WRITE OR WRONG #68: DCnU = DOCTOR WHO?

Write or Wrong: Define Yourself

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Dear DC Comics,

I want to applaud you for your recent decision to completely relaunch your line of comics.

It’s a bold and daring move to make, and given the strong library of characters/properties you have at your disposal, combined with the rising (albeit mostly passive) interest the mainstream population is developing in comics and comic characters (thanks Hollywood!), I think your new initiative could be the shot in the arm DC Comics needs not only to introduce itself to a new generation of readers, but also to help the comic industry as a whole garner greater mass-recognition and appeal.

I know you have your detractors, but again, I, at least, thank you and commend you for doing this. I’m genuinely excited about this move and what it will hopefully mean for the future of the industry as a whole. After all, a high tide raises all boats, right?

Despite some people’s misconceptions or concerns, I’m also glad to hear from several involved creators that what you’re doing is not a “retcon” in the strictest sense of the world as much as it is a “reboot” of the DC Universe’s continuity.

My understanding is that the launch of the 52 new #1 issues (for starters) will serve as a “reintroduction” to the core characters of your stable and a chance for readers old and new (but, admittedly, especially new) to get in on the ground floor with what is being touted as exciting and – more importantly – accessible stories about exciting and accessible characters in comic genres ranging from superheroes to westerns to war to horror.

Given that many – if not most – of the characters in the DCU are icons and/or archetypes at this point (even to people who have – *gasp* – never read a comic before), the choice to relaunch the whole line in order to make the books and properties more accessible is one that makes sense even if a lot of long-time readers aren’t happy about the idea.

Of course, it’s not really about the long-time readers, though, is it?

Sure, sure… of course you’re not trying to blatantly snub them. Why would you? After all, they’re the ones who’ve been supporting you from the beginning, right?

Be that as it may, at the end of the day DC Comics is a business, and the goal of any business it to produce a profit and maintain continued growth patterns…

But that hasn’t been the case for you, DC. After all, it’s no secret that in an ever-shrinking marketplace, Marvel’s string of “big comic events” has lead to them outselling you for every financial single quarter since 2002.

Ouch.

It has to be frustrating to you knowing that your company – which publishes books about archetypal, world-renowned characters such as Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, has spent the last nine years being beaten in the marketplace by the company who has successfully pushed B-List characters such as Ghost Rider, Daredevil and Thor into public awareness.

Mind you, that’s not a slam against Marvel or you, DC.

Rather, it’s just a statement of fact: Marvel makes more noise with their big “comic events” such as “Civil War” and “The Death of Captain America”… and that, combined with a string of moderately successful (at least) movies has resulted in them getting more mainstream attention than you and using that to sell more books.

Marvel, for better or for worse, has also always presented themselves as the “hipper” of the two big publishers of corporately-owned comics, too.

As the company quicker to move and then quicker to announce their movement, they have an image of, well, “coolness” that they’ve fostered through the impish personality of Stan Lee to the good-cop/bad-cop façade of the Joe Quesada/Bill Jemas regime to the current leadership by the subdued but still edgy ex-DC/Vertigo Editor(!) Axel Alonso.

For years now they’ve mastered building an image for themselves (no pun intended) as the “cool” publisher of corporately-owned comicbook superheroes… yo. [insert hip hand-gesture here]

DC, on the other hand, has always been seen as (if not flat-out played the role of) the “Distinguished Competition”… and with that came the reputation – at least – of DC being the “old-man” in the room.

Sure, sure, the promotions of Dan DiDio – and then especially Geoff Johns and Jim Lee – into upper-management positions (as well as the demotions of a few others who shall remain nameless) helped you start to shake off some of the more negative aspects of your “stodgy old man” persona in the eyes of existing fandom...

But it did little to change the approach and scope of most of the DCU books… until now, that is.

With this line-wide relaunch it looks as though you’ll finally be freeing yourselves from the habit (be it intentional or not) your creators had of creating stories that were built upon (at best) or mired in (at worst) seventy-plus years of continuity.

Ah… there it is… the dreaded “C-word” of the industry:

“Continuity.”

