The big news of New York Comic Con didn't involve the reinvention of a long-forgotten character or the next major event mini series by the top talents in comics. What dominated discussions at panels and on the floor was the ongoing question of the price of comics and how all the publishers in the business would compete for reader dollars in the next year, led by DC Comics announcement that it would drop all of its monthly titles to a $2.99 price point this January while dropping the average story length to 20 pages an issue.
Over the course of the weekend, CBR News had an opportunity to talk to DC Co-Publishers Dan Didio and Jim Lee at length about their hot topic move. From the strategy involved of making this move here and now to how the pricing decrease fits in with the larger, ongoing reorganization of DC Comics as a piece of Warner Bros. DC Entertainment unit, the men covered a lot of ground and answered specific questions as to why they think this price is better for readers, how it will affect the livelihoods of DC's creative talent, what changes 20-page comics hold for storytelling and how this move is just the first major news to come from the new DC as it finalizes its staffing and structural changes in the weeks ahead.
CBR News: Gentlemen, it's been a few weeks of big changes at DC, and all that continues with the news of $2.99 comics across the board. What's the main idea you guys have been carrying into the show while talking to fans, talent and press?
Dan Didio: And I think so much of our time has been focused on the reorganization and trying to build a DC for the future. Like Jim said, we've all been concentrating on this for a number of months, and now that we're at a point where we're ready to go out, we want to take the message directly to the consumers – the fans – with the pricing change. We want them to know that we've listened to them and that we have their best interest in mind and that we're trying to create the best product possible at the best price possible. We're taking our message to the retailers who say they have a strong partner in DC Comics, and we hear that. We're trying to build their comic base for the future because without them we don't exist. We're trying to take our message base to the talent because there's a lot of discussion going around – a lot of conversation taking on DC. It's important for us to go meet them face-to-face and explain to them with clarity what our positions are, what the strengths are and more importantly, how this company is moving forward with them. I think that's the major goal. And also we like to come here and buy "Godzilla" shirts. [Laughter] That's one of my goals!
Lee: The other thing here is that since there was a digital conference and so much attention is focused on digital – digital comics being the future and pricing them and all that stuff – that we really wanted to make an announcement about the future of print comics and how vital and important it is for us to keep that [segment of the business] vital and healthy. We felt it was imperative to keep the price of your average comic book down to $2.99. This is our way of saying that print comics are just as important as ever.
As the $3.99 books came to DC, Dan and I talked about how important it was to you to have the backup material to make the books have something that was value additive. In what way did the sales numbers on those titles factor in to your decision here?
Didio: I was never comfortable with a 32-page comic being $3.99, but we saw that that was the place where the market was heading. But that's not a reason to do it. We looked at how to get some value added into the books and did that, and I think we had a lot of success with the second features we created to work that out. But as money gets tighter and choices have to be made on a financial level for the fans. As you look at this economy overall, we really shouldn't be in good consciousness trying to raise prices. We should be finding a way to make it as affordable as possible for the fans themselves.
There was a lot of considerations on it, but the good part is that a lot of the second features that we created that are ending are going to find good homes in one-shot specials or maybe even in their own ongoing series. Nothing we've created will be lost in the process. We'll still be making great product. People will still be able to get those stories they're reading and enjoying in the second features, but we'll be able to do it in an affordable manner.
I know that the big change in terms of the product is the loss of two story pages per issue. First on that front, how do you see the creative issue surrounding that move? Is there going to have to be many changes in pacing and that, or will two pages not affect the stories that much?
Lee: On a creative level, I would say that we're in this era of decompressed storytelling so going from 22 pages to 20, for me, is relatively easy. There have been times when I've worked with writers who have given me two extra pages in a story and let me figure out a way to rearrange it. That's happened a couple of times in my career. But to me first off, some of my favorite comic books were 17 pages. All the classic X-Men stories that Chris Claremont and John Byrne did were 17 pages back in the '80s, so this is not precedent setting. If you look at the type of storytelling prevalent today with the fact that this is a less than 10% and most stories tend to run five to six issues in length, I don't think you're really losing that much.
