Shiny Shelf

Earth One

By Mark Clapham on 08 December 2009

As announced on the DC blog and further expanded upon in this AICN interview, ‘Earth One’ is a new DC line of original graphic novels (OGNs), starting off with – SURPRISE! – Superman and Batman, by the teams of J Michael Straczynski/Shane Davis and Geoff Johns/Gary Frank respectively.

In short (and head for the links for more) these are set in a new continuity, starting from scratch. New continuities are hardly a new thing for DC, which has always had multiple universes, standalones, out-of-continuity stories, alternative universes where Batman was a pirate, and all that. Only a few years ago DC launced the out-of-continuity ‘All-Star’ line, which again started with Superman and Batman, but floundered due to constant delays and the unrepeatable nature of the projects: ‘All-Star Superman’ was so perfectly formed it was unsequelable, while ‘All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder’ was a sleazy car crash that no-one sane would wish to revisit.

So there’s limited excitement over a new continuity, to say the least.

The announcement of the talent has also caused some degree of head-scratching. While Johns and JMS are big names in comics, they’re both reasonably prolific, so there’s limited ‘event’ value in them working in a larger format, certainly compared to the star value of the Morrison/Quitely and Miller/Lee teams brought in for the ‘All-Star’ books – and those books came out as individual issues at a normal cover price.

While they may not be headline-grabbing big names of the ‘Umberto Eco and Miley Cyrus co-write Aquaman’ variety, what Johns, JMS, Davis and Frank do bring to the table is reliability and speed, and if DC are going to want over 100 pages from each ‘Earth One’ range on at least an annual basis – and the idea does seem to be to release a series of Batman and Superman volumes from each creative team – then they need productive talent on board.

It’s a new approach to OGNs from DC, which have usually reserved the format for special events, beloved but slow artists, and servicing niche audiences willing to pay a high price tag, i.e. the rash of golden age fetish hardcovers they churned out around the turn of the century. On the Vertigo side of things, there have also been some of what the industry as a whole consider to be OGNs proper – standalone, creator driven works like ‘Incognegro’ and the recently launched Vertigo Crime line.

The general bafflement may be because what DC are doing with ‘Earth One’ doesn’t seem to be any form of fish or fowl currently known in either the direct or bookstore market: series of original longform comics in book format, using big brand superhero characters, ongoing. As a concept, ‘Earth One’ seems to uncomfortably form a bridge between a bookstore friendly world of creator owned titles like ‘Scott Pilgrim’, and the periodical driven world of superhero comics. It’s a bridge few have bothered to cross – at least partially because it’s a lot cheaper to feed the bookstore market with volumes repackaging material already sold as individual comics than to create original work for the market, a fact that has kept Marvel from publishing OGNs for years.

DC have to be presuming there’s bigger bucks to be had than just those of bolting it’s own audience and that of Oni Press’ indie OGNs together. Gary Frank’s ‘Batman’ concept art seems to offer a clue, a costume with more than a nod to the recent ‘Arkham Asylum’ video game – it has been regularly bemoaned that the profile superheroes have in terms of films and videogames never seems to transfer into sales of the source material, the actual comics. ‘Earth One’, oddly comic-specific range title aside, could be DC’s latest attempt at trying to get a superhero comic book material into bookstores that jumps off the shelves with the ease of film tie-in copies of ‘The Da Vinci Code’. If it is, it’s a bold one, and will require a hell of a lot of marketing push.

Of course, DC has one precedent in this respect to work from, its success as singular and ringing as a smiley badge bouncing off the pavement. In the run-up to the release of the movie, ‘Watchmen’ shifted copies in numbers that not only defied expectation, but in some ways outstripped the eventual impact of the movie itself – while the cinema release came and went with, in the end, relatively little fanfare, the presence of ‘Watchmen’ front and centre in book stores was sustained.

Now, ‘Watchmen’ is unique in many ways, a singular statement on superheroes and history by a creative team at the top of their game. But not everything about its success as a graphic novel is inimitable. For a start, while ‘Watchmen’ is a collection of issues, it forms a novelistic whole that stands alone, unencumbered with continuity and those original issues also forming distinct chapters rather than episodes. It’s a consistent creative work, without fill-ins or emergency inkers. There are no points of crossover, no bleed-out into preceding or following stories or line-wide events going on at the time of publication.

In other words, aside from it’s obvious and vast merits as a work of literature or art or whatever, ‘Watchmen’ is a great comic book product for adult readers – it’s for grown-ups, and it combines a standalone story with the superhero tropes that most non-comic-reading adults expect (for better or worse) when they open a comic book. There are very few runs of DC superhero comics that can be collected in the same way – ‘Year One’, ‘Dark Knight Returns’ and ‘All-Star Superman’ are some that spring to mind. Frankly, for all the talk of arcs ‘designed for the trade’, the periodicals churned out by DC and Marvel don’t lend themselves to being plucked out in blocks and passed off as novels.

Could ‘Earth One’ result in OGN series for Batman and Superman that have new volumes as anticipated and best-selling as, if not the latest Dan Brown, then the latest Rebus or Discworld novel? It’s a big ask, but it also should be possible with characters as well known as these.

If nothing else, there’s been a persistent argument doing the rounds for the last decade that the main barrier to entry for comics is the format of the individual comic book – in launching this new range while continuing with their periodicals business DC is about to provide us with a clear case study.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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