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September 1, 2011

A Few Day-After Thoughts On DC’s New 52 And Digital Strategy

imageKudos to Dave Itzkoff at the New York Times for not doing in his article yesterday what most news organizations have done with the DC Comics' re-launch: become a promotional arm for the company. This is doubly commendable because the Times has been accused in the past -- with reason -- of publishing a constant stream of PR-assisted "news" stories about that publisher. It's not that I'm against feel-good stories. There is a feature-y side to DC's re-launch for sure. To cover only that side does everyone a disservice. This is a major publishing news story. So I was really happy to see Itzkoff at least bring up the specter of re-launch exhaustion as a significant part of his piece.

Itzkoff's article isn't wholly negative. I don't think it necessarily should have been. In fact, I'd say there are several positive aspects to what DC has done with their re-launch thus far.

I think DC's publicity campaign rounded into shape the closer they go to yesterday's launch date. It's to DC's credit -- not its detriment -- that they've roped in so many publications, news organizations and individuals to write soft pieces on the re-launch. I also think most of their recent run of messaging has been effective. I don't buy the "we had to do something" take of recent vintage for a minute, but I understand the strategic benefit: saying so casts DC in a light that contrasts them against Marvel in a way that's hard for the House Of Ideas to muster a response beyond gritting their teeth and waiting for the next, inevitable opening. DC additionally hoodwinked a lot of people into portraying their re-launch as a reboot of material from the 1930s instead of what it really is: a reset from the mid-1980s soft re-launch, buttressed by mini-recalibrations between then and now. In fact, the only DC messaging that's rung totally false to me is the "we don't care about market share" idea that's seeping through in a few statements made in various places. This seems absurd to me as they're launching 52 titles instead of 13. Overall, though, that's a pretty good hit-to-miss ratio. As mentioned before, they've also managed to reach reasonably wide with this latter phase of the ramp-up. The initial announcement for a time there seemed to distribute all pertinent news from one of their ungainly blogs.

A second positive for DC is that their initial penetration in terms of sales and attention within existing comics stores has been relatively successful. This is despite any and all caveats -- which definitely should be made -- about DC offering returnable books, the numbers compared to previous years and efforts (they're not great), and any and all incentives to help make those sales numbers happen. Solid to spectacular (for 2011) sales on top titles were not guaranteed here. One title over 200K and six over 100K given what's at stake isn't worth any of the giddy writing we've seen on the subject, but it should be noted. Those of us that have been sourpusses about the whole thing have an extra obligation to recognize that the initial orders were way better than it's feared they could have been. Combined with DC's gentle guidance of event coordination in New York City and across the country, I imagine a lot of retailers did very well Wednesday night and will do well through this weekend. While I strongly believe that a few great months aren't as necessary right now as a string of good years, a few great months -- hell, one great weekend -- will likely be a godsend to a lot of these businesses considering how poorly the industry has performed over the last several months.

I'm also encouraged by the idea that greater line-wide discipline -- or attempts at same -- are planned as part of the new era. I don't know if they'll be able to do it. They have some notorious flakes on key books, and other books have gone to largely untested talent. But I like that they're trying. Knowing when something is going to come out and having a reasonable expectation that a publisher will hit those marks, this is something that aids retailers and readers. It helps retailers in helping them avoid unbalanced weeks where there's either too much or too little product in a focused area (Batman books, say) dropped onto the stands. It also should allow some of the savvier retailers to micro-adjust their emphases towards certain sales on certain weeks. Greater discipline assists readers in that they can count on books of a certain type being in the store, as opposed to visiting a store thinking an issue is coming out and having to leave disappointed. The plan also could make Diamond more responsible for delivering material on time, because the digital availability will make a lie of something mysteriously not being out. I think those things are a subtle psychological trigger, but a powerful one for consumers. Look how many alt-comics fans stopped going to the stores once they figured out there weren't all that many alternative comic books coming out anymore. For a business that depends on habitual exposure and perpetual impulse buying, the companies have sure been sloppy about the ways to best maintain those relationships. This would seem to me a rational step towards fixing that, if they can pull it off.

