Bob Harras Named DC Comics Editor-in-Chief, Latest in Major Company Changes: A Summation

DC’s First Editor-in-Chief in Years

DC Comics released the news yesterday: Robert “Bob” Harras, formerly a Collected Editions Group Editor, was named their new Editor-in-Chief, VP, DC Comics.

Harras will oversee editorial for DC Comics, DC Universe, MAD Magazine, and Vertigo and will be based in New York City, reporting directly to the Co-Publishers [Jim Lee and Dan DiDio]. Harras becomes the company’s first Editor-in-Chief in nearly 10 years since the position was held by Jenette Kahn from 1981 to 2002. … Harras was the Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics from 1995 to 2000.

The announcement surprised a lot of people, but from a corporate viewpoint, it’s the kind of choice that makes perfect sense on paper. Few people have ever been Editor-in-Chief of one of the two major American superhero publishers, and fewer still (when Harras was X-Men Group Editor) gave current Co-Publisher Jim Lee one of his biggest breaks in comics, driving off Chris Claremont from the X-Men comic and giving the plotting job to artist Lee. Harras’ perceived success with the X-Men franchise, bringing in hot younger artists and achieving high sales, may impress a company that wants that kind of multi-media character franchise and has had trouble attracting the kind of talent that excites fans.

Harras also has creative experience, writing The Avengers during the mid-90s, while fans remember him for overseeing the Spider-Man Clone Saga, one of the most contentious modern superhero storylines. Additionally, Harras was in charge during the Heroes Reborn project, when classic Marvel heroes, including Iron Man and Captain America, were outsourced to Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld to freshen and revamp, a less-than-successful project but one that demonstrated a willingness to try new approaches.

Personally, if he brings the same kind of attention to the overall comic line that he did to collected editions, I won’t be impressed. These past few years, DC collections have been bland and boring, with few extras and the kind of presentation that suggests “keeping costs low” is the primary motivation. Plus, some fans complain about key titles being out of print. Still, again, what I want is obviously not what the company wants, and what I see as a detriment may count as a positive to executives with different priorities and a different sense of what matters in comic history (sales, not character or creator stability). DC needs solid, day-to-day management on the East Coast, especially given how much of the Co-Publishers’ focus will now be on the big picture of the West Coast, due to recent organizational changes.

DC Comics Split From DC Entertainment

It’s been a year since the original restructuring, making DC Comics part of DC Entertainment, and as they promised, they made their key announcements in 2010. It’s long been rumored that some kind of move was happening, but I don’t think anyone expected the actual choice: Everything EXCEPT the comics is moving west by the end of 2011.

Time Warner shook up its DC Entertainment business on Tuesday, announcing that operations focused on developing feature films, television, digital media, video games and consumer products would move to California from New York. But contrary to wide speculation, the heart of DC Comics, its publishing business, will remain in Manhattan.

Why? In addition to nods towards talent relations and staying in the home of traditional print publishing of all kinds, it’s because Warner really only cares about the movies, with “announcement of a slate of DC Comics-based titles [coming] by the end of the year.” DC’s own publishing of the news on its blogs was headlined a “bi-coastal realignment strategy” in an excellent example of corporate speak. Included was this quote from Jeff Robinov, President, Warner Bros. Pictures Group, the boss of Diane Nelson, head of DC Entertainment: “This strategic business realignment allows us to fully integrate and expand the DC brand in feature films as well as across multiple distribution platforms of Warner Bros. and Time Warner. We are creating a seamless, cohesive unit that will bring even more great characters and content to consumers everywhere.” In other words, they want to be Disney.

All the multi-media and digital comics work was moved to Burbank, California. So were all the “administrative functions”, which can cover a lot of ground (likely including such areas as accounting, technical support, and similar) — but that’s typical for a takeover, when you’re trying to cut costs by eliminating duplicate functions. Emphasizing closer Warner ties at the same time you’re leaving comics in New York sounds a lot like the print publications really aren’t all that important to your strategy going forward, as some pundits pointed out.

Warner Bros. which folded DC Comics into a new company called DC Entertainment just a year ago, now took DC Comics out of that company and moved DC Entertainment — along with all of the money-making portions of the company — to the West Coast. DC Comics, the comic book division, is now its own stand-alone entity. An island of old-school publishing left without its support network. This has been hailed as a victory for the comic book people.

It isn’t. It’s a wake up call. … Warner Bros. now controls the characters. DC Comics has the comic books. And the ugly truth is that no one needs a Batman comic book anymore to make a billion dollars with a Batman movie. …

Warner Bros. didn’t just keep the comic book makers intact; they abandoned them.

Especially given the divide between digital and print, which suggests that the company sees the same material presented in different formats as innately different products, and the print folks won’t have much to say about how their works look online.

But what does this mean for the actual people involved?

Staff Changes to Follow

We don’t know, but the LA Times blog had bad news, quickly picked up by the comic press, that there would be “about 50 layoffs.” This number was later revised upwards in other sources as involving the firing *or relocation* of 80 people, or about a third of the 250 estimated employees, based on a required New York State Department of Labor filing. (Having been through company layoffs, I found out that it’s the law that if a change will affect some percentage of the workforce at a certain location, notice must be filed.)

More news will come out in future days as bosses talk to their employees, relocation offers are made (or not), and long-time NY inhabitants decide whether they want to pick up their roots and move cross-country in an uncertain economy and business. It’s a very tough choice, because once you reach a certain level in the comic industry, there are very few alternatives for some types of jobs. At the same time, moving from the NY publishing culture to California’s movie world requires a lot of adjustment. (Not to mention, in some cases, selling a house in a very down market.)

