All About ‘You': Diversity is DC’s Brightest Future, If It Has the Patience to Get There
Last week there was a rumor going around that DC might pull the plug on its new 'DCYou' initiative before it had even had a chance to take root. DCYou aims to provide more diversity in content, characters, and creators, in an effort to reach new readers in a shifting market. The initiative stands in sharp contrast with the homogeneity of DC's last major relaunch, the traditional and conservative New 52, targeted squarely at long-time readers.
Of course, the New 52 performed very well for the publisher, and in some months it even pushed DC ahead of industry leader Marvel. The relaunch never achieved its major objective of permanently toppling Marvel, but it did provide strong numbers in direct market comic store sales. Compare those numbers to the sales for DCYou, and one can see a clear argument for going back to the old model. But that argument is grounded in a narrow understanding of the industry.
It's important to acknowledge that the two launches aren't very much alike. The New 52 was line-wide, and so radical that any fan who wanted to learn the new continuity of the DC Universe was obliged to jump on-board. Its biggest competition from Marvel at the time was one of its least successful events, Fear Itself, plus one of several Ultimate Universe relaunches.
DCYou was a selective relaunch right alongside continuing titles that still serve the New 52 audience. It followed a two-month disruption in DC's regular output (Convergence, timed to cover for the publisher's relocation from New York to Burbank), and went up against the twin Marvel beasts of Secret Wars and the Star Wars comics, an unstoppable force in the year of our lord JJ Abrams. DCYou was never going to approach the New 52's performance in the direct market.
Nor was it ever meant to. Just as the New 52 was specifically built to succeed with traditional comic shop customers, so DCYou was built to succeed outside of that market. Comic store sales figures are familiar, transparent, and visible across publishers, so it's always tempting to use them to assess industry performance, but they're only part of the picture, and a significantly less important part when assessing DCYou.
DCYou titles like We Are Robin, Starfire, Doctor Fate, and Midnighter feature strong creator-led visions and distinctive visual styles paired with lesser-known lead characters that might appeal to specific audiences. These are also people who aren't used to being courted by DC. Women, LGBTQ readers, people of color, young readers; the very same people who have been turned away by superhero publishers for decades. They're also the sort of readers who don't typically go to comic stores, and haven't developed the Wednesday routine of long-term fans. They're book-buyers and digital consumers; people who are disproportionately likely to wait for a complete first arc before giving a series a chance.
Because of this, anyone who thinks the success or failure of the DCYou titles can be measured in the first six months, let alone the first six weeks, doesn't understand how the industry is changing. These titles are reliant on a long-term strategy of finding and building audiences through digital and book sales. Where New 52 books were as disposable as their rapidly changing creative teams, with an emphasis on relentless momentum propped up by stunts, DCYou books offer unique voices, definable story arcs, and niche characters; qualities that could allow them to become perennial sellers with their target audiences. DCYou is built to be sustainable.
DC initially pledged that each new DCYou series would reach its twelfth issue, and that shows a savvy understanding that building buzz and establishing reader confidence would take time. In an interview with the LA Daily News on Friday, DC publisher Dan DiDio acknowledged that reality; "If you’re trying to build a fan base, a new audience, you’ve got to nurture it. You’ve got to take your time. You’ve got to take your losses. ... Right now, our goal is to try and feed out as much product that’s as different as possible to try and attract the widest audience possible.”
Some of the new titles won't ultimately be hits. But DC won't know which books are successes or failures until all of those books have had a chance to perform in the marketplace that they were built for. None of them can be assessed based on performance in comic stores.
The rumor that DCYou might get the axe is based on reports that the company faces a budget shortfall for 2015; Bleeding Cool believes that the publisher may fall short of projections by as much as $2 million . If that's true, it's easy to imagine that DC might panic and revert to a New 52 model, which is more likely to deliver short term results.
But to backtrack now would be a disaster; DC's long-term prospect of growing its audience is dependent on bold initiatives like DCYou. Hurriedly retreating to a core audience that's already shrinking --- in part because of too many stunts and relaunches --- would be an acceptance of eventual obsolescence.
DCYou is a strategy designed for the future, and its success can't be measured by direct market standards. A revived New 52 strategy will only be effective if DC literally plans to live in the past.