Rob Salkowitz wrote at Publishers Weekly about where DC could be headed, now that AT&T could either be licensing them to another business for story publication, or closing them down altogether:
The world’s #2 superhero comics publisher is undergoing a stress test. DC Comics, the venerable publisher of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Watchmen, and dozens of other celebrated superhero characters, looks to be caught in the corporate restructuring taking place at its parent company, AT&T, along with other divisions of WarnerMedia, which the telecom giant acquired in 2019. After several rounds of layoffs and controversial business decisions, comics fans, comics professionals, and retailers are speculating whether DC, or its parent company, will choose to abandon comics publishing or the comics shop market entirely.
Early in 2020 DC parted ways with longtime DC universe copublisher Dan DiDio. That turned out to be the first act of a major housecleaning. September saw the departures of a host of longtime executives, among them, editor-in-chief Bob Harras, senior v-p Hank Kanalz, and well-known editors Brian Cunningham and Mark Doyle. This was followed by a second wave of layoffs in November which took out the last of DC’s veteran comics marketing and distribution staff. Even Michelle Wells, elevated to coeditor-in-chief in August after overseeing DC’s successful children/young adult graphic novel line, was let go in the last round of layoffs. And there is word of more to come.
Whether or not they do, it’s atrocious how even a business analyst won’t dwell on whether lack of artistic merit led to this. If the young adult line were really a success, do you honestly think DC would be dropping employees from the payroll? Their stories have been like an armpit for years, and they took things from bad to worse after they got political. But Salkowitz is right about one thing: stories like Identity Crisis were controversial, because they were intended as shoddy publicity stunts. Where he’s wrong is failure to research and raise the topics for discussion.
Back In April, in the teeth of the retail Armageddon brought on by the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns, DC abruptly terminated its relationship with the comics shop market’s largest (and, for all practical purposes, only) distributor, Diamond Comics Distributors, to go into business with two new firms, Lunar and UCS, retail operations that were transformed into national comics distributors. By October, the UCS-DC relationship was over—though it’s not entirely clear who fired who—and now Lunar is the sole distributor for DC periodicals.
That’s a lot of disruption at a company that, by the numbers, seems to be doing pretty well. DC’s top titles are selling well in comics shops. In the trade book market, collected editions of recent series like the Three Jokers, White Knight, and Dark Metal are doing well, such backlist perennials as Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Batman: The Killing Joke and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series have lived on the bestseller lists for decades, and the company’s burgeoning line of young reader graphic novel series like Superhero Girls, Swamp Kid, and Gene Yang’s recent Superman vs. the Klan are garnering critical praise as well as new fans in the hot tween-and-teen book market.
But they’re not doing well, and it’s not because they changed distribution services, though the MSM would like everyone to think it. They’re tanking because the stories are meaningless, increasingly political, and even overly violent. If the encroaching leftist politics hadn’t driven me away from their output, the jarring violence in the writings of Geoff Johns, to name but one notorious example, would have. But, the main mistake Salkowitz makes here is failure to provide sales figures in digits. Obviously, somebody realizes that, once the wider public sees how only so many individual titles sell far below 100,000 copies for a pamphlet, and none sell a million, they’d be laughing all day. What if that’s why the UCS relationship fell through?
More importantly, DC remains an IP gold mine for AT&T’s media divisions. Adapted into a TV series, Watchmen was not only a gigantic hit for HBO but a legitimate cultural milestone that took home a raft of awards. Several TV-adapted titles that incubated on DC’s former streaming service, DC Universe (now downsized into a digital comics subscription service)—including the moody Titans and Doom Patrol, both adapted from the comics—have made the jump to HBO Max. Other adaptations, such as the extended Arrow-verse (the interconnected shows Arrow, Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, and Black Lightning), have brought the goofy, convoluted charm of old-time DC storytelling to the CW network. On film, DC’s latest blockbusters Wonder Woman, Shazam, and Aquaman have received praise, and the much-anticipated Wonder Woman 1984 was released in theaters and on HBO Max over the holidays.
