Friday, June 04, 2010

Birds of Prey #1, And Everything That's Wrong With DC

Recently, after a post I made on about the similarities between 90s comics and modern comics, someone commented, "You know, if you don't like these comics, you can just stop reading them." Which is amusing to me because fundamentally, I don't. I haven't picked up a DC book since before Final Crisis, and I haven't picked up a Marvel book since World War Hulk. (This would be the current, mainstream "Marvel/DC Universe" comics; I still pick up trades and compilations of out-of-continuity material or older stuff from time to time.) It's just that really, if you are curious about finding out what's going on at the Big Two, it's remarkably easy to keep informed without ever buying a book. (And I'm not talking about pirating, here. Just the news and reviews alone will let you know the basic plot beats of the major crossovers, and let's face it--the selling point of most crossovers is "What's going to happen?", not "Isn't this spectacularly well-written?") I don't have to give DC my money to find out that Blackest Night sucked, and I'm much happier not doing so.

But all that changed last week, when I finally broke down and bought a copy of Birds of Prey #1. It wasn't that I'm a huge Gail Simone fan, although I have liked her writing ever since the days of "You'll All Be Sorry!" It wasn't that I was a huge BoP fan, although I've got quite a few collections of the series...especially the Gail Simone run. Those two things were enticing, but not enough to get me to dive back into comics for the first time in well over a year. No, the thing that sealed the deal was the return of Hawk and Dove.

I make no secret of it--I'm a huge Hawk and Dove fan. The Karl and Barbara Kesel series was the very first DC comic I ever collected, and I still adore it to pieces to this day. The dialogue was sharp and witty, the plots moved swiftly, and I loved that it did things like create all-new villains (while also rehabilitating some obscure ones like Copperhead and Velvet Tiger.) Finding out that they had revived the characters and were using them in a book I already liked with a writer I already liked made a "hmmm..." into an "Oooooh!"

But it took them nineteen years to get to that point. Because in '91, immediately after the cancellation of their series, first Dove died, then Hawk turned evil, then they created a new Hawk and Dove, then those two fell into instant comics obscurity, then Hawk died, then Dove came back, then they created a new Hawk, then the old Hawk came back as a zombie and killed the new Hawk, and finally after all that they used Blackest Night to sweep the whole damn mess under the rug and bring back Hawk and Dove as the team I remembered. And what did I do? I went out and bought a comic book solely because they guest-starred in it. (And it was very good, thanks. Gail Simone clearly has the same kind of fond memories of the Kesel series that I do, and portrayed them very faithfully.)

But the point is, DC missed out on nineteen years of sales because they decided that they could boost the circulation of Armageddon 2001 #2 if they killed off one hero and had another do a heel turn. Instead of growing a well-rounded, diverse set of supporting characters who could boost sales of a book and eventually break out from B-list to A-list status, they have decided on a slash-and-burn strategy of managing their intellectual properties. Obviously, in the case of Hawk and Dove, they've repented. But what about all the people who might pick up a copy of the new Ray Palmer Atom comic because they really like Ryan Choi and he's a regular secondary character? What about the people who liked Holly Granger as Hawk, and would have bought a comic with her in it? What about the Elongated Man fans, the Tempest fans, the Azrael fans, the people who will support their favorite character even if they don't have their own book?

Killing off characters isn't just bleak, unpleasant storytelling that's shock purely for shock's sake. It's also a dumb business decision. While Birds of Prey itself is demonstrating what DC could be doing right, it's also demonstrating exactly what everywhere else in DC is doing wrong.


Eric TF Bat said...

"Comics companies do stupid things." That's complaint #1 about modern comics. Complaint #2 is "comics are aimed at forty-something stay-at-homes with a fetish for poorly-remembered nostalgia, and not at kids". But these two contradict: the stupid things do, in fact, appeal to kids, for the unspoken reason that kids have no taste. The comics companies do stupid stuff because it sells to tasteless idiots. The only way to solve problem #1 is to make problem #2 more of a problem, ie really truly aim comics at older comics readers, in the hopes that they will appreciate quality over "shock" value.

Reckon that'll happen? Naah, me neither. That's why I'm still trying to find a buyer for sixty kilograms and twenty years of Superman comics, and I no longer collect much of anything at all.

KenB3 said...

Well, I think Eric is partially right. With Marvel and DC you have very old characters that can't age or grow organically. You can't change Spiderman or Batman too much, so instead they do stunt storytelling. I think it works but the more you do it, the less effective it is.

Ultimately I don't know if a lot of characters will ever be A-list, although Gail Simone is very good at making characters shine (she made Catman awesome, and he's freaking Catman.) But every character is someone's favorite, so why blatantly kill them? Plus even c-list characters can be turned into movies these days.

Theopacius said...

That was me with the death of Vic Sage. The Question is my favorite superhero, and at the time of 52 was a rising star. Watchmen, with the Question-inspired Rorschach, was having another resurgence with talk of the movie, Justice League Unlimited had just featured The Question in an homage to all of his incarnations (and he was a big hit, becoming a star of a major arc involving Superman and Supergirl), and his classic O'Neil series was on its way to be a trade paperback.

So, they took an established character (Renee Montoya), made her his brief protege, then killed Vic Sage and put her in his place.

They called it "character progression" for Renee. Of course, she was also a character I loved. She had shown in Gotham Central and the Bat-books that she was already a good character - a good cop in a world of superheroes. She didn't need to toss on a costume (though having her as The Question wasn't too bad an idea).

The point is that Vic Sage was starting to be marketable, scoring some attention in media outside of comics. And they killed him.

They not only killed him, they implied his death in one issue (him singing "Danny Boy" in a hospital bed, and then trailing off as Renee wept) only to show that no, he wasn't dead yet...and then having him be dragged to Nanda Parbat, the one place that could save him, only to die at the gates.

That was around the time I started buying less and less DC. It's not just for The Question. It's for many of the things you cited - trade paperbacks and the web make it easy for me to keep up-to-date. The stories just aren't good enough to warrant the amount of cash I used to spend.

However, there are exceptions. I'm not a big fan of Grant Morrison and I really disliked the idea of bringing Batman's son back into continuity, but I'm greatly enjoying Batman and Robin.