Catching Up With DC's Co-Publishers

This spring convention season became the first real testing ground of sorts for newly promoted DC Comics co-publishers Dan Didio and Jim Lee. From Seattle to Chicago, the pair took to the stage in their now signature baseball caps for a series of "town hall meetings" with fans - often in the company of DC CCO Geoff Johns - to answer fan questions and ask a few of their own. But while both men are getting used to their public roles as the decision-makers for the publishing division of DC Entertainment, what readers are only now starting to see are the first few projects greenlit as a result of the new status quo.

At the end of last week, CBR News spoke with Didio and Lee - together for a rare run of days at the DC offices in New York City - on where the publisher stands today. From the next wave of projects in the DC Universe including plans for the company's 75th anniversary, to recent controversial talk over the killing of Ryan "The Atom" Choi, to the roles cornerstone imprints Vertigo and WildStorm play in their plans across the board and from building readers in traditional retail outlets to DC's rumored digital comics plans, Didio and Lee open up on every public project under their purview, give us an exclusive first look at J.H. Williams III's "Batwoman," "Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors," Paul Cornell and Pete Woods' "Action Comics" story and more.

CBR News: I guess it's been a week of traveling around again for you guys. Jim, you just got back from E3, right?

Jim Lee: Yeah. I was there Tuesday.

Were you working on the final launch for DC Universe Online, or are there other new projects you were meeting on as well?

Lee: I was there primarily to promote DCUO. It's coming online in 2010, and they had a pretty cool demo and officially announced the release date as November 2, 2010 which is the first time we've actually been able to put a date on it, which is super, super exciting after we've been working on it for nearly five years. The game is coming along great. It looks fantastic, and people were ooh-ing and aah-ing about the PVP and some of the other features we showed off.

So with each of you guys traveling around and watching over your own aspects of the line and then meeting fans at conventions and doing the town hall meetings, when you get back together in New York what is the discussion like? Is there a kind of debriefing that you do with each other on where various projects are?

Dan Didio: Not really. We're pretty much in contact every day either by phone or e-mail so a lot of that goes on there. Realistically, when we're together it's more to interact with the people in whatever city we're in more so than comparing notes on our own agendas. The reality is that we're in touch pretty much every day as things go on so there's no real surprises as we go on.

I wanted to go over each of the main pillar imprints of the publishing plan. With the DCU, you've been working towards the 75th Anniversary of the company with these big milestone issues like "Batman" #700. How did you see the task of doing something to celebrate that so early in your tenure?

Didio: Well, the two things are that we have the 75th Anniversary of DC Comics, but also this is the first year of DC Entertainment. You have two very interesting stories going on simultaneously. One is the very diverse history of DC, and the other is the exciting future of DC. And those two seem to be juxtaposed with each other in a really nice way. As for the three anniversary books, what happened was that when we decided we wanted to move "Wonder Woman" back to #600, we saw that "Wonder Woman" #600, "Batman" #700 and eventually "Superman" #700 all came together so we could line all those books up in one month to really be the centerpiece for the rich history of both those characters and the company.

I'm interested in how things roll for you now in terms of seeing things from the conception phase to execution. As publishers, you must have to step back and rely so much on editorial to put together a lot of what you used to do. As you've seen those anniversary issues come across your desk in their final form, have there been elements that were unexpected or different than you'd thought they would be when that plan got put together?

Didio: From my standpoint, the one thing I saw was the incredible array of artistic talent that they brought to each of the books. With "Batman" #700 it was Tony Daniel, Andy Kubert and now David Finch on that material along with Frank Quitely, there was so much going on in the book, and I loved the look of the story Grant [Morrison] told. I just read "Superman" #700 yesterday, in fact, and we also went to the well there to find a lot of great talent associated with Superman over the years. More importantly, it's a launch spot for the direction the series is going to take under Joe Straczynski's pen. There's a lot of fun stuff happening there. The "Wonder Woman" one is going to be extraordinary, also. We haven't seen the finals yet, but there's a lot of exciting things, from an introduction by Linda Carter to another interesting twist in Wonder Woman's life as penned by Joe Strazynski as well. There might be a couple more interesting surprises waiting there as well.

Lee: I think both "Superman" and "Wonder Woman" are going to be milestone issues in a number of different ways, and it's going to be a real surprise and treat for the fans when they see those issues.

You have a few months under your belt now as publishers, and we're starting to see some books that you've been directly involved with greenlighting, from "The Return of Bruce Wayne" event to your forbearer Paul Levitz's relaunch of "Legion of Super-Heroes." Are there specific books coming to the fore now that you had said, "This is something I want to see DC publishing," or are some of your big ideas still on the burner?

