Interview with Jim Lee and Dan Didio

ICV2 recently had a interview with Jim Lee and Dan Didio at SDCC. They have a in depth talk about the market, variant covers, Before Watchmen, The Orson Scott Card Superman story and a few other things!  Below is the full transcript of the interview.

“ICv2 interviewed DC co-publishers Jim Lee and Dan Didio at Comic-Con in our annual conversation about the state of the market and DC’s place in it.  In Part 1, we talk about the market, the impact of variant covers, finding new customers, the Orson Scott Card Superman story, and Before Watchmen.  In Part 2, we talked about the battles over editorial control of storytelling, DC’s fit for the bookstore audience, the impact of the management changes at Warner Bros., and their top expectations in the next six to 12 months.

What are you seeing in terms of the overall market conditions and what the consumer market is like now?
 We still see a resurgence of comics in general.  We see a lot of growth in what’s going on.  We show an increase in business on both the print and digital side, which I think’s important to say, because neither is cannibalizing and they seem to be complementing each other very nicely and growing the business overall.

It’s interesting to us to watch as the other companies are being very aggressive in a good way, and I think it builds a very strong competitive market and makes sure we’re on the best of our game.

Lee: We’re still riding the positive momentum generated by The New 52.  If you look at the overall business within the physical channel, it was fairly stagnant for a while, and then with The New 52 in September of 2011 you start seeing a rapid rise in sales, and then across all the different companies.  So obviously we’re bringing in new readers, a lot of lapsed readers, and everyone’s been seeing a positive return on that.

And, alluding to what Dan was saying, I think we’re at about double-digit growth on the print side and about triple-digit growth on the digital side, which is probably what everyone else is experiencing.

It’s really positive.  Right now retailers are flush with capital, and they are reinvesting it in new projects so you’re seeing ever increasing orders for new releases and new initiatives.  It’s not speculator-driven, like it was back in the 90s, so I think it’s really positive for the future.

You mentioned that the market is not speculator-driven, but there is a pretty heavy component of variant covers in the market.  Do you think we’re at the danger point?
 I’m always concerned about variant covers, primarily because if retailers are purchasing a hundred books to get one cover that they’re going to be able to sell online or somewhere else, and those hundred books don’t go on sale or aren’t sold to anybody else, it’s just limiting the number of people that are actually reading our material.  Our goal is to put books in people’s hands that are reading the comics.  That’s one of the reasons why when we do the 3-D motion covers in September, we’re actually making that the primary cover because it’s important for us that if people are excited by stunts like that that they actually get the book to read and make it available to themselves.

We’re also in the process of evaluating our own variant program.  We see some slowing on the lower end books where the variants don’t seem to be helping.  We’re trying to find a way that if we are doing variants, it is to really sell more product.

Lee: As a general category, variants don’t move the needle that much.  In fact, the numbers are pretty dismal.  It’s only when you do something special with a variant, whether it’s something clever like the 50 flags of the United States, or what we did with the throwback designs from Superman Unchained where we had a different Superman cover based on every era of the seven and a half decades that he’s been published, or if you look at the three motion covers that we’re doing for villain’s month–all unique propositions–that you do see a reaction from the marketplace because it’s a great way of promoting what you’re doing.  There is real appetite among the core readers for that kind of variant, but you’re not seeing a lot of movement if you just slap your common, everyday variant on a book.  It’s not like the days in the 90s where that was a speculative order and people were trying to flip it before the books even hit the shelves.

The books seem to be falling into the hands of collectors and it ends with one generation of collectors; you’re not seeing them on the secondary market over and over again.

So the lack of quick resale is one of the reasons you think we’re not at a danger point yet?
: Exactly.

The environment for acquiring new customers has changed a lot in the last few years; we’ve lost all those Borders stores, digital is in play now, and you’re involved in the videogame space.  Where are new customers coming from, and what is DC doing to bring them into the comic store fold?
 The digital side has been a real boon for us.  Our strategy has been not to convert our print buyers into digital buyers so we haven’t done digital comics that tie into the core New 52franchises.  All the stuff we’ve been doing digitally has either tied into the mass market, popular franchises like the Arkham Asylumgames or popular TV shows like Smallville.

