Throughout the month of September, DC Comics rebooted the entire DC Universe, creating 52 brand-new number one comic book issues and adding simultaneous print and digital distribution, all with an eye on attracting brand-new readers to DC's published offerings.
With DC claiming that their relaunched universe is "new reader friendly," for the past four weeks (week one, two and three) CBR has been putting that statement to the test, giving brand-new readers the each one of the new issues (for an interesting counterpoint, check out the reader survey on CBSBG). We then had each reader weigh in on whether they understood who the main character was, if they understood the main story or if they needed prior knowledge in order to get the book, and if after reading they were interested enough to go out and buy issue two.
It's time for the grand finale, CBR Litmus Test style.
Twelve new readers stepped up for this final week of number ones, a group comprised of people new to comic book reading, a couple of lapsed readers and two people who like comics but have never read a single DC offering before. As with past weeks, these new readers are roughly split between male and female, skewing slightly female again this week (the first two weeks skewed slightly more male). As well, while the past three weeks' readers' ages have ranged between 20 to 30, this week we added two outliers: one 57-year-old man who used to be a DC Comics fan as a kid; the other a 14-year-old boy who buys Marvel Comics regularly but has never read a DC comic in his life -- until now.
After four weeks, 52 books and 43 new readers exposed to their publishing slate, has DC achieved its goal in making books appealing to a brand-new audience? Or did they only succeed in alienating the very same new readers they are so ardently trying to draw in?
Let's find out.
THE TEAM BOOKS
Justin, a returning reader whose response to last week's "Catwoman" was to mime vomiting for ten solid minutes, decided to give DC another chance. A lapsed comics fan, he has genuinely enjoyed team books such as "Generation X" in the past and so agreed to try "Green Lanterns: New Guardians" on for size. How did it go?
Unfortunately, not well at all. "It's pretty remarkable how dated and pre-dated some aspects of these characters are. The Green Lantern guy is a newspaper cartoonist. Was an American Online rep not sexy enough?" Justin demanded to know.
While Justin felt he had a basic grasp on the story, Amy, who is completely brand-new to comics, said she had to re-read the issue several times just to understand the basic story and was still out to sea on who Kyle Rayner is.
"I was confused as to why Kyle was getting power -- though that will probably be brought up in later issues -- and how he was able to accept himself so fast and was already fighting crime so soon," said Amy. "I had to re-read the parts where the superheroes were getting their rings taken away, as it took me a little while to realize what was happening."
This title is also one of the few whose art actively bothered our readers. "Here's what confused me -- when GL drew a picture of another character, it was done in the same drawing style as the rest of the comic," Justin told me, labeling it "super-weird" within the context of an all-cartoon world. "Man, that's why you're a failing cartoonist -- you draw everything hyper, photo-realistic. It's distracting," Justin said, berating the fictional character.
Both readers were slightly more onboard with "Teen Titans," though they again rolled their eyes at the "ripped from the headlines" attributes given to Tim Drake.
"Red Robin was a 'blogger' and 'wikileaker.' Hello, time capsule," said Justin.
Justin and Amy were able to understand the comic, however, and trusted that later issues would explain what N.O.W.H.E.R.E. was and Wonder Girl's history -- though Amy seemed to be under the impression that the Titans were Clark, Diana and the other DC heroes as teenagers rather than their teenage sidekicks.
"It was funny, full of action and it was fun to see everyone as teenagers," said Amy.
Would they buy issue two? No to both, though Amy said regarding "Teen Titans," "I would definitely pay money to see a movie based on this." No to a $3 comic but yes to a $12 movie? Strike one this week for attracting new readers to comics.
Movies were on the brain again as the highest praise brand-new comic book readers Curt and Sara had for "All-Star Western" was that it felt like, well, a movie.
"I enjoyed the narration feature in the Jonah Hex comic because it felt like you were watching a movie -- like we, as readers, were really a part of the discoveries," said reader Sara. Both enjoyed how complex the comic was, with Sara praising the art specifically, or as she called it, the "graphic element."
"[It] was eerily real and disturbing, and the characters themselves were fully fleshed out in a more detailed way [than in 'Blackhawks']," Sara told me.
"Yes!" Curt cried, summing up his reaction to the whole issue.
The aforementioned "Blackhawks" garnered a less positive response as neither reader quite understood what the nanocites were, what, exactly, they did to people or why one had to be bitten in order to transfer the nanocites.
"Is he some kind of computer-based vampire?" Curt demanded to know.
