The New 52: The Numbers, The Verdict, The Women
Now that the initial wave of the DC reboot has come and gone, let’s take a look at how this publishing debacle breaks down for this particular consumer. I’m curious to see what kind of objective and subjective metrics we can pull out based on the known data. If you count Justice League #1, The New 52 shipped over 5 weeks, with a total of 1, 13, 13, 12, and 13 books available for purchase each respective week. Here’s the raw weekly breakdown of the books I happened to purchase based on my byzantine interests:
Justice League International #1
Demon Knights #1
Legion Lost #1
Legion of Super-Heroes #1
Red Hood & The Outlaws #1
Wonder Woman #1
Justice League Dark #1
Total Purchased: 13
As it turns out in this objective portion of the summary, I bought exactly one quarter of the total new books published, which is more than I thought I would. I think that one fourth (arguably) makes a pretty decent random sample size to judge what might be going on in the whole. Now, let’s take a look at things a little more subjectively. I’ll now rank those books in order of perceived quality, with their associated letter grades granted during my initial review.
Batwoman #1 (A)
Wonder Woman #1 (B+)
Demon Knights #1 (B+)
Justice League Dark #1 (B)
Legion of Super-Heroes #1 (B)
Justice League International #1 (B)
Batgirl #1 (B)
Stormwatch #1 (B)
Legion Lost #1 (B-)
Nightwing #1 (C+)
Grifter #1 (C)
Voodoo #1 (C)
Red Hood & The Outlaws #1 (C)
Numerically, if you look at the grades on the whole, the average score is a 2.8, which equates to a Grade C+ average. This means that if you want the short explanation without reading any further, DC’s entire New 52 initiative can be summed up for me as a Grade C+. It’s passing, with promise in a couple instances, but not something you’d be really proud of if your kid brought it home from school. If you’re willing to look at a longer explanation, we can drill down the metrics and look at the statistical mode, to find that the most recurring grade sans +/- is a Grade B.
In terms of scoring, even a Grade B is fairly middling for me these days. If something scores a flat “B” long enough without rising up, or at least demonstrating the potential for more, I’m likely to drop it. After several years of tracking my purchasing habits statistically, I’ve tried to consciously be more discerning with my dollars. I still want to think of myself as an adventurous consumer, but the truth is that when experimentation is done, I’ll only financially support single issue titles that are hitting in the Grade A range the majority of the time. That said, the bulk of these titles were, for me, very mediocre. That lackluster middle ground was comprised of 8 of 13 titles, or 62%. Only 1 single book of the 13 sampled actually scored in the Grade A range, just 7%. 4 of the 13, or 31%, were actually sub-par at Grade C. It’s interesting to note that by the time Week 5 came around, I was already muttering to myself “Bah, I’m not going to like any of these books anyway!” so my willingness to take a chance on an unknown quantity was already diminished based on what I’d experienced the first 4 weeks. For me, this “personal success rate” is pretty dismal. The bottom line is that the vast majority of the books I sampled displayed some basic competency (JLI, LSH being good examples), in that the stories weren’t offensive and made basic sense (has this really become the new bare minimum!?), but just weren’t good enough to warrant further interest on my part.
Marketing is another aspect, and from that point I think this “first round” was fairly successful. I have no metrics, but everyone seemed to be talking and discussing (even if negatively) the New 52. It dominated the news cycle on the interwebs, so I think the promotional push succeeded, in and out of comics to some degree. I mean, when I have civilian coworkers coming up to me and saying “hey, you’re the resident ‘comic book expert,’ did you hear DC is doing blahblahblah?” then I think something is working. The way I see it, marketing can get you an initial sales spike in the short term, but inherent quality is the only thing that will generate sustainable sales for the long term. I think it’s great that many of the more prominent LCS voices in the industry are reporting initial spikes to their revenue, and I can certainly attest to the fact that my LCS was REALLY BUSY on Wednesdays during the debut. But again, I think it might be premature to really qualify that as a success.
To my lay sensibilities, sales spikes don’t do much for profitability long term; a sustainable revenue stream is what tends to have lasting impact, particularly when the basic commodity is a serialized periodical. So, I’m curious… of all the people who bought the new books, who will still be buying these titles 6 or 12 months from now? That would indeed be a longer term success. Many of these books suffered a backlash for various reasons. We heard a lot about 2nd and 3rd printings of Justice League #1, but nobody talked about the massive quantities of OMAC or Captain Atom that just didn’t sell. Where is the metric on how many people boycott Red Hood & The Outlaws because of The Starfire Problem? I’d be surprised to look, say, 18 months from now, and find every book actually on issue 18 as one would anticipate them to be. Which will be shipping late? Which will be cancelled? What percentage of consumers who bought Savage Hawkman #1 will be trudging down to the LCS and still buying Savage Hawkman #18, assuming it makes it that far? I guess all I’m really saying is that to truly judge this bold gamble a success, we need to revisit it in a year, and then at various future milestones, in order to ultimately pass judgment.
