Lee & DiDio Call June Launches "First of Many Steps" in Building the "New" DC Comics

DC Comics grabbed a lot of attention a month ago with the news that the "New 52" branding -- in place since September 2011 -- was being retired, in favor of a new-look DC that consisted of 25 high-profile continuing series and 24 new ones set to launch in June and July. The new books were notable for featuring creators new to DC -- like new "Superman" writer Gene Luen Yang, of "American Born Chinese" and "The Shadow Hero" fame -- plus returning names like Bryan Hitch, writing and drawing "Justice League of America," and Garth Ennis, returning to the world of "Hitman" with "Section Eight."

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Beyond the major names, up and coming talent are taking new and notable roles at DC, like Image Comics all-star Riley Rossmo drawing the relaunched "Constantine: The Hellblazer," and "The Kitchen" artist Ming Doyle both drawing the new "Dark Universe" series and co-writing "Constantine" with James Tynion IV. Annie Wu, who Marvel fans know for her work on "Hawkeye," is set to illustrate a new "Black Canary" series written by Brenden Fletcher, which spins out of the overnight sensation "Batgirl."

Last month at DC headquarters in Burbank, DC Comics Co-Publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio addressed a small group of press, including CBR News, to share their thoughts on the importance of the June launches -- which Lee called the "first of many steps" the company will be taking in the new era of DC Comics. Specifically, DiDio and Lee also disclosed plans for eight-page previews of the new series to be available for free in May, a promotion for DC Editorial Director Bobbie Chase, the importance of adding diversity in both creators and characters, and how the new lineup means that a line-wide event, in the traditional sense, isn't currently planned at the publisher.

The session started with opening remarks from both Jim Lee and Dan DiDio:

Jim Lee: It's a big launch. I think it differs from what we did four years ago with the New 52 in that we are sort of updating the line, but selectively. Rather than having 52 books all in the same continuity, and really focusing on keeping a universe that's tightly connected and has super-internal consistency, and really one flavor, we've really broken it up. We'll have a core line of about 25 books that will have that internal consistency, that will consist of our best-selling books. But then the rest of the line, about 24 titles, will be allowed to really shake things up a little bit.

We're really asking the creators to put story and character first, and really focus on canon more than continuity. Continuity is, this is where this character was today, and this is where he is tomorrow. Those are things that sometimes I think the readership gets too concerned about it, and it starts overshadowing what we're in the business of doing, which is telling stories. So by focusing on canon -- which is the stories that matter, the best stories that we tell with these characters, they get elevated, and that's the history we want to create with these characters.

It was really weird when we launched the New 52 -- there were so many fans focused on, "What happened between the five years, when this character showed up, and this character" -- it almost overshadowed what the original intent of it was, which was basically to put a fresh face on the universe, boldly go forward, tell new stories. This is an attempt to refocus the line, focus on story, focus on producing great stories that become canon, and letting the creators have some freedom to tell those stories, without necessarily being confined by the restriction of "continuity."

I'll just use one example -- there was a tweet I saw, someone complaining about "Throne of Atlantis," the DVD adaptation of the comic book. The complaint was, "Superman and Wonder Woman don't breathe underwater. You failed." Maybe the continuity proves that right, I don't know -- I'm pretty sure I've put Superman under water, and he was fine, and he's been to outer space, same with Wonder Woman -- when those things start overshadowing the story, and the emotional beats, I think there's something wrong with what's going on in the marketplace. That's my perspective.

Dan DiDio: You look at things like "Dark Knight Returns," or even "Kingdom Come," these were considered Elseworlds, outside of the normal realm of our storytelling. But those stories were so powerful that they started to work their way into the continuity -- they started to back themselves in. They were so motivating and inspiring to the writers, that they wanted to take aspects of that and start to branch out for themselves. The goal for everything we're doing right now is, we still have a shared universe, these characters can interact. But the main goal is to allow each of these characters to really exist on their own, build their own sense of story, build their own sense of direction, build their own supporting cast, build their own audiences. Once you do that, you're building a much stronger foundation for the DC Universe, and ultimately what happens is that as you start to see what works, you can bring ideas and concepts together to actually expand our audience, and then to cross-pollinate.

We see a lot of growth in what we're doing here right now. When you see a book like "Black Canary" coming out of "Batgirl" -- there's a sensibility to "Batgirl" that people got excited about, and we're building off of that. When we saw the excitement behind "Harley Quinn," we brought the same [writing] team over to "Starfire." We see the excitement there. We want to build on success, and build outward, to strengthen our overall base.

