Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

The Greg Hatcher Legacy Files #30: ‘Friday from the Cheap Seats’

[I was hoping to find this column from 3 June 2011 on the Wayback Machine, because I can just imagine the comments, but I could not, so you can find the CBR version here. So frustrating! This column hasn’t aged particularly well, as DC seems to still be making the mistakes Greg chided them about here, but it’s still to read optimistic Greg every once in a while!]

So, have we all calmed down a little bit about DC now?

I keep having thoughts and reactions to the whole hullaballoo, and I have jotted a few of them down. Some speculation and spitballing and kibitzing from the sidelines. In no particular order.

First thought: This sounds eerily familiar. Then I realized it was because I pretty much dared them to do it in this column from 2007.

Second thought wasn’t mine, it was from sometime CBR writer Beau Yarborough. But I loved it so much I’m putting it up here: “Now we’ll get to see what Crisis on Infinite Earths would have looked like with the internet.”

Third thought: Can we please not do origins again?

Fourth thought: All the online chatter is about the books, costume changes, Grant Morrison. Seems like the digital app is the bigger story here, but even USA Today was geeking out over costume changes.

But the digital thing seems like the more important piece. By rolling out digital comics on the same day as print, DC is effectively undercutting the retailer network they depend on. Of course, with piracy and torrenting such a part of online culture, to not put the digital books out the same day as the print versions would invite any guy with a scanner and a willingness to share the goods to undercut the new digital line.

So DC is betting that the hardcore fans are such creatures of habit that it won’t hurt retailers too badly to do simultaneous release of print and digital — at least, not as badly as it would hurt DC themselves in the digital market to give print retailers a day or two of advance sales room. Is that a good gamble? Is DC so sure of the 60,000 Wednesday faithful that this seems like a good move to them? Guess so.

Fifth thought: I’m seeing a truly amazing amount of criticism about “DC abandoning loyal fans.” Stop a minute and let’s break that down.

I’m Diane Nelson, or whoever, a DC/Time-Warner publishing bigwig. Here are the puzzle pieces I have to work with:

* I have control over the intellectual property rights to some of the most recognizable and beloved fictional characters on the planet Earth.

* Despite the first item, my line of publications I have telling stories about those characters is foundering. Sales continue to drop and a significant number of folks out in the public at large don’t even know those publications still exist.

* My cash flow is dependent on roughly 60,000 or so hardcore hobbyists and collectors buying my books from a relatively low number of specialty retailers who order those books three months in advance based on what my distributor tells them I’m going to be doing. I have some other income from bookstores for collections of previously-published material but my day-to-day choices have, of necessity, been largely governed by catering to this specialty market.

* My staff and creative talent, for the most part, is drawn from this same narrowly-defined demographic, the hobbyist pool. They are fans-turned-pro and this is all they know.

* No matter what I do, that specialty market continues to get smaller. Year after year, long-term, I lose more readers than I gain. I know that I’ve put all my eggs in a steadily-shrinking basket but I had no choice at the time, and now it’s too late.

* Paper and production costs continue to go up. I have tried raising prices but I seem to have hit a ceiling of what people will pay for one of my regular monthly magazines at $2.99. [Edit: Ha!] This means that, again, no matter what I do my comics magazines will cease to turn a profit at that $2.99 price, probably within five years. I price my books higher than $2.99 and I lose readers in droves. It’s a no-win.

* Creator rates also are going up, and worse, a rock-star hierarchy has evolved where both myself and my rivals are forced to try to lock up proven talent with expensive “exclusive” contracts. This is more money in overhead that I have to somehow get back by selling stories to the specialty hobbyist market of readers … that is shrinking, that won’t pay more than $2.99 for a comic, that eventually go away no matter what.

* Meanwhile, while I struggle to get someone besides obsessed hobbyists to even read my books, I see movies about my characters and their equivalents from competing publishers make millions of dollars in revenue all over the world. Moreover, I can see from bookstores that there are genre-fiction publication series with continuing characters that have a staggeringly huge readership compared to mine.

