Lines Are Busy
There were quite a few lines in my collection. Marvel Comics produced the New Universe and the Ultimate line. DC produced Impact Comics and America’s Best Comics. Malibu had the Ultraverse line. Dark Horse had Comics’ Greatest World. Valiant and CrossGen’s entire output formed lines. (I’m sure there are others, but my memory is spotty these days. Too much fast livin’.)
There are also “lines” retroactively established on existing titles, the most famous and successful of which is DC’s Vertigo line. Originally Vertigo was a way to group already-existing titles that shared common elements. Over time it became a distinct line, with titles created specifically as “Vertigo titles.”
Most lines died within two years. A few have survived for long stretches.
Why do lines thrive or fail?
New Universe (1986-1989):
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Unifying Theory: A stricter adherence to realism in superhero comics. No alien empires, undersea kingdoms, no gods descending from the heavens.
Jerkwater’s Opinion - Any Good? Nope. The books just weren’t interesting. Also, the adherence to “the world outside your window” varied wildly from title to title, making the necessity for a “new universe” questionable.
Why’d It Tank? Not that many folks gave a rat’s ass. The “realism” angle, even when applied, wasn’t compelling. Not to say it couldn’t be, but it wasn’t in the NU. Of the eight series launched in ’86, only three made it past issue 19. These titles, Justice, Psi-Force, and D.P.7, all ran to 32 issues.
How’d It End? As the titles floundered, the NU went afield of its original plan to try capturing readers. In 1987, one hero accidentally nuked Pittsburgh, and the NU world took a big sci-fi turn after that.
It wasn’t enough to save reader interest, and the NU died, wheezing to a conclusion in 1989.
Impact Comics (1991-1993)
Publisher: DC Comics
Unifying Theory: Kid-friendly fun comics. The goal was to ditch the baggage of established heroes and start fresh for new readers.* The line was also supposed to be distributed much wider than standard DC Comics fare, to reach young readers who weren’t already reading comics.
Jerkwater’s Opinion – Any Good? Yep. The Comet was surprisingly good series, and the twelve-issue run of The Black Hood remains one of my favorite superhero series ever published. I’d say Impact created what they set out to create. But it didn’t sell. Dang it.
Why’d It Tank? For reasons known only to DC suits, the wide newsstand distribution didn’t happen. Instead, the Impact line became part of the already-flooded direct market. The retro charm of the line didn’t resonate with existing comic readers enough to generate sales.
How’d It End? After a year and a half of declining sales, Impact created a miniseries, Crucible, out of which three new series would emerge. Crucible didn’t sell in the expected numbers, so the relaunch was scuttled and the miniseries became the end of Impact.
*Technically the characters weren’t new. They were modern adaptations of the MLJ characters created in the early forties, and Impact was hardly their first revival. Still, Impact ignored all previous versions and treated them as new characters. Thus, for all intents and purposes, they were new.
Publisher: Malibu Comics, later Marvel
Unifying Theory: Writer-focused comics, with a unified backstory and tight connections between titles. This was in reaction to the success of Image Comics, which was an artist-driven company.*
Jerkwater’s Opinion – Any Good? Not too bad. Gerard Jones’s Solitaire was a solid read, though after the first six issues, the art was handed over to a gawdawful penciler. Yeeg. James Robinson’s Firearm was a great book. The Ultraverse version of Shazam/Captain Marvel, Prime, was considered the Ultraverse flagship book, but I didn’t care for it. The others were hit-or-miss.
How’d It End? The Ultraverse hit the market just as the market peaked, like an internet company debuting in autumn of 1999. Whoops. When the comic buying public contracted rapidly in 1994, Ultraverse took a drubbing.
Also, Malibu had a computer-coloring operation that Marvel coveted, as well as a west coast location. As a result, Marvel bought out Malibu in November 1994. Marvel’s odd management ideas, combined with the market contraction, killed the Ultraverse by mid-1995. Marvel tried a few relaunches and whatnot, but the line was put to bed once and for all in 1997.
*Image Comics isn’t included in this rundown since I don’t consider Image to be a “line.” It was much too scattered for that. Their unifying theories were strictly of the business and contract variety.
Comics’ Greatest World (1993-1995, mostly)
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Unifying Theory: Four very different fictional cities in the United States, each with their own flavor.
