It's not often you see interviews with Bob Wayne, the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for DC Comics, or Dan Didio, the Vice President of DC Editorial, and that's for good reason - they're both very busy. Both work long hours helping to shape the business of DC Comics, planning upcoming books and the creative teams that will steer them, formulating strategies to get their books in more hands, closely analyzing trends within the industry to stay one step ahead of the pack. Their jobs include setting print runs for their publications and satisfying the demands of the marketplace, seeking out talent, both new and old, to write their product, looking at different ways to get the audience excited about their product, working directly with retailers on promoting their books and numerous other tasks that most fans would never consider because ultimately what's most important to the reader is a good story with good art. They work behind the scenes quietly, attempting to give fans exactly what they want.
Last week CBR News pulled Bob and Dan away from their desks for about 40 minutes to talk publishing. What follows is a fun and, we think, informative look at DC Comics, how it's changed over the years, why creator exclusivity deals are important to the future of the company, how they're marketing to kids to get them reading comics again, why advertising in mainstream media still is not a viable solution and much, much more. Also in attendance during the interview was Patty Jeres, DC's Director - Sales & Marketing Communications, there to help keep these two very vibrant guys focused on the job at hand, answering our little ol' questions for you to read.
I want to start out by having you contrast DC Comics as a company five years ago, what DC is today and where you expect DC Comics to be five years from now in both an editorial way and how the company positions and markets itself.
Dan: I've only been here for, I guess, a little bit more than a year and a half now. So, it's funny that you say where DC was five years ago, because the three and a half years prior to my arrival to get to year five I was looking at it from a fan point of view. Therefore, I can see where we've been changing and what's been driving some of our changes as well. I'll leave it to Bob now for the time line. Give them a history lesson.
Bob: I've been here for 16 years and some change, Jonah. One of the things that I like about working at DC, and which has kind of held me to the job over the years, is that DC is not a static place to work. It's constantly evolving and changing, so that when something doesn't work we don't continue on that path indefinitely. It's not like we're going to do something forever. At the same, if there's something we believe in strongly and we think the market will catch up with us at some point, we're not afraid to go out and back that. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail. We've been willing to take long-term positions and do things like that. So, I think five years is fair in that respect because a lot of the things that we started doing five years ago you're perhaps just now seeing how they've come to pass or how we've actually supported them.
Certainly, in the last five years, among the biggest changes would have to be the increased importance of our back list program, how our relationship with Diamond has helped to fuel the explosive growth of that category of our business. The growth of DC Direct.
Original Graphic Novels are something that Paul Levitz, our Publisher, has felt very, very strongly about over the years and has encouraged editorial to try for OGN's. If we hadn't gone in that direction we wouldn't have a book like "Orbiter" right now. We're very pleased with it not just from a critical sense, but also from a commercial sense. It's gotten the response we think is continuing and positive and we're very pleased with that. You can't make an original hardcover graphic novel that's actually a true graphic novel with a beginning, middle and an end, you can't make that happen by having a meeting the first of the month and having it show up and finish at the end of the month. It takes more time to write the novel and to draw and illustrate a novel. It needs a long lead time.
I want to talk a bit about both of your visions for the company and how you go about fulfilling those visions.
Dan: Well, actually we have one common goal and that's to sell comics!
Dan: That is a huge motivator for a lot of things we're trying to accomplish. I'd love to say I have a full five year plan laid out for you about where we're going, what the plan is, how we plan to broaden the whole industry, how we expect to expand into different markets and different ways to produce and distribute our product and the type of content needed to do that. Realistically, my primary focus at this particular time is driving DC to have the #1 market share in the direct market right now. That is our primary source of distribution, we know what that audience is, we know what they like and right now our main goal is to feed those needs. Once we reach, what we feel, is our maximum distribution and exposure in that market, giving people the type of books they want, from there, I believe, we can start growing out and begin looking into other avenues for growth.
