03 August 2008

The End of Robin?

This past week, DC Comics released some hints about what next year brings for Batman's sidekicks, so that's the topic of this weekly Robin. Even as The Dark Knight is cleaning up at the box office, the comic books are in the midst of a story arc titled "Batman RIP" that climaxes with Bruce Wayne's (supposed) death. And next?

At the San Diego Comic-Con, DC unveiled the image above for a new story arc titled "Battle for the Cowl," to be written by Grant Morrison. (The figures are, from left, Selina Kyle as Catwoman, Wayne childhood friend Tommy something as uninspiring villain Hush, Dick Grayson as Nightwing, Jason Todd working on his anger issues, and Tim Drake as Robin.) Also, there are two January issues titled "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" to be scripted by Neil Gaiman and drawn by Andy Kubert.

Rich Johnston's Lying in the Gutters column of comic-book gossip stated that "both main Batbooks [Detective and Batman] will be put on hiatus" during "Battle for the Cowl," and that the Nightwing and Robin magazines will be renamed Red Robin and Batman and Robin, respectively.

I'd be more confident if Johnston had reported the title of the Morrison story accurately, and if his last "Batscoop this strong" hadn't turned out to be way off on every detail that wasn't obvious. It would be a very big step for DC to suspend publication of Detective and Batman. The first magazine has been published continuously since 1937, and gave the company its name. The latter has been on sale since 1940. Will they really stop, or will a "Cowl" story arc extend over both titles?

As for big changes to the Nightwing and Robin magazines, that seems more plausible because of the situation illustrated here:
This is a graph of the sales of the three comic books featuring past and present Robin in lead roles from May 2007 to May 2008. The figures are only from the Diamond distribution company, as reported by ICv2, and thus leave out a few thousand copies sold through other channels or outside the USA; it's the relative trends that matter. The numbers were tallied up and reported here at PW's The Beat.

Basically, all these books were on a steady downward slide--Teen Titans more than the solo books, but then it was a hot book only a few years ago. A crossover with the main Batman comic broke Nightwing and Robin's descent briefly in late 2007, but then the sales returned to their previous levels and the decline continued. Over two years, sales of all three titles were off by over a third.

Those magazines' decline reflects a broader trend in the comics industry, and DC in particular. In 1999 Trina Robbins could write in From Girls to Grrrlz, "The average mainstream superhero comic sells from forty thousand to sixty thousand copies." Robin, a name known even to Americans who've never read a superhero comic, is now selling only about 30,000 copies, and nearly out of Diamond's monthly top 100. Will making Batman a regular part of that magazine boost its sales? And what if that Batman is actually Dick Grayson?

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