DC Comics announced they will restart their universe—again—and relaunch 52 titles at number one with a modern reinterpretation. Their goal is to boost sales and create more compelling stories. So how likely is it to work? People can speculate and offer argument after argument, but the best way to answer that question is to sit back and see what happens. For those who don’t want to wait that long, a quick look at history will do almost as well.
Restarting the universe is not a new idea. In fact, it’s a rather old idea that companies continue to try. Restarting a title at number one has also been done before. The results are increased initial sales then quickly drop back down, and the characters usually revert to who they were before the clean start. Many times the issue number reverts back as well. Here are just a few examples.
The Silver Age
The Silver Age of comics began with the relaunch of the Flash in Showcase followed by a new version of the Green Lantern. Both were very successful and gained their own titles and their Golden Age version forgotten--at least for a couple of years until the Golden Age Flash met the Silver Age Flash in Flash 123. After that all the forgotten Golden Age stories reappeared and became a separate universe.
In the 1970s DC tried once again to reinvent their characters "for a modern audience". Superman became a TV reporter and Kryptonite became extinct. Robin grew up and Batman moved into the Wayne Penthouse. Wonder Woman lost her powers and wore white. Green Lantern teamed up with Green Arrow and tackled social issues.
So how well did this reboot go? Wonder Woman regained her powers after a few issues, and Green Lantern’s magazine was cancelled. The changes to Superman and Batman lasted nearly a decade, but sales were still very weak.
Crisis On Infinite Earths and Man of Steel
In the 1980s, DC decided to reboot their universe again with a mega crossover event (which became standard each year and was less impressive with each outing). The multiple universes were collapsed into a single universe. Superman was relaunched with the Man of Steel miniseries and a new title Superman by then superstar John Byrne who made several big changes such as leaving Superman’s parents alive and making Lex Luthor the head of an international corporation. He also went back to work at the Daily Planet and Kryptonite reemerged. Wonder Woman also restarted from day one courtesy of George Perez. Batman received a new origin thanks to Frank Miller and Year One, but much his 50-year history was kept. Flash was killed and replaced by Kid Flash who took over the mantel.
So did this mega relaunch work? Well, John Byrne’s two years on Superman did hit see increased sales, but they tanked once again after he left. And DC continued to license the old version of their flagship hero. Batman's sales soared, but it was mostly due to the Tim Burton film adaption of the character.
In the early 1990s, Marvel Comics was home to the hottest artists of the day until they decided to leave and start their own company selling millions of copies of their own titles while Marvel’s once stellar sales plummeted. The company faced bankruptcy. So they convinced a few of their former superstars to come back and restart four of their worst selling titles in a stunt called Heroes Reborn.
The result? Initial issues sold well, but it wasn’t long before sales dropped, and one of the superstar artists was dropped after only six months. Twelve issues later everything went back to normal.
Around the year 2000 Marvel thought the reason they weren’t selling more comics was because the issue numbers were too high and new readers didn’t think they could jump on board because of all that history. So they restarted many of their titles at number 1 including Amazing Spider-man, Spider-Man: Peter Parker, Thor, Hulk, Daredevil, and others.
And surprise! It didn’t work. Marvel soon returned their books to their old numbers, first by showing both on the cover, then just using the original.
And there were more and more and more
These weren’t the only attempts at relaunching characters or an entire universe. Superman Y2K, the aftermath of Batman No Man’s Land, Zero Hour, the Ultimate Universe, Green Lantern: Emerald Twilight, Green Lantern: Rebirth, Superman: Secret Origins, and WorldStorm are only a few other failed attempts. Most of these garnered some media attention and sales increased for awhile, but it never lasted. And many of the changes were soon discarded or mixed in with what came before.
So what has worked?
So should comic book companies just leave their characters the same with no change? Is there nothing they can do? Are they doomed to failure?
Of course not. There have been many successful “revitalizations” of characters, but it hasn’t been erasing the past and starting with a blank slate. It has always involved embracing the past and expanding on it in a consistent way. (Did you catch that word, consistent?) Changing a character’s gender, race, or motivation isn’t edgy and creative—it’s suicide! There have been many reimaginings that have been very successful and been embraced by all versions that came after, and all of them were true to the core of the character.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is considered by many to be the greatest comic book series ever, not because Frank Miller turned Batman into a new and different character, but because he reverted back to the original Batman and let us see inside his head.
The Elektra Saga took one of Marvel’s least popular characters in a struggling bi-monthly book to being one of the most popular characters a best-seller by looking at the essence of the character (he’s blind and plays both sides of the law) and really explored that using Elektra as a dark reflection of what he could have been.
Batman: The Animated Series is regarded by many as the greatest version of Batman ever, not because they created a new version of Batman, but because they gleaned the best his 50+ year history.
The Marvel movies Spider-man, X-men, Iron Man, and others were box office blockbusters, not because they presented new versions of these characters, but because they presented the classic and essential elements of these characters using the best stories form their 30+ years of publication.
Smallville was an enormous success (at least the first five seasons), because they didn’t try to change young Clark Kent, but brought in elements of his now 60+ year history and showed how his family life and friends lead him to become the hero we all know and love.
There are some other considerations a lot of people overlook. When comics first began, they were new and cool. They were four-color and pictures, which compared to the black and white text heavy pulps they replaced, were new and eye-catching. They also cost a dime and could be found anywhere, because they were sold on newsstands and newsstands were everywhere. They featured bright costumed characters (Superman and Batman were originally “costumed characters” not “superheroes”), which again stuck out. After a decade, comic books were no longer the cool new kid on the block, and more and more was being produced in color due to advances in technology. The comic explosion of the late 1980s and 1990s was due to better artwork and better printing to show off that artwork. Before then comics looked and were being produced much like they had been 50 years before.
If comics want the sales explosion they had in the Golden Age and the Dark Age, they need update the format in addition to embracing the history of the characters and expanding on it in a consistent and respectful way. They also need distribution beyond a few dying specialty shops. The digital revolution seems to be the most likely route, but it isn’t the only one. Comics could survive and even have a resurgence in print if they could find a way to gain universal distribution like they once had, and if they could contain content as cool and compelling as video games, the current pop culture superstar at a price consumers deem a “good value”.
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