5 Questions Raised By The DC Executive Changes

It's a Brave New World over at DC Comics this week, thanks to their new executive team, but what does that mean for everyone? We run down five questions left by all the latest changes.

Is DC Comics moving to the West Coast?
With DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson, co-publisher Jim Lee and CCO Geoff Johns all based out of California, it may make sense to move DC Comics across the company to one centralized location, and it's a decision that Nelson has admitted has not been made yet. For now, though, expect a lot of air miles to be ratcheted up by the company; Johns and Lee have both talked about continuing a bi-coastal existence, and Didio has said that he'll now be spending "at least one week out of every month" in California from now on. As time goes on, don't be surprised if news breaks that the publisher is moving.

What will happen to Didio, Lee and Johns' current responsibilities?
Both Johns and Lee will continue to produce work for the publisher, with Johns telling us on Thursday that his new position will not affect his already full workload (which includes writing Green Lantern, The Flash and co-writing the bi-weekly Brightest Day series). Lee, meanwhile went as far as to release a personal statement about the question:

For fans of my art–fear not, drawing comic books is actually a part of my new job description, and I actually plan on increasing the frequency of which you will be seeing my work. It's important to me not only on a personal level that I continue with a hand in the actual creation of new comics but also for a broader mission.

What will become of Didio's role as DC Universe Executive Editor is slightly more undecided; he admitted on Thursday that everything is still in transition, but we expect him to relinquish the role to someone else - Most likely senior story editor Ian Sattler - before too long.

5 Questions Raised By The DC Executive Changes

What about Vertigo?
DC President Nelson says

With Vertigo, the importance of creator owned properties, creator generated properties, as an expansion and supplement to what we do, is a huge part of what the DCU is moving forward. Vertigo is enormously important and Dan and Jim's mandate is to give it the same business parameters and goals as each of the imprints have.

Considering that Vertigo has previously survived on lower sales that DC's superhero line in the direct market, existing on both prestige and a greater presence in the bookstore market, we're not sure how we feel about hearing that it'll now have the "same business parameters and goals" as the publisher's other imprints. Vertigo is now under the control of executives who've traditionally looked at things from a more mainstream, superheroic perspective, and Vertigo executive editor Karen Berger - surprisingly seemingly ignored in the high-profile reshuffle, although who knows what may have happened behind the scenes? - now answers to former peers Didio and Lee... Although, of course, the imprint didn't have any problems while Berger answered to the similarly-known-for-superheroic-work former President Paul Levitz. This one is an open question, and an important one for DC Entertainment in general; from a business point of view, Vertigo is where the majority of the publisher's successful new IP (Y The Last Man, Fables, The Losers, We3) has come from in the last decade or so. It's something to be nurtured, not manhandled.

What does this mean for how we buy our comics?
Former president Paul Levitz was a strong defender of the Direct Market system of comic book stores, and his leaving the position has produced fears from some retailers about DC's commitment to that particular side of the industry; for example, noted retailer Brian Hibbs:

I have major concerns about Didio in terms of his willingness to engage with the Direct Market retailer; which, given the rhetoric on display about the importance of our segment of the market and the dominance of intent on comics and print makes it kind of all the more nerve-wracking.

Certainly, the new emphasis we're hearing - finally! - about DC preparing to enter the digital space would suggest a new form a distribution that could harm comic retailers, depending on how it's rolled out, and for all new head of marketing and business development John Rood's talk of "cherished retailer partners," it's clear that he's signaling that a change is coming:

What has kept me from a good night sleep so far is the issue of Balance – balancing what's best for the traditional business channels with what will be best for the future of the business and the art form, balancing what superserves the current superfans with what will serve an entirely new generation of fans, balancing promotion with profit, etc... One of my missions is to work with the new executive team to take DC storytelling and promotion to the next level. We see it as a sacred obligation to you – to unleash our characters and stories and news across all platforms that matter to you. You'll soon see us at DC Entertainment making big news in Digital, in the short- and long-term, from mobile strategy to a suite of publishing products.

We're envisioning staggered digital download releases to allow for the Direct Market retailers to keep a level of exclusivity to be announced within the year, but according to insiders, it's way too early to predict what form the digital initiatives will take right now.

5 Questions Raised By The DC Executive Changes

How realistic is the #1 Publisher goal, really?
It depends how you look at it. DC has a very strong presence outside the Direct Market, placing 93 titles in the top 750 selling graphic novels in bookstores last year, making them the second most successful publisher behind Viz (and most successful non-manga publisher), and inside the Direct Market's book sales, it's a similarly impressive tale. In terms of single issue sales, however, they have long-placed second to Marvel Comics with a market share difference of around 5-10% (although they came out on top twice in monthly sales charts last year). Considering Marvel's weakness in bookstores - they placed barely a third as many books in the bookstore chart, for just over a fifth of DC's dollar share amount - this seems to put DC in a strong position, but consider this: Bookstore market sales accounted for $93 million dollars in 2009; Direct Market sales - which are built around single issue sales - accounted for $429 million. For DC to reach their stated goal and become the #1 comics publisher, they have to beat Marvel in the Direct Market. That could be a problem.

There are two problems for DC in terms of beating Marvel's market share. One is easily solved; Marvel traditionally publishes more material than DC each month (Although that seems to be an area DC is already catching up in; in May, both companies are releasing in the region of 120 titles). The second may be more worrying for fans, because it means addressing the fact that DC historically supports low-selling material for longer than Marvel. For the last half of 2009, DC books made up at least half of the top 10 selling releases in the direct market, but their market share continued to lag behind Marvel's, purely because of the slower sales of their mid-to-low-selling books. If DC is really going to beat Marvel's Direct Market share, they'll have to either magically raise sales across the entire line or look at culling some fan-favorites that aren't the favorites of enough fans (and then, replacing them with new series that sell better). Cue instant backlash.

Is it possible? Yes, but not easily; DC are in the strongest position they've been in for years in order to achieve it, thanks to the fan and retailer reaction to Blackest Night, but they'll have to make hard decisions in order to make it happen, which may involve wrestling economic realities with creative ones (Vertigo, for example, may be hit hard by raising the cancelation point of a series).