For weeks, DC Comics has been teasing a mysterious project called “Rebirth.” It was a very suggestive word for the hard-core comics-geek community. Could it mean a previously dead character was coming back to life? Could it mean a linewide reboot, with a brand-new universe of continuity? Last week, we finally got an answer: It’s more a change of tone than anything else, a back-to-basics approach to the superheroic adventures of the DC pantheon. Some series would get new No. 1 issues, and some wouldn’t. Continuity wasn't changing.
But what caught my eye was a terrifying little tidbit buried in the announcement: 17 DC series will be shipping twice every month.
Eventually I realized DC was also canceling some of its current series, so the overall number of monthly issues wouldn't be quite as massive as I was fearing. But I was shaken and made to see the bigger picture: There are too many goddamn comics to read these days. Not to get all Andy Rooney about the funny-book industry, but it’s absolutely overwhelming how much one has to consume in order to stay on top of the various comics narratives in the marketplace.
First, a quick refresher for comics newbies. Historically, comics series come out at a rate of one issue a month. There have certainly been exceptions in the past, but the usual rate has been roughly 12 issues a year for any given title. DC has been flirting with more aggressive publication schedules in the past few years, having about one series at a time come out every week. But, again, this was the exception. And in the past, comics companies have usually only published a few dozen comics series at a time.
That's no longer the case. It's not DC's fault — it's just responding to larger shifts in the market. After “Rebirth,” DC will have about 40 ongoing series if you include its adults-only line, Vertigo. That’s small potatoes next to its traditional rival, Marvel, which currently has about 80 ongoing series. Right there, you’ve got roughly 120 comics to read every month if you want to have a grasp on the Big Two publishers.
But wait! There’s more! The leading indie publisher, Image Comics, has about 50 series going these days. And the third-biggest superhero-centric publisher, Valiant, has about seven. Then there’s Dark Horse. And BOOM! Studios. And Dynamite. Further compounding the problem is the fact that there are a ton of really good comics out there right now! A person who wants to get all the high-quality narratives — superhero and otherwise — simply won’t have time and money to do so.
Sure, comics has long been a volume industry. It costs very little to make a comic book, compared to a movie or a TV show, so publishers can crank out a ton of content without blowing their overhead. But it’s hard not to feel like the industry has descended into a unique kind of madness. I was recently speaking to an acclaimed author who wrote one of the best books about comics ever published, and he told me he’s basically given up on them because he feels like it’s a losing battle to fight against a tidal wave. He’s moved on to other topics for his writing. I feel his pain! If I weren’t paid to write about this industry (and I thank my lucky stars every day that I am paid to do so, so please don’t think I’m ungrateful), I would probably have to give up, or at least restrict myself to a microscopic percentage of all the comics being released every year. And most people are not paid to do this sort of thing. This is a truly sucky situation for the average reader.
The money is the crucial point that has to be made here. I’m aware that I’m not a special snowflake, as this kind of oversaturation is a common complaint among those who write about television. But here’s the difference: As long as you’re already paying for cable or streaming services, there’s no marginal cost for every additional episode of a show that you watch. There very much is such a cost when it comes to comics. The average comic book costs about $4 these days. DC, mercifully, is lowering its average price point by a dollar. But the industry as a whole is still not making it easy. Even a casual fan who wants a decent scope of all the great stuff out there is looking at a price tag of about $6,000 a year for their comics habit.
Maybe I don’t understand how business works, but you’d hope there’s a happy medium to be found. I have no idea what it would take to get the overall cost of reading down without there being some kind of oligarchic collusion between the publishers, but I have to believe in some kind of better world where the market responds to the frustrations of readers. Perhaps a Hulu-esque model where, for a monthly fee, you get access to a wide array of new issues right after they come out? Consumers are getting fleeced right now. Twice-monthly comics are the last thing we need, no matter how good they are.