Saturday 27 July 2019

Older Comics Are Outselling New Comics. What Needs To Be Done Differently?

San Diego Comic Con was last weekend, and admittedly, there was nothing to write home about since DC didn't reveal any new details on their upcoming projects that we didn't know about already. However, there is one thing DC co-publisher Dan DiDio said at the con last Thursday that really got my attention:

'We do these Facsimile Editions where we reprint older issues of comics including all the old ads and stuff…and in some cases these are selling more than the new comics with these characters. People are more interested in buying the stories from 30 or 40 years ago than the contemporary stories, and that’s a failure on us. We should be focused on moving things forward, always pushing the boundaries and finding new stories to tell. That’s how we’ll survive and grow this industry.' (Source)

I have to admit, of all the things I expected Dan DiDio to talk about at the Meet the DC Publishers panel, I didn't expect him to express frustration over the fact that older comics are in some cases outselling the newer material DC is publishing. At the same time, however, I am not surprised. While I do think DC is moving in the right direction with their Justice League family books in particular, they are also continuing to make the same wrong-headed decisions that have been putting people off from buying the newer comics for a little over a decade now.

One recent example was the decision to shoot Nightwing in the head and completely change his personality and narrative in the form of 'Ric Grayson' instead of telling a thoughtful story about TBI recovery. Another recent one was the decision to turn another fan favourite character like Wally West into a mass murderer at a psychiatric facility, complete with perpetuating harmful myths about mental health. Then there's the continued pattern of killing off fan favourite characters for shock value in status quo-changing narratives that have little to nothing meaningful to say about their subject matter.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. When you account for the entire post-Flashpoint continuity as a whole, there are a lot more examples to list such as the Batwoman wedding debacle, the epic misfire that was the New 52 Earth-2 in its entirety, and of course, the decision to retcon many fan favourite characters out of existence in order to de-age or reinstate the older Silver Age heroes. On top of that, many more characters were rebooted into wholly unrecognisable, regressed versions of themselves. In short: DC repeated many of the same problems as the Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot with the Flashpoint reboot.

While I do agree with Dan DiDio that comics need to move forward, his entire approach to innovation has been entirely backwards for 17 years. In addition rebooting the DC Universe and its characters in ways that are regressive and even damaging to those characters, his entire approach to storytelling has been to find new ways to shock readers in place of actual world building and meaningful character development. Things that the older comics from 30-40 years ago were actually better about.

Of course, there were still shocking events that led to character deaths even in those days. But those types of stories tended to be few and far in between, and character deaths (when they happened) were handled with more care and respect. The deaths of older characters tended to be permanent and often facilitated newer characters to rise and take their place in ways that honoured their legacies.

Another thing that made those older comics resonate was the fact that there was a genuine interest in developing characters, their relationships, and meaningfully exploring more mature subject matter while still respecting who these characters are at their core. In many cases, this allowed for stories to have depth and still be accessible to a wide range of readers.

Taking all of that into account, what can Dan DiDio learn from these older comics and what can he do differently in order to move comics forward? I think one good starting point would be to know the actual DC audience. Not just the Batman audience, I mean the entire DC audience. Get to know what fans love about all of the various DC properties and characters, and what kinds of stories fans want to read with these characters. More importantly, spend time creating stories that allow for these characters to change and evolve in meaningful ways.

Speaking for myself personally, let's break down what I love about my favourite DC character, the original Huntress, Helena Wayne. What did her comics from 30-40 years ago accomplish back then that her newer comics in the current decade did not? What can be learned from those older comics to help guide her narrative in the current century?

The first thing that appealed to me about the pre-Crisis Helena Wayne Huntress was the fact that she built on DC's Golden Age legacy in two different ways: first by being the daughter of the original versions of Batman and Catwoman from the Golden Age comics, and by becoming a second generation member of the Justice Society, DC's first superhero team.

Her original concept really spoke to me because it realistically showed how characters like Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle could evolve as people as they aged. Her membership into the Justice Society also showed the impact that the Justice Society's legacy had on younger generations, effectively inspiring younger people to continue the work of the ageing Golden Age heroes.

