The DC Gambit

DC risked a lot by going rogue with new distribution partners. Was the move worth it?

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the direct market into disarray in a way no event ever has before. Retailers were forced to close their doors across the globe, with shelter-in-place orders requiring these nonessential 1 businesses to rely on atypical methods to survive. Diamond Comic Distributors shut it down, preferring to protect its employees and stop the flow rather than risk it all. Publishers adjusted accordingly, with the majority of them offering returnability at first and then a vow to not publish new comics – in print or digitally – while shops are closed. Even Marvel – Marvel!! – has never pulled the trigger, even if they frustratingly did it in the most slow drip way possible before finally revealing their return plan this past week. Everyone has managed to toe the line through this, a rare feat of unification in an often-combative marketplace.

…besides DC.

While everyone else effectively battened down the hatches, DC didn’t just decide to keep it going, it went fully rogue, announcing a partnership with DCBS and Midtown Comics – the two largest Diamond accounts – as their distribution partners while the vaunted distributor slept. This meant that while all other publishers would be off, they could be on starting this past Tuesday with an absolutely motley crew of releases sent to comic shops that signed up.

The response? Well, let’s say the response was…mixed, to be generous.

Retailers were mad. Diamond was on its heels. No publishers changed their plans, 2 especially with Diamond announcing its return to distribution on May 20th, but I’d imagine most were unenthused even if they wouldn’t publicly admit it. And readers were…largely pretty happy from what I saw! Some were getting new comics, even if they were an oddball mix! They liked that DC was going with someone that wasn’t Diamond, which some fans are surprisingly invested in! It was quite the response, and one that flipped comics upside down for a time and made everyone ask a lot of questions about what’s next.

But amongst all of those, one main topic stood out: was DC’s gambit worth it? Was it worth the publisher risking its long-term position in the direct market and relationship with retailers for what effectively amounts to three weeks of lead time on everyone else? It’s complicated, but ultimately, there’s a short answer and a long one. As per usual, we’re going to take the long way there, as we explore that question to see what we can figure out.

Naturally, before we can get into answering that main question, we need to talk about where DC was coming from. You have to know where they stood before all this hit to know what they were risking. It’d be one thing for Marvel, the undeniable top dog in the direct market, 3 or BOOM!, the most well-liked publisher amongst retailers, to take a leap like this. For DC, on the other hand, you could look at the data and think, “Well, maybe it’s worth the risk to get an edge.” DC’s just kind of in a weird place overall. Let’s start with the numbers, or, more specifically, DC’s total unit share in the direct market to get a look at how they’re doing. 4

Looking at this chart, you see that after a lull in the middle of 2019, DC had a bit of a resurgence in the direct market before a slow drop off. A healthier spot for DC, even if it isn’t near their high. It also fits the rather meandering nature of the past four years, as ups followed downs, lows followed highs, even if they largely orbited that core 35% area. An uptick is good, though, right? Maybe not. Let’s dig one level deeper by overlaying how many titles they were releasing on top of that data.

Now we’re looking at DC’s percentage of units sold in the direct market on a per release basis. This reveals something crucial: it turns out the biggest reason DC saw that uptick was because they just released a whole lot more comics than they had earlier in the year. In fact, if you look at the previous four plus years, the four lowest months on the basis of this metric for the publisher were all in the last six months, meaning that DC’s currently in a low point and seemingly a state of “throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks because nothing seemingly is.” It sort of reminds me of the latter parts of the New 52, where DC seemingly had no idea what worked anymore so it felt like they were just guessing at times.

Comic shops know what’s been working for them though: Black Label. This adult oriented imprint 5 was one of the top sellers in 2019 for comic shops, with it being described to me as anywhere from “consistent” and “reliable” to “fire” by the most enthusiastic retailers. The more standalone projects of Black Label and to a certain degree the artists formerly known as Ink and Zoom releases – these are the digest sized graphic novels aimed at young adults and middle grade readers – have performed well even as DC itself has seen a bit of a downturn. By process of elimination, of course, you can guess what hasn’t worked: the main line.

“DC’s great with special projects, all of the Black Label stuff gets fans excited,” W. Dal Bush of Chicago’s Challengers Comics + Conversation previously told me. “But the regular DC Universe books are largely ignored. If it weren’t for Batman sales – down slightly, but still massive – and the hit Black Label line, DC sales would be minuscule for us.”

