The defanging of THE AUTHORITY. The milking of the SANDMAN franchise. The slow, lingering death of the JLA. DC seems determined to lose readers - and a change would do it good, Nick Locking claims.
17 May 2002

A while ago, I wrote an article about Marvel - the turnaround in quality, the great creators it has working there, and so on. The gist was basically that Marvel doesn't suck anymore, and in fact could be said to 'rule'.

Marvel hasn't changed a lot since then. It's still got all the best mainstream creators. It's still trying a lot of new things, like putting noted indie creator Pete Bagge on a SPIDER-MAN one-shot. It's still holding the majority of the spots on the sales top ten. Obviously, it's an evil corporation attempting to get as much money out of the market as it can. But it's doing well, and when the biggest company putting out sequential art does well, it's good for everyone.

So now I'm going to look at DC, Marvel's biggest competitor, and what it's doing to counteract Marvel's rise to levels of quality that seemed unthinkable five years ago.

There's been a lot of ineffective bumbling at DC since Marvel won the proverbial title, and this is a bad thing for everyone. With no competition, Marvel will just keep growing until it's won everything - and that's something nobody should want except the Quesada and Jemas tag-team. Much as I like Marvel comics, even I need variety, and Marvel needs some form of competition to keep it in shape.

DC now has almost no creators with mass appeal on its books. It's lost Kevin Smith, the biggest feather in its cap, because he's now exclusive to Marvel. DC's only big name with a serious commitment (outside of ABC) is Warren Ellis, who went exclusive at the start of the year. DC does have a 12 issue series by Grant Morrison and Chris Weston on its way - THE FILTH - but with Morrison's commitments to his work at Marvel, I can't see much more like that in the offing.

So Ellis is the biggest name within the DC brand. He hasn't been the most prolific of writers recently, due to health problems, but he's got a bundle of books approaching. One of these, GLOBAL FREQUENCY, even sees the return from inking limbo of the amazingly good MIRACLEMAN artist Garry Leach (albeit for one issue).

'There's been a lot of bumbling at DC since Marvel won the title.' What has DC done to keep the man sweet? After announcing a bunch of books by him, the publisher has pushed them back, citing scheduling problems. Good move, DC.

Then there's THE AUTHORITY. Created three years ago as Ellis' last hurrah in the superhero genre, DC had a potentially massive franchise on its hands. It tried a few spin-off books, but these were largely awful, with the exception of THE ESTABLISHMENT, and even that's doomed to cancellation due to low sales. The blame for which can probably be levelled at THE MONARCHY, DC's previous attempt at a spin-off, which was unimaginably awful and totally misused artist John McCrea.

DC has screwed the AUTHORITY franchise good and proper. It should have been a jewel in the company's crown, with plenty of press, and some top quality creators writing a genuinely fun book. But it seems DC doesn't like gay people. I cite as evidence for this the AUTHORITY spin-off series JENNY SPARKS, which saw DC cut an on-panel kiss between its high profile gay superhero couple Apollo and The Midnighter, because it was afraid of the press attention the characters were receiving. (The original art, snog and all, now hangs on the living-room wall of Ninth Art editor Andrew Wheeler.)

And DC's editorial interference doesn't end there. Back in the regular series, numerous pages had to be redrawn for containing any violence more severe than a poke in the eye, even though previously we'd been able to read stories where characters punched villain's brains out through the backs of their heads.

The series has finally and belatedly limped to a close this week, with the gay couple finally getting their on-panel kiss at their 'wedding', at the insistence of writer Mark Millar. DC claims it's not done with THE AUTHORITY, but having done so much to derail the series, it'll be interesting to see what it can do to restore its credibility. Homophobia and fear of change may have destroyed what could have been a massive franchise. Good move, DC.

'DC has screwed the AUTHORITY franchise good and proper.' DC seemed to have made one good move by buying up Wildstorm, but sadly it's been run into the ground. There are some good books coming out of Wildstorm, but for every title there's a problem. Alan Moore's ABC books are fantastic - light, fun and humorous. But where are the collections? Out of five lines, there are three softcover collections, and one of those is not LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, which seems odd considering a film is in the works. Marvel is making unsteady but notable moves toward collecting story arcs the month after they finish, but to DC this is a totally foreign concept.

