Organic Growth

By | Thursday, June 02, 2011 1 comment
Showcase #4 introduced a new Flash in 1956. Adventure Comics #247 introduced the Legion of the Super-Heroes in 1958. Wonder Woman #98 re-introduced the title character in 1958. Showcase #22 introduced a new Green Lantern in 1959. Adventure Comics #260 re-introduced Aquaman in 1959. Action Comics #252 introduced Supergirl in 1959. Brave and the Bold #28 introduced the Justice League in 1960. Brave and the Bold #34 introduced a new Hawkman in 1961. Detective Comics #327 introduced the "new look" Batman in 1964.

Where I'm going, if you can't guess, is that the DC Universe that was launched at the start of the Silver Age actually took the better part of a decade to be unveiled. It's easy to say the Silver Age started with the introduction of the Flash in 1956 but, while that's true enough, the DC Universe wasn't just dropped in whole-cloth.

Even though Julius Schwartz, et. al. knew they had to revamp their comics to attract more readers, they were still doing well at the time compared to other comic publishers. They understood they had a lot to lose and, as such, rolled out changes over a period of time, using a strategy that allowed them to gauge what was and wasn't working. Even Marvel, who really had almost nothing to lose by the late 1950s, rolled their new books out over the course of several years, picking the best elements of what was working for them and discarding what wasn't.

Creative people, whether writers or artists or puppeteers or musicians or anything else, aren't mind readers. They can try to tap into whatever the cultural zeitgeist of the moment is when working on their creations, but that is by no means a guarantee of success. There were flag-draped patriotic superheroes before Captain America, for example, but it was the specific interpretation that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created that really resonated with people enough to develop into a character that remains commercially viable a half-century later.

I could rant in much the same vein as Brian Hibbs did about this week's DC announcements. In fact, my thought process when I first read the announcement was almost precisely Hibbs' points 1, 15, 9, 15, 7, 6 and 15. This whole thing strikes me as a marketing disaster of New Coke level proportions waiting to unfold. But Hibbs, Spurgeon and others have all covered that topic pretty well.

I could also make some commentary about the same-day-digital end of things but, frankly, it just seems relatively inevitable to me. The comic market has been heading in that direction for a few years now anyway, and it was only a matter of time before Marvel and/or DC went all-in. I think the most interesting thing here is that they've tried rolling the announcement up into a full line relaunch to deflect some (also inevitable) criticisms of it.

There's nothing inherently wrong with DC re-envisioning their intellectual properties. Justice League Unlimited was essentially that. But that had been a work-in-progress that began with Batman: The Animated Series over a decade earlier. They took elements that worked and applied them to a Superman cartoon. Which they then applied to Justice League. And then, finally, Justice League Unlimited. That show didn't occur in a vacuum.

The notion of organic growth is bandied about a lot, both in and out of comics. The general idea is that you take where you are, right here and right now, and take a step that's a logical outgrowth of that.

"We have this new superhero called Superman that's popular. Let's do another hero, but just a little different, and call him Batman."

"Say, what if we give this Batman character a sidekick?"

I think there's a two-fold problem happening here. In the first place, people are impatient and want to duplicate results without going through the process of getting to them. I was speaking with someone just the other day about her kids (now in their early 20s) wanting the same level of lifestyle comfort that she herself has now, ignoring the fact that she's worked 30-some years longer to achieve that. Same thing in comics at a creative level. They want to re-create overnight a DC Universe that took years to develop. This has been tried before in comics, you know. Valiant and Atlas spring to mind.

In the second place, entertainment media houses have been abuzz the past few years with "world building" and "transmedia." The idea that an IP is in fact much larger than the presented materials can show, and you're able to utilize multiple media to engage the audience in different ways. What this means is that companies are looking for ways to exploit different avenues simultaneously and, therefore, need multiple storylines fleshed out very quickly.

"How does the comic tie in with the video game with the website with the TV show with the marketing campaign?"

There's nothing wrong with that idea in and of itself, but I think those in charge (i.e. the non-creative types who often control the purse strings) are demanding aspects that aren't necessarily appropriate for the venues. "Is a series of 'viral' videos on YouTube really the best avenue for selling more comics?" But I wonder if creators are forced to generate more of these types of ideas before they've had the chance to think through how that would really make sense. How do newspapers work in the new DC Universe? What are commercial implications of Wayne Industries? What are the politics of Paradise Island and how do they impact the overall geopolitical stage? These are all questions that CAN be addressed, but by asking them before the creators have had time to really think through all the possibilities and implications of them, the solutions are going to sound trite or, worse, forced.

What you're doing, when you're forcing this kind of world building on a project all at once, is you're creating continuity. You are creating a history for all of the characters and the places and the world. And you're binding yourself to that continuity right out of the gate. Which creators will inherently find limiting when they think of a BETTER idea two or three months later. An idea that stemmed from where the story direction or character development went. An idea that was organic, and not manufactured to fit some set mold that somebody thought the public would respond to.

This is exactly why all of DC's comic reboots since the start of the Silver Age have not worked. They've all been deliberately manufactured to fit a set of ideas, and aren't organically grown from some smaller element that was found to be working.

So, yeah. I don't have an axe to grind against DC, but I think that this new effort is not going to go over well from either a creative or marketing perspective.

(Nertz. I really wasn't intending to talk about this whole announcement business.)
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Matt K said...

Preach it, brother!!

Really, if you're going to write regularly about comics and particularly if America's comics industry is going to be a frequent area of discussion, then I'd almost say if you aren't blasting away with both barrels at least every now and then... you probably aren't paying attention. And I know you're paying attention. :-)