Retailer View: What’s Going On at DC Comics?

As a comic aficionado since age 5, I was a DC kid who grew up on the likes of the Super Friends, Batman Animated Series, and of course the ’89 Batman movie. As I got older I was quickly sucked in to the business aspect of the hobby, and have loved every bit of it.  Since then I’ve been a convention vendor, comic book retailer, and shop owner for a combined 10+ years in the upper midwest region of the U.S.  Currently I am enjoying a lot of the back half of previews, specifically crime noir titles – but I still have room for my favorite super heroes (Batman, Nightwing, Doctor Strange, and Silver Surfer)  I’ve seen trends come and go, especially at the BIG 2 comic publishers and the following are my thoughts  as a comics retailer related to what I am seeing out of DC Comics.

 


Once lauded as the retailer’s preferred publisher to do business with, including winning the 2017 Diamond Gem Award for Comic Book Publisher of the Year over 3%, DC Comics has seen a fairly rapid fall from grace.  The head scratching, flip-flopping, and in some cases baffling decisions have made what once was a strong relationship with retailers a frayed one at best.

 

The Trust Is Gone

Over a period of years, DC Comics built up strong relationships with almost every retailer they interacted with. Between providing one on one consultations, proactive checkins to confirm your orders were sufficient, and easy access to sales and publishing staff, we the retailers were almost never at a loss for an answer to customers.  Over the last calendar year, much of that trust has been eroded, and those answers have slowly disappeared.

 

Things can change quick.  What once was a vibrant DC Comics Facebook Retailer group has gone dark.  Interactions between retailers and DC staff have been reduced to announcements and cover art awareness.  Both of which are welcome, but the community is certainly not what it was just a couple short months ago with active thought sharing.  Maybe it was the growing sense of frustration that ballooned over the summer, or maybe it was a desire not to want to face reality in some cases.  Either way, the communication channels that once were wide open, aren’t as inviting as they previously were, and those answers that used to shoot straight are absent or vague.

 

Add to the noticeable lack of discussion that DC’s main competitor, Marvel Comics, has beaten them out in monthly dollar share (10 out of 10 months) and unit share (9 out of 10 months) consistently in 2018.  With results like this one can’t help but ask if this is partly because of a general malaise to the product being produced.  Retailers tend to sell what has the best word of mouth. Just a couple of short years ago that was DC Comics, coming in strong off of the Rebirth launch and a general distaste around the re-tread Marvel events, and the constant switching of who the acting heroes were behind the familiar character names.  Times change, and Marvel is once again the hot place to be.

 

2018 Has Not Been Kind

 

2018 has not been kind to DC Comics, or shall we say their relationship with direct market retailers. Announcements like the new line of exclusive Wal-Mart 100 page specials with content written by DC’s top selling creators (June), or the complete disaster that was a press release in advance of BATMAN #50 (July) that gave away the ending.  Those were quickly followed up by news of the cancellation of the long out of print SHAZAM!: THE MONSTER SOCIETY OF EVIL (August), and the censoring of the Black Label book BATMAN DAMNED #1 (September).  The BATMAN DAMNED dust-up caused DC to step back and re-evaluate the purpose of it’s Black Label line.  Initially a no-holds barred creator sandbox for top talent to explore the possibilities will now take a considerable step back and be reigned in.  It’s safe to say that just these headline grabbing decisions alone have been enough to kill retailer, and in many cases, reader enthusiasm. 

 

Batman Backtrack

DC’s handling of the Batman #50 spoiler release was so universally despised by the retailer community, that after a period of internal discussions DC decided the best course of action was to make Batman #50 100% fully returnable and any money spent on marketing or release event costs by retailers would be paid back by DC.  It was bad enough that the dozens of retailers who purchased store exclusive variants for the book were calling for their money back to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars each.  Beyond just Batman #50, the heat and frustration was so high, that DC was relegated to making Catwoman #1 also 100% fully returnable, as retailers were told to order appropriately with their Batman #50 orders, and make sure readers read Batman #50 first.

 

Cancellation Bug Bites Again

 

Well friends, as of this week, we add another heavy miss of highly anticipated back material being cancelled to the disappointment train – DETECTIVE COMICS: BEFORE BATMAN (VOLS. 1 AND 2) HC.  These books contain early Golden Age work from creators such as Jerry Seigel, Joe Schuster, Bob Kane and others. Single issues from this run sell for considerable amounts of money on the secondary market, and in some cases have never been reprinted in a collected edition.  No reason has been given as to why these are not going to see print.

