Thursday, August 27, 2015

TL;DR: Pondering falling DC Comics Sales, Uncle Scrooge, New Coke and Consistency

According to Heidi (and, I guess, Bleeding Cool), DC's "DC You"/ Post-Convergence line of books is not selling at needed levels, perhaps far below those levels as the just-launched DC You effort may be about to quietly go off into that good night.  TPTB at DC Comics must see some bad signs when it comes to future sales, something they have have a feeling for 3-4 months before comics hit the racks as we're all stuck in this "pre-order" culture from retailer to consumer.

Rumor is that there may be a call to retrench back to the Pre-Convergence line of thinking on the DCU line of books rather than the "Batgirlification" of the line, ie: Dan Didio doesn't know why the current Batgirl comic is selling, and so he's now just letting creators throw shit at the wall to see what sticks.

Here's where I'm going to say something that seems obvious, but isn't treated as such, so bare with me before rushing to the comments, but:  the idea that continuity doesn't matter in comics - something longtime comic fans, some of my online pals who come to this very site like to say, may very well be wrong.   Even if "Continuity", as in "nitpicking details over a forty year run on a comic" is unnecessary, I'd suggest that Consistency absolutely does matter.

And it may be DC's lack of Consistency/ Continuity that's led to the sudden death spiral for sales.

Let's Apply This to Scrooge McDuck

I'm not really reading much DC or Marvel these days.  But I can pick up an Uncle Scrooge comic, and, you know what?  Uncle Scrooge is a miserly Scottish duck with a taste for adventure, business, and he has a hoarding problem.  I can skip reading Scrooge for a year and then come back and there he is in his pince-nez and top hat, usually with the same coat and stick, and there's Huey, Dewey and Louie.  Whether they go to an underground cavern looking for gold or they're in a duel with the Beagle Boys, I don't open the comic to find Scrooge is now living in San Francisco, has a supporting cast made up of homages to Fleischer studio characters, Donald is AWOL and find Scrooge has given up on adventuring and making money in favor of making artisanal yogurts.

Now, I have absolutely no doubt that someone would buy a Scrooge McDuck as artisan yogurt-maker comic.  The longtime Scrooge fans would check it out for the "what the hell?" factor, but we also know many will lose interest after a few issues when they realize this has nothing to do with what they like about Uncle Scrooge, with plans to keep an eye on the title for whenever it gets back to standard-issue Scrooge.

People who haven't thought about Uncle Scrooge outside of Duck Tales re-runs might say "that's crazy!  Sure, I'll buy an issue" before they either don't at point-of-sale, or only buy the one issue.   And there's the person who will absolutely buy this Scrooge and rush out to the internet to tell people THIS IS THE ONE TRUE SCROOGE AND YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND.

And maybe Disney Comics would even double down on that idea for a while and, no matter slipping sales, etc... would say "no, we're not looking back!  We may have Intellectual Property recognized the world over, but we're making it now for this very specific audience of artisanal yogurt fans."

Then, one day, you're walking along the comic shop wall, and pick up Scrooge and now he's back in the Money Bin.  Donald is missing, but Huey, Dewey and Louie are all there, but now Louie is a marmet, Dewey is a "hacker" and Huey is a ghost.  Oh, and The Money Bin is now a club where they have massive house parties.  Longtime Scrooge fans might (might) pick up the first issue to see where this was headed.  They'd lose the yogurt fans.  They might pick up a few people who like ghosts and raves.

Meanwhile, someone who just discovered Uncle Scrooge via the iPhone game comes to the comic shop, looks at the comic, can't make heads or tails of it, and, feeling nervous, buys a Captain America keychain and leaves.  Meanwhile, the longtime fans are being told "stop crying, no one took away your Uncle Scrooge comics!  Go read those" and someone on tumblr is telling you how Ghost Huey symbolizes "THE ONE TRUE SCROOGE AND YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND".

A short while later, Disney has a crossover event, and in the aftermath, Scrooge now has no money, he's down to one nephew (having three was always so confusing), and he lives on a hip street in Brooklyn where he hangs out with underdeveloped characters who all speak strictly in emojis.  And Scrooge is now a 20-something that the intended new market can connect with.

That same day, in a lonely toy aisle at Target, the newly arrived Artisanal Yogurt Scrooge figures are placed on a peg and dust begins to accumulate immediately.

This isn't some make believe example.  This is more or less what it has been to follow any major character in the DCU who isn't Batman for the past ten years.  Nothing matters.  Everything changes at the drop of a hat for no discernible reason, and in trying to please everyone, the titles, eventually, please no one.

DC's Convergence event and the editorial direction afterward gave DC readers a chance to do a few things.

1)  We got a chance to re-evaluate what we were reading or not reading, and established books came back with all-new Status Quos with things like de-powered, exposed Supermans and Commissioner Gordon as Batman.
2)  DC didn't give either pre-New 52 fans anything close to what they may have wanted, one more kick in the shins for that audience, and the New 52 fans saw their status quo disrupted.
3)  DC dumped a LOT of new books on the audience, an audience that is increasingly not attuned to DC History and doesn't care who Dr. Fate is, sees Martian Manhunter as some relic from another era and just wants Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (the last in small doses, thanks).

It's About Intellectual Property and Branding

What's baffling to me is that Warner Bros./ DC Entertainment essentially own Intellectual Property.  That's what they do.  DC Entertainment is an IP farm that will fiercely protect and which they believe has a serious, demonstrable financial value.  Look no further than the expense and effort put into retaining ownership in the Superman lawsuit for their dedication to this idea.  And the money they've learned to throw around to creators when new movies come out.

