Thursday, May 23, 2013

DC Comics' Cancellation Culture

Over the past week, DC saw yet another creator walk off a title, seemingly out of no where, with James Robinson announcing that Earth 2 #16 would be the final issue he writes for the series, and his final issue at DC for the foreseeable future. This came as a shock to me, and nearly every other fan of the title, as if you've ever listened to Robinson speak about his work on Earth 2 (made easy by his usual monthly appearances on the Comic Vine podcast), this wasn't just a job for him, he had a legitimate affinity towards these characters, and had plans that stretched far beyond issue #16.

I'm not here to speculate what caused Robinson to walk off the title, but given past situations with creators like John Rozum, Gail Simone, Rob Liefeld, Jim Zub, Andy Diggle and Joshua Fialkov (lord knows I'm probably missing a few), some assumptions can be made. What I'm here to talk about is the specific absurd reaction that is increasingly common every time there's a creative shift: "Is it getting canceled?"

Let's look at some numbers, shall we? For the past few months, Earth 2 has been in the upper to mid 40,000s in monthly sales according to IVc2, where as the four books DC just canceled (Legion of Super Heroes, Threshold, Dial H and Demon Knights) are all below 15k, with the exception of Legion which in April was at 16k. The point of these numbers are, in the grand scheme of things, Earth 2 is fine, based off sales, it's not getting canceled anytime soon. But why is the question "is it getting canceled?!" the go to reaction? Well, I think the answer is simple, DC has created what I can only be described as a "cancellation culture" with how the New 52 operates.

Creative changes aren't the only thing that summons the cries of cancellation, not by a long shot. An issue some people don't like comes out? It's gonna get canceled! Red Hood and the Outlaws #20 wasn't well received by a number of passionate fans and all the sudden I'm seeing comments that James Tynion is going to get the book canceled (including a very rude one I chose not to publish here). New books with new characters/concepts starring in them? Well it's going to get canceled in eight issues anyways, so why should anyone care? These ways of thinking are becoming more and more prevalent, even if they are complete bullshit, with nothing to back them up. Despite these claims being completely absurd in some cases, DC is reaping what they sow with how frequently books get canceled.

Prior to the New 52, it's hard to remember the last time a DC book I read was canceled. Putting my mind to it, I think it may have been Azrael, which finished its arc, then vanished, simple as that. No one really read that book, so it got canceled, and it sucked, but whatever, I knew that sort of stuff is what happens. Then the New 52 came around, and a couple months in, a grand total of six books were canceled all at once, then a few months later four more books were canceled, then five books, so on and so on. These regular waves of cancellations had never been seen before, and all the sudden it was "SELL OR DIE!" for every single New 52 title. The threat of cancellation became much more than a possibility if a book didn't preform well enough, that threat became the dark cloud that hung over the head of pretty much every title outside of DC's top sellers. As a result, fans responded to it, as we've seen with concerns of everything potentially getting canceled over any bit of news or change, even if the books are selling well.

Where this ultimately becomes problem is in terms of brand confidence. DC Comics is a company that sells a product, and needs the consumers of said product to believe that they're making a worthwhile purchase when buying a comic. If the first thing a potential reader does when they see a new book announced is say: "It'll be canceled by issue #8," that's not good, especially with fringe books. When you have people believing books like Threshold, The Movement and The Green Team, all of which star either new or incredibly obscure characters, are doomed to fail from the start, then you increase the likelihood that they will actually fail, and it ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. Following failed fringe tiles, more books with Batman or Superman are announced, people complain that DC doesn't try anything new, something new is then tried, and everyone says it's going to be canceled in eight issues again. Definition of a vicious cycle.

This doesn't stop at the fans though, as I've also started to notice retailers buying into the cancellation culture as well. Back when Vibe and Katana launched, I remember checking the #comicmarket hashtag on twitter, and seeing the creator of said hashtag Larry of Larry's Comics saying something along the lines of he was building little coffins for each title already, or headstones, or morgue tags, whatever. Regardless, what he was saying was that the books were doomed to be canceled rather quickly. Now, this is one very outspoken and opinionated retailer, who I don't always agree with, but the fact is, people listen to him. Fans, creators and retailers all use the #comicmarket hashtag, and see comments like that on a weekly basis. Larry is just like you or me, a human, with an opinion, and that's fine… but he's also an influential retailer whose job it is to sell comics, but through comments like those above, are actively dissuading people from buying those books by mentioning how he believes they'll be canceled almost immediately. He also makes the point of how these books were marketed, which I do agree with, but that's a whole different issue, that nonetheless does contribute to the problem. The point is, if a new book was coming out this Wednesday, and you noticed your LCS tweeting about how it's probably going to get canceled soon, how is that supposed to encourage you or anyone else to buy it? Potential excitement turns into concern of the title's longevity without a single issue getting into anyone's hands. Again, that's not good.