“I can sell the Black Label books, mostly, and the Bendis Stuff. I’m getting the Hill House books to my horror customers, and Far Sector is looking good for subscribers,” Books with Pictures’ Katie Proctor shared with me before. “But the basics? I’ve had to cut nearly all of them to pulls-only, and those books are some of my most defected-on pulls. It’s grim.”

Basically, the main line – especially the unfocused feeling Year of the Villain…event of a sort – has been met with a collective yawn in the last six to nine months. Given that it’s the bulk of what DC’s publishing arm releases, that is a problem. But hey, they had an answer for that, seemingly. The vaunted publisher had intended to finally move toward its next big reset of a sort, beginning with Generation Zero on Free Comic Book Day and concluding with Generation Five: Age of Tomorrow, delivering on the long-discussed 5G plan. This appeared to be their next New 52, Rebirth-level effort to jumpstart the engine once again. They were betting big on it, with the hope seemingly being a better present and a more sustainable future for everything they do at DC.

But then, DC’s Co-Publisher Dan DiDio was let go.

And then, the coronavirus pandemic hit.

And then, DC adjusted on the fly, and things started to get weird.

While the issues retailers have had with DC’s response to the coronavirus crisis have been legion, the original sin related to what they did at first: nothing. While the publisher’s peers scrambled to lay out their plans, DC went radio silent, endlessly promising a response that didn’t come for nearly two weeks. Given the uncertainty that faced them, this was not ideal in the minds of comic shops. But then, the response came, and on the surface, it seemed worthwhile. Full returnability until the end of June, a mammoth offer after a lengthy wait, as well as the idea that they were looking into a multi-distributor model to get new comics out while Diamond was shut down. All good, right? Not exactly, as buried within the announcement on Facebook was a DC rep saying they were moving forward with digital first despite print being on hold.

Francis Manapul’s cover to Generation Zero

The response was…unpleasant. Effectively so, though, as DC hit reverse and decided to not go that direction at all, putting everything on pause for the time being. That was until DC said they weren’t just returning to publishing on April 28th, but they were doing so with two new distribution partners in Lunar and UCS, or, as they turned out to actually be known as, DCBS and Midtown, the two largest retail accounts in the direct market. If you thought shops were mad about DC possibly going digital first, then it paled in comparison to the furor unleashed by DC a) going with every shop’s biggest competitors in two mail-order giants as distributors and b) restarting publishing efforts while the vast majority of the country was still under shelter-in-place orders. The response was about as ugly as anything I’ve ever seen, with the average rejoinder ranging from tweet length vitriol to novella-like Facebook posts. Shops discussed everything from not even signing up to maybe even legal action. It was contentious to say the least.

You all know this, more than likely. The question of course shifts here to something that hasn’t been discussed quite as much: what came next. Would retailers actually reject DC’s plan? I mean this as no slander to comic shops, but retailers have a history of talking a big game about the things they’ll stand for and the things they won’t, but when it comes down to it, more often than not they’ll sign on the dotted line when a publisher like DC comes calling.

Except this time, I’m not sure if they did.

From varying conversations I’ve had, the amount of comic shops that signed up with DCBS or Midtown for distribution was very much on the low side, with more not signing up than those that did. While that’s about as inexact as you can ask for – there’s no available Google doc out there for me to just grab these numbers, unfortunately – I cannot imagine a low sign up rate was what DC was hoping for, even if it obviously included the two biggest accounts in the two distributors themselves. 6

So if the bulk of retailers didn’t sign up, what was their reasoning for passing? Those are varied, as I covered in a retailer check-in last week, but the key points that came up over and over with those I’ve spoken to were:

  • They’re waiting for Diamond: Shortly after DC made its multi-distributor announcement, Diamond made one of its own, sharing that they would return to distribution on the week of May 20th. With that in mind, most shops echoed what Patrick Brower of Challengers Comics + Conversation told me when he said, “If Diamond does re-open in mid-May, we can wait the three extra weeks for DC’s books.”
  • There was a short order window: If shops wanted to participate, they had to both sign up and get their orders in by Monday when this was announced on Friday. This was a non-starter for many, as they’re already busy and short staffed, and now they were asked to order quickly in a time of uncertainty. Not the easiest position to order confidently from.
  • They’re not even open: The majority of shops are still in shelter-in-place, with most being unable to see customers as non-essential businesses. So why bother ordering when they can’t even sell comics? And even if they could, that puts shops at risk, which was the biggest issue for Eitan Manhoff of Oakland’s Cape & Cowl Comics, who told me, “My biggest problem with it is (DC’s) complete disregard for the health and safety of the rest of the industry. The Publishers are the only part of the supply chain that can do 100% of their work comfortably and safely from home, yet they’re forcing the hand of the other parts who will take on all the financial and health risks involved with this decision.”
  • The list of titles were not exciting: When the only two new titles from week one are a Hill House comic and a secondary Sandman Universe release, the heat is lacking from your efforts. As Brower told me, “let’s face it, it’s not like those books are ‘must haves’ for most readers, save for Batman #92.” That made waiting much easier.
  • The distributors are the competition for shops: There are a lot of reasons for this being a problem, but no one – no one – was happy to order from DCBS and Midtown, the two biggest Diamond accounts who swallow up legions of readers with discounted prices aided by outrageous volume. Few shops were willing to aid their enemies to get access to Daphne Byrne #4 three weeks early. 7

There were plenty of reasons for shops to pass, but even if the numbers were light, it is worth noting that some shops did sign up. Amongst my usual contacts, that only meant three – a tiny number – but they still signed up. Out of curiosity, I reached out to see how things performed for each of them in the first week. The response was varied, but largely, it went well, especially given the desperation many comic fans are showing for new content.

Francis Manapul’s cover to Justice League #44

“We received the books this last week and sold completely out of what came in,” Jen King of Space Cadets Collection Collection told me. “The demand for comics is real and customers were genuinely thankful to have them as a distraction and as a piece of normalcy while everything else in there (lives) is very not normal.”

This was echoed by Third Eye Comics’ Steve Anderson, who shared that sales were up on the released titles for him, before admitting that he “wouldn’t say the demand is crazy, but people are overall excited to just see new content.”

The first week’s releases via DCBS and Midtown only included two new titles – the aforementioned Daphne Byrne #4 and The Dreaming #20 – and three reprints in Batman #89’s third printing, Batman Giant #4, 8 and the second printing of Nightwing #70. But seeing lift on otherwise unremarkable releases 9 feels meaningful, even if it is on the most micro of scales.

With new top tier titles like Batman, Justice League, The Flash and Harley Quinn coming on the horizon, this could mean even greater lift in the coming weeks, as those are more broadly appealing than the first week’s releases. That’s what Ryan Higgins of Sunnyvale, California’s Comics Conspiracy suggested, as he saw “additional orders past our normal subscribers” on the first wave and expects it to build from there. That said, Higgins brought up a crucial point, and something Anderson echoed: once Diamond returns, they’ll both be back to only ordering from one distributor.

“With DC titles now back shipping from Diamond, I don’t really see a reason to stick with Lunar 10 in order to get DC Comics titles early to sell on Tuesdays,” Higgins said. “We’re always so busy processing the new shipment, I wouldn’t have time to handle customers coming in on Tuesday like they do on Wednesday, but just for one company’s titles.”

Howard Porter’s cover for The Flash #753

While he notes he’s glad DC “found a way to get us books during Diamond’s shutdown,” he said “sticking with Diamond makes the most sense in the long-run” because of existing discounts and infrastructure. Due to that, the veteran retailer questioned the future of DCBS and Midtown as distributors, saying, “I can’t see too many reasons to stick with Lunar long-term, I’ll be curious if they’re around in 6 months unless something drastic changes.”

That’s a worthwhile thought, because if retailers like Higgins and Anderson see little long-term value in sticking with these new distributors – which people like Comichron’s John Jackson Miller believed was the intention, viewing DC’s move as more of a stopgap solution than a permanent one – it’s hard to envision a future there unless DCBS and Midtown keep Lunar and UCS around respectively to allow them to cut Diamond out as a middleman.

But if this effort comes with little longevity, it also might come with something even worse in a considerable cost to long-term retailer relations. Some shops I’ve spoken to have suggested DC’s move to work with other distributors has irreparably harmed the trust they have in DC as a partner. If a shop might normally have ordered a little deeper to help an appealing title with iffy sales potential, it’s more likely they won’t now. The same goes for even higher interest titles, as taking on risk for a publisher they lack confidence in doesn’t hold the same appeal as before. After all, if DC doesn’t have the back of shops, why should shops have theirs?

