April 23, 2014

Judging the New 52: March 2014: Justice League

It's been an age (well, 10 months) since we had a look at the performance of DC's New 52 line. I do wonder at what stage does the New 52 stop being called "the New 52", since it no longer consists of 52 monthly titles and has been around for two and a half years.

As with last time let's break the line down into its seven sales groups, beginning with the Justice League books. Since September 2011 DC has published 18 monthly titles as part of this sales group: 10 of them, or 56%, are currently in publication. The current average issue run of this group is 18.

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.

Justice League
No issue of Justice League shipped in March 2014, something that DC went out of their way to avoid until recently. It's not hard to notice the number of late books at DC in recent months, notably rolling delays surrounding the Forever Evil event series but also this, Superman Unchained, The Sandman Overture and a couple of others.

Sales have been declining pretty steadily over the past 30 months. There was a 22% bump in July 2013, coinciding with the Trinity War crossover event that led into Forever Evil. Sales in February were the lowest this title has seen since launch, with just over 80,000 copies sold - that's down 23% from February 2013 and 43% down from February 2012. Despite the decline, Justice League #28 was still the third-highest selling DC title of its month after Batman and Forever Evil. That's actually fairly impressive considering how mediocre the book has been. Despite some strong crossovers (notably "Throne of Atlantis" with Aquaman) this has been one of the more disappointing books of the New 52. With 80,000 in sales it's still in no danger of cancellation, but if I was DC I'd be looking at ways of making this book sell north of 100,000 copies again. It hasn't done that since September.

Aquaman
Aquaman has gone through a significant transition in recent months with the departure of writer Geoff Johns and the introduction of his replacement, former Marvel writer Jeff Parker. Paul Pelletier and Sean Parsons have remained on artistic duties, which has given the book some visual continuity at least, and Parker has by-and-large stuck to very similar storylines to the ones Johns was running.

Sales are declining here, however, and in the last four months Aquaman has sold below 40,000 copies for the first time. Sales are now around the same level as they were back in 2006 when DC relaunched the title as the pseudo-fantasy Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis, which only lasted 18 issues before getting cancelled. People are still reading, and the book isn't in serious danger yet, but in about 12 months it probably will be. This is always a problem with changing creative teams or individuals: a change is a good excuse for a reader to drop a title, and it's clear here that more people chose Aquaman #26 as a chance to jump off than jump on. (The jump at issue #15 coincides with the "Throne of Atlantis" crossover, and represents a brief influx of Justice League readers.)

March 2014 sales (33,907) were down 37% from March 2013, and down 46% from March 2012. Sales in the past 12 months really have taken quite a kicking.

Jeff Parker's been doing a solid job on Aquaman, and I've continued to enjoy this book since it debuted with the New 52. Since Johns departed it's arguably been even better, since Parker isn't as self-conscious about reminding the audience that Aquaman is a tougher character than the running jokes about him might suggest.

The Flash
The Flash is just about to go through the changeover that Aquaman has been through, with the writer-artist team of Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato jumping over to Detective Comics, and Green Lantern writer Robert Venditti stepping in to take their place alongside co-writer Van Jensen and artist Brett Booth.

Prior to the New 52 launching, The Flash was one of DC's more popular superhero properties thanks to a recent relaunch that brought back Silver Age Flash Barry Allen to the role. This popularity was reflected in the issue #1 sales: almost 150,000 copies compared to the 100,000 or so attained by the likes of Aquman or Wonder Woman. The book started much stronger, but then fell much harder: March 2014 sales (33,241) are only 666 copies below Aquaman at this stage. It's a pity, since this has actually been a fairly strong book. Certainly Manapul's inventive visual language and panel layouts have helped the book immensely, but for whatever reason it hasn't grabbed readers' attention like it should have. I can't imagine Venditti, Jensen and Booth are going to attract much in the way of fresh attention: expect this book to continue declining in much the same way as Aquaman.

March 2014 sales were down 20% from March 2013, and down 49% from March 2012. A brief jump above 40,000 copies occurred in November 2013, due to a crossover with Batman's "Zero Year" storyline.

