Usually I’m one of the combatants in this, aren’t I?
Instead there are two articles here to break down. By now you may have heard that the newly formed WarnerMedia, as part of their questionable mission to lop all their properties under one system, just cut a whole lot of people, including their editors, from DC Entertainment’s comics division in addition to sending Dan DiDio packing. This part of DC Comics’ restructuring under the new masters and of course this has restarted speculation that DC Comics will soon die. Especially from one particular source.
I swear Rob Salkowitz is basically running a campaign to end DC Comics. After surviving publisher Jim Lee did an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Salkowitz took to ICv2 to continue to write DC’s eulogy and the end of superhero comics at a time when superheroes across TV, movies, and video games couldn’t be better. Granted I’m not completely in Lee’s camp because he isn’t saying a lot and of course he’s trying to calm people down whether DC’s future is in jeopardy or not. However, I think Salkowitz is invested in the end of this publisher given the last time I dissected one of his commentaries for Forbes on the same subject and this one. Clearly some changes are needed over at DC but I’m not sure Rob’s implied solutions (or what I got out of his commentary) are good ones.
Jim Lee, the superstar artist from the 1990s who rose through the executive ranks of DC to reach the top rungs of the company, has had better weeks.
Monday, WarnerMedia enacted deep and painful companywide layoffs. DC, the home of heroes such as Batman and Wonder Woman, saw the scythe cut 20 percent of its staff, with many senior editors let go and a reorganization implemented that sent shockwaves through not just the company but through the comic and DC fan community.
I really didn’t look into this one so I don’t know who was cut, but if it’s the editors that were part of DiDio’s Darker DC plans I won’t miss them. The biggest problem with DC under DiDio is that it actively fought against its own legacy and what it does differently from Marvel, as DiDio seemed to be interested in C.B. Cebulski’s job. Character assassination from Identity Crisis to Heroes In Crisis (and Dan’s obsession with “crises”), the New 52 tossing out the previous continuity even though writers had more story to tell and only a select few got to transpose them over because they were big enough or close enough to DiDio, and a pushback against the last attempt to course correct (the “Rebirth” books) showed a hatred of what made the DC Universe special to its fans.
“We are still in the business of publishing comics,” Lee adds, saying that there is no work being halted.
Yes, there will be more Batman — John Ridley, who won an Oscar for penning 12 Years a Slave, is writing a Batman mini-series (“It will have a huge impact on the rest of the line,” Lee says) — and there will also be the return of Milestone, a label that features under-represented heroes and creators.
Wait a minute. Has John Ridley made any comics prior to this? I found one comic he did an issue for on his own and two graphic novels he did with others (depending on Wikipedia’s accuracy mind you). Is Lee making the same mistake Marvel did when they brought J.J. Abrams and son to work on a Spider-Man comic? As far as Milestone Media coming back as an imprint, I’m in favor if only because maybe Static will finally find some use and all of those other characters (though I wonder if it will be a reboot and how a modern writer will treat Icon, Rocket, Blood Syndicate, and Hardware among others…I’m expecting Alva to be remade as another evil Trump analog) but the imprint has always played to a niche group. Not even all black kids, just the inner city ones as I don’t think anyone who grew up in a nice house and didn’t experience the same kind of racism is going to connect. I’ve seen Just Some Guy’s reviews of Ignited and Black AF (short version: he is not a fan) and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what Milestone turns into given modern writers. It’s nice to see an all-black imprint if done right and respectful to the characters but it’s hardly going to save DC Comics.
Is DC still publishing comics?
Absolutely. One hundred percent. It is still the cornerstone of everything that we do. The need for storytelling, updating the mythology, is vital to what we do. The organization leans on us to share and establish the meaningful elements of the content that they need to use and incorporate for all their adaptations. When we think about reaching global audiences, and we see comics as helping drive that awareness and that international brand, it’s very much part of our future.
It depends on HOW you update the mythology. The New 52 “updated” the mythology and all it did was chase away old fans, not draw in new fans who according to one of my friends don’t feel a need to care about the characters if DC doesn’t even keep with the same continuity and just keeps giving mini and full reboots every time they feel like it, and basically just annoy everybody. Salkowitz responded with:
Lee’s response has the virtue of making business sense in addition to sounding pleasing for fans. In a world where the mass market flocks to the latest and hottest trends, if DC were ever to actually cease publishing new material, the value of its legacy IP would immediately start to erode, notwithstanding the built-up audience and affection for the characters. But his words and his tone send a strong signal that “Things Will Be Different” from now on.
Will they, though? I haven’t seen a real gameplan for what Jim Lee plans to do differently from Dan DiDio’s run. Will there be more respect to characters that somehow managed to find a fanbase for longer than Lee has been alive? Will it return to the heroic nature that made DC Comics so iconic? What does Lee have planned? I still haven’t seen confirmation that the “G5” idea is dead. Back to Lee’s interview:
That said, we will be reducing the size of the slate. But it’s about looking at everything and looking at the bottom 20 percent, 25 percent of the line that wasn’t breaking even or was losing money. It’s about more punch for the pound, so to speak, and increasing the margins of the books that we are doing. It was about aligning the books to the franchise brand content we’ve developed and making sure that every book we put out, we put out for a reason.
He also notes that everything greenlit is still planned to go through, which makes sense given the commitment involved and maybe if Warner Brothers had done that with Justice League we’d already know the Snyder Cut was more of the same lack of understanding and be moving on to a better representation of the DC heroes that we’ve seen since. By the way, all the DC shows, including the originals, will be moving from the DC Universe streaming service to HBO Max but no word on the digital back issues. However, digital is going to be a huge focus for Lee going forward.