A few aspects to the re-launch initially perceived as negatives might have turned into positives or become so as things get underway. The timing of the move has been in question since the start, and there are still some big issues there, but at the end of the movie summer and before the start of the NFL season a line-wide re-launch is probably going to do better in terms of media exposure than at other times of the year. And while I don't think DC used this convention season particularly well, and a lot of their panels continued to come across as hostile and/or weird, having the bulk of the summer convention season to promote the re-launch logically seems like it would be a more effective use of that time than if it had been employed to get people excited about a bunch of issues #3.

That the DM side of things has gone well thus far has diverted a lot of attention away from the digital aspects of the re-launch. I didn't totally expect this. Itzkoff's Times story, as an example, mentions digital about three graphs from story's end. Other coverage is also burying this aspect a bit in favor of rapt wonder over the event buzz and the new number ones. But you know what? I'm not sure that DC is ready for a full-court press on digital issues, regular scrutiny as to how that side of the business is doing, what it's doing well and what it's not. I think the relative success on the DM side may be a good thing for the publisher in that it allows DC some time to shape a response to initial on-line sales figures in a way that could extend their re-launch story several weeks, if not months, and allow some guidance and adjustments along the way. When you're killing it in the comics stores, and the bulk of the coverage depends on capturing the move as some sort of "event," doing well in the digital realm becomes a bonus rather than an immediate necessity.

I'm even kind of warming up to certain aspects of keeping the price point on digital where it is, and for placing the vast majority of the emphasis on digital copies of new work. I mean, I wish someone would ask DC more directly about this, and really press them for an answer, but absent that I'm beginning to see some semblance of wisdom there -- if only the accidental kind. While whether or not a prohibitive price point keeps the entire endeavor from gaining the traction it should remains a crucial issue (if not the crucial issue), there might be -- might be -- something to be said for the ability to work a variety of sales promotions via a reduced pricing strategy aimed at certain comics, particularly if you tie that kind of incentive into more significant purchases like subscriptions or clustered buying. In other words, there's no guarantee that a lot of people were going to come on board at 99 cents, so an alternate strategy might be to rope in the hardcore readers who want material at full price or near it, supplemented by more people that could be enticed into certain kinds of perceived bargain shopping including 99-cent downloads. This basic price point also might allow DC to stay where they are instead of running into problems boosting the price in a few years after everyone has become accustomed to 99-cent comics -- no one does consumer entitlement like a comics fan.

The focus on brand-new digital comics for now gives DC (and Marvel, too, really) the ultimate "sixth man" sitting on their bench, just waiting to come into the game and dunk on everybody, shattering backboards and setting people's hair on fire: a massive back-issues library, which could be discounted severely and made a part of incentive plans. That is one hell of a thing to have in reserve, and DC is smart to treat it thus far as a commodity with value rather than shoving it on-line for free and hoping for some of that sweet, long-tail action.

Now, all that said, I still have significant concerns about the re-launch in general, concerns that I think dwarf the positives. Most of those concerns are about execution. I think there are general, justified fears concerning the execution of this project long-term. And now that the conceptual period is past, and the comics are actually coming out, this re-launch is now almost entirely about execution.

imageSome of my concerns have already been placed on the table. I think the cock-up in offering retailers a digital deal many of them rejected too late to have them onboard for the re-launch is a distressing sign. Moreover, I worry that DC simply doesn't have the talent roster to pull off 52 series developing in successful fashion from 52 #1 issues. I wonder whether the leadership team of Dan DiDio, Jim Lee and Geoff Johns are the people able to provide the necessary leadership to reach all of the expressed goals of the re-launch. While they are veteran DC comics makers/editors, a big part of the re-launch is apparently about breaking with the past. Reading the two comic books that came out yesterday was fascinating in this regard. As pointed out by more astute readers of superhero comics than I am, Flashpoint was not only a sprawling, messy, slightly barbaric, fan-fiction like, dumb-assed death orgy on a lot of levels, there were basic failures of logic in the crucial fifth issue ("You caused the timeline to shift!" "How did I do all this exactly?" "Shut up. You did it! Feel bad!") of the kind that tends to bother fans when it becomes ingrained in storytelling choices. Worse, the transitional portion of the comic felt as grafted on as a musical number folded into the last 20 minutes of Schindler's List. Justice League #1 was clear in a talking-very-slow kind of way, and had pretty art and (especially) coloring, but somehow managed to a) be the debut of a new superteam that didn't feature the new superteam, b) feel like it took 90 seconds to read, c) have one female character with a speaking part (one line) and d) feature dialogue that at times felt like it was translated into a foreign language and back again.

