Jim Lee is a very smart guy. There is no question about that. Educated at Princeton University, Lee obtained his undergraduate degree in psychology in anticipation of going to medical school. A lifelong comic fan, he decided to take a year to try and fulfill his dream of becoming a comic creator before entering medical school. From these beginnings to becoming one of Marvel best-selling artist of all-time, Lee went on to co-found Image Comics and ultimately joined DC when he sold his studio Wildstorm to the publisher in 1998. He then rose through the ranks of DC ultimately taking on the role of Co-Publisher, along with Dan DiDio, in early 2010. More recently, in 2018, DC added the role of Chief Creative Officer to Lee’s responsibilities and he become sole publisher when DiDio left DC earlier this year.
Now with news coming out of significant layoffs at Warner Brothers heavily impacting DC comics, Lee sat down with The Hollywood Reporter. His interview was originally supposed to promote the upcoming DC Fandome virtual comic convention, but it also clarified some of the rumors that have been swirling on social media about the impending layoffs and how it might affect the publisher. What is very interesting when examining the answers that Lee gave, wasn’t so much what he said, but rather what he didn’t say. I decided to take my 40 years of comic reading along with my experiences covering the industry for the last 10 years and examine what Lee has to say point by point. Does this mean I have some special insider knowledge I am dishing on here and I know better than Jim Lee? Of course not, but getting back to the intelligence of Lee, he is smart of enough to know he needs try to calm the fears of DC fans who are worried about the future and he also seems to have mastered the art of corporate speak. Ultimately only time will tell, how much of what Lee says plays out as expected and what may come as a surprise.
Is DC still publishing comics?
Absolutely. One hundred percent. It is still the cornerstone of everything that we do. 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. When we think about reaching global audiences, and we see comics as helping drive that awareness and that international brand, it’s very much part of our future.
That 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.
DC is still publishing comics and there is no reason to think this will stop EVER. The comics are relatively inexpensive to produce versus other media and they offer visibility into the DC universe. Their is also the legacy aspect, DC has been publishing them for over 80 year and I find it more likely that DC as an entity would go away completely before they would stop producing comics. The literal identity of DC is so closely tied to the comic books, AT&T would likely want to continue the publishing to maintain that identity since it comes at such a low risk financially. That being said the only time Lee specifically refers to PRINT comics he mentions that DC is looking to cut the bottom 20-25% to increase profitability. Certainly this is an aspect of DC as part of a larger corporate entity (AT&T) that is $160B in debt, but this is pinching pennies at best. His referral to the franchise brand may be the statement that has me most worried as a comic fan. Superman, Batman, Harley Quinn, no matter what character you are talking about, Warner Brothers & AT&T certainly see them as a BRAND first and the fact that they are characters that are beloved and fans are invested in doesn’t receive much consideration if any. It is simply about the financial potential of the BRAND and protecting that financial asset from damage or risk. From a creative stand point for an interconnected universe, this isn’t the most fertile ground for new and exciting stories. In fact it may lead to far fewer events and crossovers, less continuity and ultimately more generic, less exciting stories.
You now have two interim editors-in-chiefs, Marie Javins, who headed digital strategy, and Michele Wells, who headed the YA imprint. How is that going to work?
We thought it would be a great pairing to bring them together to help draft and organize the content we’re doing along these lines. Across digital, across global, we want to make sure we have diversity and inclusivity, and making it in a way that we have authenticity to the storytelling that we’re doing.
It’s really about consolidating all of our efforts and having every editors involved in all these directives and also organizing, broadly speaking, in content that is for kids 6 to 11 and then 12 to 45. It’s about consolidating format and oversight to a smaller, more concentrated editorial group.
This makes complete sense on a lot of levels. We have talked extensively over the years on The Comic Source Podcast about how different Marvel and DC treated the Publisher and Editor in Chief Role. It certainly has felt like for the last 10 years, Bob Harras was working behind the scenes in a role that involved a lot more Publisher duties, while Dan DiDio was heavily involved in the creative side of things and acted much more as an EiC than a publisher. A lot of the creative decisions DiDio made were in consultation with Lee and it certainly felt like it was Didio’s vision, with Lee’s approval,that was driving the direction of DC’s comics line. It seems with these two co-Editors-In-Chief being named, we may be reverting to a more traditional dynamic in regards to Publisher and EiC duties. The big question will be who, if any one, will replace the passion, drive and vision that DiDio brought to DC that has been missing since his departure. Still, I feel like this is a step in the right direction, Javins has the editorial experience and relationships within the comic industry itself, while Wells brings book seller experience that is invaluable to continue DC recent success in the hugely lucrative YA market.
Do you still have the title of publisher?
When the news we first dropped on Monday, there was a lot of talk of Lee leaving this role and only retaining the Chief Creative Officer. I think WB realized that they still need a face at the top and Lee’s credibility with comic fans and DC fans specifically, may help to pull them through this turmoil. More about this after the next answer.
