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September 23, 2010

Twelve Initial Questions I Have About DC’s Publishing Moves Announcements


Tuesday's rolling set of announcements and revelations -- that mainstream comics giant/smart, creative kid in the back of the Time Warner classroom DC Comics would be moving everything but its print publishing line to Los Angeles, that the WildStorm and Zuda imprints would be shut down, and that the company was embarking on a process of discussing the future with individual employees and that layoffs would likely be part of that series of discussions -- was processed through the modern, loosely-assembled juggernaut of social media, newspapers and multiple web sites with enough force and big-name access that the story for the majority of industry on-lookers may be all but over even as you finish reading this ridiculous, run-on sentence. One can imagine an announcement here and there about some folks being let go, others being re-assigned, interns and temp workers being brought on full-time and maybe even an Executive Editor being named. But the event part of it, the announcement that came after months of speculation over what kind of moves would be made and when, a lot of that energy dissipated about 6 PM on the 21st. Welcome to entertainment news in the modern media world.

I think the story may be more complicated than a day or two's worth of close attention. It could be a lot more complicated. I can't remember a big story like this one where I was left with so many questions, and not just the ones of the "To Be Continued" variety -- and there were plenty of those, too. I sought out direct answers when I thought that would be fruitful, and David Hyde and Diane Nelson at DC were nice enough to accommodate my inquiries even with their heavy press schedules over the last 72 hours. I will continue to get answers and refine the ones I have.

In the meantime, I present you with the 12 questions I had after DC's big Tuesday.


1. Why Are They Leaving The Publishing Business in New York City Again?
I thought it curious that the one thing lacking from Tuesday's initial burst of press was a solid, direct answer as to why publishing is staying in New York City. You know: the basic answer to the basic question raised by the first announcement made that day. When asked the question more or less directly, the template being used either consciously or sub-consciously by DC executives seemed to first reiterate the need for DC to work within the wider Time Warner structure. Here's what I got from Diane Nelson earlier today.

"We looked painstakingly at many different criteria that necessarily weigh in to our operations moving in part or in whole. We determined that the optimal organization for DCE acknowledges the close proximity to NY and East Coast operational, talent and business resources.

"We took this evaluation and analysis very seriously, along with the personal considerations of our many valued employees and their families."

That's an interesting answer -- and that's what I was given after I told them that the answers they'd already given weren't all that convincing. Focusing on the core result explains why the whole question of moving was considered. That kind of synthesis and exploitation of DC properties and talents is very important to Warners, and thus it's very important to DC. Yet coming back with that kind of reason first, and not really giving a subsequent reason why this specific arrangement works best to facilitate that goal, suggests to me that maybe there was a lot to say about moving the whole kit and kaboodle under one roof. So with a good answer in place for why they'd go West, what you'd ostensibly need is a better answer for print publishing staying put.

I didn't hear one. Did you?

In fact, I only read two independent reasons for keeping publishing out east in any of what's come out since Tuesday morning.

The first reason is that in keeping things where they've been for the last 75 years, DC would be preserving the legacy of comics publishing in New York. That's a lovely thought, and it makes a swell third line in a wire story, but it sure doesn't sound convincing -- even as it's been articulated by DC! I'm not sure I know what preserving the legacy of comics publishing even means in practical terms. I certainly haven't detected a loss of the legacy aspects of the business that can be traced to the wider comics industry spreading out to cities like Seattle and Portland and Kansas City. Moreover, I'm dubious that a modern super-corporation would make a decision on that basis. If it were so important as to be a crucial factor, you think someone at the company could make the case in more than cursory terms. When someone sacrifices policy and/or profit for principle, they tend to be able to talk your ear off about the principle. I didn't get any of that here. It seems the issues of DC's legacy was in many ways an abstract thing even to the people who supposedly made a major decision based on that issue.

The second reason floated where I could see it is that there's some sort of intrinsic value in the current DC structure and the people that service it. I take it that means a collective, positive appraisal of the people currently in the company, the people in the local/regional pool of talent that could be brought into the company, and certain ways of doing business as established in New York.

Now, this sounds valid to me as a possible idea. I can conceive of it. It just doesn't sound convincing in this particular circumstance.

