Today, I want to dive into all the drama that’s been surrounding DC Comics since its corporate parents Warner Brothers merged with their new corporate daddy, AT&T if only to try to make sense of it.
Before we start, I want to be up frank in that I’m not on the front lines of this. I’m mostly acting as an aggregator who reads from various rumor columns and listens in on the comic shop buzz I’ve heard. Much of this centers around restructuring, which usually comes with job losses. I feel horrible about people losing their jobs and livelihoods at any time, but even more so as we’re all in the midst of this pandemic.
I realize that rampant speculation isn’t the most professional thing at this moment.
But I also recognize that I’m a fan and an unpaid one at that, so there goes your professionalism! Many of my friends and readers are fans, and we just want to figure out what’s going on. I was talking with Andy the other day and realized that some folks may not have followed this as closely, but still want to have some idea of what’s going on. I have no disrespect intended to those first party participants in all of this hullabaloo. All opinions expressed are my own, but I welcome anyone with more knowledge to set me straight if I mess anything up.
A Timeline of Major Events/Products:
Diane Nelson/ Geoff Johns removed.
This dates back to June 2018, when Nelson, the president of DC Entertainment Warner Bros. Consumer Products, and Geoff Johns, chief creative officer at DC Entertainment, stepped down within weeks of each other. Many felt Johns was taking the bullet for the poor performance of the Snyder-verse films, but he continued to write comics and work for Warner Brothers. That happens to be the same month the AT&T merger with Warner Bros is finally approved, and it looks like the very opening salvos in changing how things are done.
Walmart Exclusive 100 Page Giants!
This deal predates the AT&T upheaval, but it’s worth noting that the first Walmart-Exclusive 100 Page Giant $5 comics hit shelves in June 2018. Creatively, DC put its best foot forward, assigning top names on each of the books it released for new material to front the remaining reprint pages. It put comic books in a major retailer, an initiative that had been sorely lacking for years. I bemoaned at the time that there was no direction where to go if you picked a book up at Walmart and wanted more, but it turns out, that wasn’t a concern. It was all about getting into the door at Wallyworld.
A year later, Walmart would lose exclusive rights and issues would show up in comic stores (a few weeks after Walmart). During the pandemic, DC would end this line abruptly in favor of sending Walmart repacked issues packaged together.
The DCU Streamer
The DC Universe Streaming service had been announced in April 2017 and finally launched in September 2018. It housed former DC tv and movie content from Superfriends to Justice League Unlimited as well as new shows like Titans and Doom Patrol. It initially included a selection of available comics, but kicked that into overdrive around April 2019 and included what was described as their entire digital library for no additional cost. That apparently did not bring in as many subscribers as hoped, and the DCU service has been hemorrhaging show exclusives and looks to be on its last legs at this point. This one seems like a case of an interesting product, but not one AT&T would have developed, so they’re likely going to allow it to die on the vine in the near future.
Putting the Batawang Back in the Bottle
In November 2018, DC published Batman: Damned to launch their brand new Adult-material imprint: Black Label. The hook: the first issue showed a certain Bat-eared hero in a state of full frontal nakedness, otherwise known as the first appearance of the Batawang! However, DC immediately began walking that back, blacking out the image in the digital release and any subsequent printings.
It turns out the new head of DC, Pam Lifford (who took over from Diane Nelson in 2018) was not a fan of the adult-oriented storyline, thinking that it damaged the bat-brand. Lifford has a history on the merchandising end of the company, so protecting brands is a big deal to her, apparently.
It turns out mature stories are ok, just not too gratuitously mature. The Black Label imprint would continue, however, frequently telling more mature stories featuring big-name characters like Joker, Harley Quinn, Birds of Prey, Superman, and Wonder Woman. It’s an interesting dichotomy between corporate and creative interests at play any time a Black Label book hits shelves.
Vertigo began officially in 1993 and was the home for adult-oriented mature storytelling. By the time DC pulled the plug in June 2019, many of Vertigo’s legacy-defining books were long finished. Risqué projects like Mark Russell and Richard Pace’s Second Coming about Jesus returning were released from their agreements and would later find homes at AHOY or Image Comics.
With the loss of the Vertigo branding, many feared that DC would stop telling mature stories featuring lesser-known characters. Ironically, many of Vertigo’s big franchises (The Dreaming, Hellblazer, etc.) would return post-Vertigo under different imprints to moderate success, just without the Vertigo name officially attached. Their mature edge is in tact, too, with a prominent Black Label now instead.
Gen 5 Divide between Didio/Snyder
Rumors abounded that DC co-publisher and DC superstar writer were butting heads about the direction of the company. As DC is wont to do every few years, they were going to clean up continuity again—perhaps to set everything right after the unsuccessful New 52 experiment. Geoff Johns had an idea the was started with his Rebirth and Doomsday Clock issues that were apparently part of a plan that continued to change (and delay Geoff Johns’s work). Whether the Johns’ plan and the Didio plan were the same is unclear.
What is clear is that Scott Snyder didn’t like what it ended up becoming. He actively wrote his Death Metal series as to not be a part of the big changes. Didio’s plan involved a new timeline, which would involve 5 generations of heroes, and ultimately age out popular heroes like Batman and Flash to make way for younger replacements. Lucius Fox’s son was to be the new Batman; Jonathan Kent the new Superman, Captain Boomerang’s son the new Flash. Seeds were even planted in the published Doomsday Clock #12 and Wonder Woman #750, and were to continue into DC’s Free Comic Book Day offering and various Generations specials.
