What the History of DC WEEKLIES Tells Us About The New Ones
CREDIT: DC Comics
This weekend, DC Comics is kicking off The New 52: Futures End, a weekly series that will run at the same time as the April-launched weekly series, Batman Eternal.
Releasing two concurrent, long-running weekly series at the same time is a new strategy for DC, and it will get even more unprecedented when the company adds a third weekly series in October, the six-month-long Earth 2: World's End.
As Newsarama has explored in detail, all three of the weeklies are wrapping up their stories in March 2015 — and two of them will tie into each other (World's End and Futures End).
It all points toward something big happening at DC in April 2015 — and even DC Co-Publisher Dan DiDio admitted there's significance to the date.
Yet the excitement from fans about potential storylines and events doesn't take away from the rather extraordinary fact that DC will be releasing three weekly series at the same time.
"It's a lot of work," he said. "But I think, if we pull this off right, I think the reward is for everyone.
"Three weeklies in one year, what it brings to us is a sense of urgency to the line," he said. "We do weeklies primarily because we have big stories to tell, and this is the best format to tell it in. It gives a sense of urgency, themed to the story beats and the actions that are occurring on a weekly basis."
The weeklies are not in addition to the approximately 52 titles that DC tries to release each month, but are part of the total. "So it's not that we're adding more product in," DiDio said. "It's just as the weaker books go away, we're adding weeklies, which we think have big stories that lead to more and exciting events as they start to unfold over the next year."
DC Weekly History
Of course, this year's commitment to the weekly isn't the first time DC has devoted its effort to a weekly series. In the years from 2006 to 2009, DC was committed enough to the idea behind weekly series that it had very few weeks when there wasn't a weekly comic being released.
But to really trace the history of weekly comics — and why it took so long for DC to really become committed to them (after all, DC has been around for decades) — it helps to look at DC's first weekly series.
Action Comics Weekly
In 1988, Action Comics was coming to a point of transition. John Byrne, who had been guiding Superman stories after the 1985 Crisis that rebooted the character's origin, was nearing the end of his run. And the comic was nearing issue #600, which seemed to be a good point at which to try something new.
DC began publishing Action Comics Weekly, an anthology comic that returned the series to a format similar to it's origins — as a collection of stories that introduced and highlighted a variety of characters (after all, that's how Superman was first introduced).
But Action Comics Weekly, as popular as it was when it first launched, didn't succeed. It's difficult to track exact sales numbers for the comic — according to Comichron: The Comics Chronicles, DC stopped running postal statements on their comics in 1989, and its sales were spread out across a variety of direct-market distributors that did not report their sales.
Only the sales of one of the larger ones, Capital City Distribution, are available, and they show the decline over time of the anthology: issue #601, the first of the weekly series, was 41,700 copies, but that decreased to 25,400 copies on #602. Cap City's orders on #642, the last weekly issue, were 11,500 copies.
Paul Levitz, who worked at DC in that era and eventually became the company's president and publisher — and is co-writing one of DC's current weekly series, Earth 2: World's End — told Newsarama there were a lot of theories why the Action Comics Weekly didn't catch on. "We can debate whether it was too early, the wrong content, the wrong format, the sun was rising in the West that day," Levitz said.
But most comic book pundits point toward its length and frequency. As an anthology, it cost more than other comics, and the nature of the short stories featured in its anthology format didn't keep readers coming back for more every week to see what happens next.
But Levitz and other DC editors didn't give up on the idea of a weekly. They saw that the weekly was working when it was spread across various titles, such as through the Spider-Man comics, or the Batman comics.
"I was fascinated by the possibilities of weekly storytelling in comics when we went really solidly into the comic shop environment and our customer was coming in every week," Levitz said. "So we tried a number of things, experimenting in that direction many, many years ago — most visibly, Action Comics Weekly, but also the kinds of storytelling we were doing in the Batman books, where one thing led to another and, ultimately, in the Superman books, where we had essentially a weekly comic book that was four different comic books."
Eventually, when Levitz was in charge at DC, he suggested that the company release another dedicated weekly comic book in 2006. And the idea behind 52 was born.
"Paul came up with the idea," 52 writer (and eventual DC Chief Creative Officer) Geoff Johns told Newsarama at the time. "Everything was going to 'one year later,' and he said there should be a weekly series that gives us a glimpse of what happens during that time."
One of the hooks for the series, when it launched, was that it would be told in "real time" — for example, October would be portrayed during October's issues and the characters referenced holidays from the real calendar. But the real catch for most readers was the fact that four of the most respected writers of that time — Mark Waid, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka and Johns — were crafting the series, with help from artist/writer Keith Giffen and cover artist J.G. Jones.
The four writers divided up the pages of the issues, depending on what character was being featured, while Giffen did breakdowns for the various artists who participated.
Many fans expected it to fail — most because of the shipping schedule. At that time in comics, many series were shipping late.
"We were doing something that hadn't been done," Giffen said. "It was a weekly book that took place in real time. There was no margin for error. I always felt that some of the appeal for 52, aside from the fact that it was a great story told by writers at the peak of performance, I always felt that 52 was like a NASCAR race. It was a NASCAR comic book. You went to the race, but you were hoping for the crash. It was like, when are they going to screw up? I think our greatest accomplishment, really, was doing it and getting it done.
"We saw a lot of work ahead of us, but we also saw great challenges," Johns said. "No one had ever done anything like that before. Paul had a genius idea, and obviously that genius idea has paid off. It worked really, really well."
Issue #1 of 52, released in May 2006, had sales of 140,918, according to Comichron. By the time the last issue rolled around a year later, 52 #52 had sales of 102,043.