Lee: With Dan already being DC Executive Editor, it's been a really organic transition. He's working with the same group of people in the DCU that he was with prior to the transition, so it's been fairly seamless. I think one of the reasons he was moved up was because he was doing such a great job with "Blackest Night," and "Brightest Day" has come straight out of that. It hasn't really felt like "this is pre-transition, and this is post-transition." It's been an organic process. There's certainly stuff in the pipeline that we've put into place, but it doesn't really feel like "Oh, we're finally getting to do this or that!" It's a constant evolution and growth of what we'd set in motion as far back as several years ago.

Didio: From my standpoint, stuff has been flowing the way we set it up to be. Everything going on with Batman has been pretty much on track with where we thought we'd be two years ago when Grant decided to start working with this story. But on the other side, with the logistics involved now, there are subtle changes taking place. We're beginning to look at and examine a new stylistic approach to our books, and just because there's not a lot of dramatic change you'll see here, I hope you'll see incremental change that will improve the quality of the material. That's the stuff that Jim has been working on bringing back into the books themselves.

Lee: I think we're in for some really big stuff that we've been brainstorming, but it takes more than three or four months to do. Bigger projects require longer lead times, and we've got a couple cooking. We'll talk a year from now. [Laughs]

One thing that I've noticed about how the DCU line is growing, is that there seems to be an effort to grow the marquee characters as brands. We've got a new Green Lantern book in "Emerald Warriors," and "Batwoman" is going to be another addition to the Bat-line. Is part of your plan to build up this idea that it's not "one character, one book" but more of a family of titles around the big guns?

Didio: There's a couple of things taking place. The first one is that we always want to take risks, and we always want to explore opportunities with characters that aren't as well known. We want to take chances with original material. That's one of the strengths that WildStorm and Vertigo bring to the table - they're constantly pushing new ideas and bringing new things to the table. In the DCU, you're right that we are expanding the brands a little bit more, but we also constantly try to give the smaller characters and the lesser known characters a spotlight opportunity. They may not take front and center. They may not sell well. But at the end of the day, we're glad to take risks on certain books. If you look at our line now, some of our lower sellers are books we took risks on: "The Great Ten" and "Magog" or "The Shield" and "The Web." These are things that don't come pre-sold like Superman or Batman, but we wanted to give them every opportunity because it helped diversify and spread out our line. From our standpoint, we'll continue to do that while continuing to build the key franchises.

There's been a lot of discussion - and a lot of angry discussion, I'd say - coming out of some of the recent DCU storylines, specifically the death of Ryan Choi in the "Titans" Brightest Day launch...

Didio: And if I could jump in here for a second, I'd ask "What past that?" There seems to be a concern about us pulling back in diversity, and we identify Ryan Choi, but we don't identify what more than that. If you're talking about a single character, we can't run backwards from the way we act and behave with our characters because we're afraid of addressing characters of different race or putting them in stories that are bigger or more exciting, I'm sorry to say. This is an interesting thing to me, because since I've been here, we've been extraordinarily aggressive in trying to bring racial diversity and diversifying our cast of characters as much as possible. That's been part of our agenda for the last five to eight years since I've been here. We're talking about a single character with Ryan Choi, but I'd love to know about examples past that, because at the same time that we've got Ryan Choi, we've got a Great Ten series running. If you look at every team book and everything we're doing, we go to extraordinary lengths to diversify the casts and show our audience in our books.

Well, I think for some that the focus gets put on characters that fail one way or another. At the same time as this has been going on, there's been a lot of positive talk of Jaime Reyes as Blue Beetle getting a push for live action. How do you view your role in terms of making sure that successes are carried through in a long term way?

Didio: We're always going to be exploring different ways to go. One of the things I think Grant Morrison did extraordinarily well with "52" and "Final Crisis" was to really show that it's not just that the heroes are U.S.-centric. The introduction of the Great Ten and the introduction of the Super Young Team are things that Grant brought that we constantly build out from. When Dwayne McDuffie was writing "Justice League of America," we had an incredibly diverse cast of characters as we worked the Milestone characters into the DC Universe. So again, we're taking great steps to show that we as a company reflect the audience that's out there for our books. When we go to conventions, we look at the audience, and we see that it's an incredible blend in terms of race and gender. Men and women read our books. We have a wide breadth of books and things going on, and to focus on one thing is inappropriate, in my opinion. It's a mistake, because if you look at one book, you have to realize that DC Comics puts out nearly a hundred books each month, and to focus on one book, one issue, is doing a true disservice to the company, the comics and to the industry.

Shifting focus to talk about Vertigo for a minute. Recently, you've had two well-received launches with "American Vampire" and with "Greendale," both of which represent in their own way the two things that Vertigo is most known for: long-running series with a definite shape and scope to them and stand alone volumes build for a general audience to jump right into. Neither of you had worked much with the Vertigo staff or on those kinds of properties before becoming co-publishers. Do you foresee that Vertigo will continue to present projects in those two veins, or do you think that you'll change things up in terms of the kind of material and formats we see?

