You know she’s Superman’s big sister / Her X-ray eyes see through my silly ways / Superman’s big sister, superior skin and blister / It doesn’t seem surprising nowadays… yeah! – Superman’s Big Sister, written by Ian Dury, 1980.
When the news about DC Comics pulling its stuff from Diamond Distribution broke last week, we here at Pop Culture Squad — meaning reporter/editor/bon vivant Bob Harrison — covered it, as did just about every other relevant outlet. It really is that important, so much so that I’m going to proselytize the poop out of it.
There was a time, oh maybe a decade or two back, when the rumor-mongers were aroused by their own prediction that DC Comics was going to buy Diamond Distributing. Of course, this was back in the days when we had a functioning federal anti-trust department, and before DC was consumed by the AT&T Death Star.
Last week, DC announced they were no longer working with Diamond — the company that had, until a month or two ago, the exclusive right to distribute their floppy comic books. They’ve since moved over to two small start-ups, and their book product remains available through Penguin Random House, which is owned by the German conglomerate Bertelsmann.
Combined with their shift to Digital First and Digital Only, my guess is that they no longer regard the direct market as a worthy profit center… and they might be right. Comic book stores need Marvel, but DC is nice to have along to make their monthly nut.
If there’s any rationale behind this, it’s that DC is heading towards digital for the floppies and TPBs for collections., young adult and graphic novels. Of course, DC being DC and AT&T believing comics are a business no different from toothpaste, they’ll change their minds and do something else well before they get to their end-game.
Whereas Marvel doesn’t have a Digital First line as such, they are shifting some of their cancelled comics to digital only, along with their digital-only TPB-like collections.
I don’t know if there’s a final-decision-marker at DC who understands or cares about the needs of the comics shop owners. They might know their way around a spreadsheet, but most of us who have made that drive know that’s a trip fraught with potholes. They — meaning the suits from AT&T — decided the profits they receive from maintaining a retail-oriented comics publishing racket are insufficient to an acceptable return on investment. AT&T bought DC’s previous parent company, Time Warner, for a bit more than the entire United States national debt in 1985, which, coincidentally, was DC’s 50th anniversary.
DC was Diamond’s second-largest profit center, after Marvel. They sell to comic book stores, who, like the rest of us, have been suffering from the 2008 crash and, now, the Covid lockdown. Deprived of Diamond’s one-stop shopping, these folks are going to have to spend more time ordering their product, pay higher shipping costs and, most likely, get stuck with lower discounts across the board. This will have a severe impact on Diamond’s bottom line. Everybody has been operating on very thin margins, assuming they are profitable at all. A hell of a lot of comics shops have closed down the past couple years.
As for DC’s foreign sales — well, the additional shipping costs alone will force a very sizable increase in retail price, which will result in lower sales at best.
AT&T knew this before they settled upon knifing Diamond. They know the business they want to be in, and publishing new comic books certainly ain’t it.
We do not know if there is a post-Covid bookstore market. Barnes and Noble has been bleeding for over a decade. The chain looks like Borders – The Next Generation. Small bookstores were gaining steam pre-Plague but we don’t know if that will resume. But DC’s TPBs will go to whatever bookstores are left. Digital sales figures are the Manhattan Project of the comics industry, but I see no reason to believe they can sustain a major publishing line at this time.
Will DC still be around in 15 years to celebrate its 100th anniversary? It doesn’t have to be. Have you been to Montgomery Wards lately? You say there will always be Superman and Batman. Tell that to the Lone Ranger and to Buck Rogers. But make no mistake about it: DC has been put in the exact place its daddy WarnerMedia and its granddaddy AT&T want it. Whether it pulls an acceptable return on investment remains to be seen… but, just between you and me, I think we care a hell of a lot more about it than they do.
If you happen to know any DC employees who gave up their rent controlled apartments in New York City to follow their jobs out to the Left Coast… be extra polite.
Thanks and a tip of the cat in the hat to Glenn Hauman, who suffered through some of my word-dribble in a series of texts subsequently edited for reality.