DC DIGITAL Deep Dive: Senior VP Tells how New Readers are Coming to Comics in iPad Age
CREDIT: DC Comics
The world of comic books changed considerably when a company called comiXology came along and convinced publishers like Marvel Comics, DC Comics, and others down the line to not only release their comics digitally, but do it the same day as the print versions came out. With the age of the iPad and other tablets still in the midst of dawning, that has only grown, and now publishers across the board are releasing some comics digitally first or even digital-only.
DC Comics has led the way on that front, with all-new digital-first stories coming out every day of the week. Hank Kanalz, Senior VP of Integrated Publishing (Yeah, that means he’s in charge of Digital-first amongst other for the publisher), says the digital age is just beginning, and that ultimately, it’s here to reach new types of comic book readers. In an extensive interview, Kanalz told us about who they’re trying to reach, what they have planned for the future, and even teased some specific new and returning books and a major event for two of their current series.
One of the things Kanalz confirmed is that when the recently announced Batman ‘66/Green Hornet series launches, it will not take the place of the current Batman ’66 comic. Instead, they’ll run on alternating weeks, making the series “weekly” but with bi-weekly storylines. To celebrate that, and to go with our long chat, he brought along some exclusive preview pages of this week’s Batman ’66 Chapter 30 by Jeff parker, Joëlle Jones, Nick Filardi, and Wes Abbot.
Newsarama: Hank, DC Digital seems to have carved out several good “lines” - almost their own imprints – you have the TV stuff, video game stuff, Beyond, Anthologies – do you separate these in anyway organizationally, or is it all just part of the whole for you?
Hank Kanalz: We certainly don’t separate them out as imprints, but we do try to keep an eye on what we’re doing in the digital space and why we’re doing it. If you take a look at what we have as a selection, it appeals to a very wide audience. Many of our books are very all-ages oriented, obviously you’ve seen some very game oriented or TV oriented. The idea there is to go for an audience that may not have access to a comic shop.
Nrama: Well, you bring up the all-ages thing; it seems like you are striving to have all-ages stories in the digital-first arena, whether it’s the stuff aimed directly at kids like Teen Titans Go! and Scribblenauts, or even the stories in the Beyond books and Adventures of Superman. Why is digital an important arena to drive the all-ages audience?
Kanalz: The goal I think we all have, but especially in the digital area, is to bring new customers to the medium. If we’re not getting that new customer in existing places, we have to find new places to get that customer in. Our hope is that people will come in through digital, fall in love with comics, and then go to the comic shop and pick up more. We’ve been finding that it’s happening! A lot of people are using digital for sampling, a lot of people are discovering comics for the first time through digital, because that’s all they know.
The great thing, much like when you and I were growing up, is that when you discover the comic book one place, you want more, and you go to the shop for more. So for us, it’s as wide a range as possible. Something like Teen Titans Go! is a very popular show on Cartoon Network, and also lends itself to our DC squared initiative with comiXology. It all is in service of appealing to a new reader.
Nrama: So you do see a direct connection between the digital and retail spaces still?
Kanalz: We do! A direct, positive connection. I think if you look at last year’s business, it has grown for everybody. Coming out of ComicsPRO [the retailer-publisher conference] and having conversations with the retailers there, and our own research has shown that people are really using digital for sampling. People say to the retailers that they’ve seen something online, and ask them for the book. Injustice is a great example of that for us. It was a great success last year, and continues to be a great success this year with Year 2, and it’s bringing people into shops. We hope to repeat that with Infinite Crisis, which we announced a few weeks ago. That, again will appeal to a different reader, hopefully a reader who’s new to comics as well!
Nrama: Likewise, I’ve been catching up on a lot of the DC Digital offerings, and it seems that there are more “iconic” takes of characters here – while you have, in print, primarily harder-edged heroes who struggle with morality and have major, violent encounters, in digital we seem to see more of Superman being the hero who saves the day (in Adventures, Smallville, and even JL Beyond), or a Batman who is ready to spring into action and have a zany caper. I guess my question is, how much of that is a conscious effort?
Kanalz: It’s definitely the mix of the IP, and how it falls naturally in that space. For Adventures of Superman, which people are really reacting great to, the intent was done-in-one or done-in-three. People can come in, spend 99 cents, and not have to worry about what’s happened in the fifty prior chapters. I think because of that, because of the rotating anthology style of creative teams, it naturally tends to have a broader appeal.
