April 28, 2014

Judging the New 52: March 2014: Batman

The Batman titles are pretty much the bedrock of DC's New 52: strong sellers, critically acclaimed (for the most part) and topping sales charts when collected into trade paperbacks and hardcover collections. Batman itself is the best-selling title of the entire New 52 and regularly tops the list as the highest-selling direct market comic book each month.

Since September 2011 DC has published 15 ongoing Batman titles. Of these, only three have been cancelled - Batman Incorporated back in July 2013 (although that was a natural end rather than a sales-based cancellation), and both Batman: The Dark Knight and Talon in March 2014. That means 80% of the line is still ongoing. The average number of issues per title currently sits at 25.

All sales data is taken from Comichron, and is the estimated sales of comics via Diamond Distribution to retailers - that is, what went into the stores, not what was actually sold to customers.I will be removing sales from September 2013, however, when DC ran its villain month. Some titles had as many as four issues in that months, and others had none, and sales regularly bore no resemblance to the titles they were ostensibly a part of. It's clearer without them.

Charts are colour-coded: anything in green is safely selling about 40,000. Sales below 40,000 move to blue, those below 30,000 to orange, and those below 20,000 to red. Anything selling less than 10,000 copies is listed in black: dead book walking.

Batgirl
When DC announced that Batgirl would relaunch with original character Barbara Gordon in the role, there was a lot of apprehension. The character had spent many years as the paraplegic superheroine Oracle, and by 'curing' her disability DC appeared to be giving disabled readers a bit of a slap in the face. At the same time DC was coming off a critically acclaimed run of Batgirl starring fan favourite Stephanie Brown. Thankfully Gail Simone's writing managed to win most readers over, and has been one of the New 52's more consistently good titles.

The book kicked off in a strong fashion as well, lacking the sudden drop in sales experienced by some less impressive titles. The drop from issue #1 to issue #2 was only 8%. Tie-ins to major Batman events have helped to keep the book's sales strong as well, and this is something we're going to see through a lot of the Bat-books: issue #9 tied into "The Night of the Owls" and received a temporary 33% bump, and from issue #13 the book tied into the "Death of the Family" arc to score sales only a few thousand units shy of where the book launched in September 2011. Sales in the last six months have finally slipped below the 40,000 mark, but in today's industry that's still remarkably healthy. March 2014 sales were down 36% from March 2013, and 27% down from March 2012.

Batman
Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's run on Batman has been the New 52's star attraction, consistently outselling every other book on the market. The first collected edition is the New 52's highest-selling volume, selling more than 73,000 copies to the direct market alone (the nearest competitor among the New 52, Justice League Volume 1, has managed to see 43,500 copies in the same amount of time). It's also one of the best titles DC is currently publishing, boasting a string of bold, inventive and well-considered story arcs: "The Court of Owls", "Death of the Family" and most recently the epic prequel "Zero Year".

Batman's sales figures are a marvel, and the envy of the industry. The first issue sold a phenomenal 188,000 copies, with the second issue recording a mere 8% drop. Even 30 issues later the March 2014 issue (#29) sold 116,926 units, only 38% below where the book started. March 2014 sales are 15% below March 2013 and only 8% below March 2012. The issue #12 sales bump came from the much-hyped "Death of the Family" storyline, with another small bump occurring with the start of "Zero Year" in issue #21. Current sales are declining due to typical reader attrition: "Zero Year" is a 12-issue arc, so there haven't really been good points for new readers to jump on. Once the series returns to the present day in a few months I'd expect to see sales jump back to around the 130,000 mark or so.

Batman and Robin
I have really been enjoying Batman and Robin. It's retained the same creative team for its entire run, and has been consistently putting out strong storylines with rich characterisation. When Damian Wayne died in Batman Incorporated it was Batman and Robin that actually tackled the emotional fallout. Since Damian's death the book has been a sort of Brave and the Bold analogue, with Batman teaming up with a different superhero (or villain) each month.

While sales continue to sit above 40,000 per issue, I can't help but notice that Batman and Robin is suffering without Damian Wayne in the cast. Following a peak with issue #19 (which promised, rather insincerely, a Carrie Kelly replacement Robin) the book has pretty much consistently shed readers. Rumours are circulating that Damian is about to be resurrected, which wouldn't surprise me: this book needs him back badly. March 2014 sales (43,295) are down 43% from March 2013, and down 29% from March 2012. Stronger sales than many New 52 titles, but with Damian back they could easily be selling in the vicinity of 60,000 copies again.