Bob: Dan's right, Dan and I both want to maximize the number of comics we sell. At the same time, we want to maximize the level of quality that's in those comics and the entertainment value that our readers get from those comics. You might notice at this point that my answer is closer to the answer that you thought Dan's would have been and Dan's is closer to what you thought mine would have been. The person you should really feel sorry for in all of this is Patty, because her office is in between my office and Dan's. Sometimes, when Dan and I are ping-ponging stuff back and forth, Patty feels like a net.
You're not actually leaping over her, though.
Bob: No, no, we try not to make great leaps and single bounds.
Dan: We're just waiting for her shoulder to get better so she can take a hit.
Is the exclusivity deal a major component to getting that percentage of the market back up there.
Dan: Of course, mainly because our audience is so savvy and it's seen so many incarnations of our characters and knows what they want and knows the creators that they enjoy. As we've shown with the "Batman" book, it's not just about Batman, it's not just about Jim Lee, it's not just about Jeph Loeb, but it really is the combination of all three that help propel that book to being the top seller that it is.
Is there a finite number of exclusives that you guys can handle?
Dan: How many books do we create?
Dan: The exclusives are really for people who we are working with on a long-term plan and a long-term basis. What we've got laid out, creatively…I'll answer a creative question finally (Bob's finally happy), because I was about to give you all his sales numbers in a second. (laughs) …What we're laying out right now is an overall plan, where we want to take our stories, where we want to take our characters, where we want to take the direction and vision of the DC Universe for the next two years. There are several people that are integral to making that work and those are some of the guys that we've locked in on an exclusive basis to make sure that the people who are here at the beginning of that story are there at the end. Not just to make sure the story is told consistently all the way through, but also to share in the rewards of us telling that story, because they're excited about where we're going, they want to be a part of it and I want to make sure that they understand that we're invested in them as well by bringing them in on an exclusive basis.
Bob, talk about how these exclusives have changed sales for the company.
Bob: I think anytime when we can give retailers confidence in the stability of our company's publishing plans going forward, it encourages retailers to take a chance and order more copies of our books and make sure that more readers have a chance to buy them in retail. The steps that Dan has taken to line guys up to be part of the DC team, not just for one project, and it's not that we don't like guys doing just one project for us, but on some of the things that are ongoing, continuity driven books, you want to make sure that someone has the time with the property, the time telling their story so that they can explore the whole story and not feel like it was truncated or left out or that sometime interrupted the reader's enjoyment of the story. I think that the retailer feels more confident in placing those non-returnable, up front orders for stuff when they know that we have a plan and they know that part of it is based on the enthusiasm from these guys that are working with us.
Dan: Let me get my side of that as well. Conversely, because Bob's team has been so aggressive in helping push the books, selling the books, making the back orders available to the retailers, promoting the books properly, it creates a confidence on the creative level to make sure people feel comfortable working here. In that sense, they see how hard we're pushing their material both promotion wise and into the stores and through the retailers, then they know that their works over here are going to be pushed in the best way and made available in the most avenues possible.
Let's talk about kids and comics. It's not secret that the demographic of comics readers has changed dramatically in the last ten, twenty, even thirty years. Now it seems that all publishers are starting to realize that young readers are still out there and they still want to be entertained by comics. How has DC's editorial or publishing position changed as kids are once again becoming a major force in comics readership?
Bob: Let me start by saying that DC is at this point the number two publisher in comics that are aimed for an all-ages audience. I think we're second only to Archie in the number of comics we bring out each year and the sales success we've had with those. I don't think that it's a recent realization for us.
We've done a number of things over the years trying to increase the reach and exposure of comics like that to different readers, including giving away samplings of those comics in the summer to Six Flags attendee's, specially drawn for the DC Comics themed areas at all the Six Flags parks in the US. The way in which for Free Comic Book Day for the first year and the second year, the book we chose the first year was "Justice League Adventures" #1, tying in with the "Justice League" series on Cartoon Network, and the one we chose this year was the relaunch and debut issue, and it premiered as part of FCBD, of the new Batman animation tie-in series, tying into the fact that these episodes are still showing on Cartoon Network and are also now in home video release from Warner Home Video. There was even a bit of controversy and discussion between us and our retailers and internally about what would be the best thing for us to do on FCBD. We felt that the best thing to put forward in that environment was something that would be accessible to every single reader who could walk or crawl into a store and in both cases we chose those books that had the animation tie-ins with properties currently running on Cartoon Network. Those are the titles that we pushed the hardest, especially in working to keep them on the newsstands.
