Dynamite Entertainment wrapped up 2010 as the number six publisher on Diamond Comics charts, quite an achievement for the comics publisher. But getting there and staying there have meant negotiating an industry full of paradox and challenges. We caught up with publisher Nick Barrucci for some frank talk about Dynamite's publishing plans, and how it fits into today's market.
Like the rest of the business, 2010 had a lot of challenges, but Dynamite stayed relative steady says Barrucci, buoyed by its program for the Green Hornet followed up by the launches of Warlord of Mars and Vampirella. In fact, Dynamite had 19 of the top 20 periodical comics for publishers not in the front of Diamond's catalog and near half of the entire top 200 list – no mean feat.
Although the film has now opened and been successful, at many points the Seth Rogen comedy version of Green Hornet looked like it was headed to bomb territory. Nevertheless, Dynamite released a huge program of comics based on other versions of the character, including an adaptation of director Kevin Smith's unproduced screenplay for a prior version of the film. Using Smith's script, writer Phil Hester, artist Jonathan Lau and colorist Ivan Nunes created a 10-issue mini-series. Dynamite also published a retro version of the character by Matt Wagner, Aaron Campbell and Carlos Lopez.
While all the books did well, the driving force was Smith's involvement, says Barrucci. Despite notorious lateness on some of Smith's previous comics, the Green Hornet books all shipped on time – or even early, with Smith's involvement in everything from page breaks to layouts. "There was a lot of skepticism," says Barrucci. "Many people believed that this was very easy—we had Kevin's unused movie script to go on—but what most people don't realize was that having the movie script and knowing what to do with it are two different things. And we couldn't have done it without Kevin’s involvement every step of the way, and the awareness Kevin gave gave the Green Hornet characters in the market, and the great creative team on the books to back it up."
Although Green Hornet definitely helped Dynamite get its great chart placement, Barrucci admits it was a tough year for the comics industry as the economy struggled. "The truth is, as an industry we weathered the recession very well. But with $3.99 comics we did more harm to ourselves than was done by the recession. And I'll say that everybody was equally responsible." As Marvel and DC increased their number of $3.99 titles earlier in the year, Dynamite reluctantly followed suit. "We suffered from the diminishing returns of the whole industry and the only way to save some of the books was to raise the price," He explains. Some Dynamite books are lower priced, such as the $1 introductory issues for Warlord of Mars, which has been another success in the marketplace. Recently both Marvel and DC have announced roll-backs – DC has lowered the rice of its entire line, while Marvel has lowered the price on new launches and mini-series, a pragmatic move that Barrucci thinks will help the entire industry. "They are the only two companies that have the resources to do it. We all made the mistake, but they are the ones who are in a position to learn from it and help guide the industry."
Going forward, Barrucci is "evaluating trying to go back to $2.99. We're looking for ways to bring it down. It's going to be far easier to do it on books that we expect to sell better and we can give the savings back to the fans." Warlord of Mars continues to sell well and they're looking at bringing the price down on the title.
Looking forward to 2011, Barrucci cites their new Kirby: Genesis books as a high point. Writer Kurt Busiek and concept artist Alex Ross are developing a cohesive universe for a mini-series incorporating characters created and owned by the legendary Jack Kirby. The artist is yet to be announced, but will be shortly. "It's going to be a huge push for us," says Barrucci. "We're holding off on the release date until we have the scripts in the can and can promote it as much as possible."
Another project Dynamite has taken on is releasing comics periodical adaptations of fantasy comics formerly packaged by the Dabel Brothers, including comics based on Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series and Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson. "It is taking longer to put everything together than we expected, but we're definitely building something."
Ramayana, a Hindu-myth epic written by industry superstar Grant Morrison, was something of a surprise hit. "It surpassed all expectations for us. Let's be serious: it was all Grant. We did our job by promoting it correctly and packaging it right. Grant is not a surprise. But the fact that we can sell that kind of subject matter in an industry that is mostly superheroes is a pleasant surprise."
