DC in 2006: Success or Failure?

Marc-Oliver Frisch’s always enlightening sales analysis for November is up at The Beat, and includes a sobering take on how 2006 played out for the Distinguished Competition:

Although quite a number of DC titles have been unable to hold on to their audiences and taking nose-dives down the chart lately, the publisher’s November output profited from several additional upper-level sellers: Batman, Green Lantern and Teen Titans shipped twice, in order to get back on schedule; 52 had five issues out due to the additional Wednesday; and Superman/Batman, Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Superman were back after skipping October.

While this results in a slight increase in the average DC and DC Universe title’s sales in November, it can’t gloss over the fact that 52 and Justice League of America appear to be the only major successes in the publisher’s stable right now. Other recent relaunches, such as Wonder Woman and Flash: The Fastest Man Alive, are dropping down the chart at an alarming rate. New high-profile creative teams on Action Comics and Superman are commercial disappointments so far. The more successful creative changes on Detective Comics and Batman are interrupted through potentially damaging fill-ins. Writer Jeph Loeb’s departure in May has left former sales juggernauts Superman/Batman and Supergirl in a dramatic decline. The vast majority of books involved in March’s “One Year Later” stunt are sinking like stones. And the All-Star line of titles seems to have disappeared in publishing limbo.

It’s not surprising that DC Comics dignitaries are now openly doubting the merits of self-contained titles and are eager to reassure us that the “Infinite Crisis” and “One Year Later” events were just the first steps in a much, much larger plan. Oblivious to the notion of diminished returns, it seems the direct market is back to its old tricks, after all, chasing one short-lived sales spike after the next with increasing levels of desperation. (March’s Action Comics #848 will ship in two variants, a regular one and a more expensive “3-D” one, complete with a 3-D cover and 3-D glasses.)

The scariest part of this is the bit about “the ‘Infinite Crisis’ and ‘One Year Later’ events were just the first steps in a much, much larger plan.” Considering the aftermath of these two events saw very few successes — in sales and/or critical response — and even more disappointingly on a corporate level, didn’t lead to DC’s overtaking Marvel in market share, it would seem their plans meet the classic definition of insanity: repeating the same activity and expecting different results.

While 52 surprised me with both its ability to remain on schedule and its impressively steady sales, up to and past the halfway point, it’s an aberration, not the norm; an ambitious risk that paid off handsomely. I’m sure DC and Marvel will attempt to duplicate its success with similarly ambitious projects this year, but even if they do manage to catch lightning in a bottle a second time, what will be the overall cost?

With few exceptions, neither publisher has shown an ability to launch a successful ongoing series featuring anything other than their core icons — never mind keep a consistent creative team going for more than a year — and while DC has a longer leash for underperforming titles, even their patience isn’t unlimited.

Of course, it’s not just the publishers who are to blame. Retailers who cater to the collector’s market, buying into the variant cover schemes that have helped bloat sales figures for otherwise unremarkable, and unsustainable, titles are hurting themselves in the long run, banking on short-term results and encouraging publishers to do the same. At the same time, most smaller publishers have not gained retailers’ confidence as viable substitutes to the Big Two, with unpredictable shipping schedules and an even shorter leash for underperforming titles.

It’s a Catch-22 with no easy solution, for sure, but there’s no question that the status quo — an effective repeat of the situation that nearly killed the industry in the 90s — isn’t the answer.

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