The world’s #2 superhero comics publisher is undergoing a stress test. DC Comics, the venerable publisher of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Watchmen, and dozens of other celebrated superhero characters, looks to be caught in the corporate restructuring taking place at its parent company, AT&T, along with other divisions of WarnerMedia, which the telecom giant acquired in 2019. After several rounds of layoffs and controversial business decisions, comics fans, comics professionals, and retailers are speculating whether DC, or its parent company, will choose to abandon comics publishing or the comics shop market entirely.
Early in 2020 DC parted ways with longtime DC universe copublisher Dan DiDio. That turned out to be the first act of a major housecleaning. September saw the departures of a host of longtime executives, among them, editor-in-chief Bob Harras, senior v-p Hank Kanalz, and well-known editors Brian Cunningham and Mark Doyle. This was followed by a second wave of layoffs in November which took out the last of DC’s veteran comics marketing and distribution staff. Even Michelle Wells, elevated to coeditor-in-chief in August after overseeing DC’s successful children/young adult graphic novel line, was let go in the last round of layoffs. And there is word of more to come.
Back In April, in the teeth of the retail Armageddon brought on by the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns, DC abruptly terminated its relationship with the comics shop market’s largest (and, for all practical purposes, only) distributor, Diamond Comics Distributors, to go into business with two new firms, Lunar and UCS, retail operations that were transformed into national comics distributors. By October, the UCS-DC relationship was over—though it’s not entirely clear who fired who—and now Lunar is the sole distributor for DC periodicals.
That’s a lot of disruption at a company that, by the numbers, seems to be doing pretty well. DC’s top titles are selling well in comics shops. In the trade book market, collected editions of recent series like the Three Jokers, White Knight, and Dark Metal are doing well, such backlist perennials as Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Batman: The Killing Joke and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series have lived on the bestseller lists for decades, and the company’s burgeoning line of young reader graphic novel series like Superhero Girls, Swamp Kid, and Gene Yang’s recent Superman vs. the Klan are garnering critical praise as well as new fans in the hot tween-and-teen book market.
More importantly, DC remains an IP gold mine for AT&T’s media divisions. Adapted into a TV series, Watchmen was not only a gigantic hit for HBO but a legitimate cultural milestone that took home a raft of awards. Several TV-adapted titles that incubated on DC’s former streaming service, DC Universe (now downsized into a digital comics subscription service)—including the moody Titans and Doom Patrol, both adapted from the comics—have made the jump to HBO Max. Other adaptations, such as the extended Arrow-verse (the interconnected shows Arrow, Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, and Black Lightning), have brought the goofy, convoluted charm of old-time DC storytelling to the CW network. On film, DC’s latest blockbusters Wonder Woman, Shazam, and Aquaman have received praise, and the much-anticipated Wonder Woman 1984 was released in theaters and on HBO Max over the holidays.
Nevertheless, the value of all that content has not squelched persistent rumors that DC (or its parent company) is fielding offers to license out its comics publishing or get out of the comics business altogether. Following the first purge, Jim Lee, DC’s surviving publisher, took the extraordinary step of telling the Hollywood Reporter: “I don’t think they want to stop us publishing comics. Comics serve a lot of different purposes and one of them is, it’s a great way to incubate ideas and create the next great franchises. We want to continue that. Why would you want to stop that? Why would you want to stop creating great content that could be used across the greater enterprise?”—a hesitant response that didn’t sound like a ringing vote of confidence.
So are the wheels at DC Comics about to fall off?
It depends on how you look at it. The many senior people who left DC since Warner Bros. was acquired by AT&T in the spring of 2019 represent more than a century of combined experience in the creation, marketing, and distribution of comics for a company whose legacy is a key part of its brand. DC invented the superhero genre with the debut of Superman in 1938, pioneered the licensing of its properties to media and merchandisers, owned a piece of the newsstand distribution business through the 1960s, and was part of one of the very first megamergers when the publisher was brought into the Warner Communications group by Steve Case in the early 1970s. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, DC helped build the direct market—the network of about 2,000 comics shops that buys its inventory at wholesale terms, but mostly nonreturnable—then helped Diamond Comics Distributors consolidate its position as the last comics shop distributor standing in the late 1990s.
Throughout this period, DC cultivated an intense fan base of increasingly middle-aged and older, mostly male readers with stories that constantly revised and reinvented the superhero genre and its mythology. But the publisher also broke ground in the early 1990s with the mature-themed, creator-owned Vertigo imprint, a pioneering precursor to the graphic novel imprints of today, which brought Sandman, Preacher, Fables, and other highly regarded multigenre nonsuperhero comics properties to book shelves with an ambitious trade paperback program.
All that is in the past. Vertigo went into a death-spiral after founding editor Karen Berger departed in 2013, and was shuttered for good in 2019. The company’s publishing strategy of endless crossover “events” (bringing its heroes together in special series) eventually exhausted the patience of readers and retailers, and DC’s close partnership with distributors and retailers has now withered as key personnel are gone. Indeed, the last round of layoffs at DC has fans as well as comics professionals wondering out loud about the ongoing viability of the direct market sales channel without DC Comics’ titles.
AT&T can’t afford to be concerned with DC’s legacy, no matter what it represents to the U.S. comics market. The company took on an even heavier debt load following the WarnerMedia acquisition, and has much bigger problems, including the controversial move to shift all of WarnerMedia subsidiary Warner Bros.’s 2021 theatrical film releases to streaming in an effort to keep the newly launched HBO Max service alive in a streaming-media war it appears to be losing badly to Disney+.
At the moment, DC’s value seems to be as a licensor of some very famous comics characters and logos that serve as the flagship of a popular consumer brand. That DC also publishes print comics that sell reasonably well in comics stores and the mass market (Walmart, Target), in addition to a strong and growing trade book program, is a bonus. The past, as far as AT&T may be concerned, is history. And that’s too bad, because to a lot of longtime fans, the past is what makes DC, DC.