Wednesday, July 18, 2007

DC Countdown

I was preparing a long entry for this weekend on DC Comics's weekly Countdown series, but since Heidi at The Beat reported "that [Andrew Hickey] the guy who was going to blog about it every week has quit" reading the series, I thought it would be worthwhile to chime in now. Phil Looney also makes some good points on his blog, explaining why he dropped the series after the fifth week, and I've had interesting online discussions on the subject with Jim Shelley and Chris Sims that have formed the basis for this entry.

I'm sorry to see Andrew Hickey drop Countdown, though I don't blame him for doing so. I was, however, enjoying his blog on the series, especially as he became increasingly disenchanted with the series, and his criticism was precise, articulate, and often funny. I hope he continues to use his blog to comment on and analyze this particular phenomenon, even if he isn't buying the series anymore.

Personally, I stopped buying Countdown after six issues (though I have kept reading it), and I want to use this entry to detail my feelings about the series in particular and about the direction DC is heading in general. In particular, I'm concerned about what the Countdown brand says about DC's attitude toward its readers and what it may mean for the future of the company.

To be honest, I wasn't real enthusiastic about Countdown from the beginning. The reason for my disenchantment came about at the end of the previous weekly series, 52. I ended up enjoying 52 more than I didn't, and its strengths have been detailed in many places, including Phil's blog: the series had a clear plot, it was self-contained, Keith Giffin provided a unified visual style, etc. However, the "World War III" story pointed to a serious flaw in that series that put me off to DC's plan for another weekly comic. When 52 was originally introduced, DC made claims that it would not only tell the story of the year without Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, but that it would also fill in the gaps from the "One Year Later" jump in the regular DC books. When it became apparent by week 50 that the latter goal would not be achieved in any immediate way, the World War III spin-off books were used to ham-fistedly force some last minute explanations for some of the changes that occurred (and Dan DiDio did own up to the fact that plans changed for the series during its composition). This soured me on the whole project--though I bought the 4 spin-offs in order to complete the story that I had already invested 50 issues into, I wasn't going to make the same mistake and commitment to another weekly series. So, while reading 52 did have its rewards, I had the nagging feeling that a "bait and switch" had taken place.

I would also combine that feeling with a kind of "weekly comic ennui"--I was growing bored with the idea of another year-long commitment to a series, and I was looking forward to the opportunity to free up $10.00 of my monthly comic budget at the end of 52. Therefore, Countdown's higher price tag made it less appealing, as well. Then, as the multiple spin-offs were announced over the past two months, the price tag for the series has grown to the point that it would almost cost my entire monthly comic budget to follow this one story. Based on the main series and the 9 spin-offs that have been announced, including the two 52 spin-offs (52 The Aftermath and Crime Bible), a reader following all the Countdown related comics would be buying 106 comics at a cost of $334, and more spin-offs are on the way. This number also doesn't include the regular series issues that are tied in to Countdown, or the other major events going on in the DC Universe, such as Amazons Attacks, The Sinestro Corps War, The Outsiders, and the Black Canary/Green Arrow Wedding. Once you add those in, as a means of keeping up with the increasingly complicated and intertwined DC Universe, the cost becomes astronomical. I'd be willing to follow any one of these stories at a time, but definitely not all at once.

This economic issue may prove to be the most significant cause of Countdown's failure, if the series does indeed fail (and it's already performing below 52's numbers), but the economics of Countdown seem consistent with the business model DC has been following since Infinite Crisis. Though the company pays lip-service to the idea of drawing in new readers, little evidence of that appeal can be found in the continuity-heavy (what some call "continuity porn") events the company has put out over the last three years. Instead, the primary goal at DC seems to be maximizing the amount of money that they can draw from their existing reader base--a base familiar with decades worth of stories and the minutiae of shared-universe continuity. It sounds better to say that a company is trying to bring in new customers than it is to say they are trying to milk their existing customers as much as possible, so their public statements would, out of necessity, need to emphasize the former. And I believe with Countdown we will see the limits of that strategy. To this end, it will be important to pay attention to the sales figures for Countdown and the spin-offs. In the first month, Countdown already lost 30% of 52's readership, and while 52 maintained amazingly consistent numbers around 100,000 for the entire year, I would expect Countdown's numbers to continue dropping. But the real revelation will be in the performance of the spin-offs, because here we'll see the power of the Countdown brand in action. I would guess that The Search for Ray Palmer one-shots and The Death of the New Gods will perform close to the regular Countdown series. But what about Lord Havok and the Extremists, for example--a series with no past history in the DC universe? Other than fans of Frank Tieri's writing, I can only imagine this series will appeal to the hardcore DC loyalists and Countdown completists. I think we can extract from the sales numbers of that series just how many of those readers there are.

There are, of course, weaknesses to Countdown as a story, and many of the company's public statements on the series do not match with reality (Andrew Hickey has already detailed these well). I would also add a personal disappointment with all the errors that have creeped into the series, such as the reference to "The Tomorrow People" instead of "The Forever People" in the New Gods recap from issue 45. Such sloppiness indicates a lazy approach to editing a series that needs to be accurate in its relation to continuity. And I don't doubt that the series would be doing better, and the blogosphere would be less agitated, if Countdown had truly kicked ass out of the gate. But I think, for all those weaknesses, that readers would have had more patience with the series either if 52 had not happened, or if DC had taken a year or so break from weekly comics to allow readers to get enthusiastic for the concept again. As one commentor noted on The Beat, many of the story complaints we are hearing now were also levied at the beginning of 52. But then, there was a greater willingness to be patient.

While Andrew Hickey lasted 10 weeks, most other commentors on the subject that I've read say that they bailed around week 5 or 6. If making comparisons to a weekly fictional TV series is valid, as has been done by both DC and outside commentators, then 5 or 6 weeks is a couple of weeks longer than most viewers will retain their patience before moving on, let alone 10 weeks. With the anti-Countdown backlash, I believe we are seeing what amounts to an erosion of loyal readers who, in good faith, wanted the series to be good, but when faced with diminishing returns and the promise of an even bigger financial commitment down the road, they jumped off early. At best, the remaining readers who ride the series out to the end should provide a snapshot for DC of their hardcore, loyal readership.


Phil Looney said...

Great analysis Dr. K. The one guy I know of who is still on board for Countdown is a totally DC guy.

Jim Shelley said...

Dr. K, that was absolutely brilliant! I think you are right on target with you analysis, and I for one am much more eagerly awaiting DS's sales reports over then next few months than it's actual comics. :D

What's so interesting is that at this very moment, Marvel seems to be hitting such a spectacular home run with their WW Hulk event.

It's like I told Chris Sims. DC should not have gone with CountDown. Instead they should have gone with...

...wait for it...

...World War OMAC!

(Jack Kirby's OMAC - not the blue unich versions.)

Dr. K said...

Jim, I would definitely buy a series where OMAC came from the future to wreck shit in the present. The strength of World War Hulk is that it is such a perfect high concept, whereas we don't even know what the concept is of Countdown yet.

Anonymous said...

"Lord Havok & the Extremists" is about as continuity-porn as you can get. It's a shout out to a story from the Giffen/DeMatteis JLA/JLI days. Good story at the time, but I really question the value of returning to the well on this one.

If you ask me, the only DC event that's worth reading right now is Johns's work on Sinestro Corps, which has been rilly kewl.

Dr. K said...

Brendan--Thanks for the reminder about the JLI story: I have those issues, too, but forgot the names of those characters. So, rather than saying they have "no past history," I should have said "a limited past history." And I think the point holds up: are there some hardcore Lord Havok fans clamoring for the return of these characters?