My buddy James beat me to this a bit, but I still wanted to sound off a bit on the big news that DC Comics (or, as I like to say, Detective Comics Comics) will be starting a series of ongoing original graphic novels this summer under the brand EARTH ONE. Essentially, these books will be skipping the middle man by telling a continuing story, but without serializing the story first in standard comic book format (or "pamphlets" or "floppies" or whatever trendy euphemism for comic books we're using this month).
This is, indeed, a big deal. But is it as big a deal as it should be?
DC's basic strategy here is to take their two biggest characters, put high-profile creative teams on them, and launch new series with "fresh" continuity unencumbered by the characters' 70+ respective years of history. This is a laudable idea, but one that feels less then fresh, considering that DC just did the same exact thing four years ago with the ill-fated ALL-STAR line. Those books are really an interesting case study: they both sold a ton, one was a tremendous critical success (I'd say it's the greatest Superman story ever told), and the other probably the most controversial comic of the decade (I'd say it's the worst Batman story ever told). Yet, you can't really call ALL-STAR a success, because it didn't spawn a series of other books. Unlike Marvel's similar Ultimate line, it didn't create a fresh new universe. It just, inexplicably, went away.
And this failure, I think, is what's driving DC's decisions here more then anything. Because the books didn't fail in the traditional sense (again, they sold), but in a more intangible way: they took so long to complete, and shipped so haphazardly (AS BATMAN, I believe, went a calendar year between issues at one point, and remains unfinished as of this writing) that they lost a ton of momentum and pretty much killed ALL-STAR as a viable brand. Keep in mind, also, that there were several other AS projects that were announced (I want to say Adam Hughes doing All-Star Wonder Woman...) that never saw the light of day and are presumably still unfinished.
So, I suspect that the EARTH-ONE line is in essence a non-continuation continuation of the ALL-STAR line. But then... why not just continue the ALL-STAR line? Why not just announce that these are ALL-STAR volume two (or season two, as we so sillily say these days)? I feel pretty comfortable in predicting that both AS SUPERMAN and BATMAN, despite their initial problems getting to the stands, and ignoring the fact that AS BATMAN is Godawful, will now remain comfortably entrenched on the list of "perennials", the books that remain among the best sellers year in and year out. You've already established a brand, and most importantly at the book store, where DC's focus with this material should be.
The biggest drawback, I suppose, is that they are essentially unfollowable. ALL-STAR SUPERMAN (though I believe originally designed to be ongoing, with a new creative team after Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely finished their run) tells a complete story that doesn't leave much room for more. And Frank Miller's Batman in AS BATMAN is so ill-conceived, so poorly written, that I can't imagine anyone wanting to follow him. At this point, I think DC editorial is content to let him finish the book whenever he and Jim Lee finish the book, count their money and call it a day.
So I think the existence of a pretty similar previous attempt to do the very same thing mutes my excitement for this. And then there's the fact that the creative teams for the latter books aren't quite as exciting as the former. Okay, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank is pretty darn good, but is it better then Frank Miller (writer of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and BATMAN: YEAR ONE) uniting with Jim Lee (artist of BATMAN: HUSH) to do Batman? No. Oh, I have no doubt that the final product from the Johns/ Frank team will be better (how could it not be?), but the Miller/ Lee combo was a wet dream for most of the fanbase. As for comparing J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis to Morrison and Quitely... I mean, who the hell is Shane Davis (yes, I know who Shane Davis is. He used to draw TEEN TITANS. My point is... who the hell is Shane Davis)?!
And then there's the brand name... EARTH ONE. I know (or suspect I know) why they went with this: it has a deep meaning in the history of DC Comics, and represents a fresh start. The thing is... the deep meaning trumps the fresh start. DC, very recently, reintroduced the multiverse into their omniverse; it's too hard to explain here, but basically the name "Earth One" is very much in play within the core continuity they are trying so hard to distance themselves from with this "fresh start". DC writers, editors, artists, janitors, et all will be asked time and time again if this new EARTH ONE is meant to represent "Earth One" in the multiverse. And if it is, then it's not a fresh start. And if it isn't, why even raise the possibility?
Ultimately, I just don't think this new project addresses the question many of us have been asking in recent years: Why not just publish trade paperback collections and skip the comics alltogether? This doesn't mean why not publish new hardcover graphic novels starring Superman and Batman with a new continuity, but rather, why publish Scalped as a monthly comic? Or Air? Or Ex Machina?
See, those series are already free and clear of the continuity stigma, and I'll let you in on a secret: all of them (as well as pretty much every Vertigo and Wildstorm property) do much better as trade paperbacks relative to their comics sales. These days, Vertigo and Wildstorm books are lucky to debut above 15k, and most quickly fall below the 10k threshold. But they do well as books, both in the direct market and at mass retail. In fact, there's rumors that some book collections outsell their first-run comics. In other words, the comics cling to the bottom of the sales charts, but the books are among highest selling titles upon release. So why continue publishing the comics? Why not just make Vertigo a serialized book publisher, following the strategy that has made Manga the dominant comics publishing genre in the US?
Until someone (not necessarily one of the Big Two) is willing to make this very logical leap, comics will still be stuck with a dinosaur publishing model. It's amazing to me that one company, First Comics, actually announced a plan to suspend their monthly titles in favor of continuing them as OGNs nearly 20 years ago, and no one has followed suit since (First, by the way, went completely belly-up before their plan could be put into place).
I've no doubt that these new books will be successful. I'll probably read them (at least the Batman one); and I'm curious to see where the line will go from here. Probably, we'll see the material intended for the ALL-STAR line repackaged here. But I don't think this announcement quite represent the revolution that we are waiting for. A nudge in the right direction, yes, but one still delaying the inevitable.