"You know, DC Comics are making big changes to their line-up."

"There's still going to do Iron Man, aren't they? I really liked his movies." 

"No, that's Marvel Comics. I'm talking about DC—you know, Superman, Batman, Green Lantern…"

"I thought Superman died." 

"He…well, he got better." 

"Really? You mean they still make comic books? I never see them anymore. "

"They're still around. You have to go to a comic book shop to get them. "

"A special store--just for comic books? I remember getting them at the drug store when I was a kid. Cost a quarter or something." 

"The cheapest comics are $2.99 now." 

" No wonder you can't find ‘em anymore!" 


The above conversation is an amalgam of exchanges I've had with non-comics fans over the years.  Whereas comic book readership once numbered in the millions, today that figure has sunk into the scores of thousands. 

Although the average non-fan is usually aware of, even enthusiastic for, the big budget super-hero movies (invariably featuring Marvel characters), they are largely ignorant of the comics upon which the movies are based. Either they abandoned the colorful pamphlets years ago or they've never read them.  

 With sales rapidly declining, DC Comics would like to tap this vast potential audience. Therefore, in a bold move to increase readership, the company plans to reboot its entire line, making the heroes more accessible and more "today." 

The new comics, due out in September, will not only feature revamped versions of Superman, Wonder Woman, et al, but will also be available in digital form.   

What sort of changes can we expect in the comics themselves? Although many fans think the sky is falling, DC's spokesmen are really playing rather coy. Furthermore, at this point, taken as a whole, the revamp doesn't seem much more than cosmetic. 

Right now, the most dramatic change appears to be a simple resetting of the clock. DC's longest-running title, Action Comics, which recently passed the 900-mark, will re-start with Issue #1. We're told we can expect the same for 51 other titles. Along with the numbering-change, the stories will also start at beginning of the heroes' careers. 

A costume-change for Superman seems to be in the works (hints of which have already appeared online, enraging many fans). Also, his handlers hint that Superman and Lois will no longer be married. Wonder Woman's costume will change, to wit, she'll be wearing longer pants.    

Other things won't change so much as go back to what they used to be. Having been out of the cape and cowl for a while, Bruce Wayne will once again be Batman. Relegated to Johnny-come-lately status for the last twenty-five years, Superman will once again be the first of the supermen to appear on earth. A black hero, Mr. Terrific, gets his own book. Aquaman gets his own book--again. 

The hype in such publications as USA Today notwithstanding, this isn't the first time that DC has revamped its line. The last major shake-up occurred twenty-five years ago. 

Crisis on Infinite Earths streamlined the unwieldy continuity and significantly reduced the number of gaudily-garbed guardians of the "multi-verse." Since then, a number of alterations have occurred in the lives of the various heroes. 

In the Superman comics, he died and rose again, married Lois Lane, and traded his reds-and-blues, not to mention his tried-and-true powers, for a "containment suit" and electrically-based power. 

Superman has been rebooted at least three times in the last ten years. Besides all this, fans have seen and/or endured smaller crises in multi-title, multi-issue events like Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis, and One Year Later. In these, characters died and rose again, costumes changed and rosters changed.       

The more things change, however, the more they stay the same. The siren song of the past, not to mention the strident demands of a very conservative fan base, keeps restoring the status quo. 

So DC's challenge is two-fold:  bring in new readers without alienating the fans.   In other words, bring new sheep into the fold without convincing the flock that the wolf is at the door!  

Even with the announced availability of digital versions available the same day as the print comics go on sale, the company has an uphill battle on its hands. 

In an article for Comic Book Resources, Greg Hatcher paints a depressing picture not only of present state of DC but the industry as a whole. Here are his salient points:  

Although DC/Time-Warner has control over some of the most recognizable and popular fictional characters on earth…  

·        Sales for the company's line of publications continue to drop and a significant number of people don't even know they still exist.  

·        DC's cash flow depends on 60,000 or so hardcore hobbyists.  

·        Year after year, DC loses more readers than they gain.  

·        Costs continue to go up—creators' rates, paper and production, etc. 

·        Fans don't wish to pay more than $2.99 for a standard monthly comic—which in this market won't turn a profit. 

Having friends and acquaintances among comics dealers, I've watched their businesses dwindle over the years. I've seen many shops close as well. Some may be surprised that, in the wake of the new popularity of super-heroes in the movies, comics shops don't do better. 

As one dealer put it, however, "The comics exist just as advertising for the movies. The movies don't affect comics sales at all."   Writer and long-time fan, John G. Pierce, spells out the situation: "The corporate heads really don't care about the comics themselves.  They exist only to keep the franchise alive so that merchandising and movies can be made." 

We might suppose that, in a culture of declining literacy, the illustrated pages of comics might retain some allure. That might be true—if they had no competition onscreen and online. 

When you can see the characters move, hear them speak, hear the sounds; with CGI creating worlds of wonder and improved 3-D technology hurling Batman within an inch of your nose,  why should anyone bother with a soundless,  unmoving, two-dimensional comic book? 

All of which leads me to ask, reboot or no reboot, are we looking at the end of the American comic book as we know it?  Is DC on the edge of a renaissance—or merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?  The pulp novel, dramatic radio, the drive-in movie—all these have come and gone. 

When the form no longer functions, the form will change. But what of Superman and Batman? Will they still be with us fifty years from now? Will our grandchildren still thrill to their adventures? If so, what form will those adventures take? 

Only time will tell.  Meanwhile, for love of the form I've known since childhood—mixed with a bit of defiance at the changing milieu--while I can, I intend to keep on reading the comics. 

*Gary D. Robinson is a preacher, writer, and Superman fan living in Xenia, Ohio.  He blogs at www.garydrobinson.com

**This article first published 7/7/2011