In June, while Batman was still fighting Superman in movie theaters, the comic book versions of both characters — along with a whole catalog of DC characters — underwent a high-profile makeover as DC Entertainment relaunched its superhero universe. It was a "Rebirth" both in name and in execution, but the real plot twist was this: The plan worked.
DC Entertainment has told the Los Angeles Times that the "Rebirth" line has sold 12 million physical issues in its first three months alone, with 11 issues to date seeing orders exceeding 200,000 issues — and that's with five of the 39 titles still to launch.
Among the highest sellers are "Suicide Squad's" break-out character, Harley Quinn, whose relaunched series had 400,000 orders for its first issue alone — higher than the first issue of the Ta-Nehisi Coates-written "Black Panther" comic book from DC's main competitor, Marvel, which topped 300,000, according to a March statement by the publisher. And the comic that sparked it all, "DC Universe: Rebirth" — written by DC Entertainment President Geoff Johns — has gone back to press four times and is approaching 350,000 copies sold.
Readers are buying comic books again. At least for now.
"The overall response — from retailers, the creative community and, most importantly, the fans — has been nothing short of incredible," said Diane Nelson, president of DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Consumer Products, in a statement about the success of the relaunch. "We listened to what the retail and fan communities thought was missing from our books and took the necessary steps to produce stories that have re-energized comics."
Rebooting a comic book universe isn't a new concept. Marvel Entertainment restarts its superhero comic book line on a semi-annual basis in an attempt to lure in new and lapsed readers with new costumes and adjectives to describe their heroes. Unburdened by the often complicated superhero continuity, a good reboot can both entice new readers and excite current fans, while goosing the bottom line. Or it can blow up in their face.
DC had actually undergone an even more extensive relaunch back in 2011, labeled "The New 52," that threw out all existing mythology and continuity. The fictional universe started over from scratch with updated versions of its characters including a younger, more rebellious Superman who wore cuffed jeans and a T-shirt. Even though "The New 52" vaulted DC to the top of the charts, fans eventually grew dissatisfied with the newer takes, and spotty execution, and sales began to drop for much of the line.
What made DC's summer 2016 initiative different was its focus. Not only did the relaunch actually shrink DC's superhero line from around 50 separate titles to 39, it also marked a makeover for the company's approach to its own history. It wouldn't ignore previous stories or simply renumber comic book series; "Rebirth" would instead seek to remind readers and creators alike about what they loved about the DC Universe and what they felt was missing from "The New 52" — a core optimism and belief in the heroism inherent in the DC heroes' DNA.
" 'Rebirth' is the most successful line-wide relaunch we've had in the time we've been in business," said Menachem Luchins of Huntington, N.Y., comic book store Escape Pod Comics, putting much of the credit for that down to DC making initial issues of each series returnable if unsold. (The majority of releases through the comic book "direct market" system are non-returnable.) "The returnability allowed me to stock it much more heavily than I generally stock any sort of new launch."
According to DC, the "Rebirth" titles are selling 29% better than the company's 2011 relaunch. The comparison should be of interest to many outside of DC. After all, "The New 52" reboot didn't just help DC Entertainment, it strengthened the entire comic book industry.
John Jackson Miller, whose Comichron website tracks comic sales, agreed. "The 'New 52' launch in the late summer of 2011 coincided with, and helped to trigger, the start of the comics industry's recovery from the recession," he said. "There were other titles that were part of that recovery — 'The Walking Dead,' which saw huge growth from the TV series both inside and outside comics shops, for example — but for wide-ranging impact, a successful line-wide event is hard to top."
Time will tell if "Rebirth's" effect will be equally widespread, but even now, comic book retailers are equally excited, with "Rebirth" providing a much-needed sales boost in a year where sales had been trending downward compared with 2015 numbers, following a five-year growth period prompted, in large part, by DC's "New 52" event.
Christy Blanch, of Muncie, Ind.,'s Aw Yeah Comics, has already noticed the effect "Rebirth" made in its sales. "Our customers had been dropping the 'New 52' books, with few exceptions, without fail," she said, but "Rebirth" has "brought so many new customers into the store. One kid, who I had never seen before, came in with his mother and they get every 'Rebirth' issue. It's amazing."
But will the initial surge lead to long-term sales? "[That] depends on what readers experience when they try the books," said Milton Griepp of comic industry analysts ICv2. "To get high trial, high repeat sales, the books have to satisfy when they're read. 'The New 52' didn't, and I'd have to say the jury's still out on whether 'Rebirth' will be different, and if so, in what ways."