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Wednesday, August 07, 2019 

What will be DC's fate under Time Warner's merger with AT&T as a business?

Rob Salkowitz at Forbes speaks about where DC could be headed now that the AT&T merger is in place, and for all we know, it could be out of the business:
Earlier this month at San Diego Comic-Con, returning attendees noticed a major change on the show’s massive exhibit floor. The booth for DC Comics, which had been a massive standalone pavilion in the center of the publishers’ area in the center of the hall, was gone. America’s oldest and second-largest comic book publisher had retreated to the far back corner of the hall, where it was incorporated into the multi-level WarnerMedia exhibit, in the shadow of banks of giant monitors previewing upcoming shows and cast appearances.

The subtext of this move could not have been clearer. AT&T—now the parent company of WarnerMedia and its divisions, including DC Comics (previously known as DC Entertainment), HBO, Turner, and Warner Bros.—does not seem terribly interested in being in the comic book publishing business. It’s telling that in a long profile of AT&T CEO John Stankey this morning in Variety, DC was one of the only WarnerMedia brands that was not mentioned. To the extent that DC matters at all in the company’s future, it’s as a source of owned IP for other media channels and as a lifestyle brand to serve as an ambassador to geek culture.
Well that's what happens when you let inmates run the asylum, as Dan DiDio's done ever since he got his foot in the door. He's said in the past he believes superheroes shouldn't have happy lives, took it to horrific extremes in the mid-2000s, and it poisoned their wellspring ever since, forcing his entire personal vision on a whole line of what he alone thinks superhero comics should be all about. But then, if memory serves, when Ronald O. Perlman took up ownership of Marvel in 1989, he wasn't exactly interested in being in the comics business either. Just using the publisher as a means for expanding into other mediums and markets, so the point about DC serving as IP for other channels also bears validity.
One place that AT&T does not seem to see any value is in sub-brands. One of the company’s first moves following the acquisition was to shutter several of WarnerMedia’s niche streaming services, including the beloved cinephile outlet Filmstruck, seen by many as a prelude to rolling as much of the company’s media artillery as possible into a mega-streamer to compete with Disney, Netflix and the rest—a move that seems essential given the precipitous drop in subscribers to AT&T’s satellite TV service DirecTV.

But that sentiment has also crept into the publishing side. In recent months, DC has dropped the axe on its prestige imprint Vertigo, the creative engine behind hits like Sandman, Preacher, Swamp Thing, Doom Patrol and Fables. On the eve of Comic-Con, the company announced the cancellation of MAD, the venerable humor magazine that changed the face of American satire and has been continuously published since the mid-1950s. Neither of these was a big moneymaker in terms of month-to-month sales, but both brands occupy some valuable real estate in the psyche of fans. Even if the properties built on that land are in disrepair, it seems shortsighted to vacate the premises entirely.
I know this is a business magazine, but a shame Salkowitz wouldn't acknowledge the artistic failings that led to the cancellation of Vertigo, to say nothing of the political to boot, though he does mention something relevant further down in the article, which I'll get to soon enough. How can you get a clear idea of what brought down these imprints if they won't bring it up? That's the big weakness in these business-related reports. It's not so shortsighted - and much more inevitable - to cancel the Vertigo line when reprehensible people are put in charge of a brand.
DC Universe also features a chat show, DC Daily, in which a gaggle of media-friendly young people enthuse over the latest comics and comic-culture offerings from the company. It’s here that the lifestyle brand goals come through most clearly. The hosts and their over-the-top squeeing about the latest merch represent WarnerMedia’s highest aspirations for its audience – younger, hipper, more ethnically and gender-diverse than the traditional DC comics readership (which is old and male even by the standards of the comics industry), and dedicated to omnivorously consuming everything even loosely affiliated with geek culture as part of their hip, socially-mediated, comics-defined lives.
Oh, please. This sounds more like a self-serving program with no objectivity, and besides, it's not like DC and Marvel never had an ethnically and gender-diverse audience before, if the girls who read New Teen Titans back in the 80s says something. What this misses, for possibly deliberate reasons, is the story merit, which began lacking in the 90s (if we take Emerald Twilight as an example), and is even worse off today. No good storytelling, coherent continuity, and hence, no sales. The obsession with exterminating every superhero and co-star they consider expendable is another grave minus, and the latest unpardonable error they made was with Heroes in Crisis, which takes a favorite superhero, Wally West, and turns him into a man with blood on his hands, whether intentional or not, while slaughtering various other heroes for no good reason, with the Titans emerging the worst victims. How does that ensure skyrocketing sales?
So where does all that branding leave the publishing business? A generation ago, faced with a similar situation, DC’s then co-President and Publisher Jenette Kahn appealed to Time Warner management that wanted to dramatically cut back on DC’s current publishing in favor of reprints, saying that the company’s new material was the lifeblood of the company, a source of new fans and new IP without which the characters and related merchandise would decline into obscurity. She won that argument and DC, under her stewardship, ended up minting many of the golden coins in which it still trades, including The Dark Knight, Watchmen and Sandman, despite never being a gigantic engine of revenue within the Time Warner corporate umbrella.

