I've changed the title of this thread from "Comic Book Sales Trends in 2016" because I keep coming back to it.

My friendly neighborhood comics shop, Fantom Comics of Washington, DC, breaks down what sold at the store in 2016. This information, of course, applies only to the one store, but it's still interesting reading: "2016 In Review – A Comic Book Shop Talks Comic Book Sales Trends"

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Here's a troubling story that kinda sums up all the bad vibes I think we've all been feeling since AT&T bought WarnerMedia:

Where Does DC Comics Fit In AT&T's Vision for WarnerMedia?

tl,dr:

We've all seen and discussed some developments at DC recently that somehow seemed ominous, although it was hard to put a finger on why. Those included:

  • Vertigo folding
  • MAD folding
  • The DC booth being merged with the WarnerMedia booth at SDCC -- and moving from the center of the hall floor to a back corner
  • DC Comics being uprooted from New York to WB's home in Burbank, CA
  • No explanation of how DCUniverse.com will fit in with the Warner streaming service
  • Swamp Thing Season 1 truncated by three episodes, and then canceled outright just as the first episode aired
  • Dan Didio publicly complaining about reprints outselling new comics with the same characters

All of these things, taken individually, have specific marketing reasons to explain them. But taken together, it feels like storm clouds.

This article does us the favor of pulling them together and speculating on what it means. It's by Rob Salkowitz, who has a regular "business of comics" column at ICv2.com, which is where I usually see him. This is from Forbes, though, so evidently he contributes there as well. Anyway, I don't always read (or agree with) his columns, but he's hit more than he's miss when I do read them, and he knows the economics end (which I don't so much). His take:

"In place of a robust and differentiated publishing enterprise, AT&T appears more interested in boosting DC as a consumer lifestyle brand. Warner Bros’ efforts to bring DC superheroes to the big screen have been hit-or-miss, and suffer especially in comparison to the gleaming, chrome-plated juggernaut that is Disney’s MCU, but producer Greg Berlanti and his team have developed a creatively and commercially satisfying empire on television with the Arrowverse family of shows (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow, plus Black Lightning). That success has bled over into several surprisingly great original series like Doom Patrol, Titans and Swamp Thing on the DC Universe OTT service, a legacy project from the last days of Time Warner that has managed to cling to life – so far – in the AT&T era."

He gives a little background that I didn't know, in that in the days of the DC Implosion, DC was in danger of being shuttered or sold, and Jenette Kahn argued that it should remain as R&D for intellectual IP. And so DC remained (albeit shrunken a bit) at WB.

He notes that this argument is still valid. He notes also that DC far outshines Marvel in basic marketing -- merchandise with S-shields and bat-signals and Flash lightning bolts, which are better logos than what Marvel has to offer.

But he also notes that AT&T is deep in the red after this acquisition, and has already begun lopping off various WarnerMedia sub-brands, like niche streaming services and, of course, Vertigo and MAD. His final note is one of concern.

I don’t recall all the details but in 1984 Marvel almost bought or licensed all or many of DC’s characters.  I think Sean Howe’s book Marvel Comics:  The Untold Story may be a source for this.

DC licensing its characters to another publisher wouldn’t be unprecedented.  Despite owning Marvel, Disney licenses its characters to other publishers (e.g., IDW), so DC could still own them as far as movies, TV, and games go, but someone else could publish them as comic books.

Sounds like we'd be better off if Disney added DC to its properties.

That may well be, at least for the moment.  But who knows what that would mean in the long run?

On the other hand, I may be fearing lack of competition a bit too much.  After all, these are creative goods, and there is an amount of inner competition that seems to be working fine inside the companies most of the time.



Richard Willis said:

Sounds like we'd be better off if Disney added DC to its properties.

I don't know how serious this conversation is, but I'd hate to see Disney buy DC Comics.

It's not a matter of competition, but the temptation to merge the two universes would be irresistible, and I can't see that being good for either property. It would be especially bad for the DCU characters, which would probably take a back seat to the Marvel ones.

Think about all the characters that DC has picked up over the years that have virtually disappeared. Is Peacemaker a big success? Nightshade? Judomaster? Uncle Sam? Human Bomb? Doll Man? Black Condor? Phantom Lady? There's a long list of Fawcett, Charlton and Quality characters who don't have a regular berth, or who have completely faded into limbo.

Of the few that do have a regular gig, it's a pale shadow of what they once were. As we've discussed before, Captain Marvel (now Shazam) had to take a back seat to Superman, because the DCU already had a "world's mightiest mortal" and they weren't about to have the Man of Steel share his spot at the top of the food chain. When the Big Red Cheese was still on Earth-S (later Earth-5) he could still be the center of his superhero universe, but sales dictated otherwise and he ended up a distant second banana to the Man of Steel and even, sometimes, a goofy, funhouse mirror version of him. The movie has salvaged his fortunes, but even so it's not under his proper name and Shazam #7 is now three months late -- I don't give it a year before it goes under.

The Ray has an animated show on CW Seed, or did -- I don't know, because even though I'm Captain Comics, I didn't take the time to watch it. (I did see the live version on the Arrowverse crossover "Crisis on Earth-X".) Some people in this generation will have heard of him, at least, although he's hardly a household name.

