While Comics Beat reporter Alex Jones provided his own ideas for what Marvel should be aiming for this year as All-New, All-Different Marvel soldiers on; I, as the resident DC booster, formulated a few ideas regarding what my favorite publisher should do in the coming 12 months to boost their prospects in comics’ competitive market.
The past few years have been difficult for DC Comics. Since the boom of the New 52, which per DC’s own estimates increased their readership by 25% in terms of lapsed readers and 5% of new readers, things have gotten a good deal uglier. In November 2015, DC held a retail market share of 26.35% to Marvel’s 43.2%. If it wasn’t for Dark Knight III: The Master Race, DC wouldn’t have even appeared in the Diamond Top 10 that month. In October, things were even worse, with DC holding only a 21.85% retail market share. Sadly, while the “DC You” initiative from this past June launched several critically acclaimed series including Midnighter, Prez, and Omega Men, none of these new series have become commercial successes.
The big successes of the line to date remain Batman, Harley Quinn, Justice League and Justice League of America. Each of these series averages 50k+ copies at the retailer level. Everything else middles around 40,000 and below. While none of these numbers take digital sales into account, there are quite a few titles whose physical sales hover around the all too ugly 20k cancellation threshold. A number have dipped far below that point as well.
What to do? DC is in a tough position right now, given the general media saturation of comic book properties at a time when the physical source material sits in a tenuous economic place. I certainly don’t envy the position Dan DiDio and Jim Lee find themselves in, particularly when their biggest competitor has a much larger foothold in the public eye, with multiple 2.5 hour long commercials that play to their core product’s strengths AND the power of the Star Wars license. It’s a majorly uphill battle, but 2016 is a new year. Here’s a few changes I’d like to see DC Comics implement, as a long time fan who wants to see the biggest staple of his childhood succeed.
Marvel Unlimited has proven to be one of the most ingenious ideas implemented during Axel Alonso’s tenure at Marvel. When I discuss the service with my multitude of comics friends both in person and online, the biggest question that always comes up is: why doesn’t DC have something exactly like this? The Netflix model is all the rage among consumers to who want to binge their media. Marvel Unlimited is a tremendous pull for new readers and readers who no longer can keep up with the weekly comic store visits.
A recent study at ComicBookHerald indicated that Marvel trade sales have actually increased since the continued spread of Marvel Unlimited subscriptions. While there’s no real way to prove that A+B=C here, particularly since those years cited also coincide with the explosion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s no doubt that having this type of option on hand is a great boost of confidence for your readership. It is also a relatively inexpensive way for someone to dip their toes into the wider range titles you offer. Given how much DC material is already digitized, it shouldn’t prove that difficult to provide such a service. What’s the hold up?
“Batgirling” isn’t a bad word, it just can’t be your only word
When “DC You” launched in June, the word around various sites was that the publisher was looking to follow in the foot steps of Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr’s re-envisioning of Barbara Gordon and company (which in of itself, took some cues from the recently successful Hawkeye, Young Avengers and Ms. Marvel series). From it, we got idiosyncratic takes on John Constantine, Prez, Dr. Fate, Black Canary, Doomsday, Bizarro, etc. None of them sold very well, and immediately there were rumblings in the comics press of DC brass pushing for “No more Batgirling! More meat and potatoes!”.
This creates a problem, because if DC does indeed decide to roll back to the early New 52 style of storytelling, it not only indicates that diverse styles of storytelling aren’t welcome at the publisher but it also highlights DC’s inability to stick to a plan. At the same time, it’s possible that they misjudged how big the market actually is for this kind of approach to their heroes. Or, and this is much more likely, DC marketing simply dropped the ball with this initiative. With the New 52, I recall there were a number of ads and a wide-spread full court press that simply didn’t exist with DC You from my sadly limited vantage point. The idea behind opening up the tent wider, is that it only works if those you’re appealing to know you’re doing it. If you’re looking to appeal to those not entrenched in the weekly comics “grind”, you’ve got to reach out far beyond just the LCS crowd.
While Marvel’s choices in the arena aren’t always optimal, they’ve clearly attempted to strike a balance between experimental takes and house-style superheroics. DC should aim to do something similar, allowing word of mouth to spread about their critical darlings (even Marvel lets a book breathe for a while and see if it gets its footing) and increase that base of consumer support and expand where possible.
Build Up Creator Diversity
Speaking of rearranging a line, building up the talent pool has to be high on the priority list. One of the really enticing elements of the DC You initiative was how many new names it brought into the fold: Gene Luen Yang, Steve Orlando, Mark Russell, Rob Williams, Ming Doyle, Annie Wu, David Walker, etc. This should continue, as new diverse perspectives will not only enrich the stories being told, but they’ll build greater confidence with audiences that feel disaffected by the current product. I can’t tell you how often I’ve spoken with fellow LCS customers who are not white men who often tell me that “yeah, there’s no way I’m buying a DC comic”. Given some of the storytelling that the initial round of the New 52 turned out and the safe haven that Marvel and Image proved to be for newer readers circa 2012, who could blame them?
DC should take advantage of the fact that there’s presently a paucity of women and people of color at the Big Two. Bring them on board. Give them a home to express their love and staggering creative talents onto some of the most iconic superheroes in the marketplace, and you’ll surely be blown away by the results.
Also, give Steve Orlando more to do– did you not read Virgil? Give Tom King a big title today– have you not seen how amazing Vision is over on the other side? Why is Genevieve Valentine not on something else? Don’t let these folks prosper elsewhere, especially when the competition likes to hand out exclusives every once in a while.
