In all the annals of DC Comics Kremlinology there has never quite been a document like Jim Lee’s interview with The Hollywood Reporter last week. With all the turmoil since last year’s layoffs and then Dan DiDio’s departure and then the explosion of news around the pandemic, new distributors, Diamond, and all that, public statements from ANYONE at DC have been hard to come by. Lee spoke at C2E2 on a spotlight panel, but the days of semi-regular check-ins at ICv2 seemed to be over, as AT&T/WarnerMedia favored stringent omerta about their motives and business plans. The result was an information void and the anxiety that leads to.

Thus, just about every sentence of this Lee interview is the primary text for assessing just what the heck will happen at DC Comics post bloodbath.

I won’t do a line-by-line reading, since everyone else has already done that, but I will note that the very headline itself — “We Are Still in the Business of Publishing Comics” — seems a scrappy declaration in a world where the question this statement answers even has to be asked. Interviewer Borys Kit did cover the main areas in the time allotted although the fate of Black Label wasn’t touched on. I will spotlight the part where Lee talks about digital because everything I am hearing is that digital is gonna be BIG:

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.

Another tidbit that Lee dropped was that although DC Universe as a standalone streaming service is done, the bundled digital comics library will go on in some form.

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.

One recalls that Marvel has had a lot of success with its own Marvel Unlimited digital library, a pay one price, read a lot of comics service that has been around since 2007 — 13 years is a long run for ANYTHING in this business. Keeping a big chunk of content available to mine for IP and niche characters available in some form is a nice benefit. And for a company like AT&T that is all about the platform and is just figuring out that content stuff, it could be a godsend.

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Another bold claim by Lee was that Three Jokers, the long-brewing prestige series by Geoff Johns, Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson, has sold 300,000 copies of its first issue. At $7 a pop that’s $2,100,000 in retail right there and

ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO CANCEL BLACK LABEL???

Seriously.

I reached out to The Usual Suspects about whether this number was credible given DC’s new distributors and all, and was told it was. Not that Lee would make up such a gaudy number, just that, well, we’re just not used to success any more, especially in a world where The Postman is a documentary.

Anyhoo, I’m sure I’ll be referring to this Lee interview for a while, since chatty commentary by execs does not seem to be a feature of the current moment at AT&T.

Although DC’s place in what went down at WarnerMedia last week seems to be its own special thing — I would like to note that many business units were affected but ONLY DC’S LAYOFFS MADE NEWS BELOW THE EXECUTIVE LEVEL — I feel that looking at the wider picture provides some scale.This was a company-wide purge with many underlying reasons.

The Ankler had a devastating overview — it’s subscription only, but you can read the start of it here. 

Much to consider here but the first thing that leaps out at me: A lot of studios have huge spectacular failures like the launch of HBO Max (although this huge and spectacular is something of a novelty.) But I was trying to recall another time in the history of Hollywood, going back to the DeMille barn, when a failure was followed by the top people responsible actually being fired in short order. I wracked my brain and couldn’t come up with another example. (Reader submissions sought!)

Can you imagine a more dangerous precedent? Executives being held accountable for the results of their work? Not just five years later when the entire company is collapsing and they are shuffled off to a very comfortable producing deal. But actually immediately and quickly shoved out the door just because of one little cataclysmic failure in the company’s most important initiative? What is this world coming to!

So either Jason Kilar means business, or things are that dire. Or both.

AT&T was in $170 billion of debt even before the Pandemic, but you’d think launching a streaming service would be a no-brainer slam dunk and…wow, it’s a total brainer. I’m done whining about how I can’t get HBO Max on my Roku (and no breakthrough is in sight) but I tried to sign up via my AT&T phone account but they told me I needed a new unlimited plan, which comes two years after they told me I AM NOT ALLOWED TO HAVE UNLIMITED DATA PLANS any more, and I had to find the sign-up page for a free trial, but when I tried to sign up before, they didn’t even take it and…wow. Do you NOT want me to watch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reruns? I guess not.

