Seventy-three years ago this month, a strange new vision arrived in American pop culture, a brawny figure in blue with a flowing red cape and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. The character of Superman has flown on into film, television, video games and every imaginable corner of entertainment, but he’s always remained tethered to his first home – Action Comics has been published every month since June 1938 and, in April, became the only American comic book title to reach a 900th issue.
But, in a move that is either audacious or desperate — or a bit of both – DC Comics is making a break, at least in numbering, from the grand old series. In September, celebrated Scottish writer Grant Morrison and rising artist Ralph “Rags” Morales will start the series over with Action Comics No. 1, the 21st century version, which is one part of a huge initiative to a reach a new audience with a new interpretation of the Man of Steel and the DC Universe.
In most DC Comics, Superman is getting a costume makeover, that, as shown at the right, gives him a slightly more cosmic look (the lined blue costume and red belt and boots suggest alien-tech sleekness, and then there’s that higher, band collar) and a less Speedo-informed fashion sensibility (he loses the red trunks that he’s been wearing since the FDR years). The character will look even more different in Action Comics, judging by the promotional image further down on the right (and published here for the first time anywhere); that image might be the all-terrain version of his costume, or perhaps a one-time flashback to his Kansas farm-boy days?
DC co-publisher and superstar artist Jim Lee might speak to that particular mystery on Saturday when he appears at the Hero Complex Film Festival, the four-day celebration of pop culture, sci-fi and superheroes. Lee will take the stage with Geoff Johns, his collaborator on “Justice League” No. 1, which on Aug. 31 ushers in this whole new renumbering “event” (with 51 titles starting at No. 1 in September) that cannot accurately be described as a reboot of the titles. These will not be new origin stories, for instance, and key moments of the past will be preserved.
In a sense, it’s DC the company that is changing more than DC the universe. Dan DiDio, Lee’s co-publisher, is well aware of the fan angst in recent weeks, but he has bigger concerns. He is at the top of a publishing enterprise that is finding it hard to connect with young consumers who are far more likely to engage Superman as a video game than in the oh-so-retro pages of an illustrated pamphlet. The bestselling monthly comics sell only in the tens of thousands, even though Batman, the X-Men and Iron Man power billion-dollar franchises for Hollywood studios and toymakers.
“We’re trying to move not just the company but even our industry to new areas and new audiences and, hopefully, for a more healthy business — this seemed like the right time and the right moment,” DiDio said. “This is a refocusing of the energies of the company into a way that really pushes the medium toward the widest and best audience possible. This isn’t about turning around a single character or telling a new story. This is about repositioning the company for the future. What we’re trying to accomplish is to widen the breadth of our stories and the appeal of characters and go after different distribution systems.”
Along with the new numbering, DC will make all of its titles available digitally via the DC website and the DC apps on the same day they hit the shelves at comic-book shops. That’s a seismic moment in the industry, and DiDio joked on Thursday that he might be working on his resume if this brave and bold charge into the unknown falls flat.
The numbering of comic book issues is an especially tender subject, and it goes beyond the obvious and considerable weight of tradition. Collectors also covet the first issue of a popular series, so the move by DC has been called a cynical stunt by many. DiDio says those fans are missing the bigger picture. “It’s more than over-boiled, I think they’re underestimating what this is that we’re doing,” DiDio said.
One thing that is clear: Among the top heroes, none of them will change more than Superman and Wonder Woman. The changes, such as a notable but still-secret shift in the status quo at the Daily Planet, will be met with fan ranting, but of course that’s part of the relationship here. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s apathy, and DiDio and his team will be more worried when fans aren’t debating comics and their true or proper mythology.
It’s routine for DC and rival Marvel Comics to selectively ignore years of published history; the lives of characters like Superman and Spider-Man are like the most famous beaches of the world — you recognize them when you see them, but on closer inspection they change constantly with the times, the tides and the Spandex fashion sensibilities. In the 1990s alone, Superman endured marriage, death and a mullet haircut, all changes made by editors, writers and artists looking for some new way to spark reader interest.
This feels different, though. And, through all of those changes, the venerable Action Comics kept going, the sun that always came up on the shifting sands of that creative coastline. That ends with issue No. 904 in August, and plenty of fans are upset about it. But Lee says that during the last few weeks, as DC has rolled out the new plan in a series of dramatic announcements, he has watched the fan and retailer reaction go from angry knee-jerk to an intrigued engagement. Lee, perhaps the most popular artist in all of comics the past 25 years, said the tide of fan opinion is turning and that he’s seeing people “retract some of the early statements.”
The stab into the digital marketplace, and retooling characters to shed decades of back story, is to make the comics stories accessible for all those consumers who have never read a comic book but might consider it after watching the “Smallville” series finale, seeing “The Dark Knight” on cable television or noticing all the new billboards with Ryan Reynolds in the glowing emerald costume of the Green Lantern.
DC and Lee learned with a recent (and unrelated) Wonder Woman costume redesign that fans and pundits get stirred up by any change to the iconography of heroes, but he said those risks must be taken on because new generations tend to smirk when they see the tights-and-capes look that seemed so cutting edge in the radio days of the 1940s. He said a “certain level of fearlessness” is needed among the artists, who should be inspired by the past but not paralyzed by it.
“If you do it right, you want the character to be recognized as the iconic characters they are, but at the same time you want to update some sensibilities … if you’ve been reading comics for a very long time, you can kind of overlook the bright colors and the design. You internalize them and see them as normal or acceptable,” Lee said. “If you saw someone walking down the street in that, you would view it as odd … [so] when they were interpreted and put on screen and in video games, modifications were made, and now the question is why in the world of comics should we be any more beholden to these designs?”
Lee points out that the history of Superman is really a thousand different histories that stretch across media. “Part of the fun of comic books is it’s not just one iconic book that is set in stone forever. It’s a massive, decades-long collaborative work that is unlike any other work in the history of literature. And that’s one of the things we love about it.”
– Geoff Boucher
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