There's something odd about DC Comics' rankings in each month's Diamond Sales Charts recently. If you look at the top of the charts, they're doing wonderfully well - last month, they had seven of the top 10, and ten of the top 20 - but they still only managed to capture 31% of the market, against Marvel's 45%. If their hit books are popular enough to dominate the top 10 like that, the question seems to be... why doesn't DC have a midlist?
Looking down the March chart, there's a familiar pattern for DC fans: seven books in the top ten, three books in the next ten, two books in the ten following that, two in the ten following that, and so on. Outside of the big hits - Books written by Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison, say, or event books and Batman books - the marketplace doesn't seem to be responding to DC as well as it does Marvel. But why?It's tempting - but, I think, too easy and ultimately wrong - to talk about quality; I'm admittedly biased, but I think that Paul Cornell's Action Comics (#48 on the charts) is as good a comic book from any objective point of view as, say, X-Men Legacy (#27 on the charts), or Amazing Spider-Man (#15). Is it about visibility? I don't think so, or else Superman and Wonder Woman wouldn't be finding their titles languishing towards the middle of the top 100; they are some of the most visible, recognizable characters in the world, never mind in comics - Certainly, they're as recognizable as Venom, the New Mutants or the Secret Avengers, all of whom rank higher in Diamond's March chart.
It definitely doesn't have anything to do with pricing: DC might be "holding the line at $2.99," but three months into that initiative, it's not really like their market share has changed significantly as a result, nor the rankings of their books, sadly. All that's really happened is that DC has slipped in dollar share to Marvel, who are happily watching fans continue to pay $3.99 for their favorite titles. It'll be interesting to see if that changes over the rest of the year - whether DC manages to make fans more aware of their budget or not - or whether they'll quietly drop the $2.99 price-point again if it really doesn't seem to make a difference to sales.Is it "buzz"? That weird, indefinable thing that somehow lets people know what is somehow cool and somehow not? Perhaps, although I'm not sure if it's buzz for the books themselves or the creators. Justice League of America is at #26 in this month's chart, but would that be the case if Geoff Johns was credited with writing exactly the same story? Do the characters sell Avengers, or is it the combination of Brian Michael Bendis and John Romita Jr.? If the differentiator between Marvel and DC's midlist success (or lack thereof) is buzz, then that's bad news for DC - Buzz isn't something you can successfully manufacture, no matter how much something may deserve it. But then again, buzz has been proven not to be everything again and again. Scott Snyder's Detective Comics has been a critical hit and buzzed about plenty, but it's still stuck in the middle of the list - way below Tony Daniel's Batman, which seems like a crime. And was there any superhero book more buzzed about last year than Thor: The Mighty Avenger, which couldn't grab enough sales for Marvel to keep it around?
If DC wants to become the #1 publisher in comics - a repeatedly stated goal from co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee - then it needs to turn its attention away from its already successful books - the Green Lantern and Batman families, whatever the next event is - and towards working out why everything beyond those has trouble luring readers in, and making them excited enough to stick around (I have a sneaking suspicion that's what hooking 20-odd new minis around Flashpoint is all about, but I'm not sure that will work out without flooding that particular market). Without a successful midlist, the top spot will forever be out of reach - but how do you convince people that the books they've shown no interest aren't that bad after all?