Looking in from the outside, it seems like there’s lots of second-guessing and retrenching going on at the number two comics company. With Final Crisis in its home stretch and major goings-on in the Superman and Batman titles, several long-term storylines are up in the air right now, and readers are left wondering whether the DCU will have any coherent creative direction when the dust settles. Omens are not good. As Tom Bondurant puts it in reaction to the solicitations for February’s books,

Cancellations, character shuffling, and general restructuring seem to be the order of business for the first part of 2009.

In recent interviews, DCU executive editor Dan DiDio puts his usual “the best is yet to come” spin on things, telling the L.A. Times,

…it’s a point of change for us in DC Universe again. And once you know the ending is coming, it’s in sight, that’s when you start getting worked up about what’s coming up next.

…and Newsarama,

…again, we’re bringing the line back closer together and working to bring the continuity back in synch. …

Once we’re back on track in 2009, our goal is very simple: a tight, smart, DCU, with a core of books that push the entire continuity and universe forward.

Now, in a general sense, one could argue that these promises sound painfully familiar, that the DCU has had a few too many “points of change” in recent years, that readers are suffering event fatigue, and that jumping-on points often double as jumping-off points. But let’s zero in more specifically, and take a closer look at those solicits.

What is DC offering in February, in its core titles? It breaks down like this:

  • Batman titles: Batman, Detective, and a couple of ancillary titles. February follows up the current “R.I.P.” with the two-part “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” Pluses: it’s written by Neil Gaiman. Minuses: it leads into the multi-month “Battle for the Cowl” story, in which the Batman titles will be missing an actual Batman, and which sounds more than a little reminiscent of the post-“Knightfall” era in the early ’90s. Also bad: the end of Paul Dini’s consistently enjoyable run on ‘Tec.
  • Superman titles: Action, Superman, and a couple of ancillary titles. February follows up the current “New Krypton” arc with a couple of filler issues, leading up to Superman’s upcoming self-imposed exile from Earth and (reminiscent of the Bat-books) the lead character’s prolonged absence from Action, his first home and DC’s flagship title. The exile story sounds more than a little reminiscent of a similar arc from circa 1989, just after Invasion!
  • Assorted team booksJLA, JSA, Outsiders (retooled yet again, the fourth time in three years), Titans, Teen Titans, and the new R.E.B.E.L.S. (reprising a concept from the early ’90s). There’s also a zero issue of Adventure (reprinting #247 for the umpteenth time), setting up the title’s relaunch as a new home for the Legion (but with no word yet on a creative team). All of these seem to be in “marking time” mode for the moment, with no major creative initiatives, and several have been bleeding readers. The JLA promo text threatens “another Final Night,” referencing a story from the mid-’90s.
  • Assorted standalone titles:  Booster Gold, B&B, GA/BC, GL and GLC, Jonah Hex, Vigilante, and Wonder Woman. Again, mostly books marking time. WW is actually in the middle of an important story arc, while the GL titles are still in the (now-interminable) leadup to “Blackest Night.”
  • Over in its own little corner is Trinity, redeeming the concept of weekly comics and offering a far more interesting “big story” than FC, but not tying in with anything else in the line.
  • What’s the biggest category? That would actually be titles that are ending. Bat-family titles Nightwing and Robin are being cancelled, as are fan-favorites Birds of Prey and Blue Beetle (very quixotic timing for that one, given the character’s current publicity push on Cartoon Network). Meanwhile, the El Diablo, Secret Six, Reign in Hell, Tangent, and Vixen mini-series are all ending in the same month, while four more (Black Lightning: Y1, Sgt. Rock, Terror Titans, War That Time Forgot) are set to wrap the following month. Most of these minis are undeniably forgettable, but the thing worth remarking here is that at the moment nothing appears to be lined up to replace them, thus representing a significant reduction in the number of monthly offerings.

So, what does that all add up to? The DCU’s two biggest characters will be partially or completely missing from their titles for an indeterminate time; several upcoming storylines seem at least superficially derivative of ones from 10-20 years ago (well within the memory of today’s fans); and over a dozen titles are going away.

Doesn’t exactly sound to me like moving “forward” or grounds for excitement over “what’s coming up next.”

And all that doesn’t even take account of the whirling rumor mill about editorial second-guessing and scheduling SNAFUs, seemingly perennial aspects of DiDio’s tenure. Word from the industry’s foremost rumormonger Rich Johnston (but with apparent confirmation from other sources) is that:

…the last issue of Final Crisis is further delayed as it is suffering from serious rewrites. It appears that DC Executive Editor Dan DiDio was unhappy with the way the story concluded and the implications for the DC Universe for a while and had ordered changes from a, naturally, rather unhappy Grant Morrison.

This would be despite the fact that Grant’s entire story proposal for this tentpole book was approved as much as a year before the first issue ever saw print. Now,not being privy to any insider details, I have no idea what the actual scripted version looks like; heaven knows Morrison has a tendency to write some pretty esoteric stuff, and the title so far has leaned toward somewhat opaque and meandering storytelling, so there may be some grounds for behind-the-scenes discontent. Still, I’m inclined to think that whatever the shortcomings, the story Grant originally intended is likely to work better with what has come before, in terms of both plot and theme, than anything that can be thrown together as a last-minute kludge. Editorially mandated storytelling doesn’t have a glowing track record lately, not just at DC (Countdown, anyone?) but throughout the industry (e.g., Spider-Man’s execrable “One More Day”).

Coming on the heels of the news that the concluding issue 7 will have yet another new artist (Doug Mahnke) stepping in, this makes it more unlikely than ever that the issue will meet its announced January 28 release date. Thanks to FC annotator Douglas Wolk, we can see that all this comes on the heels of a month-long delay on issue 4 (despite the addition of Pacheco on the art chores), and also of the announcement that issue 5 (originally scheduled for October 29) now won’t be out ’til December 10. This makes something of a joke of DiDio’s own statement that

It was more important for us to keep our schedule on this… have the last issue come out in January, so that all of the changes that come out from the end of Final Crisis can be reflected in the books starting in March.

(And let’s note that no release date at all has yet been set for Legion of Three Worlds #5, despite the announcement about Adventure.)

Meanwhile, there were also rumors (for now officially rebutted) that DiDio had also alienated the recently added and much-heralded Superman writer James Robinson to the point that he was leaving the book. True or not, it was certainly plausible, given recent editorial turnarounds with Chuck Dixon, Jim Shooter, Mark Waid, and other high-profile creators. And we have yet to see a release date for Robinson’s long-announced Justice League companion title.

All this has generated consternation among fans, and it can’t be helping sales—at a time when DC’s market share has already slipped against Marvel, and when year-to-date comics sales have fallen 2-3% versus this point in 2007 (unsurprisingly, given the larger economy). In the aftermath of recent creative debacles like Amazons Attack and Countdown, high-profile scheduling disasters on Action, Wonder Woman, and others, and scrambling of creative rosters throughout the line, I have to join the chorus of voices wondering why Dan DiDio still has his job. As a reader, this is not a great time to be a fan of DC Comics.

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2 Responses to “So, what exactly is going on with the DC Universe?”
  1. Andrew says:

    Hey, nothing is perfect after all, so we should try and understand them as well.

  2. Last I checked, Paul Dini‘s getting caught up on working on other titles, but he will be returning to Detective as part of the Plan for 2009 on a continuing basis.

  3.  
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