Bristol: DC Nation

Returning to the UK for the first time in four years, DC Comics Executive Editor Dan DiDio, and Vice President of Sales Bob Wayne were proud to present the first ever DC Nation panel to be conducted outside of the United States. For UK comic fans at the Bristol Comic Expo, this was a rare opportunity indeed to meet the man charged with piloting the DC Universe, and to ask him questions about the current storylines and upcoming projects.

As DiDio explained, "What I like to use this panel for is to really hear from the fans - I like to hear the feedback about what you're liking, what you're not liking. Because realistically, we get very insular in what we do. We sit there in our own groups, and we think that we have good idea, but until the book actually gets out there and is read, we don't know how people are going to accept our material. One of the things that we do to get ourselves excited is we remember what we really enjoyed about comics, what got us into comics, and that gets us motivated. One of the reasons why we love these conventions is to hear from you directly, what you like and what you don't!"

With the scene set, DiDio opened the floor - open to standing room only - to questions.

"Battle for the Cowl" was the first topic up. This series appears to have been well received, with one audience member describing it as a "who-is-it" instead of a whodunit. DiDio described the passion that writer Tony Daniel had for the project, saying Daniel had enjoyed his time working on "Batman" with Grant Morrison and really wanted to try his hand at writing again. For "Battle for the Cowl," he had such a clear vision of what the story could be that DiDio was happy to let him run with it.

"One of the things we were nervous about with 'Cowl,' in all honesty, was that we had this really strong ending to a lot of the Batman books, between 'Batman RIP' and the interesting wrap books we did with Neil Gaimen and Andy Kubert, and we had this three-month window while we were getting all the other material ready to go out for the relaunch in June with 'Batman and Robin,' a new direction for 'Detective Comics,' and 'Gotham City Sirens.' So our fear was that everybody would just skip over the 'Cowl' story because they would think it wasn't going to be relevant. Or, more, importantly, that it would all be resolved when all the number ones came out. So a lot of the energy was trying to create this sense of mystery."

DiDio emphasized the fact that DC's business was periodicals, not trade paperback graphic novel collections, because those comics readers who rely on trade collections make him nervous. "We have to make it feel like you can't wait for the trade. I hate the expression 'wait for the trade.' It's the thing that upsets me the most, because it means in my opinion that what we're creating isn't worth reading now. 'I can pick it up a year from now.'"

DiDio was keen to break this mentality with creating a sense of urgency in "Battle for the Cowl," generating excitement for readers who were perhaps surprised at the number of cancellations that the Bat-universe reshuffle caused, such as "Nightwing" and "Birds of Prey." The miniseries and one-shots that fill this three-month gap, including "Oracle: The Cure" and "Azreal: Death's Dark Knight" all had to feel like they were adding value for the reader rather than be seen as treading water until the Bat-books take off in June.

DC's big event for 2009 is "Blackest Night," and the gathering excitement for this Geoff Johns-penned project was evident at Bristol given the large number of attendees wearing the colored shirts of the different Lantern corps. Noting this, DiDio questioned an audience member about what he was enjoying about the current Green Lantern storyline. "It's fresh, it's epic, it's inventive, and the spectrum of the different Lanterns is something that hasn't been done before."

DiDio agreed, and explained that "Blackest Night" had been on the cards right from when writer Geoff Johns came on board with "Green Lantern: Rebirth." Johns knew what he was building towards for the "Sinestro Corps War" and beyond, and with DiDio was keen to expand the Green Lantern brand and let it grow. But importantly, they didn't want it move too quickly, so they worked to confine most of the story just the two main books, "Green Lantern" and "Green Lantern Corps."

Audience feedback suggested that the police-in-space concept of Green Lantern, combined with the war story theme, made Green Lantern one of the strongest DC titles. DiDio explained how the stories were viewed from the DC side: "Everybody goes 'the Sinestro Corps War was a DC event done right.' But actually it was just a really good Green Lantern story. That's what it was to start - it wasn't built to be an event book. It wasn't built to be anything but a really strong and important Green Lantern story."

With DC's focus firmly on the return of Hal Jordon, the intent was to make people as excited about his comeback as possible, so they worked to 'stack the deck' with the best Green Lantern story they could write, which is why the "Sinestro Corps War" grew to be as big as it did. "In theory, 'Blackest Night' was going to be just another Green Lantern story as well, but once we saw how well the 'Sinestro Corps War' was embraced, we decided to make 'Blackest Night' into something bigger,'" DiDio said.

