DC Comics Co-Publisher Dan DiDio spent his birthday hosting his traditional conversation panel Sunday at the New York Comic Con.
The panel began with DC's Vice President of Marketing John Cunningham airing a retrospective on DiDio's life, opening with a black-and-white picture of DiDio as an infant and continuing with embarrassing photos of him as a choir boy and another dressed "in the John Steed collection."
DiDio said as he approaches his 12th year at DC Comics, it has been interesting moving from animation and children's programming to publicity. In particular, he said the animated series Reboot prepared him for comics life, particularly creators trying to "put one over on me" and "sneak things past me."
"I was the guy who had to make the phone call to say the show was cancelled," DiDio said. Yet when Reboot was originally cancelled, the series wound up being relaunched in Canada, where he was hired to be the story editor on the series. He wound up doing Mainframe, Beast Wars, Max Steele, Action Man and more. "It was a great time - for the one show with Reboot, where nobody wanted to do computer animation, by the time I left, everybody else wanted to do it that way."
DiDio then relayed how he met Paul Levitz, who was looking for someone who both knew comics and would "shake things up" at DC Comics. "I saw a monolithic machine that couldn't be moved," DiDio said. He described DC Comics as a company that was amalgamated from many smaller companies, ranging from Fawcett all the way to Wildstorm.
"Batman and Superman works differently from the Charlton characters and the Wildstorm characters," Didio said, saying that many of these characters felt like they were "grinding together." "We needed to start things off from the same place, and that's eventually where Infinite Crisis came from."
He explained that he and Levitz wound up looking at the first five years of Marvel Comics to see how they had a coherent voice, citing much of that to Stan Lee's stewardship.
"We wanted our characters to come together organically, and move from there," DiDio said. He said that originally he did not even expect to become Executive Editor, and planned to originally leave after just a year at the company.
DiDio said that working "in the trenches" with Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka and Judd Winick was a highlight for him. "They brought a can-do attitude to everything," he said.
He also relayed the story of Batman: Hush. He was originally saw it as a prestige book - because they have better paper and are not in continuity - but Jim Lee insisted that it take place in the main Batman book. That book gave DC the breathing room to rethink their approach, DiDio said. Then when Superman/Batman came out, that was two books that broke the top ten.
DiDio saw Infinite Crisis and its countdown books as "an eye-opener," particularly in terms of killing a character while making readers love them, citing Ted Kord and Stephanie Brown as examples. "Sometimes their best isn't going to be good enough," DiDio said. "A Blue Beetle can't do the same things as a Superman or a Batman or a Wonder Woman can, but he'll try... the message is, these heroes are vulnerable."
The conversation then came to Identity Crisis, particularly the controversial scene where Sue Dibny was raped by Dr. Light. "There wasn't anybody at DC Comics that wasn't nervous about it," DiDio said. "We wanted to do a story that was big and impactful... we feel we told that story in the way that was the most powerful way, but also the most respectful."
DiDio said that apathy was his biggest enemy, not people who "drop comics every week we change the colorist on Batman" - the people who lose interest are the ones who fade away and are difficult to bring back.
He then relayed a story where Paul Levitz came into his office at 4:00 PM in the afternoon, saying he didn't like the names of the titles on many of the books. The DC editorial team scrambled to come up with new titles (and contact the various creators) to put out new title names in one hour.
DiDio said that Wonder Woman killing Max Lord almost didn't happen - the art had so many issues, they wound up moving with five pencillers and eight inkers. But the storytelling was so strong, DiDio said, that very few people said anything.
Looking back at 52, DiDio said that the goal was to illustrate the big sweeping changes of the "One Year Later" gap. Yet looking back on it, DiDio said there was not much story to stretch over 52 guaranteed issues - but with four superstar creators like Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka and Mark Waid, they would create something. The process often took some big surprises, including Hawkgirl being turned into a giant. "Sometimes you just have to let it take place on its own," DiDio said. He said that Kevin Maguire said "the book sold so well because everyone wanted it to fail - everyone was buying it because they wanted to see if it would crash and burn."
The conversation then moved to Grant Morrison's successes, particularly Seven Soldiers and All-Star Superman. The challenge for All-Star Superman in particular was to come up with a Superman story that was actually relevant. "I wasn't a huge fan of Grant's work, believe it or not," DiDio said, saying he did not buy Morrison's landmark run on JLA because he didn't like the electric blue version of Superman. Yet once he met Morrison, they immediately hit it off. "The one thing you find about Grant Morrison is that he is such a big fanboy, from top to bottom... it's not about his books, it's about the industry itself," he said. "When we brought Grant Morrison into the room for 52, that was a big moment."
Morrison's run on Batman, particularly with Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis, then came up. "When he walked in the door and he pitched his Batman story, everything up to Damian dying was in his plan - it was originally a five-year-plan that maybe got stretched to six years," DiDio said, adding that the only minor tweaks were that Damian was originally going to be a clone.
