DC Completely Reinvents Their Universe, Goes to Same-Day Digital Release

I know, you’ve already read about this everywhere on the internet, but I wanted to 1) mark it here for posterity and 2) share my thoughts.

DC Wins Publicity

The news first broke last Tuesday, May 31, in USA Today, followed by a DC blog post. There were two major parts to the announcement:

Justice League revamp

1. Starting in September, the entire line of DC universe superhero comics will restart with new #1s, featuring revamped versions of the classic characters. The first book out is Justice League #1, by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, on August 31, with the classic lineup of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and so forth. There will be 51 other new issues during the next month. Everything starts over.

2. Beginning with those 52 first issues, DC “will launch day-and-date digital publishing for all these ongoing titles.” And this is the part that, while snuck in almost as an afterthought, will really have the potential to make a difference. But… see the digital section below.

Kudos to DC, they certainly figured out how to dominate the news cycle. At first, I was waiting to comment, thinking it would die down and allow some time for reflection, but new announcements keep coming — mostly titles and who’s working on them — and that’s a great thing for DC, that they’re continually getting the attention of comic announcement websites and more, fan word of mouth. Bear in mind that the timing of the announcement was very specific — starting June 1, customers would start picking up Previews catalogs in comic shops that listed items for sale starting in August, and most of DC’s line was listed as wrapping things up. An announcement had to come out that day to prevent rumors flying.

Plus, Flashpoint as an event debuted the next day, with four tie-ins launching and a second issue of the title itself. This makes the title seem more important, a forerunner to the New DC. If the numbers for #1 were disappointing, if customers were taking a “wait and see” attitude to it, then they needed something to juice their book of the summer.

Restarting

The words “modern” and “contemporary” are prominent in the announcements, which suggest DC wants to trade on the history and value of its brands while moving away from 80-year-old white guy characters. USA Today describes it as “introducing stories that are grounded in each character’s specific legend but also reflect today’s real-world themes and events” and quotes Dan DiDio as explicitly saying the heroes will be “younger”. A followup plugged diversity in both characters and titles (war comics, Westerns, horror, etc.).

Dan DiDio has been pegged as the prime mover behind the effort, per J. Michael Straczynski. That makes sense, given his Hollywood background — movie makers think in blockbuster terms, getting one quick shot at cornering the market on opening weekend. In contrast, can you imagine a network bringing out nothing but new TV shows in September? Instead, they rely on returning series and audience loyalty to launch new projects. DiDio has torn down the castle in order to save it, and while doing so, irrevocably staked his claim on history. Either he’s the savior, the one who finally brought DC into the future — or the death rattle all publishing is facing continues, and who can blame him for not fixing it single-handedly?

Will this effort succeed? That’s a huge question, and dependent on how you define success. 52 new books in the same month means a jumping-on point, but also a jumping-off. Long-time fans have been griping online (but at least that means they’re talking about the company more than they usually do). Whether any actually follow through on their vows to break their decades-long habit and quit remains to be seen. That’s why going after new readers is so important — the old ones usually keep buying whether they like the material or not, just based on character loyalty. At a guess, if half these new series survive, it’ll be a success.

In the bigger picture, the direct market had 30 years, and those comic shops are just not driving the needed traffic any more. (I’m not blaming them. The publication cost is too high, at $3-4 a book for 10 minutes’ read, and store owners are struggling in a different way to survive.) Growth lies elsewhere, and the new corporate overlords don’t have any loyalty to the direct market.

This could be a great thing. The only way superhero comics and the industry built on them survive is if they get new readers. However, there’s one big snag in this plan — so far, the announcements for the new titles, with their new/revamped characters, show that they’re being created by the same old DC-loyal names. That doesn’t automatically mean they’ll resemble the previous comics. It’s unknown how much freedom creators are being given, or whether the plots and stories will continue to be editorially driven, which in my opinion has resulted in comics that are unpleasant to read and aren’t enjoyable on their own. I would feel better about this if, since the creative team is the most important predictor of comic quality, we were seeing new announcements and new blood, not just reshuffling the previous same people.