And I know some attention has been given to this idea of "Oh, this is going to mean a pay cut for some creators," but at the end of the day, if you're a guy that can do 22 pages a month, there's nothing holding you back [from that pace.] This is not a job where you get your story and you're done after you finish the book and you have time off until the first of the next month. Stories come in, and you're continually working on them. The whole idea of losing work because there's less page count just doesn't factor in to most creator's daily work schedule. People will work to their maximum capacity, whatever it is that their maximum is for that year. So if you can do 22 pages a month, you'll do 13 books on the year as opposed to 12.
Didio: And from my point of view, the way I look at it very simply is that we deal with professionals, and everybody adjusts accordingly to work to the format the system is in. I remember working in TV, and they were adding more commercial time so shows were running shorter in those days too. Like I said, you give them the structure and format, and we have complete faith that everybody's going to be able to tell the stories they want to do with the same strength, the same importance, the same character development, the same action, the same quality of art and dialogue that we get right now. From our standpoint, we hope this means we can attract more readers – people who might have been shying away from buying comics can come back and start enjoying them again because they were afraid that they just couldn't afford it anymore or that they were being priced out of their hobby. That's the last thing we want to happen.
And what we point out with this price change is as simple as this: instead of buying three comics, you buy four. And that fourth comic is one where we have another loyal reader back and sticking with us. Because so much of our storytelling is built on continuity and the shared universe, we want people to enjoy as much of that shared universe as possible in the most affordable manner possible.
One thing a lot of people talked about during this price increase is the idea that the raise to $3.99 hurt wasn't so much the marquee titles as it was the midlist...
What do you guys make of the idea that people who come into the comic shop each week have their own personal spending limit – be it $20 or whatever – that won't change as much as the number of books they buy will change?
Lee: I think that's part of it – the budgetary reasons. But I think another big part of it is a psychological one. If you're a lifelong comic book fan or buyer and are all of the sudden being asked to pay $3.99 for a book, it gives you a reason to stop collecting in general. It breaks your spirit because you're going, "Comics cost way too much. This is weekly entertainment. They're episodic, and this makes it too expensive of a hobby to be in." So then they bail altogether. To me, it's not even an issue of "I can buy one more comic a week" or whatever, which I'm sure is important to a lot of people. I think this is more in the spirit of what comics should be. They should be price accessible. You can deliver a 100-page comic and charge $15 for it and say, "That's the equivalent price per page," but that's just too high of an entry price point for people to come in and buy on a weekly basis. To me, this is all about keeping the hobby as affordable as possible while obviously keeping the same quality and level in the storylines. I think there is a psychological bond that is broken when you keep raising prices and assume they're going to keep buying it because they love the characters.
Didio: And actually, we've gone around at some of the other conventions and talked about how we want DC to be #1. People are always asking, "How do you define #1?" The best way to define #1 with what we're doing on the pricing is to be #1 in the number of issues sold and more importantly #1 in the number of issues read. I think that's what really matters right now – to be able to build that strong base. Jim touched upon the unfortunate reality in the business right now is that if you push people out or get too pricey and too expensive, you're pushing them out completely. They're not just dropping one or two titles – they're dropping the hobby. That's the thing. They might come back for the occasional trade, but for me what makes comic book collecting is that periodical nature of going in month in, month out or week in, week out. That's what I love about it, and I think it's that sense of community, the shared environment and shared experience. With so much going on these days, people love that weekly experience. And we want to match that. We don't want to give them reasons to not be buying anymore. As a matter of fact, we're going the complete opposite way, which is one of the reasons why they continue to buy. The way to do that is pricing in a way that is affordable and makes sense and also make stories that they just can't put down and feel like they haven't seen before.
Didio: The "DC Comics Presents" is a format we're trying that we're meeting different levels of success with. The "Green Lantern" one is selling very well, which we're very happy about. And there are some things that people want to see that aren't working in a reprint format. We're still doing 80-Page Giants. We've got a "JSA 80-Page Giant" coming out next week. We'll still be doing the Annuals oversized, and we'll still have oversized first issues and anniversary issues. So we'll constantly be playing with this, but what we want to say is that on a consistent, month-in and month-out basis, we're at $2.99 for a 32-page comic. It will vary inside the run when necessary we might oversize an issue for some reason – to launch the book big or what have you – because that's something we've done in the past, but we wanted to go back to a core of $2.99 because that's what the pricing was about.
