[There’s a minor correction, noted at the bottom.]
The first Saturday in May is traditionally Free Comic Book Day. Comics publishers produce special issues of their series for stores to give away for free. The idea is to get comics into the hands of people who wouldn’t normally pick up a comic book. Free Comic Book Day has become something of an Event – a lot of comics creators will make appearances at their local comic shops, and a lot of people show up in cosplay.
Go read her editorial. It’s awesome. It’s built entirely of savage truths that need trumpeting in DC’s ear.
My two cents: this fiasco is emblematic of DC’s strange and fascinating role in comics history.
DC has long been known as the company of idealism, of optimism. Its stars are traditionally paragons of heroism and morality. DC is naturally contrasted with its biggest competitor, Marvel.
For most of its history, DC, as a whole, has been emblemized by Superman. Superman, with his reputation as the Big Blue Boy Scout, as an uncomplicated paragon. Marvel, by contrast, is traditionally emblemized by Spider-Man. Superman is a successful adult with a steady job, and a mostly-uncomplicated civilian life. Spider-Man is a teenager from a poor family who grew up in a bad neighbourhood, who’s riddled with angst, and who struggles as much with his civilian life as he does with costumed supervillains. Spider-Man sometimes struggles to do the right thing, to know what the right thing was; Superman rarely does. (These are all gross oversimplifications of course, but I believe they illustrate the contrast between the two companies fairly.)
In the 1970s, we started to see the first hints of change at DC. DC started experimenting with “grittier” lines of comics. Not the sort of masturbatory GRIMDARK we see now, but they did start to bring their heroes down from the heavens to deal with more street-level problems. Probably most famously, there was a run of “Green Lantern”, where the Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) was paired Green Arrow. That series focused heavily on social justice issues. That was the sort of storytelling that would be an obvious fit for Marvel, but which was something of an innovation for DC.
Then, in the 1980s, Everything Changed.
In rapid succession, the comics scene was hit with “The Dark Knight Returns” (1985), “Crisis on Infinite Earths” (’85-’86), and “Watchmen” (’86-’87). All three were published by DC.
“Watchmen” was a thoughtful deconstruction of standard superhero tropes – a cynical meditation that laughed fairly directly at the idea of superheroics. “The Dark Knight Returns” was a raw, vicious, dark interpretation of Batman, at a time when Batman was still labouring under the shadow of Adam West. “Crisis on Infinite Earths” was a giant status-quo-shaking marketing-friendly event.
The comics industry took two lessons from these three titles: “dark and violent sells better than bright and heroic”, and “huge crossover events sell better than anything”. And so everybody lost their damn minds.
Over the course of the next decade we had the death of Robin (DC ’88-’89); the release of Tim Burton’s two Batman movies (DC ’89 and ’92), the introduction of Cable (Marvel ’90), a mutant whose primary power seems to have been “lots of guns”; the death of Superman (DC ’92), the villain Venom getting his own series (Marvel ’93), Batman being paralyzed and then replaced by a violent psychopath (DC ’93), Spawn and the rise of Image Comics (Image ’93), and the premiere of Warren Ellis’s “superheroes who kill” super-team series “The Authority” (DC ’99). We had crossover event after crossover event after crossover event after crossover event – crossovers that disrupted individual series’ storylines, and dragged them into whatever morass their publisher had dreamed up that they could advertise with a cover banner this year, culminating in DC’s “Flashpoint” (’11), which led to the reboot of DC’s entire line, under the marketing banner “The New 52“.
The whole period of violent insanity since the mid ’80s became known as the Dark Age, which is arguably ongoing even now. DC started it, and DC has clung desperately to it.
At the same time, DC was at the forefront of the Reconstruction movement. The Reconstruction movement was and is an ethos of comics creation that says “Great, we’ve taken these heroes apart to see how they work. Now let’s remember what we liked about superheroes in the first place, and then build them back up, using what we’ve learned to make them better.” Famous works of this wave include “Kingdom Come” (DC ’96), which very directly addresses the state that our superhero mythoi had reached, and “DC: The New Frontier” (DC ’06), which gleefully and boldly ignores Dark Age tropes, and celebrates the Golden Age ethos of idealism. Other notable Reconstruction comics that come to mind are “Astro City” (Image ’95-’98) and “Tom Strong” (ABC ’99).
(This whole arc is interestingly played out across the history of the classic DCAU, but that’s another essay.)
So DC’s been instrumental in both the darkening and the reaction to it.
It’s starting to look like the Reconstruction movement is losing badly, at least at DC. There’s still a puerile obsession with GRIMDARK, and a lack of confidence in the ability of laudable, admirable heroes to drive stories and sell comics.
Which brings us to “Future’s End“, DC’s ultra-violent grimdark mega-crossover for this year. DC has chosen to offer “Future’s End” #0 as a Free Comic Book Day giveaway. This is the choice they’ve made to draw new readers in.
DC clearly believes that clinging to the Dark Age is the way forward for them.