One key question: Will marketing and sales be considered part of the print comic business, left alone in New York, or an administrative function? If Bob Wayne’s group is eliminated — because who’s going to pay to relocate low-paid phone jockeys, if they even want to go? — then that’s an awful lot of retailer relationships out the window. Wayne’s group includes people who contact retailers weekly as a way of touching base, gathering opinions, and attempting to sell more comics. DC’s one advantage over Marvel in the face of the latter company’s sales advantages has always been its strong support of the direct market of comic shops. (A loyalty that was rarely rewarded, by the way, as retailers as a group seemed more eager to fall prey to Marvel’s market manipulations.) If that’s eliminated, the comic market becomes a very different place … and perhaps frees up Warner to focus more on bookstore and/or online sales.

WildStorm, Zuda Gone

Also announced as part of this week of changes was the elimination of Zuda (no surprise) and WildStorm, Jim Lee’s former Image studio that had become DC’s imprint for darker superheroes, some creator-owned work that didn’t fit in Vertigo, and licensed video game comic adaptations. The last WildStorm comics will be released in December. In that statement, appearing over the names of Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, it was stated that

In this soft marketplace, these characters need a break to regroup and redefine what made them once unique and cutting edge. While these will be the final issues published under the WildStorm imprint, it will not be the last we will see of many of these heroes. We, along with Geoff Johns, have a lot of exciting plans for these amazing characters, so stay tuned. Going forward, WildStorm’s licensed titles and kids comics will now be published under the DC banner. … The WildStorm editorial team will undergo a restructuring and be folded into the overall DC Comics Digital team, based in Burbank, which will be led by Jim Lee and John Rood.

Heidi MacDonald has an excellent history of the company/imprint with comments from some of its best-known contributors, while David Brothers talks about how WildStorm had become redundant. I suspect it won’t be missed, except maybe for some of their creator-owned titles — the plans for those are still to be determined.

But What Does It All Mean?

One well-known retailer/commenter, Christopher Butcher, is underwhelmed by the news:

as a reader I feel like –- save for the occasional Grant Morrison project –- DC Comics abandoned me years ago, with the event-driven nonsense, infinite sequels and spin-offs, and a truly awful trade paperback program… As a retailer I look at their plans going forward and I just shake my head. Publishing a bunch of mediocre-to-bad comics at Wildstorm is unfortunate, but next month DC proper is publishing like 13 utterly unnecessary Batman one-shots that didn’t even have CREATIVE TEAMS when that s**t was solicited? Meanwhile Planetary Volume 4 is out of print for nearly 6 months between the hardcover and softcover, and we have lost sales every day. … I don’t understand those priorities at all, and I’ve honestly gotta wonder if they understand them either.

I’ll leave the final word to Tom Spurgeon, who has a thought-provoking list of 12 questions about all this that’s a must-read, including much more research and background than many other pieces on the subject, which were written more quickly. He also has much more consideration for the possible feelings of the employees most directly affected by these announcements, an important reminder of what’s really at stake here.

Vertigo Layoffs

Update: And now comes news that three Vertigo editors have been let go: Pornsak Pichetshote, Jonathan Vankin, and Joan Hilty (who had been with the company for 15 years, including stints in the superhero and kids’ comics lines). The last two had been specifically working on original graphic novels, which are likely less of a priority for the company now. The question of what Karen Berger will be doing has been bandied about previously. Although she’ll certainly have the option to stay with the company in New York, she’s also married to Richard Bruning, head of DC’s digital efforts, an area moving to the West Coast. No word yet on specifics for either.


6 Responses to “Bob Harras Named DC Comics Editor-in-Chief, Latest in Major Company Changes: A Summation”

  1. KC Says:

    I suspect that one of the factors involved in keeping DC Comics on the East Coast — and by all means not the primary one — is its massive film library, which includes a huge percentage of all the comics that DC has published over the last 75 years. I was at DC when they moved to 1700 Broadway, and I remember that it was a couple of years later before the film library could finally move in — because the building had to be structurally reinforced to accommodate the weight of all the film. As someone who had to schlep a trade paperback’s worth of film from one end of DC’s offices to the other while preparing the V for Vendetta collection, I can confirm that film is heavy! I can’t imagine trying to move that much film safely (and securely) across the country. Not the least of which would be the expense of such a move.

    In terms of Warner-DC Comics corporate synergy, here’s a little anecdote. Right around the time of the Time Warner merger (circa 1989-1990), I guess as a goodwill gesture, DC employees were given a copy of the first issue of Sports Illustrated for Kids, which had an article featuring Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. In the text of the article, it said something to the effect of the characters being a part of one of the sister organizations to Time/Life (or some such). DC Comics was not mentioned at all. At the time, I remember thinking “This is not a good omen.”

    Of course, times have changed, and the characters are now potentially worth billions to Time Warner in film revenue and ancillaries. On the other hand, DC Comics — the original home of all those wonderful characters — not really worth all that much.

    Looks like DC Comics will be sitting at the kiddie table this Thanksgiving. And every Thanksgiving from now on.

  2. Dwight Williams Says:

    That…would be a Disappointment.

  3. James Schee Says:

    To be fair to Harris, he was also there when Busiek launched successful series like Avenger, Thunderbolts and Iron Man. Or Peter David made his name really known with this run on Incredible Hulk.

    My only real question is what exactly he will do? For a long time its certainly seemed like DC’s been run by Geoff Johns and Dan Didio. Is he going to provide a different style of look. Or is he just there to make things run smoother for those two’s vision?

    Not sure what to make of the rest of the news. It does seem like DC’s comics side is being left behind. Yet perhaps thats for the best, allowing the suits to worry about movies and stuff, and allowing the comic people to just focus on comics.

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