In broad terms, my hunch is that very little that a New York setting or talent pool offers couldn't be approximated or possibly exceeded in Los Angeles -- even more so given the stated goals of the company regarding the division and its place in relation to other entertainment media. DC wasn't considering a move to Indianapolis or Albuquerque; they were thinking of Burbank. If DC's decision-makers disagree with me that LA could have offered what NYC can, I'd love to have heard them say so. Further, it's nearly impossible to believe that in this economy, in this wider publishing industry, and that this being comics in the first place where a high-paying job is rarer than Gold Kryptonite, that the vast majority of key personnel wouldn't follow the company into an assault on the pass at Thermopylae. As much as I've heard about people worried to death about what would happen at DC this week, it was always because they were either going to be fired or have to move. It was never because they'd have to make a career change.

But more than that, given the length of the process by which DC's brain trust came to this decision and the supposed thoroughness with which they looked at all options, shouldn't there be much more than a vague impression they might lose some people? I've been involved in two massive firings/restructurings in my professional life. In both cases I -- a nobody -- was approached and asked direct questions about things like if I would move offices or if I could do another person's job if need be. And in each case, the time frame to make this decision was greatly compressed. According to what they've stated, it feels like DC is staying in New York because of a hunch, not because of what they learned from a thorough process of information-gathering. Again: baffled.


2. Could There Be an Unnamed Reason They're Leaving the Business in New York City?
Because those answers are unconvincing, it forces me to wonder if DC isn't staying in New York because of a reason no one has discussed yet. I'm terrible at this kind of brainstorming and the world as it reveals itself to me is a carnival midway of wonders because of how little I can predict in advance. But Tuesday even had me scratching my head. One thing that comes to mind is I wonder if there could be intellectual property concerns that make keeping an office in New York more attractive. I've always heard that New York is a better place to defend your IP than California. Jeff Trexler, who writes about legal issues and comics for Blog@Newsarama, notes that while all sorts of factors go into what gets filed and where, there's an attraction to New York for IP holders.

"The Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which reviews cases heard in the Southern District of New York, has well-developed IP jurisprudence that is generally regarded as owner friendly. The Ninth Circuit, which includes California, is commonly seen as somewhat less predictable and more plaintiff friendly in regard to IP," Trexler wrote in respond to my inquiry. "Playing the odds, an IP owner would be inclined to try to file in New York--especially the IP & business savvy Southern District, which includes NYC -- while someone trying to challenge an IP owner would more often than not try to go elsewhere, such as the Ninth Circuit, which, deserved or no, has a reputation for being more liberal and less corporate. For example, one could make a decent argument that the Siegels would have been far less likely to win the Superman case had they filed in New York -- as illustrated by the previous rulings against Siegel & Shuster in the Second Circuit, an outcome favoring the Siegel heirs was not a slam dunk."

Here's another possibility, just related to me 10 minutes after my initial posting. California apparently has extremely tricky laws for work for hire that may force a company located there to treat a contractor working under such an agreement as an employee rather than as an independent contractor. One freelancer assures me this includes collecting unemployment if you're let go from a long-term assignment. I imagine that such differences in law could add a great deal of cost, project to project, to any publisher, like DC, that depends on work for hire agreements.

Now is each of these things a stab in the dark? For sure. But they are no less convincing reasons than preserving legacies or maybe/perhaps some people leaving the company. The thing is, I'm open to most possibilities right now.

3. Why Was the News Announced in Rolling Fashion?
One thing that was odd about Tuesday's news day is that the bi-coastal split of DC Entertainment and DC Comics got the first release, WildStorm and Zuda got their own release in the form of an open letter from Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, and the potential for layoffs and in-house restructuring was left to being revealed -- in controversial fashion -- in one of the follow-up interviews. A lot of people, myself included, almost dismissed the story when the first release hit only to return in a panic and refocus our coverage when we learned that WildStorm and Zuda were being closed and a reporter in a follow-up interview with Diane Nelson had claimed a 20 percent workforce reduction was coming.

Was the tiered release planned to get a blast of positive PR out there before the negative? I don't mean that in a bad way. I might split the announcement if that were my job. People always seem to remember a first thing more than a second, and it's not like they were hiding anything. An even odder possibility is that DC as currently constituted may on some level considers its ability to maximize its characters a more important story than the immediate fate of an unknown percentage of those working at the publishing company or the closure of two of its imprints. I also don't mean that in a bad way, although it sounds horrible, just in a corporate-emphasis way. As several folks have pointed out, it's not out of the question that many folks following the story -- both professionally and as fans -- agreed that the impact on the characters was a more important story than an in-house restructuring of jobs in a rough economy.

