A Few Thoughts And Figures On Hellblazer, Vertigo And DC

Hellblazer 299 cover by Simon BisleyOver the last couple of days, the parts of the internet that I frequent have been reacting to the news that from #300, long-running Vertigo title Hellblazer will no longer be published, making way for a new title in the DC mainstream starring John Constantine, called Constantine.

The main responses to this that I’ve seen have been sadness, anger and dismay. I can relate to the former – I read Hellblazer religiously from the first to the 100 and somethingth issue, and the title was a formative one for me, both as a maturing comic reader and as an aimless teen just starting to write in earnest. However, it’s hard to relate to the anger and dismay, as ubiquitous as each have become in comic fandom, and by sad extension comic journalism.

For me and mine, Newsarama seems to have been the place where this narrative has formed. On Thursday 8th, links were appearing to this post, headlined “Hellblazer Ends, CONSTANTINE begins – In The DCU!

Hellblazer… is coming to an end with February’s issue #300…

But the bigger news, at least when it comes to reaction from the fans of the character and series, is that Robert Venditti and Renato Guedes will be launching Constantine, a new solo series for the character that takes place not in the mature subset of DC Comics, but instead in the “New 52″ DC Universe.

I reacted to the line “but the bigger news” on Twitter, but was rightly pointed to the second part of that sentence. Newsarama were only anticipating how fans of the character and series would react, not making a statement themselves, I was told.

Hellblazer 1 cover by Dave McKeanStill, I think it’s worth reiterating – the sad part of this story is that a book that’s been with us for 300 issues, in a market where comics hardly ever last that long, and whose history and legacy is one that dovetails with the – perhaps prematurely defined – maturing of mainstream comics is no longer going to be with us. That’s a big deal.

That DC are willing to make very few concessions to readers when consolidating their characters into the DC mainstream, or DC52, was a big deal sixteen-plus months ago when their initial plans for a company wide reboot came up. That DC editorial had lost faith in the Vertigo line, or at least the audience’s ability to parse the boundaries of it and their “universe”, is an older story, and one that we’ve been talking about on the MOMBcast for most of the three years that we’ve been recording.

But people have an emotional relationship with John Constantine, even lapsed readers like myself – he represents the first real mainstream anti-hero this wonderful medium provided for many of us after Frank Miller ruined Batman by making it clear how much of a fascist dick it’s possible to read him as, and he was also an accidental narrative analogue for the way that British writers infiltrated and forever changed American comics. It’s no surprise that people got pissed off when they heard about it. A lot of people got pissed off when they heard about the stylistic changes made to Desperate Dan a few years back, too.

Hellblazer 1 detail by John Ridgway(That’s a cheap crack. I know a lot of you still read Hellblazer. But a lot more of us did and don’t any more, the record will show.)

It’s also no surprise that our comic press fed off and fed into that reaction. There’s a discussion ongoing in video game journalism about, among other things, how close to the publishers and product their press is, and comics as a milieu aren’t a huge distance from video games in this regard. Our journalists, as well as being huge senstationalists, are also massive fans.

It’s not a dreadful way to be, because passion is far more often inspiring than it is ugly, but it doesn’t always lead to the most illuminating discussions or objective coverage. That Newsarama headline up there was already leading the story, and a later post continued to provide little more than an echo chamber for Twitter dismay. Elsewhere, people are looking for a conspiracy, suggesting that DC’s intentions for Vertigo are unclear, and using language that cloaks those intentions in mystery. I respectfully suggest that there is no mystery, at least no deliberate one. It’s been obvious for a long time that DC doesn’t quite know what to do with Vertigo, with a number of high-priced original work coming out from the imprint for years and receiving almost no promotion or fanfare from the company, and clear hedge-betting going on when announcing new books.

In many ways the most certainty DC has shown in the last few years in regard to Vertigo was when farming the imprint for characters and concepts for the New 52. DC Dark was a signal call, really, with every character that could be dragged out of the imprint into their main line doing so. A new Swamp Thing book was more symbolic of DC’s attitude to Vertigo, essentially being the character that the imprint was born out of. The hatchet job done on the Wildstorm imprint to pull it in line was more significant than what’s been done to Vertigo. With John Constantine appearing regularly in DC Dark’s Justice League Dark, and his spiritual birthplace Swamp Thing taking root (pun too good to avoid) in the same space to much acclaim, it was actually Hellblazer at Vertigo that stuck out like a sore thumb and made DC look uncertain.

I’ve got a couple of theories about why Hellblazer was allowed a stay of execution. The first is that final issue. It’s probably impossible, even for a pragmatist, to be unmoved by the history and longevity of such an odd book, and 300 is a good, round number to let it live to. I may be projecting my obsessive behaviour here, but that must have been a tempting point to aim for, even for an exec. Actually, Constantine himself would probably balk at prolonging such a venerable run. I’m led to believe that even now when Hellblazer delivers it really delivers, but it’s hard not to reconsider Warren Ellis’ commentary on the character back in Planetary #7. And christ, was that really more than ten years ago?