 

SHAZAM!: THE MONSTER SOCIETY OF EVIL was determined to have too many undertones of racism for DC to feel comfortable printing it.  Never mind that these stories have ALREADY BEEN PUBLISHED AND COLLECTED Many fans have decided to jettison the idea of waiting around for a potential 3rd attempt at solicitation and have turned to crude scanned copies of the material put together and sold by 3rd party sellers on Amazon.  Lost revenue for retailers, and for DC Comics.

 

Joining the BEFORE BATMAN HC set on the cancellation block are two additional HC books, one that has never been published on it’s own before – SHAZAM!: POWER OF HOPE HC and one that hasn’t even seen the initial order date elapse yet – WONDER WOMAN: SPIRIT OF TRUTH HC. While cancellations happen periodically for different reasons, the frequency of these type of decisions from one publisher are starting to become all too familiar of a pattern. Not to mention … no details as to why.

 

 

It Goes Deeper

Beneath those bigger stories lie many more missteps, hiccups and backtracks.  Remember when DC Rebirth was announced, and ratio variants were a thing of the past? Yes? Well, enter back the tiered variants on books, some as high as 1:500.  I remember shortly after that, coming out of the DC Metal panel reported from a Diamond Retailer Summit in 2017, the announcement that we would begin to see art pushing books again. These books were solicited with much fanfare, only to have most of those artists be removed or unable to sustain the work that they were signed up for (Jim Lee couldn’t even complete all of the art on the first issue of his title).  New Age of Heroes – I’ll just leave that one alone.

 

Should we talk about Doomsday Clock?  We probably should, because like most readers, you may have completely forgotten that it is actually still being published.  Never mind the fact that the delays on Doomsday Clock have held up the usage of entire teams of beloved characters (JSA and Legion), and the if rumors are to be believed, cost DC the opportunity to hire Jonathan Hickman.  Another nitpick to bring up would be the “no renumbering” fading quick for Superman.  The Man of Steel saw a new Superman #1 at the beginning of Rebirth, then a Man of Steel #1, and a subsequent second Superman #1 when Brian Michael Bendis arrived.

So What Is Going On?

All of this to ask the question – what is going on at DC?  Readers that come in to my store are feeling it, other retailers are feeling it … is DC feeling it?  Is this a byproduct of the AT&T merger?  Is this a sign of uncertainty in the leadership at DC?  Where do these decisions land?

 

Dan DiDio – Publisher DC Comics

Do they hit publishing?  Time and time again we see Dan DiDio bring amazing energy and conviction to discussions and interviews.  Maybe the problem lies on the creative side?  Jim Lee was thrust back into this arena with the launch of Rebirth and subsequent role changes for Geoff Johns, and speaking of Geoff Johns, he has had to order new business cards for his changing titles more than a good real estate agent does over the last two years. 

 

Do these problems live with editorial? Bob Harras has been in place since 2010, and left Marvel on shaky terms.  Is this a sales and marketing issue? John Cunningham, currently the Senior Vice President of Sales and Trade Marketing, has seen a steady growth in responsibility over the past few years –I can’t believe these solicited but cancelled items would not have rolled through his inbox prior to making it in Previews.  If so, why are these items getting through? Or more importantly, why are they making it through and then being cancelled?

 

John Cunningham – Senior VP Sales & Trade Marketing

What about Vince Letterio – Executive Director of sales? If the solicits aren’t passing through John Cunningham’s desk, surely someone approves these from a leadership level. If you are going to solicit the book you owe it to those who follow the ridiculous trend of ordering 2 months in advance to meet your end of the deal by producing it. 

 

There are a lot of questions out there to be answered, but chief among them – What is going on with DC Comics?  The steady publisher who was not only trusted to deliver, but worked with retailers for the betterment of the industry has seemingly made a drastic 180 degree change in direction on how it views it’s relationship with the direct market.  Not to mention the new pattern of let downs on solicited material not being realized.

Final Thought

One thing is for sure, disenfranchising yourself from your main base may get you a win in the short term, but can cost you in the long term.

 

Hugo Halfman

A comic book retailer and collector who likes to ask the tough questions.

JUST KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON