Fewer Monthly Comics
The good news is that, contrary to certain rumors, DC isn’t abandoning the publishing game or planning to outsource books to rival publishers. Jim Lee (who remains in a prominent position at DC) was adamant about that fact in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
“It is still the cornerstone of everything that we do,” Lee told THR. “The need for storytelling, updating the mythology, is vital to what we do. The organization leans on us to share and establish the meaningful elements of the content that they need to use and incorporate for all their adaptations.”
DC Extended Universe: Every Upcoming Movie
That said, DC likely won’t be publishing as many new comics in 2021 as they have in years past. Various outlets have reported that DC will soon consolidate and shrink its monthly publishing lineup. That’s pretty much a given, considering how many senior-level editors have been laid off (in what two of The Beat’s sources described as “a bloodbath”). DC probably no longer has the editorial manpower to coordinate as many ongoing books as it once did, and the company may look all the more to proven commodities like Batman and Superman over more risky, niche properties.
Lee himself confirmed as much to THR, indicating DC will trim many of its lower-performing titles and try to emphasize “more punch for the pound.”
Lee said, “We will be reducing the size of the slate. But it’s about looking at everything and looking at the bottom 20 percent, 25 percent of the line that wasn’t breaking even or was losing money. It’s about more punch for the pound, so to speak, and increasing the margins of the books that we are doing. It was about aligning the books to the franchise brand content we’ve developed and making sure that every book we put out, we put out for a reason.”
That process looks to be starting sooner rather than later. DC’s newly released November 2020 solicitations indicate Teen Titans, Suicide Squad, Young Justice, Hawkman and John Constantine: Hellblazer are all ending, right on the heels of Batgirl, Batman and the Outsiders and Justice League Odyssey ending in October.
A Major Relaunch, But Not 5G
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that just because those books are ending doesn’t mean DC isn’t planning to relaunch at least some of them with new creative teams in December 2020 or early 2021. After all, books like Batgirl and Teen Titans have been more or less permanent fixtures at the company for many years, and it wouldn’t make much sense to put the Suicide Squad on mothballs just as hype is building for James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad movie and the Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League video game.
These cancellations could indicate DC is thinning the herd ahead of a larger relaunch in the vein of 2016’s DC Rebirth. We may see a widespread shuffling of creative teams and a new wave of #1 issues aimed at giving readers a clean starting point. It’s surely no coincidence these cancellations are coming at the same time DC is wrapping up two major crossover events – Dark Nights: Death Metal and Batman: Joker War. The former will likely reshape the very fabric of the DC Universe similar to past Crisis events, while the latter promises to fundamentally alter Batman’s relationship with Gotham City. Even The Flash writer Joshua Williamson, the last creator still standing from the launch of DC Rebirth, is about to wrap up his years-long run on the series. The fallout of all these stories will likely determine the new state of the DCU in 2021.However, don’t expect the long-rumored “5G” initiative to factor into DC’s 2021 plans. Before he left DC, DiDio repeatedly teased 5G as the publisher’s next great undertaking. Building on the fallout of stories like Doomsday Clock, 5G reportedly involved the creation of a cohesive DC timeline dating all the way back to Wonder Woman’s WWII-era debut. Whereas the New 52 sought to prune and streamline DC lore, 5G instead seemed aimed at unifying the company’s long history and establishing a four generation-long timeline. 5G itself is said to have marked the start of “Generation Five,” as classic icons like Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent aged out of their roles and a new generation of heroes stepped in.
We may never know DC’s exact plans for 5G, as that project has seemingly been abandoned in the wake of DiDio’s departure. DC’s Free Comic Book Day 2020 special Generation Zero was never actually released, instead being quietly included as bonus material in the Flash Forward trade paperback collection. The followup miniseries Generations has also vanished from DC’s release schedule. While elements of 5G may carry over into other upcoming books, the wider initiative appears to have been abandoned. All signs point to DC leaning more on established heroes like Batman and Superman, not less.
But for now, it’s anyone’s guess as to the direction of this relaunch or exactly how wide a scope the post-Death Metal DCU will have. Will DC’s new editorial direction be driven by Lee, who had a major hand in the New 52? Is it the brainchild of new editors-in-chief Marie Javins and Michele Wells? Or will it be dictated by DC’s yet-to-be-announced general manager, a figure who reportedly hails from the e-sports world rather than comics? At this stage, it’s unclear who is the true captain of the ship in the wake of these layoffs.
Digital Comics and the Fate of DC Universe
While we’re still learning the full scope of the DC layoffs, THR reports “the majority of staff” in the DC Universe division have been eliminated. HBO Max will likely become the permanent new home for streaming shows like Doom Patrol and Titans, and DC Universe as it currently exists will be no more.