We just announced that we're going to start bringing out some of those in digest sized book form that will be racked with other kid related books in mass market book stores. At the same time keep in mind that we wear different hats, so that instead of having a "D" and a "C" on it it has an "E" and a "C" on it, that Dan and I are also on the masthead of "Mad Magazine," probably the best selling magazine in the United States that actually has things that look a lot like comic strips inside, but we don't call them that because the Mad guys don't want us to call it a comic book.
We've got a pretty good idea of what it takes and the enormous difficulties in getting those things called comics out to a younger audience, but we continue to work on that, continue to do the sampling through FCBD, through our affiliation with Six Flags, through our efforts to put these out in other formats and the fact that we have licensed from our sister companies the "Looney Tunes" material, "Powerpuff Girls," "Dexter," "Scooby Doo" and other properties. I think we have a pretty good track record on that.
You mentioned the digest format, you've already announced the "Powerpuff Girls"in digest format, can we expect some similar treatment to be done for other DC characters?
Bob: Yes. We're going to be testing two digest format books a month for three or four months. We'll be doing "Powerpuff Girls," "Scooby Doo" and several other things that will be announced shortly, but we're going to give this a full testing to put enough of those out in the marketplace to make sure everyone has a chance to know they exist, to get some sampling and to see what we can do with that format.
Is it all going to contain reprints or will we see any new stuff?
Bob: This will all be reprinted material from the previous runs of those comics.
Let's talk about "Teen Titans" on Cartoon Network. How is DC capitalizing on the huge audience that's eating it up, especially with Christmas coming up.
Dan: Well, just on the creative side, we'll have by the end of this year, two Titans books running. The one that we have going that's in the DC Universe and in DC Continuity, which as we know seems to be exceeding all our expectations.
Bob: That first issue is in its third big printing!
Dan: Bob always loves to point that out to everybody! Matter of fact he called my house the other day and told my family!
Bob: His wife said not to call breakfast again.
Dan: Then my mother asked, "Is that Bruce Wayne?"
Dan: Anyway, there's the one we have running in continuity which is the one that we wanted to establish first, it's exceeding our expectations, we're extremely happy with that. Come November we'll have the comic book adaptation of the animated series ["Teen Titans Go!"], fitting the style, tone and look of the series itself. So, I feel that we're going to be able to hopefully fulfill a lot, at least publishing wise, of people if they've had their appetites whetted by the "Teen Titans" cartoon.
Bob: I'd also like to plug the fact that DC Direct is working with Warner Animation and Cartoon Network in releasing the poster that was stolen off of many subway train platforms in the New York City area so that everybody can own their own copy of that poster rather than having anyone stealing more of them. It seemed like a good idea for us to keep as many of our readers out of jail as possible.
That's a very good plan. Let's talk about the mainstream DCU a little bit. You guys have had an incredible amount of success with Jim Lee and Jeph Loeb on "Batman." Wonder Woman is getting some high-profile treatment now with Greg Rucka. Superman is obviously next. Do you have any indications yet that the talent changes on Superman and Wonder Woman might result in the same sort of proportionate sales boom that accompanied the Loeb/Lee teaming on "Batman?"
Bob: Proportionate? It's always tough to say. There are probably more people that wanted to see Jim Lee do Batman as an artist from the first moment they heard anything about Wildstorm and DC working together. So, you had years of expectation of people saying, "I don't understand! Why aren't they doing this? When are they going to do this?" I think Greg Rucka doing "Wonder Woman" took people by surprise as much as anything else because of the hard-edged, noir type mysteries and detective storytelling that Greg has done the majority of his comics and prose career. Greg has had some really strong female characters over the years, but I don't think people expected that Greg had an interest in mythology or would be able to show a treatment with mythology as a primary element. I think that's going to be a different ramp up, but we're already getting a very good response and our orders are going up.