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If you get yourself into a grind with event after event, sooner or later, you're going to be only artificially propping up the sales of your books, and your line itself. Only the event is what's driving people, not the individual characters, and you're being forced to add more and more things in just to attract attention. The bigger win for us is to be able to rotate the crops a little bit. Replant the land, grow strong characters, and that way, when we build something else out of it, we have a much stronger base from which all these other stories can be told. And if you look back in DC's history, and even comics history, most of these characters that exist today, that are all now traveling in a group setting, in every event, from one event to the next -- they travel as a traveling sideshow, almost -- that wasn't the case when they were introduced. Every character existed and breathed in its own right, and when they crossed over, it was special. What we want to do is make those individual things special again.

But we also recognize there's a massively changing audience going on here. There's new readers coming in. Anecdotally, we pick up from the fact that we hear it from our talent -- they see it at the different shows, they're getting a level of contact that's not just the traditional audience that we've seen up to this point. It's for us to try and find out where the growth is, and who the audience is, by casting the net as wide as possible, with as many ideas as possible, as many tonalities as possible. Jim's right -- when we did the New 52, it was different genres, but all the same flavor. Now it's the same genre, in multiple flavors. But I think we have a better chance to grow it that way, because we might be attracting different people. And once you get a fan, you want to be able to hold onto it, and through that one book, find other books. That's the same way we came in.

On new, "casual" fans being attracted to comics via the multiple current successful DC-based TV series:

Lee: Typically, what we've seen in the past, is when we've had a big movie -- actually, even a trailer; when the "Watchmen" trailer hit, that pushed sales on the "Watchmen" trade about a million units. It was a tremendous boost to our publishing business. We started seeing that we could really leverage off the strength of these movies.

TV shows are a little tougher, unless you have something that's a massive hit like "Walking Dead." But "The Flash" has done very well, and we've gone to press multiple times on that trade. Even "Constantine" has seen a lift from the TV show. It's all about really leveraging off of all of these other media productions and being able to showcase our characters, our stories, our creators, to the widest audience possible. It's really a golden age for comics, I think. There are things coming up in the pipeline -- between "Batman v Superman," "Suicide Squad," the rest of the DC slate, even the "Supergirl" TV show -- we're going to be able to put out our books, and reach as many as the casual fans as possible, because there are definitely millions of people that know of our characters, but might not necessarily know of the source material that inspired all these great productions.

DiDio: I think what Jim said is key: It's about the inspiration of the material, what we're finding. The material that we create that's derivative of the TV shows doesn't nearly sell as well as the material that the TV shows were inspired by. That's why "The Flash" trades are working better than, say, a book that actually captures the tonality or the actual continuity, of the TV show.

Our comics set the tone. They don't attract the same size audience that the shows or movies do, everybody's pretty much aware of that, but what we do is inspire the people who create those movies and TV shows, to look at what we have, and use the material that we create to help fill their stories, and fill their tales. For us, I think that's a great thing. We always constantly have to push to be the leaders in what we do. We can't follow the other media. We have to be the ones that everybody else is using as an example, in the creation of things that are actually derivative of material that was created in comics over the years.

Lee: I think a big part of the June launch was really a recognition that the audience has changed. It's more fragmented than it was before. The original direct market was perceived as a monolithic fanbase. You see a lot more women that are into comics, at comic book shops and conventions. Our own studies have shown there's a lot more people that are looking for a lot more flavors and diversity in our line than we're currently doing.

We've been pretty good about putting out a lot of female-led books, we're really good about tackling new issues within the pages of the comic books, but I think June is a real line of the sand, in which we're basically say, "Hey, this is the new DC, and this is just the first of many steps that we're going to be taking, trying to address these new audiences, and find ways to grow our business."

DiDio: When we launched the New 52, we knew a percentage of the line would fail. Or at least be cancelled. There's a natural progression about how we launch a book, how it sells over a period of time, and ultimately, how long it stays before it has to be replaced with another series. But that doesn't prevent you from trying things. In this particular case, we're taking a lot of risk with a lot of product that we're not 100 percent sure of the size of the audience that we're actually selling to. I can tell you exactly what I'm going to get out of a Justice League book, I can tell you what I get out of a normal Batman book or a Superman book. I can't tell you the hell what I'm going to get out of "Prez" or "Black Canary" or any of these things, but actually, that's kind of fun. Because when those things work, that's what gets us excited.

