The Zeroes and The Ones: Jeff Checks in on (Some of) DC Digital

September 12, 2014
Digital Di

Digital…of a sort.

Who am I to second-guess a theme column?  While piling up a bunch of stuff I haven’t talked about on the podcast (or didn’t talk about much), I recognized a pretty solid connection in the following.  I’m sure you’ll pick up on the connection much faster than I did (what with it being in the title and all).

ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #16: In so many ways, this is exactly the kind of thing I want from my Superman title:  working with a crew of artists and colorists, Joe Keatinge tells a Superman story that begins at the end of the world and ends at the end of the universe, filled with people telling stories about Superman, and along the way you get Frankenstein’s Forbidden Army, Mr. Mxyzptlk, Kamandi (the Last Astronaut on Earth), and a variation on the Unknown Superman.  It has a golden-age, silver-age, and I guess what you’d call Wildstorm-age Superman, and it’s ambitious as hell, a lot of Morrison, more than a little Moore, with a sly spritz of Gaiman.

I really wish I’d liked it more.

As with the three issues I’ve read of his Marvel Knights: Hulk book, Keatinge openly rewrites continuity, which is an efficient way to shorthand: (a) anything can happen in the story since it’s out of continuity; (b) helps draw attention to the aspects of the character Keatinge is playing up; and (c) paints Keatinge himself as a bit of a cheeky bastard.  All well and good, but this issue really didn’t deliver anything to me to justify that kind of gamesmanship: a thesis about the sense of possibility and surprise and delight Superman (and, by extension, superhero comics) are capable of is going to suffer when the evidence provided to support the thesis feels a bit too much on the derivative side.

Also, unfortunately, there were way too many artists working in way too many styles without, frankly, the chops to make those styles satisfying or expressive (even the stuff I responded to the most strongly–Brent Schoonover’s Darwyn Cooke-esque golden age stuff on pages 2-9–fell short by the end), so the book read as more of a muddle than a melange.

So it didn’t really fry my burger, but…I also appreciated it and I’m glad it’s out there?

BATMAN ’66 #14:  Oh, good will, what a fickle thing you can be!  I mean, I loved pretty much everything about this issue, including how deceptive the cover is: there, the “BatRobot” is thirty feet tall or more, promising all kinds of kaiju-esque battles. Inside, however, the “Robot Batman” is somewhere between seven to ten feet high.

The Robot Batman is The Batman's Robot.

The Robot Batman is The Batman’s Robot.

And yet, like I said–that somehow makes me love this issue even more.  Writer Jeff Parker is much smarter than me, so a lot of times his more sly jokes bounce right off my thick, fat head.  But I felt like everything really clicked here for me and everyone working on this was on the same page:  this is very much a Silver Age Batman story, with Silver Age concerns (rejection, obsolescence, anxiety about change) and Silver Age tropes (duplicates, scientific wonders), disguised as an Adam West Batman story, so the deceptive cover really works. I mean, sure, eventually it got pretty roundly beat by Marvel, but…DC’s Silver Age formula worked devastatingly well for a good long period of time. Why aren’t there more conscious attempts to recreate it when doing the all-ages books?

There’s also some really good Batman ’66 stuff in here too (a perfect celebrity cameo for the window-climbing scene, pitch-perfect dialogue from the villains, I loved the rowboat  Bruce and Dick go fishing in is called “Old Chum”), but…yeah.  This worked for me really, really well and is in many ways is *exactly* what I want from my DC Digital books.  Protip:  it’s a dollar cheaper to get the print copy than it is to buy it digitally? (???)

Rainbow Ghosts

“Rainbow Ghosts.”

SCOOBY-DOO TEAM-UP #6:  Okay, I thought I’d get into this at the end of all the reviews but here’s a thing I find confusing: if I’d bought the three parts to the Adventures of Superman story above, it would have cost me $2.97 instead of $3.99 for the print copy.  That Batman ’66 story would’ve cost me $3.98 digitally, instead of $2.99 in print, and this issue of Scooby-Doo Team-Up will probably cost me $1.98 digitally, but is $2.99 in print.  I’m paying $0.99 digitally for each installment of Sensation Comics, which probably means it’ll be $2.97 for each digital issue that’s $3.99 in print.