Something like Smallville, based on the show, it gets a little racy at times, like the show did, but it’s all rooted in the show. You have a lot of shirtless people on The CW, and you’ll see some in the Smallville comic. But it all picks up on the drama of the show for a broader appeal.
And you take a look at Batman ’66, where you have to do it in that fashion – you can’t bring a dark and gritty Adam West Batman to the table. It doesn’t work. It’s the nature of the properties.
You are obviously going to see a lot more violence and heavier storylines in Injustice, we kill off some people, Superman does some heinous stuff in the series, but again, it suits the property. People coming to read that are looking for a very particular kind of story.
Nrama: What makes digital-first more flexible for varying takes on the characters like these?
Kanalz: Again it goes back to the IP itself. Smallville gives us tremendous flexibility because of what they built in ten years of the TV series. Same with the games, with Injustice and Infinite Crisis, they get to take place in their own in-game continuity. A lot of people have likened Infinite Crisis to a mash-up of Elseworlds, and while it’s not quite that direct of a correlation, those stories inspired the game makers. So you can have Nightmare Batman fighting alongside Gaslight Catwoman. Once you do that, once you break down the infinite parallel universe walls, anything goes.
Same with Injustice, working with NetherRealm was a terrific experience for us, because it’s such a collaborative effort. And that just continued with the comic, we wanted to expand on that world. We really did approach it with an anything-goes mentality, and I think it paid off in what we presented.
Nrama: We’ll come back to Injustice in just a minute, I promise. On the flip-side, when you’re talking with Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, or Geoff Johns sometimes, is there anything you would identify about a concept that would make it more fitting to digital than print?
Kanalz: Yeah, I would think it’s that “broader appeal.” I think we have attempted and succeeded in many ways to do that with the New 52, but that at it’s core is still a shared universe, and a very intricate balance between each of those books. If you blow up Gotham in Batman, people will talk about it in Metropolis in Superman, that kind of thing.
For us, we have a different freedom, because the books aren’t interrelated. We have Justice League Beyond and Batman Beyond that are, that alternate weeks, but it’s really one series in the Beyond universe. Other than that, everything is really self-contained. The great thing about that with the conversations we have with Dan and Jim is they just say “go for it, push it.” That doesn’t mean “get bloodier” – though it might in Injustice (laughs) – it means to take advantage of the different platform and different audience.
That’s where the DC squared initiative came from – that was us using the platform, doing things in digital that we cannot do in print because of the nature of the mediums.
Nrama: Injustice had to have been a bit of a surprise in just how successful it got last year. When did you know you had a hit on your hands with it, and how did that impact your overall approach to digital-first books?
Kanalz: It’s interesting, we’ve been trying thing, timing releases differently to see what works best. Is it better to release a tie-in before the thing it’s tying into? After? Simultaneously? With Injustice we decided to do it before, and one of the reasons why is we did have some story we – meaning DC and NetherRealm – wanted to get out before the game, then leave them with the idea that there’s more to tell in the game. If you looked at the charts, it launched pretty strong, and it had great word of mouth, especially after we did what we did in the first three chapters. That really jumpstarted the whole thing – we caught some friction for doing that, but for the most part people got what was happening, and it gave the game context.
Then when the game hit and had such great reception, we found an influx of new readers for the digital comic. The great thing there was that sales ticked up for every chapter, going all the way back to chapter one! So with any series you normally see this natural decay, but for this we saw the print and digital both jump up when the game came out. Those first couple chapters ended up selling more when the game came out than in the first month when they were out. We knew we had a good story and something new, but when we saw everything jump up after the game came out, that’s when we knew we had a runaway hit.
Nrama: You’re of course expanding the video game lineup with Scribblenauts, and in a few months with Infinite Crisis – is there anything you can apply from your approach to Injustice to those two?
Kanalz: Yeah, we hope so! Some of it was lightning striking, some of it was best practices. So we have the Infinite Crisis comic launching in May, and we have a couple of ideas we’re working out for how we can enhance the print experience for that. Just because we’re working in a digital-first space and pushing things there doesn’t mean we can’t push the print too! So we’re working with Turbine on that, on something special for the print version.
There are a couple of things we really focus on. One is that it’s canon; we want people to know this is worth their while and not just a knock-off. It’s integral to the enjoyment of the game. Obviously we want people to be able to read the comic and not have to play the game to enjoy it and vice versa, but if you buy both and engage in both you’ll have a terrific experience.
Number two is making sure we cross-pollinate the audiences, making sure that the people reading the comic know about the game, and those playing the game know about the comic.
