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October 11, 2011

Nine Thoughts On Advantages DC Comics May Have Moving Forward

imageDC Comics has entered into the second month of its New 52 publishing initiative in relatively quiet fashion. The first month was a resounding success comic-to-comic, for shops, and in the media. There was a slight backlash in terms of a heated, on-line conversation about the depiction of female characters, the reporting of numbers for the market overall that while positive don't match the powerful results for individual comics, and the protests of perplexed readers that prefer other types of comics wondering out loud why so much time is being spent on these kinds of comics in the first place during yet another extremely bountiful Fall season for the art form.

In other words, with the story at a brief lull and a significant portion of the comics-reading audience sick of hearing about it, I thought this a perfect time to present some thoughts on potential advantages the publishing company might enjoy moving forward.

1. The Direct Market Functions In Many Ways As A Market Of Attrition
The Direct Market for serial comic books has something in common with the newspaper client market for comic strips. It can take a long time for the comics that benefit from a big sales splash in either market to slip from high numbers to low ones. Granted, this is less true now than it was in the past. Yet even with a slightly more volatile market, there should be plenty of time for DC to make editorial adjustments and settle into any long-term strategies it wish to employ with its serial books before numbers go back down to pre-New 52 levels. There's little reason to think that the numbers won't stay high for comics shops in the short-term even if by some strange twist of fate zero readers stick around for any of the books in the long-term.

A related effect worth considering is that many Direct Market stores should now be fully invested in what DC is doing, the same way they seize on a hot crossover event or the way many did well with Image Comics offerings 20 years ago. Individual accounts are likely to see it as being in their best interest to give every possible consideration to anything that sustains, replicates or recalls that recent burst of DC Comics high sales. The power of that network of shops to deliver serial superhero product to fans was somewhat underestimated during the ramp-up. It shouldn't be ever again.

2. The Bookstore Arm At DC Has Been The Higher Functioning Arm For Years Now, And Has Yet To Take Its First Shot At This Material
This one should be sort of self-explanatory. DC has enjoyed a very successful book and trades program for several years now, to the point that it's become a lazy cliche of comics analysis: Marvel does well with serial comics, and DC makes up for that with the strong bookstore placement. Those elements of DC and their distribution partners will get their shot at having this new, highly publicized, and to a certain extent pre-sold material enter into the bookstore marketplace in early 2012. It's always good to have a heavy hitter in reserve.

You're not likely to see whatever modest collector's boost came into play in the Direct Market in September, and the excitement level in terms of whatever interest there was in unveiling the general DC Universe "storyline" won't be there to the same degree. Still, conventional wisdom says that the bookstore market is increasingly its own market. DC's distributors will be able to head into this first round of offerings with the memory of DC's successful Direct Market serial comics launch and the resulting press still reasonably fresh on everyone's mind. In the long term, this may become the more important market for a lot of these properties, and DC stands more ready than a lot of companies to facilitate that.

image3. DC Has Enough Institutional Memory Not To Take Any Forthcoming Risks Lightly
One thing to remember about selling a lot of serial comic books through the Direct Market in a short period is that such success carries with it the risk of supply at some point outstripping demand. Dan DiDio, Jim Lee and Geoff Johns probably don't have a solid businessmen's memories of the black and white boom/bust period -- Johns was probably 11 by the time Scott Rosenberg launched his third company -- but I bet Bob Wayne (at DC since the mid-'80s and a retailer before that) and Bob Harras (an editor at Marvel starting in 1983) remember it and the volatile early '90s period that followed in direct and relatable fashion. (Lee also has direct experience with those early '90s, although from the wrong side of responsible publishing behavior.)

There are structural reasons to believe the market couldn't be anywhere close to the risky position it was in 25 years ago or in similar times in the '90s or since. DC is the antithesis of a fly-by-night company. There are ordering adjustment opportunities now, and there aren't as many retailer accounts in their near-infancy or still existing in a state of Edenic innocence as there were 20-25 years ago. Any possible impulse to make a quick killing as might happen with a newer company likely isn't going to happen at DC the way they're currently constituted, and I think that stability and wisdom will help them if only by eliminating potential for great harm.

4. DC's Successful DM Launch May Allow For A More Truthful Appraisal Of What Went Wrong
This may be a stretch, but there's a chance that now that things are going well with DC there can be a more rigorous examination of the general market conditions and publishing strategies that turned the once relatively vigorous if sometimes moody Direct Market into a sad, heavyset man suffering hypoglycemic shock and in desperate need of 52 cans of Mountain Dew.

