDio and Lee, or with others in senior positions. I’d gather at least in part the latter, because of all the rumors about problems within the Superman group (which also looks after Wonder Woman), but that in itself indicates there’s some blind spots for those people at the very top.

Maybe Rebirth is answering these. Bleeding Cool believes that Marguerite Bennett is going to be the new writer on Wonder Woman, which would probably indicate a pretty massive change for that title’s editorial oversight. And they aren’t ditching all their recent experiments. Gotham Academy is still happening, which is a massive positive in my book. It seems that unlike New 52, they aren’t going to switch to completely new creative teams just because. If a book is working, it should continue to work after the relaunch.

I truly believe that DC wants to have an expanded and diversified audience. The sudden success of Batgirl of Burnside gave them a taste, as did looking over at the success of Ms. Marvel, and I get the sense that the entire DC You effort was built to try and replicate that. However, the insular nature of how they make decisions means that they also don’t really understand how or why such things are a success.

This desire is also at odds with their tried and true strategies. Geoff Johns might be a great creative talent, but he inherently looks backwards for inspiration. The things he writes are not inclined towards expanded and diversified audiences. And you can’t have a “let creatives try new things and do their own books without distraction” along with “tie everything together and get back to our roots.” One or the other is going to run into problems. From past efforts and results, it’s the former that’s going to get the short end of the stick.

Not all of this is DC’s fault. They’re dealing with trying to make the best of a poor situation, and it can be difficult to read the signals of success or failure. But ultimately they are still trying to do new tricks using the same old tools in the same workshop as they always have.

DC’s real problem is that the direct market.

The direct market is a backwards, opaque, and incomprehensible beast. It’s often difficult to understand how it works even for people who are well into reading comics. I was chatting with a friend yesterday and realized he had no clue how it all really worked. And he’s been reading comics for more than 20 years. For someone who is a new, potential fan, it’s probably even worse.

It would seem like if you went out and found a book that appealed to you and bought it, that would be enough to indicate your interest to the publishers. But that doesn’t work. The nature of the direct market means that they can’t see sales directly, they only see what retailers order. Nothing is returnable, so retailers need to guess about demand. Only in situations where a book explodes in popularity, thus requiring reorders and additional print runs, will the publishers have a direct idea of sales.

Only in cases where a book explodes in popularity, requiring re-orders and extra print runs will this information cycle be broken. But even that isn’t a good situation for a new fan. If you hear about a new hot book that you might like and go down to the store to get it only to find out that it’s sold out and won’t be back for a month or two (even as current issues continue to come out), what are you going to do? Buy the issues you can get and wait to read them or lose interest and move onto something else.

The entire system is predicated on pre-orders. That’s how you signal to a retailer that you’re interested in a book. Well, how are you going to know if you’ll like a book three months before it comes out? Option one is to be psychic. Option two is to guess based on the things you already like.

What this creates is a system that is inherently geared towards older, more experienced (white, male) fans at the exclusion of all else. Since neither major publisher does outreach to potential new readers, they have no way to break into the cycle unless something very strange happens. Ms. Marvel managed its success by becoming the bestselling digital title, which did provide instant feedback. Such things are few and far between, though.

In that case, the existing readership is pretty set in its ways. At this point, it likes Marvel, particularly Marvel that is similar to the MCU. (It also probably likes X-Men and Fantastic Four, but Marvel is perfectly willing to dick over some long time fans in the name of sticking it to Fox.) It also likes Batman, who continues to do well for DC. But other than that? Roll the dice, man. Any book will probably get a core of dedicated readers, but it’s rarely enough to sustain itself.

The major outreach falls to the creators, which is particularly sad. “Buy my book!” they’ll cry out. “Here’s how to order it from your comic store.” And they’ll note the ordering code to use. This is a pretty shitty thing to expect creators to do over and over again, especially for IP they don’t actually own. But even when it works, it still reinforces existing patterns: fans following creators they know and like (rather than characters.)

But what about ordering the trade, you might ask? Oh, you sweet summer child, that’s adorable. Despite the fact that it’s long been becoming a normal and perfectly rational strategy to read books that are already created in 4-7 part chunks that will be combined into a trade paperback, it very rarely will happen in time to affect the life of a book. Everything needs to happen for those first few issues, well before the trade has even hit the catalogue.

Where does this leave DC’s Rebirth? I don’t entirely know, but based on what’s gone on before, it will probably see some initial interest, but much of that will be too late to save several books. Batman will continue to do well, because Batman. Some others may do just well enough to catch on. But it’s not going to drastically alter things in its favor. And it will probably have to do another one of these the next couple of years to stave off the bleeding.

This isn’t too say that DC is going to fold and Marvel will reign supreme. There’s enough indication that Marvel is also following an ultimately losing strategy. Their All New, All Different line isn’t succeeding all that well and the problems that they have in sticking to a schedule mean that resetting their entire line each year gets more and more confusing to try and follow. It’s a case of diminishing returns. But Marvel, at least, doesn’t need to put forth as much effort to keep selling books to the same old crowd.

There are no easy solutions, though. If DC is serious about wanting to try and reestablish itself and court new readership, it’s going to need to come up with some new strategies to do that. It’s going to need to find a way to have some success without relying on the direct market system.

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