Monday, March 6, 2017

Are Relaunches & Reboots Good or Bad for the Comic Industry?

On a recent episode of my podcast, Zone 4, we discussed comic book relaunches and reboots as the main topic. As fate would have it, I lost internet and was unable to participate in said discussion. Far be it from me, though, to not have my voice heard on the subject, hence this article.
Before I get into the meat of the topic, let me define these terms as I understand them, or rather as I intend them to be for the purposes of this piece:

Starting a comic series over with a brand new #1, or a new title (slightly or completely altered).
Example 1: Iron Man ends, becomes Invincible Iron Man starting with new #1.
Example 2: Invincible Iron Man ends, restarts with new lead. Most recently, Riri Williams.

Starting an entire universe or line of titles over from scratch, changing specific details of origins, locations, genders, events, etc.
Example: New 52

To further complicate things, an example of a “soft reboot” could be the recent Secret Wars event from Marvel, wherein all other worlds were destroyed and meshed into the prime Earth, a la Crisis On Infinite Earths from DC in the ‘80s.

Whatever term you use, the idea is to end something, change it dramatically, then bring it back as if it were something new. Sure, elements of it may be new, but as is the case with the most recent incarnation of New Avengers morphing into U.S. Avengers, sometimes not all that much changes.

Now, the question posed as the title of this article is whether these types of reimaginings or redefinings, if you will, are good for the industry or not. I do understand that the answer to that question is subjective, as all things in the creative arts are, so I accept that these opinions are my own and might not be shared by everyone reading this. However, I think we can agree on some points regardless of our differences in taste or preference.

The first point I think we can agree on is that no matter what side of this argument you find yourself falling on, the goal in any initiative like this is to gain readers, and more importantly (to the companies involved at least), to make sales. It’s arguable whether or not this is a successful tactic, but that is the ultimate goal. And we shouldn’t condemn these companies for that goal.

Think about it this way: If you owned a bakery and you did pretty well for yourself for a few years. You made some regular customers, had a pretty loyal and steady crowd every morning. Then Starbucks moves in down the street, and suddenly your business starts to suffer (and yes, I’m totally stealing this from a recent episode of Superior Donuts!). Say you try various ways to revitalize your business, and nothing is working. One option you then have - which a lot of businesses do - is to close down for a short time, revamp your shop maybe with new decor, new recipes, whatever, and then reopen with a new “Grand Opening” or “Grand Reopening”.

This is business 101. It feels like something new, even if it isn’t. The goal in doing this is not to gain regular customers again, but to get people in the shop for that day or week, giving them discounts, new offerings, and hoping that they spread the word and that you can see some return on this big event. And even if you don’t, you had that one day/week/month of influx that might help you keep running for a while until you figure something else out.

These reboots and relaunches are very similar in that way. The idea, despite what they tell you, is not to win over new, consistent readers, but rather to sell a lot of books, to get people talking, and to hopefully retain some of those people, and to create enough buzz to carry them to the next big thing.

Relaunches are nothing new. Sure, there were titles that went to insane numbers, like Action Comics, Detective Comics, The Incredible Hulk, Amazing Spider-Man, etc. And as Gordon stated on the aforementioned episode of Zone 4, some of that had to do with postal issues and being cheaper not to renumber. Part of it was also of a dying convention that said higher numbers equaled validity and prestige. But consider the new reader that comes in from the street and sees a comic series featuring Superman that’s at issue #971. Not being familiar with how comics work, they think “Man, there’s no way I could ever catch up on almost a thousand issues!” and they choose something else. For those of us “in the know,” we understand comic stories are told in arcs, and you don’t necessarily have to read the entire history of a comic to get the current story. But not everyone realizes that, and perception is everything.

True, sometimes it’s for the gimmick of it. In the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, Marvel relaunched all their X-Men titles to signify a new era of Blue and Gold. We’re about to see the same thing in a couple of months nearly 30 years later. This is nothing new. The frequency at which it’s done is very new, though. And that’s really the issue comic fans have with it.

The truth is, we probably need to change our mentality on how we view comics. Traditionalists want to see the numbering continue, and creative teams stay on a book for years and years. Aside from certain exceptions and many independent titles, this just isn’t the way it’s done anymore, and one could argue that it doesn’t make sense for it to be done that way. Again, it’s subjective. But rather than look at a comic that relaunches with a new #1 under the same name, like Amazing Spider-Man, as killing that legacy, look at it as volumes of the same story.

For instance, using the Amazing Spider-Man example, Dan Slott did a bold and daring thing by killing Peter Parker and ending Amazing Spider-Man at #700. It was the end of an era and unthinkable for one of the classics. This was followed by launching Superior Spider-Man, which then led into a brand new run (or two) of Amazing Spider-Man.

What you have to understand about the way the current industry works is that everything is made for the trade. It doesn’t matter whether you are a trade reader or a singles reader, they create stories that can be read in collections. And by relaunching and creating new volumes of a series, they are insuring a complete story to be told in one of those collections.

Take Superior Spider-Man, which ran for about 31-32 issues. A little big for a single trade, but you can do 5 volumes of that one title, then, if popular enough to warrant it, collect those volumes in an omnibus. This means you don’t have to read the previous 700 issues of Amazing Spider-Man, nor the two volumes following to enjoy or understand Superior Spider-Man. That’s the reason they do it this way. They are able to sell the same book two-three times over, and they’re able to compartmentalize each separate era of that character.

When you think of it that way, you can begin to understand the reasoning behind relaunching with a new #1 issue to signify a significant change.

