Back in 1985, DC Comics celebrated its 50th anniversary by igniting a storytelling revolution that changed the industry. With a 12-issue maxiseries called Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC killed off entire parallel universes (and a few A-list characters) and rebooted the story lines of flagship heroes Superman and Wonder Woman. Designed to lure new readers, the gimmick didn’t entirely work, though it did spur the event-based storytelling model that DC and Marvel Comics both still follow.
During Crisis, writer Marv Wolfman proposed an even more radical idea: Give all of DC’s titles new No. 1 issues. Execs balked—but now, 25 years later, they’re doing just that. In the wake of the conclusion of the altered-reality storyline Flashpoint, every single series will get rebooted—even Action Comics, which birthed Superman and recently hit the No. 900 milestone, and Detective Comics, which birthed Batman and whose initials gave the company its very name.
Justice League No. 1, set during the team’s earliest days together, hits stores Wednesday 31. Then, each of four Wednesdays in September, DC rolls out the rest of “The New 52”—a total of 52 new comics featuring characters both familiar and foreign. Long-standing status quos will disappear: Clark Kent won’t be married to Lois Lane, while Barbara Gordon, once crippled by the Joker, trades in her wheelchair for her Batgirl costume. Moving beyond superheroes, DC’s publishing lineup will look a bit like it did decades ago, with sci-fi, Westerns and war stories.
But the content changes mask even bigger alterations in format: Trying to wrest a perpetual sales lead from Marvel, DC will begin to publish its entire line digitally, available online the same day the physical “pamphlets” go on sale in stores (at the same price, typically $2.99, for the first month; then at a $1 discount). Will this new strategy mark the end of comics shops? Will new readers be lured into stores by new comics that don’t require degrees in decades-long continuity? We asked some local retailers for their insight.
“It’s definitely good for the industry,” says Eric Thornton, who’s managed Chicago Comics (3244 N Clark St, 773-528-1983) in Lakeview for the last 12 years. “DC sales have been dwindling for years. There are enough new, potentially good books coming out that a lot of customers, angry or not, are still going to buy more DC titles than they do presently.” To help boost confidence, the store is offering money back on any new No. 1 within a week of purchase. But Thornton isn’t concerned about the digital factor: “If you’re a person who likes your comics digitally, you’re probably already getting them, for free, from pirate sites.”
Down in the Mount Greenwood ’hood of Chicago’s Far Southwest Side, Tim Davis, owner since 1994 of Alternate Reality (3149 W 111th St, 773-881-4376), has a different perspective. “The question of sliding sales has less to do with a love of all things digital than it does the current rotten state of the economy,” he says. “Still, Internet comics are always a worry for retailers. I’m not big on cutting my own throat, so I am not big on digital comics.”
He’s not sure if DC will see the hoped-for huge sales boost—but says it’s now or never, noting that the company has promised “a huge publicity push for the New 52 with print, television and Internet ads, which is practically unheard of in this industry.” (He’s offering customers a whopping 45-percent off the first issues if they order all 52.) “If those PR moves don’t bring in ‘outside readers,’ nothing will.”
Regarding those outside readers: “When I was kid, moms didn't know who Captain America and the Avengers were; now they are household names,” notes James Nurss, owner of Hyde Park’s three-year-old First Aid Comics (1617 E 55th St, 773-752-6642). “The properties of DC and Marvel are more known and popular than ever. If the industry can plug into even five percent of these new fans, we will double the readership.”
When it comes to DC’s digital plan, Nurss says, “Yes, I believe they will drop the prices.” (DC’s co-publisher and Justice League artist Jim Lee practically admitted as much to us in a recent interview: “We’re going to see how it goes in September, then further refine it going forward,” he said. You can read the full interview here.) “But downloading comics,” adds Nurss, “is bringing in new readers who buy the properties in other formats.”
“I’m not all that worried about the digital side of it yet,” says Shawn King, owner of Evil Squirrel Comics in Rogers Park (6928 N Glenwood Ave, 773-338-0899). “It is a growing concern of mine that digital comics will end up wiping out [paper] comics, but in the long run, I believe graphic novels will never phase out. Most comic fans are finicky and still want something tangible to hold while they read. You can hold a Kindle or an iPad, but you don’t get the same experience.”
In the comics industry, King adds, “You have to do something more impressive than the competitor. What’s more impressive than rewriting history? It’s an incredibly ballsy move by DC, and can only be very good or very bad.” (Speaking of trying to out-impress the competition, Evil Squirrel is one of a small handful of comics shops that will open at midnight Wednesday—for 52 minutes, wink wink—to sell Justice League No. 1. Anyone who buys it will be automatically entered into a raffle to win the 51 remaining first issues throughout September.)
In Bucktown, W. Dal Bush, co-owner of Challengers Comics (1845 N Western Ave, 773-278-0155), is hopeful about sales—in fact, Challengers will also open late Tuesday 30, with games and contests until midnight, when Justice League comes out of the boxes and the cash register starts ringing. “DC does not do tremendously well against Marvel,” he notes, “so honestly, anything they do to drum up interest is good for us. DC is taking a risk here, and if you can’t go into this with optimism, there’s no sense in having a comics store.”
He’s not worried about digital comics killing Challengers, either. “A lot of retailers talk about how this is going to affect their business, but that’s an absurd price for a digital comic. It should be 99 cents, or $1.99 at best,” Bush says. “As things inevitably go digital, the way I see it is this: Record stores didn’t completely disappear [due to digital-music downloading], but the chain multimedia stores did. We’ll still have a place in the same way that Reckless Records does, despite iTunes.”