That's the part that gets me really jazzed. The other ones are built not to fail, and these books are built to overachieve. There's something exciting about that. If you put your heart and soul into building a product that you're not sure whether or not you have an audience for, and then the audience shows, and grabs it, and is excited by it, then you know that we've addressed something that was needed in the market that wasn't there beforehand, and it gives us the impetus to try more, and take more risks going forward.

On talent both new and returning to DC Comics with the June launch:

Lee: I think this concept of risk-taking is something that we've encouraged within our editorial teams, it's something we encourage our creators to do. If you look at the slate, there's this desire to do something new. We're bringing in some new talents. We've got Gene Luen Yang, who's coming on, taking on "Superman." He's a National Book Award finalist, he has legions of fans that collect and buy and read his graphic novels, and we're really thrilled that he actually was a fan of Superman. He wanted to come aboard. He and John Romita Jr. are going to take the character in new directions that we can't share right now. It's something that hasn't been done, as far as I can tell, so it's exciting to see the energy and ideas that he's bringing to the table.

We have Ming Doyle, who's known for her Vertigo work, she's coming in and writing "Constantine: The Hellblazer." She's also drawing a book as well ["Dark Universe"]. We've got a lot of new talents. Annie Wu's coming in and drawing "Black Canary," that's actually spinning off the success of "Batgirl." Brenden Fletcher, who co-writes "Batgirl," is leading the charge with that on the writing side. Garth Ennis is coming back -- he probably last worked at DC over 10 or 12 years ago. He's coming back with a book that is a dark, humorous take on that section of the DC Universe. It's going to be what you expect Garth to do, and it's great, again, to have that kind of tonality back in the lineup.

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DiDio: For every "Bat-Mite" and "Bizarro," there's going to be a "Section Eight" and "Omega Men," which are probably the hard-hitting side. And we're going with every shade in between.

This is a lot different for us from the New 52. With the New 52, we had a catchy title -- which I still think is a catchy title -- we had different types of groupings that we broke it out in, and we went out with a very clear promotion plan and rollouts, so everybody understood what we were doing, and how we sold 52 titles across the line. This is a lot different. There is no overarching brand on this. This is DC Comics, pure and simple. Because it's DC Comics, we have the liberty to go out and sell every single title individually. Which is what we want. Every one of these books is its own entity, and we have to sell them in that fashion.

What we've done is created eight-page original stories that will be made available free to our fanbase in the month of May. These stories will be inside the second month of "Convergence" monthly titles, these stories will be comprising our "Divergence" Free Comic Book Day comic, but at the same time, we're going to be making them available on the DC website, making them available for free through comiXology and all our other digital distributors, and our goal is to get these in as many hands as possible, so people get a real sense of sampling of what goes on here. We're encouraging our readers to download them and make them available to their clientele. So in the month of May, people get a chance to read these books, see the different styles of art, read the different types of stories, see how we plan to interpret our characters in a new way, and hopefully in doing so, will get excited about the books once they come out in June.

It put a lot of stress on the system to do this, but this is, I think, a necessary tool, and so valuable to really inform outward what we have planned for all these books, and it gives a chance for everybody to see them, in advance, before they hit the shelves.

Turning to fan questions, CBR News asked what DiDio and Lee were looking for in the new creators recruited to join DC -- the types of qualities they were attracted to in writers and artists:

Lee: When you are overseeing a line like Dan and I do, you have to realize, not everything is going to appeal to your personal taste. That's a challenging part of the job. So you have to hire editors for their tastes, their relationships, their ability to curate content, develop content -- I think they've just done a masterful job for June. the New 52, when we launched, was a whole different kind of beast. It was more about getting all the trains on time. This one was really casting the net broadly.

We're having this big talent conference right now, and I think 40 percent of the group are new talent. The guy that's working on "Bizarro" [Heath Corson], he comes from the animation world. Maybe he'll do something that no one else has done with that character, and have fun with it. One of the things we've done organizationally is, our editorial director [Bobbie Chase], we've promoted her up to be the VP of Talent Development in the company. Her team is tasked with finding those people that obviously know how to write, but maybe have not even thought about writing in the world of comic books, and bringing them into our space, introducing them and training them to do what we do. I think that will yield a lot of awesome projects going forward.

DiDio: Another thing I looked for was point of view. Something to say. I think that's important these days. My biggest fear is, everything's getting homogenized, and we just churn things out just because we have to, not because we feel there's a need for it, or that it's something somebody feels a passion for. For most of these projects, the folks coming on board has a real passion for them, and a real idea. I go to Mark Russell on "Prez." He has a hunger for the story he wants to tell, and he feels he's got the vehicle to be able to really present what his concerns and interests are through these characters. When I hear that, I get excited, because I love the sense of passion that goes into these things going forward.

