Grumpy Old Fan | ‘B&B,’ and bridging the fan/pro divide

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | ‘B&B,’ and bridging the fan/pro divide

After four installments, Comic Book Resources’ monthly “B&B” feature, in which DC Comics Editor-in-Chief Bob Harras and Editorial Director Bobbie Chase answered questions from readers and CBR’s Josie Campbell, is no more. Jerry Ordway’s work situation, and controversies generally, were apparently to blame. Of course, DC is free not to participate in such things, and CBR is likewise free to investigate such controversies on its own. Still, the whole thing only highlights the problems DC has had in connecting successfully with fans.

Now, it may be more accurate to say DC has had problems connecting successfully with fans who are vocal about their negative opinions of the company. For all I know, DC may be quite popular with whatever audience it has targeted. Regardless, despite its constant PR presence, today’s DC seems a lot more guarded than it has been; and I think that can only hurt it in the long run.

Ironically, part of the problem is the corporate-comics news cycle. Each week’s worth of DC books has a couple of promotional features, namely the “All Access” editorial and the new “Channel 52″ two-pager. Beyond that (and probably more frequently than once a week) the company issues press releases and facilitates interviews for various news sites. Furthermore, each month’s solicitations advertise what’s coming out at least two months in the future; and during convention season the company can manage its particular messages in person. That’s a lot of information for a company whose bread and butter come from a few dozen monthly 20-page story installments.

Accordingly, I have to think it’s not all about the comics. Certainly DC wants to do whatever it can to sell as many books as it can (in whatever format), but its efforts also make me think it wants to create a sense of community among readers. The cynic in me knows that “community” is an excellent way to learn one’s specific tastes, and specifically what it takes to get someone to buy all the DC comics he can. To be charitable, though, the communal impulse comes naturally to a pastime like superhero comics, which has always had strong fanbases. DC probably just wants to be able to leverage its fanbase in, shall we say, practical ways.

Unfortunately, it seems to be doing it at arm’s length. Both “All Access” and “Channel 52″ are meant to be ingratiating, but both come across somewhat forced. Although the “AA” for the week of April 17 invited readers to experience all the DC-related events this weekend at the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, it turned into a list of creative personnel and convention exclusives — and DC won’t have its own booth at C2E2 anyway. The April 24 “All Access” spotlight on The Movement is better, because it describes the new title efficiently and with an eye toward luring both Gail Simone’s readership and superhero fans generally.

As for “Channel 52,” for me neither the dialogue nor the art manages to rise above its basic promotional purpose. The DC books of the ‘70s and ‘80s had a one-page “Daily Planet” feature that used a mix of in-universe and real-world perspectives to hype individual issues.  It also had non-promotional elements, like a weekly Fred Hembeck gag strip and writer Bob Rozakis’ “Ask the Answer Man” column. One week the “Planet” page might feature a portion of, say, a Superman cover with a big headline like “Bizarro’s Back!” and a little blurb about the story, topped off with instructions to check out the particular issue when it came out. As far as I can tell, “Channel 52″ doesn’t actually direct readers to specific books, it just encourages them to seek the issues out on their own, based on clues like “Supergirl fights Power Girl” (which could happen either in Supergirl or Worlds’ Finest) and “JLA throws Catwoman in Arkham Asylum” (which happens first in Catwoman, but which then ties into JLA). Again, this week’s installment is a slight improvement, highlighting a Trigon story in Teen Titans but asking the reader to fill in some blanks on All-Star Western.

More to the point, if space is valuable in DC’s single issues, it must use those three pages effectively. For decades, DC’s singles had at least one editorial page and one or two pages for readers’ letters. DC brought back letter columns a few years ago, but they didn’t last very long. Marvel still has theirs. In fact, let’s compare last week’s Daredevil #25 and Superior Spider-Man #8 with Vibe #3 and Catwoman #19. For what it’s worth, DD’s recap/credits pages are structured like newspapers (or news sites), with huge headlines, art samples, and brief synopses. Both DD #25 and SSM #8 have a one-page recap/credits page and a one-page lettercolumn, but SSM’s letters page is used (this issue) to hype the various issues under editor Steve Wacker’s purview (including Hawkeye, DD and Captain Marvel). The two DC issues have no recap page and the aforementioned three pages’ worth of editorial and promos.

This is still roughly comparable to the three to four pages of editorial content in DC’s Bronze Age books. The “Daily Planet” page gave way eventually to a one-page weekly editorial (usually Executive Editor Dick Giordano’s “Meanwhile …”), which included at the bottom of the page a list of that week’s comics. The letter columns still got at least one page, and often two pages. While nostalgia undoubtedly makes me look back more fondly on these older offerings, they still seem more authentic than today’s editorial presentations. You could get a good sense of Dick Giordano’s business and/or creative philosophies from a steady diet of “Meanwhiles,” and similarly from Jenette Kahn’s occasional “Publishorial.”  Every now and then they touched on controversial topics, like Kahn’s criteria for cancelling titles (foreshadowing the late ‘70s “DC Implosion”) and a guest “Meanwhile” that talked about the dearth of female leads. Some things never change.