In regards to the community and experience that DCU created, and all the backlist content, something like 20.000 to 25,000 different titles, and the way it connected with fans 24-7, there is always going to be a need for that. So we’re excited to transform it and we’ll have more news on what that will look like. It’s definitely not going away.
With digital, that’s more of a windowing issue, meaning we’ll go out there with digital content and the stuff that performs well in digital also performs well in print. A good example of that is Injustice, the digital comics that tied into the video game. When that came out, it was the best-selling digital comic of the year, it outsold Batman. And brought a lot of adjacent fans into our business. And when we took that content and reprinted it in physical form, we sold hundreds of thousands of units. It was as big of a hit in physical as in in digital.
We’re using that as a model as we go out and do more digital content. We’ll take the most successful books and repackage it as physical books .I think there is definitely business to be had in physical periodicals. But that said, I think there’s greater upside in digital because we can go to a more global audiences and the barrier to entry, especially in this pandemic, is lower. It’s a lot easier to get digital content into the hands of consumers that want to read stories. We want to lean into that and think thoughtfully what digital content should be, what it should look like, the format.
Salkowitz likes this idea as well.
Once again, this is a very reasonable thing to say because it’s true: international markets, particularly China and India, are at once more promising and less deeply invested in DC’s traditional approaches. And digital makes perfect sense to reach the rising mobile-first generation there (and here, where they’ll all be signing up for AT&T Wireless plans to get primo access to all that juicy corporate synergy).
And if they’re smart they’ll find a way to connect that the same way HBO Max did with current cable/satellite/streaming subscribers to the other HBO/Cinemax channels. However, there’s other thinks Salkowitz gets into that I am very much not a fan of.
DC’s latest reboot: the company itself. It sure looks like DC is doing a major rebalancing of its strategy. Last week, I wrote about how DC and Marvel had squandered most of this century chasing after existing (and aging) hardcore superhero fans at the expense of providing onramps for young readers.
Have we been following the same DC lately? The New 52 and DC You initiatives chased away existing fans in favor of new fans. Rebirth tried to get things back on track but once DiDio and the Bad Fanfic Brigade (which now included Tom King and Brian Michael Bendis) were back in control he undid as much of it as he could get away with. The DC Universe is a superhero universe. It’s like trying to find new Ultraman fans by making it about a rock group. What exactly are you asking for?
They may be looking to make up for lost time and build on their recent creative and commercial successes with young reader original graphic novels. Michele Wells, who was behind that success, will be stepping into the Editor-in-Chief role alongside digital strategy head Marie Javins, replacing Bob Harras; several other OG editors were also sent packing, including Black Label’s Mark Doyle, though apparently the infrastructure of mid-level staff that keep the books moving out the door still have jobs. Could the company send a stronger message about the need to reach new audiences through new channels, even if that need comes at the expense of continuing to service hardcore fans in the direct market?
Restricting comics to the direct market is a bad idea but it’s one the entire industry has done. Only recently have they tried selling online or at conventions but even then that only reaches a niche market rather than embracing the casual readers that made comics so successful until the direct market pushed away the magazine racks and spinner racks at grocery stores and convenience stores. I first started buying comics from a drug store. As far as the young reader books, they’ve mostly abandoned superheroes as well, which I’m thinking Salkowitz is asking for. Again, when superheroes are hugely popular. So I don’t see Ms. Wells being a proponent of the superheroes at all, and what we may get is closer to the superhero-ish slice of life stuff we’ve gotten, where Aqualad has superpowers but it has nothing to do with the story since it’s about him coming out as gay. Or the Catwoman book that is just Gotham High done officially. It’s not like you can’t do stories about personal lives in a superhero world that actually involves superheroing. Miraculous: Tales Of Ladybug And Cat Noir does it very well…and that’s a French/Japan co-produced cartoon for teen girls that’s popular worldwide. I’m saying Wells hasn’t shown an interest in even doing that, never mind what made the DC Universe what it was.
We also can’t discount the role that DC’s corporate parents, WarnerMedia and AT&T fit into this. At one point, the HR reporter asked Lee about the “rumor that AT&T hates comics and wants to get out of the comic business.” Lee replies, “I don’t think they want to stop us from publishing comics. Comics serve a lot of different purposes and one of them is it’s a great way to incubate ideas and creating the next great franchises. We want to continue that. Why would you want to stop that? Why would you want to stop creating great content that could be used across the greater enterprise?”
Keep in mind that Lee is speaking to the media and putting the bravest face on what has to be a tough situation for him and his team. Nevertheless, under all that icing is a pretty thin slice of cake. “I don’t think they want us to stop publishing comics.” That’s the strongest thing he can say, before making what sounds like a public plea to his bosses not to be shortsighted? Color me unencouraged.
The problem isn’t that AT&T “hates comics.” That oversimplifies things too much. AT&T hates two things: high-cost, low-return operating units, and sub-brands. DC, unfortunately, is both. It’s nothing personal; it’s just business.
That doesn’t mean AT&T is going to shut DC Comics down, or they would have just fired everybody. They clearly want to give DC a chance but it does mean DC needs to get back to what made the DC Universe so popular for 80+ years and find a way to reach a new audience without giving the finger to the old one.
I do think DC Comics is salvageable. It depends on what lessons Jim Lee did or didn’t take from DiDio’s failures, to what extent Wells remembers that this is a superhero brand, and how much AT&T is willing to take before cleaning house. I don’t think they’re going to have Marvel publish their titles, an idea floated in the 1990s, which is one of the rumors the Reporter writer mentioned, but it is going to take someone who knows what allowed DC to survive all these years and properly update it for a new audience, getting their books out on time and to more than just a small group, and by actively caring not just about the business but the characters as much as the fans do. The problem isn’t that DC hasn’t properly modernized, it’s that they stopped doing what made them successful. It’s time to start doing that again.