To clarify: You’re talking about your digital first titles?
 Yes. What we’re finding is anywhere from 30-40% of those readers are first-time digital purchasers, or are even new to comics in general.  We know we’re definitely reaching a new audience.  The stuff we’re planning on doing with DC Squared and DC Squared Multiverse is designed to tap into the videogame marketplace.  That’s an adjacent group of fans who obviously know who are characters are but aren’t necessarily reading comics on a regular basis.  To me, that’s the lowest hanging fruit, so we have very aggressive plans to keep looking towards that.

With the advent of the iPad and all the tablet devices, we now have a little comic book shop in everyone’s home.  It’s been the Holy Grail of the industry for many decades: how do we find new readers?  Now we finally have the opportunity, now we just have to figure out the price point, the type of content, the frequency at which they want it.  We’re constantly exploring and experimenting with all those factors.

Are you doing anything in the videogames themselves to direct people to comics?
 We do, if you look at Injustice: Gods Among Us, which was hugely successful, and then the games coming up called Infinite Crisis and Batman Arkham Origins.  We work very closely with Warner Brothers Games to develop either prequel or interstitial comic content.  If you follow the videogame space, there’s so much pressure to deliver incredible gameplay that they don’t necessarily have the time or resources to tell the whole story they need to make it a full experience, and that’s where we’ve been stepping in and helping flesh that out.  To give you a prime example, Infinite Crisis comes out later this fall.  It’s essentially a multiverse of DC characters where Gotham by Gaslight Batman might run into a nightmare or vampire Batman from Batman Red Rain.  There are different Elseworlds versions of the character, so we’re going to go back in and re-explore that world and publish all of those characters in all these different iterations to allow of these new people who are not familiar with all these different versions of Batman to have a chance to explore all of these individual worlds by buying digital content.

You announced that Adventures of Superman with an Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston story got pulled back because the artist dropped out.  What’s going on with that?
 We’re searching for an artist to work on that story so it’s been tabled until that happens.

Didio: We have a number of projects that started at the same time, so it moved back in the queue and we have other ones that are further along in production that we’re moving with first.

But not cancelled, you’re still going to do it?

The first Before Watchmen trades are coming out. Did the periodical side meet your expectations?
 Absolutely. Realistically, when we went out there we had a certain expectation and it exceeded those expectations when it first launched.  They maintained strong numbers all the way through.  We had a little slippage at the end when the schedule started to slip, but for the most part, everything did better than expected.  We couldn’t be more excited about how the first two books are charting with The New York Times bestsellers list being #1 And #2 as they were first released.

There’s been a recent buzz about the degree of editorial control over storytelling at the Big Two and how that relates to the overall use of the intellectual property.  Has that changed in the last decade, or is there a different reaction to it?  Why is that happening?
 I think it’s actually been a little bit less in the last decade than it’s ever been.  There’s always going to be editorial control over our products.  As long as these are house products that we’re trying to constantly build, and we’re building a continuous continuity in a continuous universe, it’s important to have that level of parameters and guidelines given to the characters so we know there’s consistency in how they act and behave.  We’re always asking the artists and writers to push the boundaries but we also have to establish those boundaries.  It’s their job to push against them, and it’s our job to make sure they stay on track with what our expectations are for the series and characters.

Lee: Without getting into the specifics, from the outside looking in, it might look like there’s a string of changes that point to one common theme, as you suggest.  But from the inside looking out, you’ll see that each one has a different set of circumstances and conditions that ultimately led to the conflicts or the resignations or changes in creative personnel.

To me it’s the normal course of business in that not everyone’s going to agree creatively what to do with a book.  The company has to reserve the right to control the destiny and the futures of the characters, and the creators have to decide if they’re willing to work in an environment where they’re telling their story but in the framework of a universe that has continuity and you have to work with all of these other different creators and editors that would want to control the directions of the characters.

It’s not for everyone all the time.  If you look at it that way, you’ll always have people coming in, doing work and then maybe they’ve reached a threshold where they want to have more control over their project and do something more creator-owned.

The great thing about the industry is that we’re at a point now that this is not the only game in town. You can do stuff for Vertigo; you can go self-publish; you can go do a Kickstarter; you can go work at competitors.  There’s a lot of freedom for these creators, so at the end of the day if you were working The New 52, you’ve got to love it and thankfully we have a tremendous number of creators that love working in this shared universe, love telling these stories with these characters.  We’re super happy with the creative teams that we have on the books that we’re publishing.

