Thursday, April 07, 2011

Retro or Retread? DC's "Classic Rock" Problem

"You glorify the past when the future dries up."
 - U2

Here's some news I discovered on the DC Women Kicking Ass site:

"DC Comics has announced at WonderCon a new series of one-shots called Retroactive. The books will have writers from each character’s particular era write an out of continuity story in the style of that era. The creators are:

Superman - Martin Pasko (‘70s), Marv Wolfman (‘80s), Louise Simonson (‘90s)
Batman - Len Wein (‘70s), Mike Barr (‘80s), Alan Grant (‘90s)
Wonder Woman - Denny O’Neil (‘70s), Roy Thomas (‘80s), William Messner-Loebs (‘90s)
Flash - Cary Bates (‘70s), William Messner Loebs (‘80s), Brian Augustyn (‘90s)
Green Lantern - Denny O’Neil (‘70s), Len Wein (‘80s), Ron Marz (‘90s)
JLA - Cary Bates (‘70s), Gerry Conway (‘80s), Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis (‘90s)"

Not sure how I feel about this myself. Many of the aforementioned writers' original runs on the books in question were very entertaining, and I'm sure most of these one-shots will be as well, particularly Giffen/Dematteis' JLI. But can you go home again? (I keep thinking of the disappointing Claremont/Byrne reunion in JLA a few years back.)

I'm also curious about which of the artists will be illustrating these tales. I know from here that Kevin Maguire will illustrate the Giffen League tale, while Jon Bogdanove will reunite with Simonson. While Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire anything is a guaranteed must-buy, Bog wasn't my favorite Supes artist (I always remember thinking "All the styles he was capable of and he picked that one?"). As for the rest, many of the original artists who collaborated with the above writers on their original runs are either dead (Curt Swan, Gil Kane, Irv Novick, Dick Dillin, Dick Giordano, Jim Aparo), retired, or are committed to other projects. Still, I wouldn't mind Norm Breyfogle on Grant's Batman or Greg LaRocque on Loebs' Flash.

Still, as good as it is to see some of these writers working again, I wonder if it's the best use of their skills or of  DC's resources. Sure, these books are guaranteed short-term money-makers, but they accomplish Jack Diddly as far as solving DC's long-term problem of having too narrow a fanbase to thrive. (Any look at current sales figures will confirm this problem exists.) These books seem like preaching to the choir rather than bringing in new converts. How does churning out yet another Batman or Green Lantern one-shot bring in new readers, particularly those who aren't white and male? Rather than dispelling DC's reputation of catering too much to nostalgic middle-aged fanboys, this sets it in titanium.

And what if, instead of going for the easy nostalgia buck, DC had brought those writers back, but on one-shots of less-popular characters? What if, instead of the Bats & GL stories, Denny O'Neill were to write an original tale of the Renee Montoya Question? Or if Roy Thomas wrote about the Michael Holt Mr. Terrific? Or if Simonson wrote a Lois Lane solo tale?

DC's current predicament reminds me of two classic Chicago radio stations of the late 70's/early 80's, namely WLUP (the Loop) and WXRT. Both played (and continue to play) their share of classic rock. However, WXRT also played diverse artists of other genres such as modern indie rock and blues, and continues that practice to this day, while WLUP (except for a few years following the talk radio trend) only played the classic rock dusties, with a spattering of new material by artists in that narrow genre. The former station remains a huge staple on both my radio presets and even my online streaming audio, while the latter one has long lost any relevance and only rates the occasional nostalgic listen. Can you guess which one has a wider variety of fans?

DC is in danger of becoming the WLUP of comics. They're forgetting that even those guaranteed hitmakers had to start somewhere. They became popular and stood out by breaking away from what had gone before and trying something new. That was the beauty of Grant Morrison's JLA: It took what had gone before, added some original innovations, and moved the mythos forward. Now, DC seems stuck in reverse. By increasingly focusing on nostalgia at the expense of developing or nurturing newer characters, they run the same risk of becoming "classic-rock" dinosaurs. Honestly, you're telling me that Aquaman rates another chance at a solo series but Jaime Reyes doesn't?

It's like a music playlist. Sure, it's fine to play classic artists like the Stones or the Who or U2, but you also need to include newer artists like MGMT or TV On The Radio on the playlist to keep things from becoming stale. What characters will be the MGMT's of DC Comics?

On the other hand, seeing stories by these old masters could be a very educational refresher course for some of today's writers:

"Oh, you DON'T have to rip people's arms off or kill off C-List characters for shock value???"

"Oh, you CAN tell a self-contained story without padding it for the trades?"

The list goes on and on.


At 9:38 AM , Blogger SallyP said...

I'm actually rather looking forward to these, and I also hope that they sell you say, sans decapitations and dismemberments. Maybe that will show the Powers That Be, that a good comic doesn't have to have so much blood in it.

Some of them I am looking forward to more than others of course.


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