Dan: Just from my stand point, I mean definitely my eyes are on the prize, too. We want to push the sales as high and as far as we can, but the real question comes down to our creative teams, our belief in them, feeling that we have the right people and we're getting the best product. At the end of the day, once we have that confidence in the people and creators we put on the books, then we hope that all the other pieces fall into place, that the retailers have that confidence in the books that are being created and the fans that are buying them come back for more.
Are you expecting the talent alone to draw attention to these books, or are you taking any special measure to draw wider attention to the talent changes and if you are, are you taking it any new directions.
Dan: Well, there's promotion behind each project that we do, but you know, it's funny that we sit here talking about all the exclusives and everybody talking about the talent that we've brought in, we've generated a lot of interest in DC just on talent names alone, without actually identifying what projects they're going to be working on yet. As we start to roll out the projects, I think there's going to be an expectation from the fans. They know we have these people, they know they're working for us and they're waiting to see what they're doing. What we're trying to do is match-up the right talent with the right project and then hopefully the fans will come flocking to it once we create that book.
You have a vast archive of characters to pull from when creating a new book. Editorially is it preferred to revamp characters that may have already failed commercially in the marketplace in the past and you want to give them a new spin, or are you more interested in developing newer, untested concepts?
Bob: From where I sit outside the editorial process, there hasn't been any real agenda articulated where people go, "You know, we've got too many concepts and ideas. Let's just revamp old characters." It's really more a writer or an artist or a writer and an artist coming to us saying, "I've got a great idea for this character. Do you remember this character? He was in 'House of Secrets!" Then Dan and I then start trying to outgeek each other trying to tell the person, "Yeah, I remember that! My favorite one was the one that was only eight-pages long and ran in #117." (laughs)
Dan: It really is quite sad when you get in this room with us! (laughs)
Bob: They can't give us the run around by trying to out do us on that! At the same time a lot of the stuff that I know Dan is working on and the stuff that Jim and Scott have coming up from Wildstorm and Karen and Shelly have coming from Vertigo, a lot of it is completely new.
I don't think, for example, that "Fables" and "Y: The Last Man," which continue to increase in sales for us every month and at the same time continue to get very, very positive feedback from reviewers, retailers and readers. Those wouldn't have been developed if there was just a mandate of say, "Let's take a supporting character from Swamp Thing and make it into it's own book." Not to say that we won't eventually do that, but there's not a top down mandate to do that. When people come to us and tell us their idea and the Editorial folks thing it's a good idea and that people are going to want to read it, usually we try it.
This is a good time to segue into the Focus line of books coming out early next year. Why did DC feel that this was a good time to launch a new line of comics featuring characters that have super powers?
Bob: The stories felt right. What happened ultimately was that, again, we didn't want to just put all our eggs in one basket, but we know what we do well. In this particular line of books it's something that started with Andy Helfer. It actually started with the concept of American Manga, where we're trying to take some of the storytelling techniques of Manga comics and try to put an American feel and tonality to it. The ideas of taking ordinary people, putting them in extraordinary situations, giving them extraordinary powers, seeing how that would affect their lives and move forward, without them having to put on a cowl and cape because that just seemed the thing to do. That was always my problem when I would look at superheroes or look at the DC heroes where people get powers by circumstance, then all of a sudden they just seem to know that they have to be a hero, they put on a cape and cowl because it seems like the right thing to do and they're very proactive in their attempts to correct the wrongs of the world. [Focus] puts a little bit different slant on it. It gives us a chance to explore some more topics, more of the personal issues once their lives have been altered in any sort of fashion.
What do you say to people who would comment that this line is directly competing with the DCU in addition to all the super-hero universe out there.