And by now, it’s clear WW84 was a flop compared to the billion bucks the first movie made. As of now, the sequel’s made $131 million globally, but that’s still quite a plummet compared to its predecessor. So what’s Salkowitz’s point? Most award ceremonies, if they still occur these days, are just excuses to give politically motivated awards back and forth to the same ideologues. That’s also what drove some of the “Arrowverse” TV shows, with Supergirl easily the worst victim.
Nevertheless, the value of all that content has not squelched persistent rumors that DC (or its parent company) is fielding offers to license out its comics publishing or get out of the comics business altogether. Following the first purge, Jim Lee, DC’s surviving publisher, took the extraordinary step of telling the Hollywood Reporter: “I don’t think they want to stop us publishing comics. Comics serve a lot of different purposes and one of them is, it’s a great way to incubate ideas and create the next great franchises. We want to continue that. Why would you want to stop that? Why would you want to stop creating great content that could be used across the greater enterprise?”—a hesitant response that didn’t sound like a ringing vote of confidence.
Would it be good news if DC were licensed to another business? Only if the licensee proved the ability to avoid retaining an agenda driven leftist vision, would do their best to clear away all the material from the past 20-plus years that did not stick with a consistent direction for continuity, and even made an effort to change the publication format to something more along the lines of trade paperbacks going forward. Unfortunately, I’ve got a feeling that wouldn’t be the case, and if not, that’s why a closure will be for the best.
In these next paragraphs, Salkowitz comes close to acknowledging what went wrong, but doesn’t go far enough:
Throughout this period, DC cultivated an intense fan base of increasingly middle-aged and older, mostly male readers with stories that constantly revised and reinvented the superhero genre and its mythology. But the publisher also broke ground in the early 1990s with the mature-themed, creator-owned Vertigo imprint, a pioneering precursor to the graphic novel imprints of today, which brought Sandman, Preacher, Fables, and other highly regarded multigenre nonsuperhero comics properties to book shelves with an ambitious trade paperback program.
All that is in the past. Vertigo went into a death-spiral after founding editor Karen Berger departed in 2013, and was shuttered for good in 2019. The company’s publishing strategy of endless crossover “events” (bringing its heroes together in special series) eventually exhausted the patience of readers and retailers, and DC’s close partnership with distributors and retailers has now withered as key personnel are gone. Indeed, the last round of layoffs at DC has fans as well as comics professionals wondering out loud about the ongoing viability of the direct market sales channel without DC Comics’ titles.
Well now we’re getting somewhere, but he still avoids a serious look at their artistic direction, which was awful, and fails to acknowledge the failures with at least some of their superhero output in the 90s, mainly Green Lantern, which suffered badly under Gerard Jones for starters, and Ron Marz next. I’d even suggest the retcons to Thanagarian Hawkman hurt it, and it’s funny how most people who bring up the “convoluted” history of Hawkman don’t acknowledge that the errors began at the dawn of the 90s, following the Hawkworld miniseries by Tim Truman. Yet nobody supposedly dismayed argues in favor of clearing away those severe retcons, because they’re too politically correct to call for a bold step to distinguish between what could be repaired, or left in place.
Say, and when they cite “mostly male”, are they implying something’s wrong with a boys’ genre and market? The only thing wrong is an inability to draw in younger crowds, and make it more inviting with a more complete story in something like a paperback, to say nothing of keeping the story self-contained. If you want to bring so many heroes together, even that should occur in a stand-alone book, not something that spills over into as many books as possible. And another fault? Increasing political correctness. It could take eternity to recover from that. And Salkowitz is as much to blame, due to how he keeps it at a superficial level, and won’t even admit people like him have to share the blame, because they wouldn’t object to DC’s executives becoming sleazebags and ideologues. If that doesn’t change, it’ll be the saddest part of the legacy they’re leaving behind.
Originally published here.