A New Look

A digression. USA Today said, “Lee spearheaded the costumes’ redesign to make characters more identifiable and accessible to comic fans new and old.” Why, then, are they dressing like 60s refugees?

While some characters, mostly the women, needed more practical, up-to-date outfits, I would argue that you’re never going to improve on Superman’s costume, let alone by adding an odd-looking collar that conflicts with his cape. And I do hope that the diversity movement follows through in this area to result in more different costumes, not those that look like they all went to the same cut-rate tailor for uniforms. Back to the main essay…

Good or Bad?

Change is difficult, so it shouldn’t be surprising that immediate reaction was full of shock and dismay. It’s time, though, for the company to make a major change. The strategy they’ve used so far of yet another “big event, everything changes this time, we promise” is resulting in ever-declining numbers. The only people they’re selling comics to now are those who’ve always been buying them, because everyone else, even if interested, looks at 22 pages for $4 and says “that’s ridiculous”. For twice that price, two comic issues, you can get all the video you can watch in a month from Netflix streaming. That’s what entertainment providers have to compete with, all the other attractive options for people’s attention and time. Unfortunately, that’s one of the few things not changing — the price. Periodical comics remain a poor value for the customer.

The core audience, the only one left, is jaded, so it shouldn’t be surprising that fan reaction is muted to negative. Even though no comic company has done anything like this before, the idea itself is reminding long-term fans (and there aren’t any other kind these days) of the plans post-Crisis (which I found an exciting time to get back into comics). I’m eager to see what happens in September, because from my perspective, we can only win. If we get mediocre or bad comics, well, how is that different from what we have now? (With a few exceptions, I find much of DC’s line not worth buying month after month.) If we get great comics, terrific! I would appreciate reading some superhero titles with new energy and new stories. I just hope that they don’t fall into the reboot trap of retelling a bunch of stories I liked better the first time. I want new stories, new takes, not rehashes of previous continuity. Surprise me.

In terms of small things, I think it’s sad to lose the history behind the numbering of Action Comics 900-something or Detective Comics (the company’s namesake) 800-plus. But I don’t expect the numbering change to hold on those long-running key titles — how can a blockbuster-driven culture pass up an issue numbered 1000?

It will also be interesting to see, once a few months have gone by, how many of the comics are still on the “correct” number. If everything starts at #1 the same month, and six months later some books are on #4 or #5, well, we know which creators are capable of making their dates. DC has already warned freelancers, both writers and artists, they’re paying new attention to deadlines. They have to, because now they’re not the only ones determining when a book comes out. Due to their online plans, they have to work further ahead in order to get product through Apple’s gatekeeping in order to release digital books at the same time as the print ones. Which leads to discussion of …

The Digital Frontier and Retailer Reactions

DC isn’t the first company to make its entire line available in both print and digital on the same day (“day and date release”) — Archie has been doing that for a while — but it’s the first one with the kind of dedicated audience that is summed up in the phrase “comic fan”. And frankly, given the fear publishers and retailers (justifiably) feel when it comes to online publication, you need a change as significant as the relaunch in order to get everyone to sign off on implementing same-day digital release.

We need online comics to attract the desired young, hip buyers — who don’t care at all about print anymore. But this announcement sure is a kick in the pants to retailers. How in the world will they order for September? #1 issues are traditionally high sellers — but all of them at once? Fans can’t spend that much more money. Without knowing how closely these revamps (don’t call it a reboot) resemble previous versions, purchasing histories are of limited value. Plus, they’re now competing with digital (although, given the too-high pricing, not as much as they might have had to worry about).

