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Interview with DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson

Just when the world of corporate comic books seemed like it couldn’t get any crazier, DC Comics dropped the bombshell last week that it would be restructuring as DC Entertainment, Paul Levitz would be stepping down as President, and Diane Nelson, a former President of Warner Premiere and a brand manager for the massive “Harry Potter” franchise, would be taking charge.

Now that the dust has started to settle on the big announcement, ComicsAlliance had a chance to speak with to Nelson about what these changes really mean for DC, and how they’re going to affect DC’s fans, creators, comics, movies, and bringing in the new readers that she calls a “priority.”

ComicsAlliance: What are your first impressions of the comics industry so far?

Diane Nelson: I’m going to sound kind of Pollyanna-ish, but just so great. It might be premature to say that say it’s a reflection of the comic book industry as a whole, but the people here at DC have been amazing, and have gone beyond what I would have hoped in terms of being welcoming and being enthused about what this means for the future. The bottom line is that I expect to very quickly become a comic book fan, but I have always been a fan of great stories and characters, and it’s just unbelievable how rich the library here is. It’s like a being a kid in a candy shop.

CA: Were you surprised that some people have made big deal about your gender, and the fact that a woman is running a comic book company?

DN: Well, [former DC President] Jenette Kahn was here not that long ago, and she’s a woman whom I knew when she was at DC and had occasion to do business since then, so I didn’t actually think it was that big of an anomaly. I understand it’s uncommon, but I think it’s good. The best part is that people are enthused because I’m a good executive and I’m going to bring something to the process that’s valuable.

CA
: Comic book culture is often seen as a bit of a boy’s club. Do you see yourself having an impact on that as a woman, or do you see gender as entirely irrelevant to your role as an executive?

DN: I think there are attributes that many women executives have that will be a great addition to this business, I hope. While it would be as wrong of me to attribute these traits to women at the exclusion of men as it would be for a man to do the reverse, I think women can often be very strong team players and good communicators and collaborators. I certainly am the first to acknowledge where I don’t have strengths, but I think I’m pretty good at acknowledging where I do. But if you get into the creative or editorial discussion that drives this business, it’s more important that I recognize the depth and passion of knowledge that surrounds me regardless of whether I’m a man or a woman. There are things I bring to the party that will have more to do with focus and support for the future with Warner Bros, but again, that’s sort of gender irrelevant.

CA: How do you see the relationship between the editorial or publishing aspect of DC – what’s going on in a Batman comic, or whether Batman’s alive – and the movies and merchandising? Are they connected, or do you see them as separate?

DN: They’re very much connected, and I think if you underestimate how connected they are, you stand to have merchandising that isn’t a good supporter of the brand. There’s an understanding I hope I bring to this process about the place merchandising has for fans, for kids – and different types of products appeal to different age sets, but ultimately it’s all about extending the experience that starts with the books, and doing that with integrity and quality. That’s a driving factor for me and for Warner Bros. They’re very much intertwined.

CA: So could you see the movies and their storylines having an impact on the way that the storylines in the comic books are developed?

DN: It’s hard to answer that; we’re not ready get into the details about what our [movie] slate looks like, but we will in 2010. But philosophically, none of this is isolated, and that’s a big reason for the moves that we have just announced. You don’t do any of this in a vacuum, and there should be a healthy reciprocal relationship among all the forms of entertainment that we will continue to put out.

CA: In your mind, what exactly has changed at DC because of its recent reorganization into DC Entertainment and your new role in the company?

DN: Focus, and a greater proactive dialogue among the content and distribution businesses of Warner Bros., Time Warner, and DC. It’s not about things not having been done well to this point in time; it’s the opposite. Things have been done so well that the company has realized we can support this in an even greater way. The resources, the investment and the prioritization of Warner Bros will be supporting this business in a greater way moving forward. I suppose to a certain degree one has to understand the studio and how it works to understand how much focus matters, so this is about making sure that DC is as well-integrated into the studio as it needs to be. I’m here to help make sure that the people who do things well at DC are set up to do them as well, and even better in the future.