Today, DC Comics is in a similar situation. Following a demoralizing mid-decade move from its traditional home in New York to Warner Bros’ headquarters in Burbank, CA, the company has stumbled through various events and line reboots, milking assets like Frank Miller’s once-fresh take on Batman and post-Alan Moore Watchmen for the last dregs of fan appeal and relevance, and relying on high priced milestone thousandth issues of long-running titles like Action Comics and Detective Comics to make up in dollar share what they are losing in unit share of an increasingly crowded comics market.
Here, he does acknowledge the dismal mistakes they made not unlike Marvel, rebooting to Numero Uno, and at least alludes to their heavy reliance on company wide crossovers, which leave no room for stand-alone creative freedom. I honestly don't understand how even some veterans like Dan Jurgens are comfy with that, recalling his role as an architect of Superman's death and return in 1993. But again, Salkowitz doesn't explicitly reference abominable, disposable embarrassments like Heroes in Crisis, despite its being so recent, which is regrettable, because to really confront a problem, you have to be more precise in the examples you provide.
Recently, DC co-President Dan DiDio publicly fumed that reissues of comics 30 and 40 years old were outselling current stories featuring the same characters, calling that a “failure on us.” Echoing his predecessor’s warning from years past, he added, “We should be focused on moving things forward, always pushing the boundaries and finding new stories to tell. That’s how we’ll survive and grow this industry.”
Umm, now that I think of it, he never admitted they took the wrong path with atrocities like Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis, or even Heroes in Crisis, so I don't think admitted to failure at all. If he thinks those kind of embarrassingly bad tales are inherently worth wasting trees over, and won't voluntarily resign his post, he's not taking accountability for failure at all. In the end, he'll only compound that failure as a result.

With that said, there's two possible outcomes from what AT&T could have in store for DC. Either they'll license the publishing arm out to another company (preferably not Marvel or even IDW), and if that happened, I'd strongly recommend clearing away the pseudo-continuity they've coughed out since the turn of the century (and even earlier, Emerald Twilight is another example they could rid themselves of), cease with all the company wide crossovers, retire the monthly pamphlet format in favor of trade format and to hire writers based on merit, not nepotism. Or, they may shutter the publishing arm altogether, which would probably be the best option. Of course, there's also a third option they have - sell off the publishing arm, keep the movie and merchandise rights, and let a smaller outfit with better ideas for development have a go at the creations. It's something Disney may consider in the future too, and they'd do well to make a clear choice soon, because what's the point of keeping ownership of something you don't have interest in maintaining as a serious business? This is why I now see corporatism and conglomerates as more harmful than helpful.

And if DC does close its doors, it'll decidedly be for the best. Besides, there's always the possibility that, if bought by more reliable sources, it could reopen in the future for producing real merit-based entertainment. The same goes for Marvel, if Disney's considering closing their business, which isn't impossible. For now, the main problem is DiDio and Quesada over at Marvel. They brought the businesses down, and only their ouster will ensure some kind of improvement. Certainly if somebody responsible replaces them.

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