The Future of Superman Comics

With the changes in the Direct Market and DC comics along with the news of Bendis leaving Superman I’ve read a few pieces this week about what the comics industry should do next.

The venerable Superman Homepage had their contributors each write about where they would take the Superman comics now that Bendis is leaving.

The even more venerable Gerry Conway—co-creator of Power Girl, writer of Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man among many other things—had a long tweet thread about where he thinks the Direct Market has gone wrong and how he thinks it should pivot.

Both of these connected a theme I’ve had in my head. What would I do if I was in charge of Superman comics? Let’s not say the entire Direct Market, but if Superman could set the standard, the rest of the books would follow. It wouldn’t be the first time. Let’s look at where we are at now and what ideas have been floated. 

Right now there are two main Superman monthly titles: Action Comics and Superman. There is also the 100-Page Comic Giant which contains a new 12-page story plus reprinted material and is first sold at Walmart for $4.99 (funny that a comic just made for Walmart is labeled as $4.99, but then sells for $4.98 because prices at Walmart all end in .98). The book is then repackaged with a new cover at the same price for the Direct Market. The new stories are sold digitally as Superman: Man of Tomorrow for $.99. Superman is a regular character in the current Justice League (volume four) and in Batman/Superman (volume two). Superman also appears in the various crossover or high profile event books DC publishes. Within the last two years this has included Doomsday Clock, Event Leviathan, Dark Knights Death Metal, Heroes in Crisis, and Strange Adventures.

A major point Conway makes about the current state of the industry: the periodical publishing strategy is geared towards people like me. People that have been reading comics for decades and know every twist in the convoluted continuity.

Conway is right on the money here (read the whole thread it’s worth it). The only book in my above paragraph that could be considered new reader friendly” is the 100-Page Comic Giant. Which can be found in the collectible aisle of Walmart for a dollar more than a typical monthly comic book. Because the book is a large percentage of reprinted material it works as a way to push readers to book stores to buy collections of popular storylines rather than pick up new monthly readers. I don’t claim to be an expert on DCs finances, but my basic understanding is a considerable portion of their revenue comes from this channel. Monthly books are written for the trade paperback collection and they are always looking for the next big evergreen graphic novel.

Conway’s solution can be summarized in three points:

  1. Publish a completely new line of comics aimed at a Middle-Grade readership with no events and light to no continuity.
  2. Create a higher priced graphic novel line with adult storylines that isn’t monthly for existing readers (like me)
  3. Get the periodicals into supermarkets, movie theaters, Walmart, Target, Costco, Subscriptions on Amazon

Out of the Superman Homepage contributors, Michael Bailey had the most specific idea for where he thinks they should go next. Keep the two main Superman titles; have Action Comics be an out-of-continuity book for whatever stories the creators want to tell and Superman would be the ongoing locked in continuity book we get now. An entire book like the 12 page new stories in the 100-Page Giant. The other contributors had vague guesses as to what maybe they’d like to see happen in the story rather than a direction for the line. Craig Boehmer mentions that he vehemently disagrees with Bendis’ decision to age up Jon Kent despite having not read the stories. I have a hard time giving credence to uninformed criticism. He refuses to see the possibility that a teenage Jon gives (like the Legion of Super Heroes and the impact on Clark of missing a part of his son’s life). He then goes on to say the books should focus on the Superman family despite that being exactly what is happening right now and talks about Zod and his son in the Phantom Zone despite them both being on New Krypton and that already being a major part of the book. Tony Parker adds The identity reveal will surely be retconned, and we might even see Jon again.” Jon was in this week’s issue, Tony, what book are you reading? Outside of Bailey’s idea for a way forward it seems the staff there wants a Superman we’ve already seen before.

What do I want? Conway has some great points, but I think he misses that the current Direct Market customer (me) likes the serialized storytelling. The ritual of going to the shop week after week to get the latest installment is part of the draw of comics. They are our soap operas. But he is right about the completely new line of comics aimed at a Middle-Grade readership. If we took this idea plus Bailey’s idea I think we’d get close to my ideal answer. Action Comics is the title with the longest legacy (1025 issues and counting). Let’s say DC published this book under their Black Label line for the direct market. Monthly, but in seasons or chunks like an Image Comics book or television series. The time in-between story lines can allow artists to do longer prestige format issues, but keep them coming monthly during the stories for the serialized aspect. They should have high production values and tie in with the other Black Label books. They can do events the same way they do the television crossovers. Collect these in hardcovers and trade paperbacks down the line to get the book store market. This book doesn’t need to be dark, it’s Superman. I’d say the current tone of the Bendis run works well. They aren’t kids stories, but they are still starring our Boy Scout. You can then copy this approach with all of the A-list super hero titles. For lesser know characters that creators want to try out or even introduce they can do them as a miniseries. But keep this exclusive, monthly, comic shop format. This format will also work for the trade waiters”, comic fans that don’t buy the monthly periodicals but wait for the cheaper collections. Because they have the space between storylines or seasons the books will lend themselves to the evergreen collection better.

Next we have the Superman title (let’s give it a new number one; why not). This can be the middle-grade reader book. Harry Potter is geared towards a younger reader, but can be enjoyed by everyone. Same approach here. Light continuity, readers won’t need to know anything to jump in. Sell it everywhere, everywhere. Conway’s Amazon subscription idea is genius. Print it on cheap paper so kids can feel like it’s disposable. These books should cost no more than $2. It needs to be cheap enough that when a kid throws it in the shopping cart their parent won’t put it back. To compliment this, DC should also publish both a Supergirl book and a Superman Family book. Superman Family would have a rotating cast. Jimmy, Lois, Steel, Superwoman, Krypto, New Super Man, Superboy, whomever. These books need to be accessible and include characters every kid can identify with.

As kids grow and get more interested in comics they can graduate from Superman to Action Comics and the stories will grow with them. They’ll become regular readers. There is a path to the Direct Market.

In short: give long time readers a better version of what we want and we’ll buy it. Plus create something to bring in new readers that shouldn’t go away. Your move DC Comics.

September 25, 2020

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