4. Why Was the News Announced at All?
One reason it's been difficult to comment on this story is that DC hasn't finished making moves. According to information gleaned through Tuesday's follow-up interviews, DC will embark on an in-house process of talking to its employees and doing some realignment work throughout their divisions. This seems bound to be an awful experience, and will almost certain involve NDAs for anyone that can sign one. It's not clear who's doing what, although Jim Lee was apparently in La Jolla yesterday and today to communicate DC's plans to those working at the announced-for-closure WildStorm office.

This makes me wonder: why wouldn't you wait until after that process to make a full and even more dramatic announcement to the press and the comics community in general? It seems like the story was still developing on Tuesday, to the point that when a few people wondered out loud if there wouldn't be a reversal of some sort, it was difficult to tell them there was absolutely no chance of it.

image5. How Many People Will Be Let Go?
The LAT writer Ben Fritz stated in a blog posting driven primarily by the fruits of his discussion with DC President Diane Nelson that 20 percent of DC's 250 employees were to lose their jobs. Everyone's clear on one thing: That statement did not come from Nelson. Some subsequent sources unfortunately reported that it did based on little more than its proximity to Nelson's actual statements; my own language wasn't as clear as it should have been. Also, that statement did not indicate that any jobs cut would come from a specific division or place within DC. Again, at least one source jumped to a conclusion that it was DC proper that would suffer that number of job losses as opposed to this being a number that might include jobs lost from the closure of WildStorm and Zuda. On the other hand, no one's officially denied the number. Nor has anyone officially endorsed it. It was a very strong and certain statement, not the kind of thing open to a lot of interpretation.

I e-mailed Ben Fritz on Wednesday. He wrote back that he stands behind his reporting and the figure named. He declined to reveal the provenance of that information. The comics industry site Bleeding Cool claims -- without making clear the origins their own, contrary, information -- that this statement by Fritz was wrong; they even suggest it was made up. Johnston claims in a follow-up e-mail that the interview in that blog post was taken from other sources, and Fritz had no direct interaction with Nelson at all. DC's response was to point out that the figure given in the article did not come from Nelson, and doesn't have her endorsement. Asked for further comment by CR, Diane Nelson said, "No comment."

So who knows? Twenty percent is a lot of people, and no matter what you may think about the necessity or wisdom of reorganizing the company in a way that involves such layoffs, those are all people that will likely suffer because of those moves. Our hearts should go out to them. We should feel sympathy even if it's only half as many people let go. Or one person. It should be a main focus of coverage from here on out because job-loss is a true, measurable result of these moves, and if it's end up being twenty percent or anything close to it, that should dwarf any other story.

6. What Is The Status Of DC Direct?
Again, there was no announcement of what's going on with this part of DC's business and nothing in the follow-up statements. The fate of DC Direct is important here because it's exactly the kind of business one would think would get moved to California if the general theory of "print publishing to the east coast"/"everything else to the west coast"" holds. It seems odd that there's no firm answer available at the time of the announcement. I've been told that this is one of those moves that will wait until after the in-house employee evaluations, which again confuses me as to why the whole thing couldn't wait.

image7. How Horrible Must It Have Been To Be A DC Comics Employee This Week -- Heck, This Year?
One thing that's been to my mind under-reported is how the lengthy period preceding Tuesday's announcements must have had an effect on those that now must deal with the collective outcome of those decisions. Despite R. Fiore's post-announcement assertion that the rumors of a total west coast move were only that because such a move made no sense, Diane Nelson has clearly acknowledged that such a move was on the table and considered, and the pervasiveness and certainty of the rumor was as ingrained in the day to day reality of its believers as any I've ever seen in comics. This was not a case of a few bloggers running around screaming things just to be heard.

So, if you're a DC employee, it's possible you just spent several months thinking you might lose your job -- a comics job! -- in a shitty economy or have to move to California and away from your friends with an unknown incentive package, or none at all, as the basis for making this possible. This was followed by a couple of weeks just past where you were told that an announcement was imminent. This may have been followed by a moment of relief -- that's how it was described to me -- when the New York publishing offices were announced as staying open. And yet this was followed by word that divisions are being closed, which was followed by further news that everyone is being evaluated -- with firings on the table.

Now, I don't know if that's a fully accurate view of the timeline, but if half of that stuff happened to me, if I rode on the first two plunges of that particular roller coaster, my morale would be at the sub-basement level. One can argue that DC Comics isn't exactly a healthy culture to begin with; one can further argue that it's been a particularly difficult place to work for the last few years. I can't imagine what an injection of real drama might do to that group's collective ability to function at the high level required of them by current industry circumstance.

