The State of DC Comics: A Company in Transition
When DC Comics reorganized their upper management last year, things got very interesting. Diane Nelson replaced longtime DC Head Honcho Paul Levitz, Jim Lee and Dan Didio became co-publishers, and Geoff Johns was promoted to Chief Creative Officer of DC Entertainment. This is an interesting arrangement for a notoriously conservative comics publisher, in part because it was the first huge shake-up at the company in years.
Dan Didio and Jim Lee recently partook in a three-part State of the Union interview (one, two, three) with business-oriented site ICv2. They discussed DC's recent history, their roles within the company, and how the recent reorganization in DC's upper management has gone. The three-part interview is fairly lengthy, and their responses range from frank to a little more calculated in nature. Regardless, there are several important things revealed, or hinted at, in the interview, and we've pulled out the top 5 things to take away about the state of DC Comics today.1. They're Still Keeping Quiet About an LA Move
There's a lot being explored and I can be perfectly honest about it, there is no answer on that just yet. We're trying to find the right fit, where the right place for the company's going to be. Again, like you said, we were just talking about Consumer Products and other divisions. Where things make the most sense is where we need to be, but we don't want to rush any of those decisions. We want to make sure we keep everybody's best interests in mind. -Dan DiDio
One of the biggest rumors surrounding DC Comics is a possible move across the country to Los Angeles. Informed industry vets say it's likely, and common sense suggests that it will happen sooner rather than later, but DC higher-ups remain mum on the subject, with responses, like this one, that tend to boil down to, "Maybe we are? We have no idea just yet." Nelson, Johns, and Lee already live in Los Angeles, as well, which seems to make the move very, very likely, if only to keep all of the power of DC Entertainment in close contact.
The possibility of DC Comics moving to LA is a big deal, both symbolically and literally. DC maintains an editorial and production staff in the heart of New York City, and a cross-country move would make a lot of people have to choose between the comfort of living in a familiar area versus keeping a steady job in an unknown land. That means you have to give up your network of friends, leave family behind, negotiate new leases on housing in a brutal economy, and get used to a brand new place.
Symbolically, New York City and LA represent two different aspects of entertainment. Los Angeles is Hollywood, the heart of the movie industry, and not too far from the Bay Area, where several of the most prominent American video game developers have their headquarters. New York, on the other hand, is home to several major publishing houses. Random House, Harper Collins, Penguin Group, and countless other book pubs have carved New York City up amongst themselves. Los Angeles represents moving pictures, glamor, glitz, and, possibly most of all, big fat paychecks. Being located in LA would put DC Comics in the middle of the Warner Bros. machine, for better or for worse. Remaining in New York is simply business as usual, with DC Comics serving as a publisher/idea farm, but always removed from what Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment are doing.
2. They Know Fans Will Pay $3.99 for Popular Books
"The reality is though if it's a book that people want they're willing; they seem price insensitive to it. They're willing to pay the higher price for books that they want. They seem to be a little more cautious about the books that are higher priced that they're on the fence about. We're well aware of that. Our goal is to hold the prices as low as possible. We don't see our line getting to the point where our competition is at where so much of their line right now is higher than a $2.99 price point." - Dan DiDio
The sales charts prove that DiDio is correct here -- when fans really want a book, they'll pay four bucks for it. Sometimes, they'll even pay five or six. DC test-drove a $3.99 price point last year by including 8-page co-features in several comics. For example, "Booster Gold" saw the addition of a "Blue Beetle" backup feature for several months, a clear stab at courting the audience for both Jaime Reyes, the new Blue Beetle, and people who dug the old Blue Beetle and Booster Gold team-ups.
Now, a little over a year after the co-feature/$3.99 experiment began, there are nineteen DC Comics titles priced at $3.99. Of those nineteen, eight titles are normal-sized, with no co-feature. Thirteen of the series star, feature, or are closely linked to Batman or Superman. Only "Detective Comics," "Batman: Streets of Gotham," "Action Comics," "Adventure Comics," "First Wave," "Doc Savage," "The Spirit," and "DC Universe Legacies" are solicited as actually having co-features, while the remainder are forty pages long or limited series.
The co-features, and $3.99 price point, seem to have retreated to a group of very specific titles. "First Wave," "Doc Savage," and "The Spirit" are part of the First Wave initiative, a revival of various pulp properties set in an alternate universe. "DC Universe Legacies" is a limited series about the history of the DC Universe. "Action Comics," "Adventure Comics," and "Detective Comics" are continuations of classic and long-running DC titles, starring Superman, the Legion of Superheroes, and Batman, respectively. "Streets of Gotham" is the odd man out, being the latest playground for Paul Dini's scattershot run on Batman.
The suggestion here is that DC Comics seems to think that people will tolerate $3.99 books if they are either major figures in the landscape of the DC Universe, as in the Superman, Batman, or flashback books, or limited runs. Can series like "Booster Gold" or "Teen Titans" manage to survive at $3.99? Survey says... nope.
"On the creative side, though, I think it was even Jim who coined the phrase when you look at myself and Jim with Geoff Johns involved, you're actually looking at the writer, the artist, and the editor between the three of us. That's sort of the way we work. You have an incredibly collaborative process that's not just working on a particular book and not even just for publishing, but across the line itself. I think that's what's exciting. We enjoy working with each other."
