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Editor's Note: Since this article was published, Jim Lee has stated that a quote we used in the introduction of this piece — "We have to stop the collapse of the comic book industry" — was misattributed to him. We worked from Newsarama's transcripts of the SDCC panel, which attributed the quote to Mr. Lee. The rest of the discussion of the panel and DC's sales strategies is, to our knowledge, correct.
"We have to stop the collapse of the comic book industry." It's a quote that staggered the comic book community, and was originally attributed to industry veteran Jim Lee at the DC Meet the Publishers panel at San Diego Comic Con. It's since been hotly debated, with other reports attributing the quote to Lee's fellow publisher Dan DiDio. Whoever said it, though, the quote is deeply disturbing.
The comic book market isn't in a good shape; sales are dropping, and market leader Marvel is repeating short-term sales strategies that caused the '90s comic book bubble to burst. Flagging comic book sales are at the heart of the paradox of San Diego Comic-Con 2017; superheroes have never been more popular, and yet the comic book industry feels unstable.
Unusually, at #SDCC2017, DC Comics publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio were absolutely open about the challenges they're faced with today. They also talked at length about just how they aim to turn the market around.
The Success Of DC Rebirth
Spearheaded by Geoff Johns, the #DCRebirth initiative has been a tremendous success. DiDio openly admitted that while the company's previous 'New 52' relaunch had allowed them to reexamine characters and try new things, they realized that something had been lost along the way.
Although sales are beginning to falter a little, the fact that they're still strong a full year into the two-year arc is impressive. What's more, SDCC has seen DC Comics up the ante, revealing details of Geoff Johns's 'Doomsday Clock' event. As teased all the way back in last year's DC Universe — Rebirth #1, this will bring the characters of Alan Moore's Watchmen into contact with the main DC Universe. Speaking at another panel, Geoff Johns teased that he'll be bringing Lex Luthor and Ozymandias — the smartest men in their respective comic book universes — face to face. He also confirmed the long-standing fan theory that Dr. Manhattan is the force behind 'Rebirth'.
As comic book fans noted when Johns's DC Universe — Rebirth was first published, the whole arc is in part a repudiation of everything comics have been doing for the last couple of decades. It rejects the pessimism and darkness that was en vogue in the aftermath of Alan Moore's Watchmen, and positioning the characters of Watchmen as the villains who've stolen life and hope from the DC Universe is a glorious meta-narrative.
A Need To Change
The comic book industry is in a strange place. As DiDio noted, "Comic books have become the second or third way to meet characters like Batman and Superman, and we want to change that." That's going to mean increasing the profile of the comics, focusing in on marketing, and changing strategies. DC isn't content to just coast off the back of their box office success; they want the comic book publisher to stand on its own two feet.
As a result, DC is shifting its focus. Lee talked about the importance of what he called the "evergreen" stories — the tales that never grow old, like Alan Moore's Watchmen, and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. The challenge facing DC is a simple one; how can they make the next generation of "evergreen" stories, that don't require in-depth knowledge of superhero continuity, but that stand the test of time and transform the genre? Part of it is getting key writers on board; the only one Lee named in the panel was Neil Gaiman.
Lee explained that they want to give their creators a challenge: to tell "the best Superman story, the best Batman story, the best Justice League story." It dovetails perfectly with comments legendary Batman writer Scott Snyder has been making in recent months. He's been talking about stepping aside from All-Star Batman in order to participate in a new venture, one DC clearly hopes will transform the market.
"DC approached me and said, how would you like to take some of the stuff that you are working on with Sean [Murphy] and do it a new, prestige format? Instead of doing it monthly, why not do it in this format that would allow for it to be a bigger stage, both for Sean artistically, and to package the story in a new way and then allow every subsequent story that I was going to do with Paul Pope, with Afua [Richardson], with Lee Bermejo, be done in this format that really foregrounds the art – different paper size, different cut, the whole thing? In that way, it seemed obvious and a perfect solution instead of having them work month-to-month on a normal-sized, conventional comic, we could be some of the first people to try driving in this new lane for DC. I’m really, really thrilled about it."
