DC Comics recently announced that they were doing a line-wide “reboot” of their comic book franchises:
On Wednesday, August 31st, DC Comics will launch a historic renumbering of the entire DC Universe line of comic books with 52 first issues, including the release of JUSTICE LEAGUE by NEW YORK TIMES bestselling writer and DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns and bestselling artist and DC Comics Co-Publisher Jim Lee. The publication of JUSTICE LEAGUE issue 1 will launch day-and-date digital publishing for all these ongoing titles, making DC Comics the first of the two major American publishers to release all of its superhero comic book titles digitally the same day as in print.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not 100% thrilled with all the changes and new titles/redesigns I’m seeing. Moreover, I don’t think I’d have any credibility as a comic book fan if I didn’t say I’m a little worried about what’s going to happen to the rich character history that has been built over the years or didn’t express some cynicism over the industry’s predilection for “ret-cons”.
But, the truth is I think this is the sort of thing which the comic book industry needs to do to stay relevant. For too long, the industry has taken the easy way out:
- Cater to the most hardcore of fans: Its the classic Innovator’s Dilemma problem: its always easier to sell the same customers more and more profitable products than it is to pull in less profitable customers. In the short-term, this is fine – but over the long-term, this can be a disaster as the industry sees its user base dwindle. And, as I’ve mentioned before, as much of a fan as I am, even I’m finding the medium less appealing as this trend plays itself out.
- Recycle old stories to make movies, TV shows, and cartoons: if the traditional comic medium itself is in danger (as I think it is if things keep going the way they are), the comics industry has adapted by pursuing movies, TV shows, and cartoons (case in point: Smallville). Now don’t get me wrong – I love that there are so many comic book-related movies. There is nothing a comic book fan wants more than to have other people interested in the characters and the stories (and, if there are fans out there who are anything like me, they revel in being able to answer questions about the backstories and characters involved). But, the problem with this approach is two things. First, this sort of medium is a classic long tail business: its great if you get a hit, but its really hard to make sure you have a hit – and, as a result, its really hard to bet the future of your business on. Secondly, unless I’m mistaken, the vast majority of the people watching these movies and shows are not becoming comic book/collectibles buyers or comic convention goers.
To me, the way forward for the industry is something that is hard and may even partially alienate the existing hardcore fanbase: but its to disrupt themselves. Yes, its easier to keep the hardcore fans happy and buying, but there’s not only a lot more money to be made by catering to a wider fanbase, if it doesn’t happen, sooner or later, something else will.
And that’s why I think that DC’s announcement is promising, for what I think the big guys need to do is:
- Embrace digital: Yes, your traditional business model is tied to Diamond for distribution. But, digital will change this business the way its changed the music, movie, and newspaper industries – and unless you are quick to embrace it intelligently, you may find yourself in a very poor position.
- Change your publishing schedule: Have your stories come out on a weekly basis, not a monthly one. The way to get people engaged (and to spend money) is to have them visit the comic store/website/digital store regularly. A bad 3-part story takes 3 months to finish with today’s monthly publishing schedule: that’s taking a huge risk that a fan will drop the book and forget to come back after 3 months. If the same 3-part story were finished in 3 weeks, then you have a different equation.
- Be smart about product/pricing: Hardcore fans are willing to pay more for more. So, sell them trade paperbacks full of complex, intertwined stories and creator interviews/sketchbooks. Sell them 20-part stories which are full of cameos and references. Sell them special editions. But, for the mainstay storylines that should be accessible? Make them cheaper. After all, they’re the gateway drug to the full-on addiction :-). Think about new pricing models: how about $20 for “all you can eat” for one month on the digital comic store? Or how about buy a mainstay storyline and get 20% off of a related story? There’s plenty of room here.
- Rationalize movie vs comic: I’m not a fan of twisting comic book storylines to fit movies. But, similarly, I worry about any casual comic book readers who pick up an issue and think to themselves: “what the heck?” It’s not easy, but the industry does need to find a way to bridge the two while staying truthful to both types of media. One idea: a free comic book “guide” (with movie stub) to smooth over the differences between the movie version and the comic version?
- Get back to the character: Too often today, comic book storylines are about packing in every possible way for the world to end into a storyline. While this is something that is cool every so often, doing it too often is overkill and is oftentimes done at the expense of developing the character of the hero, the villain(s), and the supporting characters. Perry White, Aunt May, Alfred Pennyworth, and Jane Foster are not Lex Luthor, the Green Goblin, Joker, or Loki per se, but they are still important and deserve to be more than just the “scenery”.
There’s still more detail to be revealed in DC’s reboot, and its still not clear to me how much they live up to what I’ve outlined. Sadly, the pessimist in me is pretty sure they’ll fall short. But, as a fan of the medium, I hope they don’t.