Home Publishers DC The Year Ahead: Ideas for an ailing DC in 2016

The Year Ahead: Ideas for an ailing DC in 2016

19

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.


DC “Unlimited”

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:

 

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!

19 COMMENTS

  1. Great piece, I really liked what you said about the live action tv dc stuff. But then I thought about that Arrow comic with the show runners, and how that didn’t really work. Maybe the talent just wasn’t right. If they were up for it, sticking Valentine and some of those other creators you mentioned and getting cohesion ‘like Marvel Star Wars cohesion’ for that line would be a thing of beauty. But, if you were to do that, would you detach it from continuity?

  2. Another issue, especially when it comes to initiatives and new readers, is the delivery system/venue/format. Some people just don’t want monthly drips of a story or to collect comics they just want to read stories. There are a whole world of publishers and creators making those connections now. D

  3. These are all great ideas but I’m particularly interested in the Vertigo one. I think the push they made at the end of 2015 is falling pretty flat and I’m guessing only two of those books will have any sort of lasting traction (Sheriff of Babylon and Unfollow). It’s really hard to see what kind of identity Vertigo can have now that Image is drinking their milkshake. I mean, I’m all for them putting out original, mature-reader works – especially if there is something in it for the creators – but going back to being a place for edgy, sophisticated mature-readers stories about weird DCU characters might be an ultimately more successful and brandable route for them to go.

  4. DC needs to create some new characters, and not just superheroes., instead of reviving old series. I assume this is supposed to appeal to readers’ nostalgia, but there aren’t enough 50-something Baby Boomers and 40-something Gen X’ers still reading their comics to make this work. Create some new characters for the new readers.

    “Steal a big name”: DC surged in the ’80s by “stealing” Frank Miller, John Byrne and other popular Marvel creators. Of course, they were helped by Jim Shooter’s management style, which led so many writers and artists to flee Marvel.

  5. Question was the goal of this article how DC could sell more comics?

    Because of it was only DC Unlimited is the only idea that fits that idea.

    Tie in books to tv shows and cartoons don’t sell.

    Vertigo comics featuring Constantine don’t sell.

    Books written by minority writers like Orlando, Valentine, Tynion, Doyle don’t sell.

    Diverse types of books like Omega Men, Black Canary, Midnighter, Prez don’t sell.

    Short of WB magically getting the rights to Star Wars DC isn’t going to be selling comics.

  6. I agree with Robert Mayland above. I’m not saying that DC couldn’t use a pretty hefty dose of diversity I think that the idea that somehow hiring someone of color will produce a comic book that is not only a) great and innovative and b) everyone of color will automatically read it..It’s not only demonstrably wrong (see the rest of the Top 10 comics on the list) but it’s also mildly condescending tbh.

    “At the same time, it’s possible that they misjudged how big the market actually is for this kind of approach to their heroes.”

    THIS. I’m sorry but it’s quite clear that Tumblr and its ilk are basically the very vocal minority (no pun intended). I agree with you that Batgirling isn’t bad but, as you said, you can’t try to build the undercard with it simply because there isn’t that much of a demand for it and no amount of promotion would help that. Also, while I’m spouting anecdotes I have a sinking suspicion that this same demographic they’re so desperately trying to court is of the same generational mindset that most of their media should be free or illegally downloaded. Obviously this is unprovable conjecture but we’re all just spitballing here anyway.

    The rest is SPOT. ON. Especially the DC Unlimited idea. I’m sorry but who on Earth would pay $3.99 a pop for a DRM digital copy of a comic that costs the company next to nothing to produce?

    Finally, before I step off my soapbox I’d like to add the idea that perhaps DC should shift into more of a manga approach and begin selling longer books at more affordable prices. No matter how you cut it, 4 bucks for an 8 minute read that won’t be continued for 30 more days just isn’t a good bargain. Especially in these days of super decompressed storytelling.

  7. Everything having to do with sales, or (perhaps more importantly with the nature of a non-returnable Direct Market) the *perception* of sales really actually at the end of the day comes down to “is it any good?”

    So any essay that doesn’t begin with editorial (and/or institutional) direction is, probably, missing the point.

    -B

  8. Hi Brian,

    Maybe, but I’m not privy to actual conversations that occur regarding creative directions for DC’s various lines other than hearsay. Frankly, as of right now, I don’t know what DC’s editorial direction even is, if you were to really ask me. Perhaps you have better insight?

    I sure hope no one ever actually makes the argument that good sales = good comics, cause there’s a whole lotta not very strong (IMO) X-Men comics that would disprove that thesis right quick.

