[Disclaimer: Obviously I've been working on this post long before I heard about the demise of the Minx line. Although the following is about publishing variety within the DCU line, just on general principles I'm sorry to see Minx go.]
Dan DiDio, from a few weeks back:
When I first started reading DC comics many years ago…, one of the things I loved best was the different types of comics you could buy. There were … horror, western, war and barbarian comics as well [as superheroes]. And with DC, for me, it was those books that I gravitated to first. Don’t get me wrong–I LOVE (notice all the capitals) super-hero comics–but there was something really cool about the way DC did the other genres. They always felt special, and always made me stop and take notice.
Since I also remember those days (big shocker there), I read that column with great interest. Back in the 1980s, before DC developed many of its present imprints, one of its taglines was “More than superheroes (but we’ve got them too)!” Dumb line, maybe, but it made the point.
Today, of course, DC relies upon imprints for much of its publishing variety. However, DiDio’s column went on to mention specifically three books being published under the main DC bullet: the current Jonah Hex series, the new Warlord series, and the latest Sgt. Rock miniseries.
[By the way, DiDio uses the term “diversity” to refer to non-superhero titles being published in the main line of DC books. I personally would avoid using that term, because it can also refer to a more ethnically and/or culturally varied lineup of characters. In other words, the “diversity” one may achieve via a new Warlord series is different from the diversity one achieves with an Hispanic Blue Beetle. Therefore, I’ll say “variety” instead.]
Why, though, should the “DCU” superhero-centric line include non-superhero genres? What does Jonah Hex gain from being under the same roof, and implicitly part of the same timeline, as Wonder Woman? Are the non-super titles somehow validated by being part of the DCU?
Before we get into that, let’s look at the different genres DC has published across the decades. Helped greatly (again) by the ultra-comprehensive Mike’s Amazing World Of DC Comics, I did a quick and dirty look back fifty years, ten years at a time. I wanted to look only at the month of September, but the bimonthly and otherwise irregular schedules of some titles didn’t quite give me an accurate picture of what National/DC was publishing in those years. Therefore, some years look both to September and October.
In 1958, National/DC published a total of 50 ongoing series across September and October. Superheroes (led by the six Superman-oriented books) made up the largest part of the field, but just barely. Although there were ten superhero titles (including the two Batman books, World’s Finest Comics, and Wonder Woman), there were also eight licensed books (the Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis comics, plus adaptations like Mr. District Attorney, Hopalong Cassidy, and Charlie Chan). Anthologies and cartoon/funny animal books each had seven titles. There were six romance titles, five war comics, and three Westerns. The lineup was rounded out by four books that I would call “non-superhero proto-DCU”: Blackhawk, The Brave and the Bold, Challengers of the Unknown, and Rex the Wonder Dog. This gave National/DC a pretty equitable distribution among genres, although the superheroes led all genres with some 20 percent of the total.
By September and October 1968, the volume of titles was about the same (48 total), but as you might expect the superheroes had increased their numbers dramatically, to a little under half (44 percent) of the total. The Brave and the Bold’s Batman team-ups had moved it into that camp, leaving the non-superhero proto-DCU fare with only Challengers and Secret Six. This meant 21 total superhero titles, double 1958′s number. As for the other genres, only romance improved its position, and that by only one title. Every other 1958 genre had lost at least one title (net), with the licensed books losing six, the anthologies losing three, and the humor books (like Binky and Swing With Scooter, which had pretty much replaced funny animals) losing two. Those losses equaled the superheroes’ gains.
When September and October 1978 rolled around, DC was finding itself in the infamous period of “implosion,” putting out only 26 ongoing series across those two months. Eight books still featured either Superman or Batman (including the expanded World’s Finest Comics), but those two months saw only seven more ongoing superhero titles: Adventure Comics (also expanded to feature the JSA and Wonder Woman, among others), The Flash, Green Lantern (co-starring Green Arrow), Justice League of America, Super Friends, Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes (formerly just Superboy), and Wonder Woman.