Batman Eternal
It's too early to judge DC's new weekly Batman title, since we don't have April sales figures yet, but it's not hard to imagine this will be a solid seller - at least in the short term. The real question, and it's going to be difficult to assess this, is to what extent a $2.99 Batman comic every week is going to cannibalise sales from some of the lower-selling books? Is someone still reading Batwing or Birds of Prey going to keep buying those books if they're more interested in the storyline here? Of the three weekly series announced by DC this year (the others are Future's End and an Earth 2 spin-off), this is going to be the most successful.

Batman: The Dark Knight
Batman: The Dark Knight launched five months before the New 52 kicked in, pretty much as an excuse for DC to give David Finch an outlet to draw Batman. It was pretty awful. I haven't actually read a single issue of the New 52 version of this book, but sales-wise it's got a pretty stunning linear decline since its 6th issue.

That chart is a thing of beauty. This book has just been steadily bleeding readers for two years. In December sales dropped below 40,000 for the first time. March 2014 sales totalled 34,836 units, down 36% from March 2013 and down 54% from March 2012. DC cancelled The Dark Knight, so the March 2014 issue was actually its final issue. I'm not surprised to see it go, with declining sales showing no hint that things might improve and with Batman Eternal coming out and threatening to overload DC's output with Batman comics. At its current rate of decline, had DC continued to publish The Dark Knight its sales would have dropped below 20,000 in May 2015.

Batwing
I really liked Batwing when the New 52 launched. The idea of an African Batman was crazy but cool, and Judd Winick wrote a pretty decent take on the character, tying in David Zavimbe's past as a child soldier and ensuring that the book never disregarded the real state of law and order in central Africa. Sales, however, were pretty awful, so DC relaunched the book with rich kid Luke Fox, son of Lucius Fox, and re-located the character to Gotham City. So basically they took everything distinctive about the title and transformed it into a Batman clone. I was not particularly impressed.

Back in June last year I wrote about Batwing, stating that "I had this book pegged to end in August or October, but DC still haven't announced its cancellation. It's only a matter of time, though." We've now got solicitations available through to July 2014 and there's still no sign of the book being cancelled. It defies all logic. I want to know what strange contract writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti have with DC where a book that sells this shockingly low continues to get published. March 2014 sales were 9,864. There is not a single other book across the entire New 52 that has sold less than 10,000 units per month and not been cancelled. Most have already been cancelled by the time sales get this bad. Someone in editorial must really, really want this book to succeed. March 2014 sales were down 19% from March 2013, and down 48% from March 2012.

I just don't know what to predict with this book any more. I was certain it was going to be gone by now, and it's still here, selling even worse than it was last year. Your guess is as good as mine as to when DC finally call it a day.

Batwoman
Batwoman was possibly the single-most acclaimed book to launch out of the New 52, boasting intelligent writing by J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman, and outstanding and progressive artwork and layouts by Williams. It was a book with a turbulent life behind the scenes, however, as its creative team suffered through constant editorial backflips and last-minute demands for changes that constantly interfered with the story they were developing. I really enjoyed it, but the way DC cut the Williams/Blackman run off at #24 without resolving their story arc was a really petty, unprofessional thing to do. A follow-up run by Marc Andreyko and Jeremy Haun has been enjoyable, but not as good.

And as is the case with a lot of critically acclaimed books, the sales on Batwoman haven't been too great. It launched exceptionally well, outselling the better-known Batgirl. It fell off sharply over the next three issues, however, and has declined every since. With March 2014's issue #29 it slipped under the 20,000 unit mark for the first time, suggesting that Batwoman may be gone by the end of the year. To be honest, it pretty much serves DC right; it's just a shame that a great character is going to lose out because her publisher don't know how to properly run a comic book company any more. March 2014 sales (19,750) are down 37% from March 2013, and down 58% from March 2012.

Birds of Prey
I haven't read Birds of Prey yet. I loved the original series prior to the New 52, because it teamed up three great characters: Oracle, Huntress and Black Canary. With the New 52 Oracle has become Batgirl and Huntress is off in Worlds' Finest, so the core appeal for this book hasn't been there.

I'm wondering if I'm not alone, as the sales for Birds of Prey have not been strong. The book shed more than 50% of its readers in the space of five issues, and has steadily declined ever since. There have been a few tie-in blips - "The Night of the Owls" at #9, "Zero Year" at #25 - but it's been trailing downwards pretty much inevitably. The "Zero Year" tie-in aside, no issue has sold more than 20,000 units in the last seven months. March 2014 sales (16,795) are down 24% from March 2013, and down 36% from March 2012.

Catwoman
Catwoman launched in 2011 with fairly decent writing by Judd Winick and positively pornographic artwork by Guillem March. It's actually a pretty reasonable comic if you try to ignore the skeezier bits of the art. I haven't read past the first two trade paperbacks, so can't comment on how the book has been going more recently.