I'm not naive enough to suggest an altruistic motive that could motivate a sort of tough appraisal on where things went wrong. I do see three things that could spark something like this, though. One, there may be a perceived safe space to talk about this by superhero-knowledgeable observers that feel they can do so without being tarred and feathered as negative or betraying team comics. Two, running down what came before someone's perceived comeback/victory/new direction is a way to make that comeback/victory/new direction look that much better in comparison. Three, there are players involved with this surge that seem to think of themselves as straight-talkers, which could spontaneously generate bursts of insight as to how bad things got there for a while. Comics has a little bit of history in terms of making industry reform in reaction to damaging behavior, as when ordering terms were changed in the 1990s after the concreted damage caused by comics that were promised but that either didn't come out or came out so late as to change their commercial prospects. It would be encouraging if that were a possibility here.

I also hope that whatever self-criticism takes hold is comprehensive. My strong suspicion (to the point of obviousness, I think) is that it wasn't just this 2010-2011 period but behavior over the last several years that got these companies stuck in a rut, abetted by more than two decades of fashioning an industry around their output almost exclusively. Wider industry malaise is almost always a delayed reaction, with structural disincentives in support. So it would be disappointing if, say, blame settled solely on individual comics or comics efforts of the last 12 months, particularly when summary judgment may not pass the eyeball test.

No matter what might take place and where it occurs, I would imagine that what exactly happened would be an important question to answer, particularly for a company like DC wishing to build on the initial success of their serial comics launch in the months ahead.

5. A Successful Direct Market Launch Buys DC Time And The Benefit Of The Doubt In Other Areas
There are fine articles about the New 52 launch written by very astute people that don't mention the digital aspect of the publishing strategy at all. I think this is particularly true of mainstream media that came slightly late to the story, the writers that don't follow this stuff every day and were pointed in its direction.

I don't see this as a failure of these reporters and editors, but as a sign there's an opportunity for DC to build on their initial DM sales success by developing other aspects of their publishing program without the second-guessing and scrutiny that would have come had the success been modest or non-existent. Just think how the DC Kindle exclusive news and B&N pushback might have been viewed if DC's comic book DM sales with the New 52 hadn't been phenomenal -- I have to imagine there would have been a lot more accusations that it's DC rather than B&N that doesn't know what it's doing. Now that the principal decisions have been made about the basic shape of the digital and trade publishing programs, DC can finesse decisions on how they're executed without excruciating pressure to get those things right from day one. This relative grace period may also extend to any adjustments they'd care to make with Vertigo, OGN publishing and with kids' comics.

6. DC Has A Fresh Opportunity For Talent Development Available To Them Now
One of the reasons that many observers have expressed long-term worries about DC's recent moves is a perception that the overall creative talent pool at DC at this moment isn't as deep as one might expect for a company choosing a strategy heavy on line-wide creative execution. Leaving aside whether that's a fair appraisal or not, and certainly DC is allowed to scoff at a lot of those criticisms while standing around their offices in their solid gold shoes, it strikes me that DC has a great, new avenue for developing talent: fill-in issues and arcs on ongoing series.

If DC sustains their devotion to hitting production marks, it will almost certainly be necessary with several of these ongoing titles to offer the occasional comic book or run of comic books by an outside creative team or component creators. This seems to me to have potential as an infinitely preferable mechanism for appraising talent and folding in new voices than stand-alone mini-series that may not be related to various ongoing titles and which, additionally, have a dubious recent sales history.

In addition, Marvel is very top-heavy right now, particularly with writers, in that they have a solid group of creators with whom they like working, many of whom have been working with that company for several years now. We also exist in a time when nearly everyone is cognizant of limits, particularly financial ones, to other career options. If you're a young writer that has landed a mini-series or two at Marvel, you're still not going to get to write Avengers any time soon, and your series at Image, if it makes you any money at all, will do so six months down the line. A four-issue run on Animal Man or Mr. Terrific or one of the Batman books may be an attractive destination point for a lot of those comics-makers, much more so than just a few months ago.

In other words, DC may be in a much stronger position to add a lot of talented names to its virtual, collective Rolodex if the company's editors are given new talent development as part of their mandate.

image7. DC Should Continue To Benefit From A Pliable Mainstream Press
One of two big stories from a geek culture standpoint in the launch of DC's new number one issues is how effectively media companies like DC have primed the pump for PR-driven feature-style articles about their constellations of recognizable characters. It is within the immediate memory of several folks in comics, including myself, of a time when such mainstream press placement as realized last month was seen as a near-impossible dream, erupting with fits and starts in only those places with a devoted, maybe slightly unhinged comics fan right there on staff. Those days are certainly over. I don't think that future coverage will be as comprehensive in terms of the number of pieces we saw in August and September, but I imagine that most of these outlets and the writers serving them will be more open than ever to hearing pitches.