- Dan DiDio
While this is a bit of PR spin in a way, DiDio does make an interesting point. Back when Marvel was clawing its way out of bankruptcy, just over ten years ago, Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti, two artists, were entrusted with Marvel Knights, an imprint that played a large role in saving the company from financial and creative bankruptcy. Without minimizing the skill of editors like Tom Brevoort, Joey Cavalieri, or, for you old school Batman fans, Jordan Gorfinkel, there's something to be said for letting creative navigate the ship for a while.
By promoting two people who were primarily concerned with creative endeavors ("making comic books"), DC Entertainment may be attempting to capture some of the same lightning that Marvel caught in 1998 and change the way DC is perceived in the marketplace.
It's worth noting that Johns, Lee, and Didio have slightly different responsibilities, either due to their position or simply the way they gravitated toward certain areas of the job. Johns seems largely concerned with the aspects of DC Entertainment that aren't about comic books--meaning movies, television, and video games. Lee has moved toward the digital arena, focusing on building the comics audience beyond what it currently is. Didio, then, is in charge of maintaining the audience that DC Comics already has, the Direct Market. It will be interesting to see how their various specialization will affect DC Comics and DC Entertainment in the future, but it's simply too soon to tell.
4. They Know When to Pull the Plug
"We looked at a number of different alternatives. We talked to a number of key publishers there about alternatives and then we couldn't make the numbers work. The numbers on CMX were, comparatively, super low compared to the rest of our offerings and just reached a point where it made more sense for us to be out of the business than to continue struggling with it." -Jim Lee
When CMX, DC's manga imprint that got off to a slightly rocky start in 2004, was closed earlier this year, DC immediately took steps to completely wipe it from history. The CMX archive was removed from their official site, while upcoming books that had just been solicited were canceled. Noted manga blogger David Welsh delivered some pointed commentary, and Kate Dacey wrote an appreciative top ten list in memory of the line.
DC Comics was almost completely silent on the details of CMX's closure, barring a brief press release that blamed the "challenges" of the current state of the manga industry, and that silence led to theories of CMX being the black sheep of the DC family, lost licenses, and behind the scenes machinations or miscalculations. In the end, as almost everyone suspected, the truth was exceedingly banal.
Since CMX only published mid-tier titles, they couldn't gain the prestige needed to gain licenses for upper-tier books. The lack of upper-tier titles prevented them from gaining a major toe-hold in the marketplace, relegating CMX to the tragic status of critically-acclaimed, but low selling. DC simply didn't have a "Naruto," a mega-popular license that they could use to prop up the rest of the line, and the lack of that license hurt the line in several ways. CMX simply wasn't making enough money to be worth continuing. Rather than struggle and continue to limp to the cash register, DC Comics simply cut it off. It's a disappointing move, but considering the way other publishing companies -- whether they be publishers of manga or American comics -- have flamed out spectacularly, it was perhaps the smartest one.
5. They've Adopted the "Why Not" Principle
Diane has empowered us with the 'why not,' as I like to call it. There are so many things about what we don't do and what we didn't do. When you used to bring up those things she'd say, 'Well why didn't you do those things? Why not? Why not try it? Why not go there? Why not take that extra step. Why don't you go that extra mile? Why don't you do it? It was a little disconcerting at the start because you're like, I don't know. I don't know why I can't do it. Now it's like, let's go ahead and try it. Let's push. Let's be aggressive; let's be exciting. She wanted to instill in us a couple of real clear agendas and one of those agendas was, as we put it, show no fear, which means that we should be trying things where your first reaction would be not to try it. You're going to start seeing the fruits of that labor in the next year as well. -Dan DiDio
The biggest takeaway from this interview is also one of the toughest to pin down. It's clear from their statements that the DC Comics of 2010 is not the DC Comics of 2004, when "Identity Crisis" ruled the land. While they aren't aggressively pursuing digital comics yet, they are getting their feet wet. They're finding that the books that sell outside of the Direct Market are the books that the Direct Market traditionally loathes, like video game and television tie-ins.
It is also clear, however, that the DC Comics of 2011 will not be like the DC Comics of 2010. This interview, meant to show the current state of DC Comics, instead shows a company in a state of transition. Almost everything Lee and Didio discuss in the interview is in transition, from their responsibilities as co-publishers (which are not yet complete some five months into their run) to their plans for the comics company. Even digital comics, by far the biggest comics story this year and the thing most likely to create a tremendous change in the way comics are marketed and sold, is viewed as "more of a marketing opportunity than a straight sales opportunity."
DC is clearly trying to turn a corner and move away from their past in one way or another, and Diane Nelson seems to be encouraging that, judging by how DiDio describes her "Why not?" philosophy. We're still in the middle of the transition to a New DC, and while there are several new developments, we aren't quite at the point where we can point what their new direction will be. That there is upheaval lurking just beneath of the surface of DC Comics is interesting in and of itself, considering DC's rep as a more conservative company than its closest competitor, Marvel Comics. We'll be able to take a fuller measure of the company -- and the changes yet to come -- next year.