By the final day of Comic-Con International in San Diego, fans had spent the weekend consuming voluminous amounts of promotion thrown at them by their favorite comic and entertainment producers - so it's only natural that they get a chance to have their say. That's exactly the purpose of the DC Town Hall, but fans didn't just mouth off to some low level marketing flack - they get to go straight to the top with DC Comics co-publishers, Dan DiDio and Jim Lee.
You can tell from DiDio's media interviews and columns that he's a classic New York character, boisterous and bawdy and he immediately took over the room, eschewing the traditional position on the dais for energetic darting through the crowd of fans, eliciting questions and comments. Conversely, as DiDio began to work the room, the mild mannered Jim Lee entered and quietly took his place on the dais while his partner continued his schtick.
The panel was being filmed, apparently for DC or for the convention and as DiDio polled the audience to see how long they had been reading comics (the longest was 63 years!), an audio guy for the film crew snuck behind him with a boom microphone, which he dangled just above DiDio's head. Suddenly turning around, a startled DiDio jumped in surprise to the audio technician and his looming microphone, sparking audience laughter. "You won't carry a mic with you, so we have to use this" a producer yelled from the background. DiDio replied "OK, I'll hold a microphone, anything to get away from this!"
Not having a hand held mic, the sound man detached the microphone from the boom and suddenly DiDio found himself awkwardly holding a mic with a 12 inch foam head. Looking back to Jim Lee for support, he asked "You want to hold this for me?" before introducing his colleague to the audience.
DiDio's disarming persona and rapid fire jokes quickly put the crowd at ease. "Welcome to the - well, I was going to call it a Tea Party, but..." as chuckles erupted from the crowd. In kicking off the event, Didio was upfront that he didn't expect the panel to be one big cheerleading exercise, "We've got challenges. There's rising prices, the rising digital media and so we want to hear what you think of those, as well as what you expect from comics in general."
But before he launched into the dialogue with the crowd, he announced a surprise. The day before, another panel had introduced preview footage from the new "DC Universe Online" MMORPG and he replayed the footage for the currently assembled fans, as well. The lights dimmed and the projection screen lit up with a jaw-dropping scene of action and carnage. In a war-ravaged cityscape, the Justice League appeared in fierce battle with Luthor's team of supervillains and his robot drones. It began with Wonder Woman seriously thrashing some of Luthor's robots, at first doing so with a sword, then pounding them with bare knuckles. What appears to be a 100 foot tall Giganta gets blasted into the side of a sidescraper, sending debris down to the street. Batman commands the heroes, ordering a tricked-out Cyborg to focus attacks on Luthor's position. But there were slight differences in the heroes' appearances - WW's sword, Cyborg's hyped up robotics and Batman appeared to have armor on his costume and cowl. At first, it seemed to be another video game taking license with the source material.
One of the highlights of the preview was Green Lantern, who is introduced using his ring to create a power gauntlet on his right arm to pulverize Black Adam. Adam recovers and blasts through a series of Lantern's power shields, throwing him back again and again until Adam has him pinned on the ground. "Shazam!" Adam yelled, as lightning shot down from the heavens, destroying a block of the city and taking Green Lantern out. At this point, fans started to realize the heroes were losing. After Wonder Woman takes on a few villains, including Deathstroke, Luthor joins in and squeezes the life from her. Her blood curdling scream is heard by Superman, meditating in Earth's orbit. Speeding to the scene in a blur and striking at Luthor, the battle was joined before Luthor took a Kryptonite-tipped lance and stabbed Superman through the heart, winning. All the heroes are beaten, apparently dead, when Luthor's attention is drawn to an ominous ship with tentacles protruding from it appears on the horizon.
"Brainiac had returned," Luthor said as the camera pulls back, revealing that this had all been a flashback - Luthor, had learned that Brainiac had manipulated him into destroying the Justice League so Brainiac would be free to take over the Earth. Double-crossed, Luthor used a time machine to go back in time (before the alternate future he came from occurs - explaining the variations on the familiar DC heroes) - to enlist the aid of the Justice League to stop Brainiac.