We've heard that this weekend, Bob Wayne of the sales department has been given a promotion...
Didio: What we're saying is that he's putting the "Senior" in "Senior Vice President. [Laughter]
Well, I know that the reorganization has been a continuing while the convention rolls out, but it seems like there's been some promoting and hiring happening at the same time as there have been some losses – Bob Harras as Editor-in-Chief. As all this continues, what have you been discussing with the people stepping into new jobs in terms of how the team will be meeting the challenges of running a bit of a new DC?
Didio: Between myself and Bob [Wayne], our offices are only one door apart, so we've always had a good talking relationship and absolutely nothing's changed. Bob's always been one of the strongest voices on the floor in regards to product, how we should sell the product and most importantly, how we should work with our retailer and customer's concerns. Bob's someone who's worked on so many different levels throughout the industry – as a retailer and as a member of our sales team, he's had a eye on the ebb and flow of the business and has a real keen understanding of it. Even working with Jim now on creating digital strategies, the good thing for us is that we enjoy working together. We enjoy working with people in the company. That's not going to change. As a matter of fact, we're going to celebrate that process. We have so many great voices in the business working at DC that it's important to hear all of them to come up with the best strategy possible.
Somebody like Bob Harras is the perfect choice for an Editor-in-Chief of DC Comics. In his previous experience working at Marvel during some of its most difficult times, he was able to keep that ship running right and strong. And he has great insight on both character and schedule, so to us he was an unpolished diamond in the building that we're now getting the full value for.
Like you've said, the past seven months have been focused so much on the reorganization. Is there a move coming now to rally the horses, get the trains running on time and start to push back forward?
Lee: We're still in a period of transition. I mean, there are people that have been given relocation offers and different kinds of positions, and none of that has been settled yet. So out of sensitivity to their situation, it's not something we discuss beyond what I just said. But after that point, there will be more announcements of changes in the organization, but even in this interim we've been talking with everyone in the company to develop all the strategies. Even on something like this [pricing change] which is focused on the print side of things, we had everybody from marketing and PR to editors and the digital side weighing in. All these different sides don't work independently of one another. And I think we're completely aware of the fact that as we move forward as an overall business entity, we have to be better organized internally and work together more internally to grow our business. As far as the interim structure, there is a final plan, but we have to wait and hear from the people who have been given offers. And like I said, there are a lot of moving parts, but once it's all been finalized, people will have a clearer picture of what the new DC is. That's not to say we've shut down. We're still moving forward with a lot of initiatives and plans that we had in place and working with people in these new roles – even ones we haven't announced officially. But once that's all done, I think people will start getting a clear picture of the new structure and will start seeing even more new initiatives come out of that.
To wrap up, with this big news kicking off DC's show, what are you looking forward to accomplish by weekend's end? Do you think this is the thing is what will be occupying most of your time at the show?
Lee: I'm just happy to be back at New York Comic Con. That skip year...
Didio: It really felt like a skip year.
Lee: Yeah. So it's great to be back because it's a different vibe here from Chicago or definitely from San Diego. I think it's important to connect with the creative base. There's a lot of European creators who will come to this show rather than going all the way to San Diego, so you've got a different group. Obviously, since this is the home of comic publishing, it makes the announcements of the past few days even more meaningful. I think the fact that DC publishing is remaining in New York is a big topic to discuss with freelancers. There's a lot of good conversations going on at this con.
Didio: I feel the exact same way. I'm just happy to be back here and talking with the writers and the artists – being able to speak with them with a level of clarity and focus on what we're about for the next few years. It's a lot of fun.
And after all the glad-handing and bar-hopping are done, you can crash in your own bed too.
Didio: Sooner or later. [Laughter] Actually, I don't do that, believe it or not.
Lee: It's funny because in all this reorganization, we've had some chances to sit down and talk about creative and publishing plans, but we found that here...
Didio: It's fun again!
Lee: Yeah. It's fun to talk about this stuff and not the other business side of things. I think this weekend and thereafter will allow us to get into the nitty gritty of the creative side and what we want to do in 2011 and beyond. That's exciting for me. It's been on hold for a little while.
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