The DC Comics Reboot: “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile”

“Not your father’s Oldsmobile” was an ad campaign that was supposed to help make Oldsmobiles attractive to a younger crowd. Instead, it merely insulted the people who usually bought Oldsmobiles, and that was the kiss of death. Such a line stings when you realize you’re the father in the ad, not the sexy young kid.

The alienation of current comic book fans is not as important to DC Comics as is grabbing a new young audience with their massive reboot of their line. DC assumes that the older fans will resume their habit after a period of pouting. The only big unanswered question about such a marketing plan is: if current fans actually do desert comics en masse, can the smaller numbers in younger generations sustain the business as well as the huge numbers of baby boomers have? A smaller question is: are younger potential readers likely to be loyal to a company that shifts sands under their feet?

Looking at the life expectancy stats for male baby boomers still alive, they have maybe another twenty years. Some won’t make it that far and will die in their late sixties, the typical life expectancy for their birth year. DC Comics is going after a different audience with a longer life span ahead of it because otherwise its business will die with its baby boom readers. We don’t have to like it, but we are an older generation and the market does not venerate age, only buying power.

Of course many American companies make a mistake in not catering to middle-aged or older people who actually have very substantial buying power. Who today is buying all the classic comics and original art for many thousands of dollars? Too bad DC couldn’t think of a way to capture more of their financial resources.

The big mistake I see in this reboot, as I’ve said before, is in not trying to grab for 100% more market by attracting a female audience. Those new female readers would do a lot to make up for the smaller numbers in younger generations.

Comic books as a medium may be feeling its age. A radical shake-up is one of the many efforts a company makes to stay in business once it has a mature product. The American business model is always bigger and better—or bust.  Dime novels and pulp magazines, once thriving businesses, are gone. Perhaps comic books can successfully migrate to iPad-style devices and find a secure new audience that will allow the medium to flourish. Otherwise, when the baby boom dies off, so will comics.

Along with this reboot come new costumes, new storylines, and more.  The issue there lies in trying to do an end run around Superman’s legal creators by changing his iconic look.  Supergirl does not have an iconic costume, and on the world stage of entertainment, she rates nowhere.  Once Superman loses his iconic appearance, he can be tossed into the entertainment ashcan of history quite easily because there will be no generations of nostalgia associated with his modern incarnation.  “Off with the old” does not automatically guarantee “on with the new.”

We’ll see. Opera is still limping along hundreds of years after its heyday, although most audience members in this country have gray or white hair. Perhaps comics, closing in on one hundred years themselves, can squeak through despite this hostile new direction. It won’t be the same, and that is the point. The new DC Comics: not your father’s comic books.


  1. I dunno; I can pout an awfully long time.

    DC’s modern penchant for shock ‘n’ gore has certainly turned me off. It seems to me a one-note, lazy way of trying to elicit an emotional response in their readers. Violent Wonder Woman? Blood dripping off her double axe? Are you kidding me?

    If DC truly wanted a new market, they’d go after kids and give those kids stepping stone titles to grow into until they’re ready for the regular line. Kids also need cheaper titles, titles that can be found where kids go. DC needs to stretch out of the comics stores.

    And women are left completely out of the targeted audience. The female characters at DC seem to be aimed at traditional male sensibilities. How incredibly short-sighted is that?

  2. I love your take on this!

    About opera — the graying of the opera audience might have something to do with the scary cost of attending. It may be that the HD live movie-theatre productions will reverse that trend. I think with the love young connoisseurs have for romance, fantasy, and extravaganza, opera might suddenly be much more up their alley. Let’s hope it doesn’t go the way of caviar and $300 bottles of champagne.

  3. Nor my comic books either, not after 2011. That may change, depending on where editorial policy goes…but Mary’s got a point about price tags, and Carol about targeted audiences.

  4. It is worth noting that opera is no more expensive than a ticket to a Broadway-style show or a pop music concert. The $1,000 tickets to see Springsteen perform plus meet-and-greet are about the same as the $1,000 level of donation that allows an opera-goer to exchange a few words with a tenor in the Belmont Room at the Met. People pay phenomenal prices to see the Stones, or Rihanna, or Celine Dion, to name three very different hot tickets. Live public entertainments are not cheap unless you buy the cheap tickets.

