Explaining the differences between Action Comics and Superman

DC Comics Executives refused to confirm or deny that the company was planning to launch a Man of Steel monthly title by Scott Snyder and Jim Lee to coincide with the upcoming movie. This would be the third solo Superman book, joining Action Comics and Superman. He’s also a member of the Justice League. It’s not quite as bad as Batman, who has Detective Comics, Batman and Robin, Batman: the Dark Knight and Batman, as well as memberships in the Justice League and Justice League International.

The idea of having multiple solo titles for the same character is a phenomenon exclusive to superhero comics. It doesn’t quite work for television or film, in which casting makes it difficult to feature multiple series with the same characters. The Avengers series is an exception, but it’s not the equivalent of giving Iron Man two complimentary movie series. Book series usually don’t feature set schedules, so there isn’t much of a reason to have complimentary series when you can just increase the rate of publication.

Superhero comics have three things you need to pull off multiple books with the same characters set in the same time period. There is a typical schedule, with most books coming out once a month. There can be multiple writers and artists working on one character. And there’s no restriction on how often a character can appear beyond decisions the publisher to avoid overexposing a brand.

The obvious benefit is that the company makes more money off of their best characters. DC has made the correct assumption that under most circumstances, a third Superman title will outsell a Vixen monthly. And fans are more interested in reading additional material with their favorite heroes.

There are significant problems for something that’s been normal behavior for the comics industry for so long that comic book fans don’t think about it much. One difficulty is making sure that every monthly title has a unique identity. Usually, there’s some attempt to differentiate between the various series  so that a fan can just follow one book. Right now, this isn’t a problem for the Superman books. Superman is set in the same time period as the other DC titles, while Action Comics is set a few years earlier. Grant Morrison is leaving Action Comics soon, so I don’t know how long this is going to last. Presumably, a Superman: Man of Steel title would also require something that distinguishes it from the other two titles, beyond just the A-list creative team.

With DC’s other most famous franchise, Batman is the main title in which the most significant developments happen. Batman and Robin focuses on the father-son relationship between Bruce and Damian Wayne. Last time I checked, Batman: The Dark Knight is a poor man’s Hush, with an A-list artist drawing a storyline that shoehorns together guest-starrs and members of Batman’s rogues gallery. I didn’t notice a hook for Detective Comics. It sells pretty well, but I think credit there goes to the creative team and the title.

It’s difficult for writers and editors to coordinate developments for a character across several books. The revelations in Superman that Clark Kent is seen a loner, even by people who have known him for several years, restrict what can happen in the pages of Action Comics. Meanwhile the writers of Superman have to leave elements of the character’s backstory ambiguous so certain things will be a surprise when we see it happen in Action Comics.

This gets even more complicated when all the books are coming out at the same time. Batman’s romantic relationships in Detective Comics and Batman: the Dark Knight read a bit differently as you realize he’s involved with both women, and Catwoman, at the same time. Generations ago, this wasn’t a problem as subplots were the exception rather than the norm, and there were few changes with the characters from issue to issue. But if something happens to the characters in one title, the writers of the other title have to figure out how to incorporate that into their narrative. There’s also the complication of making sure to avoid contradictions, which fans are prone to notice. So if a police officer in Detective Comics talks about how crime has been down for five years, it’s distracting if a competing statistic is mentioned in Batman and Robin.

Marvel had a different solution to the multiple monthlies problem with the Spider-Man comics. The satellite books were cancelled, and Amazing Spider-Man was published three times a month with a rotating creative team. This has other problems, notably the fact that it requires that an interested reader buy a lot more content. Marvel later compromised, as Amazing Spider-Man‘s schedule was reduced to two issues a month, in addition to a monthly team-up book Avenging Spider-Man.

It can very quickly get intimidating to a new reader who has to figure out how all these titles are interrelated. Action Comics and Detective Comics have been part of DC’s brand for a long time, so it’s unlikely that the company will ever get rid of those, although there have been times both titles have starred other characters.

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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
This entry was posted in Comics Industry, Criticism, DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Spider-Man and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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