Over in the other genres, the war titles hadn’t lost ground. Our Army At War had been renamed Sgt. Rock and Star-Spangled War Stories was retitled Unknown Soldier. G.I. Combat had been joined by relatively new titles Men Of War and Weird War Tales. Horror books included Unexpected, House Of Mystery, and the new title Ghosts. The Western line was back down to two titles, Jonah Hex and Weird Western Tales. Like Anthro in 1968, The Warlord was a genre unto itself. However, the fifteen superhero books continued to represent a rise in the superheroes’ dominance, to 58% of the total.
That dominance was pretty clear in September 1988, with superheroes taking up 28 of DC’s 37 ongoing series (76%). Since this was before the creation of Vertigo, the DCU line still included three non-superhero titles (Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, and Warlord) and two non-DCU books (the sci-fi series Haywire and the horror anthology Wasteland). The other four titles were licensed properties (the toy/cartoon tie-in Cops, Doc Savage and The Shadow, and the D&D spinoff Dragonlance).
Looking at 1998, though, things start to get tricky. On the whole, in September 1998 DC published, through its various imprints, issues of 53 ongoing series, with 37 of those in the main DCU line. (September 1998 was also the month for DC One Million, so all the regular series had “One Million” issues.) The Batman and Superman titles accounted for 16 of those 37 (not counting the fifth-week Superman: The Man Of Tomorrow), with 18 of the remaining 21 also devoted to superheroes. The other three titles (Chase, Chronos, and Hitman) weren’t exactly superheroes, but unlike Jonah Hex or Sgt. Rock they still operated in the familiar DC Universe and tended to interact with the super-folk.
For non-superhero fare one had to go to another imprint. Books of Magic and Hellblazer had moved to Vertigo, also now the home of Transmetropolitan and Preacher. The short-lived Helix imprint was still active (publishing the miniseries Dead Corpse and Sheva’s War), and the Cliffhanger imprint put out an issue of Battle Chasers. Cartoon Network had its own line of books too: Animaniacs, Cartoon Network Presents, Flintstones and the Jetsons, Looney Tunes, Pinky and the Brain, and Scooby-Doo. These other imprints accounted for 16 of September’s 53 ongoing series, but they weren’t branded as part of the main DC line. Regardless, since all but three of the DCU books were superheroes, the superheroes still represented the majority of DC’s output.
That brings us to this month just concluded, September 2008.* Out of 65 ongoing series, 30 belonged to the DCU line, 9 to Johnny DC, and 26 to the other imprints. Of those 30 DCU titles, the Batman and Superman lines together took up twelve (including the just-concluded All Star Superman). The other 18 ongoing DCU titles included Birds of Prey, Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, The Brave and the Bold, Checkmate, The Flash, Green Arrow/Black Canary, Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, Jonah Hex, Legion of Super-Heroes, Manhunter, Secret Six, Simon Dark, The Spirit, Teen Titans, Titans, and Wonder Woman.
Now, of those 18, clearly the overwhelming majority are superhero books. This time, the non-superhero titles are Jonah Hex, The Spirit, and (arguably) Checkmate. I would say Simon Dark as well, but its Gotham City setting and supernatural overtones both tend to push it into superhero territory. Checkmate’s time is almost up, but before too long The Warlord will replace it. That still leaves about ninety percent of the DCU’s ink for the superheroes.
To be fair, the Tor and War That Time Forgot miniseries also fall into the non-superhero DCU category … but how should we count miniseries when looking back at more diverse times before the miniseries was utilized? Like the various Sgt. Rock miniseries, Tor was once its own ongoing series; and the War That Time Forgot was a feature in both Star Spangled War Stories and Weird War Tales.
Moreover, as in 1998, certain familiar DC names continue to appear under other imprints. Vertigo now has a new House Of Mystery to go with the ex-DCU title Hellblazer. The licensed books now come from WildStorm. The imprints get their share of war stories, too: WildStorm has Storming Paradise, the alternate-history World War II miniseries that might once have appeared in Weird War Tales; and Vertigo has Army@Love and the upcoming revival of Haunted Tank.
