Saturday, February 28, 2009

Does the DC Universe really need Barry Allen

DC is launching a new limited series titled Flash: Rebirth to herald the return of Barry Allen as an active player in the DC Universe. Barry Allen actually returned to the land of living last year in the second issue of the Final Crisis limited series. Flash: Rebirth is intended to re-establish Barry as the primary Flash.
My question in regards to all of this is - Why?
Does the DC Universe really need Barry Allen? Wally West has certainly proven to be a more than capable Flash since he took over the mantle upon Barry’s death in the Crisis on Infinite Earths limited series. Perhaps the better question is does DC Comics really need Barry Allen as the primary Flash? I don’t see why that would be the case.
Some might want to liken Barry’s return to that of Hal Jordan. The situations are quite different however. Barry sacrificed himself to thwart the plans of the Anti-Monitor. Hal Jordan sacrificed himself to reignite the sun in the pages of The Final Night story. While Hal’s sacrifice was considered a heroic act, it was really an act of redemption to make up for his activities following the destruction of Coast City where he went off the deep end, destroyed the Green Lantern Corps, and re-christened himself as the super-villain Parallax. Barry died a hero. Hal died a broken ‘hero’.
The biggest difference is the amount of time that passed between the characters returning to their former posts. This is really the major point of my contention with Barry’s return. Barry Allen died in the pages of Crisis on Infinite Earths, which was published in 1985. He has appeared in a few comics here and there over the succeeding years (typically in stories that are either flashbacks or where he is a version of Barry Allen from the past who is using the speed force to move through time to tackle whatever happened to be the challenge of the day), but has otherwise been out of the picture until his return in the pages of Final Crisis in late 2008. That is a period of twenty-three years that Barry Allen has not been the active Flash in the DC Universe.
Hal Jordan died in the pages of The Final Night, which was published in 1996. However, he stopped being the active Green Lantern two years prior to that (1994) in the story-arc Emerald Twilight (issues 48-50 of the third volume of the Green Lantern series – Kyle Raynor became the new Green Lantern beginning in issue 51). Jordan returned to active status in the DC Universe when he became the new host for the Spectre in the Day of Judgment limited series, published in 1999. And Hal retook the mantle of Green Lantern in the Green Lantern: Rebirth limited series, published in 2004. So depending on how you want to look at things, Hal was only ‘gone’ from the DC Universe between 1996 and 1999, a period of three years. He was not the active Green Lantern between 1994 and 2004, a period of ten years.
Three years (or ten years) versus twenty-three years. That is a significant difference. Hal was never really gone long enough to be missed as a key player. He might have been out of the Green Lantern role for ten years, but his presence was still very much felt in the DC Universe. Barry, on the other hand, has been gone the full twenty-three years. He has not been an active player in the DC Universe at all during that span.
Let’s talk a little bit about time. Generational time to be more to the point. There isn’t a particular consensus on how long a generation actually is. Wikipedia has a decent article on the length of a generation. Based on the amount of time between the creation of the first offspring between a mother and a daughter, a familial generation could be anywhere between two and three decades on average. More interesting is the idea of a cultural generation, which has an even shorter term (between ten and fifteen years).
What is the significance of generations in this discussion? Three years between active appearances for Hal Jordan means no skipped generations. Even ten years between his active status as Green Lantern doesn’t skip a generation (though if you’re using cultural generations, it is right on the cusp of skipping one). Barry Allen’s twenty-three years does constitute at least one skipped generation. And if you’re using the ten year basis of a cultural generation, then it would be two skipped generations. Let’s use some real numbers here though. I was sixteen years old in 1985 (the year Barry Allen was killed off) and had been a regular monthly comic reader since the age of twelve (I had read comics for many years prior to that, but only the sporadic issue here and there that my parents allowed me to pick up on occasion --- at age twelve I discovered a used bookstore where the proprietor also sold comics and thus my monthly habit was born). I was thirty-nine years old at the time Barry Allen returned to active status. Consider for a moment a young reader just starting out on comics at about the age of twelve in 1986. His Flash would have been Wally West. And that would really be the only (primary) Flash he would read between 1986 and 2008. In 2008, that comic reader would be thirty-five years old. So essentially, if we assume the average comic reader became a regular (monthly) reader around the age of twelve (as was my case), that means those (average) readers under the age of thirty-five would have little-to-no familiarity and certainly no connection to Barry Allen. To flip that, it means DC’s primary audience for a Flash series starring Barry Allen is thirty-six and older. Does that really seem like the best demographic to be aiming for? Is that where DC sees a majority of their current sales on titles these days? Is the largest percentage of DC readers in the thirty-six and up demographic? If that is the case, then I suppose there can be a case made for making Barry Allen the primary Flash in the DC Universe. If the largest percentage of their readers are under thirty, then this plan really makes no sense.
