While convention panels from big superhero publishers are usually a game of product hype and continuity policing, DC Comics has taken to using the format as a kind of market research opportunity in recent years. And at this year's New York Comic Con, Co-Publisher Dan Didio kicked off the DC Nation Town Hall Meeting on Sunday by explaining that unlike the regular DC Nation product panel, "A lot of what this is about is the state of the business of comics – about what we love about comics, what you want to see and what your expectations are from comics and what your concerns and issues are. Honestly, we never want to be in the position where we take our audience for granted, our fans for granted. You stick with us through thick or thin, which is one of the reasons why we made the announcement earlier this week about bringing down the prices of our comics."
Once the proceedings were underway, the discussion hit a wide range of topics, from the newly announced $2.99 price point for all DC titles to the ongoing debate over what makes for the best digital comics platforms. Evergreen discussions such as the availability of comics and which titles survived in which formats (particularly an audience endorsement of Vertigo's trade program) worked their way in as well.
As is now customary for these panels, Didio (joined onstage by his Co-Publisher partner Jim Lee) took a showing of hands on how long the audience had been reading comics. While the majority of the assembled had been reading no longer than 20 years or so, a quartet of gentlemen broke out from 30 to almost 50 years of comics patronage. Didio quizzed the crowd, asking where the New Yorkers kept their collections with answers ranging from "a storage unit in Queens" to closets and basements, answers which prompted him to declare, "That's why DC Comics publishing is staying in New York."
Didio went on to describe how "the great challenge of working for DC" was the fact that it was hard to appease "so many readers with so many expectations." Lee explained that a big part of what his focus for the weekend had been was the print vs. digital divide. He showed a drawing he'd done of Wonder Woman based on the classic Rosie The Riveter character to promote DC's new $2.99 price point. "This whole weekend, there's been a lot of talk about digital comics. We look at digital comics being an additive thing to print comics," he said, noting that DC's EVP of Sales, Marketing and Business Development John Rood was in the audience before moving on to a topic close to his heart and its connection to digital.
"I know some of the people had had some questions about WildStorm at previous panels," Lee said, adding that the WildStorm Universe characters were going into "creative dormancy" which he saw as a "glass half full" situation since many of the WildStorm staff will be moving to the new digital comics arm of DC in Burbank. Lee then brought up WildStorm manager Hank Kanalz on stage, who he credited with expanding the imprint's move into video game comics and other moves that made it a "business engine" that did work like recoloring on "Watchmen," the CMX manga line and work on the DC Universe online video game.
"We wanted to tap into that entrepreneurial spirit that was really the core of WildStorm as we continue to branch out into the digital space." Lee then made the announcement (as reported on Robot 6) that WildStorm's Hank Kanalz had been promoted to Senior Vice President of Digital for DC.
"Hank will be signing all of the digital copies of your comics from here on out," Didio joked before getting more serious about the digital vs. print issue. The co-publisher asked the room when they thought print would end, with the answers ranging from 25 years to never considering the "fetish, luxury and niche" needs of hard core fans both in attendance and spoken of.
To take the pulse of the assembled on what comics brought them into the habit, Didio began to poll the fans on what their first comics and graphic novels were. When the discussion turned to the issue of popular trades, one fan said, "I buy most of my Vertigo stuff in trade because I'm confident I'm still supporting Vertigo. I'm always afraid that in buying trades I'm going to hurt the monthly sales, but with Vertigo I'm pretty confident that I'm not going to do that." Didio jokingly responded, "Did Karen Berger send you here?" Later, a wide-range of fans cited other Vertigo titles as their favorite trades, including books from the "Fables" franchise, "Sandman" and "Preacher."
Once the conversation swung back to digital, the brunt of the talk became about what fans would like to see in the digital format as opposed to single comics and trades. One theme was the idea that additional content that didn't work on the print side of the business would be better for online comics – including the lower-tier characters being moved out of DC's Co-Feature program with the drop to 20-page monthly comics. "One of the things we said when we put the pricing plan together was that we had a number of books for $3.99 for 30 pages of story, which we thought was a good deal," Didio said. "As we started moving things around, we realized people were more concerned about price and that, as much as they appreciated the added value, price still mattered overall. With the case of the [current] Jimmy Olsen and Commissioner Gordon features, the stories will be complete and collected as original one-shots coming up very soon. We've got 'The Atom' by Jeff Lemire...and there are a lot of other things we're looking at: 'The Spirit: Black And White' and "Justice Inc.' from 'First Wave' – all those things will be taken care of in one-shots, miniseries or possibly ongoings."
The audience also spoke up for "a free download with print" model for sales similar to the digital copies that come with certain Blu-ray discs, responding with a round of applause for the idea. Kanalz said they were looking towards models which could incorporate the print and digital side, but right now it was hard to give fans what they want when the main digital sales model involved currently takes time to coordinate. That model was also a barrier for day-and-date releases, as Lee explained the logistical problems later in the panel. "The whole approval process of going through the Apple Store is a longer lead time than what we currently do for print," he said. "When you're publishing 90 books a month, changing something that works and works pretty well right now to a different schedule is very, very difficult. Even doing the one day-and-date book we did with 'Generation Lost' required a fair amount of effort to do. Obviously, we'll be doing more in the future, and we have a strategy towards doing more day-and-date in the future. But the goal is not to convert everything to digital and have it all out there. It's to look at digital comics and what they do best and use that to maximize the readership – new readership – and publish new kinds of books we couldn't have done before in the direct market.
"I think as people become more and more comfortable with digital comics, you'll start to see purchasing habits change, but to me – and you can give me some feedback on this – a paper comic is a very different thing from a digital comic. You can find the works of many, many painters and great artists you love online, but there's something to having a print and putting it on your wall."
The question of piracy came up with Lee admitting that while there were illegal options out there now, the challenge for publishers was to offer a higher-quality, more attractive legal choice. Didio then offered an anecdote on that front saying, "I was taking a red eye flight from California back to New York that was delayed, and while sitting there waiting for a time to become available to us, I see a guys sitting on the floor with an iPad, and he's reading 'Brightest Day,'" the Co-Publisher said. "I'm not even realizing that 'Brightest Day' was not something we offered [on the App] at that time, so I lean in and, since I don't own an iPad, I'm looking at the colors and say, 'That actually looks pretty good on that screen.' The guy looks over his shoulder and goes, 'I know who you are, Dan Didio! I promise I'm going to buy it in trade when it comes out!'"