HBO Max’s thin, halting stream is but a sign of the latest Hollywood Apocalypse, something that execs fret over every decade or so as society changes around them. Ben Smith picked over the bones of “The Week Old Hollywood Finally, Actually Died” for the NY Times, which I DO have a sub to, so you might not be able to read it. The carnage at the very tippy top was dreadful to behold.

“We’re in the brutal final scenes of Hollywood as people here knew it, as streaming investment and infrastructure take precedence,” said Janice Min, the former Hollywood Reporter co-president who did a brief stretch as an executive at the streaming platform Quibi. “Politesse and production deal kiss-offs for those at the top, and, more importantly, the financial fire hose to float a bureaucracy, seem to be disappearing. It’s like a club, already shut down by the pandemic, running out of dues to feed all its members.”

But hearken to what is coming:

With the purge of top creative executives completed, the responsibility for what’s inside HBO Max and the cable TV channels will fall largely on Casey Bloys, an HBO veteran who is now overseeing all of WarnerMedia’s entertainment content. He has, he said in a telephone interview, told his new team that he wants programming on the streaming service that will complement the buzzy, complex adult shows like “Watchmen” and “Succession” that HBO is best known for. He is pointed to straightforwardly fun titles that appeal to younger audiences like “Green Lantern” and “Gossip Girl” as models for broadening out the service. His success will depend, in part, on the company’s ability to clearly market its streaming service and perhaps more on whether AT&T is really willing to keep spending on TV like Netflix and Disney.

Green Lantern appeals to a younger crowd! Tell that to Ryan Reynolds! It should be noted that the show was put on hold by COVID-19, but hopes are indeed high.

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At THR, Kim Masters  and Lesley Goldberg had their own look at The Great Reckoning, as it’s being called, and a helpful org chart, above. I especially like the “deep tissue bruise purple” they used for the duotone.

“It’s the great reckoning now,” says Kevin Reilly, who was swept out in the WarnerMedia reorganization that rocked the industry Aug. 7. (Reilly’s unwieldy title — which said a lot about this moment — was chief content officer of HBO Max and president of TNT, TBS and truTV.) “This has been a decade-plus of the legacy system bound to quarterly profits generated by the same paradigms. We’ve only recently begun pivoting meaningfully into the new era. Now with the pandemic as an accelerant, there will not be one corner or sector that will sit with their feet up thinking, ‘I’m good!’ ”

Disney, NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia have a big stake in protecting theatrical windows, licensing fees and syndication deals that still throw off billions in revenue, while Netflix has become a behemoth that doesn’t have to concern itself with those conventions. In the TV business, Reilly says, “We’re still sitting with a Nielsen rating measuring L3 [live plus three days of delayed viewing] and they’re putting up whole shows without commercials and nobody is measuring it. How do we compete with that? All individual businesses don’t make sense anymore in their individual lanes. They all need to be aligned.”

Parallels to the comics business itself are clear, but while content is king, changing social norms make pivoting in EVERY business a necessity.

For the comics side of things, Rob Salkowitz had his own breakdown of Lee’s chat for ICv2: “DC’s Future Isn’t What It Used To Be – But at Least It Still Has One (For Now)”:

AT&T is too big to care.  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.

Salkowitz linked to a previous column that I managed to miss, called “Superhero Comics May Have Finally Met Their Kryptonite,” which basically takes every “is the pamphlet doomed?” story I’ve ever written and puts a bow on it:

I’m sure nearly everyone reading this knows the story inside and out, which is itself another part of the problem.  The comics industry, publishers, retailers, readers and collectors, all over-learned the lessons of this era and kept repeating the same formulas over and over again in the face of massive evidence that the market was changing.