Green Arrow
DC made what was seen as an incredibly foolhardy change to Green Arrow with the New 52, replacing the middle-aged goatee-wearing Oliver Queen with a much younger version of the character. Of course since then the character has featured in the highly successful television series Arrow, which features very much same younger, "edgier" take. Success in film and television, however, rarely translates to improved sales in the comic shops, and even since its launch Green Arrow has been plagued by declining sales and low popularity.

Sales fell as far as 19,888 in January 2013 before the book was relaunched with Jeff Lemiere writing. This move, while probably not as successful as DC had hoped (March 2014 sales are back down to under 24,000 copies), most likely kept Green Arrow on the shelves for another 12 to 24 months. Current sales are somewhat erratic, with unexpected jumps in November and February. March 2014 sales are down just 16% from March 2013, and only 9% below March 2012. If the book can stabilise somewhere above the 20,000 mark it will probably do okay in the long term. Given the jumps up and down in recent issues it's currently difficult to tell.

Green Arrow is one of the New 52 titles I haven't caught up with beyond its first few issues, which weren't particularly good. I have heard positive reports on Lemiere's run, but have yet to try them for myself.

Wonder Woman
DC made a bold move with Wonder Woman, handing the title over to prestigious creator Brian Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang and largely giving them free rein to create a dark, Greek mythology-based take on the character that would seem more at home as a DC Vertigo title than as part of the New 52. Azzarello and Chiang have remained on the title over the past two-and-a-half years (with occasional help from fill-in artist Goran Sudzuka), making this one of the most editorially and creatively consistent books DC has.

Given that this has basically been one continuing epic narrative, it's not surprising that Wonder Woman has been consistently shedding readers. It's very difficult to see a jumping-on point, whereas fatigued readers can jump off whenever they're tired of the book. In February 2013 the book dropped below 40,000 readers and - one gatefold cover issue aside - has been falling fairly smoothly since then. March 2014 sales are down 19% from March 2013, and down 40% from March 2012. This book hasn't been falling as sharply as The Flash or Aquaman, and I think that's down to the book's strong consistency.

I've really been enjoying this book: it's a bold, unforgiving book that hasn't really dropped in quality for its entire run. It is a very distinctive book, however, and I do wonder if DC might actually be able to find a market for a parallel Wonder Woman title with a more traditional super-heroic take. Certainly DC should give this book a serious stylistic makeover when Azzarello and Chiang finish their story, as I suspect it will gather a lot of attention.

Earth 2
Earth 2 has basically acted as an alternate take on the Justice League of America, freed up from continuity and thus able to take greater creative risks. It kicked off with Justice Society of America and Starman writer James Robinson at the helm, and after he left in somewhat acrimonious circumstances he was replaced by Injustice writer Tom Taylor, who has very much made the book his own and gained some critical acclaim along the way.

The book launched in May 2012 with more than 86,000 copies sold - this was pretty sensational for a book without a real core DC character at the helm. Since then sales have declined by 59% to a fairly respectable 35,295. If sales can stabilise around here, Earth 2 should continue to have a healthy run. What is odd, however, is that DC are launching a weekly series set in the same parallel universe: that's oddly confident for a franchise selling less than 40,000 copies a month.

In the past 12 months sales have declined by 24%, which is a bit higher than average, but as a younger series that is to be expected. Sales drops do tend to slow over time. I haven't read a single issue of this series, so I leave it up to others to say whether this book is worth supporting.

Worlds' Finest
Worlds' Finest has been a relatively enjoyable series, teaming Power Girl and Huntress together as a sort of female, less experienced version of the Superman/Batman dynamic. Paul Levitz, who created the Huntress, has been writing a book that's been solid but unexceptional, which is pretty much how the artwork has been going too.

