The massive shakeup within DC Comics on Monday has led to much speculation about the future of the iconic comics publisher. Those concerns are valid, given that the company reportedly laid off about one-third of its editorial team. After spending the past 24 hours talking to people inside and outside the company, we’re starting to get a bit of an idea of where things go from here.
SYFY WIRE has confirmed that Jim Lee remains with the company and will be the liaison between DC and other Warner divisions.
**UPDATE** Lee will remain publisher, to focus on creative content and strategy, according to an interview he did with The Hollywood Reporter. Lee also confirmed that DC will be bringing in someone to be general manager to oversee the operational aspects of DC, starting in September. This will continue the structure that was established when Lee was first named co-publisher of DC, working in tandem with Dan DiDio (who left the company earlier this year).
I spoke with two sources with insight into the company’s plans who say WarnerMedia, the corporate umbrella inside AT&T that oversees Warner Bros. and DC, isn't planning to get rid of comics. Comics aren’t going anywhere. It’s more about the type of comic books we should expect to see and their placement in the new corporate hierarchy.
Again, DC Comics isn’t going away. That’s the good news. As for the bad news, let’s try to unpack what’s happened with a wide-view lens.
The first thing to understand is that this has apparently been in the works for months. The pandemic and the economic devastation it has caused globally, in particular to the movie business, comics, and theme parks, may have moved up the timetable, but these cuts were going to happen at some point. Together with the company’s emphasis on making HBO Max a focus, it was just a matter of time. Nearly everyone working at DC Universe also lost their jobs Monday, meaning DC’s streaming service along with its library of programming and comics is going away. Many assume DCU will be stripped for parts and be folded into HBO Max. (We've reached out to DC Comics for comment.)
Does this mean DC is going to focus more on digital comics? WarnerMedia’s new CEO Jason Kilar has made direct-to-consumer a priority. The ongoing struggles of comics’ direct market seem to play into a bigger digital strategy. But no matter what importance digital comics play in DC’s future, given the success of the company’s trade paperback program with bookstores, physical comics and trade collections aren’t going anywhere.
So why do this now, two weeks before the DC FanDome event? Short-term pain for long-term goals seems to be in play here. As mentioned earlier, COVID-19 has wrecked many corporate business plans. As one source explained to me, “If you’re running Warner Bros., why not write off all the expenses related to these job cuts and gutting DC Universe during this year of unprecedented challenges, and start fresh in 2021?”
Of course, it’s hard to see the apparent lack of concern for PR fallout from the layoffs right before a major fan event like FanDome as anything but a sign of the little regard Warner Bros. execs hold for the comics arm of their company.
Simply put, “WarnerMedia doesn’t want to be in the comics business. It wants to be in the character business,” another source with knowledge of Warner Bros. operations tells me. That same source contends that the company may have no longer wanted DC and its comics to be the driving force behind entities that are so important to WB franchising and licensing goals. Moving forward, both sources believe comics will be just a small part of the necessary intellectual property maintenance needed to keep corporate cash cows like Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman humming along.
Keep in mind, it wasn’t about whether DC was losing money. Even if it was, it was a small amount. The problem is that the potential profits in comics are negligible when one considers the average summer blockbuster has a $200 million-plus budget. Bluntly put: It's likely WarnerMedia doesn’t think the money to be made in comics is worth the effort.
With that in mind, the editorial job cuts start to make even more sense.
Editor-in-Chief Bob Harras, senior VPs Hank Kanalz and Bobbi Chase, and editors Mark Doyle, Brian Cunningham, and Andy Khouri are industry veterans said to be some of the fiercest defenders of the traditional comics business within DC’s Burbank offices. Letting them go now sends the message that the old DC is gone. Let's not forget these are people who, aside from their institutional knowledge, know how to keep the trains on time. I can’t see how these editorial losses don’t lead to an immediate contraction on the number of books DC puts out, and Jim Lee confirmed there will be fewer titles under this new world order. How many books will be cut and how quickly is unclear, but we know a reduction is coming.
Doyle in particular is a major loss. He oversaw the Black Label imprint, a boutique brand that’s been turning a nice profit for DC but also was a magnet for controversy from day one, thanks to the infamous Bat-penis page in Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Batman Damned. Black Label was created as a place for top comics talent to take big risks — exactly the opposite, I believe, of what the people running Warner Bros. seem to want for the DC heroes.
This, IMHO, is the truly bad news about all this. Because it signals that the days of storytelling gambles at DC may be in the rearview and fewer chances may be taken on ambitious projects. Considering we’re talking about the publisher that helped elevate comics with groundbreaking stories such as The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, The Sandman, and, more recently, Mister Miracle, this should depress comics fans the most.
On the other hand, perhaps bringing in fresh eyes and a new approach to comics could help expand the fan base and lure in new readers. Current DC executive editors Marie Javins and Michele Wells are interim editors-in-chief. If they’re allowed to make big decisions, and they work out, will that change the organizational structure? It’s no secret that comics is embarrassingly short on women in key management roles. The industry should cheer for them to succeed in an incredibly tough position. This could be one bright side to an awful day of job losses.
Some old-time fans are calling this shakeup the new DC Implosion. That’s a reference to the company’s infamous 1978 cancellation of roughly 40 percent of its comics line, and the similarities are easy to see. Back then, it was two years of blizzards battering East Coast distribution systems mixed with inflation and recession-era woes that nearly wrecked DC (Paul Levitz once told me how for a brief moment, Detective Comics was going to be canceled during the Implosion, until sanity prevailed). Today, the pandemic is a perfect storm affecting nearly every aspect of our lives. But it’s more than that.
This was inevitable.
It was inevitable from the day AT&T bought Warner Bros. Monday’s bloodletting was a brutal reminder that the modern mainstream comics business resides within the halls of Corporate America. The suits in the C-suites at AT&T and Disney (which owns Marvel) ultimately control our greatest modern mythologies. And it appears that branding, franchise potential, and the bottom line have now become the priority.
That’s brutal, harsh, and sadly, the truth.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.