Today, DC Comics revealed its next major publishing initiative: a run of brand-new comics starring new characters branded as Dark Matter.
But while the headlines of the initiative will draw eyeballs with its list of all-star artists and writers, the real question surrounding Dark Matter is how it will fit in and find an audience in a changing comics marketplace. To answer these questions, DC Co-Publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee as well as Dark Matter artists John Romita, Jr., Greg Capullo and Andy Kubert met with a small group of press during Diamond Comic Distributor's Retailer Summit (itself a prelude to this year's C2E2 convention in Chicago).
At the press roundtable, DiDio and Lee spelled out their major plans for Dark Matter including its newly buzz-worthy practice of putting artists out front, its relation to DC's Rebirth initiative, its potential to diversify the line both on and off the page, and its chances for sales success in a soft market.
Conceptually, books with the Dark Matter branding will serve two roles. First, the books offer up brand-new characters and concepts created collaboratively by some of the publisher's top talent. But aside from that general "newness," the creators stressed that there is a stylistic flourish here that will set these series apart from previous launches. "All this stuff is set in the DC Universe," Lee explained, but that doesn't necessarily make them straight superhero stories. He promised that all the series would be influenced by everything from action to science fiction to horror tropes, bringing a new sensibility to their core line of titles.
DiDio backed this idea up, saying Dark Matter represents "a style and tone of comic book storytelling that embraces what we know and love about comics." He said classic storytelling themes like secret identities and the price of power will merge with fanciful new worldbuilding opportunities that are bigger than anything seen on a movie screen.
Of course, any new comic launch today faces not only an expectation that the genre ideas in play will be different, but that the content on the page will represent a more diverse world and readership. The DC creators spoke to the idea of diversity in the line, but many of them stressed the idea that more diverse characters would come not from a mandate but from the organic process of artists making stories in the 21st century.
DiDio in particular drew a line between the recent Rebirth launch and Dark Matter saying, "Rebirth was satisfying the old fanbase. Dark Matter is about building new fans." He felt that readers would be more interested in getting on board with these characters than previous attempts at recasting DC icons with new identities because there would be "no preconceived notions."
Romita backed this claim up, noting that the new hero Silencer he's creating with writer Dan Abnett is a female assassin, but that "I don't think of it as a diversity item. I think of it as a new character." The artist said that if a story like this would be attempted with, say, Marvel recreating the Punisher as Francine Castle, he'd understand how readers would question the integrity of the story. But when artists start with the goal of making something totally new, there were no restrictions or second guessing, adding that with original characters as the focus, "There have been great female characters and great characters of color over the years."
So if letting diverse characters organically grow out of the story is an important factor for Dark Matter, then why not have a more diverse lineup of creators? Why not, one reporter asked, have more women working on these books? DiDio said that at this first phase of expansion, DC was "Counting on folks who have a track record to do this for us." The publisher is betting that big name artists who have already move big numbers in comic shops will give Dark Matter its best chance for initial success. But that doesn't mean a more diverse roster of creators won't be coming onto DC titles and even Dark Matter titles in the future.
Both DiDio and Lee pointed at the company's new talent workshop pushes as a place where more new and diverse creators will funnel into the line – including many women. With the four assembled artists leading DC's new "Master Class" initiative, the skills and experience of the veterans will ideally help newer talent learn the ropes quicker.
Overall, readers should think of Dark Matter as "the first stage in a long plan to expand the company's appeal and the marketplace...not just the DCU" DiDio said. He promised that in the months ahead, even more new titles and ideas would be coming that would include a very diverse talent lineup – at one point citing creators like "Supergirl: Being Super" artist Joëlle Jones as the kind of person that will be seen more and more in the future of DC's line.
With this initial focus on market-proven stars at the lead of new characters, the obvious question came up as to whether Dark Matter's rollout was at all a rebuke to recent talk from Marvel Comics about artists no longer proving a selling point for their comics. DiDio gave two responses to the idea. First, he rejected the notion coming from anyone that artists don't sell books. "The names sell, and it's important for us to lean on them to be as confident as possible," he said. But he followed that up by noting that this launch was in the works long before the Marvel artists quote hit the web, and that DC is following its own market instincts here and not looking to poke its competitor in the eye.
The outspoke Romita, however, had a more pointed take on the question. "People have the impression that writers are the gods of this process: they are not...I actually take offense to that notion. The notion that artists can't move the needle is insane. I think saying that about a writer too is insane. It's collaboration," he said. The artist further noted that he feels that Marvel's reluctance to promote books based around an artist is more a result of the publisher's refusal to pay for higher-priced, "name" artists. "Their sales are reflecting it," he said of that attitude.
DiDio quickly steered things back towards his upbeat view of how DC will capitalize on the big names they've tapped for this launch. He said his view of superstar artists comes from the fact that he "sits next to Jim Lee" in his job and sees how much influence the longtime fan favorite has with his work to this day. He compared the idea of big name artists making a splash to the Image Revolution of the '90s, which he's fascinated with. When you match superstar creators with new ideas, it stops you from just "servicing the existing audience," DiDio said, and he wants DC to be fearless about what they do in publishing. It's not enough to simply do the same stories with the same heroes over and over.
But, one reporter asked, hasn't this kind of launch been tried before and failed? What would make Dark Matter more sustainable than the moment when Jack Kirby came to DC with brand-new ideas and found little sales success, for example? DiDio said he felt that the energy of the new launch will be sustainable in multiple ways. "What we want to do is instill a style of storytelling and sensibility that works for Dark Matter, but can also work in the DCU as well," he said, adding that the cutting edge sensibility of the books will carry their own energy beyond the star power headlining the first comics' arrival. Not every artist co-creator may draw 50 issues of these new series, he said, but DC was dedicated to making these properties long term successes due to their creative energy.
The Co-Publishers also outlined the basics of how the rollout will arrive in shops and what incentives readers will have to get on board. Dark Matter is a branding – an overall concept for creativity at DC – but it does launch on the back of the Scott Snyder-led "Dark Days" event which itself arrives in the form of two one-shots subtitled "The Forge" in June and "The Casting" in July. From there, Capullo and Synder's "Dark Nights: Metal" will hit in August followed by no more than two new titles per month until the end of the year.
DiDio caled it "A nice slow rollout" with a $2.99 price point on every title. As an extension of that, the Co-Publisher promised that each title would have another simplified selling point. "We're going to do something extraordinarily dramatic...we're going to put one cover on it!" he said. "This is a starting point for fans and a starting point for the characters, and you want it to have one thing for people to own...We want this one book to be as accessible to as many people as possible."