It all comes down to making sure that you have quality creative that’s canon to the property.
Nrama: Is that why you think video game based comics are catching on now, and in digital specifically for you, where they didn’t seem to translate as well in the past?
Kanalz: You know, maybe I’m the right guy or the wrong guy to ask that question! (laughs) We’ve had great success with other video game comics before the digital space. You might recall Gears of War or World of Warcraft. Those were successful for us!
We have long believed that there’s an overlap in the audiences, and we’ve long believed that there’s an untapped audience there. When we launch with digital, our assumption, which I think we’ve proven there, is that if you’re used to buying your entertainment in the comfort of your home, that’s what you’re more likely to do. So if you download your games, or you’re streaming TV, you’re going to want to do that with your comics as well. That’s the correlation I think, but it’s also the subject matter.
I also think the quality of superhero games has improved greatly over the last few years. The Arkham series is a great example, Injustice, obviously. Even some games from other comic book companies! We’ve come a long way from Superman on the Atari 2600.
Nrama: We’ve come a long way from Superman 64, let’s be honest! (laughs)
Kanalz: (laughs) Yes, absolutely! The game that shall not be named, right?
But we’ve finally realized what are the expectations of the player of a game with a superhero. Arkham really realized what it was to be Batman in a video game.
It’s interesting to me too that people have “their character.” There’s the generation that for them, John Stewart is Green Lantern, or Kyle Rayner is Green Lantern, or sticks to Hal Jordan. It’s amazing to me that some people are coming to our characters through these other mediums. For many of my son’s friends, their Batman is the Arkham Batman! But then they get turned onto the comics because they want more after the awesome game. They’ve got the movies and tune in to the tv shows. But their generation, their Batman might be Batman Beyond – and that’s cool to me. That’s what we’re tapping into, that multigenerational view of these characters.
Nrama: Well that’s a segue to the Beyond-verse if I’ve ever heard one! What did relaunching with the “2.0” moniker afford you creatively?
Kanalz: We sort of reset where we wanted to go with the series. We had a great new team on there with Kyle Higgins and Christos Gage writing and the rotation of artists. Remember, the digital schedule is a killer schedule – 20 screens, that’s 10 pages of comic book print, a week – so we have to rotate artists to keep it on time. We can’t ship late with digital!
So it did afford us, we knew we were starting 2.0 with the new creative teams, so it gave them a head start on things. It just let us go down a very different path, and people are really enjoying it. People are really responding well to the new Batman Beyond and the direction Kyle’s taking it. Both Kyle and Christos really know these characters. Beyond might not be “Kyle’s Batman,” but he knows that character, it hit that sweet spot for him when it aired originally on TV.
Nrama: And Kyle found a way to write more of his favorite character, Dick Grayson!
Kanalz: (laughs) Well, you know! He really has used the mythos though. Everything he’s bringing in fits into the canon of the show, it all works within that context. The way he decides to twist it and reveal a bit more, he gets to reveal things that were only hinted at on the show.
Nrama: Was that 2.0 jump successful enough that it’s something you’d consider continuing, effectively doing “seasons” of these like a TV show?
Kanalz: Yeah, that would be the ideal, absolutely. With us in digital, we want to experiment with so much, and we can only do so much at one time. We do plan to rotate things in and out. We have Injustice that bit of a break; again, that weekly schedule is killer. We wanted to regroup and came back with Year 2. Some things will rotate in and out. Legends of the Dark Knight ran its course, and now we have the anthology Adventures of Superman. Hopefully you’ll be calling me to talk about what we have coming after that.
You saw the announcement about Batman ’66/Green Hornet. Right now we have Batman ’66 coming out every other week, so BM/GH will come in the alternating weeks. It’ll be like we have it weekly that way.
Nrama: Oh, so Jeff Parker’s run will continue while the Green Hornet series runs, too?
Kanalz: Yeah, absolutely. So we’ll have Jeff one week – we have a couple guest writers coming in that series as well to give the busy Jeff some help, then in the alternating weeks it’s Kevin Smith and Ralph Garman. You’ll be amazed by what Ty Templeton is doing in that, by the way – this guy is just going crazy in every one of those screens. Just amazing work.
It will be DC squared as well on comiXology.
Nrama: Talking about TV properties a bit, I think Vampire Diaries surprised people a bit when it became the next TV adaptation – what made it a good fit, and has it opened the door to any other surprises you might have in store?
