23rd Sep2010

Dear DC Comics: You’re Doing It Wrong

by Will

This week, DC Entertainment, announced a bold new organizational structure, deemed as a “bicoastal realignment”. The problem, however, is that there’s nothing bold about this whatsoever. When Marvel rocks the boat, you may not like it, but you’d better believe it gets people talking. DC, however, doesn’t seem to know how to make a splash – in the same pool in which they’ve been swimming for 75 years! Marvel has trounced DC in publishing, movies, and video games. By this point, DC’s got to be tired of losing, but they still aren’t taking many chances. With them, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Looking at Marvel and DC together, you start to see a clearer picture as to why Marvel shines, while DC rusts. Let’s take a look at what DC’s doing wrong.

1) Social Media: Marvel has readily embraced every technology, realizing the impact of what’s NOW. DC, seeing itself as some sort of “legacy publisher”, doesn’t readily embrace anything modern, so as not to date their product. The problem with that idea is that the product is already dated, simply through how it’s being mishandled. Sure, you may end up with a Marvel comic with a dated MySpace reference, but at least Marvel TOOK THE CHANCE.

This idea carries over into reality, where Marvel.com’s Editor, Ryan Penagos, was one of the first twitter users to cross 1M followers. Say what you will about twitter, but that’s quite a big deal, especially since it occurred in the age before many celebrities had embraced the medium. Sure, he seems like a nice enough guy, but he’s not doing anything special. The first, and most important step, was that he simply showed up for the party – which is more than could be said for DC at the time. Tweeting as @Agent_M, he’s engaging, and he’s a steadfast cheerleader for the Marvel brand, in the tradition of The Man himself.

Now, let’s look at DC: They don’t really have much of a twitter presence. There’s a @DC_NATION account, but it really just serves to tweet links to the DC site. After they realized how successful Marvel’s social outreach had been, DC decided to follow suit, creating their own blog, The Source. Manning the blog is Alex Segura, DC’s Publicity Manager. This is where the “small world” nature of the industry really hits home, as Alex is also the roommate of Marvel’s Penagos. Both guys came up through the ranks of Wizard Entertainment, so they’ve certainly got industry experience. The difference between how they embrace the power of social media, however, is the night and day. You’d think something would rub off on Alex when he and Ryan bump into each other in the kitchen, but he isn’t “bringing it”. Maybe he’s not to blame. Looking at how DC handles everything else, it’s possible that Alex is FULL of ideas, and he’s just being stifled from above. Either way, DC’s doing social media wrong.

2) Publicity: Following up on the social media differences, both companies are also VERY different in how they handle their big announcements. Marvel seems to have a pretty good relationship with mass media. Based on its success with movies, as well as the clout of their new owner, Disney, Marvel has no problem getting mass media exposure for its big events, both behind and in front of the scenes. DC, however, does everything in secret, and once things get out, the announcements don’t hold the level of “oomph” that you know the Warner Brothers executives had expected them to have.

Let’s look at this bicoastal realignment. For the past year, most people have expected Warner Bros to decide to move DC out west, so that they could synergize new ways to monetize the catalog. Fanboys and comic journos have been awaiting that announcement with bated breath, and the rumblings indicated that there would be an announcement this week. Well, the rumors were true, but the announcement was the bicoastal realignment. So, as if they feared rocking the boat, WB decided to move the core moneymakers (movies, multimedia, etc) out west, while leaving the comic arm in NYC. All that fervor and leaked info for such a dud of an announcement.

Further, it was announced that certain subsidiaries of DC, such as the Zuda webcomic site and the Wildstorm imprint, would be shuttered as a result of the restructuring. Now, this information almost got lost, as people were spending more time trying to understand how the bicoastal thing would be any different from how things already were. The thing that hit home for me, however, was that the demise of Wildstorm was ANNOUNCED. This is a 20 year old imprint that has resided at two different publishers, launched a few notable careers, and was still successful at publishing licensed comics. We weren’t talking about a relaunch or a move to a new publisher – it was CLOSING. Sure, the core Wildstorm Universe books had been rudderless for some time, but this still wasn’t the way to handle it. At least, wait a day or two to put it in a follow-up announcement. I know that Warner Bros is the parent company, but they do everything in a very formal, let’s not scare the shareholders, kind of way. That’s not how Marvel rolls.

When Marvel was purchased by Disney, there were no rumblings. We woke up one day to the announcement, and many of us had to check our calendars to make sure that it wasn’t April 1st. Marvel doesn’t let anything get out that they don’t want out. When they do announce something, they make it worthwhile. Here’s how Marvel would’ve handled the Wildstorm situation in which DC found itself: Instead of announcing via press release, Joe Quesada would’ve “let it slip” during one of his weekly “Cup ‘o Joe” columns. In the next issue of Previews, you’d see a surprise solicitation for Wildstorm Finale, 48-page special written by Brian Bendis, with art by Bryan Hitch, Frank Cho, Steve McNiven, and whichever Kubert answers his phone first. Sure, in execution, the book will end up being a piece of crap, but leading up to its release, you better believe that Marvel would do its best to convince you that this thing is gonna be on the level of The Bible II: Jesus Strikes Back. And you know what? That book would be the #1 book of the month! All of a sudden, people would be looking back fondly on Wildstorm, making up stories about how they learned to read from Gen13. The way Marvel works, they have a knack for making you care about things you really don’t care about. That’s how Moon Knight has been given more second chances than Robert Downey Jr. DC simply lacks Marvel’s “Huckster Pizazz”, which is why everything they do reeks of buzzwords like “synergy” and “value-added”.