This gets us back to the earlier question: why does it matter whether a particular book belongs to the DCU line? Essentially, I think the answer is that the DCU line needs more publishing variety in order to avoid a death-spiral into self-referential superhero insularity. (Too late, perhaps, but bear with me.) Over the past fifty years, the superheroes have been the most prevalent genre DC has published — sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot. Now, it’s certainly possible to do variations on other styles within the context of superheroes, but if all the DCU line publishes is superheroes, then those variations on other styles start to look like rather subtle distinctions. The Flash is still a superhero comic, even if now it has family-sitcom trappings. When one gets into the differences between, say, Dwayne McDuffie’s and James Robinson’s Justice League teams, or between Supergirl and the upcoming Power Girl (or Power Girl and Wonder Woman), that’s really inside-baseball. To me, such an approach risks losing sight of the big things which make the superhero genre different, in favor of the little things which make individual titles different.
Thus, a wider variety of genres might actually be good for the superheroes … in addition to, you know, giving us readers a little more choice. Otherwise, we’ll have to sate our non-super needs through one of the other imprints, or (gasp!) another publisher; and who knows? we might end up liking those books better. As for placing other-genre titles (at least implicitly) within DC’s shared universe; well, a little familiarity never hurt anyone’s marketing. The allure of continuity can be strong, and if it’s a gateway to good storytelling, that’s even better.
Previously I mentioned the issues of format (i.e., miniseries vs. ongoings) and imprint. To me these both speak to a larger question of commitment. There is variety within the imprints, but the DCU line still deals cautiously with non-super titles. While I understand that Vertigo has made a cottage industry out of recycling old DC horror favorites (and the new House Of Mystery does have a certain charm), Dan DiDio seems to be saying there is still room for expansion into the DCU books by the Western and war lines.
Here, naturally, is where I call for more anthologies, or at least duplex titles like the recent Tales Of The Unexpected and Countdown To Mystery. Maybe a Creature Commandos/Blackhawk double feature, or a Bat Lash/Tomahawk title?
I know, I know: no one likes anthologies, no one buys anthologies. However, again I think Dan DiDio needs to show some commitment to increasing the DCU line’s variety, and I don’t know that the occasional miniseries really does that. The continued (relative) success of Jonah Hex and The Spirit, and the new Warlord series, are all positive signs. I have been buying the latest Tor miniseries, and I will be getting the new Sgt. Rock miniseries.
Nevertheless, if there is room for more, let’s have more.
* [Mike's site didn't have updated information for this month, so here is my own list.]
All Star Superman
All Star Batman & Robin
[Batman (not published this month)]
Batman and the Outsiders
Birds of Prey
Brave and the Bold
Green Arrow/Black Canary
Green Lantern Corps
Legion of Super-Heroes
DCU Miniseries and (one) Special:
Adam Strange Special
Ambush Bug: Year None
Batman: Gotham After Midnight
DC Special: Cyborg
DC Universe: Decisions
Final Crisis: Revelations
Rann/Thanagar: Holy War
Reign in Hell
Tangent: Superman’s Reign
War That Time Forgot
The Batman Strikes!
Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!
Cartoon Network Action Pack
Cartoon Network Block Party
Family Dynamic (miniseries)
Legion of Super-Heroes in the 31st Century
Army@Love: The Art of War (miniseries)
Casey Blue: Beyond Tomorrow (miniseries)
Crayon Shinchan Vol. 4
Girl Who Could Run Through Time Vol. 1
Greatest Hits (miniseries)
Hellblazer Presents: Chas The Knowledge (special)
House of Mystery
Key to the Kingdom Vol. 5
King of Cards Vol. 5
Loveless Vol. 3: Blackwater Falls
Orfina Vol. 4
Palette of 12 Secret Colors Vol. 4
Storming Paradise (miniseries)
Supernatural: Rising Son (miniseries)
Teru Teru X Shonen Vol. 3
World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft: Ashbringer (miniseries)