 It’s possibly the most divisive word among current comic fans, isn’t it?

Among those people who currently read comics there’s a loud and proud portion of them who read comics – especially superhero comics – because of the legacy that continuity brings to the titles and the characters.

These readers love the fact that there is sometimes up to 70+ years of history behind some of these characters, and they love the long back-stories and histories so much that they are the first ones to scream (via Internet Message Board postings, mostly) about how a certain story or character or reference betrays something that happened twenty-odd years ago and BY GAWD HOW DARE YOU NOT DO BETTER FACT-CHECKING!!!1!

The problem for both these readers as well as for the publishers that cater to them (whether they mean to or not), is that these types of readers are dwindling in number. As a result, so is their buying power in the market… and their influence.

At the risk of sounding crass, these readers – the ones who are married to heavily-continuity-based superhero comics – are akin to the dinosaurs of our already fringe element of entertainment, and many of them have a sometimes-inflated (and, admittedly, sometimes-not) sense of importance, again, thanks to the glory of the Internet AND ALL THEIR INTERNET SHOUTING IN ALL CAPS!!!1!

Mind you, lest I be characterized as a guy who is just picking on the older crowd, I myself am a fan of continuity… to an extent.

While continuity can serve to make books – and the characters in them – a lot more interesting, I’d much rather read interesting and entertaining stories about characters that don’t require me to have anything more than a superficial (at best) knowledge of the characters, their histories and what they stand for to enjoy the stories… and as far as I’m concerned (and seemingly you are, DC), that’s the case with most of your library of characters.

If I – or anyone else – pick-up a comic, I should know what I need to know about the characters and key plot points because they’re being shown to me throughout the course of the story itself or in an introduction page at the beginning of the book – much like many of the Vertigo TPB collections do. (And kudos for that, too!)

In doing so, despite what some people will claim, you are not lowering the bar, catering to the lowest common denominator, or otherwise “dumbing-down” the stories.

Rather, you will be making the work you produce accessible to people who don’t have as vast a knowledge of your library of work as your most dedicated pre-existing readers do.

I’m excited about this relaunch because, with this fresh start, you’re giving everyone a chance to rediscover both the characters and stories themselves… but then, if they so chose, their legacies as well…

Just like the creators of the newest (and wildly popular) incarnation of the 40+ year-old television series franchise Doctor Who did starting in 2005 when they relaunched the series for a new generation of TV viewers.

Admittedly, I came late to the Doctor Who party, only finally giving it a chance earlier this year. For the past several years I’d heard practically everyone I know raving about Doctor Who and how it’s such a stupendous television show… and while I was passively interested in it… I dunno… I guess I was just never quite interested enough in it to hunt it down at the local video store.

Furthermore, despite the unanimous praise of it from, again, everyone, all I knew about the show was that it was about some guy who dressed like a fuddy-duddy and travelled around in a flying phone-booth fighting monsters.

(Yes, yes… I know that’s not an entirely accurate description of the show… just bear with me.)

Well, when I discovered that Netflix was offering the show online as part of its streaming library/service, I finally decided to give it a chance. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, the house was empty, and I was in the mood to plop down in front of the TV and try something new… and there it was. Why not see what all the hype was about, eh?

By the end of the first episode I learned that the show wasn’t quite about what I thought it was (it turned out to really be about a Euro-chic time-travelling alien who fought other aliens who threatened the human race using quick wit and a hypersonic screwdriver). I realized that I didn’t quite know even as much about the show as I thought I did, but that didn’t really matter because… you guessed it… the show was accessible.

Despite the fact that I knew next to nothing about the show and the 40+ year history/continuity behind it, I was able to not only jump right into it and enjoy it… but I was also able to understand what was going on.

Admit it, DC Comics… you’re implementing the Doctor Who here model, aren’t you, you cheeky little buggers?

With this line-wide relaunch you’re going to be offering consumers immediately accessible stories featuring sometimes tweaked (and sometimes not) versions and incarnations of your characters that don’t so much ignore the past and their legacies, per say, as they do… perhaps not rely on them too much to tell new waves and types of stories, right?

