A year ago, two major events happened in the world of comics -– it was dubbed The 10 Days That Shook the World. On August 29, 2009 it was announced that Marvel was being acquired by Disney. A few short days later on September 9, DC Comics became DC Entertainment. It was also announced that Paul Levitz -– who had been at DC for some 37 years — would be stepping down. The world held its breath to see what would happen next. There were big changes brewing at the big two. How would Disney and Warner Bros. change the face of comic book publishing as we know it?
The last twelve months must have been a time of change and turmoil at both of the publishers…excuse me, “media companies”. Let’s take a look at the big events and by big events I mean not character or story line changes. Those are everyday business as usual events. So don’t look for me to spend time on things like characters dying or becoming a lesbian -– I am talking about major core business changes.
Let’s take a look, shall we?
• Closed down their manga imprint CMX
• Closed down their web comics site Zuda
• They replaced upper management with upper management they already had
• They finally went digital with an iPad app
• Had a few movies bomb
• DC staffers bought additional antiperspirant to help them sweat out a possible move to the West Coast
• A few characters moved from Vertigo to the DCU
• Paul Levitz and Gregory Noveck walked out the door
• Batman peed his pants
Well, that was quite a year. But really, what has changed; they closed down a few imprints; they’ve done that before — Milestone, Paradox Press, and Piranha Press are all defunct imprints. They changed some of their staff (hell, I was a staff change a few years ago) but that is not a new practice for any company. As for movies that bomb, isn’t that supposed to be one of the reasons it’s now DC Entertainment? Do I need to mention STEEL and CATWOMAN? Beside THE DARK KNIGHT, there hasn’t been much to celebrate; THE LOSERS lost, and you needed to be hexed to see JONAH HEX. But to be fair, I guess that technically they weren’t released under the new administration.
As for the staff sweating out their jobs -– I feel for them. It is hell not being secure in your job. Will it still exist? Will I have to move my family to a new city? Can I sell my house in this economy? Those are truly stressful conditions to work and live under. For my friends who are still employed there -– I know what hell is it to have uncertainty at your job; it takes a toll. You are in my thoughts.
And yes, I said I wasn’t going to talk about what happened with the characters, but Batman saying he had a “bladder spasm” – I can’t ignore it! Nor would I ignore the Thing passing a stone.
I guess the biggest change was that DC finally jumped on the digital bandwagon. But who hasn’t? All you heard for the last few years in publishing was, “Do you have a digital strategy?” It is not shocking that they partnered with Apple, nor is it surprising it took them this long to launch the business.
The question that was on everyone’s mind still waits to be answered. How will the Levitz era be different from the Nelson/Caldon/DiDio/Lee/Johns/Rood era? Paul had more than three decades to leave his mark; I guess we need to give the new team some slack. I really hope that packing up and moving west isn’t the answer. I think the reasons would be more of convenience than necessity. Warner seems to operate just fine with the Time Warner Headquarters up in Columbus Circle. Hell, Cartoon Network, which is under the Warner Bros. umbrella, is in Atlanta. We will hold our collective breath and wait to see what will come of DC Entertainment.
• Announced that their non-comic book books (kids titles, art books, etc.) would be published by sister company Hyperion
• Switched bookstore distribution from Diamond Book Distributors to Hachette Book Group
• Hired some people who were already kind of working for them
• Released a hit movie
• Had a big ass golden throne at San Diego Comic-Con
• Launched a iPad app before DC
• Retained control of their bladders
Marvel would have gotten bigger kudos on launching their digital comics, but Dark Horse and IDW beat them to the punch with iPhone apps. The success of IRON MAN 2 was just business as usual for the company. They’ve proven over the last several years that they produce successful movies. Even with a few bombs thrown in, they have a much better batting average than DC even without Disney as a corporate parent. And because Marvel was an independent company for so many years, they have deals with so many companies that dramatic changes will be unfolding at a different pace. I don’t expect any big news anytime soon — like a Marvel section at the Disney theme parks. I assume that because of the relationship they’ve had with Universal Studios theme parks for so many years that either the licensing agreement would need to run out or Disney would need to buy the contract out. Someday I am sure you will see Wolverine dancing down Main Street with Snow White -– but it will take time.
The biggest change is the switch to Hachette, but that deal is only now going into effect and it remains to be seen if Hachette can have an impact on their sales. This is important because the bookstore market is the only arena where DC tops Marvel in sales. All the years I was at DC Comics this was true and it remains true to this day. Even if you take out the amazing sales of WATCHMEN, they are still trounced by DC. But I had heard rumors that Marvel had been looking into a new distributor for quite some time, so it really can’t be attributed to the acquisition by Disney.
So it seems the biggest thing at Marvel besides the Hachette deal was that Marvel and their characters managed to control their bladders even with a new parent company. Not a small feat.
From someone on the outside looking in, it looked like both companies circled the wagons and went back to basics. Neither company seemed to do much in the bookstore or library markets. They actually seemed to be retreating from these markets. Neither company exhibited at BEA or ALA. DC was marginally represented by Random House at these shows; only a few of their books were on display at ALA and Random House had a greatly reduced presence at BEA. At the very least both companies should have a least one staffer around to answer questions. I only saw one DC executive at BEA and didn’t see anyone from Marvel. Compare this to the army of people they send to San Diego Comic-Con.
No talent from Marvel or DC toured bookstores or libraries and I didn’t see any significant expansion of either publisher’s books on the shelves. Now I know a lot of you will comment, “But DC had the crazy success of WATCHMEN in bookstores!” I saw little that DC did besides print books to keep up with demand. Even the signage I saw was from Titan Books to support their title, Who Is Watching The Watchmen, not for the graphic novel. They were riding the wave from the movie, and by the way, it’s easier to ride a wave than create one.
The same can be said for Marvel. They did not attend the above mentioned shows and I didn’t see any major promotions at retail. Not even when KICK-ASS and IRON MAN 2 came out. I also heard complaints that when KICK-ASS was released, there wasn’t enough inventory to support it. I heard the same for Iron Man titles when the second movie was out.
I know that the retail book market is in a state of flux, but the business has not totally gone away, has it? Did either company back off on their support of the direct market when comic book shops were closing left and right in the early 1990s? Did they stop exhibiting or sending staff to the cons when that market was experiencing some problems? They were both there this year and I see them on the exhibitors list for New York Comic Con. Dan DiDio was quoted recently saying, “And there was a point where we were expecting the book store market to probably overtake the direct market in the volume of sales that we were doing. But now we’ve got a nice balance between the two and the direct market still remains strong for us and that’s a good thing because you always have a good base to work from. ” The balance may be there in terms of sales, but it doesn’t appear that promotions, marketing and trade show support have any equity at all in the mix.
Maybe it’s best to describe this period is with the old saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”.