"It was a bit unclear whether she had been implanted with the tiny robots or if she was radioactive or something," Sara agreed. Citing the multiple characters as being particularly difficult to keep straight, our readers were otherwise able to follow the story as they were familiar with "the general concept of the elite military team," said Curt.
Would they buy issue two? Yes, to the continuing adventures of Jonah Hex for both. Curt was mildly curious to see more of "Blackhawks," though not enough to purchase issue two.
After watching the "Dark Knight" movies, brand-new comics reader Elizabeth was up for reading "Batman: The Dark Knight," primarily because she assumed Batman was a DC Punisher, ready to murder at the drop of a hat.
"I'm not familiar with many previous Batman comics, so I don't know the stories, but my assumption was that Batman would have killed all his former foes like Two-Face," Elizabeth cheerfully told me. As a result of this murder-happy view of the Caped Crusader, she did not understand why there were any villains in Arkham Asylum as in her mind everyone who crosses the Bat ends up in a shallow grave -- with Batman doing a little jig on top of it. When she told me she thought the murder-light comic was "Borrrring," I took a minute to check my locks.
New reader Jessica was much less bloodthirsty, citing her favorite part of the comic as the "mutated Two-Face," and both readers told me "Dark Knight" was straightforward in terms of explaining characters and story.
The girls also felt they could basically follow "Superman," though Jessica thought the issue was picking up an ongoing, pre-September storyline as she didn't know, "why Superman had been gone so long."
"We were just sort of thrown into the action of this issue," Jessica added.
Elizabeth was also confused as to how many aliens there were, though unlike her reading of "Dark Knight," she was ok with the lack of killing in "Superman" as she felt Superman was a "legit dude."
"He seems like he actually cares about the world, which I think is ultimately more interesting. His code of ethics is more clear to me," Elizabeth told me before pausing and continuing. "Also, let's face it, he's hotter than Batman."
Would they buy issue two? Jessica, who has read comics before but never DC, said she was ready to buy issue two of "Dark Knight." Elizabeth, however, who is brand-new to comic books in every way, told me that reading these two just reinforced all the negative stereotypes she ever heard about the medium. "I don't like the hyper-sexualized women and enormous, muscular men, or the uber-capitalist, corporate, urban setting," Elizabeth confessed, passing on both titles -- and possibly comics -- for good.
Brand-new DC readers Amy W. and Gaby were completely in the dark when it came to "Justice League Dark," their reactions ranging from "lost" to "confused" to "difficult to follow."
"There was one page for Constantine -- and then we never saw him again. They didn't explain Batman's relationship to Zatana or show us why June Moore was important to the story. I was pretty lost," admitted reader Gaby. Lacking basic knowledge of the DC Universe's magical characters meant neither new reader had any idea who any of the book's stars were, or what exactly their powers entailed.
"I needed a little more information about the different characters and why there were different from the 'normal' superheroes," added Amy.
"I, Vampire" and "Voodoo" were much easier for the readers to handle as they felt they were starting from scratch. In fact, even though "Voodoo" was a preexisting WildStorm character, both readers thought she was brand-new, while they were convinced "I, Vampire," had been going on for a while.
"I didn't understand why, if Andrew is a vampire, he also turns into a wolf-thing," commented Gaby. Maybe that's for the second issue?"
Both also decided that Priscilla's story was the "most linear" and "clearest" of the three. "Though it is sort of part of that vein, where a hot chick is actually a crazy demon alien, so it's a bit cliché," Gaby told me.
This was also a turn-off for Amy who, despite understanding the two comics, was not interested in learning more about any of them, saying "I wasn't really captivated by any of the stories."
Would they buy issue two? That's a yes from Gaby on "I, Vampire." Amy sent me a frowny emoticon for the other books I'm taking as a no.
THE OTHER SUPERHEROES
This was the group I was most interested in, as this was the new reader group with the most divergent comics experience. While Eva had never read a comic book before, DC or otherwise, she has expressed interest in getting into comics in the past. Adam used to read "X-Men" as a kid but never got into DC, and was really committed to giving the comics a shot when I told him about the New 52. This group also contained our two outliers, 14-year-old Austen and 57-year-old Andy.
Our youngest reader over all four weeks, Austen loves Marvel Comics. Loves, loves, loves Marvel Comics. I cannot stress enough how much he loves Marvel comics. Wait, yes I can -- he loves Marvel so much he would take a bullet for Joe Quesada and use his dying gasp to tell all onlookers they should really give "World War Hulk" a try (if he gets two gasps he'd try to sell you on "Incredible Hercules"). Austen is precisely the kind of new reader DC needs: young and already dedicated to going to the comic shop every week. If DC can bring him into the fold, he'll most likely prove as loyal to them as he is to Marvel.