DiDio also noted that the number of people wearing Lantern shirts at conventions in the US and UK was an exciting sign that the storyline was being well received. "I think everyone gets the simplicity of the concept - the dead shall rise. And God knows we have enough dead people in the DCU right now!"

DiDio also hinted that the Spectre has a role to play in the forthcoming story, and revealed that any character who had ever died in the DCU was a candidate for the Black Lanterns. "Spectre is a hard character because he can do anything. When he appears, all you end up doing is finding a way to limit him." DiDio said that this is addressed in "Blackest Night." Also important to "Blackest Night" are Aquaman and Hawkman, who DiDio described as mainstays of the DCU. Hawkman features prominently in the first issue, with Aquaman appearing in the second.

The removal of Superman from the DCU - at least temporarily - in the ongoing "World of Krypton" storyline has also been well received, and DiDio said that this was the first time the seminal superhero had been taken out of his book, ever. "When we came up with the concept of the New Krypton storyline, we realized that this was something that was never touched upon in DC in 70 years of Superman storytelling."

The removal of Superman - and likewise, the removal of Batman from his books - allows creators to explore new facets of their respective universes. Looking at the example of Batman, DiDio said that taking the lead out only showed what a strong universe it was, to have so many characters and complexities that allow the books to operate without Batman, all of which have sprung from the single original concept. And again with Superman, with the lead character removed, things can still operate in an interesting way as the entire foundation of their universes are so strong.

DC Comics' views on digital syndication drew an extended commentary from DiDio, who asked if anyone was actually reading Marvel's digital products. With nobody answering in the affirmative, DiDio joked, "I love questions about things people don't do!" DiDio reiterated that DC's business was publishing periodical comic books. Comic books are associated with an experience of holding and reading the physical issue, which cannot be replicated in a digital form, he said. Also, comic books are tied to the "collector gene." Citing Marvel's foray into digital comics, DiDio said, "To just dump 5,000 books online seems ridiculous. If everything is on demand, nothing is in demand, and if you have 5,000 things to choose from, you'll end up going to the same one thing you always did."

DiDio also expressed concern with the difficulties in monetizing a digital distribution system, explaining that calculating royalties for creators would be a major headache.

Is the return of Barry Allen as The Flash contentious? Not at all, according to DiDio, who explained that while Wally West was well regarded as the speedster, Wally West has not stopped being The Flash just because Barry is back. "All modern concepts of The Flash stem from the Silver Age Barry Allen version of him, and 'The Flash: Rebirth' does not negate the all of the stories that have gone before, it merely brings back the star character of the franchise in order to revitalize and expand the Flash universe, using the core concept as the foundation."

Having said that, DiDio did explain that the return of Barry Allen had not been an easy decision, and it had been in discussion at DC right from "Infinite Crisis." DiDio described how he felt the "pillars of 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' had started to fall within three months of that original event finishing." If the return of Supergirl was acceptable, and then the return of the multiverse, then the return of Barry Allen - a character who memorably sacrificed himself at that story's conclusion - would be a perfect way to bring a sense of closure to the event. But as DiDio explained, the very centerpiece of the "Rebirth" story is an exploration of why Barry is back, because if the world has moved on without him, why is he back, and why is he needed at all? These questions will be answered during the course of the miniseries.

Likewise, the return of Superboy was inevitable and pre-planned, right from his death in "Infinite Crisis." Connor Kent will take the lead in the relaunch of "Adventure Comics," so named because, as DiDio joked, "I was just dying to do a book called 'Adventure Comics starring Superboy and the Legion of Super-heroes!'" Although the exact timing of his return had been up for discussion, once "Final Crisis" came together, they realized the time was right. The return of Superboy also brings the story of Superboy-Prime to its end.

Since his arrival at DC seven years ago, DiDio has garnered both fans and detractors of his risk-taking approach to the DCU, but as DiDio countered, "It's an argument we have as to whether the characters are porcelain or diamond. Everyone goes, 'don't do that, you'll break 'em!' But you know what? Through the '60s, the '70s, the '80s, and the '90s, given everything that has happened, if they aren't broken now, they never will be." As DiDio pointed out, all DC characters have survived good storytelling and bad storytelling, and the goal for him is to find something new and fresh in order to keep to stories feel contemporary. Given that the core of the DCU are concepts that have existed since the 1940s, the fact that these remain in 2009 while so many other concepts and characters from the same time have been long forgotten shows that there is something so strong at the core that can't be broken, allowing DC to take risks with the stories.