If these comics are to break cleanly with the past, we have yet to see it in anything previewed or published beyond some surface-oriented stylistic elements. The juice of "this is how things are different than your memory of them" lasts only so long under the best of circumstances; considering the multiple times this trigger has been activated, fans likely have less patience with it than ever, and new readers won't care. Given that the bulk of the creative people involved are sturdy veterans of the field or younger creators that started their mainstream comics careers with DC, I don't know how hopeful we can be that there's really anything different in what's going to be sold. One thing that's fascinating about the rhetoric that's driven the re-launch is that the past has been disparaged as either hopeless or out of date, without anything close to a real reckoning that it's mainstream companies like DC that bear the blame for how their particular nest has been fouled. Deciding to do no harm isn't a switch one throws; it's a long process of getting at the problems and making tough changes, and even then not everyone can do it.

While I can't gauge how honest DC is being with itself, many people have some serious doubts how honest they've been with the public and press. The seemingly rushed and altered-nature feel of the ending of Flashpoint, the unexplained gap between the plan's supposed starting date and DC bringing in their #1 or #1A writer onto one of their flagship books (October to March) and delays in putting creative teams together generally, the lack of a top-line licensed property from the Warner end of things to give the project some additional outside-the-comics-shop oomph, the abrupt endings in a number of the books with plot points left unresolved, the cacophonous rumor-mongering about the veracity of specific stories offered the press, the limited spectrum of creators involved and the chaotic nature of some of the planning leading up to the re-launch, all of this suggests to many folks who've written into CR that there must be some sort of ultimatum on file -- despite no mention of this from DC, and protests to the contrary in terms of this being solely a publishing initiative.

While I'm sympathetic to the idea that maybe there's something we haven't been told, I personally don't believe that a hard ultimatum is necessarily in play. I think if 1/10 of what is out there about the mood at DC is true, someone would have leaked this. I further believe that it's perfectly within how I understand DC to function that these kinds of decisions might happen as a matter of course, up to and including an arbitrary deadline adhered to as if it were placed upon the company from on high with the oldest child of every staff person at risk if it were missed. Basically, though, while I have no idea which story might be true to what extent, neither version has flattering implications.

The run of potential complications with the re-launch seems endless. I don't know how you can look at the fact that scans of yesterday's issues were being offered by pirates hours ahead of their debut and not be alarmed by the implications for DC in trying to get their downloads business off the ground at a relatively exorbitant price point. It's slightly distressing for a company with DC's historic difficulties in treating talent that greater emphasis was placed on the editors behind this project than on any creators that aren't also executives. A September launch means the second arc and a natural, potential reader's exhaustion sets in during the harsh winter months, a terrible time for a potential dip. I still don't know how 52 new #1 comics are going to breathe in a comic shop environment better for being released in the same month than if they had been staggered out over a year. Their children's and Vertigo books seem to be slightly dying on the vine for lack of attention relative to the superhero books, and there doesn't seem to be any real reason for that, either. The number of old-time fans saying "Well, that's it for me" would seem to be cause for concern. The whole issue of whether or not downloadable comics represent the best format choice for digital comics in the first place seems to have never been raised.

I'd say I hope DC succeeds, but to be honest I'm not invested in their success. It's mostly that I don't want to see them fail. I fear the collateral damage, and a lot of nice people work for DC or count on work the publisher produces. The best outcome to my mind is that the high level on Direct Market initial orders for certain books allows for a significant reduction in orders over time but remain relatively high at least for a year, that digital uses its first few months of day-and-date and the rush of new readers just happy to have comics available this way to work out a variety of strategies to sell to all sorts of audiences on a regular basis, that some of the young guns DC employs end up as prolific and powerful as the British writer-led class of the 1980s, that the move to digital causes a matter-of-fact turn to embrace the digital market by all sorts of players, and that somehow the re-launch gives DC the room they need to seek more direct solutions for the structural problems comics still faces, all of which involve more complex issues than which superhero is wearing what kind of pants and how much pizza is doled out to hungry comics fans in line.


* a Frankenstein cover, a comic I might check out at some point down the road
* Dan DiDio
* pencils and inks from a splash page to Justice League #2 (below)



posted 10:50 am PST | Permalink

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