On the other hand, 57-year-old reader Andy was a big DC fan when he was Austen's age, buying as many new and used Green Lantern, Batman and Superman comics from his town's Five and Dime as he could. Though he left superhero books behind to get into the R. Crumb underground comics scene in high school and college, Andy has always been interested in graphic novels and science fiction and was curious about the relaunch, casually suggesting in our conversations that I could send a comic his way.
With three readers actively trying to get into comic book reading and one open to exploring a brand-new comic book universe, this seemed like it would be a slam-dunk for DC.
And then they read the comics.
"Seriously, I have no idea what happened," was Austen's first words to me about "The Fury Of The Firestorm: The Nuclear Men."
"It seems there was some fire going on, some water, or at least red and blue," Adam hazarded when asked about the plot.
"And they are still fighting each other as the enemy escapes? What a couple of morons!" Andy groaned.
There were a lot of things all four readers could agree on with "Firestorm" -- there were two main characters, "the black nerd and the white jock." They also all agreed that after that, every one of them might as well have been guessing when it came to story.
"Not to sound like a grandma, but it was so instantly violent that I was really turned off," said Eva, stating another thing everyone agreed on. Not a single reader could tell me who the bad guys were, as they were uncertain if the villains were supposed to be terrorists, corporate agents or government agents -- Austen gave up and just began referring to them as "the stabby people." Everyone also stated that they had no idea how the Firestorm power worked.
"The stabby people want [the Higgs Boson] and say they're going to shoot him. They ask him if he has any last words. Then the black one yells, 'Just one: Firestorm!' and then -- something happens," said Austen.
On this, everyone agreed: "something" happened. Just don't ask them what.
"Aquaman," or as Andy called it, "the Rodney Dangerfield of super heroes," was slightly more to the new readers' liking, though all were uncertain why Aquaman did not want to be King of Atlantis and wished they had access to more backstory. As Marvel is Austen's point of reference, he also kept comparing Aquaman to Namor.
"I have a clear picture in my mind of who Aquaman is because I read a lot of Marvel Comics, so my basic grasp of Aquaman is that he's Namor the Sub-Mariner," Austen said. "When people made fun of Aquaman, he just corrected them by saying he doesn't talk to fish -- whereas Namor would have killed the people making fun of him and declared war on the land dwellers." This pro-land war stance was a point for Namor and a point against Aquaman in Austen's eyes.
"I think I like the idea of 'Aquaman' more than I liked this actual version of it," said Eva.
While Andy thought the comic was meant for "kids," Austen was not impressed with the what he felt was a simplistic monster story. "Did the fish monsters just find out that 'up' exists? Because the comic does nothing to indicate that they were in a cave or somehow sheltered from looking up," Austen commented.
"There were a whole lot of ocean demon people. Who were those dudes?" added Adam.
"'[The Savage']Hawkman' was just really cool," Eva told me, the first glimmer of hope DC had out of this group. She immediately amended that with, "Granted, there seemed to be more than the average amount of plot points you're just supposed to take at face value -- aliens, people-infesting goo, the fact that Hawkman seemingly can sprout not only wings, but his entire wardrobe as well."
"Was the suit its own person, or was that another separate person? I would like to know how he obtained the Nth metal before I can trust it as a thing that exists," Adam agreed, though like Eva he was able to enjoy the comic despite not understanding anything about Carter's back story. Austen and Andy, however, were less taken with the comic.
"The main character is Hawkman, except it's dark so he doesn't want to be Hawkman or something," was how Austen summed up the issue.
"Why do all aliens eat scientists (or innocent fisherman)?" Andy wanted to know. As he used to be a scientist, I think he was a little biased. He then expressed an interest in reading a second issue -- only if, in that issue, a monster eats Hawkman.
Fourth time was the charm with the three older readers when it came to "The Flash," a title that was hands-down the most understandable of the bunch for everyone. "This one was the most clear, thorough, detailed and interesting comic I read," Adam said.
"I understood the story," agreed Austen.
"I felt like there was so much more connecting the main character to the plot of the story, as opposed to just some random super hero fighting general injustice. It's that bit about the friend being mixed up in the whole thing that would keep me reading," Eva agreed.
"[The] storyline was well developed, even in first few pages; the story is not too complex, but has various subplots and themes running throughout," Andy added. He also felt of all the issues presented to him, "The Flash" was the closest to comics he read as a kid.
