04 May 2012

Batman Returns & Rises: Comics Then & Now

This year brings us The Dark Knight Rises, and it also marks the 20th anniversaries of both Batman Returns and Batman: The Animated Series. First off: Yes, really, it's been two whole decades. I know! While reading through some Legends of the Dark Knight comics the other night, I got to thinking of how different the comic book landscape is today than it was then.

This year also marks the twentieth anniversary of Image Comics, believe it or not. Those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, Image was founded as a coalition of several of the industry's hottest writers and artists who elected to go into business as a cartel rather than continue to work for hire by the Big Two (Marvel and DC). Image got off to a shaky start; many of the launch titles failed to meet their delivery dates on a consistent basis but fans bought 'em up whenever they did hit the shelves. It was a watershed moment for the industry, comparable to when Curt Flood filed for free agency in baseball. Ever since then, Marvel and DC have had a sort of love/hate relationship with talent; they've thrown lucrative contracts for exclusivity at some of the creators, while others they've essentially tried to shrug off. "Oh, Jeph Loeb is writing exclusively for Marvel now? Um, yeah...well, we still get to republish The Long Halloween so there's that."

Comic buyers have changed dramatically, too, and the roots of this paradigm shift can also be found in the intervening years. It was the end of 1992 when DC killed Superman, which triggered not only an entire yearlong saga comprising Superman's death, funeral and return; but soon Batman and Green Lantern would undergo their own comparable events. The massive crossover epic became the storytelling convention of the era, ultimately alienating readers like me who had grown wary of having to buy more than one comic a week just to follow a single story. It ate up too much of not just my comic book budget, but my meager budget overall. Sorry, Jeff Smith and Terry Moore; I really did want to read Bone and Strangers in Paradise but Batman wouldn't let me. I had to instead buy assorted issues of titles like Showcase '93 and Justice League Task Force.

For a brief time in the early 90s, Marvel Comics did some major expanding. They bought controlling stock in Toybiz, which manufactured Marvel action figures until it closed its doors a few years ago and led Marvel to a licensing agreement with Hasbro. They bought Malibu Comics not for their comic book characters, but because Malibu also produced video games and Marvel wanted in on that action. Then they bought Fleer, the baseball card company, so that they could dramatically expand their non-sports trading card output. That was the first of two moves that went south, because right after that deal was when the MLBPA went on strike and nobody wanted baseball cards in 1994. The baseball card hobby never fully recovered from that strike, and so it came to be that Marvel had to compensate for that loss by boosting cover prices of their comics. To justify it, they added a ton of gimmicky covers (die cut, embossed holofoil, anyone?).

The other big thing Marvel did was to not renew their distribution deal with Diamond Comics and to try to go it alone. The problem was that many of the comic book shops relied on their Marvel purchases to help meet their monthly ordering minimums from Diamond. They simply could not afford to order their minimum from Diamond without Marvel, and then to order Marvel from Marvel, too. This experiment in distribution seems to be forgotten today, when fans and creators alike often decry Diamond's monopoly. I'm not saying it's a good thing for the industry, mind you. I'm just saying that if anyone wants to try to operate outside of Diamond to get their comics on shelves, there are some valuable lessons to be learned from the failure of one of the Big Two.

Eventually, Marvel and Diamond made up but by the turn of the century, the mass market was kaput. No longer could you buy Batman or Spider-Man comic books at mass retailers like Walmart, or grocery stores, pharmacies or gas stations. If you don't live in a community with a comic specialty shop, you simply do not have access to comic books anymore. Trade paperback collected editions and graphic novels became more prominently sold at major bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble, and they've maintained a small selection of monthly comics. Still, that doesn't help all the potential readers who don't live in a community with such a bookstore.

Just for the sake of illustration, here's a Then & Now look at how Batman fared in comics in 1992 and so far this year. Remember, that year brought the second live action movie and the beginning of what we now refer to as the Timmverse (named for Bruce Timm, who designed and has produced all the DC Universe animated projects since).

Note: There is a discrepancy between the cover date and the actual publication date. For that reason, some issues with a 1992 cover date were actually published in the end of 1991 and some issues that were actually on sale in 1992 had a 1993 cover date. I've stuck with cover dates for the purpose of this illustration.

What's curious is that, already, there are nearly thrice as many Batman comics and books hitting shelves in 2012 as there were in 1992. There is a heavy emphasis presently on collected editions; 46 by my count versus just five in '92. These figures are not 100% accurate, mind you. For one thing, there were 1992 editions of some collected editions that are omitted by my count. There are some collected edition reprints in the 2012 totals (sounds redundant, I know!), partly because in the case of the three volumes of Knightfall, DC has restructured those editions to include material omitted from the previous collected editions. They're essentially different from their predecessors, rather than the same content with a new cover. Some of these reissued collections made the list, though, because I've been out of the game for a decade and had a hard time telling what was actually new!

Also, Batman and his supporting cast have spread so much throughout the DC Universe that it is almost impossible now to find any ongoing series that doesn't feature at least one member of the Batfamily somehow. I have omitted from the 2012 figures, for instance, the series Suicide Squad despite the inclusion of Harley Quinn in its roster.

It's certainly odd that we keep hearing how the industry is on its deathbed, but DC has managed to drum up all this Bat-content. Some of the reissues were clearly selected with this year's Dark Knight Rises in mind (Batman Versus Bane; the three volumes of Batman: Knightfall and Batman: Prey, which I omitted). Several of the collected editions on the 2012 list, though, are from the New 52 relaunch or collect material published in 2012 (Batman: Arkham City, Penguin: Pain and Prejudice, etc.). That still leaves quite a lot of pre-New 52 content that is not obviously connected with this year's movie that DC felt needed to be collected. What I found particularly surprising was that there are no less than four collections of story arcs from my beloved Legends of the Dark Knight - a series whose final issue was published five years ago! It's not like these were the last of the pre-New 52 stories waiting to be finished off.

