Shazam, A Publishing Misstep?

By | Monday, March 05, 2012 2 comments
DC announced today, via The New York Post, that the new revamp of Captain Marvel will A) officially change the character's name to Shazam, B) "be far more rooted in fantasy and magic than it ever was before", and C) apparently be a darker character. Though this last point hasn't be explicated stated anywhere I can see, the promotional image and the tone of Geoff Johns' and Brian Cunningham's comments suggest it.

I haven't read any comments/reaction to the news, but I can almost hear the cry of fandom now. "NOOOOOO!!!! You're going to ruin him!"

I don't want to get into a character discussion, though.

But character issues aside, this really makes me wonder if the folks at DC really know what they're doing. My initial thoughts ran along the lines of, "Well, of course they're pushing the character deeper into the DC mythos; that's all their audience buys through Diamond. A book too far flung outside Marvel or DC continuity doesn't stand much of a chance."

I was going to throw Jeff Smith's Shazam: Monster Society of Evil out as proof. The story was not in continuity and took its cues from the original 1940s stories more than contemporary ones. Even with Smith's name on it, I didn't figure it sold very well. But a quick check on The Comics Chronicles says otherwise. In fact, the final issue sold almost 29,000 copies. Not exactly setting sales records, sure, but it still outsold several debut issues from both Marvel and DC. The only two non-Marvel/non-DC books that did better than it were Buffy and Star Wars.

Ah, but the trade paperback of the book sold pretty poorly. Less than 3,000 copies for all of 2009, the year it was published.

In theory, MSoE should be a great perennial seller. It's a self-contained story. It's fun. It's very kid-friendly. It's by the same guy who put his self-published, independent, nine-volume magnum opus Bone in every half-decent bookstore and library across America. The very same series, I might add, that continues to show up in librarians' Top 10 Most Checked Out Books For Kids almost a decade after it ended! So why DC hasn't pushed MSoE more, I don't know. I mean, in an era when trade paperback collections are solicited before the final pamphlet issues hit the stands, it took DC almost two years to get a TPB version of MSoE out.

I'm a bit torn on the issue. On one hand, DC is essentially giving fans what they want. What they're willing to pay for. There was a great deal interest, as I recall, when they turned Mary Marvel evil. You can't really blame DC if they focus on the iterations of the characters that sell. On the other hand, I don't think anyone at DC can really see any difference between Superman and Captain Marvel. To be fair, there is a bit of nuance there and it's not helped by the fact that Captain Marvel was a very direct response to Superman's initial success. I feel like that both DC and fans are responsible for this new Shazam.


People are almost certainly claiming (again, I haven't actually read any comments but I know this is what they're saying) that DC doesn't know the character. But if you look closely at Johns' and Cunningham's comments, I don't think they know ANY of their characters. We're talking about a company who has a lead character that is most readily defined as "space cop with a magic ring." We're talking about a company whose cache of villains includes talking gorillas and magic imps. We're talking about a company who has among their top tier characters a woman who was sculpted out of clay and given life by a goddess. We're talking about a company who's primary character who is indestructible and can fly anywhere in the world with no means of propulsion. And you're going to tell me that Captain Marvel is based more on magic than anyone else?

Really, I have no skin in this game. I'm not really a Captain Marvel fan; I'm not even much of a DC fan. They can do whatever they want with the character. Whether they call him Shazam or Captain Marvel or whatever, I'm not going to buy it. I only bought MSoE because of Smith; I'd have been just as happy if he worked on Brother Power the Geek. But I can't help but see either an inability or unwillingness for DC to look beyond the direct market here. They have a family of characters specifically made to appeal to a broad younger audience, and an easy avenue to get them interested in superhero comics before "graduating" to more adult titles like Batman or Justice League but instead, they seem to be at a complete loss. All of this effort that they're putting into "New 52" and they're still mostly just selling to the same audience they had before.

Many years ago, I read an interview with a comic book writer (Kurt Busiek maybe?) who said that reading was a key element for writers. But more importantly, reading a wide variety of things. If you wanted to be a comic book writer and read nothing but comic books, you would just wind up regurgitating what was already in the comics. I think the same is true for publishing. If you do nothing but look at how comic books are published, you're not going to bring any new ideas to the table. You need to look outside your immediate industry, even outside your not-so-immediate industry, in order to break a perpetual downward spiral of sales numbers.

DC is making Shazam into a character they think people want. Whether or not the people they're looking at want this new Shazam misses the point, though. DC is just looking at their existing audience and not their potential audience. And given these types of decisions, I'm beginning to doubt they even know what a potential audience is.
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You're absolutely right. DC already has a Superman, so why not use the existing Superman #2 (SHAZAM) to appeal more to a younger crowd. They may even possibly help cultivate a younger group of fans to fill in the gaps of the aging current readership. Heaven forbid that should ever happen.

Instead, they turn Shazam into a candidate for the new Justice League Dark instead; throwing him into a stable with other characters they don't think will sell. DC needs to take a good hard look at their publishing agenda and reassess what their goals are.

The major example of losing focus lies with Vertigo. Their Vertigo line is slipping precipitously in sales. A once great avenue for major talent is falling by the wayside because their publishers are too busy working on their New 52. I guess Image might be a good home for all that lost talent.

Matt K said...

Some of your comments point to the one, most baffling thing (out of many) which I took from this announcement.

The Geoff Johns comment that "For centuries, science has ruled the world, but now magic is returning" makes absolutely no sense.

I haven't noticed magin returning. And if his intention is "no, not in the real world, but in the DC universe," I would have to ask "when was magic not a significant force in the DC universe? When was it ever really absent to an extent that would permit a 'return?'"

A really minor point by itself, yeah, but this kind of meaningless, unthinking bloviating seems entirely representative of an unthinking, arbitrary approach to so much DC (and Marvel, fwiw) storytelling, as a whole.