I think it’s fair to say that comic book fans are some of the best conspiracy theorists around. And why wouldn’t we be? We’ve spent decades piecing together mysteries, looking behind cowls, and helping our heroes uncover plots against society perpetrated by their most fiendish foes. And, no offense to admirers of the House of Ideas, but I think DC Comics fans must have these qualities embedded in their geek DNA far more securely by now. It’s the only explanation I can come up with to explain just how out of bounds some recent discussion online about the company has become.
In a recent chat I had with Jessica Boyd, the brilliant woman behind Moms Read Comics and The Hangout, I realized that the recent uptick in conspiracy theory online uncovers something that many commenters just don’t want to accept: comic books are a business.
There’s been an outlandish sense of entitlement exhibited by fans in the past week, calling for editors to be fired, wanting to know what’s really happening in creative discussions behind closed doors — that is nobody’s business. Period. It would be like someone from the public posting online that a member of my staff should be fired because, to their limited knowledge, they suck at their job. But unless said employee is an elected government official or someone otherwise professionally engaged by the will of the people, that’s MY prerogative as an employer, no one else’s. Only I am privy to the decisions that led to whatever motivated the outrage, if justified. The consumer is free to take their services or buy their product elsewhere. They are not free to call for the heads of my staff.
Criticizing published work is absolutely fair, and even desirable, as it gives a corporation selling their product viable feedback (although nothing screams louder than actual sales). Lamenting the dashed possibility of something no one has read that now is going to be someone else writing a story we also don’t know anything about is, frankly, silly.
But, truly, in an ideal world, could the message going out to fans about creator changes or character appearances be better handled? Sure. Does it need to be? I’m not sure about that. Is it physically reasonable to expect it to be? Well, there are admittedly a few things that make that difficult.
One, freelancers can quit on a dime and announce it from their smartphone on the elevator ride down. Locking in a replacement team is not as quick. That DC Comics was even able to announce new creative teams for Green Lantern Corps, Red Lanterns and Action Comics later that fateful day spoke to a huge commitment on their part to rectify the situation quickly. And they needed to. Tick tock, the books have to come out.
Two, freelancers can say whatever they want online with minimal legal repercussions (although to all recent resigning freelancers’ credits, they said nearly nothing and remained exceptionally professional). Employees of a corporation cannot just say anything without it being approved by a) editorial or marketing for actual fact, b) legal or human relations for CYA in instances of employment dispute, and C) public relations for actual release. You can see a little bit of the difference in process here: finger on the tweet button versus three levels of workplace cooperation.
And actually, saying nothing when your freelancer is maintaining exceptionally admirable professional behavior is probably BETTER than adding something to the conversation prematurely that could offend or gloss over the heat of whatever just happened. Provoking an otherwise calmed individual into saying something more than they had settled on can easily whirlwind into a situation that is completely beyond a corporation’s control. It’s about not ‘poking the bear’ and letting the dust settle so skeletons you can’t even imagine don’t get let out. But I suspect the latter sounds awfully good to a lot of online commenters. It shows when more salivating outrage is exhibited at the changing circumstance itself than disappointment for the departing creator’s lost work.
At the end of the day, we have no idea what happens behind closed doors, nor should we, because we don’t own these characters, we merely rent them from a business — not a public co-op, not a charity — a business. And business is run on dollars, believe it or not.
We’ve seen a recent slew of cancellations, some not surprising, some very disheartening. Superman Family Adventures and I, Vampire were both huge critical successes (and personal favorites), but the reality is this: they didn’t sell. The former was down to nearly 7,000 copies by its eighth issue in a market where cancellation usually results around 15,000. Expecting a company to keep floating product there clearly isn’t demand for in the market is not fair. We are the reason these books are going away — the consumer. And in a free market society, we can’t expect (nor should we want) our brands telling us what we want.
There’s a reason Stephanie Brown, Booster Gold, and the Secret Six don’t have books right now, sadly, while Vibe and Katana do. DC already knows what those first three books sell (as all had series not two years ago) and the numbers frankly suck. None of those books were any more profitable than the books they’re looking to cancel or dramatically shift now. What they don’t know is, what will be the next Animal Man? Or Swamp Thing? What will be the next hit?
And it’s not just DC that’s trying this. Hawkeye was a significant risk for Marvel Comics. It inhabits that same beautiful mid-range spot on the charts Animal Man does because Marvel took a risk on a book whose format does not seem intuitively successful. Thus, books like Larfleeze, The Green Team and The Movement are being given a shot, all while the same fans calling for books to be more fun or different are ripping them apart in the forums pre-release. That is a significant oxymoron.
90% of critical fans, in my experience, don’t want what they verbally ask for. They want to relive exactly the same story they already loved as if they were reading it for the first time. And that is both physically impossible and still wouldn’t make the most vocal online complaints die down. Because why are you just recycling old stories, DC?
The bottom line is, DC Comics is trying new things because that’s what got them out of the hole they were in two years ago. And they’re also learning from Marvel, but just not in the way you’d think. They’ve seen what happens when a publisher plays it safe and just shuffles around the same — admittedly high quality — writers on books that don’t provoke controversy. Their (Marvel’s) market share didn’t change one percentage point from before and after a relaunch. And DC can’t afford to rest on their laurels. They are in a much more precarious situation from the very start. So, they bring in a HUGE influx of indie writers no one gives them sufficient credit for, after a year of taking criticism for only hiring old cronies, and they keep trying new things — trying to move that needle more than they already successfully did. It’s business, plain and simple. And it can’t be any other way if we want to keep reading these characters we love.
I don’t write this column to be mean, or petty, or superior, but to implore — if you want the comics you love to survive, buy them and get your friends to do the same. If you want better material out in the market, supporting the positive work financially and criticizing the negative work (not the men and women behind the curtain) productively is the way to make that happen. Lots of fans do this every day, and I seriously applaud them. It’s neither easy nor (sometimes) fun, but it is the way to get more of what you enjoy and recognize the reality of the process that creates those experiences we’ve all grown to adore.
And in the end, aren’t you tired of being angry about comics?