So last time, we discussed how one creator and one company are riding a trend in the modern comic book industry by treating digital comics as the main course instead of a side dish. This time, we’re going to talk about one of The Big Two, DC Comics, and the comic that’s acting as a spearhead of their own new initiative. It’s going to be part review, part history lesson and part media studies speculation piece. So hit the link and we’ll talk about Batman: Wayne Family Adventures and how it sits right on the cresting wave that’s been building for a very long time.
So. Before we continue, it’s important to remember that right now, everyone’s goal in the comic book industry is to increase their base of readers, to expand the audience. And to be clear, the last decade has been a good one for recruiting new readers. The first big sea change was the industry embracing trade paperbacks. Trade paperbacks, or trades have been around for a while and they’re essentially collections of individual issues. This makes them great starting points for new readers and they represent a far easier way to collect comics so long as you’re willing to be patient and wait approximately 6 months between updates instead of month to month. Around 2008 or so, DC and Marvel started putting trades in book stores like Barnes and Noble, essentially treating them as young adult fiction instead of serialized comics. This was a major boon to these companies and helped attract new readers. Today, the comic book section at Barnes and Noble is huge and it’s almost exclusively trade paperbacks. I’ll admit that I’m part of this trend. I can count the number of physical individual issues I own on two hands, but I have a ton of trade paperbacks. They’re just an order of magnitude more convenient. But they’re also a stop gap measure. For example, as far as I’m aware, trades aren’t counted as part of a comic’s monthly sales data making them hard to use as a tool for gauging a book’s popularity, at least with the medium’s core demographics. Plus, while the jump to book stores like Barnes and Noble was a good thing, and a long time coming, it was a day late and a dollar short. Because in reality, DC, Marvel and the rest were actually chasing Japanese comics into Barnes and Noble…
I think nerds of a certain age, those of us born in the early to mid-90s and who grew up wandering the aisles of Borders (RIP) or Barnes and Noble, have a particular nostalgia for “The Manga Aisle.” The Manga Aisle was always easy to spot. It was right next to the science fiction/fantasy section and you couldn’t miss it given the distinctly blocky shape of a manga tankōbon (the Japanese equivalent of a trade). Plus, there was the attendant stereotype of “The Manga Aisle Kids,” those poor lost souls who looked like they were setting up a forward operating base in the section to read their favorites. Me, personally? I was always super awkward around the manga aisle. Part of that is because I was an awkward kid at most times, but I always felt a lingering sense of embarrassment around the manga aisle. You see, I was a true literarian. I wasn’t interested in these quaint Japanese comics (all of which I recognized because I watched their anime adaptations nigh-religiously at home), but rather I was at the store for good, old-fashioned science fiction and fantasy. I still sometimes have a lingering prickling sensation in between my shoulder blades when I walk past the section to this day…where was I going with this? Oh right, manga in Barnes and Noble. Anyway, the moral of this story is that Japanese comics been way more popular than western ones in America for a long time. You could argue that these Japanese imports essentially swept in and capitalized on the American comic book reading audience in the late 90’s and early 2000s while the American market was in the middle of collapsing. In doing so, they stole a whole generation of comic book fans and then some. Manga has its own appeal to Western fans. Most are serialized or ongoing stories with some fans having followed particular stories for literal decades. Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece series has been running constantly since 1999 and is slated to pass Superman as the best selling comic series of all time very shortly (if it hasn’t already). Hirohiko Araki’s seminal work, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure has been running since the 80’s and has gone through enough style changes that the author himself says that going back through previous arcs is surreal even for him. Couple these traits with the explosion in popularity that greeted their televised counterparts on channels like Cartoon Network and you have a recipe for lasting appeal.
That said, manga has its own relationship to idea of digital comics. Sites and apps like Comixology do sell manga, especially those republished by American companies like Dark Horse, but for the vast majority of the medium’s popularity, manga has always been extremely easy to access online and essentially free to do so. The one caveat is that normally, fans would have to put up with inaccurate or amateurish translates of Japanese if they wanted to read their favorites early and for free. To many, this was a small price to pay. Part of the reason for this scenario was due to very different copyright laws in Japan, but honestly I think it’s just a sort of laissez-faire marketing. Because while big Japanese publishers have finally started to lean into digital distribution, for the longest time, they seemed to have a live and let live with those who uploaded scans and fan translations of their properties. Given that they’re free and extremely easy to access, these online scans of manga are probably how a lot of the medium’s fans were first introduced to it. It’s safe to say that while manga is not a traditionally digital medium, it has made the jump to that realm very ably through fan support. So what does any of this have to do with DC Comics and Batman? Well, I’m getting there but we need to make one more stop, this time in South Korea.