"The worst thing that you can be is a writer whose literary experience is only other comics," DiDio said. "If you do that, you will only be a photocopy of what comics have come before." DiDio said that Morrison has so much experience that it has really informed his writing.
DiDio said that he always felt comfortable working with writers, but that artists always made him feel uncomfortable. "They think differently, they do things differently," DiDio said. He recalled hosting a party for some artists, bringing chips and beer... and everyone wound up just sitting, heads down, drawing quietly. "After about half an hour, I just left, I didn't know what the hell was going on." The next day, all the artists involved said it was one of the best parties they had been to in a long time.
DiDio then brought up Art Director Mark Chiarello, who DiDio said put together Batman: Hush and spearheaded Wednesday Comics. He said that a creative team dropped off Wednesday Comics, and so Chiarello approached him to work on something. DiDio said he'd always wanted to write for the Metal Men - so when Chiarello said that he would be working with Jose Garcia-Lopez, he was ecstatic. When he met Garcia-Lopez, the artist said, "oh, you know my work?" DiDio said that experience was a personal highlight for him.
The conversation then went to the New 52. "It constantly had to reboot for one reason - Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman really can't change. We built a generational universe in DC - Green Lantern, the Flash, we built this generational universe, but we're not going to make Nightwing Batman forever. So they got older and older with all these characters around them... it felt like a missed opportunity," DiDio said. "75 years of storytelling? It can't be told together. So we have to restart a little bit."
DiDio said that they were in a retailer meeting, and they learned that no company - not DC, not Marvel - had put out a book that had topped 100,000 copies in six months. The companies were trapped in a loop of increasing the prices to keep the revenue static, but that continued to shred readers. There was a school of thought that went for higher-priced comics, but "that's not how you stay in business," DiDio said. The danger, he added, was that it is easy to be seduced when you get comics for free. There was a sobering conclusion to the meeting, when a retailer said "I hope we're even in business next year."
The idea of a new #1 issue was not new, DiDio said, but relaunching the entire line - including Action Comics and Detective Comics - was a risky move, but one he saw as necessary. Some books worked, and some didn't, DiDio admitted, but the success of Justice League signalled a change to the industry. "I know there's an older audience - I'm one of them, but that shouldn't be the only audience I'm catering to," he said. "There's 100,000 kids out there - that's the future... I need those new kids to buy that new stuff. I need to be selling to them." He added that "we can't take you for granted, because if we do, you'll leave... we can't take anything for granted at any time."
Everybody upped their game, DiDio said, who said that the conversation should be about the industry as a whole, not just a DC-vs.-Marvel mentality. Referring to the output of Marvel and Image, "We can't do half the books that they do, in terms of style and sensibilities," DiDio said.
DiDio then discussed working with Vertigo, and in particular Neil Gaiman, who said he wouldn't return to Sandman until he actually had a story for it. "When you get the phone call from Neil Gaiman saying 'I've come up with the Sandman story,' that's like winning the lottery," DiDio said. He also praised Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire, who also came through the Vertigo ranks.
The floor was then opened for audience questions. The first was about DC Comics' stance on marrying their characters.
"There are rules and there are exceptions," "When we speak, we have to speak in generalities... we're telling superhero stories. When comics were at their biggest peak, the personal lives of the characters were at their smallest. I don't want to read a book about a marriage. What I want to read is how people are trying to balance all the aspects of their lives," DiDio said. "There has to be a sacrifice to being a hero - if not, why isn't everyone in this room going out and saving somebody from a burning building?"
The same fan then brought up the Flash, saying that he spent a lot of time married and still had superhero adventures. "We're not saying we're not going to have married characters in the DC Universe - that's ridiculous," DiDio said. "But we're two years into a new continuity - why rush things?"
Another fan said that many of DC's events affected female characters, disabled characters and characters of color. "We have the most female-lead books than any other publisher," DiDio said, citing Batgirl, Batwoman, Birds of Prey, Catwoman and Katana. DiDio said that his sister - who used a wheelchair - was the person who brought him to his first conventions. She passed away when DiDio was young, but he said "I still carry her with me."
What is the timetable regarding printing single issues versus a trade or hardcover? Cunningham explained that much of the shifting windows come from the challenges of relaunching their universe, since instead of having staggered release dates, everything came out at the same time.
A fan asked about recent high-profile departures of creative talent, including the departure of Batwoman writers J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman. DiDio said that historically, creators have always "I'm not saying we always make hte right choices - quite the opposite, sometimes we make some very bad choices," he said. "The question always is - will it be better for the book? If the art isn't good enough for the book, change the art. If the colors aren't good enough, change the colorist. If the story isn't working, change the writer." Yet he said that they did not want to pull people off books immediately, because that is a creator's financial livelihood, but sometimes creators aren't right for the book. But he said he was very happy with everyone working on the books right now.