Let that sink in for a moment. Comic readers in their late teens, twenties, and early thirties have zero connection with Barry Allen. A good number of them may not even know who Barry Allen is. If they are Flash fans, the greater likelihood is they are fans of Wally West (even looking at other media -- which actually expands the scope of the audience, you’re no longer dealing strictly with just comic fans -- the Flash they know from the Justice League animated series is Wally West). They don’t really have any particular interest in Barry Allen. I wouldn’t imagine they have any particular desire to have Barry Allen as their Flash. So who is this Flash series really for? Why does the DC Universe need Barry Allen back as the active Flash? And why does DC Comics need him?
My contention is they don’t (at least not as the primary Flash). I think DC is rather misguided in bringing Barry back in this particular manner. I don’t believe it is going to be the kick-start to the franchise they may be thinking it will be. The mini-series might sell well enough but it won’t carry over to a monthly title when they re-launch it (I don’t think the actual sell-through of the limited-series will be as impressive as the order numbers that will be announced – in fact, there will likely be a significant decline in orders between the first few issues and the final one because retailers will know what the actual audience size is by that point).

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Not so thankful to loyal readers

Legion of Super-Heroes No. 50 (DC)
Writer – Justin Thyme; Penciller – Ramon Bachs; Inker - John Livesay
Written by Jim Shooter; Art and cover by Francis Manapul and Livesay. It's the final issue! The climactic conclusion of the Universal Annihilation War is here and every Legionnaire, every reservist and even the United Planets' Young Heroes battle to save existence. Also featuring the return of Cosmic Boy, the death of a longtime Legionnaire and a gorgeous wraparound cover!
As you may have noticed in the solicitation for this issue, it was supposed to have been written by Jim Shooter (who started writing this incarnation of the series with issue 37) and pencilled by Francis Manapul (who also started working on the series with issue 37). Also noted is the return of Cosmic Boy and the death of a Legionnaire. As evidenced by my identification of the creative team, it was not Jim Shooter who wrote this issue nor was it Francis Manapul who pencilled it. In addition to that, Cosmic Boy was nowhere to be seen in the issue, and a longtime Legionnaire did not die (at least certainly not on panel --- there was a war going on so it is possible some generic Legionnaire may have perished in the skirmish but it wasn’t anyone who was brought to the reader’s attention.
What does match the solicitation is that this issue contains the conclusion of the Universal Annihilation War. Unfortunately, it is a very rushed and uninspired conclusion. That isn’t surprising considering a completely different creative team had to pick up the story started by Shooter and bring it to a close. Yet while the Universal Annihilation War was ‘wrapped up’, there was another significant plot thread that was left completely dangling, and given that this is the final issue of this incarnation of the Legion of Super-Heroes, we’ll never get to see the resolution of the situation. What is even more unfortunate is the fact that it should have never come to this.
According to Rich Johnson in his weekly column Lying in the Gutters, Jim Shooter and Francis Manapul both chose to leave and not complete the final issue, each for their own individual reasons. I can only speculate as to Jim Shooter’s reason, but I would imagine it had a lot to do with his original story arc having been planned to run through issue 54 of the series and then having to completely rework the entire thing when Dan Didio abruptly decided to cancel the series with issue 50. Shooter noted in an interview that he had planned to feature the wedding of Brainiac and Dream Girl in a two part story. With the sudden change in the number of issues remaining for the series, he had to completely abandon the wedding and wrap up what he could of the story in a single issue. In addition, he would have to tie up two different major plots (the Universal Annihilation War and the situation with Princess Projectra betraying the Legion) in four fewer issues. Obviously it became a mission of frustration and impossibility because only the Universal Annihilation War was concluded (the Princess Projectra plot wasn’t even touched on at all in the final issue).