CA: For many DC fans, one of their biggest concerns is that the content of the books they love will somehow change. Do you think this is an unfounded fear, or do you think that there’s room for positive change on the editorial end?

DN: I think there’s absolutely room for positive change, but my mandate is not to come in and change the editorial of the publishing business. I have great faith in [Editor-in-Chief] Dan [DiDio] and [Vertigo Executive Editor] Karen [Berger] and what they do really well, so as we collaborate together if there are things that they think are opportunities for the characters and stories that I can help support, we’ll do that. But that will be driven by what’s right for editorial.

CA: What qualities are most important to you in the person who will ultimately fill the role of Publisher at DC?

DN: A couple things, although it is very early to say too much about this. A strong, credible partnership with the editorial team that complements what they do well, and having perhaps a greater knowledge of the publishing business than I. But also a forward-looking emphasis on how we’re going to grow build the business, both in terms of physical and digital publishing… It’s going to be a key role. I’m not looking to stick my nose in in ways that don’t add value.

CA: You mentioned digital publishing, and when I spoke with Paul Levitz about this a year ago, he liked the idea of comics content designed for the web, but not in digitizing print comics. That seems to be a philosophical difference with Marvel, which has many of their print comics online through Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited. Are you more open to the idea of non-native digital comics content?

DN: We’re going to look at everything. I don’t want to rule anything out, but what I absolutely know I agree with Paul on is whether there’s a place for what I call the pan-and-scan digital publishing of the books as they were created for the physical form. I don’t know if that’s putting the best foot forward. It may turn out that there’s a place for that by virtue of the way young people are using digital media, but we have to keep a very close eye on not undercutting or cannibalizing the core physical business. What I think is more interesting is how we develop and produce content as we’ve attempted to do in a very early step with motion comics, which are distinguished from digital comics in the very trait you’re touching on. Motion comics take the underlying physical book material and enhance or modify it slightly enough to make it unique, and we think best-suited for a digital environment. My team Warner Premier along with DC Comics and Warner Digital Distribution were kind of first movers in that space, and we’ve been really pleased to see Marvel and others follow suit. What was done with “Watchmen” motion comics is a great exercise, and ["Watchmen" artist] Dave Gibbons’ involvement in that was critical. The driving philosophy will be, how do we create the best content for each medium while maintaining the integrity of how these characters and stories were designed for the physical books. And I’m not sure that they’re the same thing.

CA: There’s obviously a very devoted core readership of DC Comics – how important do you think it is to expand that? Is the growth of new readership for the print comics a priority for you?

DN: Sure, absolutely. Growth is going to be an important part of what we do in all parts of the business, but it’s not a unique challenge, is it. The publishing industry in general is seeing the same challenge: If we can, how do we grow the physical business? If we can’t, how do we complement it so that we’re driving new people back to the physical books and expanding the audience appropriately in other media? We’re going to face those same questions and challenges, but absolutely, if we can grow the physical book business that would be a key priority.

CA: What do you see as the differences between the way comics publishing differs from the world of book publishing?

DN: I have a lot to learn in regards to that, and I’m not sure I’m ready to answer that yet. I have no doubt there are aspects of the comic book business that are unique to this business.

CA: What are you most excited about in terms of the types of changes to come at DC?

DN: Changes are not the way I’m thinking about this. There probably will be changes that are a result of working with everyone here to figure out how to set ourselves up for the greatest opportunity in the future. What I’m excited about is this notion of incubation and building DC as an even more important asset for Warner Bros and for the creators who really drive the DC business. Also identifying stories and characters that will have a great life beyond publishing in other media – and that’s not just all about film; it’s going to be equally about television, and video games, and digital. And also incubating new talent, and allowing them an opportunity to grow within Warner Bros as well as DC – that’s what’s exciting to me.

CA: So you’re anticipating more talent development along the lines of writer Geoff Johns, who has written scripts for “Smallville” TV show, or writer Paul Dini, who worked on the “Arkham Asylum” video game?

DN: Absolutely. I think that’s a great example of collaboration that’s good for the publishing, good the creators, and certainly good for Warner Bros.

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