Superman remade for contemporary audiences amid massive comics relaunch

I am constantly fascinated by how the publishing industry is changing so this caught my attention. DC Comics, or DC Entertainment as they are now called, are relaunching every comic book title (52 in all) they own, starting August 31, 2011. The relaunch, all the comics restart at no. 1,  features both print and digital versions. Among other titles, DC Entertainment owns Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Justice League.

Heidi MacDonald in her September 2, 2011 article for Salon.com interviews Jim Lee, DC’s co-publisher and an artist on Justice League,

The reason for the relaunch has been stated as keeping current readers and getting back lapsed readers. I know it’s only been two days, but how’s it going?

Someone commented, “Where are the reviews by the new readers?” And my counter is, well, [laughs] I think a new reader isn’t going to read it and then run to the computer and write an online review! They are reading it for entertainment and they don’t know you’re supposed to put them in bags and boards.

To me, there’s a definite silent majority that doesn’t check out websites or tweet about it. It’s a tough group to measure. That said, based on recent numbers, certainly Justice League No. 1 has surpassed the recent highs in comics sales. The second printing is already sold out, we’re doing a third. And Action No. 1 and Batgirl No. 1 have also sold out [from the distributor]. I’ve heard anecdotally from retailers, from texts and tweets, about first-time comics readers. It looks very positive.

It’s also setting records digitally. I can’t give numbers, but on the first day it set a record for us.

Once you compared the volume of DC’s digital comics sales to dental floss. Is it up to dental tape now?

It’s too early to say. The goal isn’t to increase one pipeline vs. the other. [emphasis mine] Everything is designed to increase the overall size of the pie.

How do you see print and digital evolving together either in the short term or long term?

Obviously there are going to be some people who convert from print to digital. They may already have done that or are doing that. When Justice League came out [in digital form], there was already a pirated digital version that had been out for six hours. For me it’s all about giving people who want digital comics a legal alternative. And I think that’s an important decision for the health of our business. At the same time I don’t think you can go digital and say you’re trying to reach new readers without going out to promote this as we have. The TV commercials we’re doing have a pretty extensive buy list of mainstream cable shows. There are a lot of good things happening. We’ve brought a lot of good creators to the books, we’ve promoted the hell out of it and made it as easy to buy the comics as possible, and I think that strategy is paying off.

This relaunch comes at a time when the comic book industry is faltering. From Rob Salkowitz’s August 30, 2011 article for Fast Company,

Why is a media entity as large as DC and an industry as widespread as comics publishing still wrestling with the problems of digital distribution in 2011?

The short answer is that the retail distribution system for comic books is tied up in a fist-sized knot and has been for the last two decades. Starting in the 1980s, most comic publishers discontinued newsstand sales, where unsold issues could be returned for a refund, in favor of a “direct market” system that shipped exclusively to specialized comic book stores on a non-returnable basis.

But it turns out there is a problem distributing your product exclusively through independently owned retail stores run by and for your products’ biggest fans. Despite the efforts of some active and visionary retailers, the odor of overgrown adolescent male hangs heavy over many comic shops, creating a forbidding environment for women, kids, and casual fans who might have an interest in the material but don’t want to put up with old-school comic book culture.

(It seems the characters in The Big Bang Theory [US television programme] are not quite as outrageous as one might think.) At any rate, Salkowitz regards this attempt to include a digital version of an issue as part of a strategy to migrate from print to digital,

So here we are in 2011 and the industry is just beginning to seriously discuss real, commercial models for digital comics. It’s a critical moment. If Hollywood money and the bookstore channel dry up before publishers have successfully migrated their audience (and their revenue stream) to digital, they will be stuck with the same dysfunctional retail system and an acutely shrinking, aging audience.

Will DC’s move signal the beginning of the next era for the comics industry, or the beginning of the end? In classic comic cliffhanger style, we’ll have to wait for the next issue to find out.

This contrasts with Lee’s assertion (in the interview with Heidi MacDonald) that one format is not intended to displace the other.

This relaunch also affects the stories. Susan Karlin interviewed Grant Morrison, author of Superman No. 1, 2011, for her August 29, 2011 article for Fast Company,

On Sept. 7, DC Comics will launch the revamped Action Comics, written by veteran comics auteur Grant Morrison–hot off his lauded new book, Supergods. Morrison has the superhuman task of reinventing one of the comic world’s–and popular culture’s–biggest characters for the 21st century, and, in the process, trying to write a new chapter for the struggling comic book publishing industry.

“I felt the weight of history with this one,” says Morrison in his soft-spoken Glaswegian lilt. “I wanted to do something that was as much a part of these times as when (Action Comics) first came out. Superman has always been the champion of the oppressed. I wanted to move away from the standard superhero tales and in the direction of folk tales in the vein of a Paul Bunyan.”

In the revised version, featuring art by Rags Morales (penciling), Rick Bryant (inking), Brad Anderson (color) and Patrick Brosseau (lettering), Morrison pares down the convoluted narrative that began overshadowing the Superman myth. “It had become a pro-wrestling contest between characters– who was stronger, faster, bigger,” he says. “I wanted to evoke a more universal human Superman, who was less of a costumed figure representing patriotic authority, and more about struggles on the street.”

… Superman’s fighting crime, of course, but the authorities are suspicious of his powers. He’s misunderstood. He’s different

It seems this focus about ‘fear and suspicion’ of the superheroes is to be found in all of the ‘new’ comics. From the MacDonald article,

When you first see these heroes, because of their powers and wearing masks, and not using their real names, the public is anxious and fearful about them.

I wonder if Morrison, Lee and the others involved in this relaunch recognize that these feelings of fear, suspicion, and anxiety might also describe the comic book industry as it grapples with the changes in publishing and distribution.

1 thought on “Superman remade for contemporary audiences amid massive comics relaunch

  1. Pingback: The American Chemical Society’s 242nd national meeting, Hollywood, super heroes, and a nano intumescent flame retardant « FrogHeart

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *