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.
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???
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.
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.