Why I’m optimistic about DC Comics’ new management team

Posted by on February 19th, 2010 at 2:19 AM

 


Detail from Frank Quitely’s cover to All-Star Superman #1, ©2006 DC Comics.

 

I have to say, the longer I think about DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson’s selections to take over management of the company from outgoing publisher Paul Levitz, the smarter those selections look.

First and foremost, one should keep in mind that the biggest and most necessary decision for DC Comics — the removal of publisher Paul Levitz — has already taken place. That was the radical change that DC needed. I have no doubt that there are any number of creative, talented people at the company, but so long as they were working for an incompetent executive afraid of standing behind a project unless it instantly transformed into a goldmine, their talents were as much a hindrance as a help. Companies that punish original thinking and bold leaps into the void tend to stagnate, as DC has aptly demonstrated over the last decade, and failure rarely looks good on a resumé.

A concrete example of what I’m talking about: New York City corporate-comics publishing has long suffered from a sort of split personality where the mass market is concerned, with Marvel being the poster boy for the phenomenon. Put simply, if you’re not willing to support a work intended for new audiences because it doesn’t sell to the already-existing audience, you’ll never find that new audience.

This hasn’t quite been DC’s problem. Rather, DC suffered from not being able to plan for the long-term effort required to build an audience, regardless of the consumer group being targeted. Former DC Comics publisher Paul Levitz probably didn’t cancel the Minx line of books for teenage girls because it didn’t sell well in the Direct Market, but because it didn’t spawn immediate results in the bookstore market.

The fact that the new executives, touring the various news sites yesterday, were eager to repeat the mantra “No fear” as often as they did was therefore quite significant. To the general public, it could be read as an admission that up until now, fear had in fact been a problem. More important, I’m guessing, is the message they were sending to current (and potential future) employees within DC itself: We’re going to work to ensure that it stops being a problem.

Given this, putting Jim Lee at the top was a no-brainer. He may well be the only person under Levitz to launch a new, long-running line of comics — the CMX manga line — that didn’t get canned within a year or two, once it became clear that the new line was not a quick road to wealth and fame. While it may seem odd for an Image founder to be seen as a forward-thinking innovator, that’s nonetheless one of the roles that Lee has quietly filled since DC bought him out to get Alan Moore back on the payroll. The proof is in his willingness to follow through on new publishing initiatives, or at least not give up at the first sign of resistance. It’s entirely possible that if he’d been in Levitz’ shoes three years ago, Minx might still be an ongoing concern, possibly even a successful one. (Yeah, I know that sounds a bit far-fetched, but let me put it this way: Is there any way that Lee could have done worse with a six-figure marketing budget than did Alloy Media & Marketing?)

Despite things like the Minx fiasco, however, one must note that DC Comics actually has figured out how to sell books in bookstores, ironically enough due to the very “competing fiefdoms” that have otherwise been such a problem for the company. Case in point: Vertigo, which survived because it was an outgrowth of Alan Moore’s work on Saga of the Swamp Thing and Karen Berger’s willingness to allow him to innovate. Because the hard work of building a readership had already been done before the Vertigo line was formalized, it was able to escape running the gauntlet that had killed Minx, Helix and the others, and has had the freedom to experiment without looking over its shoulder in fear of the Grim Reaper. While there’s been some limited consternation over the fact that Berger wasn’t brought into top management along with DiDio and Lee, this may well be more a vote of confidence than anything else — it appears to mean that, unlike the rest of the company, Nelson doesn’t think that Vertigo is broken. It’s an affirmation, not an oversight. I expect that we’ll be seeing Vertigo take a much higher profile at DC, with an expansion of its position as the company’s “modern graphic novel” line.

Seen through this lens, the selection of DiDio and Johns becomes clearer as well. With imprints like Vertigo doing the heavy lifting in experimenting with ways to grow the company’s presence in the bookstore market, the top executives can do what they were obviously chosen to do: use the company’s mainline superhero books to bring the fight to Marvel in the Direct Market. Which, you may have noticed, is exactly what DC has begun doing since the announcement of Levitz’ departure.

Like I said, the longer I think about it, the smarter yesterday’s announcement looks.

 

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3 Responses to “Why I’m optimistic about DC Comics’ new management team”

  1. […] | Dirk Deppey, Warren Ellis, Brian Hibbs, Graeme McMillan, Tom Richmond, Tom Spurgeon and Douglas Wolk offer […]

  2. […] with reactions being, to put it kindly, mixed.  I think that Dirk Deppey’s remarkably even handed take (unless you’re Levitz) makes a lot of sense, and many other more-astute-than-I pundits have […]

  3. […] so I’m not very concerned about what the new DC management 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 […]