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A Thought Experiment: WCW and DC Comics

So, while writing the God of Comics twitter feed this week and the following Afterthought, I got to thinking. It was not a terribly good thought, but it was one that made a lot of sense. Time Warner’s favorite source of creative properties, DC Comics, has been having some issues lately. This isn’t the first time this has happened with an intellectual property under the care of Time Warner, and there are a number of parallels between this time and last.

The company in question no longer exists. It went from making massive profits one year to losing $80 million the next. The company I’m talking about is, of course, WCW – a wrestling company that was once the cornerstone of Turner Broadcasting.

Now, there’s a lot of surface similarities between comics and wrestling. Both feature larger than life personalities engaged in morality plays revolving around long running narratives. Good versus evil is writ large, and though there are alliances and relationships every conflict must end in a fight of some kind. Characters go good or bad depending upon the demands of story, and certain stories work better with some characters than with others.

Some characters even transcend the medium they come from, becoming cultural icons. DC Comics has their share of those, and so did WCW – Ric Flair, Batman, Hulk Hogan, Superman, the Four Horsemen, the Justice League of America.

You may have noticed that I used the past tense in relation to WCW. I did this because WCW is now dead and defunct, sold to Vince McMahon – the competition – for pennies on the dollar after years of mismanagement and a contemptuous disdain for the fans and themes of the medium involved.

We’re not here to discuss the similarities between the mediums. We’re here to discuss the parallels between what happened with WCW and what’s happening with DC Comics. Follow me on this; it’s a thought experiment. I’m going to talk about WCW in normal font, and DC Comics in italics. Everyone on board? Good. Let’s do this.

 

For years, WCW ran a close second to the forerunners of the industry, a company that chose flash over substance. By concentrating on the deep understanding of psychology possessed by wrestlers like Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, and Sting, WCW created a large and loyal fanbase that appreciated their storytelling capabilities. They also created memorable villains ranging from the monstrous Vader to the intelligent Arn Anderson. In a successful attempt to further extend their marketability and depth of product, they branch into the worldwide market and promote critically acclaimed wrestlers from Europe, Japan and Mexico.

For years, DC Comics ran a close second to the forerunners of the industry, a company that chose flash over substance. By concentrating on the deep understanding of the heroism intrinsic to characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, DC Comics created a large and loyal fanbase that appreciated their storytelling capabilities. They also created memorable villains ranging from the monstrous Darkseid to the intelligent Lex Luthor. In a successful attempt to further extend their marketability and depth of product, they branch into the worldwide market and promote critically acclaimed titles like Swamp Thing, Sandman and Hellblazer.

The focus of flash over substance eventually crippled their primary opponents, driving the WWE to near bankruptcy and allowing WCW to take the fore. Drawing on the deep pocket books of Time Warner, WCW revamped their product to make it of higher quality in terms of presentation. They concentrated on mature stories centering around the nWo, brought in greater amounts of talent like Rey Mysterio, jr, and Raven, and started creating new stars, like Goldberg and Chris Jericho, while making their homegrown talent, people like Lex Luger and Diamond Dallas Page, more important. A balance exists between the creative minds of the talent, the writers behind the scenes, and the people running things. Everyone benefits.

The focus of big dumb event crossovers over stories with substance eventually crippled their primary opponents, driving Marvel Comics to near bankruptcy and allowing DC Comics to take the fore. Drawing on the deep pocket books of Time Warner, DC Comics revamped their product to make it of higher quality in terms of presentation. They concentrated on mature stories centering around the Justice League of America, brought in greater amounts of writing and artistic talent like Warren Ellis and Alex Ross, and started creating new characters, like Oracle and Azrael, while making their older ones, like Huntress and Green Arrow, more important. A balance exists between the creative minds of the talent, the writers behind the scenes, and the people running things. Everyone benefits.