Now, I’m sure there are a lot of factors to take in consideration as to why those prices break down the way they do–I’m not sure if it’s this way every month, but the $3.99 print books are 30 pages of story, and the $2.99 books are 20 pages–but I feel they send out a very weird message.  If I’m feeling generous, that message is probably “don’t price by the line, price by the product” or maybe “don’t worry about the print editions, we’ll price them as needed to cover our nut.” But it feels more like “we are either not paying any attention to how our digital line looks to any customers in the direct market, or we are not paying any attention to how our digital line looks at all.”   If nothing else, I think good marketing and sales practices should be about reducing the number of obstacles a potential customer has to clear between picking up the product and paying for the product, right?  So why would you put a system in place where the digital customer has to consider whether or not they should wait for the print version and save money, as I would’ve with Batman ’66, or a direct market consumer has to wonder if they’re shouldering the financial burden for a company not hurting for cash to build a presence in a different marketplace?

Admittedly, more than forty years of binge-purchasing brightly colored disposable pop product probably has me a little more sensitive to most to the feeling the people who are selling me said product view me as a sucker, but…I think it might be healthier for all involved if DC Digital had a little more branding or sub-branding or something. The truth is, I do feel like a bit of a sucker for paying more than ninety-nine cents per installment of a digital comic, even one where I know there are great justifications for the higher costs (like Bat-Manga‘s translation fees) or there’s a case to be made that I’m getting the digital book “first.” Like nearly everyone else on the Internet, I’m more than able to argue out of both sides of my mouth, so the “shelfless” nature of digital is a huge advantage to me… until I feel like it’s an advantage I’m being charged for, and then I’m quick to break out the fact that I can re-sell hard copies of comics and therefore digital should cost less.  Maybe I’m alone in that regard–god knows I’ve had discussions with people who told me they thought ninety-nine cents was too much to pay for a digital copy of a comic–but, if nothing else, I do wish it didn’t seem like I spent more time thinking about this than whoever’s got their hands on the wheel over at DC Digital.

Oh, and Scooby-Doo Team-Up #6? It’s great.  Sholly Fisch knows how to craft a script that riffs on the history of both the Scooby gang and their guest-stars (in this case, the Super Friends) while rarely moving getting clogged with in-jokes, and artist Dario Brizuela has a clean, attractive style with a lot of old school virtues (man, remember when comic artists used to be able to draw to scale? boy, do I miss that).  I also really appreciate how Fisch keeps the action high in this book–there’s a lot of running around, a lot of action, while also keeping a sense of there being something at stake.  We had our niece over for a sleepover last weekend, and I broke out a couple of comic books to read aloud and it was a little surprising to see how quickly she got bored by stuff that was too frenetic as much as she did by stuff where there was too much talking.  This was one of the few that hit the sweet spot, and kept her absorbed all the way through. Really top-notch.  I’d be happy to be paying $3.99 in print for it (to the extent I’m actually happy paying $3.99 for any comic?) because it does what it’s supposed to do so well.

SENSATION COMICS #1-5: Sorry, let me move back to my Monday morning quarterbacking chair because it’s very, very comfortable (although I’ve never cared much for the design of the splat, I have to say).  I think it’s absolutely great that they’re doing a Wonder Woman comic that’s coming out weekly for digital at ninety-nine cents a pop. I don’t doubt there are people at DC Digital who care about this project and are trying it as a way to see if there is indeed more of a market for different approaches to Wonder Woman stories out there.

But…

I feel like handling Wonder Woman on digital the same way you handled Superman in digital is a good way to end up with the impression that digital customers find Wonder Woman just as uninteresting as they did Superman.

Sort of the same way Superman’s weakness is the planet that birthed him, I sometimes see superhero books as being super-vulnerable to the same free-market brute capitalism that allowed them to initially thrive. If the goal of a Wonder Woman anthology book is to test interest in Wonder Woman, I think it’d be a good idea for the company to do more to suggest it is actually interested in Wonder Woman.  In short, although I did not like the initial story very much at all, I thought it was fantastic DC launched with Gail Simone and Ethan Van Sciver.  Even though the story read to me like something that had sat in a drawer for a good long time, and even though Van Sciver starts relying on a lot of silhouettes to get through the second half of the story, there was at least a glorious illusion given by Part One that DC takes Wonder Woman seriously enough to pay top-drawer talent top-drawer prices to create a comic.