DC and Marvel wasted the better part of two decades between 2000 and 2020 failing to react to these changes strategically or incrementally.  Given the choice between making an authentic play for a wider, younger audience or trotting out this year’s version of the same tired clichés, reboots and events, the Big Two constantly opted for the latter.  By the time they made some cursory efforts to adjust to the changing tastes of younger readers, they’d trained two generations of fans to resist all change and reject anything that appeared to retreat from the dominant style of over-drawn, over-written, overwrought superheroics.

Is the pamphlet doomed? My own apprehension about the longevity of the format has to do with my observations that to get better content, you needed a longer, more permanent format. The graphic novel came along to solve that problem, and now that it is the dominant format for comics in North America (and the world) I find myself among those fretting about the fate of the floppy. So yes, I’m not much different than retailers who moaned and groaned about Diamond for years and then reacted with revulsion when someone took steps to move away from Diamond.  The graphic novel won and I’m satisfied with this chunk of story. You’re not going to stop the YA graphic novel juggernaut, so maybe we should let the floppy live.

Yet the thin gruel of the deconstructed 22-page story in the crisis era has just not been a format that is primed for audience growth — but the entire infrastructure of the comics industry is built on it, from the main publishers to Diamond to comics shops, all of whom rely on Wednesday Warrior traffic to stay in business.

So you see the problem here.

Where is the pivot for serialized superhero stories? Is digital to print the answer?

I guess we’ll find out. Meanwhile, one more link, as Ritesh Babu explains the Multiverse for Shelfdust:

How many other Earths are there at this point?

Babu: Oh, a whole bunch. I mentioned the Earth-3 tease earlier. Well, in the very next year’s Justice League Of America #29-30 story Crisis On Earth-Three (1964), they finally paid off the tease and revealed a whole third Earth, where in everything was essentially the opposite of Earth-1. Instead of The Justice League, valiant team of superheroes, you had The Crime Syndicate, a group of supercriminals rampaging about in a world they held power over. You had counterparts designed for all the key characters– Superman/Ultraman, Batman/Owlman, Wonder Woman/Superwoman, Green Lantern/Power Ring, The Flash/Johnny Quick, etc.

And from there, DC just kept going, making more Earths, adding to their very weird multiverse, where in one world’s fictions, its comics, were actually another world’s reality. You could ostensibly read DC Comics in Earth-1 to find out what was up and happening and ‘catch-up’, if you will, on Earth-2. So you got Earth-X, a world where in World War II never ended and just kept going for 30 extra years and that provided a setting for The Freedom Fighters roster of characters to inhabit and operate in. You got Earth-S, the world of Billy Batson, Captain Marvel and The Marvel Family cast of characters. That provided those Fawcett ideas a whole universe to inhabit as their own and be the center of, rather than having to share the stage with the key DC figures. You also got Earth-4, the home of the Charlton Comics characters, such as The Question, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Peacemaker, Nightshade and more.

I’m sure AT&T wishes they could solve their problems by adding more Earths, ones where you can get HBO Max on the device of your choice. In this way, as in many others, comics remain a supple, nimble form of storytelling, well suited for the adventures that lie ahead.

26 COMMENTS

  1. “Do you NOT want me to watch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reruns?”

    All episodes of ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ are available for purchase on DVD, so you don’t need a streaming service to watch them.

    Besides, sitcoms like ‘The Fresh Prince’ are populist drivel. Go watch some episodes of ‘intelligent’ sitcoms like ‘Community’ or ‘Happy Endings’ instead.

  2. “By the time they made some cursory efforts to adjust to the changing tastes of younger readers, they’d trained two generations of fans to resist all change and reject anything that appeared to retreat from the dominant style of over-drawn, over-written, overwrought superheroics.”

    Amen.

  3. “Go watch some episodes of ‘intelligent’ sitcoms like ‘Community’ or ‘Happy Endings’ instead.”

    Better yet, watch some of the hundreds of good movies made before 1980 that are available on DVD but are not being streamed anywhere. And watch TCM before AT&T pulls the plug on it.

