o “Nothing Dramatically Broken at DC Comics”

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.

o “OMG What’s Gonna Happen Next?!”

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.

o “Driddils’s Doorway”

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.

Marc-Oliver Frisch writes about comics at his weblog and at Comicgate. You can also follow him on Twitter.


  1. The thing that amazes me about “52” is that I didn’t read it weekly – I had moved to trade collections a few years before it came out and I wasn’t making weekly pilgrimages anymore. Consequently I passed over it until it was out in trade.

    And it reads fairly awesomely as a trade collection. I can imagine what the week-to-week anticipation might have been like, but as a final collected product it mostly sings (with a few weak ending points, but overall really well done). Countdown, in contrast, was just such a chore to read in collection that I didn’t get past volume 2.

    The fact that they were able to make a series that worked so well as a “DVD collection” and as a weekly series is just impressive. You’d think that they might look back at how they did it and try to re-create it. But I suspect it wasn’t a formula that made it work – I think it was some really creative people working collaboratively with an editor who was working his ass off to make it all come together.

  2. 52 worked because it was more or less self-contained. I really enjoyed reading it as it came out. But DC seeing a cash cow with the idea of weekly books released Countdown as being more of an advertisement for other titles. Meaning, you needed to pick up a large number of books to get the full story. It backfired.

    I still believe the weekly book could work well, like 52. Just needs the right story to tell.

  3. A recent weekly comic, which is getting almost no press, is Marvel’s “1 Month 2 Live”.


    The five-issue mini-series features a banker who, amazingly, gains superpowers from radioactive medical waste, but also an incurable cancer. With the clock ticking, he decides to make the world a better place.

    Given the current market, I would like to see all mini-series published in weekly installments. Is there an economic necessity to publishing a self-contained story in monthly installments (aside from newsstand sales)?

    An ongoing series, or a mini-series produced with the clock ticking like 52, seems like madness. If it’s a family crossover, such as the Death of Superman, or a mega-event, like Secret Wars II, then the production is more likely to succeed. Of course, the various titles need to introduce the story, and not disrupt ongoing storylines.

    With a yearly weekly series such as 52, retailers need to know that the collections will not be released until after the completion of the series. This allows them to sell the back issues as latecomers discover the amazing story being told, and it encourages trade-waiters to buy the single issues.

  4. If I remember correctly, the writers behind 52 said it was so draining mentally that they would never want to do something like that again. It’s not really a model that’s so easy to emulate in creating success, especially after the handful of creators on the project that were firing on all cylinders.

  5. With respect to the sales numbers, I think what’s missed is how bad the shape of business is for prose novels. I’m not saying comics are going to stop being made, but it’s hardly a “fat bird.”

    Astro City is a damn good comic, though. No matter what it sells, I wish it sold more.

    But good column all the same. I always enjoy reading your opinions.

  6. 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.”

    Uh what color would they turn? The top 20 hardcover bestsellers are five times the price and sell half as many books. Unless I failed grade 2 math, that means that books are way more profitable in the top 20 than comics in the top 20.

  7. I’ll ditto what Chris Hero said. Saying that the prose book industry would like the sales of comic book collections is kind of like saying that a drowning man is fine compared to the man who has already started going under.

    Re-read what Busiek had to say. The most respected and popular comic book writers in the industry sell about as well as mid-list prose writers in the book market. While the the top 20% of comic book writers aren’t doing nearly as well as the top 20% as prose fiction writers, they’re still doing better than most others.

    And that should tell you just how badly both industries are doing right now.

  8. >> Re-read what Busiek had to say. The most respected and popular comic book writers in the industry sell about as well as mid-list prose writers in the book market >>

    Uh, no. I said I’m doing markedly better than mid-list prose writers. And I’m certainly not the most popular comics writer out there.


  9. I’m digging Marvel’s idea of month long weekly books. After hearing Heralds was solid (I’ll get it eventually) I gave One Month To Live a shot and was very happy with my choice. And it has a good thematic reason for the weekly release (we’re living out the month with him). So good on Marvel.

    Brightest Day I had to give up on after #3 and that was bi-weekly. It seems that to make it a 26 issues series and not a seven issue, they just decided to make it four times as slow. It’ll read well as a cheap trade but it’s very unsatisfying in bi-weekly installments.

    I hear good things about Justice League Generation Lost. Notably, that it should be THE Justice League book.

  10. What made 52 work is what made it unrepeatable. It was a *self-contained* story that had an entire universe to itself, whose purpose was to *change* things from A to B then end. It needed the “One Year Later” stunt to make a space for it and to give it a mandate. The fact that it was weekly fit nicely, in terms of adding to the anticipation, but points I highlighted were key. In contrast, Countdown was completely *continuity-tied*, and Trinity had to restore the *status quo* at the end.