Does your job change at all?
I have more responsibilities and more expectations than ever before. In conversations with (WarnerMedia CEO) Jason Kilar and (Warner Bros. CEO) Ann Sarnoff and my boss, (Warner Bros. global brands and experiences president) Pam Lifford, they have some very ambitious goals for DC and I’m excited to be a part of that. In that respect, there is more on our plate than ever before.
I will continue to be involved as intimately with publishing as I have from the get go. Nothing has changed there. And that’s to focus on the creative content, the content strategy how many books we should be publishing, the formats.
We are bringing in a general manager to the organization. My role, the way it was envisioned 10 years ago, was that I would always have a partner that would focus on the operational side. The general manager we’re bringing in has a wealth of marketing experience, global partnership experience, general business development experience. That person will start in September.
Lee, who has always had a strong work ethic, seems like he will be stretched thinner than ever before. I do find it interesting that part of the reason he sold Wildstorm to DC was to have the freedom to get back to do more art and to have less of the responsibility of being a comic publisher. Now we learn he will have more administrative tasks than ever. How will it be handled of the mandates of Pamela Lifford are not met? What happens if the changes at DC don’t result in the gains WB and in turn, AT&T expect? Would they dismiss Lee? Will he decide to leave to once again focus on his artwork or just escape unrealistic corporate expectations? Time will tell, but what is clear is that the role of publisher and CCO, as it pertains to Lee and along with these new implied responsibilities is too much work for him to handle on his own. The general manager, referred to here, is rumored to be someone from the world of ESports. This had many people worried, but it might actually be a boon to the publisher as it sounds like the skills he is bringing are needed. Also the fear many had was that someone with no comic experience would be guiding the line, but that does not appear to be the case.
Do the layoffs or reorganization mean that planned comics are still happening? Are the comics that would have been announced at FanDome still happening?
There is no pencils down notice. Everyone has been notified to keep working on all the projects that we’ve already greenlit and started. To that extent, there is no change.
This is also not surprising given how much lead times changes in the line need due to the unique creative process of comics. It also should be noted that even though we just learned that several titles are ending in November, those decisions would have been made months ago. It may, in fact, have more to do with the 5G initiative spearheaded by Dan DiDio that would have restarted many titles than anything else. We know that idea for a new direction on the DC universe was abandoned when DiDio left, but the planned ending for these books may have remained
DC in the spring broke away from Diamond as its distributor and signed with two new companies. Some people said at the time it would be a mistake. How has it fared?
Not only has it exceeded our initial expectations, but the size and strength of the business is that same level or higher than pre-COVID. There was a lot of fear mongering out there about another Heroes World type of debacle that occurred decades ago; there is nothing further from the truth. Things have transitioned very smoothly — that’s not to say there aren’t kinks that need to be worked out. UCS and Lunar, they’ve done an amazing job transitioning all the content we produce and putting it into new pipelines and getting it to retailers.
And we’ve gotten some tremendous numbers on some of recent books. We’re back to press on the Joker War storyline that has been running in Batman. Multiple printings on that. In fact, every issue since its launch has gone up in numbers and you know how hard that is. Usually when you launch, you start big and the numbers go down. But here it’s climbing issue to issue. We got our numbers for Three Jokers and the first issue sold over 300,000 copies. And that’s an $8 book. That’s a gigantic number for having new distribution.
This wasn’t about taking our distribution business and placing it the hands of two entities, it was about, “What can we do together to do things that were never contemplated before.” Things that we would love to do to grow the physical market.
This coincides with what I have been hearing from many retailers. Sales are up as people seem a bit starved for some normalcy in these uncertain times. Back issues have also been heating up to a degree even higher than new issues. It is also worth pointing out that the moves by DC to get the distribution pipeline for comics up and going again as soon as possible after Diamond distributing shut down, led to them being better prepared to have books ready to go than Marvel. Marvel still is no where near catching up with the back log of books that they missed during the shutdown. It is easy to see how the lack of Marvel titles helped push DC sales higher. Also I say that I know some retailers have had issues with the two new distributors, but that is the other side of the pipe that DC is not directly involved in. Obviously they want it all to run smoothly, but it really is up to UCS & Lunar to resolve those issues with retailers. Diamond Distributors was lamented by many retailers over the years for so many problems with shipping & damages. Many felt their monopoly was unhealthy and when DC moved away from that retailers still complained. In the long run this is good for the industry and the move away from Diamond was a long time coming, it was not a decision made lightly. Though the timing wasn’t great, but DC exclusive contract with Diamond was up and the time was now.
One rumor I heard this week is that DC is going to only sell trades and OGNs and make a deal with Marvel for them to publish DC’s comics.
(Laughs.) There is nothing further from the truth in that. I don’t know where you would even connect those dots. Why would we ever do that?
