DC Publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio on Company's Comic Book Strategy Moving Forward
Last week’s San Diego Comic-Con was a big one for DC Entertainment.
Not only did the comic publisher announce new creative teams for core titles Aquaman and Green Lantern at the annual event, but it also unveiled the streaming subscription service DC Universe, which combines movies and TV shows with a substantial comic book catalog.
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All of this followed a substantial 2018 for the company so far, with Brian Michael Bendis taking over the Superman line, best-selling writer Scott Snyder relaunching the Justice League franchise, and a raft of books for the upcoming fall relaunch of the DC Vertigo imprint. Heat Vision sat down with DC Entertainment publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio to talk about where the company is and where it will be going.
There’s been a lot of movement inside DC publishing in the last 12 months: The announcement of the young reader lines, DC Black Label imprint, DC Vertigo relaunch and, at Comic-Con, a reveal of the DC Universe digital service. Where are your heads at in regards to the company?
Dan DiDio: Our focus is, as always, on publishing. What we’re doing is we’re reaching out in every direction with our product and our characters, reaching out with different formats, different channels. Our goal is to reach as many people as possible with our work, and if they’re not coming to find us in the direct market per se, or with graphic novels, we’re going to create the material to get them. We’re going to push our material out where we hope our fans may be; we’re going to go to our existing fan base and hopefully build out a new fan base from there.
That brings to mind the Walmart books. What’s the long-term plan there? Are you looking to build a graphic novel market for that audience?
DiDio: Not graphic novels, no; periodicals. The goal is to build an alternate style of periodical, which acts as an entry point for new fans, with new material to excite existing fans as well. Our hope is to build that out; right now, it’s four books — if we can expand that up to eight, that’s a big win for us. If we can secure ourselves not just in the 3,000 stores we’re in right now, but with a wider footprint within Walmart, that’s an even bigger win.
Was there ever a discussion about working with other big-box retailers in addition to Walmart?
DiDio: We’re working through a third party, so the reality is it’s really about building the relationship with Walmart first and seeing where that takes us.
DC Universe feels like another place you’re looking to build the audience for published material. Jim, you were talking to press last week about what this meant for DC’s comic books.
Jim Lee: From a publishing point of view, I want to say — you look at Walmart, our YA stuff, Black Label, the relaunch of DC Vertigo… — all of it is really designed to grow our business in every channel possible and build new channels. We don’t see it as being cannibalistic. So when we look at DC Universe, we’re excited as publishers to have our comic book content sit adjacent to the media content it’s inspired. We’re launching with thousands of books that will be curated and tied in [to media content], and show the origins of these characters from the printed page. Then readers, or viewers, can compare how they were adapted. We’re able to do the New Teen Titans comic book from the '80s, showcase Hawk & Dove from the '90s. There’s all these different takes on the characters and we’re looking to showcase that on a subscription service.
We haven’t even talked about the YA material. Again: new format, new voices — they’re taking our characters and, in many cases, reinventing them, given the creative freedom to tell very poignant stories, coming-of-age stories, especially on the [young adult] DC Ink line, where they’re touching on topical themes like refugees, LGBTQ themes. There’s a lot of things going on that we feel would be appealing to that audience, but most importantly, the stories will be delivered by names known within that industry; it’s not just porting over the characters and our usual list of talent. We went and cultivated relationships with the best writers in that business to help us define what DC Young Readers can be.
Even as DC is expanding as a media company, publishing is still very much at the center of it —
Lee: Absolutely, yes.
So, how important is it — as Shazam! and Aquaman prepare for release and more movies get underway, as the new seasons of the TV shows begin — to keep publishing as not merely an ongoing concern, but one that’s ideally growing?
Lee: I think everything serves a different purpose. Obviously, media has tremendous reach, but they’re burning through the lore. If you think about a show that’s been on for multiple seasons, they need continuous replenishment for these characters. I think we’d never want to stop growing the universe and expanding the mythology, so that’s kind of one of our prime directives. Updating and refreshing the characters is another. I think there’s a lot of stuff that happens at the publishing level; we’re not a business that runs in cycles, there’s no off-season. There’s new content every week. It’s a very different type of business, a never-ending business, but we love it; it gives us the opportunity to update and refresh the continuity and the characters.
Talking about refreshing; this year, you’ve added Brian Michael Bendis to Superman, Scott Snyder to Justice League, G. Willow Wilson to Wonder Woman, and this weekend, you announced Kelly Sue DeConnick for Aquaman —
Lee: Grant Morrison and Liam Sharp on Green Lantern!
DiDio: Geoff Johns and Dale Eaglesham on Shazam! (Laughs.) I can do this all day!
The core properties and franchises inside the superhero line are all getting a creative refresh this year; even on titles where the writer is staying the same, there’s something like the Batman wedding storyline or The Flash’s “Flash War” story. It’s been two years since DC Universe Rebirth and, looking at your publishing output over the last few years, it feels like every couple of years or so, there’s a push to re-emphasize and repromote the central superhero characters, alternating with "event" storylines. Is there a need to remind the audience, this is who the central characters are, this is what they’re all about? Is this an intentional pattern?
DiDio: It is; you go from events to focusing on talent-driven, succinct stories that really focus on the characters themselves. That’s the way to keep the audience interested. If you go from event to event, you’re just kind of piling them on top of each other, and it becomes less special. They’re always trying to outdo each other, and more importantly, they’re undoing each other, so they don’t have any lasting ramifications across the line. You need to have a foundation so that everything else works. The only way you can build that foundation is to have people who understand the characters. But, because these characters are 80 years old or so, you always want to bring in new voices and people who can look at these characters with a fresh set of eyes, get a new perspective and play to today’s audience. This is why we’re bringing all these folks in to our key franchises, and bring that new life and energy to them.
What’s next? Is there an untapped market you’re already looking at?
Lee: Yes. The answer is yes. I think it should always be yes. We’re doing this partnership with Snapchat. We pitched this idea of using MAD to present the news and pop culture in snaps — we’re able to use a ton of archive material, and we’re able to create new, fresh material to talk to this very wide audience. It’s all of Snapchat, you know? We’ll have new MAD content on Snap seven days a week. We have this incredible engine that creates this amazing comedic content that can be humorous, it can be political, it can skewer pop culture, it could even skewer Snapchat. We have this wealth of material, and now we have this new platform to push it out on, to reinvent it and cut it up, to make it new for a new audience.
DiDio: We’re part of a very large company, and one that is constantly creating a lot of new content. The reality is we’re one of the greatest content creators for this company, in terms of sheer volume, just on the comics side itself. If you think about it, we’re pushing out nearly 80 new comic books a month. That’s an incredible number of pages of material, it’s an incredible amount of story. But it’s not about waiting for people to discover it; we’re going to be using different digital platforms, different platforms across media, to help people find this material find its audience.
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