8. DC Has A Chance To Tie Its Publishing Success Into A Wider Company Narrative That Could Make The The Belle Of The Warners Ball
If you're looking for a potential, overall storyline for DC right now, you could do far worse than
1. Underperformance of Green Lantern and comics generally in 2010 and 2011.

2. Success with new comics initiative.

3. Further success with digital publishing initiatives and exclusives.

4. A bookstore replication of these comics' initial success in the Direct Market.

5. New Christopher Nolan Batman film makes one billion dollars.
Now, not all of those things may happen, but it's not outside the realm of possibility. Even if Marvel's The Avengers movie or that emo-looking Spider-Man thing are huge hits, Marvel's publishing arm doesn't have much to directly offer a similar narrative. The credit for any success The Avengers enjoys will almost certainly go to the ramp-up films and the film division in general; Spider-Man's credit will fall to the fresh group of creative people involved and to the enduring character.

All component businesses at any major company want to be able to claim they're the key to a rally or turnaround, and DC's comics publishing efforts may have such a gift waiting for them over the horizon.

9. Even DC's Enemies May End Up Helping Them
This one may take some explaining. I think there are arguments to be made that DC's recent success may have triggered what could become a slightly more antagonistic industry press, and may additionally spur Marvel into responsive action at some point down the line. Further, I think it's conceivable that the nature of DC's success may make it so that very little of this impedes DC in the core of their own efforts.

A second significant cultural reaction I see from DC's success is a kind of simmering confusion from some devoted fans and an emerging generation of people that cover comics over the content of some of the books in DC's successful launch. That a comics company might find its way to success making books that you wouldn't be proud to have your nieces and nephews see you reading isn't perplexing in the least to those of us that have been around since the mid-1990s or before. It's only in the last dozen years that the notion that all comics people are in this together has become something of a general operating principle, with it coming the self-flattering idea that if companies like DC are to be successful, they're going to make art that appeals to you or that you at least recognize as appealing.

Something those of us that have been around for a while already knew because it was beaten into us during the 1980s and 1990s: unless you're some fan of the abstract idea of blending words and pictures, in which case every single comic sold no matter what's inside it is a victory, it's entirely possible and even probable that an individual company or group of companies can be super-successful and for a rational human being that's a big comics fan to see this as something other than an overall good.

I think there's a chance that those following the industry closely are going to have to deal with the fact that if a company like DC can move units or meet some similar goal, any consideration as to whether a comic book can be read by children or offers up a worthwhile message or provides a just reward to its creators comes way, way behind whether or not it sells. Hopefully -- and this is probably too great a hope -- being confronted with this reality will force an entire new generation of people covering the industry to take a close view of what they think is important for the field to do. I think a skeptical press benefits everyone including DC in the long run, although they may not realize it right away. For one thing: although there are plenty of comics loved by the press that covers comics closely that never make a dime, there's an undeniably strong confluence between the kinds of projects that are super-successful for someone like DC and pay off over years and year and those preferred and agitated for by hardcore industry observers.

So what about Marvel? It's probably too glib a point to suggest that rivalries like the Marvel/DC competition is good for comics. For one, I have no idea if rivalries are good or not. I actually suspect not in comics' case, at least in an historical sense, as Marvel and DC have chosen in the past to fight over some very unimaginative things in less than direct fashion. If comics were a schoolyard, DC and Marvel would be the heavy kids that whaled on the smaller ones rather than ever fully called each other out, despite running down the other bully at every opportunity.

In other words, when you look at the actual clashing of ideas and policy, Marvel/DC has never been much of a rivalry. As a correlative point, it's also true that Marvel has pretty much owned DC in recent years, underlined with greatest emphasis when the first issue of a DC event series two years in the making failed to beat the second issue of a pretty standard Marvel offering back in late Spring 2008.

With DC's recent success, and the tendency of these companies to work past one another, I think we stand a chance of getting the energy of a rivalry without the companies, say, beating each other (and the rest of us) into unconsciousness. For instance, one can argue that Marvel's greatest recurring accomplishment during the Joe Quesada era was in resuscitating key properties and turning them into reasonably major players according to whatever sales parameters existed at the time. Several properties considered absolute dogs at one point or another -- Thor, most memorably -- since I've been around comics have enjoyed at the very least brief periods of sales success, and Marvel's done a thorough job in reorienting its line with an Avengers flagship group of titles rather than an X-Men flagship group. I don't see any reason why this specific ability of Marvel's can't co-exist with DC's likely long-term strategies for content development. It could be that success for DC will diminish the possibility of damage to everyone else, and that's a positive for DC and for everyone in that company's reach.

posted 6:30 am PST | Permalink

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