DC VPs on October Sales, Vertigo & DC Characters

 

October comic sales numbers showed that DC is maintaining its strength in the marketplace despite some tough competition from the end of Marvel's Avengers vs. X-Men and their Marvel NOW! series debuts, and Newsarama's monthly chat with DC executives indicates the publisher was pleased with both their own and the industry's performance.

In our monthly chat with DC's Senior Vice President of Sales Bob Wayne and Vice President of Marketing John Cunningham, we not only discussed the sales figures released by Diamond Comic Distributors on Friday, but also the latest news from the publisher.

The executives also addressed the reactions and assumptions being made by creators and fans following the cancellation of Hellblazer and announcement of a new DCU Constantine book — even specifically calling out questions raised in a Newsarama article about the move.

Newsarama: Bob and John, let's start by just talking about what your general impressions are of the sales numbers and what you want to point out from DC's point of view as the real successes of October.

 

Bob Wayne: I would think that the big success for us would be on the graphic novel side, that Superman: Earth One Vol. 2, that was the No. 1 book in units from all the publishers that go through Diamond Comic. And Superman: Earth One was even in the Top 25 this many long months after it was first released in hardcover.

And we maintained having four of the Top 10 comics, and nine of the Top 20. And we are, you know, very pleased with our overall positioning in the market.

And we will make the caveat that our primary goal isn't to win market share every month, and that the way in which we analyze our success for publishing also includes how well we do on the book trade with Nielsen book scan, and how well we're doing on the newsstand and subscription and digital, and with all the various areas that we work with.

And we're very pleased with how our October went with the amount of competition we had from various folks, including Image placing The Walking Dead in the Top 10. That was the biggest surprise of the month.

Mr. Cunningham, do you have anything extra to add to that?

John Cunningham: No, I guess if I have a reaction to it, it's, I think if everybody can go back in the way-back machine for a year ago, when the October numbers from last year were published, I'm not sure it was Vaneta, but there were other journalists out there, "Will the industry be able to maintain this next year after the big New 52 launch?" And it's very heartening to us, believe it or not, to see those other publishers stepping up and growing the marketplace.

That is really what this is all about, is to continue to find ways for everybody to grow the total number of readers out there, and that certainly seems like that's what's going on in October of 2012.

 

Nrama: I do notice though, and obviously, in the media, we try to look at trends in the industry. It's tough not to notice that a lot of the top-selling books each month are either relaunches or are involved in some type of big event. Your two bestselling books in October were the start of “events”. You’re one month removed from Zero Month. Rotworld and H’el on Earth and Death of the Family are on the table. Given your experience, is it fair to say the standard monthly, non-event comic book adventure is antiquated? Do you think retailers and perhaps readers need the signal of “event” or “relaunch” to hold or renew interest? If only once or twice a year?

Cunningham: No.

Wayne: No, we don't. Otherwise, all the work we've done for the last two years to prepare for the New 52 initiative, we would feel as if we had wasted our time, and we don't feel that at all.

Cunningham: No, I think that sort of analysis is extremely surface and doesn't deal with the facts at all.

Nrama: What facts? What facts am I missing?

Cunningham: I don't know. I didn't hear enough of your thesis to know how that works. You're citing a couple of what you call "events," and then you're saying that that's the only thing that works in the marketplace. And I'm just not sure your what your evidence is to make that claim, so I'm not sure why I have to cite evidence to go against it.

Nrama: The top sellers for DC in October were the starts of events. And Marvel's top sellers are often either event-related comics or relaunches. Obviously, the relaunch was an event itself. And you had a lot of crossovers happening since then. I'm just wondering if, in the current marketplace, there isn't a need for an event-type label to really call out monthly comics and keep them fresh?

Cunningham: I think, again, Vaneta, you'd have to cite evidence from past months where that hasn't been the case. And I'm not sure what the Top 10 tells you about the overall marketplace in any statistical point of view.

Nrama: All right. Well, you mentioned Superman: Earth One Vol. 2 sales, but it's the only original graphic novel in the Top 10. Why does this market category seem to work for DC more than most other publishers, particularly Marvel?

Cunningham: I think that goes back to what Bob was referencing in his answer about market share. That everybody's focus always is on the Diamond charts every month, but as you would well admit, the business is growing infinitely more complex, as we've moved into the bookstore market, into the mass market.

I believe DC, for decades now, has been a market leader in understanding how to reach out, and reach outside the core comic book market, as well as maintaining that foothold there. And attract new readers and find product that is attractive in those outside, more mass merchandise markets.

And I think it's really more of a comment about how other publishers haven't followed suit or learned how to do that than it is some special secret that we know.

 

Nrama
: I'd be remiss not to mention something that a lot of people are talking about right now, and that's the end of Hellblazer. Obviously, Hellblazer and Justice League Dark co-existed for 14 months now. From a sales perspective can you give readers insight into why such a long-running title is being cancelled outright as opposed to say alternatively, Dark, Hellblazer and a Constantine title co-existing if the market would support them?

Cunningham: Well, I don't think it's quite rational to assume that the sales level of a current book would maintain if you created a second title in a different series of book. It would be great in the abstract if you could say, "Well, we can maintain a book here at this level while launching another one." But I don't think that's realistic in any way.

Nrama: So the key, from a sales standpoint, then, was "one at a time." And the more enticing one, for sales, would be in the DCU?

Cunningham: I think we've been very pleased with the reaction both critically and from fans and sales-wise with how we've used John Constantine in the DCU. And that series, as venerable as it was, has played a long time in Vertigo. And when you see more fertile, creative ground, you tend to move toward it.