Blue Beetle has probably had the most success. He stills shows up in Justice League titles, doesn't he? I'm way behind on my monthly reading, so I don't know. But to become a success in the DCU, he had to become something of a clown, since the Ditko version niche was already filled.

I think the Blackhawks are still around in some fashion, but I don't remember seeing them recently and besides -- they aren't the Blackhawks we remember, are they? They're some sort of mercenery organization that is anything but heroic.

Yay for Plastic Man, who has a spot in The Terrifics. And The Question is in a miniseries currently with a bunch of other detectives, isn't he? Good for him. (And I'm glad it's still a him. I love Montoya as a character, so let her be that character, and not become a spinoff of a male character! Let's keep both the original -- and weird -- Question, and Det. Renee Montoya as two enjoyable characters, instead of one mish-mash of a character that has the cool characteristics of neither.) Both are C- or D-list, but at least they're getting work.

Captain Atom just showed up in the Bat-books didn't he? Not that he's recognizable as the Captain Atom I knew at Charlton Comics. Instead, he's had about three different origins and personalities at DC, none of which were particularly attractive, and none of which I want to read about, and none of which have stuck. It's a far cry from his Charlton days, where he was the Superman of his superhero universe.

And that's the problem. The DCU was constructed around Superman. Batman was his polar opposite. Wonder Woman was his female opposite. Flash, Green Lantern and the rest found space around the Man of Steel to fill, and left the center ring to the Last Son of Krypton. When other characters from other companies show up, they have to find a niche in this ecosystem -- so when it comes to Superman analogs, they have to become something else. They cease to be the characters they once were, so why bother?

The same, I'm afraid, would happen to the DC characters if Disney bought them. Superman would be kicked out of his central position -- sorry, we've got Spider-Man, we've got Captain America, we've got Thor -- which would collapse the whole DC ecosystem. Superman would have to become something else to fit in the space allowed, and who wants to read that?

No, I don't want to see both of the Big Two at the House of Mouse. We need to have two different companies for the sake of good stories: The characters have to have the proper room to maneuver without being forced to change to fit in.

Well, that's my opinion, anyway.

I see your point, Cap. I'm just afraid that my fearful prediction of just keeping the trademarks going with virtually no comics may come to pass at DC.

I certainly wasn’t advocating that Disney buying or licensing the DC characters from AT&T would be a good thing.  The revenue from publishing comics for Disney and AT&T has to be nothing more than rounding error.  Neither would miss it if the actual publishing was licensed out.  It’s possible that since publishing the comics would likely be a “bigger deal” for any licensee that we might get better comics.  However, on the other hand, the characters probably wouldn’t be allowed to change, but is that really different than now?



Dave Palmer said:

I don’t recall all the details but in 1984 Marvel almost bought or licensed all or many of DC’s characters.  I think Sean Howe’s book Marvel Comics:  The Untold Story may be a source for this.

DC licensing its characters to another publisher wouldn’t be unprecedented.  Despite owning Marvel, Disney licenses its characters to other publishers (e.g., IDW), so DC could still own them as far as movies, TV, and games go, but someone else could publish them as comic books.

I agree, Cap.  It would be nice to have multiple superhero “universes” competing, and lots of different approaches.  But that really hasn’t been the case since 1968.  We’ve had a few short lived blips here and there (e.g., Valiant 25 years ago), but not much.  

Captain Comics said:

I don't know how serious this conversation is, but I'd hate to see Disney buy DC Comics.

It's not a matter of competition, but the temptation to merge the two universes would be irresistible, and I can't see that being good for either property. It would be especially bad for the DCU characters, which would probably take a back seat to the Marvel ones.

Think about all the characters that DC has picked up over the years that have virtually disappeared. Is Peacemaker a big success? Nightshade? Judomaster? Uncle Sam? Human Bomb? Doll Man? Black Condor? Phantom Lady? There's a long list of Fawcett, Charlton and Quality characters who don't have a regular berth, or who have completely faded into limbo.

Of the few that do have a regular gig, it's a pale shadow of what they once were. As we've discussed before, Captain Marvel (now Shazam) had to take a back seat to Superman, because the DCU already had a "world's mightiest mortal" and they weren't about to have the Man of Steel share his spot at the top of the food chain. When the Big Red Cheese was still on Earth-S (later Earth-5) he could still be the center of his superhero universe, but sales dictated otherwise and he ended up a distant second banana to the Man of Steel and even, sometimes, a goofy, funhouse mirror version of him. The movie has salvaged his fortunes, but even so it's not under his proper name and Shazam #7 is now three months late -- I don't give it a year before it goes under.

The Ray has an animated show on CW Seed, or did -- I don't know, because even though I'm Captain Comics, I didn't take the time to watch it. (I did see the live version on the Arrowverse crossover "Crisis on Earth-X".) Some people in this generation will have heard of him, at least, although he's hardly a household name.

