Guttergeek Column: WEDNESDAY SHOP TALK

Posted by on February 25th, 2010 at 12:10 AM

DC Comics’ New Editorial Team

When I read the news that DC had rearranged its executive management team last week, my initial reaction was admittedly one of indifference. I grew up a DC guy and still read and enjoy a lot of what the company publishes, so I probably should have cared a little more. I guess I just couldn’t see how the shift of upper management was going to make that big a difference in the creative direction of the company. Geoff Johns and Dan Didio are essentially the guys who have been steering the DC Universe ship since about 2004, so how big a deal is it that they (along with comics goodwill ambassador Jim Lee) have been named the company’s new executive directors?

Apparently it’s pretty big, because the comics industry’s news outlets uniformly went into a flurry of chatter and motion after the news broke last week. We were blitzed with dozens of interviews and reflections—so much so that the coverage of the news was almost more interesting than the news itself. The general consensus among creators was that this was a fantastic development. Of course it was. These writers and artists are all trying to maintain steady work with their company and stay in the graces of their new bosses. What were they going to say, “This is horrible news and we’re all doomed?” The general consensus among comics journalists seemed to be “we don’t know, so we’ll just have to wait and see.” As Tom Spurgeon wrote, “as much as the news seems to be about making predictions and choosing sides and endorsing various potential outcomes, the important thing is to see whether or not DC actually confronts those problems and to what effect six or eighteen months from now.” But I think we do know a lot about what we have ahead of us. It’s useful to look back at how DC’s top talent got to this point because it gives us an idea of what we can expect in the months and (possibly) years to come.

The structural shifts at DC began last September when Warner Brothers created DC Entertainment Inc., a company meant to consolidate and focus DC’s properties for a wide range of media outlets. Diane Nelson was named President of DC Entertainment, and long-time DC executive Paul Levitz stepped down from his position as President and Publisher of DC Comics (a position he had held since 2002). The five-month power vacuum at DC Comics was filled last week when Nelson announced that Dan Didio and Jim Lee had been appointed to the positions of Co-Publishers of DC Comics and Geoff Johns was appointed Chief Creative Officer of DC. Though officially a senior writer at DC, Johns has unofficially provided extensive creative direction at the company for several years. Didio has served as Senior Vice President and Executive Editor of the DC Universe since 2004. Jim Lee has served as Editorial Director for Wildstorm Studios since he sold the company to DC in 1998. All of these men are savvy, talented, and knowledgeable comics veterans who have been deeply involved in guiding DC over the past decade. All three have shown flashes of brilliance, but they also have mixed track records on several issues that directly relate to the positions they’re now moving into.

 

Editorial Control

One of the biggest complaints among comics readers over the last decade has been the extent to which delays are accepted as the norm in periodical comic books. Most of us are aware of the most egregious examples (All-Star Batman and Robin, Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk), but these delays have permeated the industry to such an extent that we almost don’t notice them anymore. I’m not sure how the disregard for a regular paying readership that supports comics creators has became such a joke, but it has. The simple truth is that consumers who settle into buying patterns tend to continue those patterns because they provide a comfortable sense of regularity. Comics publishers know this, so delays are no big deal because their readers will always be there. But as comics continue to rise in price and trade paperbacks become more pervasive, the traditional economic model is going to completely collapse if delays continue to be tolerated.

Johns is off the hook for this one. Despite notable delays on several of the books he’s written (Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds, Infinite Crisis, and The Flash: Rebirth), Johns is a prolific workhorse who has occasionally been paired with slow artists. But Didio was Executive Editor during the major events of the 2000s (Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis) and the major resets of DC’s flagship characters (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman). Every single one of these projects had significant delays and creative disruptions that interfered with the dynamic, high-profile rebranding DC was attempting. I’m not saying Didio was responsible for all of these problems, but no one has been publicly held accountable for the widespread entanglements that have continually plagued the company’s major comics properties. The same can be said for Jim Lee’s disastrous Wildstorm Universe relaunch, which began its latest version in 2006 and still sputters along to this day. Some of this is not his fault, but much of it is. Somebody has to have the authority of oversight here, and it’s somewhat disconcerting that two men who (rightly or wrongly) have become associated with delays and underachieving projects are now in charge of the overall editorial direction of DC Comics.