In the chaos of success, the people in charge of WCW lost track of the stories they were telling. The biggest show of the year was Starccade, and for two years running it featured a screwy finish in the main event that drew out tired stories rather than completing them or moving them forwards. Wrestlers the fans were invested in, like Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero, were shuffled off in favor of friends of management that no one else cared about, like David Arquette and Dennis Rodman. The fans complained and were ignored.

In the chaos of success, the people in charge of DC Comics lost track of the stories they were telling. The biggest comics of the year comics of the year featured screwy plot devices that readers knew could not hold, like the mass killings in Blackest Night, robbing the stories of drama. Characters the fans were invested in, like Steph Brown and Cass Cain, suffered character assassination and then were written out of continuity because management didn’t like them, in favor of rewriting characters like Deathstroke or Black Mask in ways that had nothing to do what made them interesting in the first place. The fans complained and were ignored.

The people in charge of WCW seem more interested in past successes, like the eighty-four week ratings winning streak, than in anything happening in the present. Multiple changes in management muddle stories and characters, with a few bright spots like Booker T, Scott Steiner, and Sting remaining. The people in charge try to get involved with those bright spots, eventually ruining them and driving the people involved away. The fans complain and are ignored.

The people in charge of DC Comics seem more interested in past successes, like stories that ended more than twenty years ago, than in anything happening in the present. A massive company-wide reboot muddled stories and characters further, infuriating fans, with only a few bright spots like Batwoman, Aquaman, and Demon Knights to show for the change. The people in charge try to get involved with those bright spots, eventually ruining them and driving the people involved away. The fans complain and are ignored.

Once a ratings draw with a reliable fanbase, WCW began to lose watchers in droves as the talent that made it worth the investment left. Management blamed the fans for not understanding their genius while refusing to listen to them, returning to the same played out talents and nonsense stories of yesteryear, while the people that had made WCW interesting went to work for the competition. The suits at Time Warner decided to cancel the timeslots WCW occupied, given the sinkhole the company had become, effectively killing WCW. Vince McMahon made a laughable offer that was accepted and thus bought the company, turning around and using the video archives to make himself another fortune.

Once a respectable company with a reliable fanbase, DC Comics began to lose readers in droves as the talent that made their comics worth reading left. Management blamed the fans for not understanding their genius while refusing to listen to them, returning to the same played out reboots and grimdark stories, while the people that had made DC Comics interesting went to work anywhere else.

 

That’s where we find ourselves right now. The last two sentences haven’t happened yet, but given the track record of the editors at DC Comics and the suits at Time Warner, it’s only a matter of time before DC Comics is, effectively, cancelled given the sinkhole the company is becoming. Someone with more respect for the characters and stories will hopefully step in and turn the company around.

Gods know, if they can do it they’ll make themselves a fortune.

10 Responses to A Thought Experiment: WCW and DC Comics

  1. Andreas Penn says:

    I’m wondering where your getting this information to base these thoughts on?

    You claim that Aquaman, Batwomen and Demon Knights were the bright spots in DCs line up and yet of the three only Aquaman shows any signs of sticking around. Demon Knights is cancelled and Batwomen has shown steady decline in its sales. As a business that wants to make money isn’t making changes in order to sell more books what they should do? Or are they simply supposed to let the titles drive themselves into the ground while using up talent that could go elsewhere?

    You sound like your just whining because DC won’t tell the story you want told.

    • Aaron Golden says:

      A variety of sources, both online and off, and from reading the comics themselves.

      I’m going to address your last point first, then talk about the numbers supporting the rapidly dwindling bright spots that remain.

      You’re right in that DC is not telling the stories we’d like them to tell, but that isn’t because we demand one character over another, or one solid narrative track. Rather, we’re demanding quality from the stories being told, events and characters that make sense given the nature of those events and characters. DC has largely failed at this for a number of years, and this lack has been on the increase since the reboot happened to the point where the vast majority of their stories are unreadable.