And in order to make the appeal as broad as possible, you’re keeping the print issues under $3 a pop and releasing digital versions of those same comics on the same day-of-release, too!

I know you couldn’t hear it, but I had to stop a moment ago and applaud you, DC. Congratulations on doing things the right way.

While those dwindling readers who are married to the long and complicated continuities and histories of your characters are surely going to continue TO SHOUT AT YOU USING ALL CAPS, I sincerely applaud you for actively inviting new readers to the fold… especially readers who have been intimidated by, unaware of, or simply apathetic about the long-standing continuity that has been the backbone of the DC Universe for so long.

I’ve even heard rumblings about how you’re going to be using the deep pockets of Warner Brothers to launch a TV campaign about it too! Brilliant! I love it. I really do.

It’s long past time that you, DC Comics, made your vast library if characters accessible to new readers, and I’m glad I’ve lived to see it.

As you move forward in the coming years, though, I urge you to keep your focus on telling stories that are as equally accessible as they will be when they launchas each new season of Doctor Who is for television viewers.

(And before anyone gets their hackles raised, no, I’m not saying you should reboot your characters ever year or so. Rather, I’m saying that you should make sure the creators you bring onboard do not allow the stories that they’re telling to get too bogged down in either old or new continuity. Yes, every story should matter… but make sure it’s kept in check, you know?)

To this end, I recommend that you keep the popular online video game “Angry Birds” in mind as well.

Seriously.

I’m losing you here, aren’t I? Sorry. Please allow me to explain.

Just the other day I learned that, at long last, the online puzzle game “Angry Birds” was now available for online play – and this made me quite happy.

You see, despite the fact that I always hear my friends yammering on about what a fun little game it is, I was never able to play it since I don’t have an uber-fancy cell phone/iPhone/Crackberry – which was the only way you could play the game.

However, now that it was online I, too, could try it out! Huzzah!

Upon discovering this the other day I was scheduled myself a break from work, writing, Facebooking and Twittering to play it for a bit… and as I did so, my daughter happened to stroll into my office. Upon seeing me playing it her curiosity was piqued (largely since I don’t play many video games at all, online or otherwise)… and her curiosity in what I was seemingly enjoying so much lead to the following conversation:

HER: What are you playing?

ME: It’s a game called “Angry Birds.” The purpose of the game is to use these little birds here, each of whom have a different super-power, to smash those little green pigs.

HER: What are the birds’ powers?

ME: The red ones are kind of normal, the yellow ones are like battering rams, the blue ones break into little pieces, the white ones drop egg bombs and the black ones explode when you click the button twice.

HER: That’s cool… but why are the birds angry and want to smash the pigs?

ME: They’re mad because the pigs stole their eggs, so now they’re out for revenge.

HER: Oh… that makes sense. I’m going to try it out on my laptop, OK?

And then she left to do just that… and as she walked away I took pause to look around my office at the hundreds of TPBs that line my half-dozen bookshelves and thought to myself “If the core concepts of all these comics were as easy to explain to people as that, I’d bet there would be more people willing to give them a shot.”

DC Comics… I implore you to learn from “Angry Birds” just as you have (presumably) learned from Doctor Who.

As you move forward, make sure you learn from your past mistakes (no offense, I’m just calling ’em as I see ’em) and keep your books accessible to new readers.

After all, every single issue is someone’s “first issue,” right?

Again, I am not against the idea of continuity and I’m not trying to say you should be either.

However, while I appreciate a rich back-story as much as anyone who enjoys any kind of long-form serialized fiction (whether it be in literature, comics, television or movies), it should be fairly easy to enjoy a comic (or a book or TV episode or movie) without having to consult Wikipedia – or worse, the angry local comic shop guy – just to understand what’s going on.

You’ve already experimented with this non-continuity-based approach a little bit via projects like Wednesday Comics, Superman: Earth One and (to a lesser extent) Green Lantern: Rebirth, all with positive results (both financially and in regards to mainstream acceptance). Remember that, too.

There are a lot of people out there who want to read your books… so it’s your job to make sure they can.

Is this shift in story-telling going to be a bit of a culture-shock for some older readers? Yeah… it is… but it’s time. Heck, if sales are any indication, it’s well-past time.