  11. Comparing comics sales numbers to sales of novels is only justifiable if the material sold is comparable. It’s not.

    Superhero comics’ endless serials are more like soap operas than anything else. Many fans are attracted to characters, and watch the soaps or read the comics to see the characters do their things. For those fans, whoever writes the comics that their faves appear in matters as little as the names of the scriptwriters for the soaps:

    Digest: There has been a lot of turnaround among the scriptwriters. Is that because of burnout?

    Passanante: Any job, there’s a sort of repetition to it, I guess. I’ve never written scripts, but in a way, you’re a little isolated. You’re not in the room, you’re not hearing conversation. I’ve heard script- writers tell me that there’s a frustration to that. I don’t know about burnout. Soap opera, in general, is an amazing opportunity for burnout because we write so much [laughs]! I prefer to look at it as a great opportunity for Type A personalities to thrive.

    Digest: How do you get new writers? Is it just a matter of calling people you know or do you recruit?

    Passanante: It’s two things at once: It’s always important to bring new people in to refresh the form, but it’s also great to have people who are total professionals and have a history with the show and the characters’ voices. So there’s a little bit of rotation that goes on.

    They’ll accept obvious repetition in plot material and character bits as long as their faves look good going through the motions.

    Novels provide close-ended reading experiences. If someone loves reading romances, she can choose from thousands of romances in various subgenres, and trust that the characters and various details in each novel will differ, even if there are general similarities. Anne M. Marble wrote:

    If you’re interested in writing a particular type of romance, be sure to read a wide variety of books in that subgenre. You don’t want to tread over ground that has been covered before — unless you can cover that ground with new growth.

    That’s advice practically everyone who wants to be a professional writer gets: Don’t repeat yourself or others’ work obviously.

    Writers are also routinely advised to learn how to write well and to develop their own styles before trying to write for profit. If the only motive for writing is to earn money, the only sense of what’s good that the would-be writer will have will be that what sells is good, and what sells the best must be the best. Literary fiction wouldn’t even exist if sales defined what was good.

    Unless someone is prepared to argue that writing close-ended stories is bad practice, and that writers generally should plan to write series as soon as a novel is successful, because series enthusiasts will buy more books than other readers will, Ellis’s comparison of numbers is meaningless.


  12. Just to note — that “lolly lolly lolly” post above isn’t me, but an impostor. Much as I support the proper understanding of adverbs.

    Steve Stahl, as usual, is insisting on his own idiosyncratic context for someone else’s comments, insisting that it’s the only possible one, to the point where he’s determined that the other person was saying something he never actually said, and using it for his usual repetitious putdown of things he doesn’t care for regardless of whether they came up in the discussion at all or are relevant to what was being said. So it goes.


  13. Todd:

    “What made 52 work is what made it unrepeatable. It was a *self-contained* story that had an entire universe to itself, whose purpose was to *change* things from A to B then end.”

    I disagree. 52 used the universe as a backdrop, certainly, but the universe-changing stuff was by no means essential to its appeal as a story.

    I couldn’t care — or know — less about the 52 Earths, and I’m not invested in what’s going on in the DC Universe. Like Jer above, I read 52 about a year after its initial publication, when the paperbacks were out. I didn’t follow any other DC Universe books at the time, and I was unfamiliar with most of the characters.

    What 52 did — and what any story needs to do — to convince me I want to keep reading is, it got me invested in the characters and their quests, right from issue #1. Who are these people? What do they want? How do their struggles speak to the wider human concerns I have to face as a human being living on this planet?

    52 addressed those questions in a fashion that was appealing to someone like me, who’s not terribly familiar with the DC Universe but just wants to read a good story. I even enjoyed the richness of the larger DCU backdrop of the series. It was a detail that made the world seem real, even if a detail and a backdrop was all it was to me. It never overshadowed Montoya’s quest, or Ralph Dibny’s quest, or Steele’s quest. It supported them.

    What it takes to do another story “like 52” is to get people who know what they are doing, give them characters they can actually tell stories with without having to worry about what’s going on in 17 other titles, and generally leave them alone to do their job. It’s not easy, but telling a good story is almost never easy. It’s doable.

  14. not saying its the case …not one bit, but when certain publishers think a mini series will die a slow death, the best way to sell it is to make it weekly…the retailers cannot order it based on sales and are forced to order it across the board at a better number than if it was monthly and dying… and put in the order all at once.

  15. Geoff Johns didn’t start on JSA until issue 5. Robinson and Goyer for the first four.

    Trish Mullvhill (sp?) was signed on for comments on my computer. How odd, so I guess it’s not just Kurt who could be impostored.

  16. “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.”

    Couldn’t agree more

  17. “It’s clear from their statements that the DC Comics of 2010 is not the DC Comics of 2004…”

    I’ll say. When the ONLY regular monthly title that has maintained any kind of consistent quality over that entire time frame is FABLES – I’d say that DC is in serious need of some righteous cleansing.

  18. It’s weird, I tried 52 for four weeks before returning the issues for exchange, gave Trinity nearly 20 issues before giving up, skipped Countdown altogether, and now just gave up on Brightest Day. I just find that basically the weekly series speeds up the realization that I’m reading something I eventually don’t give a crap about.