Kanalz: Yeah, it does open that door. The idea there is going after that new reader. I think people who buy Vampire Diaries are not your typical comic book reader. You might have some slight overlap with Smallville, but not even much there. This is something geared specifically to fans of the show, who are very dedicated. It’s an interesting one because it’s a comic book based on a TV series based on a book.
It’s episodic, weekly, much like the show. We’re actually bringing in some of the writers of the TV show to write some of the episodes of the comic – it goes back to the idea of the stories needing to matter, to be canon to the source material.
It’s again pushing it, trying something new and different. That’s not to say that it suddenly opens things up to us doing the entire CW lineup, but this one fit, in that it’s otherworldly, supernatural – it’s comic booky!
Nrama: So fans holding out for Carrie Diaries on DC Digital shouldn’t hold their breath? (laughs)
Kanalz: (laughs) No, they’ll probably pass out.
Nrama: With that in mind, I have to ask, you spoke of rotating things in and out, but with Arrow’s continued success on screen, and the (hopefully) spin-off of The Flash coming soon – any plans to get back to doing digital comics in that universe?
Kanalz: I think you’ll be calling me… but that’s all I can say today.
Nrama: One thing I thought of from you talking about using digital to try out different concepts and different characters: have you guys talked at all about doing some New 52 continuity stories in digital-first, sort of as tryouts? Like a character like Lois Lane – she has a large, vocal online fanbase – these are people who love reading Smallville because she and Clark are together and she happens to be a badass in it, too – any possibility of doing something like that, a Lois Lane story set in the New 52, or relaunching DC Presents as a New 52 book in the digital space, since the anthology format has worked so well for you guys?
Kanalz: Sure! We always talk about that. Actually a great example of that is that Lois Lane special we released. She has come up on our side, too. We’ve entertained inviting pitches on that but just haven’t yet – it made more sense to have it done in print, so they did that special. We are still young enough, we’re still figuring out more of that correlation of what makes more sense to do in digital or in print. There is so much we want to do in the New 52, and digital might afford a space to do that, but we have other things we’re experimenting with that we’re happy with right now, too. Never say never, and it is something that we talk about regularly.
I think you’ll see that the print weeklies that we’ve announced plays into the success we’ve seen in both the older print weeklies, but also in the success we’ve seen in what we do in digital with the weekly format. It’s one of those things where Dan and Jim as co-publishers look at the business as a whole and then we try different things.
So that’s a long way of saying yes, we talk about it all the time. But we have to take the business as a whole into consideration. That’s why it is still integrated publishing, it’s all part of one business.
Nrama: Any other teases (or outright announcements, I’m not stopping you!) you’d like to give our readers for what’s coming up?
Kanalz: The biggest tease is that we do rotate our content, so expect a rotation in the next three months or so. We just announced Infinite Crisis and Batman ‘66/Green Hornet, and we have a few new titles coming over the summer.
Nrama: Let me ask you to look into your crystal ball a bit. It seems inevitable that some day in the future digital sales will match and maybe even outpace print sales: how far into the future would you think that will be? Is this something that’s growing exponentially? Do you think this is a five-year plan, a ten-year? How far?
Kanalz: You know, I’ve been asked that question before, and it’s very hard to pin down that timing.
Picking apart your question, yes, the growth of digital is exponential. I think there’s more coming in the digital platforms, we’re not done with that. Obviously, when the iPad launched it really jumpstarted the growth, as did other tablets. Tablets are really the perfect way to view digital comics. They’re far more comfortable than reading on your laptop, far more enjoyable than reading on your mobile phone – though we do see that tons of people do that. So that was the game changer, and I don’t think we’re done with those platform changes yet. So depending on when that happens, that will help determine when it tips over.
But aside from that, the print market is so strong right now. And it’s growing, not at the same pace, but it is growing in parallel. Print is not dead in our world, we have a unique product where people still want that collectability. I think that’s great, and I want to continue to see both grow.
So I can’t really put a timeframe on it, I’d love for digital to match print sooner than later, but it won’t because print is so strong, and that’s not a problem to me.
Nrama: Okay, give us one specific tease of something coming up in DC Digital that you’re really excited for readers to check out! Just one!
Kanalz: Ah! That’s like picking your favorite child! I would say the Batman Beyond and Justice League Beyond crossover "Justice Lords Beyond." They will be crossing over in their storylines, and it is really outstanding. That runs from chapter 17-24 of each series, starting March 29, 2014. That’d be number one, that’ll be a lot of fun.