Last month, DC Comics tried something reasonably innovative. They dedicated an entire month to their revamped villain’s lineup. This was actually a pretty shrewd move, a word that hasn’t been applied to DC in some time. But Villain’s Month also told us a lot about the comics industry as well, I think.
Let me start from the beginning. It’s going to take a while.
Comics are a very peculiar business. It was created and executed for decades by artists and writers who didn’t consider their work as anything special because they tended to be fine art trained and/or college educated. (Comics consistently require college level reading skills.) They worked for companies that owned everything they did, and they got paid a flat rate per page, and that’s just how things were.
No one really knew who made what, or who drew what. It didn’t matter. It was just stuff for kids. Each month a story had to get done. Nobody really worried about what had already been written about the character before, and because of the serial nature of comics, you ended up with un-ending stories about the same hero that ran for decades.
Eventually, editors became more important in steering the overall narratives of their books, but it was impossible to reconcile everything. In Golden Age comics superheroes sprouted powers as that issue’s story dictated, and then those powers were promptly abandoned. Random characters sprung up like mushrooms, and generally mayhem ruled.
And then things changed.
Comics started to get taken seriously. Those first few generations had created a new breed that had been raised on reading comics books and didn’t feel like they were slumming when they worked on them. Critics started to notice “graphic novels” a marriage of prose and fine art that elevated the genre. But the only way to fix things was to reboot universes, to create events that made everything that preceded that moment irrelevant.
And that’s what they did. To get the stories in order, continuities were established, and there was a greater effort to keep track of what had happened, and who it had happened to.
But as the movies, toys, and clothing lines started to feature comics, creators started to realize that they weren’t getting paid fairly. This started a scrum where the major publishers insisted on denying Golden and Silver age creators a dime of any money they could have owed, in some cases even refusing to return their submitted artwork. The new generation of artists and writers countered by leaving their jobs en masse and creating their own company.
The business model changed.
Now there was an impetus for creators to make new characters because they could own them. And new characters there were in abundance. And overwhelmingly they were terrible. The common approach to creating a popular character was to make them ‘cool.’ ‘Cool’ translated to garish, overdesigned superheroes that were preposterously powerful and beat established heroes with minimal effort. If you had a penny for every time some new character beat a Thor or Superman clone in the 90’s, you’d a millionaire.
And then the model changed again.
Movie studios began to realize that comic movies made very good money on a consistent basis. They began to purchase the rights to individual characters for lengths of time to make films on them. But that didn’t make fiscal sense. It was more logical to buy the entire comic company, giving them access to the rights of thousands of characters simultaneously. So Warner Brothers brought DC Comics, and Disney brought Marvel, the two largest companies available.
Now comics companies were no longer self-contained. They had bosses, bosses that didn’t know comics, didn’t care about comics, and probably didn’t view the production of print comics as their main focus. And no one seems to have been hit harder by that than DC.
Dan Didio is often the public face of DC, although now he shares power with artist Jim Lee. By themselves, they are controversial figures, but there is a distinct impression that there are several levels of interference from Warner Brothers… and it’s hurting the product.
DC has rebooted their universe again, almost exactly two years ago. Whereas previous reboots were done to clean up confusing storylines this one was a great more cynical. This was done to insulate themselves against some of their older and larger lawsuits. Characters were changed just enough to not pay their creators, but enough for fans to still recognized them, which is why Superman has a ridiculous red piping in his outfit now. Because the reboot was done for the wrong reasons, a lot of characters got rebooted and the new version either sucked or was completely pointless.
Meanwhile DC suffered an embarrassing mass exodus of talent tired of mistreatment, last minute executive decisions and creative handcuffing. So Villains Month was more than a gimmick. It was a chance to rework a lot of series that had lost direction or staff, while seeing how the market reacted to their new takes on characters, while getting a chance to evaluate new or underused talent.
In some cases, new characters would be introduced, and new event comics set up. So how did it go?