Jerkwater’s Opinion – Any Good? I can’t offer much of an opinion, since I barely paid attention after the snazzy launch. Y’see, DH had a clever idea when launching the line. They put out sixteen “pilot” issues, and made the top eight into ongoing series.
Of these eight series, three reached a dozen issues, two reached twenty-four, and only one lasted beyond twenty-four: the cheesecake-laden Ghost, which had fifty-eight issues and a couple of miniseries.
How’d It End? Dark Horse, long the distant third in the comic book industry, saw the big bucks of superheroes in the early nineties and got on board the gravy train, just like Malibu. And just like Malibu, they climbed aboard right before the bottom fell out. Out of the whole hullaballoo, they ended up with one mildly successful cheesecake title.
Valiant Comics (1991-1996) and Acclaim Comics (1997-2000)
Publisher: Valiant Comics, later the videogame company Acclaim
Unifying Theory: It had two. Originally, Valiant’s core idea was much like Marvel’s New Universe: superhumans in a “more real” world. Tight continuity. No costumes. The laws of physics (mostly) applied to everyone.*
Acclaim’s core unifying theory appeared to be simply “publish entertaining comics.”
Jerkwater’s Opinion – Any Good? I need to split between Valiant and Acclaim here.
Valiant: No. Most of the series were poorly written and deadly dull. With very few exceptions, the art was also flat and dull. There were a few decent books, like Shadowman and Archer and Armstrong. However, many of their titles were Golan-Globus Production cheesy late-night cable action movies turned into comics, and others just never flew. The revivals of old Gold Key heroes Turok, Magnus, and Solar, Man of the Atom had interesting starts that got tired fast.
Acclaim: From the stuff I’ve seen, yeah. The relaunched X-O Manowar was fun, and I loved Quantum and Woody. The relaunched Shadowman had its moments. Kurt Busiek’s Ninjak looked like a riot.
How’d It End? Valiant rode the early nineties comic industry boom hard. It took them way up, and then it took them way down.
Acclaim, not recognizing that the whole comic industry was in a slump and that there were fewer comic readers than they ever imagined, bought Valiant in ’97 and tried to revive the books. They figured that comics would (pardon the jargon) “synergize” with their video games. Cross-promotion equals big bucks, no? No.
Acclaim Comics was dead by ’99. A few squeaks and rattles came out over the following year or two, but nothing worthy of notice. Acclaim itself filed for bankrupcy in 2004.
*Valiant’s resemblance to Marvel’s New Universe was no coincidence. They were both masterminded by the same man: Jim Shooter, editor-in-chief of Marvel in the eighties and founder of Valiant.
Publisher: CrossGen Comics
Unifying Theory: Instead of superheroes, CrossGen published fantasy, science fiction, detectives, historical fiction, and so forth. Linking many of these titles was a “sigil” motif that allegedly tied into some great overarching mythology. This mythology was coming together when the company collapsed.
CrossGen also had a unifying business theory, which was to spread comics into markets into wider markets. They published in unusual formats and pushed to get their trade paperbacks in wide distribution.
Jerkwater’s Opinion – Any Good? CrossGen books came in three waves: the initial, the secondary, and the “holy crap, the company’s gonna die, try anything” wave.
The initial wave (Sigil, Crux, The First, etc.) were mostly awful, with the exception of Meridian, a charming girl’s adventure comic. The second wave (Way of the Rat, Route 666, etc.) had some good stuff, particularly Mark Waid’s Sherlock Holmes-style series Ruse and the sci-fi adventure Negation. The “holy crap” wave (El Cazador, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Abadazad, etc.) had promise, but died so fast it’s hard to say.
The distribution idea was a great one. I’m not positive, but I think it was undercapitalization that killed it. You can’t make a huge-ass push like CrossGen did without being ready to take a beating for years. They held out for four years, but it never turned the corner.
Their idea of diversifying genres and distribution networks was an excellent one. The execution was not up to the challenge. Given wide distribution, I’d bet Meridian, Abadazad, and Negation would have done quite well. The cheesecake book Sojourn was their biggest seller, and probably would have thrived as well.*
(CrossGen’s claim to produce non-superhero books isn’t borne out by the evidence, either. They were superhero books, just flavored with a dollop of fantasy or sci-fi. They weren't as different as they thought themselves to be.)
