Published on June 1st, 2015 | by Swamp Thing0
Where There’s Muck… Part 5
Swamp Thing – It’s not easy being The Green: Epilogue
When the (supposed) final chapter of my series on the comic muck monsters, Swamp Thing – It’s not easy being The Green, appeared on Need to Consume back in January this year, I hadn’t anticipated needing to write an epilogue quite so soon. But then I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me that, between my writing that article in December and it appearing on the site in January, Swamp Thing would be cancelled by DC.
He’s not alone this time either. It would appear that quite a few of DC’s New 52 got old real quick. Aquaman and the Others, Infinity Man and the Forever People, Klarion, Secret Origins, Star-Spangled War Stories Featuring G.I. Zombie, Trinity of Sin, Worlds’ Finest, Arkham Manor, Batwoman, Green Lantern Corps, Green Lantern: New Guardians, and Red Lanterns, all joined Swampy as he slipped back into the murky depths in March. All the survivors of the New 52 cull are on a two month holiday at present, coinciding with DC’s Convergence event. More about that later. The titles not cancelled (yet) are expected to return with their June issues.
What went wrong? This time.
Swamp Thing should be getting the hang of being cancelled by now, but to be fair to the big guy only one of his previous cancellations could be classed as a mercy killing. By issue #24 of his original run in the 1970s it was clear that DC had completely lost interest in the character and the title was floundering badly. Not so this time around. The New 52 Swamp Thing was still being well received by the critics and the writing and artwork were still grading above the curve. But as I said in the previous article, more prophetically than expected, “the problem has always been that strong writing and powerful storylines in themselves don’t guarantee sales”. So it was with Swamp Thing in his New 52 incarnation. When Vertigo cancelled Swampy in August 2006, the final issue sold 7,448 copies. DC’s September 2011 New 52 relaunch sold 54,757 copies in the US. A significant increase, but down towards the lower end of the New 52 relaunch numbers, on a par with Birds of Prey and The Savage Hawkman. Even Aquaman got better numbers, and let’s face it, Raj is right, Aquaman sucks. Of course, every #1 gets above average numbers as the speculators go hunting for the next Action Comics ‘#1 and fans disappointed by their hero’s last outing give him another try to see if things have improved any. After the first few issues it’s down to the quality of the product to keep the numbers high, or better still, on the up. Not for the first time for Swamp Thing, the quality was there but the interest wasn’t. From issue #2 the month on month sales fell by a consistent 1200-1500 copies, with the only high point in the later issues being the 40,000 copies that sold of issue 23.1 (the Arcane special). Either side of that peak, #23 sold 22,695 and #24 sold 21,724 copies. By #29, sales were down to 18,837 and still falling. Through October 2014 there were murmurings that DC were considering drawing a line under the poorest performing New 52 titles, though in some cases they could appear less mercenary about it by saying it was a natural conclusion to the title’s story arc before Convergence kicked in. Murmurings or no, there were still plenty of surprised faces when DC announced the demise of so many titles in December 2014. For many, the biggest surprise was the loss of the well received Arkham Manor after only 6 issues. Swamp Thing bowed out with issue #40, his two issue mini series as part of Convergence having already been confirmed
OK, but what actually went wrong then?
This is where it gets tricky. Swamp Thing has, for the most part, always been liked by the critics. The New 52 was no exception. Scott Snyder’s 18 issue run as writer was critically acclaimed, though many fans felt a tad disappointed by the conclusion to his Rotworld story arc. There were fears that the quality would drop off with Snyder’s departure, but those fears were unfounded and Charles Soule’s writing from issues #19 through #40 was consistently excellent, and the artwork was never below par, though there were times when perhaps the most appropriate description of it might be ‘adequate’. Yanick Paquette was the regular artist during Scott Snyder’s tenure as wordsmith, with Kano and Jesús Saíz doing the pencils for Charles Soule’s writing. Personally I feel that the art improved and became more consistent with the later issues, with some excellent work being done in the very busy panels of the final issue (there was a lot of story to tie up in a very small space, suggesting that the cancellation came at fairly short notice). For many Swamp Thing fans, Soule’s run has redefined the character and his mythos in a way comparable to Moore’s work in the eighties, creating a foundation for future story arcs that hopefully other writers will be able to build on (though I suspect most fans would be more than happy for Soule himself to return to the helm should the opportunity present itself).
So the critics liked it, the writing was top-notch, the artwork was never less than good, often excellent, and over 5 decades Swamp Thing had garnered a sizable and loyal fanbase. Frankly none of that helps to explain why sales numbers were so disappointing, even taking into account DC’s worsening market share in their never-ending battle against Marvel. To put that into perspective, in January 2015 Marvel had seven of the top ten best selling comics, with Star Wars #1 shifting over one million copies in total (something no comic has a managed since the nineties). In second place, but with barely one-tenth of Star Wars‘ sales, comes Batman #38. The only other DC title in the top ten is Justice League #38 in ninth place with sales scraping into the 60,000s.