It would be far more helpful, of course, to have actual sales figures for these issues and books to paint a more complete picture of the differences between then and now. I can tell you, cover prices have inflated dramatically. In 1992, the basic comics were $1.25 apiece. Mid-range books like Shadow of the Bat were $1.50 and premiere books like LOTDK were $1.75. Today, DC's 32 page books are $2.99 apiece and the 40 pagers are $3.99.

1992 (84 total issues and books)

Ongoing titles (55 issues)
  • Batman (15 issues; went biweekly for three months) plus Batman Annual #16
  • Detective Comics (15 issues; went biweekly for three months) plus Detective Comics Annual #5
  • Legends of the Dark Knight (12 issues) plus Legends of the Dark Knight Annual #2
  • Batman: Shadow of the Bat (7 issues cover dated 1992) NEW SERIES
  • The Batman Adventures (3 issues cover dated 1992) NEW SERIES
Mini-series (14 issues)
  • Batman: Gotham Nights (4 issues)
  • Batman versus Predator (issues 2 & 3 cover dated 1992)
  • Batman: Run, Riddler, Run (3 issues)
  • Batman: Sword of Azrael (issues 1-3 cover dated 1992)
  • Robin 3000 (2 issues)
One shot issues (7 issues)
  • Batman: A Word to the Wise
  • The Batman Gallery
  • Batman/Green Arrow: The Poison Tomorrow
  • Batman Returns: The Official Comic Adaptation of the Warner Bros. Motion Picture
  • Batman: The Blue, the Grey and the Bat
  • Catwoman Defiant
  • Penguin Triumphant
Graphic novels (3)
  • Batman & Dracula: Red Rain
  • Batman: Birth of the Demon
  • Batman: Night Cries
Collected editions (5; note: does not include reprints of previously published collected editions)
  • Batman: Blind Justice
  • Batman: Faces
  • Batman: Gothic
  • Batman: The Dark Knight Archives, Volume One
  • The Many Deaths of the Batman
2012 (230 issues and books - and counting!)

Ongoing series (165+ issues) (note: issue counts are best guesses since the year is still in progress)
  • Batgirl (12 issues)
  • Batman (12 issues) plus Batman Annual #1
  • Batman and Robin (12 issues)
  • Batman: Arkham Unhinged (#1-?)  NEW SERIES
  • Batman Beyond Unlimited (12 issues) NEW SERIES
  • Batman: The Dark Knight (12 issues)
  • Batman Incorporated (8 issues) NEW SERIES
  • Batwing (12 issues)
  • Batwoman (12 issues)
  • Birds of Prey (12 issues)
  • Catwoman (12 issues)
  • Detective Comics (12 issues)
  • Justice League [Batman is a starring member] (12 issues)
  • Nightwing (12 issues)
  • Red Hood and the Outsiders (12 issues)
Mini Series (15 issues)
  • Batman: Odyssey, vol. 2 (6 issues cover dated 2012)
  • The Huntress (5 of 6 issues cover dated 2012)
  • Penguin: Pain and Prejudice (4 issues cover dated 2012)
One-shots (1)
  • Batman, Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes!
Graphic Novels (2)
  • Batman: Death by Design
  • Batman: Earth One
Collected Editions (47)
  • Batgirl Vol. 1: The Darkest Reflection HC
  • Batman Vol. 1: The Court of the Owls HC
  • Batman & Robin: Batman Must Die!
  • Batman & Robin: Dark Knight vs. White Knight
  • Batman & Robin Vol. 1: Born to Kill HC
  • Batman Archives, Volume Eight
  • Batman: Arkham City
  • Batman: Arkham Unhinged
  • Batman: Bad
  • Batman Beyond: Industrial Revolution
  • Batman: Birth of the Demon
  • Batman: Blaze of Glory
  • Batman: Bruce Wayne - The Road Home
  • The Batman Chronicles, Vol. 11
  • Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 1: Faces of Death HC
  • Batman: Don't Blink
  • Batman: Eye of the Beholder
  • Batman: Gates of Gotham
  • Batman: Gotham Shall Be Judged
  • Batman Incorporated Vol. 1 Deluxe Edition HC
  • Batman: Knightfall Volume One
  • Batman: Knightfall Volume Two: KnightQuest
  • Batman: Knightfall Volume Three: KnightsEnd
  • Batman: Odyssey
  • Batman: The Black Glove Deluxe Edition HC
  • Batman: The Black Mirror
  • Batman: The Dark Knight Vol.1: Knight Terrors HC
  • Batman: The Secret City
  • Batman: Time and the Batman
  • Batman: Urban Legend
  • Batman Versus Bane
  • Batman Versus the Black Glove
  • Batwing Vol. 1: The Lost Kingdom
  • Batwoman Vol. 1: Hydrology HC
  • Birds of Prey Vol. 1: Trouble in Mind
  • Catwoman Vol. 1: The Game HC
  • Flashpoint: The World of Batman
  • Gotham Central: Book Four - Corrigan
  • Gotham City Sirens: Division
  • Huntress: Crossbow at the Crossroads
  • Justice League Vol. 1: Secret Origins HC
  • Legends of the Dark Knight: Alan Davis
  • Nightwing Vol. 1: Traps and Trapezes
  • Penguin: Pain and Prejudice
  • Red Hood and the Outlaws: REDemption
  • Red Robin: Seven Days of Death
  • Superman/Batman: Sorcerer Kings

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