I’m not what you would call a Jim Shooter fan in specific. I don’t have a dislike of his work, but he isn’t someone I would consider to be in my list of favorite comic writers either. Truth be told, I wasn’t very thrilled with the changes that were made in the direction of this title when he came aboard. There were character changes, some more drastic than others, and it was definitely not the same book that had been a big favorite of mine during the Waid and Kitson run. Even so, there were enough interesting plot elements in what Shooter was doing that I was convinced to stick around beyond just his first few issues. Even though it was different, it was entertaining enough to keep me around for the long haul. Of course, had I known at that time the title was in for a turbulent and shortened future, I would have left it along with Waid and Kitson.
On the surface, a reader might want to blame Jim Shooter for the way this final issue was presented, but he was definitely not at fault for the way it all played out. I can’t criticize him at all for walking away from it at the end. He was put in a very unenviable position. His work was severely compromised by Didio’s decision. One might say this sort of thing isn’t exactly uncommon – a creative team is given the news that their title is being cancelled and they have to wrap things up in a quick fashion. That is true, but generally when those things occur, a title is being cancelled because of poor sales. That wasn’t the overriding factor with this series. This particular series was cancelled out of what I consider sheer spite. Didio and Shooter butted heads numerous times over the course of Shooter’s time on the title. In fact, Didio actually fired him at one point. The firing was announced on several comic news web-sites. But then it was announced many days later that Shooter was back on the title. Sales on the title have been declining monthly since Mark Waid and Barry Kitson left the title (though in truth they had dropped off somewhat even prior to their leaving). When the announcement was made in October that Legion of Super-Heroes would be ending with issue 50, sales numbers were still reasonable. Estimated sales for September were just under 25K. October sales were just under 24K (you can find those figures and more here). So yes, the series was clearly shedding readers (though at 24K it was still above the usual cut line and doing better than a number of titles that have hung around for a good while with much lower numbers), but how much of that was due to reader uncertainty about the future of the title? The book had only recently undergone a creative team change (with Shooter and Manapul coming in) and a shift in direction. Then Shooter was announced as having been fired and then almost as quickly it was announced he was back. It wasn’t a secret that Didio and Shooter were fueding at that point, and given that Didio had already pulled the trigger once, readers couldn’t feel too comfortable about the long-term prospects of the book. So yes, it stands to reason that there might be more defections than usual. But again, this wouldn’t have occurred if Didio hadn’t ‘fired’ Shooter in the first place.
The fact is this horrendous final issue and lack of resolution on the Princess Projectra plot is the fault of Dan Didio. He could have allowed the book to continue on through the 54th issue and let Shooter complete the arc he had planned before pulling the plug. Instead, he chose to end the series with the 50th issue and cut the story short without any regard to whether the running plots could be adequately resolved. In essence, he shafted the dedicated readers. On the very final page of this issue (the DC Nation page) it says ‘We greatly appreciate the support of our loyal readers’. Really? I don’t feel appreciated. I feel like Dan Didio didn’t give a crap about the readers. If he did, he wouldn’t have cut the series to begin with. Even with that, he wouldn’t have allowed this issue to go out as it did (with a badly rushed and incomplete resolution and very disappointing art) and with nary an announcement to fans AND retailers about the change in creative teams. It isn’t as though this issue was pulled together in a week. DC knew well in advance of the shipping date that this issue wasn’t what was solicited. Yet they never said a thing about it (the original soliciation with the Shooter and Manapul credits is STILL listed on their web-site). And I’m supposed to believe they appreciate me as a reader? Had I known Shooter and Manapul had no involvement with this issue and that the Princess Projectra plot wasn’t going to be resolved, I would have never bought the issue in the first place. So no, I don’t feel at all appreciated. I don’t feel like a valued reader. I don’t feel like Dan Didio has any respect at all for the people who have been with this title since issue number 1. All I feel right now is ticked off and ripped off.