In fact, DC seems to be totally against reprinting anything that will sell. Alan Moore's SWAMP THING is just now finally being collected, 15 or so years after it first saw print. Grant Morrison's ANIMAL MAN is only now getting a second collection solicited, even though Morrison has been one of the best selling writers in the industry for a while now.

Not only does DC fail to act on opportunities like this, it also continues to offer myriad drab and boring retreads of old ideas. DC hasn't managed to get out of the company-wide crossover mindset. Since the beginning of time, company-wide crossovers have sucked, yet DC keeps trying.

The first issue of the recent BATMAN: MURDERER/FUGITIVE crossover event was printed in massive quantities and sold for a mere $0.10. DC hit on a good idea here - a loss leader comic featuring a very popular character at a nominal price - but it was just the first chapter of a large and expensive crossover event, which wasn't met with glowing praise. Good move, DC. Marvel, of course, has responded by pinching the idea and soliciting a $0.09 issue of FANTASTIC FOUR, which will be entirely self-contained.

It's been said that, while DC never changes, Marvel goes through a cycle of being awful, then brilliant. Currently, it's brilliant. One day it'll probably go back to being awful. But at the moment its stellar performance is highlighting DC's inability to react to change, its lack of original ideas and vision, and its corporate mindset.

And the corporate mindset is what it all boils down to. Marvel is, by and large, it's own entity. In theory, it answers to its toy manufacturing arm, but in effect, Marvel's masters have taken a hands off approach, leaving the company in the hands of the Sensational Bill n' Joe Show - and the results speak for themselves.

DC, on the other hand, is locked in to a corporate structure. It's owned by AOL/Time Warner, and several of its properties double as massive corporate icons. DC doesn't dare make more than the most cursory of changes to its major characters for fear of diluting the purity of a saleable commodity, because Superman, Batman, and so on, are so established in the minds of the public and so rigidly defined.

'Marvel's performance highlights DC's inability to react to change.' Batman has been a rich fascist who fights crime in a bat-suit for, what, seventy years now? They gave his symbol a yellow background in the Sixties. Superman is a reporter for the Daily Planet who loves Lois Lane, and so it has always has been. They switched the yellow on his symbol to black a while ago. Rock on, change.

DC has some good books. I don't deny that. I love LUCIFER as if it were my own child, and Kevin Smith's GREEN ARROW has been a lot of fun, if embarrassingly nerdy and oddly given to cunnilingus scenes. Series like JSA, THE FLASH, and HAWKMAN have been well received by fans and critics alike.

But where's the change? Whether you like Marvel or not, the fact remains that it's trying new things, attempting changes in direction, and attempting to exploit its resources to the full. LUCIFER is the latest in an immense line of SANDMAN spin-offs that, by an amazing fluke isn't crap, like just about every other SANDMAN spin-off. GREEN ARROW, FLASH, HAWKMAN and JSA are just bog standard superhero books, without the edge or spin that Marvel's been able to find for titles like X-FORCE, PUNISHER or DAREDEVIL.

It seems like every successful move DC makes is a retread of an old one. Even DC's new Vertigo titles, like FABLES and MIDNIGHT, MASS, look like pale imitations of old Vertigo ideas. Vertigo gets a lot of respect for being the largest imprint featuring exclusively 'mature readers' non-superhero material, but a lot of its success can be chalked up to some very conservative moves. Even PREACHER wasn't much of a departure from Ennis and Dillon's HELLBLAZER, and the whole line owes its existence to the decision to give Alan Moore SWAMP THING - a book then suffering terminally poor sales.

Where's JLA now, DC? JLA used to be a work of exquisite and insane genius, pushed into the stratosphere by Morrison. It's been shedding numbers since he left, and it looks like it'll soon be spluttering around the 60,000 mark. Marvel has six regular titles above the 90,000 mark, and even Dreamwave and Image have titles selling higher than any of DC's (TRANSFORMERS and GI JOE respectively). Where's the big name to put on your 'Big Title', DC?

Now, despite all evidence to the contrary, I'm not a Marvel loyalist. I don't belong to the fan club. I don't believe in product loyalty. I'll stay with a product or company for as long as it doesn't suck, and as soon as the quality degrades, that's it, I'm done.

But Marvel currently gets most of my monthly comic dollars because its comics are for the most part fairly original. DC gets almost none, because for the most part its comics are not. And honestly, I don't think they can be if DC insists on just waiting for Marvel to fail, rather than working to improve. Like a dinosaur, DC is unable to face up to change. And we know what happened to the dinosaurs.

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