  9. But Brian – some of the DC You books are amazingly good and yet don’t sell. So material being “good” is not the answer. If they’re producing good material but it isn’t what the comics fans who walk into the store every week want, then their marketshare will continue to drop. And if they’re producing good material but the retailers and/or regular subscribers don’t have any faith in it then it won’t get on the shelves anyway and the people walking in to try it out won’t see it.

    DC needs to decide if they want to be a comic book company anymore or not. If they don’t, then their dwindling marketshare in the comics market doesn’t matter at all and they can just continue to do what they’re doing until they reach the point where they’re not making enough money on the comics publishing to cover the overhead. At which point they can shut it down or license their characters out to another company to publish. But if DCE doesn’t really care one way or the other about publishing comics anymore and really want to be a brand management company, then maybe they just get as much money as they can out of the market for the next few years and shut it down when the profits start to being too small to care about.

    If they want to be a comics company then they need to start sucking up to the retailers again. DC only gets their stuff on the shelves when they stroke the retailers a lot because the retailers in the business continue to view Marvel as their cash cow and DC as the also-ran. So if they want to be a comics publisher they should be bribing the retailers more heavily than Marvel does – do things like make more books returnable for longer to get retailers to stock more on the shelves and take more chances, or create some incentives for retailers to stock a diverse selection of titles rather than incentivizing buying dozens (or more) of extra copies of a single title to get those variant covers they sell on eBay. It may not be “fair” that they need to suck up to retailers more than Marvel does to get their books promoted, but business ain’t fair and if Marvel is doing that much better sales wise then its time to make some drastic interventions.

    If they can’t afford to do that, and still want to publish something like “comics” in house then the other choice would be to give up on the month-to-month Direct Market and push heavily into the digital realm. Cut their printing costs dramatically by giving up on floppies entirely and switching to a digital to collection pipeline that would get their books on the bookshelves faster and forget about the monthly magazine format entirely. it would mean essentially giving up on the direct market, but with their marketshare dwindling as rapidly as it has this year the DM might just give up on them if they don’t do something drastic.

    But they need to do something dramatic to convince readers and retailers that they’re not in a death spiral at this point. The reboot and the jump back to 90s style comics goosed their sales for a while on the nostalgia wave, but it didn’t work for long and its not going to work again. They need to do some more fundamental things than just make “good comics” to get back where they need to be or else they’re going to leave the market one way or another.

  10. Robert,

    “Tie in books to tv shows and cartoons don’t sell”

    Maybe, maybe not. The current set of books DC releases are never adequately promoted for the tv viewer, or given creative teams that general interest the LCS customer. But, do both of those things and perhaps they will move units. They just announced a “Dark Archer” comic co-written by John Barrowman. But it’s probably going to be so underpromoted and hidden in their Comixology lineup, it’ll barely make a blip on the radar.

    I know Buffy tie-in comics really aren’t all that comparable given that it was considered the “official continuation of the show”, but that first issue sold 90k copies. There’s an audience out there for this kind of stuff provided you hit the right buttons.

    “Vertigo comics featuring Constantine don’t sell.”

    Certainly not issue 200-300 something, which is how Hellblazer was basically left for the entrenched reader. But I think it’s hard to argue that an IP that a reader recognizes, starting at issue 1, wouldn’t sell better than a creator owned one that they don’t, barring there being a superstar creative team in question (and even then, it might not sell all that well, again see: Twilight Children).

  11. “Good comics” to an individual vs to a mass audience are not the same comic … DCYou tried to appeal to individual tastes so much, that it lost the thread of the general buying public. That’s fine for a a few titles, but when you do that line-wide you get exactly the sales numbers you’re seeing now – dismal. A strong mass-appeal core of titles can support some more quirky and fringe comics; but it doesn’t work in reverse. DC is never going to “batgirl” the big three or The Justice League – so build out your line with top creators with proven sales records I. The center based on those classic DC properties and then surround that with new voices and diverse titles that can last a little longer and have more time to build audiences because your center line sales are stronger and hold those titles up.
    DC has tried to do both with mediocre talent, poor editorial cohesion and direction, and with no long term planning for far too long.
    Compare the sales numbers of their books last month to the same month in 2006 and the numbers are absolutely shocking and appalling. Anyone at WB not screaming at DC editorial to go back to their core pre-52 model is not counting the beans correctly.
    I want a diverse line and I want to bring in new readers, but new readers don’t pick up 30 titles a month across the whole line – they read a title or two that “speak” to them … These aren’t classic LCS shoppers, they’re ITunes buy a song not an album customers.

