Earlier this year, I laid out how Marvel Comics could streamline its monthly superhero line to just 12 books. This “What If?” scenario involved not just thinning Marvel’s superhero line, but completely rethinking how the company could and should deliver comics to readers. Most of us who want mainstream superhero comics to attract new readers know that the monthly, 20-page, $3.99 periodical has just not been getting the job done. If the Big Two superhero publishers want to increase their books’ audiences, I posited, something big needed to change.
Part of my plan was to condense several of Marvel’s “families” of titles into one, core monthly anthology. Rather than paying $12 a month to follow Iron Man, War Machine, and Rescue, Iron Man fans would be able to pick up one $5-7 book featuring all three of those characters. That way, the Marvel Universe would not contract substantially, fans would get more story for their money, and each character’s stories could eventually be split off into separate (monthly) digital series and trade paperbacks – so those who really want to read about just War Machine could do that if they liked.
I’d planned to follow up on my Marvel article by creating a “reduced” DC Universe before the end of the year … but then DC Comics beat me to it:
There is a lot to love about DC Future State. The clarity of direction, the fantastic-looking new characters and costume designs, the chutzpah it takes to take two months off of “regular” continuity to publish fresh, future-facing comics. But what I love most about Future State is a) how tightly contained it is and b) how it is taking advantage of the anthology format to still pack as much DC-ness as it can into two months’ worth of comics.
Making the DC Universe Digestible
DC is publishing only 24 superhero series during the months of January and February 2021. That may sound like a lot (especially compared to the 12 I’d whittled Marvel down to), but for a Big Two superhero publisher, it really isn’t. Before the pandemic started, Marvel was publishing upwards of 60 series per month, and one of DC’s most well-known reboot initiatives made a big deal out of publishing 52. So DC holding themselves to 24 titles, centered within three main superhero families (Batman, Superman/Wonder Woman, and Justice League), is a big deal. And, I think it’s a big win.
The Future State initiative is digestible, and that makes it easy to pitch to lapsed or new comics readers. For example, after DC announced Future State, I texted a friend of mine who has recently been asking what current superhero comics he should read. I told him he might want to look into jumping on Future State, as the event is low-commitment and includes some of his favorite characters. It is much easier to sell someone on a few two-month miniseries than it is several ongoing comics series (which are nearly always in the middle of some six-issue story or another). If my friend likes those books, he’ll easily be able to sample other books within the Future State line. After all, all of them say Future State in big, bold letters on their covers, signalling that they are part of the event.
(On the retailer side, DC is making all the Future State titles returnable, allowing retailers to order more of them and sell them to walk-ins like my friend without taking a huge risk. Which is wonderful.)
Experimenting with Monthly Superhero Anthologies
However, reducing the DC Universe to a handful of Batman-, Superman-, Wonder Woman-, and Justice League-only stories would do the universe a disservice. Part of the reason readers like myself love the DC Universe is that it contains multitudes. A DC without Swamp Thing, the New Gods, Detective Chimp, and the Legion of Super-Heroes (to say nothing of other, even more oddball characters) would be … well, boring. Which is why I’m so glad that DC is using Future State to experiment with the concept of Shonen Jump– and 2000 A.D.-style anthologies.
For some reason, anthologies have fallen out of favor in mainstream superhero comics. But (perhaps seeing how well their $9.99 anniversary issues have been selling), DC thinks now is a good time to attempt to revive them … and I wholeheartedly agree!
Anthologies give readers more comics for their dollar and allow characters who might otherwise not be able to survive within a reduced line to live on. They also allow DC to have their cake (publish only comics they know are going to sell, because they have Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman on the front) and eat it too (tell interesting stories about B-list characters and use them to eventually sell additional series and/or trades). Notably, Red Hood’s appearance in Dark Detective may actually serve to sell that book to my lapsed-superhero-comic-reading friend, and Mister Miracle’s appearance may get me to pick up Future State’s Superman titles. Neither of us would be buying those books if they did not contain backup stories, and buying those books might lead us to buy other Batman and/or Superman books after Future State ends.
Is it great that the Future State anthology books are, essentially, just twice as many comic pages for twice as many dollars? No, it is not. Ideally, anthologies would allow the Big Two publishers to deliver some cost-savings to readers, helping to make monthly superhero comics more palatable in an age of Netflix and Disney+ subscriptions. But the fact that DC is willing to experiment with the format at all is exciting, because it signals that they’re not going to let monthly superhero comics stagnate and (possibly) die.
What Happens After Future State Ends?
Of course, Future State is only two months’ worth of DC Comics. The DC superhero line may revert to normal in March 2021, publishing 30+ $3.99 comics that look remarkably similar to DC’s pre-Future State lineup.
However, I think DC knows what they’re doing with Future State. And even if the initiative’s key strengths aren’t reflected immediately in DC’s 2021 plans, I think they’ll be integrated into those plans fairly quickly. The DC and Marvel Universes as they are constructed and published now are not sustainable. The higher-ups at AT&T seem to understand that, and (for now) they seem willing to attempt to “fix” DC Comics’ monthly superhero line, rather than cut monthly superhero comics altogether.
Future State may be remembered as a big first step toward what the DC Comics line of 2021 and beyond looked like. Or, it may be remembered as a fun, two-month flash in the pan. Either way, I think DC Future State will be remembered, because it’s trying some fresh and exciting things.