The San Diego Comic-Con has become a cultural phenomenon. The hunger for the kind of fiction I publish has clearly never been greater. Yet despite this, not to mention a name familiarity with my characters that is planet-wide, somehow I can’t ever seem to shift any of those millions of fantasy-craving readers over to what I actually publish. My entire house of cards is dependent on the steadily-shrinking number of hardcore fans. The last decade of my publication history has been a series of increasingly desperate attempts to keep them hooked on my comics.

All right? That’s what Diane Nelson-slash-DC-bigwig sees when she looks at her balance sheet. You tell me any way she has to try and turn the ship around and bring reader numbers up without abandoning the fan market in favor of opening up new ones. If I’m Diane Nelson I am going to be looking actively for ways to shift my focus away from those fans and try to somehow get my cash flow coming from some other income stream … ideally more than one. But I have to try to do it in such a way that doesn’t completely alienate and piss off those hardcore-fan readers that currently finance my publishing house while I’m trying.

You look at it that way and what comes out?

* A major ‘event story,’ something the fans seem to want every year, but this one is designed to wrap up the specialty-style of telling stories and replace it with a line of accessible comics for the general public. Letting the fans down easy, in a way that invites them along for the next phase.

* A new way of delivering those new, replacement comics to a mass audience.

Is digital the best option for this new delivery system? Probably not — I think successful digital comics will be formatted differently than print ones, so just selling print scans is probably not the best way to do it. (Imagine trying to read something like JSA All-Stars with its color-coded captions and scratchy art on an iPhone.) But on the other hand, it’s insane to start a new line of digital-only books with no ties to the print ones, it would be a whole second publishing operation. If I’m DC, I’m thinking it’s best to somehow repurpose my print line for digital distribution.

In other words, DC is trying desperately for mass distribution of some kind. I imagine the reasoning is that someone’s going to crack the digital market and why not them? Digital may not be the best choice overall but it seems like it’s the only one left to reach a mass audience.

So really, what should DC do differently? I may quibble with the execution or the personnel involved but the plan seems sound. Print distribution options and publishing overhead are such that this plan is the only choice left, really.

Therefore, if it’s a new market they are going after and not crabby old guys like me, DC needs a new line of stuff to offer them.

Think about it. In practical terms DC has the resources to publish one line of superhero comics. (Remember, looking at the record, we have many, many examples of failed attempts to publish multiple lines … starting with the New Universe on up to Minx and Marvel’s Ultimate line.) Who would you go after? The “loyal fans”? Or all those other potential readers out there? I don’t see any way where the fans don’t take a back seat to a general readership.

Oh, yeah … which reminds me … this is how it works in virtually every other form of popular fiction. Only in superhero comics do we have things the other way around, where hardcore fans are the majority of consumers. Generally, in popular fiction, you toss a couple of bones to your fans when you reboot, but it’s the general audience you go after hard.

And honestly, if we still want DC and Marvel superhero comics ten years from now, I think it’s going to have to switch back to general-audience-first for the approach to creating those comics as well. Sorry, loyal fans, but those are the hard facts. We need the mass audience if we want the books to stay alive.

Sixth thought: The last time DC tried this was in 1985 and 1986, the early “post-Crisis” years if you like. Those were amazing times for DC. The whole line seemed energized with possibility.

It wasn’t just Crisis on Infinite Earths itself. It was the corollary that now it was permissible to try new things at DC with the old characters. Yeah, sure, for continuity-minded fans it was a nightmare to try and figure out what ‘counted’ and what didn’t, it often seemed like the different editors weren’t ever checking with one another, it was a mess if you were looking for a consistent history of the DC universe.

But the vast majority of us didn’t care because we were having a great time. It wasn’t just that DC was suddenly doing things like Dark Knight and Watchmen. It was that we also were getting amazing stuff just on the monthly books. Green Lantern Corps and the new Wally West Flash and Justice League International and Suicide Squad and The Question and … criminy, I could go on and on. It was a renaissance.

If nothing else, this new initiative looks promising to me simply because of that same vibe, the idea that DC is looking to really take some chances in a good way. There’s an intangible morale-building factor in there for creators who’ve been given permission to genuinely try new stuff without worrying about offending longtime readers. That alone, the “Really! A genuine fresh start!” feeling that goes with doing something like this that you don’t get with just a “One Year Later” or “Brand New Day” or whatever, could lift this effort up considerably. We might see some extraordinary work from creators who we’ve previously dismissed as merely dependable second-tier journeyman writers and artists.

