DC Comics has been having an interesting go of things for the past few months. It underwent a massive restructuring, made controversial inroads with its new Black Label imprint, and then surprised everyone when it suddenly brought some of its older, more popular imprints like Vertigo and DC Zoom to an end. According to publisher Dan DiDio and chief creative officer Jim Lee, these decisions were all part of DC’s ongoing effort to address the larger crisis the comics industry’s facing.
In a new interview with ICv2, Lee and DiDio opened up about everything from DC’s imprints, to how people are consuming the publisher’s comics these days, to what the future holds for DC Universe, given that soon at least some of the streaming platform’s content will also live on HBO Max, another service owned by WarnerMedia.
Though Lee owned up to having a positive outlook on things, and DiDio made it clear that he’s more of a pessimist, both publishers were frank about the fact that DC’s in a relatively defensive position as it reassesses the market and tries to figure out how to boost comics sales, which is a complicated endeavour.
DiDio explained that, on the whole, DC’s periodical sales have been “strong” for a number of different reasons, but two in particular. For one, the publisher’s downsized the overall number of titles it’s producing in order to focus on the creative energies going into those series.
DiDio also cited mature Black Label and new, hit books like Kami Garcia and Gabriel Picolo’s Teen Titans: Raven that are directly aimed at younger audiences as other examples of places where DC’s seen growth.
Some of the biggest problems plaguing the industry’s ability to push new ongoing, flagship titles, DiDio continued, is the approach publishers have taken to artificially goose sales through time-honoured, but not necessarily beloved comics publisher traditions:
Where my concern comes from is more about the over-reliance on nostalgia, speculator marketing, variant covers, and a lot of things that seem to be driving numbers in sales to give the appearance of a healthy industry, but it’s not built on the ongoing success of the individual titles in order to keep those numbers successful and maintained.
If we’re creating these artificial highs on a continual basis, if something pulls that apart, does it break the infrastructure overall, and how do we change these buying patterns in that fashion to build something that is a more healthy business going forward?
For all his optimism, Lee echoed DiDio’s honesty and pragmatism while speaking about the fact that DC’s digital sales have been a complicated puzzle to solve. While people aren’t buying individual issues digitally the way they might traditional comic books, digital subscriptions have been up. That might initially seem like a good thing, but digital subscriptions are having an impact on individual sales. That dynamic, Lee said, is something DC’s still trying to figure out:
I think it’s discouraging in general because everyone talks about digital being the future. If there’s anything that should continue to grow year-in, year-out, it should be that channel.
The fact that it’s kind of plateaued and we’ve hit a wall speaks to a lot of different things. We need to reinvent what we’re doing digitally. The subscription service that we’re doing on the DC Universe platform is part of that. We just have to get better at marketing to people that know our characters, love our characters, but aren’t buying comics.
Neither publisher was very forthcoming with news about what’s going on with DC Universe and whether the service would continue to act as a home for new, original video content, but Lee insisted that the platform will stick around for a while and that people should expect to hear more about it soon.
What Lee and DiDio were rather ready to explain was the reasoning behind the dissolution of so many of its popular imprints, which DiDio said is all part of a larger plan to strengthen the overall DC brand:
The strategy’s very simple. The marketplace is very crowded and very noisy, to be very honest, and to fractionalize sales and separate ourselves, we lose the strength of our characters and our name recognition. We can spend a lot of time and energy creating new brands and identities, or we can spend all of our energy strengthening one overall marketing idea, which is DC, which is the most recognisable one of all.
We have things for young readers, older readers. We have every type of interpretation of our characters. We have a shared universe in the center of that. There’s so much you could see and do with the DC characters and worlds that all you have to do is see that DC logo and then find the book that fits you.
What’s curious about DiDio’s point is that the clarity he’s talking about is one of the main reasons people like imprints. They give readers an easy way to quickly identify what kinds of stories they’re likely to be in for. Take DC’s Young Animal imprint, for example, which was always experimental, imaginative in ways one wouldn’t necessarily expect from a Justice League title.
During its big “Milk Wars” event, the Young Animal and mainstream DC Universes collided into an imaginative story that worked as the perfect opportunity for folks to become acquainted with characters from series they might not have otherwise.
Lee said that going forward, DC Kids (light blue), DC (blue), and DC Black Label (black) will be the publisher’s three comics pillars, featuring colour-coded callouts to signal what kind of audience a particular book is aimed at. Whether that ends up working out in DC’s favour remains to be seen.
The biggest takeaway from the interview, though, is that while some of the decisions DC’s making right now have understandably disappointed fans, it really all boils down to the realities that the publishing industry is changing, and DC has to figure out how to stay in the black. Sometimes, DiDio said, that means accepting the fact that a publication like Mad Magazine, beloved though it is, isn’t financially sustainable:
Our choice right now, though, is to go primarily with mostly reprint material because we feel that the nostalgic material is really what people have been enjoying most, and we want to go back with again.
The biggest change was that we had to get it off the newsstand. It was bleeding the magazine, and unfortunately, we have to make tough business choices sometimes.
That’s a tough one because Mad touches so many people and is so important to so many folks. We understand that. This is not a decision we made lightly. This was not a decision we made haphazardly.