A recent crossover with Batman/Superman has backfired slightly, via DC's weird decision to publish Worlds' Finest (containing part 4) more than a month ahead of Batman/Superman (containing part 3). I suspect this mix-up may actually hurt both titles a little going forward. In the case of Batman/Superman it's not going to push the series into any kind of danger zone, but in the case of Worlds' Finest it may actually help drive it beneath that dangerous 20,000 copy threshold.

This book launched alongside Earth 2 with 62,578 copies shipped, which wasn't promising to begin with. March 2014 sales were 25,676, down only 9% from March 2013 but down 59% from launch. The slow decline in the past year can probably keep the book kicking along for another 18 months or so, but by late 2015 I'd expect to see this book fold. Its characters can be easily folded into Earth 2 or a Justice League book without difficulty, so if DC aren't confident in it they may close this book even earlier.

Justice League of America
Maybe it's just me, but Justice League of America seems a weird book. It launched with the highest sales of any book in the New 52, and dived straight into the "Trinity War" crossover, followed by tie-ins to Forever Evil, and now it's slated for cancellation as of May with just 15 issues under its belt. For a book which such an important title in terms of legacy and DC Comics history, that seems ridiculously truncated.

The first thing to remember with Justice League of America is that first issue sales were not in any way indicative of popularity. DC offered 52 separate variant covers to retailers, which grossly exaggerated the initial sales. Issue #2 sales were probably a better indicator of demand, with 91,734 units shipped to stores. March 2014 sales totalled 54,349, down 41% from issue #2. As with Earth 2, the sales drop seems worse because the series is young: readers shed faster in the early months. On the other hand, this is a Justice League title: its issue #13 sales were 45% that of Justice League's 13th issue. That's actually hugely disappointing in context.

I read the first few issues of Justice League of America, but despite some nice artwork I got turned away by its grim'n'gritty attitude and weird, unlikeable takes of Hawkman and the Martian Manhunter. It's getting replaced mid-year with the new Justice League United (formerly Justice League Canada), which will probably give it a fairly solid sales bump - but I can't imagine sales won't drop back to the mid 50,000s by the middle of 2015.

Justice League 3000
This book is essentially a replacement for Legion of Super-Heroes, attempting to get better traction in the market by tying it into the Justice League and also by reteaming popular Justice League International writers Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis. It's also got Howard Porter on artwork, and he's doing the best work of his career.

To be honest it's way too early to determine the fate of this book, given it's been out for just four months. What we can do is compare those sales to earlier New 52 books at that level and see how they ultimately went. First issue sales on Justice League 3000 were 57,726. Talon launched at 53,000 or so, and its last issue (#17) sold under 14,000 copies. Based on that very loose comparison I think we can see JL3000 hang around for 18 months at least. With a strong loyal fanbase it could possibly even run a full two years.

I'm enjoying this book quite a lot, but its sales were probably hurt by a fairly clunky first issue. It's picked up a lot since then, so hopefully a few readers discouraged by that issue will give it a second chance.

Aquaman and the Others
The first issue of this Aquaman spin-off only shipped this month, so we won't have any sales data until early May. That said, I find it extraordinarily bold of DC to launch a second title for Aquaman when his first is currently slipping in the sales charts. You'd have to think that a secondary book is going to sell less copies than the primary book, and that doesn't bode well for it long-term.

I didn't mind the first issue, but I wasn't blown away either. It felt a bit too by-the-numbers and generic to really make an impact - and that's going to kill it. At the moment, going by gut feeling, I give this book 12 issues or so before DC cancel it.

2 comments:

  1. I feel bad saying it, but I'm rooting for the New 52 to fail and for DC to be forced to try another approach. As a DC reader since 1988, I've tried to enjoy the New 52, but it's bleak and joyless (mostly) and often has very bland and by the numbers storytelling. At this point I'm down to reading Green Lantern and nothing else, which feels strange, but I'm just turned off by the current take on the characters. I'm not surprised that every book is losing readers.

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  2. Almost all books lose readers over time, but I do agree that the New 52 is way too dark. Sadly DC seems pretty committed to it - I don't think we're going to see a reboot any time soon, but it'd be nice to see them lighten up and concentrate on simple good storytelling for a while.

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