That’s not to say DC Universe will be gone completely, however. In addition to the library of new and classic TV/movie content, the subscription service is also notable for offering access to more than 20,000 digital comics spanning DC’s entire 80-year history. That comic library will likely survive in some form or another. Lee hints that DC Universe could be relaunched under a new name, presumably at a lower price point and as a more direct competitor to the Marvel Unlimited subscription service.
“There is always going to be a need for that,” Lee told THR. “So we’re excited to transform it and we’ll have more news on what that will look like. It’s definitely not going away.”
Injustice: Year Zero Exclusive Preview
In general, we expect DC to focus more energy on digital comics as it builds on the success of digital-first projects like Injustice: Gods Among Us and Harley Quinn: Black + White + Red. It’s worth noting that Javins was previously in charge of the company’s digital comics strategy before her latest promotion. That would seem to indicate digital comics will be central to DC’s revamped publishing direction, as DC seeks to better take advantage of this new, growing market.
Even though Lee indicates to THR that DC’s surprise decision to end its relationship with Diamond Comic Distributors has quickly paid off, DC may look to digital comics as a source of stability in a time when publishers and comic stores alike are struggling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital publishing also gives DC the opportunity to experiment with more niche properties without having to worry about recouping printing and shipping costs.
No More Mature Readers Comics?
Despite the critical and commercial success of books like Batman: Damned and Harleen, DC’s mature readers-focused Black Label imprint looks to be one of the major casualties of the company’s corporate restructuring. As The Beat notes, the fact that both Mark Doyle and Andy Khouri are among the editors laid off suggests DC is significantly scaling back the Black Label line.
According to The Beat, DC may retain the Black Label name as branding for evergreen collected editions like Batman: The Killing Joke, but the company is pivoting away from mature readers comics as a whole. The site indicates this is at the behest of WarnerMedia’s President, Global Brands, Franchises, and Experiences Pam Lifford, while stressing that Lifford’s dislike of the Black Label line stems from more than just the infamous Bat-Penis incident.
Lee indicates as much to THR, revealing DC’s intention to consolidate its line around two main demographics – kids aged 6 to 11 and young adults/adults aged 12 to 45.The Black Label line won’t vanish overnight. DC only recently solicited several new Black Label projects like the Watchmen sequel Rorschach and the long-awaited The Other History of the DC Universe. But we may see fewer and fewer new Black Label books being announced in the months ahead. It’s also unclear if DC will continue the Sandman Universe imprint. Though again, despite Hellblazer’s cancellation, it’s hard to imagine DC completely phasing out its Sandman projects at the same time Netflix is gearing up for production on its live-action Sandman series.
This seems to be the end result of a gradual trend away from adult-oriented content at DC. The company shuttered the long-running Vertigo imprint in 2019, pivoting to Black Label and its more mainstream-friendly emphasis on characters like Batman and Wonder Woman. Now, even that approach seems to be too much for a company refocusing its energies on a more traditional, superhero-hungry audience.
The End of DC Direct
In addition to Black Label being phased out, these layoffs look to mark the end for DC Direct, the 22-year-old collectibles arm of DC. While DC has always turned to companies like Kenner and Mattel to handle mass market toys, DC Direct (also previously known as DC Collectibles) was conceived in the late ’90s as an outlet for pricier, more collector-oriented figures, statues and props.
Lee stopped short of confirming DC Direct has been shuttered in his THR interview, pointing to the fact that DC Direct’s creative director Jim Fletcher remains with the company. But Lee did indicate DC will be focusing less on producing its own collectibles and more on licensing properties out to other companies, building on current arrangements with the likes of Sideshow Collectibles, Diamond Select Toys and McFarlane Toys.
“It’s about evolving the model,” said Lee. “We want to produce those collectible and serve those fans, but we will probably shift to a higher price point collectible and more of a licensing model, working with manufacturers we already work with. From a consumer point of view, there will not be a change or drop off in the quality of the work they are seeing. Behind the scenes, how we create it and how we get it to them is going to change.”
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This could be another response to the economic impact of the coronavirus. While the collectibles market can be lucrative (compared to the thin profit margins on comics themselves), the logistics of manufacturing and shipping these large, delicate items across the globe are complicated. Even if DC stands to bring in less revenue by licensing out its characters rather than producing these collectibles in-house, higher-ups at WarnerMedia may see that as an acceptable trade-off.
We can only hope that this emphasis on licensing over in-house production won’t mark the end of long-running statue lines like Batman: Black & White and Cover Girls of the DC Universe. Will we see companies like Diamond or Sideshow pick up where DC Direct leaves off?
But whatever the future holds for DC Comics as a whole, we’re hoping to get a better sense of what lies ahead at DC FanDome. Check out the full DC FanDome schedule, and stay tuned to IGN for full coverage of that event.
Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.