  12. This too is the way forward :
    ” Cut their printing costs dramatically by giving up on floppies entirely and switching to a digital to collection pipeline that would get their books on the bookshelves faster and forget about the monthly magazine format entirely. it would mean essentially giving up on the direct market, but with their marketshare dwindling as rapidly as it has this year the DM might just give up on them if they don’t do something drastic.”

  13. It does seem like DC has burned bridges with retailers and readers and creators to the extent that being a bag of dicks like Marvel and acting like God’s gift to the Direct Market with renumbering/restarting titles and double-shipping isn’t going to work. DC doesn’t get to do what Marvel does. And DC doesn’t have Star Wars.

    The DC Unlimited idea seems like a no-brainer.

    Dan Didio doesn’t strike me as having very good instincts as these things go. If he were an NFL coach he’d be buried in someone’s staff after multiple failed stints being a head coach. Bob Harras and Eddie Berganza are guys that seem like they have to hide. Jim Lee’s good for his art but I don’t see how his business acumen, celebrity or even his Wildstorm cache amount to anything anymore, if they ever did. Cleaning house might be the next big move to get people to take another look at what DC is doing. With these folks in charge it feels really easy to just ignore whatever DC is doing.

    Quite a pickle.

  14. “Frankly, as of right now, I don’t know what DC’s editorial direction even is, if you were to really ask me. Perhaps you have better insight? ”

    Oh, sure, I think that DC”s edito….

    “I sure hope no one ever actually makes the argument that good sales = good comics”

    Probably not in the macro market, but I think I would argue that directionless comics are going to yield bad sales.

    -B

  15. Or my own personal wish: We discover everything that has happened in the DCU since CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS #1 has just been a simulation run on Superman’s computer in his Fortress of Solitude. Suitably shaken by the results, he and best friend Batman take off to go nab Luther and the Joker again during their latest crime spree.

  16. DC needs to figure out how to put together a product mix that satisfies its wide range of buyers: some people collect variants, and bag and board their collectables. Another wants to read comics on their device, not on paper. Another wants edgy, cool new indie stuff from DC Vertigo. Others want a new comic that is like the comics they used to read when they were younger.
    The product mix is going to be a mixed bag. The other key is to give each buyer the perception that they are getting their money’s worth. best of luck, I haven’t bought a DC book in years, and I fall in to several of those categories.

  17. The Nu52 was not built to last because it was not an act of editorial genius with an endgame of a new golden era of magnificent new content; it was an act of sheer desperation designed to beat Marvel at publishing and hopefully build a sustainable level of sales for floppies.

    Harley Quinn? Selling well before Nu52 and would’ve hit current levels no matter what. Batman reboot? What reboot? Except for lines on costume and tweaks to supporting cast, that book didn’t change. JLA; always works if you have decent (not great) content. Wonder Woman and Superman should always work too. they don’t have to have GREAT content, just above average content.

    Same with Arrow, Supergirl and Flash. If you have teen-friendly TV, you ought to have moderately successful comics featuring those characters; and again, they only need to be good, not great. And let;s be clear, if they were great, that’s a huge plus..

    Yet the only books really working are Bat-books (as evidenced by the growing number of them), and they are on a huge slide.

    Vertigo launch was a bust. Seemed like too many books at once and no promotion. Little editorial direction other than “could this be a TV show”?, which is ironic, since they cancelled iZombie before it became the only successful Vertigo TV show.

    And they’ve really failed to capitalize on the success of their shows. Supergirl being the most glowing example.

    Which really gets to the whole issue.- editorial is lame. This company has stunk up the racks since the first 52 series. I can count on one hand the number of worthwhile DC books.

    Marketing is worse (although hard to put all blame on them when every idea editorial has is a re-vamp of something that worked once a long time ago). Diane Nelson is not long for her role i think, and she’s been protecting DiDio & Lee (& Johns) from corporate wrath. The truth is; they ALL need to go and they need to find a new Bob wayne..

    PS: I’d love a DCU app, but it might remind readers they used to publish some pretty good stuff by comparison to the current slop..

    PPS: i find it disturbing to no end Marvel has taken the same “new universe” approach. I sense they’re now so beholden to their corporate owners, they must engage in the same type of editorial nonsense that put DC where it is, just for a quick bump in sales.

    PPS: Even if you value these characters as nothing more than copyrights, respect the qualities of the characters that made them valuable copyrights. BvS looks to shit on all of that.

Comments are closed.

Exit mobile version