The DC Comics New Reader Litmus Test: Week 2

Mon, September 19th, 2011 at 11:58am PDT

Comic Books
Josie Campbell, Staff Writer

This month, DC Comics is releasing fifty-two brand new number one comic book issues, which the publisher claims are new reader friendly and designed with those who have never read DC comics in mind. Last week, CBR put this to the test: we gathered thirteen readers, people both new to comics and the DCU and asked them to read one of the issues released that week. We then asked if the books were actually new reader friendly based off three criteria: Did they have a clear grasp of who the main character was? Were they able to understand the story, or did they need prior knowledge in order to enjoy their issue? And are they interested enough in the comic to drop money on issue number two?

In the end, four readers said they both understood and would buy a second issue of their comic, with "Action Comics," "Justice League International," "Detective Comics" and "Green Arrow" making the cut.

Now it's time for round two.

Thirteen new DC books came out last week so we again gathered thirteen readers, asking them the same three questions as before. In the interest of mixing things up, these new readers are comprised of people who have never read comics, five of last week's readers returning to give DC a second shot and readers who have read comics before, just never DC. Like last week, new reader ages range between 20 to 30 and are split between male and female, skewing slightly more male. To get a wider pool of responses, our readers read multiple books this week so we could compare and contrast reactions. Please bear in mind, though -- this is an informal test group and not a scientific survey (a scientific survey would include math of some sort, I have been told).

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THE LANTERN BOOKS

There was one clear winner when it came to the Lantern books, and that winner's name is Atrocitus.

"He even loves his pet cat!" new reader Brendan gushed after putting down the issue. Brendan, who has read comics before but never anything set in the DCU, loved the murderous Lantern he labeled as "fearsome, but also surprisingly doubtful and vulnerable." He also felt that despite knowing absolutely nothing about the various Lantern Corps, the issue allowed him to dive right in.

"It actually does a pretty artful job of filling in all the origin background on the Corps, the Watchers and Atrocitus by simply having a point of view on all the events at hand, rather than just dryly laying it on the table," Brendan explained.

According to brand new reader Jim, however, the same thing could not be said for "Green Lantern."

"I'm completely new to the Green Lantern universe, so the fact that so much backstory is going on -- Hal's already lost the ring, has already been a Green Lantern for a while, has already had a relationship with his girlfriend -- made me want to go to Wikipedia," Jim told me.

"'Green Lantern' feels like a soap opera that's been on for years," Brendan agreed. "You're picking it up half way through an episode half that's half way through an arc."

While both Jim and Brendan said that they basically understood the story and characters in "Green Lantern," the fact that "Red Lanterns" was actually brand new made it easier to get onboard. In fact, Brendan confessed that the reason he had never read a DC book before was because continuity had scared him away. "I tried picking up a trade paperback of 'Infinite Crisis,' or 'Infinite Earths,' or whatever, and within, like, three pages, I was wondering, 'What the Hell is going on here?'" Brendan said. But with the Lantern books, "These two reboots were pretty clear."

Would they buy issue two? Not only was the answer to this yes in regard to "Red Lantern," this marked the first time I have seen a man's face literally light up with joy, as Brendan's did when asked about Atrocitus. I am pretty sure he's going to buy a cat, too.

THE BAT BOOKS

When it came to "Batwoman" and "Batman And Robin," new readers Becca and Mike agreed on two things: "Batwoman" was beautiful and Robin is "a total brat."

"There was a scene in Wayne Manor, so I guess this isn't bizarro mean Batman and his bizarro mean son," Becca stated after reading the comic. Generating questions along the lines of, "Why is he so annoying?" and, "Why is Batman's son such a dick?" Damian was not winning any popularity contests, though Mike, one of our returning readers who also read "JLI," appreciated that the comic focused equally on the sidekick.

"Don't let Batman hog all the limelight! Lord knows he's in enough of the other DC comics I've read!" said Mike before demanding to know, "Is [Batman] in each of the new number ones?"

Though both Mike and Becca, who is brand new to reading comics, said they could follow the basic plotline of the issue, they did not understand why Batman had a son and felt lost when the issue referred to past events. In fact, Becca, having heard about the relaunch through non-comics sources, was confused as to why there were characters and plot lines continuing from before September in both "Batman And Robin" and "Batwoman," having gone into her reading under the assumption shared by most of our readers, that everything would be brand new.