Dan Didio firing pre C2E2
Dan Didio, who had been co-publisher and a top of DC mainstay for a decade left his position in February 2020, just a week before C2E2, the last major comic convention. Maybe ever. It was unclear if Didio resigned or was let go, but speculation abounded that Didio saw the writing on the wall from the higher ups and knew his time was up.
Apparently, plans with 5G went out the door with Didio, and all copies of the FCBD issue were pulped.
In March, that’s when the country at large amped up its reaction to the pandemic, shuddering storefronts and non-essential businesses. This left the one major comic distributor, Diamond, with a tough proposition: how could they distribute books with no shops to buy them? So Diamond put a halt on all comic sales. The understanding of some comic retailers was the DC was actually the impetus of the initial pausing, claiming they couldn’t get their books from their Canadien printers. Regardless, everything stopped for a few weeks. In the interim, DC announced that they were dropping Diamond distribution in favor of 2 other distributors—distributors that just so happened to be owned by two large comic sellers, Discount ComicBook Service and MidTown Comics. Retailers balked at sending ordering info to a competitor, with some claiming to stop carrying DC or limiting DC titles to subscribers only because o the additional expense and hassle. DC also insisted on changing the on-sale date from Wednesday to Tuesday so as to align with booksellers and other industries. No other comic company agreed to that change. So now, DC books go out a day earlier at shops, who have to order those books from different places than their other comics, incur increased shipping costs, and create confusion amongst their customer base. It’s almost as though AT&T didn’t really care about comic shops and was more than willing to kick them while they were down. Eventually, because they did not procure overseas distribution, DC did go back to Diamond for DC Collectibles distribution and European store comic sales.
HBO Max launch confusion
This isn’t comic related as much as an indicator of the frustrating way AT&T treats their customers. In May, their much ballyhooed HBO Max subscription service launched. It cost the same as HBO Go, Now, and HBO apps, but would contain additional content to what was currently provided through regular HBO services. What movies and shows would be included, what providers would carry the service (which still excludes Roku and Amazon Fire customers), and what devices would be comparable were all unclear at the time of launch. Then, at the end of July, the regular HBO, HBO Now, and HBO Go apps that were available to be used were discontinued. AT&T just wanted the brand name of HBO to bundle their programming and gave little regard for what HBO actually had been doing well for years—they just needed the name. Whether it’s because of the continued confusion, increased competition (hi Peacock!), or the unfortunate timing of being released mid-pandemic, HBO Max is seen to be not meeting its intended potential. What is comic related regarding HBO Max is that it has started siphoning original shows like Harley Quinn and Doom Patrol from the DCU streaming service to prop up its customer base.
That brings us to this past week, when ATT&T/Warner Media told 800 staffmembers that they were being let go. Names like E-i-C Bob Harras, DC Black Label Exec Editor Mark Doyle, VP Bobbie Chase, DC Editor Andy Khouri, SVP Hank Kanalz, and others were all reportedly made redundant. Jim Lee stayed on as CCO, and Marie Javins and Michele Wells will report to him and Pam Lifford as co-publishers. Javins is a comics lifer with experience at many different companies, and Wells is very involved with the Children’s/YA divisions. Most DCU staffers were let go and the DC Direct collectibles line will be done. There is now apparently a 2 year plan that will see more mass market production through Walmart and a move from monthly books to “digital serialization and original graphic novels.” Fewer books will be collected in trade format eventually.
So, the big questions at the end:
Is this the end of the comic shop as you know it?
Losing a majority of DC monthly titles will surely be another blow to the industry at a time it can ill-afford it.
Will I still get a FCBD issue with all new material?
Now isn’t the time to worry about trivialities like that!
Is the move to digital or OGNs all that bad?
I know a number of folks who have basically already made that transition. I’m still holding on to my weekly shop visits, but there’s a chance this could be hopeful for the comics industry as a whole, even despite it being bad news for many. Maybe instead of the DC Collectibles niche products, there’s more mainstream licensed material on your store shelves. Or retailers avoid it so as to not give Walmart an upper hand and DC products dry out.
Reports are emerging about streamlining and cutting less profitable titles. So look for more stories with the big name capes, less in terms of artful experimentation—at least on shelves. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the more fun experiments like Bendis’s Wonder Comics, Joe Hill’s horror line, and Gerard Way’s Young Animal go away in exchange for more Batman and Superman titles.
Ironically, it’s the singular focus on Batman and Superman that hampered Warner Bros. from making anything like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, leaving them to play catch up in Hollywood. But I bet Bats and Supes made them some cash anyway.
Plus, AT&T has proven to be really bad at digital, as evidenced by the DCU/HBO Max debacles. Maybe they get better, but the past performance isn’t promising.
Will DC still put out high quality comics?
I’m certain that the IP of the characters is important enough that the comics will continue in some form or another for years to come. While comics don’t make a ton of money themselves, they are an idea factory, and sooner or later, AT&T will wise up to the value of that.
I wish the best for those that are directly involved. I hope for the best for the creators and the characters that I care about. I’m a fan, and I wish the best for my fellow fans, too. I hope you enjoyed my office-gossip column and next week we can get back to real business!
Until then, I’m off to my comic shop to enjoy it while I still can! DC may have pulled their Free Comic Book Day issue, but Free Comic Book Day Summer lives on! Huzzah!