This September, DC Comics is making a number of surprising moves in an attempt to regain lost readers and attract new ones. They are canceling and relaunching their entire slate of superhero comics with brand new first issues. Their characters will be massaged into new reader-friendly shapes in a variety of genres, with stories featuring simplified histories and movie-friendly costumes. Alongside this groundbreaking relaunch, DC Comics is going to release all of their superhero comics online at the same time as they're released in retail stores.
DC's goal is to reinvigorate a flagging line that has long come in second place to Marvel, their biggest competitor, and their plan certainly sounds reasonable. DC has been attempting to grow its audience for several years now. Previous attempts have included Minx, a young adult fiction line aimed primarily at young girls, and CMX, an imprint dedicated to publishing Japanese manga. Both attempts had trouble finding traction in the Direct Market, the traditional audience for comic books, and folded a few years after their inception. The biggest question about DC's latest push for a wider audience is whether or not DC can transform itself into a company that is able to gain and, most importantly, sustain the interest of new readers.
Making all of their new superhero comics available for digital distribution, in addition to their sizable back catalog, is a good idea, but a half step into a new world at best. Making the material available is half the battle. The other half requires making possible consumers aware of the fact that those comics are available, and ensuring that they have an easy method to stay up to date on new releases.
Thus far, DC has demonstrated no plans for pre-orders or subscriptions, both of which are major factors in the entertainment industry, from video games to magazines to books. A FAQ sent to retailers mentions that DC's digital distributor ComiXology is "working to be able to add this functionality," but mentions no timetable and no specifics. The comics industry currently depends on pre-orders and subscriptions from dedicated readers, which makes the lack of this feature remarkably glaring. If new readers want to keep up with a book, they have to do a bit of extra and counter-intuitive legwork to find and subscribe to an all-encompassing new releases list.
Readers who want to follow just one or two series have the option of being inundated with information about series that they couldn't possibly care less about or having to remember which week of the month their chosen books come out, assuming that the schedule doesn't slip. That's a barrier to entry, and that is the last thing DC needs in a medium as relatively marginal as comics.
DC's price point for the vast majority of their line of digital comics is $2.99, and then the price drops to $1.99 30 days after original release. Three dollars for roughly ten minutes of (generally single-use) digital entertainment is a high price, and knowing that you can get the books cheaper in a month is a very good reason to delay your purchase. The problem comes with the fact that finding reasons to delay your purchase also leads to examining exactly how much you like what you're attempting to purchase. If you like something, but not enough to buy it at full price, it's very easy to decide not to buy it at all or for it to simply slip your mind. DC needs to build brand loyalty and regular business, and the digital side of things might be lacking.
The other half of DC's plan involves growing the audience by way of publishing content in diverse genres and therefore creating content that non-comics readers will want to read. In addition to their standard superhero tales, DC is publishing two war comics (both of them based around Private Military Companies instead of the US military as in past comics), a western series, and a small number of superhero comics-with-a-twist, whether that twist is horror, science fiction, or vampires. The majority of their line remains exactly what non-comics readers are currently busy not reading: superheroes.
Notably absent from any discussion of DC's big push is one of their more popular imprints: Vertigo. At the moment, Vertigo publishes everything but superhero comics. A brief look at their upcoming books for this year reveals books featuring crime fiction, vampires, fairy tales, horror, zombies, magic, vikings, a war-zone drama, and more. According to DC's official Twitter account, Vertigo will not be included in the day-and-date digital releases.
The fact that Vertigo isn't included in the digital releases highlights a glaring problem with DC's big relaunch. They're playing it safe, essentially, by catering to the same audience that they've always served, while offering a few brief nods in the direction of new readers. Vertigo has tremendous crossover appeal and can produce work in a wide variety of genres. While expecting DC to lead with Vertigo is unlikely, Vertigo's books should at least be a part of the simultaneous digital and retail release schedule. Without Vertigo, DC's a superhero company. With Vertigo, they're more like a real book publisher, able to serve the needs of a wide audience with a minimum of trouble or stretching.
At the same time, DC has made strides in terms of retailer outreach, and have promised that there's more to come. Since the announcement of their relaunch, they have gone on a nationwide tour to inform their retail partners of their plans and exactly why they expect this maneuver to be successful for everyone involved. They have a significant, though unstated, advertising budget, and are planning to advertise on Facebook, TV, and anywhere there may be potential readers. The majority of their plans are as-yet unannounced, but it's reasonable to expect a flash food of ads that will increase DC's visibility in the marketplace and encourage people to hit their comic shops or digital comics readers. Retailers will be able to sell digital comics from their brick and mortar storefronts, as well as on their websites.
You can't deny that DC is attempting to cover their bases in terms of getting the word out. The only question is whether or not the advertisements and the content in their books will work to hook readers. DC is promising a flood of advertising and expecting that to draw in new readers, but you can't get new readers by doing the same old thing. Paying lip service to diversifying your line of books while ignoring your access to an actually diversified line simply doesn't cut it any more.
Releasing a flood of digital books onto the market and expecting that to bring people in droves, without some mechanism in place to curate and deliver new books into the hands of a waiting audience, doesn't make sense. The releases will resemble a wall of unfamiliar material, and what's more, material that you will still have to work to understand and purchase, despite DC's changes to their product line.
DC needs to release genuinely different books onto the market and make it as easy as possible for consumers to purchase them. As-is, their plan feels flawed, with plenty of room for improvement. DC needs to move out of their superhero-centric paradigm and embrace a more diverse variety of content to see real success. Right now, their big relaunch looks a lot like a band-aid on a gaping wound. It may work in the short-term, but it's severely lacking as a long-term solution.
David Brothers writes about comics at 4thletter! and works in video games in San Francisco.