Based of IVc2 estimates
So what's the solution? Unfortunately, I don't think there's one to be found immediately, the hole is just too deep. I've read and listened to numerous conversations saying DC just doesn't give these books a chance, but when you're a book selling 12k after eight issues, there's no coming back, that's not how the market is for pretty much anyone. Most books from the big two steadily lose readers each month, and if they're lucky the decline will eventually stall at a comfortable number. There was no way in hell that Threshold would have eventually gotten to 30k readers if it was allowed to go to issue #16, in all likelihood, it would have been selling around 5k at that point. In a market where the month-to-month numbers are analyzed under a microscope, you almost can't blame DC for not keeping books around that sell 12k. So what else can you do? Well, you can change creators, and sometimes you get a team that sticks around and increase sales like Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino on Green Arrow, but most of the time creative changes are made, and any change, if any, is just a momentary bump in sales, that go right back down in the following months. Then if you keep switching creators, the issue of brand confidence comes up again. How about crossovers!? That'll work! Catwoman's sales were increased by tens of thousands with Death of the Family… and then went down even further immediately afterwards, never mind the fact that there is that group of fans who hate crossovers, and will actively go out of their way not to participate in them. So am I wrong to say that it's hard to see a solution to this problem?

The best solution I can offer up isn't much of a solution at all, and that's just to ignore the cries of cancellation. If you're interested in picking up a new title starring a fringe character, just pick it up and try it. Don't let any cancellation bullcrap inform your opinion, because once you start buying into that, you're part of the problem. We as fans just have to endure, because barring some major shake up in either the publishing line or executives behind it, the regular cancellations are going to continue, because eventually, some of the lower rung books are just going to get lower and that'll be that for them. One would hope those at DC know this is a problem, but it's certainly discouraging to see no one take ownership of it and actively try to fix it. I feel like DC just keeps digging this hole deeper and deeper, and eventually they're going to hit something that they don't like. Is it depressing? Yeah, especially when you're a big fan of DC like I am. The New 52 did a lot of great things, but the honeymoon is over, the cracks are growing, and think the culture DC has inadvertently built around the New 52 line is a major problem… It'll be amazing to watch if they ever actually fix it.


  1. Nice work. I'd say in response/ agreement: never underestimate the power of observation. Fact is, in the year(ish) before the New 52 started, in addition to Azrael DC canceled: Outsiders, Doom Patrol, REBELS, JSA All-Stars, Batman Confidential, Magog, all the First Wave titles, all the Red Circle titles, Streets of Gotham, and probably a few more I've forgotten. There were also several other titles (Xombi?) that would have been on the chopping block if they hadn't been wiped away by the New 52.

    DC's not canceling any more books than it ever has. (It's not canceling significantly more than Marvel, either, even if we ignore Marvel titles like Avenging Spider-Man that are "canceled" for immediate relaunch. DC's axed 10 titles this year, Marvel 8.) The differences are:

    1. DC's doing it in waves, as you say, which is kind of necessary if they also intend to launch books in waves; and

    2. A segment of fandom and the comics press has a mad-on for DC and wants to treat every cancellation as some sort of referendum on the New 52.

    IOW it looks like a bigger deal because we collectively are paying more attention to it than we used to.

    Totally agreed about retailers, too. That's pretty much insane behavior for someone who is presumably trying to sell that product.

    1. Yeah, I didn't mean to say DC hardly used to cancel books, it's just that it was way less noticeable, compared to the annual quarterly cut of 4 to 6 books, which is way more visible like you mention. And as a side note, a lot of those books were just them cleaning house when they knew the New 52 was coming, combined with low sales as well. Perhaps it was a mercy move too, because as what would be New 52 creators moved on to their new books, a lot of DC's pre New 52 books suffered horribly with fill in art and story, that once the New 52 was announced I looked at and went "why should I read this?"

  2. Who do you think they ought to bring in to fix up Catwoman? I'd start with re-introducing Slam Bradley.

  3. I think it's wave culture. The new 52 is releasing in waves. They will only put out 52 titles at a time in there current universe. To continue to make the reboot feel relevant they are pushing to have new titles and they can only do this by being prudent about titles that don't meet a certain quota. If they did not cancel books then the new 52 would not have had JLA, Batman Incorporated, the upcoming Superman Unchained, The Movement, The Green Team, etc etc

  4. They should never have cancelled Demon Knights. That is a quality book. So was I, Vampire. I was pissed when they cancelled that and Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. as well.

  5. I think another huge problem you should have mentioned is how the Young Justice line now only has Teen Titans left, given how it's really the only "big name" franchise that line has, even though Legion has been long-running.

    Something I'm guilty of is being a tradewaiter, so I don't contribute to the monthly sales. Granted, I'm just one person, but I think it needs to be said. I would have love to support Sword of Sorcery regularly, but alas, that got cancelled. I can't wait until I read The Green Team, but given how this how vicious cycle works, I do expect it to get cancelled in eight issues.