6.26.2008

Dan DiDio’s Not Dead Yet!

by Doug Smith

In a recent interview, DC Comics Executive Editor Dan DiDio said, “"We do an examination of what it takes to be a hero in the face of total defeat, and, more importantly, finding the will to continue to fight against overwhelming odds”.

He was talking about Final Crisis, but he could have just as easily been talking about his job.

In case you missed it, the last two weeks have not been kind to Mr. DiDio. There was the news that Marvel trounced DC in May, with a better than 50% lead in both dollar sales and market share, and Final Crisis - DC’s big summer event book – posting less-than-stellar sales. There was Grant Morrison basically throwing DC’s editorial staff under the bus from Speed about the continuity confusion surrounding Final Crisis and the books that supposedly led into it, Death of the New Gods and the fan-scorned weekly Countdown to Final Crisis; comments such as “I requested a moratorium on the New Gods so that I could build up some foreboding and create anticipation for their return in a new form … instead, the characters were passed around like hepatitis B to practically every writer at DC to toy with as they pleased,” as seen in this interview, hardly shine a positive light on DC’s editors. And then things really blew up when the recently-departed-from-DC writer Chuck Dixon said “I did not quit", and then replied to this column at CBR with some comments that seemed to point the finger squarely at Dan DiDio as being the reason for his departure; Newsarama picked that up, and things continued to snowball

These three events were enough to throw fuel on the already-burning fire of fan discontent, so that by the time Warren Ellis issued a newsletter with a cryptic hint about a big change coming in the DC offices, DC fans had DiDio headed to the unemployment line and Jimmy Palmiotti moving in as his replacement (when, in fact, it was VP of Business Development John Nee who had resigned). At Heroes Con, Palmiotti had to answer questions about the situation and let people know that not only did he not want the job, he’d never been approached about it, which had to have been an awkward conversation since DiDio and Palmiotti are said to be very good friends.

And while all of this was going on, Heidi MacDonald quietly broke the news at The Beat that DC had renewed Dan DiDio’s contract. Sorry, haters.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Certainly not for the fans who want DiDio fired, and maybe not for some of the people in the DC offices, as suggested by this follow-up column at CBR. To judge from the internet chatter, Gotham City is burning down while Emperor DiDio fiddles.

But is DC really that bad right now? Let’s take a look.

I’m not the biggest DC fan in the world. I’ve been reading their books for over a quarter-century, but I’m more of a Marvel guy in my heart. Now, some people may think that makes me unqualified to offer a “state of the universe” on DC, but I think it allows me to remove passion from the analysis. That, and a lot of what you’re about to read isn’t so much my opinion as what I see other fans saying around the ‘net.

First, let’s just get it out of the way: DC is fumbling with their big crossover events. Infinite Crisis wasn’t the blockbuster that its twenty-year-old predecessor was, and fan reaction is mixed to this day. DC caught lightning in a bottle with the highly successful weekly series 52, but badly botched the “sequel”, Countdown, which, along with its myriad tie-in books, caused so much fan disappointment and outright wrath, that it appears to have already affected Final Crisis in the sales department. And the smaller-scale Amazons Attack was widely derided as well. “Sinestro Corps War” was a hit, but that wasn’t promoted as an “event” the way the others were; it was a crossover between two related titles which expanded at the last minute to include some quick cash-in tie-ins. It’s too early to tell if the new weekly book Trinity is going to be a hit or a miss.

So, yeah, big events? Really not DC’s strength these days. So let’s take a spin through their core titles.

Let’s begin with books that are generally considered to be good. Green Lantern has been a fan favorite title since Geoff Johns revived Hal Jordan; the “Sinestro Corps War” was one of the most well-received events of recent years, and the upcoming “Blackest Night” storyline has fans buzzing. Green Lantern Corps is a little more under the radar but seems to be getting a halo effect from the GL love. Johns also seems to be making fans happy with his long run on Justice Society of America, and has Action Comics on the right track after artistic delays threatened to derail it. Johns is teaming with George Perez on the upcoming Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds miniseries, which promises to give the Legion of Superheroes the creative revamp it desperately needs. Add to that mix the arrival this week of writer James Robinson on Superman, and the fan-fave Booster Gold (co-written by Johns and Jeff Katz), and we have several key titles in very good shape. If I were DC, I’d have Geoff Johns chained to a desk for the next five years, at least.

(A quick disclaimer: I realize there are fans that don’t care for the work of Geoff Johns. Heck, I’m not his biggest fan either, although I do like most of his work. Nobody is universally loved. I’m only speaking in terms of “general perception” here. That same principle applies to all of the books and creators I’m discussing.)

Next, let’s move to the Batman family. Most fans seem pleased with Paul Dini’s work on Detective Comics. Grant Morrison seems to be more divisive with his Batman run – some love it, some hate it – but sales are strong (especially for the “RIP” arc) and plenty of fans are digging it, so this is pretty much what you expect when you hire Morrison. Nightwing fans are happy for the first time in years with new writer Peter J. Tomasi. With Chuck Dixon out, Robin obviously needs a new writer (is Fabian Nicieza permanent on that title?), as does Batman and the Outsiders. Catwoman was just cancelled, but this may have as much to do with character re-tooling as sales; Selina Kyle has been getting back to her villainous roots of late, so expect to see her as a prominent player in Batman’s books again. Overall, it looks like the Bat-Office could use some stability, but the two big flagship books are solid, and there’s nothing wrong with the other titles that can’t be fixed with the right hire. May I suggest either keeping Nicieza on Robin, or moving him to BATO where his strong team-book background could be an asset? And whichever one Nicieza doesn’t write could go to Sean McKeever, who should have some time on his hands now that Countdown is over. That still leaves Birds of Prey, which just got a new writer and has been a bit shaky since Gail Simone left; let’s see how Tony Bedard shakes out here.

Speaking of Gail Simone…one of the most high-profile fiascos of the past few years was DC’s relaunch of Wonder Woman. Creative shuffling, long delays, and just flat-out bad creative decisions have really hurt this book. Hiring Gail Simone is a step in the right direction, but this book still needs a lot of attention. Still, so long as we’re moving in the right direction…

The other massively screwed-up relaunch was The Flash, and even Mark Waid couldn’t get that one fixed; he found out the hard way that you really can’t go home again. No offense to current writer Tom Peyer, but this book needs a high-profile writer and some serious promotion to get it on the right track. DC has recently started working with J. Michael Straczynski, and his fan base and background in sci-fi could be a perfect fit here. This book certainly needs fixing, pronto.

What else needs fixing? Legion of Superheroes, where Jim Shooter has learned the same hard lesson as Mark Waid, but as mentioned above, DC seems to have a Crisis-related fix in the works there; we’ll see. Supergirl has been creatively cursed since issue 1, but word is that Johns and Robinson are going to pull that book closer into the Superman family of titles, so there’s hope there. Again, moving in the right direction…

What else we got? There’s The Brave and the Bold, which didn’t live up to sales expectations with the Waid/Perez dream team. Some fans loved the book for its old-school fun, but others were just left cold. Straczynski is coming on board that title, and might boost sales, but it’s also very possible that a team-up book is just going to be a niche seller in this day and age. Blue Beetle has a very vocal and dedicated fan base, even if they are small in number; the same can be said for Manhunter and Jonah Hex. While these books aren’t topping the sales charts they are quality comics. Teen Titans struggled after Geoff Johns left, but has been getting steadily better in recent months (the current “Terror Titans” arc has seen an upswing in positive fan response). On the other hand, we have Titans, which just recently relaunched under the pen of Judd Winick, who also writes Green Arrow/Black Canary, and…well…let’s just say Judd Winick has his detractors (rumor has it there’s a new writer coming on board GA/BC soon anyway). The new Titans series is inspiring more than a little hatred on the internet these days, so let’s put that one in the “fix it” column. Personally, I think Dwayne McDuffie would be a great choice to write that book, as it calls for strong character work with a touch of humor, both of which he can do well.

And that, finally, leads us to the book McDuffie is currently writing, DC’s flagship team book, Justice League of America. Sales continue to be strong on this series, but there is fan grumbling about the book being forced into crossover tie-ins, which prevents McDuffie from hitting his creative stride. That may be, but even the arcs that haven’t been crossovers with other “big” series have felt…small. And this book just shouldn’t feel small. McDuffie has chops, but maybe he’s just not quite right for this book. Or maybe it’s editorial interference. Either way, this is a book that we should file under “good but should be better”.

