ICv2 released an interview with DC Comics Co-Publishers Dan Didio and Jim Lee that received a great deal of attention within the comics sphere last week. The entire conversation divided into a first and second half is worth reading in its entirety; it presents a thorough and open discussion of the biggest issues facing both DC Comics and the direct market today. That type of frank discussion is difficult to find, especially in an industry where flattery between press and publishers is generally considered to be the standard, not the exception.
While Didio, Lee, and journalist Milton Griepp provide a lot of insight worth considering, there are elements of this conversation that deserve additional scrutiny. The comics industry, specifically the direct market where most single issue sales occur, is notorious for its lack of transparency and data. Piecing together a clear picture of trends, concerns, and opportunities is exceedingly difficult without internal metrics that are rarely (if ever) released by publishers. Accordingly, some degree of skepticism should be applied to any assertions or assessments delivered to the press. There are elements of this interview which highlight how the comics industry as portrayed by its largest players may vary from the actuality of that industry.
Direct Market Infrastructure
Early in the interview, Didio remarked that his concerns regarding current market conditions stem from “overreliance on nostalgia, speculator marketing, variant covers” all of which provide the “appearance of a healthy industry.” Didio’s assertion that those factors lead to increased sales for individual issues is certainly true. We link back to an explainer on how the direct market often relies upon hype and puffery to overstate reader interest in series in almost every sales analysis piece we publish.
The diagnosis is spot on, but the severity of the problem appears to be significantly overstated. Our own explainer is provided for readers with limited to no knowledge about the comics market, not those who would be providing an assessment about its overall health or making decisions of any import. Publishers, creators, retailers, journalists, and, likely, a significant portion of readers recognize that the sales numbers for #1 issues and other special events don’t reflect the industry’s overall health. This is not a new story, but one that has been ongoing since it created a real problem for the direct market in the early 1990s.
The speculator bubble that led to the closure of many stores and publishers at that time was part of a radically different market than the one we are witnessing today. Single issues sold millions of issues based upon speculation, while the modern incarnations of DC and Marvel Comics are incapable of selling one million units to interested readers. The simultaneous awareness of these speculative boosts combined with their relatively small overall impact means that the risks of the past are not the risks of the present. It is possible that these sorts of gimmicks may result in declining returns for said gimmicks, but they certainly will not have a sudden, notable impact on the market. While there are many issues facing the direct market, this assessment appears to be backward-facing and insignificant.
A subsequent section of the interview addresses the challenges of new digital platforms and markets at length. Lee provides a useful assessment that entertainment purchases are “moving to subscription, and that is having a downward pressure on transaction sales.” It’s the basis for concerns about how to build a subscription service for comics that is capable of long-term growth and profitability. While the issue is acknowledged, the severity of the problem is understated in this interview.
That likely stems from the general lack of an audience for periodical comics in 2019. Other subscription services, like the many found for video including DC Comics’ connections to both HBO Max and DC Universe, are based upon forms of entertainment with a robust, existing market. Film, television, and novels all possess markets, measured in dollars and units, that tower above the comics represented in the direct market. All of these media measure interest at a radically different scale than issues where selling to 100,000 readers can be considered a success industry wide.
The issues of utilizing digital platforms are far greater than discovering the right platforms and marketing strategies for transition; any success will be based upon a massive expansion of readership for comics. The margins on reselling digital inventory versus repackaging that decades-long catalog into a subscription service are likely slim, and either would face potential harm from current market trends. The direct market is already exceedingly small and the greatest threat to that market is its own size, one that guarantees decisions by over-sized actors like DC or Marvel can disrupt the entire ecosystem. There is already barely any attention left for new comics outside of the Big Two, and it appears the small existing market has been pushed near its own limits. It seems apparent from some of the loose language utilized that there may be a recognition of the size and scope of this problem, but it has yet to be publicly acknowledged as an existential threat to the entire industry.
Comic Book Hegemony5comments
The framing of threats, both the speculation bubbles of the past and digital disruption of the future, is framed firmly within a conception of comics that has existed for the entirety of both Didio and Lee’s careers. Since the emergence of the direct market as the dominant sales system for monthly periodical comics in North America in the late 1980s and early 90s, sales and market forces have been largely recognizable over the subsequent 30 years. It has framed discussions like this in a problematic fashion.
Following the speculation bubble, readership and publishers have been largely recognizable across multiple decades with sales that have been reliable (for DC and Marvel), but never capable of substantial growth. The model of individual sales at increasingly price points to a set of collectors and dedicated fans have come to rely on those same groups with no clear ability (or interest) in expansion. The pressure of this already small market has resulted in notable consequences for almost every publisher smaller than DC Comics in size. There are no clear solutions for how comics, as conceived of by DC Comics, can discover a much larger audience and an improved sales model. However, the threats facing DC Comics and the direct market as a whole are more significant than most will admit, and it will take a radical reinvention to address them. Perpetuation and expansion of old ideas are bound to fail. The dedicated fans of characters, whom are regularly referenced by Didio and Lee, should hope these co-publishers are up to the task.