  4. Heidi,

    Here’s an overlong comment… I somehow think you are the person to answer this all perfectly :)

    I haven’t seen anyone discuss the clearing of all the troll-guy predator enablers. This is only a small facet of the story but it seems like a very positive development amidst the carnage.

    It seems like digital to collected editions is a smart move. There’s just not enough good stuff in the average 22 page floppy (with ads!) to justify the format in this price range.

    Canning DC Universe just seems penny wise and pound foolish. If The Big Co can get the same amount as a Netflix sub for keeping all the comics stuff in one place, including films and animation. But who knows what the real expenses and energy outlay is involved to maintain this sort of thing? Ultimately, who cares, we can always dig this stuff up somewhere.

    Greg Rucka’s success with The Old Guard does show that if the general public will buy a real comics series if it’s consistent, and as high quality as the adaptation was. So, maybe DC & Marvel will shrivel up and more good stuff will get created because there’s now a real market/critical apparatus/distribution for all of it?

    I can’t believe that if Phil Seuling were alive today he would be championing the remnants of 1940’s comics companies.

  5. The biggest failure at DC over the past decade was the failure to create a backlist of perennial sellers.
    Once WB legal killed off Vertigo with the new creator content, there were few reprints which stayed in print.

    Post-Crisis, you immediately got Watchmen, Camelot 3000, The Dark Knight Returns.
    Post-Flashpoint, almost nothing. The Earth-One series should have had annual volumes produced (as it contains roughly 7 months worth of pages). Hardcover, then a softcover reprint when the next hardcover is released. Eventually, a new title every month.

    The New 52… Why not follow the All-Star model? Let creators pitch their own series…similar to Elseworlds. Each title would be self-contained, Earth-20321247 or whatever. 12 issues, so you have sales data on the first GN collection. If it doesn’t work, someone else gets to try, and the issues go into inventory and someone else can return to it in a few years if there’s a good reason. Every month, 52 different experiments in storytelling. Maybe you get a Silverblade. Maybe you get a Red Son. Maybe you get ‘Mazing Man.

    Heck… do that now, digitally. If it catches fire, then you release it simultaneously.

  6. More digital to print, yes. But I also see an increase in the 100 page giants or specials that are all-new and not mixed with reprints. What do you do with characters and series that can’t support a book on its own, past 6 or 12-24 issues? Throw them into a 100-page Giant with a top-selling character serial as the lead. 5 serials for a $10 price point? Better than $5 for one serialized monthly.

  7. Salkowitz sid:

    “And it was especially unhelpful when diehard old-time fans chose to see every effort to appeal to the tastes and values of younger readers as some kind of political conspiracy – or, at best, a clumsy, unwelcome reminder that the world they knew was changing around them.”

    Amen again. As an over-50 male, I’m not interested in YA novels (or movies based on them), or comics aimed at kids, tweens and teens. But I’m glad those things are around to bring young people into this medium. It saddens me when people my age regard young-skewing comics as a left-wing political plot.

  8. Audio CD sales peaked in 2000 and have plummeted ever since. DVD sales peaked in 2008 and are down 85% since then. The future is streaming media. Are there any successful (physical) periodicals anymore? Graphic novels (especially Raina’s) are about the only physical media I can think of doing well. I think DC is on the right track — digital first, then the most popular content to graphic novels; lots of content for tweens and teens. Marvel Comics needs to do this too — its audience is too old, and it will only get worse for Marvel as its readers die off or cut back when floppies inevitably go to $5.

  9. I don’t want to see comics go, I like the paper. Then again I haven’t been able to afford them consistently for years now and reading the run downs on events have given me no incentive to try that much. I’m interested in a good story, and that’s been rare. I suppose I could go to digital, but I don’t have tablet and can’t afford one, I can’t curl up on the couch with my computer and once the power goes so does the comic. If it goes to digital only I probably won’t follow.

