April 29, 2014

Judging the New 52: March 2014: Superman

The Superman titles are an interesting part of the New 52. Let's be honest: Superman is a difficult character for DC Comics. He's hugely iconic, arguably more than Batman, and in merchandising sales alone towers over pretty much every comic book hero in the world. In practice, however, he proves extraordinarily difficult to write. There's a lot of clear demand for the character when these books launch: Action Comics alone launched with more than 200,000 units. That demands seems to slide off in the following months and years: basically, we want to read Superman, but we don't necessarily like the Superman comics that we get.

Seven Superman titles have been launched since September 2011. All seven continue to be published - although Superman Unchained is coming to a pre-planned conclusion with issue #9 - and the average number of issues per title is 20.

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.

Action Comics
The widely hyped launch of Action Comics was one of the biggest of the entire New 52. In fact, in terms of copies shipped to stores it only sat below Justice League. Grant Morrison promised a very bold, very contemporary take on the character: a young Clark Kent, just arrived in Metropolis, fighting crime in jeans, blue t-shirt and black boots. I adored the concept: it seemed to last for about four months. The subsequent year and a half become a rather complicated tale of interdimensional time-travelling revenge - exactly the opposite of the clear-cut fresh take that Morrison had seemingly promised.

Aside from small bumps for issue #0, Grant Morrison's finale (#18) and a "Zero Year" tie-in (#25), sales have progressively declined from 200,000 odd copies to a March 2014 total of 34,231. An aborted run by Andy Diggle - who left before his first issue was published, due to creative disagreements - probably didn't help sustain sales. Neither, I expect, did a few fill-ins by Scott Lobdell. By the time ace writer Greg Pak signed on with issue #25, and by the way he's doing a bang-up job of it, the bulk of Superman's potential audience appeared to have moved on. March 2014 sales are down 45% from March 2013, and down 63% from March 2012.

Greg Pak isn't just writing Action Comics: he's also the writer of Batman/Superman, a team-up book following on from the pre-New 52 book Superman/Batman. The book features artwork by Jae Lee, which is intricate and beautiful, but very much an acquired taste and a particularly odd choice for a comic teaming Superman up with Batman. I read the first story arc, and enjoyed it quite a lot, although there's an odd hollow tone to the book caused by Lee's relatively background-free art.

The book launched at 140,000 copies before dropping very sharply for issue #2: down 32% in one month. This reflect the sort of overheated nature of DC's big launches - I mentioned Justice League of America a few days ago, and this is a similar example. Since there sales have been declined in a pretty linear fashion: the book's progress can't have been helped by skipping March 2014, scuttling the chances of a Worlds' Finest crossover whose final instalment is already published but whose penultimate issue only shipped last week. The book now sells less than 60,000 copies per month, and this is likely to continue declining. The pre-New 52 volume, Superman/Batman, took until it's 38th issue to drop to this level.

Just before the New 52 launched, DC did a fantastic relaunch of Superboy. It was bright, warm, appealing and had the likeable Connor Kent at its centre. That got swept aside by the New 52, replacing it with an unlikeable book about genetic experiments and dark, miserable people. I hated the first few issues and haven't gone back. I believe DC has tried to re-invigorate interest through crossovers with Teen Titans and the short-lived Ravagers, as well as creative changes, but nothing has really pulled the book back.

It only took six months for its sales to half from launch. It dropped below 40,000 copies at issue #4, below 30,000 by #6 and below 20,000 by #22. Today it's definitely the worst performing Superman title, with sales likely to drop below 15,000 in the next two months. March 2014 sales (15,776) were down 35% from March 2013, and down 47% from March 2012. My gut says this book is dead: DC will retire it for a few years before relaunching it around 2016 or 2017 with a fresh take and hopefully a bit of levity for a change.

Supergirl hasn't performed quite a badly as Superboy, but it is still struggling to maintain an audience. I actually didn't mind the writing of the initial story arc post-New 52, but I do intensely dislike her weird skeezy costume. There was a lot of potential for DC to publish a bright, optimistic book for teenage girls, and instead they basically made yet another book for adult male fans. It's a deep pity.

Recent attempts to revive the title by making her join the blood-vomiting Red Lanterns seems to be making the situation even worse, on a creative level at any rate. Saleswise it's caused a bit of a bump, but nothing that seems likely to last more than another month or two. March 2014 sales totalled 22,883 - that's for issue #29. The previous, pre-New 52 edition of the comic only dropped to that level at issue #59 in December 2010. March 2014 sales were down 18% from March 2013, which isn't too sharp a decline, and down 31% from March 2012. The decline is slowly that many other books, but it's still a decline.

Superman just seems to be an unholy mess of a title. It ran a while with George Perez writing it, then Dan Jurgens, then Scott Lobdell, each replacement writer basically setting the bar that next step lower. I've read a little bit of it, but it's all been terribly unmemorable.

Of course it's an A-list title based on its name alone, so sales have generally been relatively high. It is declining, however, and significantly has now dropped below 40,000 units per month. That's a bit of a shame, as I imagine with a really strong writer and a bit of a marketing push it could easily be shifting north of 50,000 copies every month. March 2014 sales (33,633) were down 30% compared to March 2013, and down 49% from March 2012.

Superman Unchained
Superman Unchained is basically the shot in the arm that Superman needed, only instead of putting the storyline into that title DC elected to launch a third solo Superman book specifically for Geoff Johns and Jim Lee. This book has already been cancelled, ostensibly as part of a plan from the beginning, but I can't help but feel this series was initially intended to run for much longer but got truncated when Lee's slow working process kept delaying the book's release. I haven't read a single issue, so can't comment on its quality.

The first issue has insanely overheated sales - 251,456 units - so it's no surprise that it dropped sharply, down 34% to 165,754. Mind you, that's still the third-highest selling second issue of the New 52, after Batman and Justice League. Momentum was killed due to a three month delay between issues #3 and #4, with units shipped falling 19%. Another three month delay ran from December 2013 to March 2014. The most recent issue shipped 94,147 copies, down 31% from issue #3 in August. Given the prestige of the creators this book should be shipping north of 100,000 copies, and I'll be interested to see if it keeps slipping now that readers know it's ending.

Superman/Wonder Woman
One big change the New 52 introduced to Superman's character was hooking him up with Wonder Woman instead of Lois Lane. There are a lot of reasons I don't like this, the main one being that Superman is at heart Clark Kent in a superhero suit, and I don't see Clark dating an Amazonian demi-goddess in his spare time. At any rate DC have tried to capitalise on the Clark/Diana romance by launching this: Superman/Wonder Woman, a monthly team-up book. I haven't read a single issue.

We're still in the early days of this book with only six issues shipped, and while sales are declining that decline does appear to be slowing down. At this rate it looks like the book could coast along at a health 35,000 copies for a year or two without difficulty. Those aren't huge numbers, but are about in line with how well Wonder Woman's own book sells. March 2014 sales totalled 43,308, down more than half from the launch total of 94,859.

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