Blue Beetle has probably had the most success. He stills shows up in Justice League titles, doesn't he? I'm way behind on my monthly reading, so I don't know. But to become a success in the DCU, he had to become something of a clown, since the Ditko version niche was already filled.

I think the Blackhawks are still around in some fashion, but I don't remember seeing them recently and besides -- they aren't the Blackhawks we remember, are they? They're some sort of mercenery organization that is anything but heroic.

Yay for Plastic Man, who has a spot in The Terrifics. And The Question is in a miniseries currently with a bunch of other detectives, isn't he? Good for him. (And I'm glad it's still a him. I love Montoya as a character, so let her be that character, and not become a spinoff of a male character! Let's keep both the original -- and weird -- Question, and Det. Renee Montoya as two enjoyable characters, instead of one mish-mash of a character that has the cool characteristics of neither.) Both are C- or D-list, but at least they're getting work.

Captain Atom just showed up in the Bat-books didn't he? Not that he's recognizable as the Captain Atom I knew at Charlton Comics. Instead, he's had about three different origins and personalities at DC, none of which were particularly attractive, and none of which I want to read about, and none of which have stuck. It's a far cry from his Charlton days, where he was the Superman of his superhero universe.

And that's the problem. The DCU was constructed around Superman. Batman was his polar opposite. Wonder Woman was his female opposite. Flash, Green Lantern and the rest found space around the Man of Steel to fill, and left the center ring to the Last Son of Krypton. When other characters from other companies show up, they have to find a niche in this ecosystem -- so when it comes to Superman analogs, they have to become something else. They cease to be the characters they once were, so why bother?

The same, I'm afraid, would happen to the DC characters if Disney bought them. Superman would be kicked out of his central position -- sorry, we've got Spider-Man, we've got Captain America, we've got Thor -- which would collapse the whole DC ecosystem. Superman would have to become something else to fit in the space allowed, and who wants to read that?

No, I don't want to see both of the Big Two at the House of Mouse. We need to have two different companies for the sake of good stories: The characters have to have the proper room to maneuver without being forced to change to fit in.

Well, that's my opinion, anyway.

Richard Willis said:

I see your point, Cap. I'm just afraid that my fearful prediction of just keeping the trademarks going with virtually no comics may come to pass at DC.

I think that is not outside the realm of possibility. We already know they plan to keep the MAD name alive with reprints and specials and very little new material going forward. With 75 years of material, there is no crying need for DC to ever again publish anything but reprints. I wouldn't want that to happen, but I can't expect it won't.

On the other point, the notion of Disney/Marvel buying DC, I don't see that happening, even if Warner has no plans for DC. Why not? Because corporations don't like to share. Look at how Universal has stood in the way of a standalone Hulk movie and how Fox has bumbled and stumbled with the Fantastic Four.

Before Marvel got into the moviemaking business it licensed its characters to various studios. Marvel got the rights back to several minor characters, but clearly, it would take boatloads of money to get the biggest names back, like Spider-Man and the Hulk -- and it got the X-Men and Fantastic Four back by buying the Fox movie studio.

Sony had grand plans for the Spider-Man franchise. Amazing Spider-Man 2, introduced Electro and was supposed to launch other villains, leading to a Sinister Six movie and more Amazing Spider-Man sequels. But response to Amazing Spider-Man 2 was tepid -- I think killing off Gwen Stacy gave it bad word of mouth -- and those plans were shelved. Notice that the next set of Spider-Man movies are partnerships between Sony and Marvel and that Sony didn't sell Spider-Man back.

In other words, would Disney/Marvel buy DC? Maybe. Would Warner sell? I doubt it. 

Until reminded, I had forgotten that AT&T (formerly Pacific Telephone)* had bought the Movies & Comics portion of Warner.

As has happened to other companies, perhaps a group of investors could buy DC Comics and take it over. Hard to believe they could do any worse. If AT&T has so much debt, selling what they don't care about might be attractive to them. They could retain or share the movie rights.

* When they broke up Ma Bell, all of the local services became separate companies. AT&T kept the long distance service as more lucrative. Cell/Mobile phones wiped out the value of long distance calls. Eventually, PacBell bought what was left of AT&T. Since AT&T was a more prestigious name, they changed their name.

Richard Willis said:

As has happened to other companies, perhaps a group of investors could buy DC Comics and take it over. Hard to believe they could do any worse. If AT&T has so much debt, selling what they don't care about might be attractive to them. They could retain or share the movie rights.

I don't doubt that there might be a single party or a consortium of investors that might want to buy DC Comics, and even might be able to meet any price Warner would demand.

My fear is that Warner wouldn't sell because they wouldn't want to see somebody else take those properties and be successful in ways Warner couldn't. Why give the competition the hammer to drive you into the ground? There are a lot of scripts that have never been made into movies for exactly that reasoning. 



Dave Palmer said:

I don’t recall all the details but in 1984 Marvel almost bought or licensed all or many of DC’s characters.  I think Sean Howe’s book Marvel Comics:  The Untold Story may be a source for this.

Jim Shooter talks about this on his blog. The deal fell apart when First Comics filed an anti-trust suit against Marvel and the higher ups got cold feet about absorbing DC.

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