I think this is the biggest missed opportunity of the whole project. I can’t tell you, when the announcement was released before the pricing information was available, how many people were excited about trying out a whole bunch of new titles digitally. Some were talking about sampling the whole line. Then came word that the digital comics were going to be $3 (or even $4) each, instead of 99 cents, and excitement evaporated. They went back to watching movies on their iPads instead. No one’s willing to drop $150 on a new effort, but $50 seemed like a reasonable buy-in for a brand new superhero universe. Some even dreamed of a subscription service, where one flat monthly price bought you access to the entire DC comic line. Keep dreaming. That would be too much a rejection of the established comic market, and DC doesn’t have the support to burn all their bridges that way.

Still, I don’t want to blame DC for not providing the ideal new market — they’re taking significant steps, especially for a company now a tighter part of a huge corporation. That gives them a certain amount of resources, and I’m curious to see how they continue to use them.

Bob Wayne sent a letter to retailers that says in part, “We think our current fans will be excited by this evolution, and that it will make jumping into the story extremely accessible to first-time readers –- giving them a chance to discover DC’s characters and stories.” (That retailer link is worth reading, because it features Brian Hibbs’ first response to this news, where he asks a lot of great questions, including whether his back issues will be worth anything to fans now, and points out that renumbering doesn’t provide a sales bounce that sticks beyond two months.) But what, DC, are you doing to show those hypothetical first-time readers where to get your product and, more importantly, why they want it? This news blast is a great start, bringing awareness of the comic line to all kinds of readers who normally don’t care. But what marketing is being done in September, when the books are out there to buy? Bob’s letter says “DC Comics will support this initiative with an innovative mix of publicity, promotional efforts, and retailer incentives designed to maximize your opportunity to increase your DC sales.” I am curious to see what that will involve, and how much will truly reach outside the traditional market. Word has already spread of variant covers, additional discount on key titles, and most important, returnability … with caveats:

We will be offering 100% Returnability on all of the remaining 41 titles. Returnability across the rest of the 52 allows the breadth of these titles to get their fair chance with your consumers. This comes with a qualifier -– your total post-FOC September orders in dollars for DC periodicals must be 125% or more of your May post-FOC orders for DC periodicals…. Retailers will then be issued credit for each copy, minus 10% of the cover price.

So only if you support the relaunch, by ordering more than you did of the previous DC line, will you get most of your money back.

Final Thoughts

I’m with those other old fans who are tentatively hoping that this means good things. I want DC to be daring and provide a truly fresh start with good comics and characters I want to care about. I’ll probably be disappointed, but given that’s how I feel about most superhero comics already, they can only go up from here.

I’m curious to see whether new readers actually do materialize, or whether DC claims success by simply outselling Marvel within the direct market. I want — although I don’t know how I’d find out — to see if digital comics become established, and whether prices will be adjusted to a more reasonable level. More options for readers are good, even if getting there is painful.

I’m already tired of trying to keep up with the near-daily announcements of new titles and plans, so if you want more updated information, here’s a good summary.


26 Responses to “DC Completely Reinvents Their Universe, Goes to Same-Day Digital Release”

  1. Joshua Says:

    I’m obviously not part of “today’s audience” that they’re aiming this at, so it’s hard for me to assess. The under-twenties that I’ve talked to think it’s stupid to pay for music (“Why would anyone do that?” one of them asked me), and that’s something you can enjoy over and over, so I’m dubious about success for the digital part of this initiative.

  2. Johanna Says:

    I think you can successfully compete with free digital file sharing, but you have to be reasonably priced, convenient, comprehensive in coverage, and easy to use. The DC initative only covers the last two. The price is still too high, and by not using a portable file format, you’re actually only renting online DC comics. I don’t expect DC (or Marvel or another major publisher) to address those concerns any time soon, though, because it’s too much of a leap away from what they’re comfortable with.

  3. Chris G Says:

    I find it very difficult not to see this as DC recognizing that its line as currently constituted doesn’t work. If the new DC line were going to be headed by people other than those who have been running the show for almost a decade, I might be interested in checking some of the new books out. But that’s clearly not the case.