 

Crossover Sprawl

Another major issue Lee, Johns, and Didio will have to contend with in the years to come is the crossover event, which has become as ubiquitous in the comics industry as delays. I’m going to go ahead and admit that I still get excited by universe-altering event books. The DC Universe offers—at its core—a vast landscape of contemporary mythology, and I like seeing how this mythology is changed and applied in different ways over time. Grant Morrison understands this as well as anyone, which is why I’m still convinced that Final Crisis was better and more important than its sales and critical reviews indicate. But the problem of crossover sprawl has gotten out of hand. Final Crisis suffered most from the lack of focus and editorial control outside its main title. Characters and incidents were contradictory from one month to the next, and the publication of each issue led to a new interview in which Morrison had to explain things away. This wasn’t a fair position to put him (or many of the writers associated with ancillary titles) in.

This problem has gotten worse with Blackest Night, which started out as a great idea but has slowly unraveled because it was never meant to be this big. In trying to accommodate all the spinoff issues, miniseries, and continuity hurdles, Johns’ writing on the main Blackest Night title has been some of his most hollow and diluted to date. Again, this comes down to focus and large-scale editorial control. All of DC’s best writers—Morrison, Johns, Greg Rucka, Gail Simone, and Justin Gray—produce their best work when they’re allowed to exercise wide creative freedom within clear narrative parameters. When those borders are muddled and porous, the line between innovative visual storytelling and unabashed money-grabbing becomes increasingly clear.

 

“No Fear” (For Better or For Worse)

The same day DC announced its new executive lineup, that lineup announced its philosophical approach to running the company: “No Fear.” This sounds dynamic and exciting and will probably resonate with much of DC’s intended readership. The implication is that the team is not afraid of pushing boundaries and taking risks in its move forward. Luckily, DC has Vertigo—an imprint that has defined the “no fear” approach with great success for almost 20 years. I assume this will continue, so I’m not very concerned about what the new DC management team means for Vertigo. As Dirk Deppey noted, the fact that Karen Berger will remain the Executive Editor of Vertigo is more a testament to her effectiveness as a brand manager than an indication that she wasn’t worthy of promotion. I’m actually more interested in what Didio means by “no fear” in the DC Universe.

The last ten years have been marked by more successes than failures from a creative standpoint. Two of the greatest periodical successes DC has had recently—DC: Fifty-Two and Wednesday Comics—seem to have been pioneered and steered by Didio. These two books alone prove that risk-taking and the development of creative models are worthwhile pursuits even in superhero comics. The fact that books like Ambush Bug, Jonah Hex, Blue Beetle, Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters, The Spirit, and Sgt. Rock were all green-lit and strongly supported by DC under Didio’s leadership also speaks well for his willingness to take chances on unconventional properties. Even in the middle of the daunting, interminable Blackest Night, DC managed to catch my interest by releasing coda issues for several of my favorite “dead” titles of the last 30 years (The Question, Starman, and Suicide Squad).

The biggest pitfall DC needs to avoid is trying to recreate its own successes. Marvel has slipped into a bit of a holding pattern in this regard. The financial successes Marvel has had over the last decade have led to the same models and methods from year to year, and the result has been exactly the sort of complacency and stagnation for which mainstream comics are well known. When DC has tried similar repetitions, the results have been similarly unimpressive. Fifty-Two was an impressive technical and narrative accomplishment, but Countdown to Final Crisis was a disjointed, lugubrious disaster. Despite the creative talents of Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley, Trinity wasn’t much better. If DC can publish projects like DC: The New Frontier, Solo, and Wednesday Comics without trying to repeat those projects—if they can innovate, capitalize, and move on to the next new project while their competition is trying to catch up—then the “no fear” slogan will be earned. But if they try to catch their own lightning in a bottle and keep it there while other companies are pioneering new ways to ensure comics’ commercial survival in the 21st century, I don’t suspect the results will be very favorable—either to Warner Bros. or to comics readers.

On the whole, DC’s announcement last week still isn’t enormous news. I’m hopeful that Didio, Lee, and Johns are able to avoid the All-Star Batman and Robins, Countdowns, and Blackest Nights that bog them down. I hope they’re able to think of new ways to top not just their competition, but themselves. I also hope they’re able to correct and reverse many of the problems that are currently holding the industry back both creatively and financially. A stronger, more visionary DC that reaches more readers, more ages, and more artistic tastes can only be a good thing for Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, etc. because it means that everybody has to keep growing up.

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