Monday, March 30, 2009

Backing Up the Back Ups

When it comes to entertainment, a great deal of success depends on the presentation. It is common knowledge that most 90 minute movies based on 4 minute Saturday Night Live skits (or half-hour Saturday morning cartoons) lose something in translation. Likewise, the record industry is finally relearning that for many pop stars a 4 minute catchy single sold for $1 on iTunes is often far more lucrative and successful than a $16 album of that one single and filler. Likewise, with superhero comics – Simply put, there are many great DC characters that cannot support their own 22 page ongoing monthly series. That is why DC’s recent decision to have back-up features in the upcoming $3.99 line of comics is a very good one.

There is no shame to being a “back-up” character (just ask Archie Goodwin’s Manhunter!) Like the aforementioned SNL skits and pop songs, some characters have had great success in a shorter format. In fact, there are many popular DC characters that were regulated to constant back-up features for decades – even when comic sales were far higher than they are today. Cases in point:
  • Aquaman, created in 1941, did not have his own ongoing title until 1962.
  • Green Arrow, also created in 1941, never had his own ongoing title until 1987.
  • Black Canary, created in 1947, did not have her own ongoing title until 1993 (which only lasted 12 issues, anyway).
  • Martian Manhunter, created in 1955, did not have his own ongoing until 1998.
  • Elongated Man, created in 1960, has never had his own an ongoing title.
Other fairly popular characters, like The Atom, Hawkman, The Spectre, Blue Beetle, and Firestorm have had one or two lengthy series but have not been able to re-capture that success in the last decade or so. Even some of the above characters who have “graduated” still struggle to carry an ongoing (like Aquaman and Martian Manhunter) and end up with prominent roles in team books instead. As of now, these characters lack that "X" factor – whether it is a new creative approach or a superstar creator who wants to take on the character as a pet project. The important thing to remember is that these aren't "bad" characters -- they just don't have what it takes (at this point) to carry a successful ongoing title.

This isn't to say that B, C, and D list characters can never find success – Animal Man had a lengthy and popular series, for crying out loud – but randomly tossing characters into short-lived ongoing series (Simon Dark, Hawkgirl) or low selling mini-series (Raven, Cyborg, Vixen) cannot be a good thing for DC. Obviously fans will eventually become (if not already) very unwilling to invest their attention and money into a new ongoing if the sales potential means only 11 or 12 issues of that ongoing will see the light of day. Furthermore, creators who heavily invest themselves into a new project would probably become frustrated (from both a creative and financial standpoint) when their newest gigs have ended prematurely. I should not have to state that anything that turns off both talent and readers is a bad thing for comics.

The $3.99 comic is unavoidable right now, so adding back-up features to the $3.99 books is a positive step. DC has created an opportunity to cultivate “breakthrough” characters in a way that takes advantage of the increasing cover price. Not only do readers receive more content for that extra dollar, but it allows creators two luxuries: to allow creators work on a less "demanding" project (leading to some writers/artists taking on characters that they would not have time to do in monthly 22 page format) and allow DC to build up potential breakthrough characters that will have enough interest to support something more than a crashing-and-burning ongoing or a mini-series with terrible sales.

Now let's see what Wednesday Comics does to bring back the anthology format...

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