The other theory I’ve got is really an extension of my feelings on the early period of the DC52 initiative. As the highest numbered, longest running title at Vertigo, Hellblazer may have acted as an anchor title, held in reserve against the possibility that six months in, DC might have to pull the plug on the whole thing and go back to business-as-was-normal due to low sales and audience reaction. Many considered that that was a contingency that the publisher had in its back pocket, and as a key title that had gone for so many years without a restart, in a narrative largely free of the ongoing recycling and soft-reboots that happen all the time in the superhero mainstream, Hellblazer would have been one of the few books it’d be near impossible to regain traction on after an enforced hiatus.

My perception is, when Vertigo’s John Constantine book dies, there’s a high likelihood that we’re talking real death, and I can see why they’d want to hedge their bets on that.

The cancellation story seems to have reached the stage that you’d expect it to by this point in its lifespan; a journalist, having gained access to two DC execs to talk about how awesome their sales figures have been since the reboot, asked them to comment on the potential response and speculation about Hellblazer’s cancellation and what it means for Vertigo, and the execs responded to the questions bluntly and without diplomacy, thus confirming what everybody reading already knew: that comic publishers are obnoxious, arrogant assholes who don’t give a shit what fans think.

It seems like a good point to put my cards on the table here. I’ve already mentioned that I haven’t read Hellblazer in a long time, but it’s also relevant that I think the only DC book I’ve read in several months was the Vertigo mini-series Spaceman. I had misgivings about the DC reboot, and my personal experience of the few books I persisted with bore out my misgivings. But most of all, I disliked the thinking behind the initiative, which seemed like an extreme re-framing of the mainstream comic ideal that continuity porn is what people want, with a side-order of “people bought comics in the 90s, we should do comics like we did then”, and I mistrust that against my instincts, this whole initiative has gone over brilliantly with readers, and in many cases with the mainstream comic press.

DC have pulled it off. Their numbers are up significantly, they’ve managed to retain many of their old readers despite early vocal complaints from many of them, and pull in several new ones. More impressively, in the mid-term they’ve managed to keep those numbers up. And for every story of major-league editorial fuckery, creator abuse and sour grapes, there seems to be a great review of a title people wouldn’t have looked at four years ago, and word of mouth to die for.

And I hate it. It’s worth noting that when in a minute I defend DC’s stance on Hellblazer. Vertigo as-was was what I read comics for, and DC had stopped caring about it long before the DC52 announcements came through, with Image putting out the books I’d have usually been chucking my money at Vertigo for. The reboot seemed like the final stage in the homogenising of DC’s line to me, and worse, within months of the supposedly continuity-cleansing initiative it became pretty clear that company-wide, multi-title continuity-intensive crossovers were going to become a regular thing again. DC had dragged a whole newly-invigorated audience into our medium, and were going to just indoctrinate them in the same old bad habits.

Hellblazer 51 cover by Sean PhillipsBut the truth is I’m an idiot, because people have been showing, with their buying habits and their enthusiasm for many of the books, that this is what they want. It might sound like I’m being arch, but nuh-uh. This stuff makes me feel stupid, and mean-spirited. Give me a second to regroup and I’ll still tell you, with anecdotal facts to bear me out, why all this success is bad for the medium and the industry. Right now, though, I’m very aware that people I trust are saying that the quality of many of the comics coming out of DC right now are consistently excellent, and that tells me that somehow, DC are nailing it.

Most of their big decisions are being made entirely for the money. DC is being run like a really tight, shithead corporate business. And the message coming through the market is, as poisonous as this is to me, is love of money isn’t hurting their comic output, it’s helping it, if an increase in fans is any metric. And when those fans are spending money, it’s the only metric that counts to the entertainment industry.

And that’s why in that linked article, Cunningham and Wayne are prickly, although the one valid question they’re asked, about the importance of events, deserved a less combative answer. Cunningham is right to call interviewers out on emotive comic media speculation. Because the comic media, hand in hand with comic fandom, keeps sending publishers mixed signals. Projecting myself into the head of a successful executive for a second, this is the answer that I would’ve given: “We put up with all your entitled whining over our reboot plans, and now we’re sitting here being interviewed about how big our market share is since we did the reboot, and you’re whining again? Enough!”

But that sort of answer is probably why I’m not a successful executive.

Whether I think it’s right that creative decisions are made based on numbers, those numbers show that transitioning Hellblazer into the DC mainstream is the smart thing for the company that shambled through a company-wide reboot and turned it into profit to do. I’ve done a spreadsheet that shows this, and everything.

