At Comics Alliance, David Brothers takes the temperature of DC Comics, about half a year into the most recent management shake-up that replaced longtime publisher Paul Levitz with former DC Universe editor-in-chief Dan DiDio and star artist/WildStorm chief Jim Lee, and also left star writer Geoff Johns—in many ways the company’s golden goose—with an executive position.
Making a number of observations based on a recent interview with DiDio and Lee, Brothers concludes:
“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. […] [T]he DC Comics of 2011 will not be like the DC Comics of 2010. [...] DC is clearly trying to turn a corner and move away from their past in one way or another [...]. 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.”
Now, Brothers’s points on formats and distribution may be on the money, given what we’ve seen so far. But as far as the content of DC’s mainline product—periodical comic books starring superheroes—is concerned, it would be surprising if the DC Comics of 2011 looked much different at all from the DC Comics of 2010. Or 2008. Or 2004.
If the recent re-organization of DC Comics management has done anything, it’s to further empower the people who have effectively been running that line of comic books since the early 2000s: Dan DiDio, who started his editorial tenure at the company in 2002, and Geoff Johns, whose slow but steady rise to his current position at DC began with JSA #1 in 1999. Why would DiDio or Johns, of all people, want to make any substantial course corrections when they’ve been at the steering wheel anyway for the better part of the last decade?
Or, to say it with DiDio’s own words, quoted from the ICv2.com conversation with Milton Griepp that Brothers refers to:
“For us right now the good part about it is that there was nothing dramatically broken at DC Comics, so the goal for us was just to be as we’re working through transitions not to be disruptive to the business at hand. […] The good news for us right now is that, like I said before, we have the wind to our back coming out of Blackest Night with the [DC Universe] product. […] Any other change to come in place is really just getting us a smarter, tighter, more focused attack on how we’re going to be able to do things working more hand in hand with the other divisions, both within DC Comics and with Warner Brothers itself.”
Plainly, this doesn’t sound like there are any great changes in store for the line that developed from Identity Crisis in 2004 to Blackest Night in 2010. DiDio does mention “a slight course correction in different places,” but what he means by that seem to be things like CMX, Vertigo and WildStorm, which haven’t been doing that well. And mainly, the focus seems to be on fostering synergy between DC and the rest of Warner.
So, overall, not surprisingly, it seems DiDio is perfectly happy to keep his—and Johns’—line on the track they put it on. And so is Warner’s management, for that matter, since what they did earlier this year was to hand more power to the architects of that line. If anything, the statement is that they don’t want that part of DC Comics to change, because it’s working for them.
Why is it working for them? Because they’ve managed to keep their hardcore audience more or less happy.
The best-selling DC Universe book, Brightest Day #6, sold 94,684 copies in July 2010, according to ICv2.com’s estimates. The average new DC Universe comic book sold an estimated 35,018 copies that same month. It’s chic in North American comics circles to mournfully remember the times when comic books used to sell in the millions, and to conclude that the sky is falling, but the current sales numbers are not by any means peanuts, as Warren Ellis points out:
“Compared to cinema attendance, comic book sales look small. But I just pulled up North America’s estimated comics-sales figures for May, and the top comic sold 163,000 issues that month. That’s a regular US-style comic single, costing $4 that goes directly to specialist comic-book shops. The top ten comics for that month sold a combined number in excess of a million units. The top 20? Somewhere over 1.6 million. And these estimates are usually lower than the real sales figures. Plus, of course, all these single issues will eventually be reprinted as trade-paperback collections. Tell a book publisher those numbers and see what colour they turn.”
Heidi linked to Ellis’s piece earlier this week. In the comments, Kurt Busiek responds to a skeptical poster:
“This is one of the reasons comics writers like me keep getting inquiries from book editors as to whether we’ve got a novel to offer; they look at the size of our audience and the steadiness of our backlist sales and figure that if we could bring even a decent portion of that audience over, we’d be well worth a look.
“Every Astro City paperback, for instance, sells enough copies every year to be a very good seller for a book publisher, and it does so at cover prices comparable to hardcover books. I’m not close to competing with Stephen King, but I’m getting numbers way better than a midlist prose author, and any book publisher would be delighted with that kind of performance.”
And it’s not just prose publishers who take note of these numbers. In his column, Ellis goes on to observe that these sales are happening at a time when comics are being massively pirated and downloaded. Consequently, Ellis argues, it’s not surprising that the audience for comic books is being targeted by companies that want to sell movie tickets or DVDs.
And Warner, which owns DC Comics, happens to be just such a company.
It’s certainly tempting to identify all the failings of DC’s current line and assume that a new management must necessarily have a vested interest in fixing them, in order to maximize, rather than minimize, their target audience. But ultimately, maybe Warner finds that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Especially if the bird in the hand is, as a matter of fact, a pretty damn fat one.
So maybe that’s why the new management of DC Comics is the old management of DC Comics. It’s hard to believe that’s an accident, and it’s hard to believe that any significant course corrections are to be expected from these people, at least where the content of the DC Universe line is concerned.
Ideological and speculative objections aside, DiDio and Johns have managed to cultivate their existing audience pretty well. If their promotion says anything on Warner’s current approach to the comics company they own, it’s this: If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it.
I’m down with Douglas Wolk’s plea, in his latest “Emanata” column, for a good weekly comic-book series that actually takes advantage of being a weekly comic-book series.
Even with many of the monthlies out there, I’m not getting the sense that what I’m reading was meant to be experienced as a monthly episode. Rather, more often than not, the sense I’m getting is that the people who make the comics use the format with gritted teeth because there was no viable alternative. That doesn’t make for a very good reading experience, so the number of comic books I read is down to a good handful.
I also agree that 52 is the only example of a good weekly title in recent memory. In fact, I was surprised by how good it is. I was able to not just understand it, but enjoy it thoroughly. There’s some real urgency in the material, and the four writers—Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka and Mark Waid—somehow managed not to cancel out or water down each other’s strengths. And it was totally self-contained and I could pick up the paperbacks a year later and not be lost despite not knowing or caring much about the DC Universe.
I’d buy another one like that in a minute.
Then came Countdown, and the two issues I read made me want to throw myself off a bridge. Then came Trinity, and although I like Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley, I lost interest three months in, because there was no real urgency. Then came Wednesday Comics, and it was not so much a serial comic going out of its way to entertain but a nostalgia-driven novelty thing celebrating something that I don’t understand, rather than to try and convince me I needed to know what happened next in any of the stories it tells.
I disagree with Wolk that this type of book should have to be made up of multiple smaller installments, rather than a single big one, though. There are writers well capable of handling six titles a month, so writing four or five issues of the same one–at least for a limited stretch of time–shouldn’t pose a problem. That way, you get a meaty chunk of entertainment that’s consistent from issue to issue.
The art side is more problematic, but as Amazing Spider-Man has shown, it’s possible to structure this type of book in such a way that each story arc is illustrated by one artist, for instance. And there are other ways to ensure that multiple artists can contribute without the story suffering as a result.
So, dear comics people: Please go and make a decent, self-contained weekly comic book that pulls out all the stops to keep me coming back.
Out now: A paperback collection of Brendan McCarthy’s Spider-Man: Fever, psychedelically colored psychedelic three-part tribute from one master of the form to another.
And just so there’s no doubt as to who inspired McCarthy here, the book also reprints Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 from 1965, by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee.
It’s all very bright and colorful and psychedelic. Best listen to some Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd while you’re reading it, to get you into the proper groove. Since we’re not advocating drugs.