As an outsider, it has been fascinating to watch South Korean media gradually expand into the global, cultural behemoth that it is. While I’m writing this, the South Korean TV Show Squid Game is the most watched thing on Netflix. Last year, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite took home the Oscar for Best Film. One of my favorites to come out this year has been the South Korean sci-fi epic Space Sweepers. Plus, I can’t even begin to describe the phenomenon that is K-Pop and the boy band BTS in particular except to say that their fans scare me. To make a long story short, in the words of Zoolander, South Korea is “so hot right now.” Which brings me to one of the newest and most popular trend comics medium in South Korea, webbtoons. Webtoons are themselves as subset of Korean comics, called manhwa. Manhwa, as the name suggests, is heavily influenced by its sister medium from Japan, but have grown into their own distinct identity. Starting in the early 2000s though, webtoons took the ball and ran with it, creating a wholly unique art form that has exploded out, past the borders of South Korea itself. Which is worth talking about for a couple of reasons. Firstly, and most importantly for our conversation, webtoons are optimized for digital consumption. Instead of having a traditional layout with panels on two pages, webtoon comics are designed and laid out vertically, to be read from the top down. The act of turning a page has been replaced with scrolling the screen up or down. This “infinity scroll” format is an inherently digital mode of consumption. The other unique aspect of webtoons’ origins as a digital medium is the extremely low bar for entry. As a digital medium, all it takes to publish webtoons is art skills, and a platform to upload your work to. Lastly, given their status as web-based comics, the vast majority of webtoons are completely free to read. Somewhat confusingly, the most popular platform for this purpose is itself called Webtoons. All of these elements, the digital nature, and the low cost of entry for creators and audience alike mean that the same Western audience that was captivated by manga in the early 2000s is now being drawn to manwa and webtoons in particular. Which finally brings us to DC Comics and Batman: Wayne Family Adventures.
Wayne Family Adventures is a new series that has been coming out every Wednesday for about a month on the official Webtoons website and app. The premise is actually pretty simple: it’s a comic about the comedic misadventures of Batman and all of his adopted family members while they’re not fighting crime. The cast include Dick Greyson (the original Robin, now Nightwing), Jason Todd (second Robin, now the antiheroic Red Hood), Tim Drake (third Robin, now Red Robin), Barbara Gordon (formerly Batgirl, now the wheelchair bound support hero, Oracle), Cassandra Cain (the current Batgirl), and Damian Wayne (Bruce’s son and current Robin). Our point of view character is Duke Thomas, a new hero recently adopted into the group who fights as The Signal (as in The Bat-Signal). The story doesn’t put any focus on Batman’s mission, or the various villains in his rogues gallery. It’s part of a genre that’s really popular in manga, slice-of-life. This is less of a series about what it means to be a superhero and more about fighting over who gets the last cookie after a night of patrolling Gotham. It’s a series where Batman will investigate a break-in wherein the Batcave was burgled only to find that it was one of the Robins, who apparently does it for fun. The stories are fun, sweet and a little goofy. The art is bright, colorful and extremely cute. There’s also a lot of little touches. Like, I’m pretty sure this is the first piece of Batman media to actually color his son Damien as if he’s half Middle Eastern, which he is. It’s the polar opposite of basically every other piece of Batman media that DC Comics is currently publishing. And I love every issue. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s the best thing that DC Comics is publishing these days (that would probably be James Tynion IV’s Nice House on the Lake) but it is the most effortlessly charming. But more importantly though, I don’t think Wayne Family Adventures actually cares what I think.
See, I’m a white guy who’s almost thirty and has been reading comics for about a third of my life. I have strong opinions about various ongoing monthly series. I am a “fan” of comic books. Which means that when DC Comics caters to me, they’re pretty much preaching to the choir. I’m not exactly what you’d call an expansion of the audience. If companies like Marvel and DC are going to survive going into the future, then they need to expand their audience beyond those of us who were watching Batman: The Animated Series in 1994. Which is why I find Wayne Family Adventures so interesting. It’s not just an attempt to broaden an audience, it’s a wild gamble to break into a new market and capture an entirely different audience. It’s catering to a fanbase that wants cute art, and wholesome stories (both of which this comic possesses in abundance) instead of deep characterization and bone-crunching action. It’s the first Batman product I’ve seen since the Lego Batman movie, which came out almost five years ago now, to diverge almost completely from everything else with the Caped Crusader’s name on it. And just like that movie, it’s all the better for it. In a lot of ways, Wayne Family Adventures looks like it was designed to send the guys who are absolutely stoked about Matt Reeves’ new The Batman movie into cardiac arrest. And that’s fine. We can have both.
Stories aren’t scared. Sure, the act of storytelling is probably one of the earliest forms of technologies and it is one of the core things that makes us human, but the stories themselves are mercurial and fungible things. To a 10th century Norseman, Thor was a clean-shaven redhead who fought giants and helped with watering the crops. To a 21st century person, Thor is a blonde, sometimes bearded superhero played by Chris Hemsworth in the Disney Marvel movies. In between the machinations of Saint Boniface, Jack Kirby and so many others, a few things got tweaked. Stories, and more importantly storytellers need to adapt with the times, and move with the audience. One of the reasons I love stuff like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or smaller risks like Wayne Family Adventures comic is that a whole new generation is going to come of age absorbing this media. That’s not even touching on a new, more diverse audience who will get to seem themselves reflected in this media, an effect that is only doubled by utilizing new mediums and methods of distribution like the Webtoons app. There’s definitely a conversation to be had about getting your values from superheroes, or how a lot of this media essentially equates to fans (young and old alike) swearing fealty to massive mega-corporations like Disney and Warner Brothers. But on the other hand, these children are the creatives of the future. They’ll go on to be the next generation of storytellers. Or, barring that, they’ll becoming doctors, nurses, scientists, engineers or even teachers because maybe something in these stories stirred something inside of them. But on that note, I don’t really have a coda to end this on. I got to ramble on about some media history and I brought a really fun (and free) story to some more people’s attention. I wish the creative team of Wayne Family Adventures (StarBite, CRC Payne, and their assistants) nothing but success in this endeavor and I’m excited to see what else DC publishes on this unique platform. Take care, and thanks for reading.