"The two page spread that detailed Batwoman's family junk -- the mom, the sister, the dad, the super villain sister, the dead super villain sister -- was beautiful and intriguing, but not clear," said Becca. However, ultimately Becca said, "It didn't really keep me from going forward. It just made me feel like I can't understand it now and I assumed it'll get cleared up here and there moving forward."

"In TV terms, these would not be premise pilots -- they kind of just drop you into the middle of a superhero's life," said Mike, who works in television as an executive assistant. "It's hard to tell if I'm missing something because I've never read a Batwoman comic before, or if they're just throwing in characters and mysteries that they're going to pay off later. "

Though the plots of both books were confusing, Mike and Becca both said they were sucked into "Batwoman," mostly due to J.H. Williams' artwork. "I'd absolutely recommend people at least look at it, to see how the pages can be navigated and the complexity of the layout," Becca said when asked if she would recommend it to other new readers.

Would they buy issue two? Becca says she would try to find a friend who had already bought "Batwoman" and read their issues to see if it keeps her interested before actually spending money. Mike was slightly more committed to buying "Batwoman" on his own, but then asked if I was planning on getting more issues. I have a sneaking suspicion who this "friend" is going to turn out to be.

THE EDGE

The Edge books were a hard group to find readers for as, after looking at the covers, I had people decline to even open the comics (the third reader for this category just sent me back a one word answer for her reaction: "NO"). Luckily, returning readers Gavin, who was confused by "Hawk And Dove," and Allen, who enjoyed "Green Arrow," decided to give DC another shot and stepped up to read the books. While both were able to keep up with "Suicide Squad" and felt it was a decent starting point, the two were torn on how understandable "Grifter" was.

"I guess some alien beings take over human bodies as a host, but he woke up in the middle and can hear them and that makes him wear a red mask and find them? Fight crime?" Gavin said in an attempt to describe the issue. Even Allen, who thought the comic did a great job explaining the premise and powers of Grifter, was a little shaky on who the bad guys were, asking,"Are they robots/aliens/mother-in-laws?"

Both were puzzled when it came to "Deathstroke" as neither knew what the title character looked like without his mask, making the transition between the Moscow massacre and Christoph's office confusing when trying to figure out whether they were seeing the same person or not. "It doesn't have a smooth transition to make you know that the guy with the eye patch is Deathstroke," Allen told me. Outside of that, both readers grasped that Deathstroke was an "old dude." "Deathstroke is upset no one believes he's capable anymore, and he loses it after receiving some sort of threat from bad guys," said Gavin. I then asked if they would call the issue new reader friendly.

"No. Unless that reader is forty-five and feels like no one believes in them anymore 'cause of their age. Then, yes!" said Gavin.

Would they buy issue two? Both were marginally interested in more "Grifter" and "Suicide Squad," though they said they were not committed to buying them on their own. Then they looked at me. I think I'm beginning to see a pattern.

THE DARK

"Meh," new reader Will told me after reading "Frankenstein," A reaction pretty much echoed across the board when it came to the DC Dark books -- other than new reader Sam who despaired at ever understanding what exactly happened in "Demon Knights."

"Why the heck are there dinosaur-looking dragons in the 'Dark Ages?' And possessed babies? And fire breathing demons that shape shift? Can comic book writers really just throw things together without any rules?" Sam demanded to know. Though Will, who has read comics but not DC before and brand new comic readers Amy and Sam held varied opinions on how much they were able to understand in "Demon Knights" (Will admitting that his prior knowledge of Arthurian legend was the only thing keeping him afloat), all agreed that the introduction was too rushed and they would not recommend the book to new readers.

"Unless, of course, they were really into hordes," Amy amended.

"Resurrection Man" provided a breath of fresh air as the readers enjoyed the slower pacing of the book and felt they had a better handle on it overall. None felt compelled to read more than the first issue, however partly due to the look of the book. A professional animator, Will told me he wanted to see more "interesting art" show up in the book before he would purchase issue two.

