The Problem With DC Universe Presents

Earlier today, DC Comics announced that they will be cancelling DC Universe Presents, the publisher's anthology title that featured a rotating cast of heroes, villains and creators, with its April issue being the series's last.

Along with I, Vampire, this probably clears the way for a pair of new titles in May, one of which is likely the Scott Snyder/Jim Lee Superman book we've all been waiting for that will give Superman a high-profile new #1 in time for Man of Steel.

Everyone knew pretty early on that DC Universe Presents wasn't built to last--but why? What is it about anthology titles that doesn't work in the American comics market? Other countries embrace anthologies more than we do--even other countries where serialized, character-driven action dramas are the rule rather than the exception.

Even the American indie comics market supports anthologies better than the mainstream, superhero-dominated marketplace does. Hell, even Dark Horse makes Dark Horse Presents work despite a pretty hefty cover price.

To really get into the nuts and bolts of why anthology titles are a nearly impossible sell at Marvel and DC, it's important to look at what does and does not sell at those publishers more or less across the board.

What does sell?

  • A-list, big-name characters. We're talking Batman, Spider-Man, Wolverine and a few others...and that's really IT, in terms of a guaranteed success. Wonder Woman can't consistently support a title that would be considered a hit by any reasonable standard, and over at Marvel you get characters like Dr. Strange and Blade with huge name recognition that can't keep an ongoing book afloat.
  • A-list, big-name creators. Again, we're talking the biggest of the big here, or you might as well just call the book Cancelled Comics Cavalcade. Geoff Johns, Brian Bendis and a few others will guarantee you get a fair hearing from readers; on art, you pretty much have Jim Lee and...well, nobody's comparable to Lee, although there are a handful of guys who will lift your numbers. Hell, even Matt Fraction can't sell a Defenders title.
  • Events. Have you noticed that every book that's even remotely tied to Batman is being compelled to participate in this whole Death of the Family thing? That's not an accident, and it's not going to hurt them, even though it has driven me to stop picking up Batman and Nightwing while I wait out the storm.

What doesn't sell?

  • Good reviews. Just because the people reading a book love it, doesn't mean it'll take the market by storm. Bryan Q. Miller's Batgirl, Marc Andreyko's Manhunter and Dan Jurgens's Booster Gold are all history while writer after writer comes onto Superman, fails to connect with the audience, gets lambasted by fans and critics, and the title remains in the top forty.
  • Second- and third-tier characters. You can have Geoff Johns launch Booster Gold, Hawkman and Aquaman and make it a hit for the first year but six months after he leaves the title, those sales are probably right back where you would expect them to be for Booster Gold, Hawkman and Aquaman.
  • A great "high concept." A lot of people will check out a movie or a TV series because they hear or read an interview with one of the creators who explains the cool, fascinating concept the work is premised on. Not so much with comics. Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. had an absolutely killer high concept and couldn't make 20 issues. Ditto books like Robert Kirkman's Irredeemable Ant-Man and Dan Slott's She-Hulk. Or Dan Slott's The Thing. Although we'll concede that Kirkman's Ant-Man book would probably sell now that he fits the A-list, top-tier creator criteria.

Comics fans are, by and large, creatures of habit. In order to break the habit and buy something new and different because it's good, it has to be REALLY good. And it can't miss a step; Jeff Lemire's Animal Man has performed pretty consistently because there hasn't been a story yet that's been an easily-justifiable jumping-off point.

It doesn't even have to be a bad story to "miss" that step; it could just be a fill-in or a creative change. Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. was fine as long as the white-hot Lemire was on the book, but while Matt Kindt is a talent not to be taken lightly, he took on the book and it basically disappeared from everyone's consciousness.

So what does all of this mean for DC Universe Presents, in particular? What is, as our headline promises, the problem with that title?

  • There were no big-name, top-tier characters. Until the final issue, we never saw guys like Batman, Superman and The Flash. Instead, we got arcs featuring Deadman, The Challengers of the Unknown, Blue Devil, Black Lightning and Vandal Savage. Fans simply didn't care what these characters were doing in the New 52 any more than they cared before Flashpoint.
  • There were no A-list, big-name creators. There were a lot of all-stars, don't get me wrong...but they weren't guys whose name sells a book. Dan DiDio? Jerry Ordway? Marc Andreyko? These are the guys whose takes on O.M.A.C., The Power of Shazam and Manhunter have been some of the best-loved DC titles in years and still died on the vine.
  • There were no events. The comic was pretty self-contained and, while the character choices were presumably meant to pay off in terms of those characters becoming bigger and more important parts of the DC Universe if their arc had really taken off, it just didn't happen. Ironically, it looks like (as they did with Justice League International and Mister Terrific) the book's cancellation will serve as the one time they grab the big characters and lead into a big story.
  • Good reviews COULDN'T helpit. This may be a reiteration of what's seen above, but it seems as though they were hoping to be carried forth into the Brave New World of the New 52 by appealing to readers who think, "I should be reading this," the kind of intellectual peer pressure that readers can use to convince themselves to give a supposedly-great book a try. It's helped to move the needle on Daredevil and All-Star Western recently, but it just never really kicked in for this--partially because the good reviews it did get, didn't help much. After all, what's a good review matter if the next arc features a different character and is by a different creative team?
  • Lots of second and third-tier characters. In the end, DC wasn't committed to promoting lower-tier characters in the way they thought they would be two years ago. Before the relaunch, there was a lot of talk about how The New 52 would be democratizing, offering lower-tier characters an opportunity to shine simply by virtue of taking part in the relaunch and getting a brighter-than-usual spotlight. That philosophy fell apart pretty quickly when the publisher saw that the same old things were still selling. This is similar to the way they talked about appealing to new readers by making accessible books, but quickly fell back into old habits when the Nielsen reports apparently showed them it was still the same old people reading the New 52.
  • A baffling and unmarketable high concept. On the one hand, you want a book like this on the market; it offers variety and a chance to try out new things. It gives you a chance to try out new creative teams, or to work with creators who can't meet a monthly deadline with consistency. For that to work, though, you have to be clear about those goals. Instead, DC Universe Presents often felt like just a hysterical series of fill-in issues.