Let’s put all these pieces together now. From the sounds of it, DC’s gambit to get comics out worked out reasonably well. The titles performed solidly enough for shops that ordered, but the number of shops were on the light side, even if it did open the doors for the two biggest retailers to sell DC books. That’s pretty easy to do when they double as the distributors themselves, but hey, I’m sure that was the plan. In the process, though, DC has turned many shops against them, which is a tough spot to be in when its main line was already underperforming and the publisher was just about to take on its most significant endeavor since Rebirth in 5G. The timing couldn’t have been worse, even if the timing of a pandemic rarely works out well for anyone.

So…was it worth it? Was that three-week bump enough to make the long-term risk palatable?

Here’s where I cheat: it depends on your perspective.

If you ask retailers, probably not. If you ask Diamond, it’d likely be much the same. But if you ask DC, I imagine the answer would be “yes,” and it’s because of what that bump meant.

A tease Tom Taylor put up on Twitter yesterday

We’re in a time where almost every publisher has the majority of creators on pause, with pencils down being the norm outside of some exceptions. Publishers have furloughed staff members, including Marvel. But you know what? DC hasn’t. Pencils up, staff active, 11 and new endeavors being developed even. From what I’ve heard, DC’s been one of the few publishers – along with AWA and Bad Idea – who have put in queries to creators about whether they’d be interested in working with them despite the pandemic. Beyond that, I’ve gotten the impression that creators at DC aren’t just making it through this; they’re more active than ever, if Tom King and Tom Taylor’s Twitter feeds are meant to be believed. 12 They’ve even seemed to begin leaning heavier into digital first releases than before, an interesting idea that will only become more polarizing if it develops further. And if this crisis starts to spike again, they have systems in place to continue to distribute print comics if Diamond decides to shut it down once more.

In a time of great uncertainty, DC has seemed to keep its creators busy and staff employed, all while maybe making a more sustainable future for themselves in the process. That strikes me as a huge win, even if it’s not the result many of my retailer pals would love to hear. And here’s where I get back to a key point from earlier that they likely won’t enjoy either: they realize retailers change their minds frequently. DC knows that if they bring the heat via Black Label, the Generation comics, and whatever folks like King and Taylor have cooking, shops won’t keep those orders dialed back for long.

That’s all possible. Or maybe all of this acts as the first steps in a shift that’s been in progress for a while. Maybe this is DC reassessing who they are and what works during a time of great transition for everything and everyone, trying to figure out how to get from what they were – the darlings of the direct and book markets in the Bob Wayne and evergreen trade paperback driven past – to something different altogether.

I’m not sure which path they’ve taken, but I do know this. In a time of crisis – whether you’re talking DC’s recent direct market performance or the pandemic we’re living in – sometimes the worst solution can be holding on to the way things were and hoping everything works out. Sometimes you have to find new answers, even if they’re not always the most popular ones at the time. So did DC make the right choice? If they play their cards right from here on out, I’d wager the answer is yes, and I’d bet the staff and creators of DC who kept working throughout would strongly agree with that idea.

  1. In some eyes!

  2. So far!

  3. The idea of the Big Two is largely a generous one towards DC, as Marvel and DC are mostly on different tiers these days even if they are both far ahead of everyone else. Consider Marvel tier one and DC tier 1.5.

  4. All of this is data comes via Comichron. Also, we’re not going to be talking about the book market here, but as I covered in a recent piece, that area is seeing a downturn in recent years when previously it was DC’s bread and butter.

  5. But don’t call it an imprint, because it’s actually an age band!

  6. Here’s the dark secret of the direct market: the biggest publishers would likely rather keep the top ten retail accounts happy than the following couple thousand. This jives with that idea even if not all of the ten were onboard.

  7. I’m sorry Daphne Byrne! You don’t deserve all the heat you’ve been getting from me lately, but you are a great example!

  8. Which is largely a collection of reprints with one new story.

  9. I mean this from a sales heat standpoint, not a qualitative one. Bilquis Evely is an art god and deserves our respect.

  10. aka DCBS.

  11. Despite what certain sites might have you believe.

  12. It’s possible this is a Tom only thing. Might be a good time for a name change, comic creators! Toms are hot, hot, hot!