How’d It End? The company overextended itself. Its method for creating a comic line was to publish a slew of titles, see what sold, and go from there. This approach doesn’t work well in comics. The direct market audience is not large, and most comic fans already spend near their maximum budget on pre-existing titles. To get them to sample one or two new books might work, but eight or nine? Nope.
The Big Two have cornered the direct comic market, and CrossGen wasn’t able to expand the comic-buying market significantly or make a large dent in the direct market.
CrossGen filed for bankrupcy in 2004. Disney has bought the rights to the characters, with an apparent interest in developing Abadazad.
*Sojourn and Ghost, two cheesecake-laden books, were the biggest commercial successes of two failed lines. Draw from this what conclusions you will. Ahem.
Ultimate Marvel (2000-present)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Unifying Theory: Marvel Comics have accrued so much history, they’ve become unfriendly to new readers and overwhelmed by what had gone on before. They’ve become complicated and arcane. The Ultimate line starts everything over, in the modern world, using modern storytelling techniques and top talent on the top characters. Re-do Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four for a new audience.
Jerkwater’s Opinion – Any Good? I don’t think so, but it appears I’m in the minority. The Ultimate books are paced very, very slowly, which irritates me. The stories aren’t all that great either. The books aren’t awful, but I can’t get into them. I own a long run of Ultimate Spider-Man, and yet I never feel an urge to re-read the series.
How’d It End? It hasn’t. The Ultimate line, despite a few misfires, has provided Marvel with its bestselling books for several years.
Publisher: DC Comics
Unifying Theory: In the late eighties and early nineties, DC had good success with non-superhero books of a mystical and more adult nature. (Not adult as in “filled with sex and violence,” but adult as in “morally and artistically complex.”)
In 1993, DC decided to group the existing adult books (Sandman, Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, etc.) into the new Vertigo line. Quickly they added other titles of the same sort to the line. Vertigo is now known for unusual, arty, and/or adult-themed comics.
Jerkwater’s Opinion – Any Good? Vertigo has published a lot of books in its run, so I can’t give a catchall opinion. The highlights of Vertigo were as good as comics get, the lowlights were miserable, pretentious pieces of twaddle. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is, amazingly, as good as people say it is. I loved Garth Ennis’s run on Hellblazer and Preacher.
The line has certainly justified its existence, but its habit of letting creators run amok has made the line very uneven. Massive wave of pretension off the starboard bow, matey. Get yer slicker and hold onto something.
How’d It End? It’s still going strong.
America’s Best Comics (1999-2004)
Publisher: Wildstorm, a subsidiary of DC Comics
Unifying Theory: The whole ABC line is the brainchild of Alan Moore, one of the most important and most successful writers in comics. The ABC books tend to be superheroing of a sort, but a bizarre sort.
The most famous was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which became a terrible movie a few years back. Some titles were homages to the history of pop culture (Tom Strong, The League of Ext. Gents) while others were vehicles for Moore to expound on his personal mysticism (Promethea).
Jerkwater’s Opinion – Any Good? Yep. The pop culture pastiche/homages are lots of fun, especially to yers truly, who knows the same stuff Moore’s talking about. The mystical stuff isn’t intrinsically interesting, but Moore makes it work. Once he left the books, they lost a lot.
How’d It End? Moore and DC had a falling out over one of his stories. Some of the stories had natural conclusions, and ended. Also, I think the man just got bored.
The line is still technically active, but I’d say it’s dead. Promethea, Top Ten, and Tomorrow Stories are done, the League is not publishing right now, and I think Tom Strong is wheezing its last, sans Moore.
There are also lines I’ve heard about but haven’t seen.
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Unifying Theory: Replicating Japanese comics in America. Them kids love that manga stuff!
Jerkwater’s Opinion – Any Good? I’m allergic to manga, so I didn't check 'em out myself. According to those who read the Tsunami books, they were awful.
How’d It End? Quickly.
The story is truly odd. Manga usually sells in bookstores in collected editions. Tsunami was expected to go the same route. Before it published the larger editions, Marvel put out some of the series as individual issues. Now, the Tsunami line wasn’t intended for the direct market. Not surprisingly, it bombed.
