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Trouble with Comics, First Wave, Nobody's Fave

First Wave, Nobody’s Fave

If you watch any reality television like Top Chef or Project Runway, you will notice that there’s always that one guy who expresses a kind of superficial shock and empathy when the person who’s just been cut by the judges comes back into the waiting room. “Really?! You’re kidding me!” A lot of comics readers are like that, or at least a lot of the ones who post in comments threads. I’m not trying to be negative here—it’s a nice gesture that at its best lets the people who were producing the canceled comic know that the few people who were buying their comic liked it and wished them well and an easy transition to other projects.

Still, the cancellation of DC’s First Wave imprint shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone after the first month. The premise of a pulp fiction milieu for Golden Age comics characters like Doc Savage, The Spirit, Crimson Avenger and others to interact in a universe where they were the big heroes and the only superhero was a pulpy, out-of-continuity Batman, was going to be difficult to make a success under the best circumstances. None of these characters have endured in the public consciousness in a way that would bring in many non-comics readers, nor have they been particularly successful comics characters for many years. 

Matters of taste aside, having Brian Azzarello script a lead-in one-shot and miniseries to introduce these characters wasn’t a bad idea. Azzarello has his fans. Using Batman as a way to lead superhero readers over to the line was also a sensible idea. Where DC went wrong has much to do with scheduling and marketing, and those problems are not unique to this line, nor other comics publishers. 

Publishers often have a perverse sort of Darwinism when it comes to publishing new titles, offering three or four in the expectation that that offers better odds for one succeeding than just publishing one and focusing on making that the best it can be. Of course, many times the editors in charge of putting these books together don’t have much choice. Here, DC owns these characters and eventually must publish something featuring them, so there is some logic to doing it all at one time and hoping that generates more buzz than a single title. The problem, then, is that the prospective new customer is led to believe that he or she might need to buy all the titles to understand the line, and so it becomes easier to pass. Instead of a shared universe, it’s a fishbowl with maybe only enough food for one fish. There is no camaraderie here. Do you think Seth MacFarlane was happy about Bob’s Burgers? It’s a competitor for his viewership. First Wave launched with the first issue of the lead-in miniseries, but it wasn’t designed well as a lead-in because they scheduled the release of the Doc Savage and The Spirit books within weeks of its first issue, rather than building off the momentum of a hopefully good conclusion to the miniseries. The fact that those series didn’t feature any of the talent who did the miniseries itself would also dull the excitement, unless readers were as excited by the new creative teams. 

When it comes to the marketing, it seems reasonable to criticize DC for how little they promoted these titles, or indeed most ongoing series once they’ve debuted. I liken DC to a mama pig with a litter of piglets but only two teats, so only the two strongest piglets get fed. And having fed, they’re going to be stronger than the others and thus able to keep getting fed, while those others get weaker and weaker, with many eventually starving to death. I can’t blame DC for putting more time and money into promoting the projects and titles that either have already been selling or show more signs of crossover appeal, as in your Brightest Day and DC Universe Online and Batman and Green Lantern books. That just makes sense. But then again, if you’re not going to do much for other books but one house ad, why bother? What expectation could DC have that this Doc Savage is going to be the one that takes off? I think it’s probably reasonable to assume that most of DC knows that such titles aren’t going to do well, so perhaps they publish them knowing they’ll fail, and the lack of marketing push is just an attempt not to throw good money after bad. 

With the First Wave line, it also occurs to me that those appear to have been approved and developed prior to Diane Nelson taking over. It’s common practice in the motion picture industry, at least, for a new studio head to underpromote movies greenlit by the previous studio head, so that their failure will only reenforce that firing the last guy was the right move. I don’t know how it works with publishing, but it’s just human nature that one will work harder to make something succeed if it started on your watch. Having no attachment to First Wave, once it had performed its first function of trademark renewal and shown the titles were underperforming, it only helps Diane Nelson to show her bosses she’s watching the bottom line and culling the books that are draining profits. 

As far as the execution of the books, it feels wrong to knock them too hard when they’re down and almost out, but Azzarello’s cynicism never seemed a good fit when he wrote Batman stories, so Golden Age pulp heroes seem even more out of his comfort zone (though I could see him as a decent fit on The Shadow with his knack for conspiracy stories). On Doc Savage, well, they took a chance on a novelist with little comics-writing experience and it didn’t work out. It happens, though one would think that there had to be an established comics scribe who had some affection for the Savage novels. Asking a contemporary novelist to take someone else’s character and adapt him to a less familiar medium seems like an added degree of difficulty. Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark notwithstanding, I would prefer someone who’d already written musicals to do the book for a superhero musical than hiring a superhero comics writer for the job. 

As for The Spirit, that was a lovely book, both Mark Schultz and David Hine managing to take a character with a tone and look wedded to the ’40s and adapt him pretty successfully to a grimmer, somewhat contemporary urban setting with his essence intact, aided by the great artwork of Moritat. Those issues are worth tracking down, and one hopes those creators find their next gigs soon and that they’re at least as satisfying and of longer duration. As for DC, it remains to be seen whether they’ll learn anything or continue to dump too many related books on the market at a time and let them cannibalize each other. 

—Christopher Allen

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