  4. Russ Says:

    I think with the paired offering of a print copy with a digital copy you will entice your established readers to save the hard copy and read the digital version and your new readers will see a value in a digital comis that comes with a hard copy. Otherwise the $4 price for a digital copy might be too much to ask from new customers.

    DC take notice…

    Hard copy with a digital copy for $3.99 is a good value.

    Digital copy by itself for anything over .99cents is too much.

    So in this line of logic priciing that might work is:

    Hard copy by itself $2.99

    Digital .99 cents

    Hard copty with Digital copy… $3.99

    Added value and more customers.

  5. Russ Says:

    Sorry for the typos

  6. Ryan Says:

    I may be the only person 20 or under excited about this. i started reading comics with an android app a few months ago and I just don’t know where to start reading comics that have issues in the 50s, 60s, and especially over 300. i Just don’t have enough money for that. So if everything’s starting over i can at least sample several of the new lines and follow the ones i like. I still don’t understand why there needs to be like eight different Batman titles, though.

  7. James Schee Says:

    This may be sort of long, so bear with me.

    I have to give credit to DC for this. Currently the only DC books I buy the issues of are Levitz’s LSH and Batgirl, and I check in (and sometimes buy) Booster Gold and the 3 GL titles.

    DC currently has announced 39(?) titles in their relaunch, and I’m actually curious enough to really want to try 27 of them so far. I also should have an IPad 2 by September (July is my birthday) and would love to use it as I know the odds of shops in my area getting all 27 I want to try is small. Yet that price point…. ugh I just don’t know.

    Does anyone know if Comixology charges sales tax when you buy a comic? If not, then that’d beat buying the comics in stores here. Though it would be better if DC had some kind of intro deal.

    I really like the diversity DC has brought to the line, Mr. Terrific is such a wonderful character and I think it’d be a blast to read about him. And wow look at the number of titles with female leads or female dominated lineups, though sadly only one female creator.

    Creatively DC has achieved something I didn’t think possible, in getting me interested in so many of their titles again for the first time in a long time. Financially though, I just really don’t think they’ve changed enough to get me to change my buying habits too much though as that’s just such a high price for digital.

  8. Johanna Says:

    You two are making DC very happy. I’m glad to hear from you, because that’s exactly what should be happening with all this. I just hope there’s many more like you. :)

  9. Mike Says:

    I’m all for new ideas and concepts, but anything that interrupts the current Grant Morrison run of Batman Inc (and all related titles) I’m totally against. Grant is the best thing to happen to Batman in the 20 years I’ve been reading him and to throw it out mid-story is not only a bad choice, it’s a crime against art.

  10. Anthony Says:

    I gave my own expanded spiel on this on my blog, but overall I’m feeling iffy about it all. Maybe since I don’t much care for reboots, or not convinced a reboot is the best way to solve some of DC’s problems— as noted above, the digital pricing is still too high, and it’s still the same people writing. Which means, I fear, the same sadistic “violence porn” tone in their books (see: Flashpoint #2’s variant cover)… will the rebooted universe see more decapitated heads/superhero-wife-rape/humorless heroes/the Joker mindlessly and gruesomely slaughtering more people than Idi Amin and Pol Pot combined?

    Still, going same-day digital is a good thing (and hopefully DC/Marvel/Archie/etc. will learn iTunes’ lesson about actual files being bought and not rented), as is a few other genres being put out by DC (westerns, horror… no humor title though?). As for titles, I plan on at least buying Morrison’s Superman (Superman’s my favorite character, and All-Star Superman was great), and maybe Mr. Terrific (depending on the tone)…

    I should note that Archie manages to sell their digital books for $1.99 each (still pricey for a rented comic, but better than $3-$4), and some older titles for 99 cents…

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  12. James Schee Says:

    Well of those 27, 4 are the Batman titles. I haven’t read a Batman title in 5 years so I have no idea what any of them are like so my sampling would be to see which fits me. (if any)

    I’m really interested in Wonder Woman, with Cliff Chiang on art chores. At first I was like Azarello? Yet then I remembered Doctor 13, where he also teamed with Chiang, and how great it was especially Traci 13 and I’m excited.