Again, maybe this was just me, but the digital Adventures of Superman comic was such a mix of barely-tested talent and established names slumming for a check I never seriously thought I’d subscribe to the book digitally.  Now, I can list several outright successes on that title for me (Parker & Samnee’s debut, the Rob Williams and Chris Weston story, that Ron Marz & “Doc” Shaner story, the Ordway & Rude OMAC story), some interesting failures (Keatinge & Co., Landis & Jock), and probably some stuff that was great that I just flat-out missed.  But there were a lot of issues that felt more like one step in the circle of life for the comic book industry–try out new talent at new talent prices and see what happens.  Maybe that’s supposed to look like a vote of confidence?  You know, “we can have anyone write or draw Superman because the only people who will read a Superman anthology title are the people who will buy Superman no matter what.”

All of which is to say: although I enjoyed the second story by Amanda Deibert and Cat Staggs much more than I did Simone and Van Sciver, it was a little bit rough around the edges, and the next two installments that have come out–“Brace Yourself,” by Jason Bischoff and David Williams about how Princess Diana got her bracelets, and the first part of “Taketh Away,” by Ivan Cohen and Marcus To, about the gods stripping Wonder Woman of her powers–are flat-out rough as hell, yeoman’s work.  I’m absolutely super-thrilled Kristy Quinn has Gilbert Hernandez writing and drawing a Wonder Woman story for this title…but if ever there was a time to run an exclusive preview story by David and Meredith Finch, a one-shot by Geoff Johns (you know he has one) illustrated by Tim Sale, or entice Greg Rucka back for an arc or two, or now that Amanda Conner’s name has more heat to it…

I mean, I get it: when you’re paying top-drawer (or, hell, even really good mid-drawer) talent to work on a title you’re serializing in ninety-nine cent bites?  The chances of you making your money back are probably slim.  But the question is: do you really want to see whether or not your character can find a new audience in a new marketplace?  Or is this just what it looks like when a few people push their passion project through a cookie cutter?

This isn’t just me Monday Morning Quarterbacking for the love of it, by the way.  Remember how I told you there were only a few comics that completely absorbed my four year old niece?  Wonder Woman is her favorite superhero, and there was indeed a Wonder Woman comic that was perfect for her: Wonder Woman issue #0 by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang. I grabbed a digital copy of the book when Comixology had it on sale for (yup) ninety-nine cents.  I more or less had to read it to her twice she was so into it.  I still don’t know if Azzarello was taking the piss when he wrote that story, but it’s one of the ones I’d gladly buy all involved a beer or two for.

Ultimately, when DC sends out a press release and does a round of interviews talking about Sensation Comics and how important Wonder Woman is…but then pays Darwyn Cooke to do all their alternate covers for a month?  It sends a very clear message what DC really has their faith in. If they could bring that kind of faith to the digital market–a faith in more than green strips adorned with the pictures of dead presidents–maybe we’d really have something.

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2 comments on “The Zeroes and The Ones: Jeff Checks in on (Some of) DC Digital

  1. BrianMc Sep 12, 2014

    I never got into more than a few issues of Adventures of Superman, because they seemed to be a mixed bag of meh. I also felt as I tried some of the early issues that it seemed like each team was going over the same territory in a way that killed my enthusiasm.

    Yet I really wished I was into it. I’m hoping to stick through Sensation because I really want DC to treat Wonder Woman right. I’m with your niece re: favorite superheroes. But yeah, Simone/Van Sciver kinda sucked, the second was okay but rough. The bracelet one was dumb, I thought, but interesting and had some heart, so, sure.

    Your prescription for improvement is spot-on. I hope this thing ramps up.

    BTW, a great digital take on Wonder Woman was the arc of Smallville Season Whatever that introduced her to the Tom Welling universe. I’d follow that as a continuing series.

  2. David Morris Mar 9, 2016

    Scooby-doo Team-Up is often well reviewed and yesterday I decided to give it a try with #15. It’s a story where the gang work with the Flash. The story is as engaging as I’ve been told, but I was disappointed with the art. Dario Brizuela is clearly a capable artist, whose style is suited to this book, but his use of photoshop as a short cut let’s the work down. The worst example that I caught was the 8 times he used the same picture of Daphne. There are other multiple uses of the same image and plenty of times where there are not, a certain awkwardness of composition leads me to think he’s slapping stuff together from an image bank. It’s possible that this is not usual practice for him, some emergency led to him having to rush his work in a way he wouldn’t otherwise do. I’d be grateful if fans of the series would look at other issues to see if this is the case. At present though, this isn’t a comic getting more of my money

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