For now, I can only attempt to project the sustainability of one single reader, by taking a look at the books I’m likely to purchase a second issue of, or beyond. Batwoman #2? Definitely. I’m invested in this title for the long haul, provided JH Williams III is on the book. This is really about creator loyalty vs. anything having to do with the character or the larger initiative. And, I gotta’ tell you that I think this example transcends the New 52. I’ve never felt like this was a part of the push technically. The book was done ages ago, there’s nothing “reboot” about it, it’s merely the continuation of a story already in progress, and I feel like it exists in a bit of a silo independent from the rest of the DCU. Wonder Woman #2? Yeah. I could see myself even going to issue 3 or 4 of this book, giving it a chance breathe and take shape. Demon Knights #2? Even though it got the same letter grade as Wonder Woman, I can not really see a second issue, unless something really grabs me in the casual flip test. I know myself, and I know how quickly I tire of this period, this parlance, this aesthetic, and these characters. It’s just me, not a reflection on the quality of the book per se, just my personal tastes. Everything else I sampled is just SO BORING and my only real reaction is lethargic ambivalence. There’s a chance I could pick up another issue of Justice League Dark, or even Stormwatch, to see if they hit that subversive streak I wanted. Honestly, I could revisit the train wreck that is Red Hood & The Outlaws just to openly mock it. Everything else? Not bloody likely. So, let’s say that I’m “Highly Likely” to pick up 2 of 13 second issues, or just 15%. I am “Moderately Likely” to pick up another 2 of 13 second issues, or another 15%. And finally, I am “Not Likely” to pick up 9 of 13 second issues, or 70%. Keep in mind this is based on just the 13 books I sampled, if I ran those same stats out of the total 52 available, then the outlook would be even more bleak (2 out of 52 is a meager 4%).
Sad to say, there’s no surprise here really. I basically knew this going into it. I expected to like Batwoman because I liked it the first time. I expected to be interested enough to give Wonder Woman a shot because of Cliff Chiang, and his previous collaboration with Brian Azzarello. I expected NOT to like the rest, but was hoping for some hidden gems that might surprise me and hook me. The New 52 failed in that regard. Who the hell wants an OMAC book if you can’t even nail Batgirl or wow me with the subversive potential of Stormwatch? I think it goes back to something Warren Ellis said, that at 37, I’m probably not the core demographic for this mess anyway, and I suppose that’s ok. I’d be interested to see the results of a focus group with high school students (or younger) to see what they make of all this. But, it’s not like I’d be willing to show them Red Hood & The Outlaws anyway, so it seems like a weird catch-22, where the company acknowledges it needs new readers, but then does quite a bit to push those potential consumers away. I mean, don’t even get me started on continuity. In this first slew of books, there are just numerous contradictions that don’t add up. The basic rule seems to be that there is no rule. Every writer just does whatever they want, some stuff is in, some stuff is out, there’s no guideline for what is and isn’t or when it is or isn’t and where it is or isn’t. Is is as is does, I guess. As Bill Clinton said, “well, now, that all depends on what your definition of the word is is.”
One of my other observations is that looking back I can tell I was being generous with my grading because I really wanted to like the books. Really, I did. I was cynical going into it, but cynical and excited at the same time. It was fun checking out the new books, even if most of them flailed aimlessly, and then failed to hook me. I could have given Red Hood & The Outlaws a Grade D and nobody would have quibbled. At the time, I just thought it was Comically Awful, not misogynistic and just wrong as, say, Laura Hudson did, who just crushes the definitive analysis. I know now, after re-reading them in context with the other titles, that Stormwatch and even Batgirl could have been downgraded to Grade B-. For the most part the other grades still feel about right to me.
Lastly, in light of all the negative attention DC has received for their portrayal of women, I do think it’s interesting to note that my top two picks, Batwoman and Wonder Woman, star strong female leads, and have an eclectic blend of female supporting characters. Most of the time in life, you end up getting more credit than you deserve for the things you do well, and more criticism than you deserve for the things that go south, so I think DC does deserve some sliver of credit for getting these two largely right. In the middle of the much deserved outcry over gender politics and the male projected fantasy versions of Skinny Amanda Waller, Horny Fanfic Catwoman, Slutty Amnesiac Starfire, and Alien Stripper Voodoo… that’s something.