Our modern day kid, however, was not impressed, offering a summary of the issue. "Flash trying to find love and Flash trying to find out how a guy he beat up near the beginning of the comic died. He also has a friend who implies way too often that Flash needs a girlfriend." Austen told me yes, he completely understood the story, and no, he did not care to read another issue.
"I'm sure there are much better DC comics," Austen concluded.
Would they buy issue two? "Hawkman" and "Flash" had readers Eva and Adam reaching for their wallets, and Adam wanted to give both "Firestorm" and "Aquaman" one more shot as reading the comics reinvigorated his interest in super heroes. "I definitely forgot how much fun I used to have reading comics, so now I am going to get my head all back in it," Adam promised.
DC failed to win Andy back, or Austen away from Marvel, however, and while both were marginally interested in reading more "Aquaman," neither were prepared to spend money on monthly issues.
Though Austen was interested reading more if I ::cough cough hint hint:: kept buying them for him, only five new readers were compelled enough to buy a second issue on their own. When combining the results of the entire month, out of 52 books our reader groups came to a positive and unanimous consensus that they would buy the second issue of ten of them. Altogether, 20 of our 43 readers were interested in reading more comics.
Whether you agree with the relaunch or not, it is a smart business move for DC to cater to new readers, make their number one issues as reader friendly as possible, and to retread origin stories in order to hook a new generation on the brand.
At the same time, DC literally cannot afford to alienate their current readership, fans who do not want to see origin stories retold for the millionth time, who do not want their favorite characters tinkered with and who have an emotional connection to existing DC continuity. Seeking to have its cake and eat it too with their soft reboot, at the end of the month, we can say that DC's claim that every single issue is new-reader friendly is obviously untrue among our group of participating readers.
But, as we said in week one, part of the charm and the draw of comics is slowly learning more about the worlds, and many readers enjoy being dropped into the middle of a story. Even if not every single issue is new-reader friendly, were enough of them compelling to make new readers want to learn more anyhow? With 20 definite comic sales coming from 20 new readers, the answer is yes, right?
Well, maybe not.
Some of our readers had heard about the relaunch and knew what it was about. However, without fail those readers were all people who were lapsed readers, had read comics in some other capacity before, or were connected to the entertainment industry and thus had kept abreast of the announcement for work. When it came to those I approached to participate in this test, the news of the relaunch had not reached a single reader not already familiar with comics in some capacity. If your business objective is to bring in new readers yet your marketing is inaccessible to them, you have a problem.
In addition, even our participants who had heard of the relaunch were clueless when it came to where to buy the comics digitally, many people telling me they had never heard of comiXology while others thought that they could buy the comics directly over iTunes rather than as in-app purchases. If your business objective is to use digital comics to expand your readership, yet those new readers have no idea where to buy those digital comics, you have a problem.
And while 20 continuing readers out of 43 is inarguably an excellent number, not a single one of them said they would have searched out the comics on their own. Again, no brand-new reader had heard of the relaunch. Most new readers had never heard of the comic characters and had no idea the comics even existed. The reason these 20 new readers will be buying a second issue is not because of DC's marketing but because we actively gave them a comic book -- and while friends lending comics is a great way to get new readers, this method has nothing to do with efforts on DC's part. Based on our anecdotal evidence, DC has failed to reach greater mainstream consciousness and is marketing to its existing audience of comics' readers, not to a brand-new market. And, of those who told me they'd be back for more in October, there is no guarantee that after they buy issue two they would be issue three -- after all, about a third of those 20 readers told me when I followed up they mainly wanted to see if issue two could hold their interest, and if not, they were out.
In fact, the best tool DC Entertainment has for bringing new readers onboard is not comics at all, but their other media: the animated TV shows and their live action films. Even our new readers who had never picked up a single comic in their life had heard of Batman, and the better a character was known through other media the more likely new readers seemed to be to understand the comic and give it a second shot. In fact, looking at the ten books that our readers unanimously chose to read a second issue of, nearly every one is tied to existing media in some way: Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, etc. If DC is serious about getting new readers, it needs to step up its game in tying their comics to their TV and film properties -- this is the marketing that is reaching mainstream America.
THE FINAL SCORE?
DC may manage to steal existing readers away from Marvel and other companies, and their comics definitely tempted a handful of our lapsed readers. The first couple of New 52 issues will see a sales upswing for DC Comics, absolutely. But when it comes to increased long-term readership growth, only time will tell.