Besides, as far as I can tell it’s not like you’re disowning or otherwise erasing the old continuity. The past happened, after all, and those stories will always be there for readers old and new who want to go back and re-read them… but for the greater good of the characters and the potential reading audience at large, it’s time for this fresh start.

Kudos, DC. Kudos.

It’s nice to know that if/when I hear nice things about a book like, say, The Suicide Squad (just to pick a book at random) all I’ll need to know is that it’s about a rotating cast of captured villains who have agreed to take-on government missions that are so dangerous they’re considered “suicidal” in exchange for their freedom if they survive.

See that? I just summed-up the approach and plot of one of the new DC books in one sentence, stating everything anyone needs to know about it when they’re trying to decide whether or not to check it out… just like I was able to do when describing “Angry Birds” to my daughter.

Keep that approach, DC. It’s the same approach comics used to use back in the old days, and it’s also the key to your own long-term success.

People should be able to pick up any given issue the relaunched Action Comics series  and be able to immediately discern that it’s about the world’s reaction to a “Superman” from another planet who has vowed to use his amazing powers to make the world a better place.

Or that Batman is about a man who, after seeing his parents murdered when he was a small child, trained his mind and body to near-perfection and now uses his training (and a bunch of cool gadgets) to protect the citizens of his city from the army of freakish villains that have overrun it.

Or that in Detective Comics we’ll see this same character in more detective-based stories (rather than the action/adventure-based stories of his solo title).

Or that in Batman and Robin we’ll get to read about how he is training his angry, impulsive protégée in how to fight crime without lowering himself to the same villainous standards of the criminals they’re trying to stop.

These types of stories – stories that can be boiled down to such simple premises yet have so much room for growth and exciting storytelling –are the types of stories have always been told better in serialized pulp/superhero fiction than anywhere else… and I commend you for returning to these roots!

In closing, I’d like to say that while I’ve never been a huge fan of corporately-owned superhero comics, I’m excited about what you’re doing.

Very, very excited.

Superhero comics – or at least corporately-owned ones – should not be based on the illusion of change.

Rather, they should be based on exciting stories with accessible characters… and with this line-wide relaunch you’re getting the chance to bring that back to the DC Universe and all it’s fascinating and enthralling characters.

Come September, those of us who like comics can finally turn to our friends who enjoy things like the Batman: Arkham Asylum video game and say to them: “Dude… if you like this you should totally check out the Batman comic,” without having to bore them with details of the last fifteen years of history and how it all factors in to what’s currently going on in the book…

Or at least that’s what you now have the potential to make happen, DC.

Run with it.

As you well know, this is a marathon rather than a sprint… and it’s one that, thanks to this relaunch, you’re in a great position to carry on with for many more – and larger -- generations of readers to come.

Your friend (and future DC Comics reader for the first time in 20 years),

Dirk Manning

NEXT TIME: This was a helluva column to write, and whether you agree with it or not, I hope you can all at least appreciate it. Like I said, a high tide raises all boats, you know? That being said, in the next column I’ll be getting back to discussing advice and assorted tips for writers who want to make comics like I normally do here. I promise. If you’re new here, though, welcome! There are links below to my own comic work for Image and ACT-I-VATE as well as to the previous installments of this column… so if you like what you see feel free to let me know and tell your friends about it all too!

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Dirk Manning is the writer/creator of the NIGHTMARE WORLD series (now in print!) and TALES OF MR. RHEE (now online!) for Image Comics/Shadowline as well as the writer/co-creator of the all-ages fantasy series FARSEEKER with artist Len O’Grady at www.ACT-I-VATE.com. He is also a longtime contributing columnist for Newsarama and a staunch advocate for comic creators everywhere. He lives on the Internet and can usually be found lurking around Facebook and Twitter on a fairly regular basis… when he’s not busy writing, of course.

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Did you know that NEWSARAMA now has a page solely dedicated to archiving the previous “Write or Wrong” columns? It’s true! You can check it out (and bookmark it) HERE: http://www.newsarama.com/topic/write-or-wrong

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