As the footage ended, the crowd exploded in applause. Jim Lee broke in to explain that what was shown was the game's introduction cinematic, setting up the world in which the game takes place, all spawned by a "...Faustian pact Luthor makes with Brainiac," and revealing that the games story was written by Geoff Johns. Lee mentioned that it was he and Johns who pushed the game's creative team to tweak the heroes' appearances to imply that much time had passed from the current comic continuity.
"Tell us about what's happening digitally, Jim," DiDio asked.
"We launched three weeks ago, our digital pipeline...if you have an iPhone or iPad, (or) if you're on your computer, you can download the DC comics app on your iPhone or iPad and you can start buying and enjoying our digital comics. Or if you have a PSP, you can go to the Playstation Store and they have three headings: games, videos and comics. It's awesome to see comics as important as those other two categories, and not only DC comics, but also Marvel and Image and a whole host of others." Lee went on to say that this outreach into multimedia is an attempt at an overall strategy to find new comic fans by reaching into other media they currently are interested in.
"How about you, in the back?" Dido asked. "Hey, Jim - I'm not reading digital comics because I can't get DC Comics on my Android phone. I kinda feel left out," a fan stated as others clapped in agreement. "We're working with as many different platforms as possible. It's interesting, every time you go to a different platform, you just can't re-purpose the same content, you have different specs, in terms of resolution, size of screen, but obviously, that's a huge platform..." Lee said as the fan shot back, "I look forward to it."
"How many fans could imagine just reading digital comics and not in print," DiDio asked, to which the crowd responded with much grumbling. "It goes back to that idea of the panels and how the art was originally intended," one woman volunteered.
Multiple fans brought up one issue that contributes to fan resistance to embracing the new digital medium. "When I buy a book or trade, it's something physical that I own. In 20 years from now, I don't know what computer I'll own and whether I'll still have the comics I downloaded years earlier," said one fan.
Picking up on the topic of readership and varying formats, DiDio asked the crowd how many of them buy monthly issues? Trade Paperbacks? "How about just reading trades? Why do you just read trades?" specifically to one fan.
"It's easier carry around. I feel much better lending a friend a trade rather than lending individual issues. The trade is more like a 'reading copy,' and the individual issues more like your collecting copy." Another fan offered the thought that, "They cost less per issue, and it's like watching TV from a DVD box set where you can read several issues at a time rather than waiting for the next story to come out."
DiDio brought the topic back to the new digital medium with Lee stating that he has some reservations about the new medium's disadvantages. "I read comics on the iPhone just to keep up with what's going on, but it's hard to fully enjoy, because it's so small and you only see one panel at a time. As an artist, I want to see the whole page and how all the panels are composed, because it's really created for that effect...the contrast [of panel sizes & shapes], the dramatic tension," he said. "But I love the portability and instant access [of the digital comics]."
Lee also pointed out disadvantages for digital comic books enhanced by digital extras, like limited movement and sound. "Comics are an active medium, where animation is passive - it's all up there on the screen, so it's less immersive. Again, it may be a generational thing, where future readers may prefer that."
Another fan said "A lot of vinyl albums and other examples have a download code where you can get a digital copy - if a trade paperback offered a digital download code, I'd totally buy that."
At one point, Lee took the opportunity to take a shot at Marvel when he couldn't hear a fan's question. "You said you love the silver age Marvels and detest what they're currently doing to the characters?" prompting a burst of laughter.
"Whatever happened to 'Elseworlds?'" asked another fan.
"It's coming back in two months - is that the answer you're looking for?" Didio responded with a chuckle.
"How many people like the 'legacy' aspect of comics?" DiDio asked. "One of the most difficult challenges is that while all the characters aged, the main three, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman - didn't. There used to be a joke, we'd say, 'Soon, Dick Grayson will be older than Bruce Wayne! And then he'll have to die..." which sparked a vehement round of boos.
Wrapping up the panel, in which DiDio and Lee were frank and didn't avoid criticisms or negative topics and the fans were blunt in their comments and critiques, DiDio summed up the publisher's strategy. "What we're trying to do is bring our characters to all of these mediums in the best way."