Seventh thought: Props to longtime CSBG commenter T., who predicted that Flashpoint was DC’s way to get back to the “Big 7” Justice League (or the “real” Justice League as some of us think of them.) Good call there, T. [Edit: Man, sometimes I miss T. He was a deeply weird dude, but he was always interesting!]

I’ll see his prediction and raise it by saying that this is going to be DC’s way to walk back everything that is inconvenient after decades of continuity. Probably we’ve also seen the last of movie-unfriendly ideas like the Lois and Clark marriage, and anyone other than Bruce Wayne being Batman, and quite possibly even the multiple Flashes. If you’re going to have yet another Crisis, even if you’re calling it “Flashpoint,” use it to do all your housecleaning.

Eighth Thought: If DC is serious about its digital initiative being the new way to get a general readership, they better get their editorial heads around the idea that this will mean hitting deadlines no matter what late-running prima donna rock star creators they have on the books.

Seriously, digital audiences want their updated content on time. Look at what Brian goes through just to make sure we have fresh content here all the time. A stable of five or six regular writers, a Month of this, a Year of that, all sorts of rotating regular features just to make sure we’ve got new stuff up here every day.

DC better realize that the first time they miss a week with all these hot new titles, they’re in trouble. The days of letting the genius take an extra three months on the fourth chapter of the epic are over.

And one Final Thought: Conceptually, all the new titles announced so far sound very promising.

However — there’s always a “however” —

— I’m not at all sure these particular creators have the chops to pull off another 1986-style DC renaissance.

Especially looking at the record of the various skeevy arrested-adolescent ultraviolence and misogyny-driven misfires we’ve seen at DC in the last five years. I’m still optimistic, but I’m cautiously optimistic.

I certainly hope that along with titles and delivery systems and formats and character histories, some DC editorial policies are going to change too, or this is going to tank harder and faster than Marvel’s New Universe. Imagine what that late 1980s comics event would have been like with the internet.

All that being said … I’ll always have a special place in my heart for DC and their stable of characters. I grew up with them. I wish them well. I am hoping for the best.

So after all that back-and-forth it still comes down to, “Let’s wait and see.” I wish it was something more profound than that, but it is what it is. Sometimes that’s all you’ve got.

See you next week.


  1. In hindsight, Greg was rather optimistic about Flashpoint as a game-changing think-outside-the-box event.
    I’m not informed enough to know if his thoughts about digital were off-base or uncannily prescient but I’m sure someone here is.
    The books actually look good on my phone.

  2. Le Messor

    if we still want DC and Marvel superhero comics ten years from now,
    I kind of don’t.

    Or, more accurately: new comics are so different from what brought me into the genre and what I loved that I just don’t care if they exist or not now. If they do continue, cool, but I’m almost exclusively reading older comics (usually in reprints / omnibuses, etc… so I do need both companies to stay afloat) and a few indies nowadays; so if Marvel and DC stopped publishing new stuff, I’d barely notice.
    Not saying I’d rejoice, either. Don’t take that the wrong way.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    The problem with being game changing was that the same coaches were leading the team, making the same mistakes. In 1986, DC still had a foot in mass market distribution. Post-Flashpoint, they didn’t. By that point, digital had settled down into two camps: those who would buy digital and those who would buy print and neither was a huge audience, for the book world, yet it was vastly larger than the comic book niche market. That said, what was offered was the same old stuff, in new clothes. DC really needed to look at why kids would buy Smile, Big Nate, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Series of Unfortunate Events and Harry Potter, why pre-teens and teens would buy manga, The Hunger Games, Pretty Little Liars, the Wee Free Men and why people buy genre fiction; but, not their comics. I would say it had something to do with what they were offering.

    We got that stuff for our newsstand, at B&N; put them out, took them down, stripped the covers and returned them for credit. Sold plenty of manga, though. Raina Telgemeier, too. Just not Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison. The God of All Comics was a rather weak god, in the eyes of the worshippers of Percy Jackson.

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