      The few that are touch on themes that are told elsewhere, with either greater or equal quality. Demon Knights has stiff competition from He-Man (another DC title) and Skullkickers, neither of which is quite as good but both of which are more recognizable. Batwoman faces competition stiff competition from a number of titles (Hellboy, Daredevil), but there is really nothing else on the market like it. DC does not support it, however, and has gone out of their way to make enough editorial changes that it’s driven the writer and artist away from the title entirely.

      DC Comics is a business, but when their editors aren’t insulting their writers, they’re insulting their fans and their characters. It’s a baffling business strategy that has seen numerical growth in a grand total of five comics in the past year, one of which did not exist at that point (Constantine) and one of which does not exist in proper DC continuity (Scooby-Doo).

      The largest percentile growth otherwise is Batman, which has had a 5.2% sales increase in the past calender year despite horrid storytelling. Tellingly, the other two titles that have grown sales are Batman and Robin (+2.4%) and Batgirl (+1.8%), but neither title is doing as well as it was before the reboot.

      With the comics being horrible and DC’s insistence on insulting any fan that complains, more and more people are leaving DC and going elsewhere rather than investigating the few gems that remain. Aquaman’s lost 14.5% of it’s readership this year, but it’s one of the best written comics currently on shelves. Batwoman (-33.1%) and Demon Knights (-41.0%) are also excellent, but they don’t have the attention granted many of the other comics and aren’t advertised nearly as heavily. Those of us that know of them are leaving DC behind, but we’re not the only ones.

      Superman has lost 25.6% of it’s readership in the past year. Wonder Woman has lost 25.2%. These are the actual numbers – look them up, do the research. It’s very telling. DC Comics is suffering diminishing returns because the quality of their stories has deteriorated to the point where they’re barely readable. As people grow tired of being insulted for reading about the characters they’re interested in by the people that control those characters, they either leave the medium entirely (worst case scenario) or look for an alternative (Valiant, A-1, Marvel, Dark Horse, Avatar, Dynamite, et al).

      And it’s not just limited to the fans. Writers and artists are leaving DC, too, and the editorial staff at DC Comics insists that reality is wrong and that they are right. They demand that we, the people that would like to give them our money and the people they pay to write stories, are wrong in what we want to give them our money for or in the stories that want to be told.

      DC Comics isn’t moving forward with their stories. We’d love them to move forward with their stories. Instead, they’re regressing characters and timelines in editorial choices that please no one in an effort to bring in new readers, but they’re driving their older ones away in droves and crippling their own narrative.

      In short, the bright spots are dying because DC wants them to fail to prove themselves right, but the choice to do so basically involves shooting themselves in the face. Editorial is driving away their talent and readership while damaging the value of the intellectual properties they’re supposed to be crafting stories around. They’ve regressed to the point where they’re being abandoned, driving their own sales into the ground in a misguided effort to be something their not, and playing to the weaknesses of the characters and themes they do have.

      WCW did the exact same things in their dying days, and here’s the thing – we DON’T want what happened to WCW to happen to DC Comics. We want DC to succeed, and we know they can. It’s just that the people that could make that happen (Bruce Timm. Gail Simone, J.H. Williams) all seem to be jumping ship, and all of them complain about the editorial staff being the reason why when anyone asks them why.

    • Aaron Golden says:

      Exactly my point. The original writer for Batwoman was Rucka, who DC once credited as being one of the architects of their narrative. He left in disgust, but J.H. Williams III took over the book and had a clear idea of who the character was and what she was about.

      Read the note posted above. Those are the words of a heartbroken man who cannot stand to see what the company he works for has become.

      To put this in context, Ric Flair was the man that many consider the soul of WCW. When that company finally died, he went on record as being incredibly relieved that the company he had given so much of himself to wouldn’t damage itself anymore.

      DC Comics is doing the exact same thing – who, do you think, will end up echoing Ric Flair when Time Warner finally shuts the comic side of DC down to keep the movies and television series based on those properties from suffering the damage of association?

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