Of course, before the Internet, the main lines of communication between company and readers were those editorial pages and letter columns. Today it’s easy to imagine that they’ve been not just supplemented, but superseded, by message boards, blogs, news sites, and social media. Nevertheless, we’re all familiar with the ways in which online forums combine both access and anonymity, often with unfortunate results. In that respect, it’s not hard to imagine DC’s creative and business personnel wanting to micromanage their messaging, and interacting online at their peril. However, in the aggregate that can come across as somewhere between aloof and condescending. It might insulate DC’s people from trolls, but it only frustrates fans with legitimate (or at least reasonable) concerns.

It also reinforces the perception of DC as a faceless corporate monolith. I don’t have much sense of the company’s editorial personality beyond Dan DiDio, Jim Lee and Geoff Johns — and by and large, that’s because they’ve been around DC for so long. DiDio had a regular editorial feature a few years back, as did Lee when he was at WildStorm, but as far as I can tell they don’t have anything like a regular column (even a shared one) in the books themselves. I have even less of a feel for the comics’ editors. I follow Batman group editor Mike Marts on Twitter, but couldn’t find any feeds for his colleagues Matt Idelson, Eddie Berganza, or Brian Cunningham. Johns, Lee, and DiDio are on Twitter, and there’s a fake Bob Harras account (@WhatIfBobHarras), but neither the real one nor the real Bobbie Chase are readily identifiable.

To be sure, there are a lot of writers and artists on Twitter. I follow Scott Snyder, Dan Slott and Stuart Immonen (among others), and they’re pretty verbose. (So is DC’s PR guru Alex Segura, who recruited yours truly for his own group blog many years ago.) Gail Simone tweets often and has a very active Tumblr account, as does Kurt Busiek, who I suppose is back in the larger DC family with Astro City’s return. Everyone has specific social boundaries.  Heck, I am barely on Twitter (@TomBondurant, by the way) myself.

Still, I’m not sure why DC’s editorial trinity (DiDio, Lee, Johns) hasn’t established its own regular soapbox space, even if it’s just a few paragraphs once a week on the DC website. That would be a significant step toward a more cordial posture, but a slight attitude shift is also in order. While I appreciated Dick Giordano and Jenette Kahn taking the time to share their thoughts, what I appreciated more was their (apparent) respect for the readership. Although I was in grade school when Kahn came aboard, and was a teenager when “Meanwhile …” started, I never got the sense that they were talking down to me. Maybe as a 43-year-old I’m just more attuned to corporate-speak, but I can’t tell you how Marts’ stewardship of the Bat-books is different from Cunningham’s management of the Green Lantern line, or if I prefer Eddie Berganza or Matt Idelson on the Superman titles. DC may well want to leave its editors in the background, so the writers and artists aren’t overshadowed; but I’d like to know what roles they play in the grand scheme of things. When Denny O’Neil succeeded Len Wein as Batman group editor in 1986, it was a big deal, and O’Neil added a periodic “From the Den” mini-editorial to the lettercolumns to emphasize his place in the Bat-hierarchy. DC might not need to go that far today, but just checking in with the editors in substantive ways every now and then — including overall scorecards telling who’s editing what — would be helpful.

I am trying not to suggest these things out of some sense of entitlement. DC certainly doesn’t owe me any special courtesy. I understand that I’m asking these folks to open up a little about what they do every day, and how would I like it if it were my job, etc. However, DC already devotes three pages per issue for promotion and outreach, which is about what it’s done in the past; and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to wonder why the company isn’t at least superficially more approachable. The few times I have seen Dan DiDio in person, he’s been especially gregarious and eager to interact with all kinds of fans. DC regularly sets up open-mike forums at conventions, where fans and pros can talk about their personal experiences reading comics. It makes the impenetrability that much harder to reconcile.

Again, I know DC is trying hard to cultivate a certain sense of community. It’s restructuring its website to appeal to fans, families, and the press. The “B&B” column was the latest attempt to bring its editors into more direct contact with fans and the online press. Any such stab at openness risks exposing oneself to uncomfortable topics — but that doesn’t mean openness is to be avoided. There are ways to peek around the barriers between the company and the public, and DC needs to use those judiciously to avoid walling itself off.  It has plenty of opportunities, and the Internet gives it a variety of options.  Otherwise, DC will end up inscrutable, unapproachable, and unable to participate meaningfully in whatever community it may eventually form.