One of the sales techniques Dynamite has used, controversially, is many variant covers for most of their books, a practice which helps drive sales up on individual titles. But this move is not as effective as it used to be, says Barrucci who points out that many publishers use it. "It's done out of fear and to jigger the numbers a little more. It's to stop the diminishing returns, and there are too many. I think why most publishers, ourselves included, keep doing variants is because of fear of what would happen if we didn't do it. We're in a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation in the industry."
Dynamite has also managed to keep its market share by mixing things up, he says– in the fourth quarter they released such titles as Warlord of Mars, Vampirella. In early 2011 they are introducing Garth Ennis's Jennifer Blood, about a housewife who's also a kick-ass crime fighter by night; and experimenting with Bring the Thunder, a mini-series about a soldier in Afghanistan who gets superpowers based on an Alex Ross concept, and Raise the Dead, a zombie tale by Leah Moore and John Reppion. "I'd like to think we've pushed the boundaries as much as possible on superheroes but we're also there to experiment," he says. "People always say there aren't enough minority characters in comics, but with Bring the Thunder and an African-American character in Superpowers, the American Crusader, we've tried to push some boundaries -- sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail."
Publishing up to 25 books a month, some Dynamite titles don’t' get as much attention as they should, such as The Phantom, which Barrucci feels is a very well-executed book. "It's an example of that damned if you do, damned if you don't situation to be in. We tried something different—instead of just keeping him in the jungle as previous versions did, we turned it into a more of a blood-soaked revenge tale and got a lot of heat and criticism for it. But once people have started reading it it's a really good story. Our job is to try to figure out how to make it work. Fortunately, the title is still doing fairly well, and we are happy that it’s successful enough to continue as an ongoing series, but obviously it would be great if we had more readers."
On the digital side, Dynamite is one of the few comics publishers that has yet to make a major announcement, although they are currently on all the platforms, including ComiXology, iVerse and so on. Barrucci sees reason for a slow entrance. "A lot of people were jumping into it because—I hate to say it, but nobody wanted to be left behind. To be completely candid, there was no business in digital until Marvel and DC got into the mainstream of it. When Marvel was on its own platform and DC had yet to announce a plan, 80% of the business wasn't even on digital. In our opinion, it became more important to focus on the actual comics and collections and wait until the market share would grow to get involved." Currently most of Dynamite's tiles, including The Boys and Green Hornet are available for download.
While enthusiasm about digital publishing is huge, actual sales are still low – most companies estimate their digital sales at about 1% of their revenue – a figure Barrucci says may even be optimistic. "I don't have the answer yet. Some of our digital success has come from Kevin Smith tweeting about Green Hornet going digital, and his fans could just click through. His tweeting every time an issue was in stores definitely helped us."
In the bookstore market, their dollars are increasing every month, but unit sales are going down, a phenomenon Barrucci thinks is widespread due to the number of books publishers are releasing every month. "The consumer still has a finite amount of dollars whether it's in the bookstore or the direct market. Every comics retailer has only so much shelf space. You can't order 50 to 80 collections a month and not diminish your ability to reorder. Barnes & Noble and Borders have limited amount of shelf space and unless collections start flying out the door, they're not going to expand. Amazon, Indigo, Hastings.com all have ‘unlimited shelf space’ on the net, but if a consumer is going to spend $100 a month on collections it's still $100 a month.
"In theory, we all want to be Jerry Maguire and say less is more. In practice, no one does that."
Barrucci also sees one of the biggest problems for publishers in competing with other forms of entertainment for the limited consumer dollar. "The biggest competition we have is that the consumer's ability to access entertainment, the forms of entertainment and vehicles of which are expanding every day. Everything is fractured, everything is drawing your attention from something else, whether it X-box and Wii or watching everything on YouTube or digital comics or Facebook or streaming NetFlix. And there’s more every day, including the ‘Angry Birds’ mobile game app.”
"In an ideal world I'd like to think that as an industry, we have the passion it takes to get to the next level." Barrucci says. "We're too stubborn to give up and we have too much passion. To everybody, and all our retail partners and readers, all we can do is endeavor to bring all the best quality books best customer service to the audience."