Swamp Thing doesn’t make the top 100.
It might just be about timing, and I think a surfing analogy might work nicely here. Comic sales are all about catching a wave of popularity and riding it until it collapses. It happened in the 1940s with the strong anti-nazi themes of titles like Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America. The 1950s and 60s carried the anti-communist undertones of Iron Man and the like, and titles with a strongly patriotic and all-American bent fared particularly well. If we go back to the year I was born (and that’s all I’m saying about it), eight of the top ten titles by sales were DC and the top six were all Superman titles (including Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen), with those six titles alone topping 3.7 million copies sold. DC’s biggest competitors were Archie and Gold Key (who published the Disney titles), with Marvel not making a showing in the 1965 top 100 chart (damn, what a giveaway) until number 50. By 1969 they had nine of the top thirty titles, with Amazing Spider-Man at number seven. 1969 was also the year that the X-Men and Avengers both outsold the JLA. Seven of the top ten titles were still DC, but now the Superman titles in the top ten amounted to around 1.3 million sales. In the 1980s, the growth of ecological awareness and campaigning coincided with Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, and with it Swampy’s rebirth as an ecological warrior, defending the planet from all attackers, including us. It was the right message at the right time and it paid off. Yes, Moore’s writing was unlike anything that had been seen in comics before, but at a different time it might not have had the impact it did. There was a wave to ride, and with Moore already in the water DC were well placed to ride it.
The New 52 had no wave to ride. For three years most of DC’s superheroes have been paddling around on their boards, waiting for that wave to arrive. It never came, and now the tide has turned.
And the rest?
Whilst it was clear from the sales numbers that things weren’t going so well for Swamp Thing’s newest incarnation, if we zoom out a bit we see a bigger picture that shows things weren’t going so well for the rest of the New 52 either. Sales weren’t breaking records for any of the titles, with most losing readership month on month at a comparable rate to Swampy. Titles like Batman and Justice League were still appearing in the top 10, but their numbers were still in decline. Sales still looked fairly good, but that was because to begin with they had been very good. Under the circumstances there were tough decisions to be made, and rightly or wrongly, DC made them. The planned two month break in the New 52 cycle for the Convergence event gave them the perfect opportunity to reduce the number of DC titles vying for attention on the comic shelves, presumably hoping that the end result would be increased sales for the remaining titles on their relaunch in June. DC may be the second biggest player in the market, but their share of that market is roughly half of Marvel’s 41% in Jan 2015 and not much more than twice that of the third biggest fish in the pond, Image Comics (who have a top-ten seller in The Walking Dead). Overall, the comics industry is in a fairly healthy state, and Star Wars and its spin-offs are likely to keep sales, and Marvel’s market share, bolstered for a few months yet. In light of all of that, the generally poor performance of The New 52 is even more worrying for DC and its fans. The way things are going, DC’s catalogue is going to fold in on itself and we’ll be left with a collection of Batman and Justice League based titles and little else.
The New 52 was intended to boost DC’s flagging sales and see them riding high, surfing with the cool kids again. It hasn’t happened. Now DC need to paddle themselves into the right place to catch the next wave. Convergence isn’t that wave. Even DC have fessed up and admitted that Convergence is little more than a holding-pattern for their ongoing titles whilst they relocate their offices from New York to Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank.
No doubt DC’s next big thing is coming. If it’s not a big enough thing then you have to wonder how many more ‘next big things’ there can be before DC take a step back from comics and concentrate on the areas of DC Entertainment where they’re not getting spanked by Marvel or Image. So not film then. Or television.
Bat-Mite the radio serial, anybody?
Actually that was facetious of me. Arrow, Flash and Gotham are doing good business on the goggle-box for now, with Supergirl about to land. Constantine has been cancelled but may be resurrected. Batman v Superman will be hitting the big screen soon. There’s even a chance of a big screen revival for Swamp Thing himself (though not in a solo effort – whispers of Guillermo del Toro’s Justice League Dark movie are still floating about on the wind). Plus DC’s animated output and games division (especially the Lego tie-ins) do pretty well for them.
Wein from sour grapes.
Rumours of DC’s death have certainly been exaggerated, but perhaps not greatly exaggerated. Their comics division is struggling, and Swamp Thing et al are having to pay the ultimate price, at least in the short term. I don’t doubt Swampy will be back in one form or another, but perhaps only as a team-player or mini-series stalwart. It could be some time before DC’s wounds have healed enough to risk reopening them by giving Swamp Thing another go at his own title. Mind you, if the Justice League Dark movie does happen, who knows? A movie appearance did wonders for Black Widow and Hawkeye.
When Swamp Thing’s Convergence 2 issue mini-series is done (review coming imminently) and the dust has settled from the demise of a sizable chunk of The New 52, we may have a better idea of what the future holds for Swamp Thing. To end on a positive note, Convergence sees Swampy reunited with writer Len Wein, one half of the team (Bernie Wrightson being the other) that created him in 1971. Perhaps a return to his roots is exactly what Swamp Thing needs to stop the rot…