Didio: I feel that right now we probably have a stronger bench than we did when we first launched the series.  We launched the series really hard and fast and were figuring some of the things out as we went along.  The good news is that we’re going into our second year and 60% of our line is still intact.  So most of the changes you’ve seen occurred on the bottom tiered books as you’re always experimenting on more difficult titles and trying to find ways to find the right mix to find the best sales opportunity for them.  We’re constantly revising the line.  We’re always going to take more risks with our line.  We’re also going to make sure every book has the best chance possible to succeed.

In a recent Nielsen BookScan Top 20 list (see “June BookScan–Top 20 Graphic Novels), one Superman book in the Man of Steel month was the only book from the Big Two to make the Top 20.  Is your content less suited to the casual consumer who shops in the bookstores?  Is the competition tougher?  Why isn’t DC stronger at the top of the bookstore charts?
Didio: We’re putting out 24-26 graphic novels on a monthly basis.  Some of them break free and some of them don’t, and it really depends on the product.  You can point to those months, and I can point to months where we have the Court of Owlsbooks, which are still selling very strong for us in the Batman titles.  The Justice League books are out there and I expect to see the Watchmen books out there.  We also have perennials on the list on a regular basis.

The one thing that we all have to acknowledge is the strength ofThe Walking Dead.  There was one point, between the hardcover and softcover lists, where ten to 12 of the 20 slots were The Walking Dead alone.  It’s an incredible accomplishment by Kirkman and team on that book. Once that series has ended you’ll see that wind down and you see everyone creep back into the schedules again.

We’re on a long ongoing business here. I can’t go month by month; we’ve got to go year by year.

Lee: We’ve had a banner year as far as collected editions and graphic novels go.  Even with the loss of Borders, it’s been a huge growth category for us last year and this year.

Didio: Every week Jim and I sit in on a meeting with the sole purpose of what we’re planning to reprint.  We have a reprint queue that probably runs three to four months long because of the number of books that we’re constantly putting back on press because of the orders coming in.

Are the changes in management at Warner Brothers having any effect on DC Entertainment?
 [DC CEO] Diane [Nelson] just did an interview with theHollywood Reporter that I’d point to.  Going off what she said, she’s been working with Kevin Tsujihara for a long time and he’s got big plans for DC.  She’s in the best position she’s been in her career at DCE.  We worked with Kevin when he was Paul Levitz’s boss back in the day.  Paul reported to Kevin within the framework of DCE, so he’s very familiar with DC and all the assets we have and the way we operate and run our business.  We have the president’s ear and we’re definitely on his radar.  If you look at all the things Warner Brothers has planned, DCE, and not just the DC superheroes, but also Vertigo and Mad, are a huge part of the future growth of the company.  We’re in the best position in my history at DC as far as our future at Warner Bros.

Didio: It goes to the testament of the strength of us working for Diane Nelson that from the publishing side, we’ve had incredible latitude to do whatever we want, so there’s really no impact on the publishing side.  We’ve been able to run full strength and be fearless in our choices and the types of products we’ve been able to do.

What are you most excited about in the next six to 12 months?
: We want to continue building off Vertigo.  This was a big year for us.  We heard pundits say that Vertigo was running out of steam so this year we really wanted to draw a line in the sand and say “Vertigo is not going away.”  This is a huge priority for us and with the release of Sandman: Overture, and not just Sandman, we have The Wake and Trillium.  We have a lot of things in the pipeline for Vertigo.  You’re going to see a big resurgence in the attention and sales for that line.

Mad is a continuing effort for us. I’m not at liberty to say, but there’s some exciting stuff in the works for Mad.  We spend a lot of our time trying to not just focus on DC superhero line, but all the great assets we have, and what you’re going to see in the next six to 12 months is an expansion of that.  When we started as co-publishers, the first year The New 52, then Before Watchmen, then Vertigo and throughout that we were doing stuff with Mad in terms of increasing the frequency of issues and all the hardcovers, but there’s even more activity going on there that will hopefully see the light next year.

Didio:  I’m really excited about September and the 3-D motion covers.  We took a huge risk with trying to get these done and it was an incredible learning process.  We went all in with the 52 books having all these 3-D motion covers.  The covers are being shipped over right now getting ready to be processed with the books themselves.

I’m really interested in seeing what the fan reaction is because every time I show these covers and we talk about the books internally and with retailers, they’re extraordinarily excited about it and we hope that the same level of enthusiasm makes it to the fans.”

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Source – ICU2