Another thing I loved about the original pre-Crisis Helena Wayne character was that she was 100% the hero of her own story. She had her own identity, both as the Huntress and as a lawyer, never basking in the shadows of her parents. It was more important for her to standout as a person and as a hero of her own making than to be seen as an extension of her parents, which is something she had in common with Power Girl. It is for this very reason that she chose 'The Huntress' as her codename instead of becoming another Batwoman as one would expect a daughter of Batman to become.

On the topic of relationships, that's another thing I loved about pre-Crisis Helena Wayne: she had her own relationships that ranged from long-lasting friendships with the Earth-1 and Earth-2 heroes to having good relationships with the colleagues at her law firm. I loved that she was friends with Power Girl because she helped Power Girl learn Earth-based social norms and Power Girl in turn inspired the Huntress to embrace her family legacy and to continue that on her own terms.

I loved her relationship with the Earth-2 Dick Grayson because it allowed her to continue to have a family after her parents died and because she provided a different viewpoint on her father's legacy from Dick. I also loved that she was friends with the Earth-1 Batman because he allowed her to better process her own father's death, and because she made him hopeful of his own future. All of Helena's important relationships enriched her character in meaningful ways.

When it came to narrative, this is where it all came together for me. When she was with the Justice Society, she got to be their detective and one of their most valued crime fighters. When she was on her own, she took a serious interest in keeping Gotham safe in place of her father as the Huntress. As a lawyer, she worked to clear the names of innocent people and put away the guilty.

Sometimes, Helena struggled to maintain a balance between both of her lives, sometimes to the point of other people—such as romantic partners and villains—easily deducing her secret. This allowed the character to be flawed and these 'slip-ups' often times provided opportunities for character growth. When she made mistakes as the Huntress, she always reflected on those mistakes and accepted responsibility for her actions, always vowing to do better.

While Helena Wayne always maintained a strong moral code and made it her responsibility to always follow the law, to always do what's right, there were times when she found this hard to do. Sometimes situations were beyond her control and enemies pushed her boundaries. There were times when she nearly succumbed to her darker impulses when dealing with life and death situations, only stopping herself just before making a mistake she would later regret.

When taken as a whole, the pre-Crisis Helena Wayne Huntress was a well established, thoughtfully fleshed out character. While stories back then weren't perfect and had their flaws, the way Helena Wayne was conceived and developed that first time was, in fact, truly perfect. So why didn't the post-Flashpoint version resonate with me? Well, it's a unique case of 'DC had their heart in the right place, but got it wrong in the execution.'

Let's start with what DC did well: they reinstated Helena Wayne as the original Huntress. Where they messed it all up was in establishing that she was the post-Crisis Helena Bertinelli all along. This retcon did not make sense for the character for multiple reasons, beginning with the fact that this completely rewrote everything I knew and loved about Helena Wayne as a character in order to accommodate the 'Helena Bertinelli personality', and even then, it still didn't match up with what I knew about Helena Bertinelli as a character either.

Whereas the pre-Crisis Helena Wayne would've been staunchly against stealing other people's identities, stealing money from alternate versions of her father, and murdering her enemies without considering other options, the post-Flashpoint Helena Wayne had no issues with doing any these things.

It's a development that's profoundly out of character for a woman who is the daughter of Batman and Catwoman, two people who would've taught her better. This development does not present Helena Wayne in a positive light, nor does it make her heroic. This development is additionally not in character for Helena Bertinelli either as Bertinelli would never think identity theft is okay, nor stealing from innocent people, even if they are wealthy.

While Helena Bertinelli may be 'the Huntress who kills' she doesn't make this decision lightly as she knows full well the consequences of taking a life and how this decision can destroy her most important relationships. As a woman who doesn't have the luxury of having many friends to start with, she tends to want to hold on to the few meaningful relationships she does manage to make, and doesn't want to do anything that can compromise that.

To address another aspect of the post-Flashpoint Helena Wayne, DC did right to reunite her with Power Girl as this relationship enriches both characters. Where they messed this up in execution was in depicting these two adult women with the immaturity of teenage girls, thinking this would somehow appeal to younger women, and many of the 'jokes' came at Power Girl's expense. Whereas the pre-Crisis Power Girl was still depicted as intelligent despite some naiveté about Earth life, the post-Flashpoint Power Girl was reduced into a living embodiment of 'the dumb blonde' stereotype in order to present Helena Wayne as the 'brainy brunette.'