Lee: Karen Berger is fairly synonymous with Vertigo, so it wouldn't make a lot of sense for us to walk in and say, "Hey, by the way...this is how Vertigo should run." We certainly sat down with her and went over all the titles and how the publishing plan should run. And fortunately, we had a great dialogue, and through that dialogue we've really come to lay down some stuff we think will best represent Vertigo as a line and will create more hits like "American Vampire" and "Greendale" that we think will make an impact with the readers. Part of the trick is that they do a lot of one-offs, so you don't have projects dealing with well-known characters with established histories. It's not just about finding diverse material. It's about pushing the marketing to find new audiences for this material. It's a great challenge, and that's how Dan and I helped Karen - in pushing Vertigo as a line. And that's where I think we'll be more helpful than necessarily deciding "it'll be this book and these creators," because that's what she and her team are so good at.

Didio: And I think that there's a small renaissance going on at Vertigo too. For so many years, it was about "Y" and "Fables" being the real lynch pins of the line, and now we see things like "Sweet Tooth," "American Vampire" and "The Unwritten" all break out and grab an audience. We're really excited by the feedback and excitement those books are building at this time.

Dan, I know one thing that was a big part of your job in the past was talent recruitment to DC and to the DCU, and you've already started to see some Vertigo folks making their way across the publishing lines. Jeff Lemire is working on the Atom and Superboy, and I've also heard that Scott Snyder of "American Vampire" is going to be doing some DCU work.

Didio: Absolutely. And also even though he's not new to comics but new to DC, Paul Cornell is a guy who we see an expanded role for in the DCU as well.

How much has that talent side of things changed for you guys? Is that falling more to editorial as you look to the business mechanics side of things?

Didio: It's something for editorial, but I'd also like to turn it over to Jim at this time, because Jim has an incredible eye for talent, but has also been in a position where he can really see people and get to them in terms of finding the right fits. One of the things that's been most exciting about working with Jim has been seeing the people he's reaching out to and have been reaching out to him in terms of doing things to really freshen up and reinvigorate the line itself.

Lee: I think we have a really great new talent system in place between Dan and Geoff really finding and working with and bringing up writers through the system. And one of the things I've always done with WildStorm since its inception and creation was finding new young artists and bringing them into comics. A lot these guys have gone on to become comic book household names and industry superstars, and honestly, we have to keep that pipeline of new talent open. We're really looking forward to the big summer cons and the larger conventions to sit down and find new artists. And we'll also be looking with other methods: online and other ways of getting new talent - not just bringing them into comics but putting them under our wing and training them, nurturing their careers to help them find their way in the business. One thing I've noticed about new talent is that if you don't give them a lot of guidance, a lot of the time they can burn out and get disillusioned. I think it's really important that you pair up the right writers with the right artists on the right characters. That makes a huge difference, especially now.

I heard about Scott Snyder, and you brought up Paul Cornell as two newer faces to the DCU. At this point, can you tell me what kinds of new projects they'll be moving along to next?

Didio: Yes, they both have work coming up. No, I can't say what it is right now. [Laughter]

Fair enough. Dan, I've got one more question on the Vertigo front, and I think I've seen you asked about this a million times at conventions, but I have to return to it...

Didio: And I never answered it? [Laughter] Go for it!

Recently, there was talk online from science fiction writer China Mieville who said he'd been working on a new version of "Swamp Thing" for Vertigo, but that it didn't come together because there may be plans to return the character to the DCU proper. Is there anything to say there about the chance that some of these characters may be moving back or forth with you guys in the publisher role?

Lee: You've got to understand, we can't respond to rumors. There's one every day, and maybe one in ten comes to fruition or ends up being true. We really can't speak about that kind of stuff, or we'd spend all our days squashing things that could or couldn't be true.

Didio: I'm going to go really big picture on this for a second. In any entertainment situation or any entertainment environment, there's constantly product that's being developed with all of the best intentions to be made, but they get turned aside for whatever reason. They're never the same reasons twice most of the time. In this particular case, though, we are examining everything that we do, and we're looking for the best ways to approach our books and our characters to make product with the best chance possible of the best success possible.

Looking at WildStorm as the third leg of the whole publishing section, over the past few years we've seen a real growth in licensed material there, starting with the video game stuff people seem so familiar with to projects like "Fringe" and "X-Files." Do you see that as the direction that imprint will continue to move in on the whole?