8. Is There Really A Baby In All That Bathwater?
One thing I've been confused by in the aftermath of DC recent announcements is this certainty evinced that a lot of what the publishing company has been doing has been right. This notion is often expressed as a defense of not making as radical a move as expected -- that you don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and you want to build on all the positives of DC's current publishing practices.

Now I know that a publisher like DC is bound to do a lot of things well. Their book program has evinced renewed vigor since their distributor switch, and they seem to place titles into the top 30 slots on the Diamond serial comics list, such as it is, with slightly greater frequency than they used to when Marvel was throttling the market. I'm not exactly King Expert Of Mainstream Comics, either. But the special enthusiasm that seems to be encouraging DC into a strategy of staying the course feels to me vague and unearned.

What exactly are they doing to inspire such confidence? They don't seem to know any more than their rivals known concerning how to get serial comics out of a slow spiral of declining sales and general apathy. Some of their creative decisions have been howled at by long-term fans. They don't seem to have much in the way of perceived -- perceived -- no-question, dependable A-list talent past Morrison and Johns and maybe Straczynski. They seem at times to overwork people -- by which I mean creators, not Batman, although he's got to be tired, too -- and thus disrupt the momentum of some of their key serial comics via scheduling issues. Their ability to keep books in print in a minimally logical fashion is a criticism they face all the time. Even the fabled people skills of the new executive team -- an all-time A-list talent handler and three veteran industry new executives, two of which are working pros -- seem to have been employed in a way that's only riled further one of their most profitable, long-time authors and not exactly sent scores of creators scrambling from another company towards a seat in the Hall Of Justice. There's also Tuesday's news. Shutting down imprints may make sense from an organizational standpoint and may make the future a brighter one, but it also seems to be an implicit criticism of how things are being done right now. It should go without saying, but no imprint gets closed because it's awesome and it performs wonderfully. So what am I missing? What is the reason for any enthusiasm in staying this particular course, even its roughest outline?

image9. Where Is Patrick Caldon?
I really don't care where Patrick Caldon is -- I'm sure he's fine -- but it was curious to some folks that wrote in to point out that he was nowhere near any of the follow-up press for the announcement, given that he was the fifth major member of the new Team DC. Mostly I put this in here because once you think about the presence of someone like Caldon, you realize that you don't know what you usually know with this kind of story: the parameters of the decision-making process. I have no idea who was in on it and who wasn't. Do you? For all I know, some creators were consulted (not all of them, clearly). Or maybe it was just Nelson, Lee, Johns and DiDio. Actually, I've since been informed that Patrick Caldon was a vital part of the team in terms of assessing its operational utility and its role as a cultural institution. But I had to ask.

It's strange that this whole process wasn't made a bit more transparent. There's no reason for it not to be if it's as foundational a moment as the press releases would have us think. One possibility is that all of these elements were too hard to track, that there wasn't clear decision-making, and that everything at DC is kind of moving forward in an organic and maybe even sometimes improvisational way. Another is that few want to fully own the majority of the decisions being made, at least not immediately. Or it could be a communication thing, that someone simply doesn't think this kind of thing important or worth describing. It'd be nice to know how they came to such important decisions, though, other than assurances that the process was thorough and everyone made suggestions. If we can know that DC employees are headed into evaluation meetings, why couldn't we know who was involved in the decision to send them there?

10. How Big Of A Train Wreck, Start To Finish, Was DC's Purchase Of WildStorm?
There's an article at Bleeding Cool that points out some of what I might write here. I disagree with one or two of their particulars, but I think the thrust of that article has it right. DC's stewardship of WildStorm was an almost Tundra Comics-sized fiasco, despite the best intentions and hard work of many of those at the company or working for it in a creative role, as well as the continued ascendancy within the greater company of founder Jim Lee.

imageThere was a point at which WildStorm seemed poised to become a more potent marketplace version of Vertigo -- a Vertigo without the specific horror and related genre elements hanging over it, a company with a tighter spiritual relationship to the industry's core superhero values. It seemed ready to become one of those few, reliable companies that provided a home for creator-owned work with a popular, mainstream element to it -- that you could take a project to WildStorm without having to take a step back in your industry ambitions for it. From a consumer's standpoint, it could offer a line of books that gave certain readers series to follow that were slightly more sophisticated and thematically challenging than works in those genres offered through the Big Two, and thus it gave stores a tool to keep those readers. WildStorm even enjoyed the fruits of solid core books, driven by a halfway-decent, sturdy central concept and buttressed at key points by the work of talented writers like Warren Ellis, Alan Moore, Ed Brubaker and James Robinson.