While "Demon Knights" was utterly confusing and "Resurrection Man" was slightly better, "Frankenstein, Agent Of S.H.A.D.E." did the best in terms of getting new readers in on the ground floor. All three were clear on who the main character was and what was happening in the story -- unfortunately, all three thought it was boring.

"All we know is that there are heroes of some form diving in to fight monsters from somewhere," Sam said, adding, "I guess where the monsters are from or why they are attacking is irrelevant." There was also some minor confusion when it came to what Father Time was. "Is he a vampire?" Sam asked.

"Meh," Will responded again.

Would they buy issue two? Not unless they suddenly develop a hankering for hordes.

THE OTHER SUPER HERO TITLES

There was one clear loser in this category and that loser's name was "Legion Lost."

"What in the heck happened in this comic? A group of heroes against a green hospitalized freak thing that was released? I literally don't know what just happened," new reader Aly told me. One of our returning readers who was giving DC another shot after being completely confused by "Batwing," this apparently was not the comic to win her over. Nor was it winning any points with Lee, another returning reader who felt he needed to give DC one more chance before giving up on the New 52.

"The entire issue was like that one part of each 'Star Trek' episode where they move the killer asteroid by expanding their shields with math or whatever," Lee complained.

"I feel like I was sort of thrown in the middle of something, like I was fighting to understand both the characters and the situation," agreed new reader Phil, an associate producer who cheerfully informed me at the start of the survey that he "read a Garfield collection once."

"I feel stupid now," Aly added after putting down the issue.

"Mister Terrific" was more to the new readers' speed, but the twist at the end of the issue made everyone uncertain about Holt's identity as Mr. Terrific." I still don't get the connection of Holt to Mr. Terrific -- they don't really seem like the same person," Phil told me.

"At the end I was confused. Who was Mr. Terrific -- was it the guy who wanted to kill the senator?" Aly asked.

Despite this, Phil and Lee still thought the comic was relatively clear overall, with Phil adding, "I really enjoyed being given the whole issue to be introduced to Michael Holt in a few of his stages of life." And while Aly said she was a confused by the characters, I suspect she was mainly upset about the Michael/Karen relationship.

"He would not be over Paula yet. It's too soon!" Aly yelled at me.

Of the issues, "Superboy" was the only number one all three readers put down knowing exactly who the main character was and what the story was about. Phil, however, chalked some of this up to the fact that it is impossible to grow up in America not knowing the Superman mythos.

"It helps that, just by being an American, I have an elementary understanding of the Superman universe. This comic book being an offshoot of that was comfortable for me and it made me feel more welcome," Phil told me. As for Lee, who last week gave me back his issue of "Men Of War" in such disgust I had to apologize to him -- he loved it.

"Superboy was great, way more interesting than regular old Superman," he laughed, before saying he would absolutely buy a second issue.

Would they buy issue two? "Mister Terrific" passes muster for Phil and Aly while Lee said he would definitely purchase more "Superboy."

THE RESULTS

"Superboy," "Mister Terrific," and "Red Lanterns" were the only comic books our new readers said they would actually go out and purchase next month. While this is one less than last week's purchases, readers also expressed interest in seeing more of three other books: "Batwoman," "Grifter," and "Suicide Squad." Since borrowing and reading those comics from other friends may eventually lead them to take the leap to spending their own money, this should be looked at as encouraging for DC -- not only will they gain five new readers next week, they stand to potentially add four more buyers in the months to come.

Interestingly, the soft reboot aspects of DC's New 52 hurt reader comprehension as newcomers like Becca wondered why their first issues centered on plot lines and characters from before September. Basic story elements such as who the main characters were continued to elude readers on certain titles, and the number of books readers were able to comprehend without prior knowledge stayed roughly the same. Most importantly, as with last week, almost every new reader wished DC had done origin stories, citing that even when they understood the characters and plots, they felt they were missing vital pieces of the comic.

New reader Gavin summed it up best. "I thought it would be a lot of origin stories, but after reading a lot more, thanks to you, it turns out none of them are origin stories and DC is assuming we all know the characters, which is presumptuous. They aren't really starting over at all."

TAGS:  dc comics, new 52, mister terrific, red lanterns, superboy, grifter, batwoman

 
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