Another ridiculous internet rumor, the value in the DC brand is that of it’s characters. Licensing them to their competition is the equivalent of killing the golden goose. However, I will point out that I believe Lee’s answer to this question specifically pertains to the back half of this question and does not address the move away from weekly periodicals to trade paperbacks and original graphic novels. That being said, as stated earlier, I would not expect the weekly comics to ever stop, though there will be a change in the way comics are distributed and we could very well see an increase in TPB’s that would be physical copies of an increased digital presence. Likewise, some shorter series that may once have been released as a 6 to 10 issue run could transition to the original graphic novel format.
What about the rumor that AT&T hates comics and wants to get out of the comic business?
I don’t think they want to stop us from publishing comics. Comics serve a lot of different purposes and one of them is it’s a great way to incubate ideas and creating the next great franchises. We want to continue that. Why would you want to stop that? Why would you want to stop creating great content that could be used across the greater enterprise?
This seems to be the statement that has many fans up in arms. While I don’t share their worry, this does seem to be a very political answer. It is also a practical one. At the end of the day DC is a business and needs to make money. That means constantly searching for new markets and new ways to reach old markets. It also means new characters and ideas, that DC hopes is the next Harley Quinn or Deadpool. It feels like there is some gate keeping going on here and while I don’t condone it, with all that comics fans have had to endure recently, I understand it.
What is going to happen to DC Universe?
The original content that is on DCU is migrating to HBO Max. Truthfully, that’s the best platform for that content. The amount of content you get, not just DC , but generally from WarnerMedia, is huge and it’s the best value proposition, if I’m allowed to use that marketing term. We feel that is the place for that.
In regards to the community and experience that DCU created, and all the backlist content, something like 20.000 to 25,000 different titles, and the way it connected with fans 24-7, there is always going to be a need for that. 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.
The history and development of the DC Universe streaming service deserves a 5000 word article all on it’s own. I always felt the content beyond the comics, was never a good fit and a losing proposition for DC. It simply does not have a big enough footprint to warrant it’s own streaming service. DC Universe as a digital comics subscription service analogous to the hugely successful Marvel Unlimited makes much more sense. I know some may feel it is disingenuous to keep saying DC Universe is not going away as a way to save face when all that’s left is the comics, but it is technically correct. This is what I expected from the moment I heard about the HBO Max streaming service. Warner Brothers doesn’t need two.
What is the future of DC Direct?
When we started, we were one of the first companies, if not the first, to go out and create a business that catered to that specialty market. That success has brought in a lot of competitors and a lot of companies that are now in that space. So it’s about evolving the model. 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. We still have our principal lead of DC Direct, Jim Fletcher, with the company. He will be showcased in a fun panel with J Scott Campbell at Fandome.
Not much to add here, except there was a good chunk of years where DC Direct was producing the best collectibles on the market and it wasn’t even close. A bit sad to hear they are folding up shop, but in all likelihood Warner Brothers feels it will be more profitable to license out these types of products. Another item where time will tell if this was a smart move or not.
Where do you see DC in two years?
You’ll definitely see more international content. You’re going to see more digital content. When you talk about growing our business, both physical and digital, to me the opportunities are global. That’s what we’ll be focusing on. Sometimes that takes the form of content that we take here and translate and sell in other marketplaces, but we want to partner with creatives in various territories and unlock stories that feel authentic to their marketplaces with characters that they can embrace as their own, and look for opportunities to take those characters and seed them throughout all our mythology.
With digital, that’s more of a windowing issue, meaning we’ll go out there with digital content and the stuff that performs well in digital also performs well in print. A good example of that is Injustice, the digital comics that tied into the video game. When that came out, it was the best-selling digital comic of the year, it outsold Batman. And brought a lot of adjacent fans into our business. And when we took that content and reprinted it in physical form, we sold hundreds of thousands of units. It was as big of a hit in physical as in in digital.
We’re using that as a model as we go out and do more digital content. We’ll take the most successful books and repackage it as physical books .I think there is definitely business to be had in physical periodicals. But that said, I think there’s greater upside in digital because we can go to a more global audiences and the barrier to entry, especially in this pandemic, is lower. It’s a lot easier to get digital content into the hands of consumers that want to read stories. We want to lean into that and think thoughtfully what digital content should be, what it should look like, the format.
Once again it is all about profitability. Warner Brothers is looking to get there characters out there to connect with people even more. A global presence and knowledge of these characters and stories can then drive audiences to film and TV the way the MCU has and result in huge profits for the company. Make no mistake, that is the goal of the higher ups at Warner Brothers. The digital landscape of publishing allows for content to be created and released more quickly, it allows editorial to pivot and highlight hot characters and abandoned others that are less well-received quickly. It offers much less overhead and logistical maneuvering. No printing, no shipping, low cost and easily tracked sales are all benefits to this model from a corporate perspective. Whether old school comic fans like it or not, digital will continue to grow and it appears DC is determined to be at the forefront.