There are other books in the DCU, of course. Superman/Batman and Batman Confidential, but those are secondary titles for those characters. Books like Simon Dark or the recently-cancelled Infinity Inc. and All-New Atom. Checkmate, which got a lot of love during Greg Rucka’s tenure but no sales; Shadowpact, which launched at the same time and just ended its similarly fan-approved but sales-starved run. Lots of miscellaneous miniseries. Oddballs like The Spirit. All-Star Superman, which a lot of fans love (despite its tardiness), and All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, which a lot of fans loathe but sells like crazy when it does come out. But none of these books really make up the heart and soul of DC Comics. The books I discussed in the paragraphs above…those are the books that are really the lifeblood of the DCU. The books by which the health of that line can be judged. And honestly…it doesn’t look that sick. Yes, there have been some big mistakes made on DiDio’s watch, but it appears that DC is making moves towards fixing those titles. And there’s nothing that can’t be fixed simply by using writers that DC already has in-house on other books.

The quality, for the most part, is there. The problem is, the sales are not. So, how to fix that?

If I was to whisper in Dan DiDio’s ear, I would tell him “no more events”. Fans are burned out, and lashing out. Make the “Final” in Final Crisis mean something. Focus on the core books, make them as good as they can be, because you’re almost there. No more weekly books for the time being either. You got lucky with 52 but crapped out with Countdown. Take the time, energy, and resources needed for a weekly book and put them into the core monthlies (and give fans’ wallets a break). Once you’re confident things are humming with the regular books, follow the “Sinestro Corps War” model for small events. Let them begin as subplots in a book, build up, and then explode. (Indications are that this model is already being employed with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman “events” this year.) Cross over to other titles only if it makes sense. If Green Lantern is selling well, and you feel you’ve got good creative teams going on Wonder Woman and The Flash but sales are slack, then let those three writers figure out a crossover that works, so you can get more eyeballs on those titles that need attention. Even if it’s only a temporary bump in sales, you might pick up enough new readers to make it work. Same thing with, say, Batman and Manhunter, or crossing Blue Beetle over with Superman and Action Comics. Smaller, focused, creator-driven crossovers are the way to go. And find a better way to market these books, because if there’s one thing that is not being laid at DiDio’s feet, it’s DC’s poor marketing, which has been mentioned as a weakness for many years.

In a lot of ways, being the editor-in-chief of either DC or Marvel is like being the head coach of a pro sports team. If you’re winning championships, you’re a genius. If you’re losing games, you’re a moron and you need to be fired. Years ago, the Utah Jazz had two superstars in Karl Malone and John Stockton, a great coach in Jerry Sloan, and were a perennial powerhouse in the NBA. Then Stockton and Malone retired, the team started to suck, and there were calls for Sloan’s job. Did Sloan forget how to coach? No, but the team needed to rebuild. Ownership stuck by him and now Jerry Sloan’s had the Jazz back in the playoffs for the last couple of years, with a young team with lots of potential.

Dan DiDio may not be a genius but I also don’t think he’s an idiot. He’s rebuilding. The signs are there. Problem books are moving in the right direction. Remember, Final Crisis has been in the works for two years. Once the Countdown train was on the tracks, there was no turning back, even after that book turned ugly; DC was locked into a year of that title and then (almost) another year of FC. There’s still work to be done, but I don’t believe that DC needs a complete turnover at this time. If, a year from now, things are still as ugly as they are today, then maybe. What they’re working on right now, today, as you read this, is what we’ll be seeing next year.

Maybe there’s so much turmoil in the offices that a change is needed; I’m not an insider so I can’t say if DiDio’s time and talent management are as lacking as some rumors indicate, but if that’s the case, then DiDio’s bosses have to make that call. But DiDio’s not the first high-level exec to go through this kind of turmoil. It was just a few years ago that Marvel EIC Joe Quesada was, quite possibly, the most hated man in comics. There were constant calls for him to be fired (some even coming from within the DC offices!), petitions for his ouster, a laundry list of things he had screwed up, rumors of creative unrest (remember the “Mark Waid fired from FF” debacle, the one that broke the internet in half?), new series failing left and right…and even though he still has his detractors to this day, you’ve gotta say that today he’s looking an awful lot like the coach who just won the Super Bowl.

But that’s just my opinion…I’m just a random dork with a blogger account. What does everybody else think?

3 comments:

Matt said...

Great article Doug. I think DC tried too hard to capitalize on events. I was excited during the buildup towards Infinite Crisis but mini after mini and than having a yearly series one after another really was too much for me. I absolutely love how you used the Jazz in your article!

Betsy said...

Sweet Yoda, this was a good post.

Mister said...

Should have guessed this was you Doug, another great post!

I started reading it, without taking any notice of who the writer was, and even though the subject matter isn't something I would be interested in, I was really engaged by the article.

It is true what they say, a great writer can make any subject interesting.