Nrama: Is it accurate this perception that most of the "Dark" characters and concepts are on a one-way road back to the former DCU? That's what people are perceiving? Do you think that's accurate, that you're "moving" them over and that they're no longer Vertigo characters?

Cunningham: No, I think that people are looking at one-off decisions that are made creatively and trying to provide an overarching rubric that doesn't exist to it, which is why a lot of that delves into what I would call speculative fiction almost.

It's a business. We run it as a business. We look at titles and properties on an individual basis. I leave it to the rest of the world to come up with the overarching conspiracy theories of it all.

Nrama: Is it possible in the future we’ll see former DC characters get Mature Readers/Vertigo treatment?

Cunningham: Yeah, anything's possible. I haven't been involved and don't know of any discussions of such.

 

Nrama
: Then since we're talking speculation, that leads to the obvious question, and we’re going to ask it outright — a Sandman/Death/the Endless New 52/DCU title seems like an obvious sales opportunity. You guys already started flirting with it a couple years back. After Gaiman’s upcoming last Sandman hurrah at Vertigo, are we going to see those characters back in the DCU? Would they work in the DCU?

Cunningham: That's a bizarrely speculative question. I don't really understand it.

You could ask that about anything. "Would a book about a mature Daffy Duck work in the DCU?" I don't know.

We don't have any plans to do that. And we've been very clear about what our plans with Sandman are for the longest time now, so people can speculate about whatever they want to. Nobody can stop them from doing that. But we've been very clear that Sandman is a Vertigo property, it remains a Vertigo property. We announced the return of Sandman as a Vertigo property. I don't think we could be any more clear about this.

Nrama: So if your boss came to you and asked you, "Can you give me a reason why it would not be a good idea for DC," what would you say?

Cunningham: I don't know. What a heck of a question. I guess I'm going to respond to that by saying that framework is weird. I'm not going to tell you what I would I would tell my boss.

Wayne: It's a lot more expensive use of our time than interviews.

 

Nrama
: Editorially, few would have any issues with DC giving lower profile characters a chance, but this isn’t an editorial call, it's a sales one. So that said, it seems a Vibe or Katanna series wouldn't have very strong sales, no matter how well-written or drawn it is. Would it be fair to say some “ongoing” titles could be launched to keep the total at 52 without expectation they’ll have a long self-life? It seems to indicate this "52" number might allow you to try out things as an ongoing that maybe you wouldn't have otherwise, because you can go ahead and fill out that 52 and see what happens?

Cunningham: To me, I don't think we're doing anything different creatively, trying to explore, growing and giving voice to new characters in the New 52 than we were before. I don't think that's something endemic to the New 52 or to DC, to be frank about it.

Nrama: Bob, anything to add?

 

Wayne
: I find this whole question kind of odd. These characters all started within the construct of the DC superhero universe continuity. And they've been around for a while, and some of them have moved back. Others you're seeing the same type of case-by-case decision making we make on whether or not we're going to return a character to publication or cancel a book, or revamp a property, or change something else about the creative approach.

There's no giant, creative blanket that we're throwing over anything.

Cunningham: You use that phrase "seems to indicate," and that seems to me to be the problem here. There's an article you guys ran that says, "Sandman to DCU... question mark." As if the question mark means anything in terms of that statement. And I find it interesting, as I read through that, that ultimately, in that article it said, well, why is it notable that DC announced that Sandman will be a Vertigo comic? Because we honestly expected any future Sandman title to be published under the DC imprint. Well, you were wrong. That isn't the case. We couldn't have been more clear in announcing it.

So some of these questions sort of veer into this weird speculation that I don't understand where the basis in reality even comes from.

 

Nrama
: DC has been fairly conservative in terms of expanding variant covers, whereas your competition has pretty much removed any seal that existed on the jar after the speculator implosion of '90s. But you’re getting very aggressive with the 52 variant covers to Justice League of America #1. Is this a signal DC now has to tread more deeply into the variant/”collectability” waters to compete with Marvel with direct market retailers?

Wayne: No, it's a signal that we want to highlight the fact that this is Justice League of America, versus our other title, which is Justice League.

The idea that was suggested was we highlight that it's the Justice League of America by taking the flags of the 50 states. And the only thing that might be a stretch to some people is that, because 52 is a number with some resonance for us, we took the 50 states and added the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico to get to 52.

So it's not an incentive. And retailers don't have to hit any buying threshold to purchase the variants. They can purchase what they want of any of them, or none of them.

 

You can buy all variants just from your state. But we're also going to be offering a block set of all 52 variants, plus the standard cover, to make it easy for people to want to buy the whole set so there's no collectability chase involved with it.

We just thought it was a fun way of pointing out that this is the Justice League of America.

Cunningham: The real answer to your question is, that it would be indicative of us doing something different if we had come out with a promotion like this and done it as an incentive tied to previous purchases of previous books as a way to goose sales beyond what the marketplace can bear. That would be different for DC.

Nrama: Right. And that's something you prefer not to do?

Cunningham: When you see us do it, you'll know we don't prefer it. But I would think our long and storied history of not trafficking in those games that other people play shows that that is indeed what we do not prefer to do. Yes.

Nrama: Then to finish up, is there anything you want to point out about what we might be seeing a month from now, when we're looking at the November numbers? Anything you want to tell readers about that this month might show?

Cunningham: No, I think we're good.

Wayne: Yep.

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