Selling more than 400,000 copies in most months, 52 had been a huge sales success, and had been quite a risk for DC — after the failure of Action Comics Weekly.
So it seemed to make sense that DC would stick with the weekly format.
Countdown to Final Crisis
The follow-up to 52 was originally titled Countdown — a series that started with issue #51 and counted backwards toward the final issue #1. The series dealt with the multiverse that was established at the end of 52.
While 52 had been separate from what happened in the current-day DCU (serving more as a prequel to what was happening), Countdown tied into other situations in DC Comics. It was also structured differently, in that writer Paul Dini served as the plot writer, while a team of other writers handled the scripting — Jimmy Palmiotti, Sean McKeever, Tony Bedard, Adam Beechen and Justin Gray. Giffen still did breakdowns.
"Each of the individual writers would write entire issues," Giffen said, pointing out the difference from 52. "But Countdown's challenge was, the bloom was off the rose. It was another weekly. The novelty of being a weekly was not enough."
Eventually, readers found out that the weekly series was counting down to the Morrison mini-series Final Crisis — and the weekly was retitled to Countdown to Final Crisis for its last 24 issues.
While the series didn't sell quite as well as 52, the comic still did well. Comichron figures show the May 2007 issue #51 sold 91,054 units, then the numbers fell to around 60,000-70,000 per week, with the final April 2008 issue #1 coming in at 72,688.
The series had its challenges — critics and readers complained that the series didn't feel as cohesive as 52, and its alignment with other series was sometimes thrown off by late-shipping comics.
"I think the greatest challenge on this series was in writing the various threads in a way that, especially in the beginning, felt like they were part of a cohesive narrative," McKeever told Newsarama. "It may have been better for the series to have taken the 52 route of each writer owning one to two story threads, and then have Paul Dini or someone tasked with weaving the narrative hooks, though I certainly see the scheduling headaches that would easily create. But it would have meant consistent character voices and a greater level of story input from the writing team."
But the fact that the series shipped every week — and was still getting readers — pointed toward the viability of weekly comics. It proved that 52 wasn't a fluke.
"I think it's a very viable storytelling format," Levitz said. "If you've got a reader showing up once a week, telling them a story that connects that way should work. And 52 certainly was an extraordinary success. I think Countdown, while not reaching the same numbers, was a very solid book. And both of them were received pretty well critically, as well as commercially."
Trinity and others
In June 2008, soon after Countdown ended, DC tried another approach to weekly comics, as it handed the entire storytelling responsibilities for one weekly comic to one writer, Kurt Busiek. Featuring DC's just-acquired exclusive artist Mark Bagley, Trinity told a story featuring the group of characters known as DC's trinity: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
"The biggest challenge, of course, was the schedule," Busiek said. "Getting 22 pages done every week, 52 weeks in a row, is an endurance run, and it was grueling, particularly on me, who was working on every single page, whether I was writing it solo or co-writing the backup stories with Fabian [Nicieza], and even more so on Mark Bagley, who had to draw 12 pages a week for a year.
"We had a little bit of lead time, so we took a bit more than a year to do it all, but by the end we were racing the deadline every single week," Busiek said. "It helped hugely to have such a tight creative team -- we were able to have writers' conferences with the whole writing staff of the book just by me called Fabes on the weekend while he was in the bleachers watching his daughter's soccer games, and we could just hash out the next chunk of story without needing a lot of administrative complication to ring everyone in. It was just us, with our editors backstopping us as each plot came in."
The sales on Trinity dropped a little lower than previous weeklies, with issue #1 in June 2008 selling 70,409 units, but issue #52 in May 2009 coming in at 32,514 (again, according to Comichron).
But according to Busiek, Trinity showed how the storytelling could benefit from being weekly, thanks to the momentum of a constant, every-seven-days release schedule. "As a monthly, that story would have taken over four years to tell, but as a weekly, we were able to roll it out faster, giving more of the flavor of reading it as a novel or something," he said. "It's easier to experiment, or allow yourself to explore, when you know there'll be another chapter in 7 days to get things back on track. In some ways, it felt like writing a newspaper comic strip, in others like a novel, and in others like the weirdest, most sprawling movie ever. But it'd have been a completely different animal if we'd tried to roll it all out on a monthly basis."
The series would represent the last time DC would try a weekly comic book series, although several bi-weeklies followed (Brightest Day and Justice League: Generation Lost were bi-weekly, on alternating weeks for a year, and DC Universe Online was also bi-weekly).
That is, until now...
Why a Weekly Now?
According to a lengthy discussion we had with DiDio in February, the reason for DC's return to the weekly format is an effort to give the comic industry momentum.
According to DiDio, he and other industry leaders feel like the "excitement" that readers felt in September 2011 (when DC rebooted its universe) has died down. And the weeklies — and all the "peeks" into the future — are an attempt to get readers interested again.
"[Having three weeklies] is a major commitment, and a lot of coordination to get it right," DiDio said. "But one of the things we felt very strongly about is that sense of momentum and excitement.
"When we came out of the gate with the launch of the [New] 52 [in September 2011], we had people buy it, and we held onto them really tight and there was a level of excitement that we hadn't felt in comics for quite awhile," he said. "Quite honestly, we felt, even between ourselves and other companies, it seems like the excitement is quieting down again, across the industry.
"So we feel like it's time to crank it back up again and start to remind people about the big, bold and just craziness that we can bring to comics, that makes our storytelling so unique and exciting," he said. "And from my standpoint, the three weeklies that we're doing — with Batman Eternal, with Futures End and [Earth 2: World's End] — these are all world-building and show really, just the depth and breadth of the DC Universe and all of our characters from all different perspectives. And I think that's what makes it fun."