While the change was clearly done to avoid giving these two women the same personality, it was still an unnecessary change since Power Girl was already different from Huntress on the front of being a more aggressive fighter, lacking a filter, and being more bluntly honest with her thoughts, whereas Helena tended to show more restraint. Power Girl was also sorely lacking patience for detective work, whereas this was more Helena Wayne's jam. Both women were already flawed, different, and intelligent in their own ways without needing to reduce them.

Continuing the subject of relationships, DC also did right to reinstate Dick Grayson as an important relationship in Helena Wayne's life. Where they messed this up was in erasing everything that made the Earth-2 Dick Grayson identifiable as that character and turned him into some random bloke who had no history with the Earth-2 Wayne family.

In the current continuity, new Earth-2 Dick just happened to meet Helena Wayne's grandfather (who turned up alive and usurped her father's mantle) while the world was ending, and decided he should become the next Batman without Helena's permission because he found out other versions of himself were connected to Batman in some way.

We never once saw how the new Earth-2 Dick Grayson met Helena Wayne in the current continuity, nor did we see a relationship actually develop between them, nor did we actually see Helena Wayne make the decision to appoint this new Dick Grayson as the new Batman, or why she even made this decision.

Instead, DC was far more interested in selling Earth-2 on the gimmick of an alternate universe Batman, complete with his own version of the Justice League instead of on the actual ideas and characters that sell Earth-2 as a concept: the fact that it is the Golden Age Justice Society Earth where heroes appeared decades before the Earth-1 Justice League, complete with a generational history and legacy.

When discussing everything that went wrong with New 52 version of Earth-2 in general, it's a topic that deserves its own post. But the idea of this world containing DC's Golden Age continuity and being the home of the Justice Society, the All-Star Squadron, and Infinity Inc was all missing from the current iteration, along with the handful of characters that actually defined this Earth. The fact that the franchise itself was driven to the ground by a series of bad editorial directives and bad storytelling was also staple to the current iteration's demise.

Having said all that, what does DC need to do differently in the Rebirth era to course correct Helena Wayne for the current continuity? As a fan of the character first and foremost, I would advise DC to bring back the original version of the character from the pre-Crisis continuity as she is still the definitive version of the character.

With Justice Doom War on the horizon, this can be easily achieved by reversing the character's death and erasure in Crisis on Infinite Earths, and reinstate her with the Classic Justice Society as their Huntress. Reunite her with Power Girl and meaningfully explore how these two women would rebuild their lives on an Earth that isn't their own and how they would rebuild their relationships with the most important people in their lives. In their case, that would be the Justice Society, the Justice League, and ultimately the Batman and Superman families of Prime Earth.

I would love to see Helena Wayne reclaim her original profession as a lawyer and I would love to see Kara Zor-L continue her endeavours as the CEO of Starrware Industries. I would love to see the Huntress and Power Girl friendship handled with more care and respect towards both characters. I would also love to see them be given stories that meaningfully develop their characters and solidify their places as mainstream DCU characters. Lastly, I would love to see Power Girl interact with Supergirl more often, and I would love to see Helena Wayne meet Helena Bertinelli and see how these two women would interact with the differences they possess as two women who identify as the Huntress.

When it comes to Earth-2, I would honestly advise DC to bring back the version that appeared in Geoff Johns' JSA run from 2008 as that version upholds the original concept of the pre-Crisis Earth-2 JSA fans know and love, complete with the characters fans associate with that Earth. Instead of getting rid of the newer characters that appeared with the New 52 iteration, simply integrate them into the post-Infinite Crisis Earth-2, along with ideas that actually worked like making Alan Scott gay. Since that Earth-2 Alan Scott still has Jade and Obsidian as his children, explore what it means to be a gay father who also happens to have a gay son.

1 comment:

  1. I very much enjoyed reading your essay. I'm a huge fan of Catwoman, so of course I love her daughter. She was well thought out and portrayed in the Wonder Woman comics, then B&B etc. I also enjoyed the New 52 version, with her being a foodie and having been Robin. I've also enjoyed Bertinelli as a totally different character with the same name. I'd love to see E2 and E prime in the same new continuity. It would make for some excellent story telling, however with this being a boy's club that would be hard for DC to sustain. I look forward to reading your blog. Mona >^..^<