Pow! Boom! Why DC relaunched iconic comic books

Even Superman can't escape tough times. Publisher Jim Lee explains why DC relaunched all 52 comic books this week

Published September 2, 2011 9:20PM (EDT)

Superheroes tried to battle a world of bookstores closures, digital piracy and iPads this week with a bold publishing initiative from DC Entertainment. Facing eroding sales, the publisher of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, among other icons, decided to relaunch the entire line with 52 new No. 1 issues and reader-friendly back stories. In addition, the entire line will now be on sale digitally on the same day it goes on sale in print.

At the center of the storm is Jim Lee, DC's co-publisher, who has the job of expanding readership without losing longtime fans. He also happens to be the artist on DC's Justice League, one of the books that debuted this week. While juggling his drawing, signing and publishing duties, Lee took some time to discuss how the relaunch went and the future of comic books in a digital world.

You had a huge midnight signing at Midtown Comics in New York with writer [and DC's chief creative officer] Geoff Johns on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. What was the highlight?

I've seen midnight openings for video games and movies, but I’ve not seen a store signing at midnight with creators before -- certainly not at DC. Geoff and I wanted to go the extra step and be there in person for people who are so into a comic that they were willing to forgo sleep. People were lined up at 10 or 11 in the morning and they had lawn chairs! It wasn't just Midtown Comics, stores within blocks of Midtown had midnight events with hundreds of people. It's exciting to see, because it shows people really do love comic books.

In the new Justice League No. 1, we meet the team in a world that doesn't know they are good guys. How did you decide to go that route?

When we hatched the idea of this relaunch, Geoff and I started on a very different first issue. I drew about 14 pages of it, and it was much more of a "traditional" Justice League story. But when we started talking about what this relaunch could do, Geoff and I had this realization that we could do something content-wise that matched our publishing strategy. We went back and retooled the entire first issue and made it more accessible.

It gives us an opportunity to tell the origin of the DC Universe (DCU). When you first see these heroes, because of their powers and wearing masks, and not using their real names, the public is anxious and fearful about them. We wanted to show how this brave new world evolves into the DCU we all know and love. By seeing them band together as the champions of the world, you'll see the world embrace them, and the coining of the word "superhero" and establishment of these as iconic and inspirational characters.

The first issue spotlights only Batman and Green Lantern. Some people have asked, "Where's the rest of the Justice League?"

I guarantee you if we did a story that had every single member in it, people would say, "This is not for new readers! It's too complicated!" [laughs] People have said also, because of your track record, it's a no-brainer to succeed. Yes and no -- this book is getting a lot more scrutiny because of that. You have a very different hurdle to jump to achieve success. Batman and Green Lantern are two of the best-known characters and gateway characters. And honestly, Geoff writes such character-driven story lines. There’s a lot of humanity in the book, a lot of humor. You see the characters behind the masks.

Also, people also said, "It’s too slowly paced! You guys have said you aren't writing for the trade!" What [we are doing] is letting writers write the length of stories they want. Geoff wanted to have a slow build, with a lot of action and suspense. We’re very happy. The second is better than the first, and the third is better than the second.

There has been an incredible outcry about the number of women in the DCU and their handling. People have complained there is only one female character in issue No. 1. When Wonder Woman does make the scene, is there any way to win these people over?

There were no Korean characters in the first issue either, or gay and lesbian characters! It’s a tough line. You're trying to entertain the audience and it's not about creating didactic stories. When Wonder Woman shows up it will be very momentous and each character will get their place in the sun and you'll see the value of their contribution to the team. It’s a story. You’ve got to let it breathe and open up.

What about this mysterious pink-hooded woman who has been seen in the background of many of the No. 1 issues?

No comment! But we really designed this launch as 52 books and they will all be accessible but to different degrees. You don't have to read all these books to see what's going on. But at the same time we're not precluding the idea of planning and planting some seeds.

The reason for the relaunch has been stated as keeping current readers and getting back lapsed readers. I know it's only been two days, but how's it going?

Someone commented, "Where are the reviews by the new readers?" And my counter is, well, [laughs] I think a new reader isn’t going to read it and then run to the computer and write an online review! They are reading it for entertainment and they don’t know you’re supposed to put them in bags and boards.

To me, there’s a definite silent majority that doesn’t check out websites or tweet about it. It’s a tough group to measure. That said, based on recent numbers, certainly Justice League No. 1 has surpassed the recent highs in comics sales. The second printing is already sold out, we're doing a third. And Action No. 1 and Batgirl No. 1 have also sold out [from the distributor]. I've heard anecdotally from retailers, from texts and tweets, about first-time comics readers. It looks very positive.

It's also setting records digitally. I can't give numbers, but on the first day it set a record for us.

Once you compared the volume of DC's digital comics sales to dental floss. Is it up to dental tape now?

It’s too early to say. The goal isn’t to increase one pipeline vs. the other. Everything is designed to increase the overall size of the pie.

How do you see print and digital evolving together either in the short term or long term?

Obviously there are going to be some people who convert from print to digital. They may already have done that or are doing that. When Justice League came out [in digital form], there was already a pirated digital version that had been out for six hours. For me it's all about giving people who want digital comics a legal alternative. And I think that's an important decision for the health of our business. At the same time I don't think you can go digital and say you're trying to reach new readers without going out to promote this as we have. The TV commercials we're doing have a pretty extensive buy list of mainstream cable shows. There are a lot of good things happening. We've brought a lot of good creators to the books, we’ve promoted the hell out of it and made it as easy to buy the comics as possible, and I think that strategy is paying off.

In a year's time, best-case scenario, what do you want to see?

Well, Justice League 12 will be out and it will be awesome! And Justice League 13 will be coming, and Geoff and I will be going strong on it. Personally it's tremendously exciting to be drawing a monthly team book again, seeing these characters interact with one another. I literally laugh out loud reading the scripts. You need that when you are running a marathon -- you need that constant daily burst of inspiration to sit and draw 22 pages a month.

On a more global level, we hope we can continue building off this excitement and the relationships we've made publicizing this event. I think once you establish that this is the kind of noise you can generate you can go to the next level and say, Work with us to do something bigger and better. We have some plans.

By Heidi MacDonald

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