    Some of their concepts don’t interest me, Swamp Thing or look ridiculous (Batwing?) but that’s good. I shouldn’t be interested in the entire line of any comic company’s books. But I also shouldn’t be completely disinterested either.

  13. Ralf Haring Says:

    Day-and-date digital comics had to happen sooner or later. I’m slightly surprised DC is the publisher to push for it first. They were rarely that bold under previous regimes. It’s unfortunate for comics stores that they will have to change, but it’s inevitable that they must. The convenience of digital will ultimately just be too great. I hope they can avoid the complete extinction music stores have suffered. Print has been around hundreds of years longer than recorded music, so it’s doubtful that it’ll disappear completely.

    However, same price for digital and physical is a complete non-starter. It’s laughable. $0.99 is the price. Make it work or don’t bother. Even at $1, comics would be a tough sell against other digital entertainment that has vastly greater replay value (games, songs). Triple that? They deserve to be mocked as hopelessly out of touch.

  14. Blue Tyson Says:

    Given 1’s always sell better, an interesting digital followup deal would be ‘get all 52 second issues for $52′.

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  17. Joel Conley Says:

    I am exactly the new customer DC has generated by this announcement. It intrigued me, I read some articles and now I am reading Flashpoint and even going as far back to Blackest Night and Brightest Day while I wait for the July releases. As someone in Marketing myself, I have to admit, DC got me good.

    That being said, I’m getting really annoyed with traditional media being so married to print. Digital is not the future, it is the present and paper is the past. Before realizing these were available in digital formats, I went into a comic store to start up Flashpoint and I had no clue where to start or how to find what I wanted. Then once I figured that out, I quickly realized that it would be very difficult for me to catch up on previous stories because the store, of course, sells out of physical copies and is thus left with a jumbled mess of non-sequential leftovers.

    Other positives of digital:

    – I don’t have to go anywhere to get what I want
    – There is a search function!
    – It will never run out of certain issues
    – I don’t need a pile of comics in my house. I realize there are collectors and that’s a big part of the industry but I could care less about it. I just want to be entertained and after that it’s recycling.
    – I can order and read a comic on a break at work without being ridiculed. ;)

    Anyway, a good job rejuvenating a company and I hope that the new series’ follow from Flashpoint somehow as opposed to just being an abrupt end and new beginning. I as well want new stories, not new versions of old stories. That seems to be the main concern with current customers and remains to be seen.

  18. Joel Conley Says:

    P.S. Charging more for a digital copy which is vastly cheaper to produce than the physical copy is an economic fail. What are they trying to acheive with this price structure? I would feel like I, as the digital reader, am coughing up more to prop up the failing print market. How about focusing on getting your customers online through marketing and pricing initiatives while phasing out the print medium and thereby lowering production costs in order to pass those savings on to the consumer? If they aren’t aware this will happen whether they like it or not then they are making a naive and grave error in judgement.

  19. Johanna Says:

    The reason they’re pricing digital so wrongly (imo) is simple: they don’t want an outright revolt from comic stores. Interesting perspective on propping up print — I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but I think it’s a valid opinion.

  20. Joel Conley Says:

    I don’t understand how the retailer could have any power over the supplier in this case. Especially as it is an oligopoly. If DC were to move towards the digital age like the rest of the planet, Marvel would surely follow suit in order to compete. What are the comic book stores going to do? Refuse to sell Marvel and DC comics? Yeah, good luck with that.

  21. Johanna Says:

    Digital isn’t a sure thing, though, and if DC/Marvel lost their print outlets before they build up a digital audience (selling direct to customer), they’d be sunk. So I’m sure they see it as a delicate balancing act.

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