"Sometimes you question how far you can push it, and there are some things that we will never do. But we never stop trying. That's the fun of it!" Related to this concept of the iconic nature of the core DCU characters, DiDio expressed his frustration at how difficult it is for new characters to gain traction. In the 1960s, Marvel only had eight books for sale, so with such a limited choice, people bought whatever was available. Today, with so many choices, the "default setting" for buyers becomes the most established, most familiar option. While Marvel is successful because titles like "X-Men" are able to generate so much more product from a core concept, DC is hoping to build a strong following for lesser-known characters with their new second features being added to their core, big-selling titles.

The popular All-Star imprint will continue, DiDio was able to say, with Frank Miller's "All-Star Batman and Robin" in production again. DiDio explained that as the line was designed to be built around creators, questionable and inconsistent delivery was always a risk. But if the right creative team for an All-Star title is identified, then new books will be added. Referring to the announced but subsequently cancelled "All-Star Batgirl" and "All-Star Wonder Woman", DiDio explained that Geoff Johns was just too busy for the former, and that the focus for the latter was now to make the mainsteam book strong with Gail Simone at the reins before considering anything else.

This strengthening of the core books was important to DC, as DiDio felt that all of their main titles had been impacted negatively by the "One Year Later" storyline that followed "Infinite Crisis." "We had great creative teams but nothing came out. The three major franchises sputtered at a time when they should have been on fire." DiDio also admitted that the inconsistency in delivery had squandered any good will generated by "Infinite Crisis." "We wasted any positive momentum that we had going. Now we are rebuilding that."

The relationship between DC Comics and film adaptations was discussed following a question related to "The Dark Knight," which asked why DC were producing a "difficult" storyline like "Batman RIP" just at the point when interest in the Bat franchise was hitting a peak following the success of the film. DiDio explained that they had no pressure from the studio at all, and said that the comics were the core, and anything else was ancillary. "DC should be driving it, not following it. I can't sit and wait for other people to do other things with our stuff to make us important and relevant."

Bob Wayne pointed out that they did re-release "Batman: The Killing Joke" and the new "Joker" graphic novel to tie-in with the resurgence in interest in the classic Batman villain, as it tended to be the trade collections that did well when movies are released, given that they are complete stories in a single volume, and that they are widely available in regular bookstores rather than specialist comic stores.

"What happens if Geoff Johns leaves DC?" might have been the most important question of the day, given his involvement with so much of the DCU. DiDio said that they have a good hold on Johns as he loves the characters probably more than anyone. But, inevitably, Johns will be tired of it one day, but there will be "another Geoff Johns." DiDio said that he considers everyone at DC a "renter," that the DCU existed before Geoff Johns and will exist after Geoff Johns. The key is to enjoy the moment and hope that the next people who come along will do just as well.

DiDio discussed several upcoming projects by some of DC's best known creators, including a Zatana series by Paul Dini starting in the fourth quarter 2009, a "generation-spanning" project for George Perez, and a "really amazing" project from Joe Straczynski following his Red Circle one-shots later in 2009. DiDio also hoped that Darwyn Cooke would be back sometime, although he is currently busy working on a project for IDW Publishing.

The UK's first DC Nation panel was rounded off with news about the Marvel family, and the place of the Justice League of America within the DCU. For the Marvels, their current storyline was finished with "Justice Society of America" #25, and following this they will be reset to become an important part of the post-"Blackest Night" DCU, with Freddy Freeman in the role of Shazam and Captain Marvel Jr. playing a part in "Justice League: Cry for Justice." Expanding on this, DiDio explained that the role of the Justice League within the DCU is a difficult balance. "The book should feel epic and should feel grounded. It should move with the universe, stand apart form the universe. It should highlight all the greatest characters and showcase brand new characters." DiDio said that everyone seems to have a different idea of what the Justice League should be, but that essentially he felt that they should be the hub of the DCU. James Robinson and Mauro Cascioli's forthcoming "Cry for Justice" miniseries will "basically be a reset for the superteam," establishing a new set of storylines to continue into 2010.

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