What is surprising is that Marvel used this failure as evidence that the line wouldn’t sell in bookstores and never put out the trades.
Weird. Corporate politics at work, or just silly people confusing themselves? Ya got me.
MAX Comics (2000ish-present?)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Unifying Theory: What comics need is more T&A, violence, and blood, dadgumit! Since the comic-buying public is aging, why not see if “unrated” comics sell? Not like parents’ groups will be on publishers' backs anymore.
Jerkwater’s Opinion – Any Good? You got me, pal. Any readers wanna chime in on MAX series? They seem to be only miniseries, except for Alias. Which, okay, I’ve never read.
How’d It End? I think it still puts out the occasional miniseries. (I don’t know what the deal is with MAX. It’s in this entry just for the sake of completeness.)
The failed lines fall into types:
Valiant/Acclaim, Ultraverse, and Comics’ Greatest World: These three lines were attempts by minor publishers to join the Big Two in the world of superhero comics. This seemed possible during the early nineties, when Image Comics became a major industry player and comic sales in general were skyrocketing. When the bubble popped, all three died.
CrossGen was almost exactly the same story, a decade later.
New Universe and Impact: Two offshoot lines from the Big Two that tanked. One strove for realism, one strove for greater fantasy. Readers didn’t care much about either.
America’s Best Comics: Essentially a giant vanity project. When the creator lost interest and got into disputes with the publisher, it ended. Others tried to pick it up, but it didn’t get far.
Then there are the two successes:
Vertigo: Vertigo survived by combining DC Comics’ distribution and publicity with stories of a type not being published elsewhere. Rather than compete, Vertigo exploits a particular niche in the market ignored by the Big Two’s mainstream work.
Ultimate: A raging success that came not by exploiting a niche, but by moving into areas lost by the mainstream. Ten years ago, the Ultimate line would have been redundant. By the year 2000, it made a lot of sense. With the accrual of gunk on the main Marvel titles and the inability to strip off this gunk, lest the remaining hardcore fans revolt, starting over was the only way to get clean.
If I may digress: The Ultimate line is Marvel’s equivalent of the Saturn Project.
Let’s journey to the land of automotive history for a minute.
In the early eighties, General Motors was in serious trouble.* Sales had been declining for years, largely due to competition from Japan selling superior small cars. The company knew of ways to fix a lot of its problems, but the fixes would require a huge remaking of the company and fighting a mammoth and powerful bureaucracy within GM.
To circumvent the problems and test their ideas, the big honchos came up with the Saturn Project: build an entirely new automobile company from the ground up, using what they had learned from years of car building and the lessons given out during the ass-whupping they’d received from Japanese manufacturers. Start from zero, knowing more about the business and aided by GM’s powerful backing.
The cars produced by the new company were unlike GM’s standard hoopties, and sold well. They did what GM should have been doing, but couldn’t.
Had GM not had its head jammed firmly up its ass, or had the company been more able to adapt, Saturn would not have been necessary. But it was. Ditto Marvel and the Ultimate Line.
So…what’s to be gained by looking at this nonsense?
Hmmm...well, DC is looking to launch a new line. What does history say it'll do?
The two successful lines were both offshoots of the Big Two. One covered wholly unexploited territory, the other revisited profitable but abandoned areas. Also, both the Ultimate line and Vertigo launched with few titles, gradually expanding to become full lines.
The failures were either small companies trying to compete with the Big Two by introducing large lines of titles at once, or the Big Two trying to exploit areas of the market that people just weren’t that interested in.**
DC’s banking on a replication of the Ultimates formula (reboot, big name talent, clean history, only two titles at first) with their upcoming All-Star line: All-Star Superman and All-Star Batman and Robin.
Twenty bucks and a box of donuts says it’ll work brilliantly. It will have the publicity and distribution advantages of DC, the instant character recognition of Superman and Batman, and they won’t be at the mercy of a single creator.
But we shall see.
*General Motors is still in serious trouble. –sigh- It staggers from crisis to crisis. Some things never change. But Saturn worked out.
**There were other attempts by the Big Two that I didn’t mention here, but they fall into the same boat. For example, in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, Marvel put out a trio of “real hero” comic titles about cops, firefighters, and rescue personnel. All bombed. Why? Because comic readers weren’t interested.