Bob: We don't see it as competing with the DC Universe, we see it as complimentary. To some extent it has the ability to bring people in who've been reading comics for a long time and would like to see another take on this kind of material, while at the same time people who aren't familiar with the language of superhero comics and aren't immersed in it, can be impressed and taken in by the sheer power of the storytelling and how it grips you. One of the things that's becoming a pattern in my working with Dan is that Dan will share a proposal or a script with me that often times is the most shocking one he might have on his desk to see what kind of response it gets from me. I know that I used a very strong expletive when I read the first book in DC Focus ["Hard Time," by Steve Gerber] because it has probably the strongest, most shocking opening sequence that we've published since I would say Howard Chaykin's "Shadow" mini-series back before I came to the company.
What was that expletive?
Bob: That would be one that my Mother would be distressed if she were to Google me and see that I had said it, so we'll skip over that. (laughs)
Fans carry on all the time about how they'd like to see major publishers make bigger efforts to advertise, feeling it would help get people to pick up comics again. They talk about TV ads, magazine ads, while at the same time publishers always respond that it's just too expensive and not cost effective. Has anything changed in that regard?
Bob: Yes. Advertising is even more expensive than the last time we had any serious conversations about this?
Really? Despite the fact that there was all this talk about the depressed ad market?
Bob: The ad market is pretty much starting to turn around now. I think the last thing I saw that even Internet advertising had increased the last two quarters in a row. I don't think the ad market is that depressed and keep in mind that the people that we're trying potentially to reach are the same people that people are trying to reach when ever they launch a movie, a television show, a new music act or video game. The ad market might be slow and people may not be putting as many ads for some other types of goods and services, but as long as there are people who are 16 to 24 in North America, there's going to be a substantial amount of advertising and there's going to be limited places where that advertising can run with any feeling that you're going to reach that demographic.
We have the benefit that, because of our relationship with other companies that are with us in Warner Bros., we've actually gone through the process of meeting with ad agencies and other outside people that Warner Bros. uses to market films, television programs and the like. We've had them build models for us of what it would cost to have an advertising campaign where you would have a chance of getting at least six impressions of everybody within the target demographic group. We have not seen anything that has ever come back where we would be able to generate enough additional consumers in order to recoup the cost of the advertising campaign.
We've tried to do a lot of stuff. We fund the only co-op advertising program for comic book retailers that exists. Every week all of our retailers that order our comics from Diamond get an invoice. That invoice tells them what they have available to them to use from the DC co-op advertising allowance. We're willing to support our retailers buying ads at local ad rate prices as opposed to national ad rate prices and give them money on that every week. I also get to sign off on an invoice for all the ones that have been turned in by retailers who've done that.
We have done a few other things over the years. We did a project with Cartoon Network where we ran 100 spots to come in and get a free "Cow and Chicken" comic book at your local comic book shop with the Comic Shop Locator Service number, kind of the precursor, in some respects, to FCBD. We worked to help get mention of FCBD on Cartoon Network on their Web site so that people looking for more information when "Teen Titans" was ramping up, about "Justice League" and the other product that runs on Cartoon Network, we've helped to arrange that kind of coverage on the Web site to bounce them back to FCBD. We ran an ad for Frank Miller's Dark Knight sequel in "Entertainment Weekly." Case by case we do what we can, but the cost of doing this stuff has not gone into a positive. It continues to be out of the reach for stuff at the average prices that we have.
I think this is a good time to let Bob go on about some of the sales numbers Patty said you had and wanted to talk about.
Bob: Actually, what I think Patty was really referring to was that I stopped in the middle of working on the next batch of print runs that I'm doing and we were just very pleased because this batch of print runs that's falling today (that I'll be finishing up after our chat) includes "Batman" #619, the ultimate issue of the "Hush" storyline, we're just very pleased by how those numbers continue to be very enthusiastic.
In another interview about six or seven months ago, Dan, you said that one of your goals was to see every book in the DCU hit 25,000 copies. Are we close to that yet?
Dan: Pretty close. As a matter of fact, there are a couple of books that probably waver under that mark a little bit, but because of what we feel is a creative integrity on those books that we don't want to compromise and because we're quite proud of those books, we're staying with them. We'll continue to support them and hope that the audience or the readers will find them and we can show growth on them as well.