Lee: There was a conscious decision years ago, as the DCU material became edgier and Vertigo started experimenting with things that felt more superhero-ish, WildStorm no longer occupied that middle ground. And as we were working on DC Universe Online, we saw an opportunity where DC was not involved in a lot of licensed books. We're seeing a lot of traction amongst comic book readers for that type of material. Some of the best-selling books of recent years have been some of these licensed books that WildStorm has developed and put out. When we did that "Heroes" trade, that was a huge seller for us, and it showed us the potential for when you find the kind of license that attracts the same kind of reader you have for comics of really scoring a home run and building a publishing business out of that. So we really pick up the licenses that we're fans of, and it's been a great opportunity to play with the stuff we enjoy as fans ourselves. So it's opened a lot of doors, and the successes have built upon themselves where we have people with very cool projects on their own coming to us and saying, "Can you make this a comic book?" It's been a positive direction for WildStorm, and we hope to continue with that.

Is there anything you think is a big project that's indicative of the kind of thing you hope to do with that line?

Lee: We've been doing a lot of stuff with "World of Warcraft" and we moved it from regular monthly series into OGNs, which we feel helps us in other retail shops like GameStop or Best Buy where we have opportunities of bringing new readerships into comics. And don't forget "Ex-Machina" #50, from Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris.

Lastly, I wanted to ask about the digital frontier. People online seem to be anticipating an announcement from DC very soon, maybe even before San Diego. What can you say about DC's plans for digital distribution?

Lee: Not much. Obviously, I don't want people to misinterpret our silence as indifference or as a sign of inactivity. All I can say is that we've got great plans afoot, and we'll share them with everybody soon.

Well, if I can tease a little more out of you than that...

Didio: He won't let you go! [Laughter]

Well, I know Marvel made their announcement about releasing a new book online the same day it hits in shops, and other companies are aggressively putting up their older content for sale. Do you see DC taking one track or the other? What kinds of content or formats in general will work for you?

Lee: I think you can view digital comics as the Wild West. The last shape of what that business is going to be a year from now, three years from now, five years from now...it'll be very different from what it is now, and no one can fully predict what it'll evolve into. What I think the hopes for digital distribution are, is that we as an industry will be able to reach new kinds of readers that we haven't been as successful reaching in the past. Some of the stuff that we've done in the past has been including free comics as a download on our website for Vertigo first issues or kids issues. You see some interesting trends now, and based on those trends, we see some interesting choices for what our digital business will be once we dive into that and what it'll grow into. I think people will really start to see that it's not about converting print buyers into digital buyers. I think it's a much bigger picture than that, and I think our digital slate - when it's announced, when it happens - will reflect our expectations for what that market will grow into.

To wrap up, we're about to go full steam ahead on the peak of the con season with San Diego ahead. What is the very next big thing on each of your dockets?

Didio: Next big thing? I'm not going to answer that one, it'll just get me in trouble! [Laughter]

Lee: We've got things planned out for the next three months, six months and a year. We're talking about things that'll come to fruition in a year and a half or two years. I think one of the cool things about the way certain directives are coming together at DCE involves trying to marry up all the things happening in DC Comics with all the things happening at Warner Brothers. And there's not enough hours in the day to work on all the possible cool things. You've got to be choosey and pick things you think will be home runs, and we have a lot of cool stuff that isn't just about publishing or digital - stuff that integrates a lot of activities across Warner Brothers, and I think that stuff will come to fruition in the months and years ahead. That's where you'll see some cool and exciting stuff you've never seen before.

Didio: And we've been remiss in not also mentioning Geoff Johns in any of the conversation, because Geoff has been integral to a lot of conversations and a lot of the things Jim's been referring to. The coordination of the characters in our comics into other media is something that's going to be running even tighter and more exciting as it's running forward. You talk about what's coming up, and naturally, there's going to be a big, exciting push to Green Lantern next year, and we're hoping that the publishing schedule and the books themselves from which he was born will lead the charge and become what the excitement's all about. Geoff has some really exciting plans for the books that we're doing, and there's actually going to be some really interesting things appearing in the back of Green Lantern very soon that Geoff is spearheading.

And I'm going to bring this all full circle to one of your questions from before, because you asked about rumors and things like that. One of the things we're trying to avoid is creating any artificial news or hype about what's going on here. That's why we're playing things as close to the chest as we are. There are a lot of exciting things we're working on, but they're also very sensitive things, and so we're putting an enormous amount of energy into them to make sure they actually happen. We're hoping that when you look at what DC Comics will be in 2011, it'll be one of the most exciting years of publishing that we've ever had. Fingers crossed. But right now, we're working hard to make that happen, and at the same time we're excited about the reaction our books are getting right now. We feel there's a good wind to the back of DC Comics right now, and we want to make sure we take advantage of every bit of it to be as strong a company as possible.

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