Ownership of IP is not just about making sure no one else uses Superman to make money, it's also maintained so the company can manage that property a specific way and keep that property on message, parody and fanfic aside.  Disney may put Mickey Mouse in a tuxedo for some purposes, but they make sure he's recognizably Mickey and on point as Mickey.  Disney has as of yet to throw out the circle-eared version of Mickey and replace him with a Rat Fink knock off because that's what the 1980's demanded.  Even applied to Kingdom Hearts, he remains Mickey in style and spirit, and the new web shorts - despite a stylized look and modern animation gag style, are indubitably Micky Mouse.

At some point, readers need Consistency, or it becomes what the DCU seems to have spiraled into - and always my biggest concern when my peers suggest Continuity doesn't matter - a morass of stories that go off in a multitude of directions, all of which have no impact, no concern for past or future, for what made the IP we're looking at actually work.  There's nothing in the Status Quo that is threatened, or which can even change when the very point of your every editorial choice and directive is "we need to keep shuffling the Status Quo".   How many versions of the same thing do we have until we've lost sight of why change matters to these characters, both within the narrative and for us as readers?  What happens when it's been a decade of a character's existence since we've even seen the version we're supposed to be riffing on?  Who are we even talking to with these new versions?  And what happens when we keep taking the new versions away and replacing them?

Well, sales fall.

Yeah, I know.  On paper it sounds boring as hell to return over and over to the Status Quo.  But here's the thing - you're also talking about a fictional construct that needs tending and maintenance.  And, if you're actually factoring in Continuity, the Status Quo can change over time organically, incrementally.  Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern - they all did this without much in the way of intervention for decades.  Your one rule is that you will have to keep telling the origin stories over and over.*  It's the only way to make sure you're at least giving the new generation a chance.

So how does DC grow and change?  If you need to expand the marketplace and sell more sodas than you did with your Coca-Cola formula, you don't need to replace the original formula and tell America to go to hell and drink the new stuff.  But what you can do is introduce Cherry Coke.  Coke Zero.  Lime Coke.  Whatever.  You've still got Sprite, Fanta, Barq's as well.  It's gonna be okay.

But constantly, massively, arbitrarily changing what someone can expect when they go to buy something as straightforward as a Superman title?  That's strictly New Coke.  So, what are you asking the buying public out there to actually DO?  Because they can't really expect anything to remain anything like what they liked that got them to the character in the first place with all the changes occurring on a routine basis.  And every one of these reboots is giving people a reason to stop buying (and, no, raising the price of comics again to fill the cashflow problem due to reduced sales is not sustainable, either).

I suspect that the reboots work if used sparingly, maybe every twenty years or so.  But in the haphazard near bi-annual fashion DC has been tinkering, they've been splitting and re-splitting the paying audience with every one of these universe-wide alterations, any of which is going to lose readers for short term gains of a readership that hasn't really shown anything but an interest in novelty.  You're left with a few die-hards who will buy anything with that character they liked when they were fifteen, and a few rubes who like to check out the shiny thing.

And, lord knows, I've been both.

Over at The Beat, a sales analysis of the DC You event and Month-to-Month sales posited that DC is killing the baby in the cradle - they need to let the new continuity/ editorial approach take hold.  They argue that the diversity angle was right, DC just needed to hold on a bit longer.  Maybe that's true, but there's no reason to believe that the DC You is going to turn the ship around when actual and projected sales are saying otherwise.  Periodicals moved is surely an indicator of some sort for future trade sales.

But what the post is really talking about is landing on a Continuity and sticking to it, establishing Consistency more in line with better representation and content diversity.  Which is noble and I like it in theory, but I have to think there's panic at DC.  Apparently they can't afford to lose $2 million in projected income this year/ quarter/whatever, hoping trades will sell and a new audience will materialize that wants to pay for the DC You efforts.  Especially as it seems the folks who have paid for DC Comics up to this point keep being shown the door everytime the word "reboot" gets thrown around.

Despite the better intention of the DC You effort, many may see it as DC Editorial giving us Ghost Huey at the rave to work with.  It's a novel concept to see a powerless Superman, but it's only effective if it's not the eighth change in a 7 year period.


Late in the day, The Beat also posted some images of the 1984-ish-era DC Comics Style Guide, work that makes the internet rounds every once in a while, and which is still used all the time for DC's retro-ish "DC Originals" line of merchandise featuring classic looks for the DC stable of IP.  My guess is that the DC Originals line sells quite well.

It's interesting to see the positive reaction to this look here and at Robot 6.  Even if the kids don't seem to be all that aware of the style and why's and wherefore's of the era.

But what folks seem to click to, as much as Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez's work with Giordano's inks, is the simplicity and recognizability of the characters.  The iconic nature of the work on display.

Sometimes you sort of want to take DC's leadership by the hand and say "it's not that hard.  This is what folks think of your intellectual property.  They want to see the icons and larger than life figures in a world of action and adventure.  You can do this."

It would be nice to not make it so much work, to make it inviting to new readers, and to remember you can build on what you have without throwing away the spoils of previously hard won victories.

*seriously, stop complaining about origin stories.  The heroes don't make sense without them except as faces on a lunchbox, and there are always new people who haven't heard the story yet


Stuart said...

I'm going to try "Let's Apply This To Scrooge McDuck" logic across the board, from now on.

The League said...

It's how I've made every career decision in my life!