Outside of the direct market, non-comic book shops, shops like the Virgin Megastores, Tower Records, these kinds of places, which retailers sell the most comics product from your company.
Bob: Let me step back a second and make one other point on the last topic and we'll segue into that. Not just "Batman" #619 numbers are up, but one of the things we're really happy with is that we have a number of titles across the line from all the imprints where the orders for issue three on something are higher than the orders for issue two or the orders for issue four are higher than the orders for issue three, so we're kind of breaking the normal deterioration curve. Sometimes they're bouncing up very high and very fast like the numbers for "Teen Titans." Other times it can be a book like "The Losers" that I personally have a great deal of faith in, where we ended up in the July Diamond Top 300 we had both "Losers" #2 and we had "Losers" #1 in the Top 300, entirely on the strength of the fact that we had "Losers" #1 still available for reorder and there were enough copies sold in the reorder to make it into the Top 300. I don't see that stopping because the orders for "Loser" #4 were higher than they were for #3 and higher than they were for #2. We're kind of happy with that.
Your other question about Virgin, Tower and such. Retailers that order our stuff through Diamond basically constitute one class of trade to us in that they order from Diamond under those trade terms, those discounts, those payment plans, and Virgin and Tower are retailers who order under those terms and conditions the same way that comic shops order. For the purpose of our class of trade, they are a Diamond account the same way that the local comic shops is.
Do you have any idea which sells more overall units within those kind of outlets, DC or Vertigo product, and which are the leaders for those imprints?
Bob: No, not off the top of my head. I would certainly say that almost all of our business done in those outlets is in collected editions and original graphic novels, not in periodicals.
We're not really seeing, for the most part, a substantial difference in the sales of collected editions between one direct market outlet and another direct market outlet, other than just like the natural variation you'll get from the tastes of the customers, the tastes of the store employees and the managers, but it's safe to say that "Sandman" sells very well in every channel of distribution that we have and going up to the release of "Sandman: Endless Nights" we expect it to be even more so and all those back list books are selling faster than they were six weeks ago as people stock up and prepare for the influx of Gaiman fans for "Sandman: Endless Nights" in just a few weeks.
Let's close this out with this final question, but it's going to be a fan boy question, so I'm gonna let us geek out if you don't mind.
Patty: You're in good company.
Favorite DC Characters for each of you?
(laughs in the room)
Patty: You just wouldn't believe their anguished faces!
Dan: That's a tough one, boy.
Dan: Uhmm, shit … ahhh …
I'll let you pick two if you can't pick just one.
Bob: Now, is it possible for us to have a favorite from each group of characters that's become part of DC? (laughs) Like a DC character, an All American character, a Quality character, a Fawcett character, a Charlton character.
Patty: No, no!
Bob: Let me go!!!
Patty: No, no! If Dave Gibbons were to walk in here right now and said he would do you a sketch, which would you want?
Thank you, Patty!
Bob: That's not fair, because, if it was Dave Gibbons coming I would want a different sketch than if it were Sergio Aragonés. If it was Sergio Aragonés I would want Sergio to do me a sketch of …
Patty and Bob together: Batlash…
Bob: Because there is hardly nothing out of Batlash as drawn by Sergio. Then I would get a Nick Cardy piece to go with it, but I wouldn't want Dave Gibbons to draw Batlash, but I have seen a Walt Simonson Batlash and that's pretty cool.
It's clear we're not going to get a straight answer out of Bob.
Bob: My favorite DC Character is Plastic Man.
There we go. And you Dan?
Dan: Metal Men.
Patty: That's four characters!
Dan: I don't care!
Okay, well, do you have a favorite element? Come on?
Dan: Oh gosh.
Patty: C'mon, you're Mercury!
Bob: You should ask Dan which one he would be if he were a Metal Man.
Dan: Yeah, yeah …
Okay, I'll let you off the hook.
Dan: I'm torn between Gold and Iron if you need the absolute truth, but that Platinum, I'll tell ya! (Laughs) You get that little skull cap off, she's a hottie! (laughs)