Remember how I mentioned the build-up to the hypothetical Marvel release? Well, at least Marvel understands the need for HYPE. DC takes a different approach. Instead of telling you that something big is coming up, they wait and see if you’re already planning to buy it anyway. Then, as if to punish you, Alex routinely spoils big events on The Source, sometimes as early as Wednesday afternoon. DC’s feeling seems to be “We’re here, making these quality books, and it’s your own fault if you haven’t made it a priority to buy them on your lunch break”. Some character dies, and The Source is sure gonna let you know about it by midday Thursday. YOU’RE DUMB, DC, ’cause now you just lost a sale! Who thought that was smart? Sure, they tack on a line about how the book is “In Stores NOW!” but you already told me what happens.

3) Leadership: There’s a different organizational structure at each company, but both are controlled by larger, corporate entities: Marvel by Disney, and DC by Warner Bros. Disney’s acquisition of Marvel is still fairly recent, but there haven’t been many signs of editorial pressure handed down by Disney. If anything, that acquisition has opened doors, as Marvel products are now sold in the Disney Store, while Marvel has ramped up production of programming for Disney’s XD channel. If only the same could be said for DC.

DC Comics has always been seen as the redheaded stepchild of the Warner Bros portfolio. There were halcyon days in the mid ’90s, when you saw DC crossing into other media, mainly Batman-related. After that movie franchise went on hiatus, and the animated series moved off network television, things seemed to dry up. The Warner Bros Studio Stores closed, so they lost another outlet to sell product. For years, it seemed that Warner Bros was searching for a way to make some serious money off DC, but the comic arm just wouldn’t play ball. A lot of their efforts seemed to have been thwarted by former DC President/Publisher, Paul Levitz. While he could be blamed for keeping the characters in a vacuum, he did it for the best of interests. Like an overprotective parent, he didn’t want anything bad to happen to his properties. As a result, however, he also prevented them from being able to grow. The-Powers- That-Be tired of this, and he was replaced by media wunderkind, Diane Nelson.

For the past year, many have wondered what the Nelson Era would mean for DC Comics. At the outset, the whole division was renamed DC Entertainment, with DC Comics falling under that umbrella. This was to signal that they had set their sights outside of simply publishing comics – they were now aiming for the “real money”. It’s no secret that DC hasn’t come close to meeting Marvel’s success at the box office, as they don’t have anything other than the Batman franchise to fall back on. Even when people discuss the upcoming Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern movie, the discussion always ends up revolving around Deadpool – the Marvel comic movie with Reynolds attached. In the meantime, Marvel’s been building a movie universe with each film, opening the door for the next feature as they go along. So, DC wanted to be like Marvel.

Nelson was brought in, supposedly, due to her success with the Harry Potter franchise. That’s all well and good, but that’s also a franchise that didn’t exist 12 years ago. Nelson basically had to find ways to monetize a franchise that was spawned from 7 books. Enter DC – now, she has to figure out what to do with a catalog of characters, many of whom have been around for more than 50 years. It’s the equivalent of setting out to clean your grandparents’ attack, and not knowing what to keep, while knowing that your only cleaning experience is that you once did a really kickass job mopping a kitchen. Plainly put, these are 2 different worlds, but her approach has been “media is media”. Whenever people focus on the fact that she knows nothing about comics, she hems and haws, and says things akin to “I know what I need to know, and what I know is that comics aren’t making us money”. We’re supposed to hear the statements, and think “She’s got some brass ones!” Sorry, but I’m not buying it. For over a year, every decision has been a non-decision. Who’s going to be the new publisher of DC Comics? “Um…let’s go with Co-Publishers!” Clearly, Ms. Nelson hasn’t watched the most recent season of The Office. Is DC moving to the West Coast? “We’re going with a…hmm…’bicoastal realignment’. Yeah…” Everything she has decided hasn’t been an actual decision. Her newly-named executives were guys who had already been doing the work, so it was just a title change. The bicoastal thing really did more as giving an “official” reason to kill Wildstorm and Zuda, than anything else. It could be seen as “streamlining the brand”, but it was believed that DC had been looking for an exit strategy for both for some time. As far as leadership goes, DC’s doing it wrong.

Sadly, it seems that things are going to get worse before they get better. DCE wants to make money, and they want to find the best way to do that. Batman’s already on Underoos, but he might start selling you car insurance. There’s an anecdote traveling the ‘net about a recent WB corporate meeting. Supposedly, someone in that meeting was chastised for saying, “But Batman wouldn’t say that.” Apparently, in the immediate future of DCE, it doesn’t matter what Batman would say (that has more emphasis if you read it in the voice of The Rock). Hell, Batman will probably start endorsing live ammunition and clown college. It doesn’t seem to matter in the future of DC. It’s just another in a long line of things they’re doing wrong….