DiDio and Lee are asked of their approach to adding diversity to DC's publishing line:

Lee: I think the final decision has to be, we want the best stories. You want to work with the best creators. You want to have diversity, but you don't want it to be prescriptive. You don't want to have to fill in the boxes.

At the same time, I think it's as diverse a group of creators, characters, stories and approaches to storytelling that I've seen in the history of DC, at least in my years that I've been here.

DiDio: There are so many of these series right now that are coming out that I feel was the original intent of the New 52. It's a lot of that openness and freedom and storytelling that we originally planned. But because when we launched, it was so pressed up against this hard-driving continuity for so long, people had a hard time recalibrating and rethinking how to approach our characters. So they started to fall back into old habits, and looking in the past, of where they were going to get their ideas from. Now I can tell you that we've changed it. We're actually looking to the future for where our ideas are. It's not about re-telling an old story with an old version of a character, or picking my favorite Superboy from 1965, and giving it a new light. It's more about figuring out who we are today, and using these characters to tell the story of today's society.

CBR News asked if the 25 continuing series were also encouraged to push the envelope:

DiDio: Absolutely. That's what gives you the change of status quo in "Superman," "Batman" and the "Justice League" storyline. Every team was challenged -- you've got all these new #1s, you've got to do something to make your book stand out.

Lee: We didn't want to limit it to the 24, it's part and parcel of the entire line.

The other thing is, really putting the character at the forefront of every book. Make the stories about the character. It sounds self-obvious, but at the same time, people get very tripped up in retconning, to explaining what happened in a series a year ago -- we really want them to focus on the origin, and what's happening now, and move forward. Right after we launched the New 52, a lot of people were focused on, "What happened to this character? Did they disappear?" We want to keep this thing moving forward. We want fresh characters, we want new concepts, we want these characters to be leading the charge into the future, not looking backward. I think you only accomplish that if you keep challenging yourself, embracing risk, and moving forward.

DiDio and Lee were asked about the motivation behind publishing "Midnighter," a very rare instance of a mainstream publisher releasing a series starring a gay male superhero, and if they were worried about any possible controversy:

DiDio: "Midnighter" really spun off because we were having success with "Grayson," and it seemed the most natural book to spin off that success. This has always been an extraordinarily popular character for us. We were just talking to [Steve Orlando] about it -- what he found most intriguing about the story is a single male character. We've seen Midnighter and Apollo together in relationships, what he wants to is tell the story about a single male character, and ultimately, what is his place in this society? How is he working with others? He's on this journey by himself, and he's making mistakes, and everything that comes along the way. I think that's really exciting. You want to root for him. You want to root for all our characters, and you want to see them go through all the trials and tribulations, because you want to empathize with them, and hope that they win at the end.

It's a gritty story. It's a gritty character. This isn't a book that's going to be shy about what it is or who he is. It's fully embraced.

Lee: You'd want to think we're in a day and age where it wouldn't be an issue. That said, we launched Batwoman as a character in 2007. I think at this point we're well-prepared for whatever controversy it might engender, but at the end of the day, if the story's great, the character's great, that's our guiding light.

CBR News asked, given the desire to have these new series stand on their own, whether or not there was another post-"Convergence" line-wide event planned at DC:

DiDio: We've got some major storylines taking place. The Batman story's going to play across the Batman books. The Superman's storyline's going to play across the Superman books. The Justice League storyline's going to have little one-shots, things like that, that are built around it and help support that. But the last thing we want to do right now is cross over a bunch of books, or remove them from our stands while we're trying to let them grow, and take form, and shape, and find their audience. We're giving everybody some running room to really be able to establish themselves, and to build themselves solid series.

In some ways, we're going back to how comics were really presented decades ago. Everything stood on its own. I still like the idea of, when things cross over, make it feel special. Make it feel important. What's happening now, when you bring a bunch of characters together, they come together to move the plot along, and every character has to sacrifice their personality in order to make the story work. It's a traveling troupe. I'm much more interested to see the development in the character, and get caught up in their personality traits. We're looking for strong supporting characters, something else that's been lost in the ether. Things that really help create world around each individual character, because we think that's what makes them survive and makes them vibrant. If they're just part of somebody else's infrastructure, than they never have a chance to grow and be their own. But if we build them out, and a build a world around them, and build characters around them, with their own set of villains, everything that you look for in a comic, they have a much better chance to succeed and to hold an audience.

Stay tuned to CBR News for more on DC Comics and its post-"Convergence" plans.

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