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Wonder Woman isn’t DC Entertainment’s only success story when it comes to breaking new ground with its superhero properties in the past year or so. While the Amazon Princess has helped audiences of all ages discover the — ahem — wonder of a female superhero unencumbered of male heroes, the company’s DC Super Hero Girls program has done something arguably harder: it has introduced an audience long thought lost back to superhero comics.
Set in an alternate version of the DC Universe, DC Super Hero Girls features younger versions of the company’s superhero and villain characters attending Super Hero High School, where the curriculum includes learning how to deal with powers and the regular teenage school stuff. As a property, it exists across multiple media, with animated TV episodes, webisodes and home release movies alongside toys, apparel and DC’s own graphic novel line. In addition to sales success, the property has gained attention for bringing gender parity to the toy market and inspired a similar effort from Disney, the Star Wars: Forces of Destiny initiative.
As San Diego Comic-Con approaches, the key people involved in DC’s graphic novel series look back at the project so far.
DC Super Hero Girls was announced in April 2015 as a partnership between DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Animation, Warner Bros. Consumer Products and Mattel: a cross-platform effort to appeal to young girls, with offerings in animated movies, TV and webisodes, apparel, toys, and publishing to be released the following year. But work had been ongoing for some point by the time the project was announced, with one writer taking point in the development process.
Shea Fontana, writer: I was brought on very early on when they kind of knew they wanted to do a property for girls 6-12. They thought it was probably in a high school setting, just because that’s where a lot of those properties are set, and that’s what girls relate to. It was very open from there, what we wanted to do with it. I got to really dig my hands in early on and discuss what characters we wanted to bring in, and really bring this whole world to life — discuss the stories we wanted to tell and how the characters would be portrayed.
Marie Javins, editor: The company took a multifaceted approach to the entire DC Super Hero Girls Universe. We were working on developing the graphic novels at the same time as animation and toys were happening.
Once the high school concept was set, development turned to a discussion of which DC characters to include — and where. (In DC Super Hero Girls, it’s not only the students that would be familiar to longtime DC fans; the faculty, too, are drawn from the DC portfolio. Suicide Squad‘s Amanda Waller is the school principal, for example, while Jack Kirby’s over-the-top villainess Granny Goodness is the school librarian.)
Fontana: From the beginning, we really thought of it as a new universe; we did away with the canon, but we wanted to retain the DNA of the characters. It was really collaborative between the development people at Mattel and the development people at DC, and myself, but I had so much support from DC to make this work for this audience. There was always, we have to keep the superpowers the same and keep the characters recognizable, but I had a ton of leeway to get in there and do what worked. I had a lot of leeway to pick the characters — we knew, obviously, from the beginning that Wonder Woman and Supergirl and Batgirl would be there, because you can’t have a DC superhero girl show without them, and from there, it was about how to make our core cast diverse and empowering, so we brought in Katana and Bumblebee.
I didn’t know a lot about Bumblebee before starting this project, and she’s probably the character that most little girls, when they come up to me and I ask them who their favorite character is, they’ll say Bumblebee. I’m just blown away by that — I didn’t expect that at all. She’s been an outstanding character to work with.
DC Super Hero Girls Vol. 1: Finals Crisis was released in June 2016, following the October 2015 web launch for the franchise and a merchandising rollout beginning in March 2016. The book, and its October 2016 follow-up Hits and Myths (both illustrated by Yancey Labat, an artist with work for Marvel, Chronicle Books and Scholastic under his belt), provided an “in” for a new audience eager not only to learn more about the characters — freed of the weighty canon of DC’s regular continuity — but to embrace fandom on their own terms.
Fontana: It’s so incredible. I love meeting the little kids who come up to my table, who have read the books and who have the most incredible questions. They’re so smart, they catch all the continuity errors you hoped people might ignore. They’re so into it, they want to know when did this story happen in the timeline, did this story happen after that story — they’re making connections.
There was one mother and her daughter who came up to me at Salt-Lake Comic-Con, and they were telling me that they had threatened at school to hold the daughter back a year because she wasn’t able to read well enough, but after the graphic novels that she just devoured, she just kept reading and kept reading, and that was how she was able to move on at school. That was how she learned to read. It was one of those things that stays with you forever, that you’ve really changed someone’s life.
Sales for the graphic novels back up this level of excitement around the Super Hero Girls brand. Indeed, Super Hero Girls didn’t just meet expectations, it outperformed the majority of DC’s graphic novel and collected editions output in 2016, according to the publisher.
John Cunningham, DC Entertainment, senior vp sales: If I look at books we shipped out of [DC’s book market distributor] Penguin Random House last year — books shipped to bookstores — DC Super Hero Girls: Finals Crisis was our No. 2 book on units. Our No. 1 book was The Killing Joke. So our list goes, Batman: The Killing Joke, DC Super Hero Girls: Finals Crisis, Suicide Squad Vol. 1, Watchmen, Preacher. And what that number [for DCSHG] doesn’t include is our Scholastic Book Club sale, which is of a quantity which is greater than what I show shipping out of Penguin Random House.
That could be considered vindication for a creative team — led by Javins, a comics veteran with experience both as a cartoonist and editor at Marvel, DC and Kuwaiti publisher Teshkeel Media Group — that took notice of the work already done by publishers like Scholastic, First Second and others that had found success with comics aimed at younger audiences. Perhaps more surprising was the success of DC Super Hero Girls in the “Direct Market,” which consists of specialty comic book stores.
Cunningham: If I look at my direct market sales, Finals Crisis is my No. 19 book, with a number attached to it that makes my eyes pop every time I look at it. We did estimates here about how much we expected it to sell [in comic stores], and it has completely exceeded that.
Unlike similar properties, there’s no sense of the series slowing down with subsequent releases. (The third book in the series, Summer Olympus, was released last month, with a fourth due for release in September.)
Cunningham: DC Super Hero Girls: Hits and Myths, which is the second book in the series, was my No. 8 book for [2016 in the bookstore vertical]. There was a number of months’ difference, but if you look at the rate, there’s no drop-off in sales that we’re seeing.
Looking to the future, the success of DC Super Hero Girls hasn’t just established a secure future for that particular brand in DC’s publishing plans — a digital series was unveiled in October — but it’s identified a new market for DC to explore in years to come. No official announcement has been made yet, but a May release about new editorial positions at DC dropped a small hint about what’s to come: a “brand-new Young Readers’ imprint scheduled to launch in 2018.”
That tease suggests something that’s not only exciting, but necessary for the survival of DC’s superhero comic properties. Thirty years after titles like Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns demonstrated that — to paraphrase a DC tagline of the era — superhero comics weren’t just for kids anymore, the market has shifted to such a point that it seems as if superhero comics aren’t for kids at all anymore.
Without younger readers being offered an entry point into this particular slice of the medium, however, all that’s left is an aging demographic and shrinking audience. Something has to change — and, with DC Super Hero Girls, DC just might have identified what that should be.
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