Better utilization of the burgeoning talent under their auspices and the development of new voices is paramount. One of the big issues I felt “DC You” had with landing with its intended audience was that it confused the idea of diversity in character as being equivalent to diversity in creators. While having an identifiable lineup of heroes is an admirable thing, you need to also procure the authenticity of voice of writers and cartoonists that have lived those varied experiences. Otherwise the idea of “DC You”, a DC that represents *you, the reader* feels disingenuous despite noble intentions.
But, hope does spring eternal:
So tonight is my first @DCComics Writers Development class- excited! DC picked some pretty amazing creators for it. Next time open to public
— Scott Snyder (@Ssnyder1835) January 6, 2016
Scott Snyder, if anyone, has become DC’s big success story of the past 4-5 years, working his way up to being one of the premiere writers in the industry. With his spearheading a new Writer Development class for the publisher this week, the chances of DC bolstering their roster with an a newly impressive array of talent has increased exponentially.
Steal a big name
Here’s where wishful thinking starts to really set in. Once you’ve gotten a solid team together of next gen talent, one thing that’ll really catch eyes is pulling a huge name over to your side on one of your biggest titles. With so much creative freedom, and potentially lucrative opportunities, available at Image, this becomes tougher and tougher. DC’s last two attention grabbing gets, John Romita Jr. and the aforementioned Gene Luen Yang, were tremendously exciting for those of us that follow industry fairly closely, but it didn’t really translate into actual dollars spent on the company’s marquee character. Certainly, not more than the normal trending sales that a Superman title generally sees in this day and age.
So, barring backing up a dump truck full of money to Brian K. Vaughan’s house to tackle one of the trinity, which will never happen, you have to look at who might be available over at Marvel and isn’t under contract. Would Jonathan Hickman be a more likely possibility? Secret Wars was a huge hit and his fanbase is quite loyal. That’d be a heck of a way to widen some eyes.
Sync up with the live action media better, or at all
When CBS’ Supergirl debuted to very strong ratings, I found myself a bit flummoxed at the fact that there wasn’t already a Supergirl title on the stands, easily available for the character’s growing fanbase to pick up. Conversely, there’s something fairly toss-off feeling about the digital offerings that are meant to line up with both Arrow and The Flash. They’re so under-promoted that few viewers even know they exist. DC has to do more in this arena. The CW shows, Supergirl, and Gotham have their properties absolutely running the roost with the television side of things, but none of the characters from these shows as they appear on television feel adequately reflected on the stands.
Ideally, I’d like to see a “DC TV” line of comics that are promoted to high heaven as *the* way to continue to follow these characters that have hooked you from the small screen. Look at how Marvel leveraged Star Wars. They made the comics feel essential to fans of the movies, and DC should make people feel the same way about the upcoming Supergirl digital-first comic. How great would it be to see top-line DC talent scripting some of those adventures, with ads promoting those series after each episode? I realize we had the Arrow Season 2.5 comic and The Flash Season Zero, but these shows are more popular than ever now. This would be a perfect time to strike.
As for Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, there should be new number 1’s in comic shops to take advantage of the media blitz surrounding those films and its central characters (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, even Aquaman for the former, a new Suicide Squad launch and a few spin-offs for the latter). I’m not a fan of continual renumbering, but when a movie this big rolls around, an Earth One graphic novel really isn’t enough.
Bring the heroes back to Vertigo
The question continues to arise, what in the world do you do with Vertigo? With Image around, and other publishers looking to grow and act as havens for creator-owned ideas, the attractiveness of Vertigo as an option for a new property continues to slim. There was some flicker of life last SDCC when Vertigo announced their new swath of titles. But unfortunately, those books really haven’t lit up the charts in any conceivable way. Even the headlining book of the “relaunch”, Twilight Children, only moved about 14k units in November. I know the success rate for Vertigo is at a lower threshold generally than its mainline DC counterparts, but if DC insists on keeping the imprint alive perhaps moving the other direction is a better idea from a monthly sales standpoint.
What if, instead of aiming only for creator-owned properties, Vertigo instead returned to its “roots” (pun not really intended) and re-embraced characters like Swamp Thing, John Constantine, Animal Man, Doom Patrol, Kid Eternity, the very non-Sandman titles that helped form the backbone of that imprint when it began? Outside of Constantine, few of these characters are being used regularly anyway (ironically this article is getting posted the day a new Swamp Thing mini is coming out), but perhaps a slight shift over to Vertigo again, just to give a little more flexibility for mature content, may reinvigorate a few of these properties. The titles could even remain connected to the full DC Universe, as Vertigo could just mean a slightly higher rating than a separate entity altogether. The new Lucifer series could very well act as step one to an idea of this nature. The loss of these properties was one of the big blows to Vertigo, but a reconsideration of its purpose and the development of a “Bondverse” like the old “Bergerverse” of the late 80’s-early 90’s could be a step in the right direction in the short term at least, particularly if the development of a new Y: The Last Man/Preacher style hit is proving difficult in the current climate.
There are many other ideas worth pursuing (a new Shazam title, more usage of The Fourth World, less titles overall), but I’ll stop here. Whether or not DC moves in any of these directions or goes somewhere totally unexpected, you can bet I’ll continue to root for its future success and the continued prominence of my favorite superhero line. Here’s to a great 2016!
Entertainment Editor for The Beat covering film, television and the occasional comic book. His work can also be found at GeekRex.com and can be heard on the GeekRex podcast. Also, your go-to Grant Morrison/Love & Rockets/Hellboy/Legion of Super-Heroes expert.