More cards on the table: I’m not a numbers guy, and haven’t really got a head for sales analysis. And the figures I have are very limited to final orders from Diamond by retailers in North America, so should only be taken as a guide rather than definitive. Even allowing for inaccuracies, re-orders and other markets, such as Europe and digital sales, they’re quite illuminating though, and I was surprised by how indicative they are, if only of how the world looks to a publisher looking out.

(All numbers are taken from The Comic Chronicles. It was the only place I could find details on individual titles that weren’t charting so high.)

To give you some idea of what I was looking at so you can judge the validity of the data for yourself, I picked what I thought were comparable ongoing titles at Vertigo and at DC Dark. Hellblazer was the one I was most interested in, with Fables and spin-off Fairest being the closest fit for similar ongoing open-ended series. I included Sweet Tooth, The Unwritten and American Vampire as books running into thirty issues, although I’ve always had the impression that these were intended more as long finite runs, like other Vertigo classics Preacher, Sandman, Transmetropolitan and Y The Last Man. I included Saucer Country because it seems intended as another longer-running series, and because Paul Cornell as writer is connected to one of the DC Dark books I’m including.

Hellblazer 100 cover by Sean PhillipsThe three books it’s most useful to look at at DC prime are Justice League Dark, because Constantine is by far the best known character in that team, and Swamp Thing and Animal Man due to both series long Vertigo affiliation. These are the books that give the strongest indication of how a DC Dark Constantine book might sell. I’ve included Dial H, I Vampire and Demon Knights because the first two are books that likely would have found a home at Vertigo in previous years, and Demon Knights has a creator and characters in common with Vertigo too.

I’ve also only looked at sales on comics released in July, August and September, and it’s worth bearing in mind that the DCU books all had a #0 issue out in that time, which did bump up the averages a little, with between 2,000 and 4,000 extra copies sold depending on the title.

Seven titles at Vertigo averaged 12,288 copies sold to retailers across those three months. The six DC Dark books I sampled averaged 27,299, with the only Vertigo books outselling any of the DC Dark ones being Fables at 16,803 and Fairest at 19,481. The crossover in the middle goes Fairest outselling Demon Knights which beats Fables which does a little better than I, Vampire. Removing the zero issues from the equation doesn’t impact on that sequence.

Across those seven Vertigo titles, Hellblazer comes in at the middle somewhere, selling an average of 9262 across the three months. By contrast, I, Vampire sold 16,147 an issue in the same period. More relevant to this week’s news, Justice League Dark – the other regular haunt of John Constantine – sold 32,278. The one indicator DC has of how well a mainstream John Constantine sells compared to a Vertigo one tells them that the former will sell three and a half times better than the latter. On it’s quietest month in this small sample, Justice League Dark sold 21,358 more copies in North America than Hellblazer sold on its best. On a $2.99 comic, that’s $63,860 more cover price.

Planetary 7 cover by John CassadayIn terms of well-known Vertigo characters in solo DC Dark books, Animal Man outsold JLD by over 30,000 copies a month, and Swamp Thing outsold that by more than 20,000.

This all tells us and DC a pretty clear story about what is financially viable and what is smart. It isn’t a story that should necessarily make us happy, and it isn’t one that speaks to the quality of the comics we’re talking about.

The story is that there is such a disparity between what a DC prime book and a comparable Vertigo book can sell that to a publisher that wants to keep trading, the numbers swamp consideration of nostalgia, art, sentiment and all else.

That all indicators suggest that a book like Constantine should sell more than triple what Hellblazer does.

That measured against each other, the value of keeping Hellblazer going alongside an alternate version of same probably won’t be higher than the potential loss of sales that confusing readers or splitting an audience might incur – this is the company that we just rewarded for running a plough over their line based on the same logic, remember.

Hellblazer 177 cover by Tim BradstreetThe story is that Hellblazer sold over 10,000 copies less in September this year than it did in the same month in 2002, a couple of years after Warren Ellis accused JC of becoming irrelevant, which means that fewer than half the people who were reading him then are reading him now. That while we maybe won’t want to buy a watered down version of the old chap, here and now is probably the last chance he’s going to get to go out on a high note, with a damn good writer writing him.

And that while DC may make a lot of crass, mercenary decisions in the name of money, the fact that the Vertigo imprint, much loved and lovable but underperforming financially, wasn’t strung up in a bag and thrown in the reboot canal over a year ago isn’t one of them.

This is also a story about issues without clear sources, and I’d definitely like to see more widespread conversation about:

Why readers and retailers favour “mainstream” books over “fringe” ones in such a definitive way?

Why publishers so often fail to promote the work that needs more help finding its audience?

Why in over twenty years DC never sorted out their TPB collection policy on Hellblazer?

And why our whole comic media – often including this site and podcast and writer – are so geared toward speculation and discussion of franchises over straight-up down-the-line stories?