Yesterday the comics world was rocked by a purportedly well sourced rumour that DC would be shutting down its Vertigo imprint after 26 years of publishing some of the medium’s most beloved titles and generally making comics a better, smarter place.
While shocking, this news was still not exactly surprising given all the upheaval that DC has undergone in recent months. So far we’ve seen the Bat-Dingus crisis that saw the whole adult-oriented Black Label imprint almost killed completely; a wholesale reorganization with three VPs laid off; a reduction in the publishing line; and most recently, Tom King’s long brewing plans for Batman suddenly becoming too hot to handle.
And over at Vertigo, it was one problem after another with the latest relaunch. Allegations of sexual misconduct against Eric Esquivel left the last two issues of Border Town unpublished. A book with controversial religious themes, Second Coming, was cancelled entirely (and picked up by Ahoy Comics.) I’m told that the announced book Safe Sex by Tina Horn and Mike Dowling has content that is just not publishable under the current crack down on adult content.
Meanwhile, DC has been pumping energy into its kids links Zoom and Ink, including panels at BookCon and even a first ever booth at Book Expo America.
Despite the penis problems, Black Label seems to have scraped by, as its own BookCon panel revealed. However I’m told all “adult” content is being heavily scrutinized and in many cases PG-ified.
So amidst all that, the idea that Vertigo would be shut down is not as shocking as it once might have been – but it’s still an emotional stunner given the impact Vertigo has had on comics and culture at large.
However, I’m told by various insiders that the story is not as cut and dried as rumors make it out to be. In fact, there’s a lot of confusion over exactly what is happening. What I’m hearing (which is subject to change) is that the Vertigo brand – which was to have seen a big relaunch at San Diego, the latest in a long series of relaunches – will be put on hiatus and projects shifted to Black Label. But I’m also told that could change. I’m also hearing that the layoffs at DC are not over. In fact, there could be some huge ones yet to come.
Begin the speculation: Let’s back up a minute to the Bookscan report Brian Hibbs wrote up a few weeks back. It was a very, very long piece so you may have missed this:
Our #8 publisher in the Top 750 is DC Entertainment.
This is, frankly, shocking to me. For the first decade-plus I have been doing these charts, DC’s attention to backlist had naturally rendered them the #1 publisher…. With a bullet! And even when, the last few years, they lost the #1 spot to Scholastic, they were still majorly, significantly always at least #2.
2018 is pretty ugly in the book stores for DC – they haven’t had this tragic of a performance since 2005. And I’m still trying to wrap my head around it from 20,000 feet.
Now, there’s no doubt that the rebranding from “New 52” to “Rebirth” simply did not work in the mid-term – it does not appear that the “civilian” audience understood why continuity was being “reset” again so quickly. And while the “Rebirth” GN numbers were OK to start, they very very quickly bombed out. Here’s an example: the first “Rebirth” “Harley Quinn” launched at 13k in 2017. In 2018, it sold just 1818 copies. Kind of shockingly, v1 of the “New 52” “Harley” outsold it at 1894 copies. You can see this over and over again down the line: “Rebirth” “Batman” v1 sold 24k in 2017, and just over 5600 copies in 2018. “Nightwing” v1 sold 12k in 2017, down to 3k in 2018. In fact, not a single “Rebirth” branded book passes 10k in 2018, and it completely slaughtered the sales of the “New 52” editions as well.
Just to give this a number, DC’s book sales in book stores declined year over year like so:
The number of titles in the second column are titles in the Top 750 (DC published way more than 47 trades in 2018). But from these number you can see why they cut back on their collected editions – sales were tumbling over all.
You can also see why they are spending $500,000 on marketing the Zoom and Ink lines that are aimed at young readers. (Source).
I couldn’t find a figure for the Black Label marketing budget, but they put a lot of marketing oomph behind Sean Gordon Murphy’s Batman White Knight, which was indeed a solid hit in bookstores and comics shops.
At the Diamond Retailer summit a few weeks ago, DC’s vp of Sales, Nancy Spears, assured retailers the “DC remains committed to the direct sales market.” I’m sure that is true: given this sales slump, DC has no reason to abandon 2000 shops that are dedicated to selling their product on a nonreturnable basis.
However, just what will that product be? The industry is shifting inexorably towards comics for younger readers, and DC has seen that handwriting on that particular wall.
I’ll save my Vertigo in memorium for when whatever is happening is official, but for now: Vertigo changed the face of comics, and no matter what happens from here on out it will remain one of the greatest creative blossomings the medium ever saw, led by visionary editors including founder Karen Berger, Tom Peyer, Stuart Moore, Shelly Bond, Axel Alonso, Will Dennis, Mark Doyle and many more. (I don’t mean to slight anyone – there’s actually a book about all this, The Vertigo Encyclopedia, although it came out in 2008.) And the books in its library continue to fuel that all important media, from Swamp Thing to the upcoming movie The Kitchen, starring Elizabeth Moss, Tiffiny Hadish, Melissa McCarthy and Domhnall Gleason, based on the Vertigo mini by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle.
Over the years, Vertigo was the backlist champion for DC’s book sales. Sandman of course, but also books by Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, Fables, Y the Last Man, American Vampire, and so on. It also became the home for books from various abandoned imprints that remained successful. Transmetropolitan started at the SF Helix line, but moved over to Vertigo. Watchmen and V for Vendetta eventually got the Vertigo label on their spines. The Road to Perdition and A History of Violence, the basis of well-regarded films, were put out under the obscure Paradox line, but reprinted under Vertigo.
But a funny thing happened recently. Watchmen and The Dark Knight got moved over to the Black Label brand, along with a bunch of perennial DCU related titles. Only a very few Vertigo titles seemed appropriate for the DCU themed Black Label, but Black Orchid, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, also got moved over. DC is clearly putting its branding for adults behind this imprint, and maybe that doesn’t leave that much room for Vertigo. It’s not yet clear just what Black Label will pick up from this Vertigo hiatus/shuttering, or whether creator-driven titles can be part of it. Vertigo’s brand has had its ups and downs over the years, but with all the foundational editors long gone, a new brand, created by people still at the company, seems to be getting more attention.
But back to the question posed by this post’s title. From what I’m hearing, plans at DC can change very quickly. Whenever people talk about what’s happening, oversized personalities like WB’s President, Warner Bros. Global Brands and Experiences Pam Lifford, and DC publisher Dan DiDio inevitably get mentioned in the very first sentence. And looming over all, the general corporate restructuring brought on by AT&T’s acquisition of Warners. There are many pieces in motion.
We’ll be reporting more details as they emerge (and as always welcome any news tips right here), but I can tell you one thing: the upheaval is not over at DC.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.