    Yes, it is possible to pay $300 for an opera ticket. I have done that. It is also possible to watch an entire opera in standing room for less than the price of lunch. I’ve done that, too. People scare themselves about opera. They worry they are not worthy, or they won’t get it, or it’s in a foreign language. They think anything older than them must be stuffy and irrelevant. Yet “Carmen,” about a stalker boyfriend who kills his former lover rather than let her move on, is as vital a story as ever, and the music is fantastic.

    Superman is older than all of us, too, yet we keep going to reboot movie after movie, hoping they’ll get him right, now that Christopher Reeve isn’t around to do the job so perfectly. And some of us still read his stories in the latest comic books. But Superman was the product of his age, of the 1930s, which is a very long time ago. Why should we feel any affinity for a space alien with X-ray vision who wears a circus costume and was invented pretty much to fight Nazis and low-tech crooks? Yet we do. I hope the time won’t come when we have an uphill battle trying to convince younger generations that comic books have something to offer, that they are a unique art form of great merit. Like opera.

  5. Even with the success of super-hero movies, comic book sales are still poor. Today’s top sellers would have been cancelled for low sales in the Silver Age. It may just be that the medium is obsolescent. TV killed dramatic radio. Comics helped kill pulp magazines, and computers and video games may be killing off comics.

    Also, the medium is the message, and when the medium is comics, the message may be, “This is for kids,” or “This is for geeks.” Adults and teenagers will openly mention that they saw the latest Iron Man or Batman movie last weekend, but they wouldn’t be caught dead reading a comic book.

    The endless retcons and reboots don’t help matters. Nor do the constant publicity stunts and marketing ploys (female Thor, gay Iceman, black Spider-Man or Captain America) disguised as attempts to Do the Right Thing. And the emphasis on grimdark is another turn-off for potential new fans. Also, the tie-ins and line-wide crossover Big Events, and the long story arcs, may be intended to force customers to buy more comics, but they may have the opposite effect. Potential new fans just quit reading, rather than buy six consecutive issues of ten different titles.

    I agree with Carol. DC and Marvel should publish more kid-friendly titles, maybe based directly on the movies and TV shows. And they need to be where people can see them (grocery stores, drug stores) without having to make a special trip to a comic book specialty store. And prices need to be reasonable.

  6. It’s interesting to note that comic sales were at their best when they were aimed primarily at kids, were cheap as chips, and weren’t seen by writers and artists as opportunities to show how good they’d be as movie scriptwriters or storyboard artists. The more self-important (and some might say pretentious) comics have become, the less popular they seem to be. Perhaps there’s a clue in there as to why.

  7. I’m 61 years old and followed comics for a long time. It may be that comic books are on their way out, but I seem to recall that the late 40’s early 50’s has a similar slump. The comic books simply moved in a different direction, and then super heroes came back roaring during the silver age. It could happen again, but not on the current path I see.

    I will tell you the problem I see with today’s comics. When I pick one up and try to read it I find the artwork overpowers the story, and the dialog seems very disjointed and difficult to follow. Couple that with story-lines that have extended story arcs or so often criss-cross different titles that its impossible to know what’s going on. The icing on the cake is when they reboot every few years, and it just seems that the management has nothing but contempt for everything that has gone before.

    The comic books look slicker than ever, but much like the movies being put out they don’t seem to have a soul. The movies succeed by adding 3D and making something explode every few minutes, but frankly I’ve stopped going to them too. I’ll watch them when they come to TV and I’ve nothing better to do, but the last 2 Superman movies were just plain hamburger patties. There is only ONE current venue that seems to work really, and I mean REALLY well, and that is animation. The DC animation movies, and series for that matter, have been good solid entertainment in a way that the movies just aren’t. They are even better than the Marvel movies, which I acknowledge have generally been a cut above the DC stuff. The animated movies have the FEEL of the comics of the sixties when they tried to tell a complete story in one book, or possibly continued in in a second book, and worked to make you identify with the characters as people and not just super powered stick figures. Yes, DC animation has done a lot of the right things. The best example that comes to mind is All Star Superman,which seems to have sprung directly from the Silver Age. There are plenty of other good ones too though. Perhaps live animation is the way to go.

    • Mark, I just saw a Spider-Man comic at Newberry Comics in Burlington, Massachusetts, that had Peter Parker married and with a little girl named Annie. The cover claimed it was a “Variant” unique to that comic book store. I have no idea just how “variant” this story is, but that’s okay. The Spider-Man stories I cared about happened a long time ago. There might be an occasional moment in something new that speaks to me, such as a scene in one of the first X-Men movies–but it doesn’t happen often.

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