DC Comics has been nothing if not ambitious in the last few years. The DC Rebirth relaunch was just the beginning, paving the way for a slew of new imprints like Young Animal, Wildstorm, DC Black Label and the recently revealed DC Vertigo relaunch. Then there’s “The New Age of DC Heroes,” an imprint devoted to spotlighting big-name artists and new characters. More than any other initiative this year, The New Age of DC Heroes embodies the kind of publisher DC is striving to be. That’s why it’s so unfortunate that the line has so utterly failed to live up to its promise.
On paper, The New Age of DC Heroes sounds like exactly what the comic industry needs. It focuses on new characters and storylines in a time when DC Rebirth had put so much emphasis on familiar, iconic heroes. It gives creators a blank canvas on which to paint while still letting them play in the DC sandbox. Perhaps most importantly, it gives these creators more financial incentive to bring their ideas to DC, with a profit-participation plan in place so these creators will reap the rewards if these characters should make the jump to other media.
Despite all of this, none of these books has been a critical or commercial smash. That’s despite the early hype DC placed behind them and the fact that the line is a direct offshoot of the wildly popular Dark Nights: Metal crossover. Even having A-List names like Jim Lee and Ivan Reis on board doesn’t seem to have moved the needle. Normally, Lee is one of the biggest draws in the industry. Every time he’s begun a new run on a DC superhero title, dating all the way back to 2002’s Batman #608, his first issue has debuted at or near #1 on the Diamond sales charts. Yet in April 2018, Immortal Men #1 only managed to reach #22, not even breaking 50,000 copies sold by Comichron’s estimates. Readers seem to be largely unmoved by these books.
Readers aren’t turning out because, for the most part, these new series haven’t been particularly memorable. They generally make one of two fundamental mistakes. Some of these new books are too reminiscent of existing superhero franchises (Sideways and Spider-Man or Damage and Hulk, for example), bringing to mind the early years of Image Comics and the way books like WildCATS and Youngblood seemed content to rehash popular X-Men tropes rather than blaze new ground. Others tend to blur together. Between New Challengers, The Unexpected, The Terrifics and The Immortal Men, there sure are a lot of new teams charged with exploring the fallout of Dark Nights: Metal. As much as this line is dedicated to bold storytelling and new ideas, that sense of energy and excitement hasn’t necessarily carried over to the comics themselves.
It doesn’t help that, for all DC has made the artists the focus of these new titles, most of the original artists haven’t remained on board these books for very long before moving on to other projects. Tony Daniel only drew three issues of Damage before jumping over to Batman. The Unexpected may be the most frustrating example. Ryan Sook only drew part of issue #1 and is only credited as cover artist for issues #2 and #3, yet he’s drawing Man of Steel #3 this month. I can’t speak to whatever personal/professional reasons these creators may have for leaving these books and pursuing other work. However, seeing a new book advertised as being the brainchild of one artist, only for them to be replaced by another artist a few months later, feels like a bait-and-switch on DC’s part. If they’re not dedicated to building up these books over the long term, why should readers stick around?
And it’s a shame. I truly wanted this new initiative to succeed, both because it’s always good to see publishers emphasizing new and different ideas and because the profit-participation system is extremely important. DC and Marvel alike have lost a great many talented creators to the indie comics world, where having an established reputation and fanbase can often result in much more money and creative freedom. I wanted to see the New Age of DC Heroes model extend outward and become the standard at DC. But given the lukewarm reception to these books so far, that seems less likely now.
The failure of this line also casts a shadow on the new imprints DC has in the works for 2018. In particular, I worry about the success of the recently revealed DC Vertigo lineup. Here is another case where DC is bringing in big-name creators (many of whom hail from outside the traditional comic book industry) to tell groundbreaking new stories. The books and creative teams sound great on paper, just as the New Age of DC Heroes did when it was announced last year. But will the execution be better in this case? Can the new DC Vertigo line find the audience that The New Age of DC Heroes has so far failed to attract? Will DC learn from the mistakes made here?
I hope so. If DC Vertigo flounders like The New Age of DC Heroes has, DC may eventually be compelled to stop taking risks and resume focusing on its core franchises. As much as I love Superman and Batman, the DC Universe needs more variety if it’s going to thrive.
“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly column from Jesse Schedeen that focuses on the world of comics. You can see more of his thoughts on comics and pop culture by following @jschedeen on Twitter, or Kicksplode on MyIGN.