  10. @ Mark: I too love paper, always will. However, in a pinch, Marvel Unlimited and DC Universe look great on my iPhone X. No tablet needed, sir. Many a conference call has been made infinitely better by the presence of those two apps. Just a thought.

  11. “DVD sales peaked in 2008 and are down 85% since then. The future is streaming media.”

    Not for a classic film buff like me. Not while the big streaming services (such as Netflix and Disney Plus) emphasize recent movies, and rarely offer anything made before the ’80s.

  12. @Darren K Price: I can see that, but when I buy a comic that’s it. If I have the app on my phone it will last only as long as battery power lasts. Also the screen is smaller.

  13. I wonder, thinking about it. Perhaps all the terrible writing we’ve seen the past few years, the constant out of character actions and events that fold into each other and mean nothing, I wonder if that wasn’t the current crop of comic book writers realizing or guessing that we might be in the final days of comics and wanting to write their names in the history of the medium by writing stories that no one had ever written before. A last gasp of the great egos to proclaim for history “I was here!”, before the comics industry as it is dies or at least mutates into something un-recognizeable. It’s easy to break the windows of a building you know is condemned.

  14. Some sad comments from Mark Evanier’s blog, on the current DC:

    “The last time I was up there, it felt peopled with folks who were temps, whether they knew that or not. I also had a hard time holding it in my brain that I was in the DC offices because absolutely nothing about that company, apart from the trademarked names of some of the characters they publish, connected for me to the DC Comics I read in the fifties and sixties and worked for in the seventies and a few decades after. …

    “Once upon a time, an explosion of this sort at DC Comics would have shaken my world, even if it came at a time (like now) when I wasn’t working for them. DC was always there and relatively stable. It was my old neighborhood, a place that gave me a certain comfort, an institution with a fascinating lineage and history. Maybe it will be again but I stopped recognizing it long ago.”

  15. @Dave Peterson THIS! You nailed it with your comment. What’s happening now has been over 10 years in the making, the pandemic just sped it all up. Physical weekly comics haven’t made economic sense for these global media companies for a long time. it’s an unfortunate fact. The future is in streaming content, and with the rollout of 5G, even more so. The majority of content that people consume these days are on their phone, then smart TV, then laptop. WarnerMedia, Disney, and the rest understand this clearly.

    Combined sales of graphic novels and periodical comics in the U.S. and Canada totaled roughly $1.21 billion in 2019, according to a joint estimate produced by trade news sites ICv2 and Comichron, which was reported by Calvin Reid. And this was due to the sales of YA graphic novels, and manga, with Superhero collected editions making up less than 10% of this market.

    “Avengers: Endgame” had a worldwide gross of $2.7 Billion dollars. That’s ONE movie making double the revenue of the whole North American graphic novel and periodical comics market. According to Statista, The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the highest grossing film franchise in the world, as of April 2020, with total worldwide box office revenue of $22.55 Billion U.S. dollars. Of the 23 films in the series, the average revenue was estimated at $980.5 Million U.S. dollars per film.

    This all comes down to cold, hard, numbers. And looking at these numbers, the fate of the floppy looks rather obvious at this point. I know a number of people on here hate digital, but it’s happening.

    Print comics will still be around, but it’ll eventually be underground fare, like vinyl records. Collected editions will have more visibility, having more bang for the buck.

    Hopefully, creators will look at all of this, and adapt accordingly.

  16. @Dave Peterson: I don’t mind comics becoming underground, or just nostalgia fare at speciality shops. Perhaps then they’ll return to true creativity, instead of what we’ve been getting for far too long. I don’t hate digital, but I don’t think it’s for me. I agree Avengers made a lot of money, but all of the characters in all of the movies came from the comics. The fan base for the movies, the people who would see it no matter how good or bad, came from the comics.
    Money is the true lure of these characters for the producers, the built in audience that is already interested, it’s the old story of retail: first get them into the store and the characters with their long, long history and large group of fans both current and former are already in the store. Even if you don’t like what was done with a character in the books, you are at least curious about what will happen to that character on the screen. But if the books go and go to digital you’ll loose a lot of them. You might gain a lot and more back with digital. That is what they are hoping for.