DiDio described this as a "mature readers line," one inspired by graphic novels that "allow the art to breathe." This appears to be European-style albums, closer to three issues' worth of material rather than just the one at a time. These would get into the bookstores faster than your typical graphic novels, helping with cashflow and presenting a real alternative to the Direct Market.
A Different Approach To Diversity — And A Growing Emphasis On Artists
Since April this year, DC has been teasing the importance of a new line that they call 'Dark Matter.' Introducing a whole swathe of new characters, and featuring top talent like Lee, John Romita, Jr., Greg Capullo and Andy Kubert, the line will focus as much on the artists as on the writers. The last few years have seen comic book writers essentially become celebrities, while artists remain seemingly undervalued. In contrast, DiDio stressed that the partnership between the writer and the artist will be key to the success of 'Dark Matter.' He's got a point; comics are a visual medium, after all.
The goal of 'Dark Matter' will be to improve the diversity of the DC Universe without altering the classic characters. It's clearly a very different approach to the one taken by Marvel, whose 'Legacy Heroes' have become pretty controversial among comic book fans. The creative teams are working to recapture the energy of the early years of Marvel, or the launch of Image Comics; they want 'Dark Matter' to be fresh and exciting. Lee, who kicks the line off working alongside James Tynion IV on The Immortal Men, described the thrill of creating whole new characters and ideas. As DiDio noted, they "don't want to be a cover band" that just plays the same old hits all the time.
The panel gave tantalizing hints that 'Dark Matter' will see DC embrace a different retail model in some way, too; DiDio called 2018 a "transformative year," and expressed a hope that the publisher will reach beyond the traditional direct market. While DiDio and Lee didn't explain any details, they made it clear they aim to increase the number of new comic book fans, and we'll be watching with fascination to see what approaches DC take.
Retailers will breathe a sigh of relief; DC is avoiding a lot of the gimmicks that create a temporary sales boost, but seem to be damaging the industry. Take, for example, one of the most common; for every first issue to be supported by a wide range of variant covers, many of which have different prices to indicate their rarity. While these are loved by collectors, they typically lead to the next issue's sales dropping like a stone. Worse still, DC has noted that the inflated prices actually drive casual fans away. As a result, the publisher is literally not going to do any variants in support of the new 'Dark Matter' line.
As DiDio noted:
"All we do with that is put obstacles in the way of you buying comic books. Raising prices, variant covers...We have got to stop. We can't afford this to be a dying business."
While I'm sure DC will continue to use some gimmicks — their lenticular variants for 'The Button' were a tremendous success, after all — they're clearly aware of the risks of going overboard. This stands in marked contrast to Marvel, who noted the success of those lenticular variants, and recently announced that their entire 'Marvel Legacy' range later in the year will feature them. We're seeing DC and Marvel part ways, not just on pricing, but also on the use of gimmicks. It's going to be very interesting indeed to see how the industry reacts.
Meanwhile, although the publisher can't afford to put all books back to the $2.99 price, they're pricing carefully. The 'Dark Matter' books will all be cheaper than the normal titles, while some of the Dark Knights: Metal books will also be at a lower price point.
The last year has seen DC reverse years of decline, leaving their biggest rival Marvel struggling to catch up. Still, the comic book industry as a whole isn't in a good place right now. Marvel has taken one approach, with their 'Marvel Legacy' range; they're appealing to nostalgia, indulging in all the traditional gimmicks, and desperately attempting a back-to-basics, "meat-and-potatoes" relaunch. Unfortunately, as long-term comic book fans will know, those are the very strategies Marvel employed back in the '90s, and the comic book industry crashed. In contrast, while they're also stripping things back, DC seem to be taking a fresh approach. They're attempting to expand their range, to reach out to new markets, and to redefine the industry in a way that could well make a difference.
Comic book fans all over the world can only wish them success.