This is another Bat-book that benefitted from some key crossovers: "The Night of the Owls" for issue #9 and "Death of the Family" from issue #13. From issue #20 it dropped below 30,000 units, but the introduction of the "Joker's Daughter" from issue #24 has given it a momentary bump. Sales continue to decline, however, and it's likely to be into the danger zone of 20,000 units or less by May. March 2014 sales (22,236) were down 33% from March 2013, and down 36% from March 2012.

Detective Comics
Detective Comics opened to a pretty rough run under writer/artist Tony S. Daniel, with odd shock tactics (the Joker getting his face cut off) and generally poor writing. In the hands of writer John Layman and artist Jason Fabok, however, it improved significantly. It's just been handed over to Flash veterans Francis Manapul and Brian Buccelatto, whose first issue certainly popped off the page. It's got a lot of promise.

Despite declining sales, Detective Comics is still well above 50,000 units per month, and is one of the New 52's more solid sellers. The book got a huge boost with issue #15, which had a collectible "Death of the Family" cover, as did issue #27 which was an anniversary special issue. It will be interesting to see if the arrival of a new creative team give the book another boost: DC has been pushing it hard in internal advertisements. March 2014 sales (55,486) were down 27% from March 2013, and down 38% from March 2012.

Harley Quinn
I haven't read a single page of the New 52 Harley Quinn, which launched to great fanfare late last year. With the New 52 they re-envisaged the character from wacky court jester to sleazy stripper, and that pretty much eliminated all joy for the character within me. I notice there seems to have been a shift in her portrayal more recently towards roller derby girl over stripper girl, but she still comes across as a deeply icky representation of a once-great character constructed exclusively for an adolescent male gaze. Not that Harley Quinn needs my support: after debuting to 114,212 units the book has been surprisingly steady at about 63,000 units for the first three months of the year. Between January (66,363 units) and March (63,120) there's only been a decline of 5%. Assuming this trend continues, it looks like Harley is due for a long and successful run.

Nightwing
Nightwing has always been a pretty popular title, and this New 52 has achieved a pretty monumental achievement in that subsequent issues (#2, #15 and #16) have actually sold more copies than the very first. I've only actually read the first trade paperback, but I liked what I read and keep meaning to go back and read some more. It's recently been cancelled, however, and is getting a high profile relaunch in July as Grayson #1.

This book generally follows the pattern of other key Bat-books - spikes for "The Night of the Owls" and "Death of the Family". Issue #25 was a "Zero Year" tie-in. I can't help but notice, however, that in the past year the book been on a downward slide that it largely avoided in its first year. Perhaps DC aren't wrong to relaunch it and get some readers back. Certainly recent issues, which have tied into Nightwing's pivotal role in Forever Evil, haven't led to any kind of bump in sales. March 2014 sales (36,814) are down 24% on March 2013, and down 19% on March 2012.

Red Hood and the Outlaws
Red Hood and the Outlaws is one of my least favourite New 52 titles. It takes the easiest, tackiest route possible with all three characters: Red Hood, aka Jason Todd, Red Arrow/Arsenal, and Starfire. It ruins all three. The whole book is just an irritating, puerile read. Along with Suicide Squad, it represents a nadir for the line - overwhelmingly awful comic books that confirm every worst cliche readers have about DC Comics in the 21st century.

What I find interesting is that the sales of this book were remarkably strong for the first year and a half, and then post-"Death of the Family" it's basically been in a downward spiral. March 2014 sales (22,316) are down a quite staggering 48% from March 2013, and down 36% from March 2012. At this rate I can't see the book surviving far into 2015. Maybe once it's cancelled they can write a more appealing version of Red Hood, take that stupid trucker cap off Arsenal's head and give Starfire some clothes.

Talon
The final book among the Batman suite of titles is Talon. It was launched as a spin-off from the popular "Court of Owls" storyline and is distinctive for being one of the only New 52 titles to be based around a new character. I still haven't read more than the first issue, which was relatively entertaining but not so gripping that I felt compelled to buy the whole series.

Like a lot of new series it's struggled to find an audience - indeed, March's issue #17 was its final issue. You can't accuse DC of not giving the book a chance, but looking at the graph to the left it's pretty clear that it wasn't going to last. Not a single issue sold more copies than the one before it. March 2014 sales (13,956) were down 45% from March 2013. Note, however, that the final issue of Talon still sold 41% more copies than last month's issue of Batwing, which DC has solicited up to September at least. Seriously: why are DC continuing to publish that book?

1 comment:

  1. The new Harley Quinn series is very, VERY well written, and well worth a look. It's dark funny, which is something I'd love to see more of in any Bat book, the art is interesting, and the whole thing has largely redeemed the character for me (the redesign started in the computer games, I think, and was carried forth in a really creepy way in New 52 comics before now).

    Poison Ivy is also great in it.

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