The problem: an Infinite Crisis ending so draining its principals have to take a year off to recover.
The response: Publish next year’s comics immediately, and by the way, just to be complete, chronicle the “missing” year in a real-time weekly series.
The outcome: No net bump in sales for the One Year Later titles, and 52 is DC’s one consistent success story from the past twelve months.
Now DC’s gearing up for Countdown, its weekly “spine” connecting the rest of the superhero titles for another fifty-two issues. Countdown, we’re told, builds up to the next big thing, which in turn presumably will establish another fine new status quo.
Of course, we’ve heard this pitch before. One Year Later was supposed to be the brand-new status quo left behind by Infinite Crisis. One Year Later even benefitted from all those Superboy time-punches, so the backstories could be reworked to their best advantage.
Nevertheless, 52 has eclipsed OYL at least in part because it provided a one-stop shared universe. It’s there every week, produced by the same people, featuring (for the most part) the same characters, and explaining what it needs to while throwing out Easter eggs for the longtime fans. It offers a window into the larger DC Universe, but its relationship with the OYL titles hasn’t necessarily led new readers to them. No wonder readers have taken to it, and no wonder it’s not doing much more for DC as a whole.
In hindsight, that seems obvious, and I am probably at least a year late in saying so. Still, the OYL pitch did make some sense to me at the time. On March 20, 2006, I wrote this for The Great Curve:
I like the simple efficiency of the OYL concept. It’s a line-wide brand that exploits the promised aftereffects of a crossover without actually depending on the crossover itself. [...] Because OYL draws a bright line between the chaos surrounding Infinite Crisis (including the recovery chronicled in 52), it signals the end of the big events, before (DC hopes) the reader has gotten tired of them. OYL is a gimmick, to be sure, but in the way that “Zero Month” was a gimmick, and towards the same end.
Back then, I was focused on getting away from big, intrusive crossovers. 52 seemed to be a gap-filler aimed at continuity nerds, like a year-long combination of Secret Files and Secret Origins. At the risk of being immodest, I did see some potential last March:
52‘s most intriguing aspect [...] seems to be its desire to stand alone. If OYL is the gimmick to end all gimmicks, 52 may turn out to be the anti-crossover — a single series which touches on all the others without being dependent on them, or they on it. After a couple of years filled with the mega-epic that was Infinite Crisis, it may be an appropriate tonic for the crossover hangover.
Indeed, that, or something similar, appears to have been the result. 52 satisfied readers’ desire for a tale spanning the larger DC Universe, but it didn’t actually point them elsewhere for the whole story. 52 didn’t feel exploitative, because it couldn’t be. In fact, the whole World War III adjunct violated 52‘s one-stop premise. The flip side of OYL’s veneer of normalcy was the cynical assumption that DC’s main line of titles wouldn’t change all that much. In its relative isolation, 52 confirmed that assumption. It was, as I said then, an anti-crossover — comparatively inexpensive, discrete, and guilt-free. Naturally, DC wants to make its “sequel” more business-friendly.
So now we’re just about to Week 53, One Year Later for reals, and I wonder if any readers sucked in by 52 will transfer to Countdown whatever love they have for the DC with which they’ve spent this past year. Ironically, they can’t just go right into Countdown from 52, because OYL may inadvertently have contributed to the learning curve it was designed to avoid. Those hypothetical 52 readers who eschewed OYL would now catch up by … reading the stories that were supposed to be new-reader-friendly last March.
In this respect the ostensible roles of OYL and 52 have reversed, with the OYL stories now the gap-fillers. Lucky for DC it hasn’t produced as many books as it would have liked, so those hypothetical new readers won’t have as much catching up to do between May 2 and May 9.
I will say that the One Year Later books were a much-needed buffer between big events. Since the end of Infinite Crisis, the DC titles I read kept largely to themselves, and after such a long period of various Crisis tie-ins, that was very nice. I’m not sure about Countdown‘s prospects either creatively or financially, and other mini-events like Amazons Attack and “Sinestro Corps” could put me back on the road to crossover burnout, but I enjoyed being able to relax over the past year.
I don’t think Countdown will do as well as 52. It costs more, its more flexible storytelling style will allow readers to drop in and out for particular story arcs, and it does have that opportunistic aura of capitalizing on 52‘s success. Besides, 52 will actually end, or so we’re told; whereas Countdown isn’t shy about being a prelude. For many readers, 52 might well have been The Only DC Book You Need Right Now, but Countdown is The One DC Book You Can’t Live Without.
Naturally, Countdown is only part of the 2007 event picture. Amazons Attack is underway already, with seeds sown earlier in Wonder Woman and Manhunter. AA was originally supposed to be part of Infinite Crisis, and may yet be an unannounced lead-in to another event. It’s not hard to imagine the Omega Men and Mystery In Space miniseries similarly setting up DC’s next big space epic. If these all tie into Countdown, and Countdown feeds into Crisis 2K8 – well, it’s 2005 all over again, right?
Creative concerns aside, the one thing Countdown must do is ship on time. As it goes, so go the books that depend on it, and vice versa. 52 didn’t have that burden — instead, other titles’ delays (Wonder Woman‘s, for example) may have affected it. Therefore, one measure of Countdown‘s success will be the extent to which it imposes that 52-taught discipline on the line’s regular titles. We all know how Civil War‘s delays affected other monthly Marvel titles, and the margin of error is a lot smaller on a weekly schedule. DC probably thinks it has those logistical concerns covered, but it can’t afford to be wrong.
Overall, I’m not thrilled with the idea of waiting another year for another big event to begin. I had thought 52 represented the denouement of DC’s latest crossover cycle, and that One Year Later would set the stage for a less centralized, more diverse line of comics. Arguably, those goals were met, but the books’ lackluster sales have led DC back to the one thing it appears to have done right. The thing is, 52 now looks like a happy accident, and Countdown could be an accident waiting to happen.