  17. Both Disney and AT&T hate anything that’s “niche” and not hugely profitable. Alas, comic books fall into the “niche” category.

    Marvel and DC’s characters are very profitable in movies, TV shows, videogames and merchandising — just about everywhere, in fact, but monthly comic books. Hit movies and TV shows no longer boost the sales of the comics they’re based on. I don’t think that’s happened since the 1989 Batman movie.

    Even if someone saw a superhero movie and wanted to read the comics, they’d have to find a comic shop in their town. And not every town has a comic shop.

  18. Regarding “I agree Avengers made a lot of money, but all of the characters in all of the movies came from the comics. The fan base for the movies, the people who would see it no matter how good or bad, came from the comics.”:
    Anecdotal evidence to the contrary: In my workplace, a hospital, I know many people. I don’t know more than 1-2 people there who read comics. Pretty much everyone, across ethnic, age, and gender demographics, has seen the Avengers movies*..
    I think what we think of as comicbook movies are more widely seen as action/scifi blockbusters by the public. I think most people go to these movies because they like Die Hard/Mission Impossible movies, not because they like comicbooks.
    This not a phenomenon unique to comic-sourced movie material. How many movie fans identify Wizard Of Oz, Tarzan, Grapes Of Wrath, Dracula, Frankenstein as books/book characters?
    AT&T and Disney can kill the roots of most of the IPs they cultivate. All they need is the cuttings…

    *irony: some of these non-comicbook people find my claim to be a comic fan dubious in light of my lack of experience with the Hollywood comicbook movies! Argh!

  19. Seth Hollander is correct. Batman, Spider-Man and the rest are now seen more as movie and TV characters than as comic book characters. I think most adults know these characters came from comic books, but they don’t read the comics, or haven’t in a long time.

    “How many movie fans identify Wizard Of Oz, Tarzan, Grapes Of Wrath, Dracula, Frankenstein as books/book characters?”

    Actually, a lot of movie fans know their book roots. Film buffs tend to be book readers, and they like more than one genre — unlike comic book fans, who tend to like only one genre (superheroes). If comics fans explore any other genre, it’s usually sci-fi or fantasy.

  20. Maybe that’s the reason for all of the stunt and crossovers that marvel has been doing. Maybe they are just market testing for future movies? If the plot is well received they have a built in audience for the next movie based on that plot.

  21. I don’t know how comic shops are coping right now. Every week new books are either late or missing a bunch of stuff in the order. I try to special order something from the diamond catalog (that i could easily get on amazon in a day or two for cheaper) and it takes a few weeks minimum to get it and the shop has no idea on how long it’ll be. At a certain point, customers are gonna stop being understanding and just move on quietly. I feel that this will kill the floppy faster than any executive and managerial changes.

  22. to echo some other sentiments. Corporate America doesn’t really care if something makes 25% profit esp when its under a million. They only care about margins and about how it scales…wether or not something has room to grow and expand a market and margins. My old company looked at one of their oldest profitable products, realized it had no more room to grow, so they committed to keep it around with no new investment or resources until it starts to lose money and then kill it off.

    That’s how you phase something out of the portfolio.

  23. I don’t think the eventual death of the floppy was hard to predict. I’m finding it easier to wait a few months, especially with mini-series, to get the TPB, actually cheaper than buying the individual issues. Plus, throw in the increasing delays we see in the ‘event’ titles, I’m also discovering less interest in both super-heroes and the input of the Big Two. I’m only getting a handful of Marvel titles (it seems less each month) and it’s the Black Label books that I’m picking up from DC, so who knows.

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