On the other hand, sometimes a book can be relaunched too many times or too quickly, and that points to another issue altogether, which is the inability to keep reader interest. While the newness of a relaunch is key for sales, and to gain interest and make headlines, it’s not the only factor in deciding whether to relaunch a title. Sometimes it is a lack of interest, which results in a drop in sales. In those cases, we can be a little more forgiving because typically the majority agrees that the book isn’t working, hence the drop in sales. There will always be someone out there sad to see a book go, but a company like Marvel or DC can’t cater to the individual, no matter how much we individually would like them to. It’s unreasonable and naive to even suggest that they do.

Speaking to the point of some books relaunching too often, let’s assume they are done so for the former reason and not the latter being due to sales. If they are constantly relaunching titles just to get that spike in sales and headlines, then they are doing something wrong. Going back to our bakery analogy from earlier, consider the same bakery holding one of these Grand Reopenings every few months. The first time, people are excited. Second, third time, it’s an opportunity to get something new, or get something at a good price, or just a fun way to spend a morning. By the fourth or fifth time, they know it’ll come around again, and any specials being offered aren’t worth the hassle.

This is how many feel about the current practices of Marvel with their annual relaunches and their quarterly events. When Marvel NOW! first happened, everyone was talking about it. This was huge, a much needed shake-up in the Marvel Universe. Now that we’ve come full circle back to Marvel NOW! after a few other initiatives, it’s very much a case of “here we go again.” Not as many people are talking about it, the headlines are more poking fun than showing interest and excitement, and readers are just tired. And Marvel isn’t the only one guilty of this either. DC doesn’t do it as often, but they still do it. And most recently, Valiant has decided to relaunch key titles as well. And while that may not seem like a big deal, it could become one if this becomes a trend.

Unlike relaunches, we don’t see full-on reboots nearly as often. In fact, we’ve only really seen it twice, and both times have been from DC. The first time was shifting from the Golden Age to the Silver Age, where all their characters were reimagined. The second, more recently, was the New 52. One could arguess that Rebirth is a third, but that’s more of a “soft reboot” than the more hardcore one the other two instances were. In both cases, DC felt their line needed not only a shot in the arm, but a complete lobotomy! I’m sure seeing the success of the first time around, they thought it sounded like a great idea with the New 52. The problem is they went about it all wrong. The de-aged the characters, which was not the problem. The problem is they changed key things about those characters making them unrecognizable. And the result is they started going back to the old versions of these characters from pre-New 52.

The New 52 reboot both succeeded and failed, though. It succeeded in creating buzz, gaining new readers that had never tried DC titles, or had only tried a few, and in causing so much interest that many older readers just had to try them out to see what the fuss was all about. Like a relaunch, the newness of it created that initial ground-swell, but unlike a relaunch, the goal and the success was in keeping some of those new readers, which they did whether anyone chooses to believe it or not.

Where they failed was, again, in the characters, and in as many people as they won over, they lost at least half as many. And as time went on, they lost more and more. Of course, I’m merely speculating, but it’s an educated guess based on feedback, changes in production, staff, etc., and other factors.

I honestly believe if some of the key characters had been true and faithful to the core of what those characters were to people, they would have accepted the New 52 more. And that’s something to be very careful of when rebooting.

Take, for example, Valiant. This is a company that was a strong contender in the ‘90s because they offered a much needed alternative. Unlike Image, Valiant was a complete universe, like Marvel and DC. Yet their characters were new and fresh. Unfortunately, they didn’t end up doing so well and went away for a while. A few years ago, they rebooted the entire line with fresh takes on many of the characters, but they stayed completely true to who each of these characters were. It was a rebirth (pun intended) of the Valiant Universe, and it worked. So far.

So the question I posed at the very beginning of this article was “Are Relaunches & Reboots Good for the Comics Industry?” The answer is: They can be. But they can also be bad.

That’s as simple and boiled down of an answer as you’re going to get. To elaborate, and to revisit points I’ve made above, if it services the characters and services the readers then a relaunch or a reboot can be a very good thing. Even if it services the company in generating new readers or much needed buzz, it can be a good thing.

When it becomes a trend to generate the buzz, especially when it’s not really needed, then it can become a very bad thing.

Breaking it down even further, and to cap off my points for both sides, let me say this:

When you are revitalizing a franchise that is dwindling in popularity or dipping in sales - be that a character, a series, or even an entire universe or company - it can be very beneficial to do something bold and new with it to recapture the attention of the fan base. And if that bold, new direction stays true to what long-time fans love, then all sides are happy. Even if it’s not exactly the same, as long as it holds true to what has been established in terms of personality and character traits, or familiar worlds and themes, then complaints will be minimal.

If it is done simply as a promotional gimmick to boost sales and the characters don’t matter, then it becomes an issue. You lose a core part of your audience and begin selling to the speculators who just want to snatch up those new #1s. And while there aren’t enough of them out there to destroy the industry like in the ‘90s (yet), there are still plenty out there that skew the market. These companies look at sales, and that determines whether a title continues or not. Those that buy those $10 foil cover types of comics are who they are marketing to more so than the loyal reader that just wants good stories featuring their favorite characters. But that’s a whole other issue in and of itself.

It’s a very controversial topic with no easy answer or solution. Sure, these companies are going to do what they feel is best for their companies. Sometimes that aligns with what’s best for readers, sometimes it doesn’t. But blanket arguments that reboots and relaunches “suck” does nothing to address anything but random readers’ gut-reactionary complaints.

Hopefully I didn’t ramble too much in this article, and it addresses both sides of the argument in a somewhat clear manner. And if not, I hope it’s at least entertaining. Otherwise, you may be yelling from the rooftops calling for me to be rebooted or (re)launched (into the atmosphere)!

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