Rather than moving to the next level with the DC purchase, becoming a prestige imprint at a comics company backed by one of the biggest media empires in the world, WildStorm sputtered with some major successes, some minor achievements, and more and more advancements that seemed marked by corresponding setbacks. As the Bleeding Cool article describes, it became known rightly or wrongly as a place for editorial meddling that drove key creators away (or further away) from the parent company. It later garnered a reputation for a certain kind of callow albeit popular licensed book, and for its constant attention to replicating certain effects of previous successful efforts -- the kind of relaunch and reconfigure and rehash grind that slowly drives readers away. WildStorm could have been a contender. Its closure didn't even merit its own press release.

image11. Is There Any Reason To Believe Assurances Regarding Various Properties?
A few of you have e-mailed me to make fun of statements like this one from Ed Brubaker that now's the time to buy some of the books he did for WildStorm because they could go out of print. I think there's some skepticism on your part that this could happen. In fact, the idea that WildStorm books would go out of print because of there being no WildStorm was met by wave-of-hand denials from Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, with the assurance that books that continue to sell will continue to be sold.

Creators like Ed are onto something, I think. As Brubaker pointed out to me in a follow-up e-mail, properties like his Sleeper at WildStorm never sold that well in the first place. Without the attention that comes through a devoted company with an interest in keeping a variety of projects out there on the shelves in some way, left to the capricious whims of however that work and those properties are employed by a company with plenty of properties and books to worry after, it's perfectly logical that a number of solid works could fade from view. Moreover, as the creators at WildStorm that have properties of their own seem to have found out about the company's closure on twitter, rather than being contacted personally, no one really knows if they will remain important or vital to DC, even in the short term.

12. What Is The Long-Term Impact On DC Publishing?
Finally, I was surprised in all that was announced that there wasn't more attention paid to how this has an effect on DC Comics as a print publishing company, in addition to what it will mean for Warners. In fact, if you read the follow-up stories today about the changes at Warner, it's as if these properties in some sort of independent idea space that has nothing to do with paper and ink (or pixels and computer screens). That the first follow-up story came through entertainment media rather than comics industry media indicates that our main takeaway may be that everything that's important about DC is going to Hollywood, that print is now on an island, by itself, and the only thing that matters is if Green Lantern really is a tentpole franchise, not if he can sell twice as many comic books. As one industry friend put it, if this were a gangster movie, DC Comics is the poor dope left running things in Atlantic City after all of the other characters have left for Vegas.

Maybe that's the next round of discussions. Maybe there is a second set of publishing announcements on the way. Maybe this is merely prologue to what DC comics does from here on out as a print and digital publishing business. Maybe DC will get an exciting Executive Editor. I sort of doubt it, but it could happen. The great thing about comics is that print publishing is a niche industry and digital publishing is likely to be one, too. You don't need to change the minds of 10,000,000 people in the space of one weekend in order to revolutionize the comics field; you can transform the business by quietly recruiting 100,000 devoted new readers over a half-decade's time. Hollywood creates franchises; comics creates universes. I think you're getting close to the heart of it when you realize that it's only comics people, and a certain kind at that, that were made uncomfortable by Tuesday's announcements. What seems unsatisfying from a comics perspective was likely everything the Hollywood view of things needed to hear. The latter trumps the former, five scissors to one paper, five papers to one rock.

For right now, with all the questions I have, maybe the only thing I'm certain of is that there seems less of a comics industry than ever, if there's a comics industry at all. The second shoe dropping wasn't the WildStorm/Zuda closure after DC's bi-coastal realignment announcement. The second shoe dropping is this whole slew of odd, unclear, in-development measures and earnest but talking-point answers that seem to focus on everything but a core publishing mission, the first major industry move after a Comic-Con with a similar focus on everything but publishing. Maybe a renewed comics focus is on its way. I don't know. Maybe that's the something that needs to cost multiple employees their jobs to get us to a place where that happens. I couldn't possibly say. Maybe for most people they'd gladly see every last DC employee fired if it meant they got a decent Emma Stone Wonder Woman movie in 2014. I have my suspicions. I do know that there's honor in an industry that supports the greatest art form in the world, and that any new comic book reality will be better off in the long run keeping that in mind. It doesn't matter where the industry keeps its various offices if its orientation and mindset are going to be someplace else from now on. Let's hope this was a step to a better industry, and not an initial affirmation of a new, unfocused status quo.

posted 4:30 pm PST | Permalink

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