The 77-year-old DC Comics is doing something uncharacteristically radical, even daring, particularly given its decades-long reputation as the more stable, more responsible and more stodgy of America’s two big comics publishing houses. DC is hitting the reset button on its fictional shared universe and its entire superhero line of comic books.
On August 31 the company published Justice League No. 1, the first issue of a new series by DC’s most popular writer (and chief creative officer) Geoff Johns and its most popular artist (and co-publisher) Jim Lee.
On September 7, it will begin releasing 51 additional No. 1 issues, rebooting even Action Comics—which launched in 1938, introduced Superman and just published issue No. 904—and Detective Comics, which launched in 1937, introduced Batman, gave the publisher the initials it took its name from and just reached issue No. 881.
DC isn’t just rolling back the speedometers, though. It’s also drastically rewriting the fictional history of its universe, so that large chunks of past adventures no longer “really” occurred. DC is even giving every single one of its superheroes brand-new costumes. Some of those outfit changes are really just hard-to-notice tweaks, like those for Green Lantern and Aquaman, but others are fairly drastic. Superman, for example, will still be wearing blue and red, but he’s ditched his red shorts, picked up a new S-shield and now battles evil in a suit of metallic armor instead of spandex.
And if all that wasn’t enough, the publisher is also going day-and-date with digital releases of all its books. Now on new-comics day, customers can still pick up paper copies at their local shops or they can digitally download them, the latter potentially cutting out the middleman of comics retailers. (Previously, publishers like DC had a waiting period between the release of paper comics and the digital versions, out of deference to comic shops.)
These changes, all coming at once, have had the comics industry somewhere between buzzing and reeling ever since they were announced in June, and it’s no wonder, given the industry’s fragile state and the fact that DC comprises between 30 and 40 percent of comics sales every month.
Basically, the publisher is taking the biggest gamble of its long existence. Either it will make the DC universe more new-reader friendly, resulting in a huge influx of new consumers, or it will drive away the existing audience without replacing it, resulting in a big, ugly Viking funeral—potentially burning down the American comic-book industry as we know it.
If the folks at DC Comics are nervous about these stakes, they’re not showing it, and have been riding one of the biggest sustained waves of mainstream press attention a comics publisher has received in recent memory. Retailers and readers are a lot more nervous. The former fret over being cut out of the sales equation by the new digital plans and worry that loyal customers might be driven away by some of the more controversial changes. As for readers, while DC is providing an ideal jumping-on point for newbies (Every issue is a first issue! All the stories start over simultaneously!), it’s also providing an easy jumping-off point for long-timers (All the old series have been ended—simultaneously!).
There’s reason for cynicism. With very few exceptions, the folks behind the “new” DC Comics are the exact same folks who have been behind the “old” DC Comics for the last half decade or so. In other words, if DC couldn’t sell Superman or Aquaman comics in August 2011, what reason is there to believe that it can sell them in September 2011, other than the No. 1 on the cover and the new costumes?
Actually, that will probably be enough for September 2011, but what about September 2012? The shock of the new will almost certainly goose the company’s sales astronomically, but there’s no guarantee it will sustain those sales. People have to try out the new comics and decide they like them enough to read them every month.
Forget the high-stakes, epic battles between superheroes and villains that DC has planned for its universe. The most suspenseful and exciting story is whether or not this relaunch will succeed in our universe.