Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What the CMX Shuttering May Tell Us About the Future of Comics Publishing at DC

Last week's abrupt ending to DC's CMX manga line really should come as no surprise. It was always the bastard stepchild of the DC publishing family; a sub-imprint of an imprint (WildStorm) that is headquartered across the country. One imagines that the manga line was originally developed because the powers-that-be at DC saw that manga was becoming popular, and so maybe they should dip their toes in the water and see what the what was.

The only surprises about CMX closing down are a) the suddenness of it all; and b) that it took so long to happen. Most likely once Diane Nelson found out about its existence and figured out that it wasn't making any money, it was very quickly axed.

CMX never really fit in with DC before the creation of DC Entertainment, and it certainly doesn't fit in now. I've made the point previously that DC (and for that matter Marvel) are not in the business of making money from publishing comic books. Nor for that matter are they in the business of trying to get comic books into the hands of underserved readers. No, DC are in the business of exploiting their intellectual property through movies, television, licensing, etc.

Viewed in this light, the decision to shutter CMX was a no-brainer for the DCE suits. Since these were properties that DC was licensing from other entities in order to publish them, there was no chance that they could make any money off of any other exploitations. Should a movie get made based on From Eroica with Love or Emma, DCE wouldn't see one thin dime. (Sure they may see some uptick in sales of the manga, but except in an exceptional case that would not result in much revenue.)

So given this new attitude, what other moves can we expect to see in the coming months?

Look for WildStorm to stop licensing properties from movies and tv to make comics. These sorts of comics rarely sell well these days, and they fall under the same non-exploitable category as manga. There may be an exception for Warner-owned properties like Supernatural. And it's likely that DC Kids will continue to publish comics based on Looney Tunes & the various Cartoon Network shows, if only to keep a nominal toe in the comics publishing waters for those Warner-owned items. First Wave? Sales are very soft, so if it makes it out of the year I'll be surprised. Certainly when the various licenses come up for renewal I doubt there will be much reason to maintain them.

In fact, I would wager that WildStorm itself will find its days numbered. I don't think it will fall right away; Jim Lee's position as co-publisher will protect it somewhat. (If Lee had been a champion of CMX, it might have had a more graceful exit...) But when it comes right down to it there's no good reason to have a separate west coast comics publishing arm. The traditional WildStorm properties (Wildcats, Gen13, The Authority, etc.) haven't been commercial or critical successes in a long time; licensed comics days are numbered; and outside of Ex Machina (whose ending is nigh) they haven't had a creator-owned success lately either.

Speaking of creator-owned properties, their days are probably numbered as well. While I believe that most creator-owned works published by DC/WildStorm/Vertigo do have some degree of profit participation for the publisher should the work end up being exploited in other media (and likely Warner has some sort of right of first refusal for producing such things), given DCE's new explicit focus I suspect that they will opt to concentrate on properties for which they would get full participation. So unless you happen to be a creator who is also working on their mainstream company-owned titles and they want to keep you happy (e.g. your name is Grant Morrison), don't expect WildStorm or Vertigo to be terribly welcoming for your creator-owned comics in the future.

And where does this leave Vertigo? I suspect that the imprint will remain for a while. I suspect that existing creator-owned comics will be allowed to stay as long as they aren't losing a lot of money (i.e. Fables is probably safe for the time being), but new creator-owned comics will be few. With creator-owned projects likely being phased out, look for Vertigo to concentrate on the other half of their imprint, which if revamping musty DC-owned properties for an adult (or at least adult-ish) audience. Such new projects will still be tried, but if they don't catch fire don't look for even many of those to last beyond two years. You only need a handful of collected editions to make a suitable pitch for a movie or television series. So for the future of Vertigo, look towards Unknown Soldier.

In the final analysis then, what will DC Comics be up to? Publishing comics based on their existing catalog of characters. Quality, it should be noted, doesn't really matter in the equation. As long as there are comics on the racks that feature Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, etc., then the comics are doing their job of keeping those properties in the comic-buying consumer's consciousness until the next movie or tv show comes out. Expect the comics to be increasingly driven by top-down editorial mandate.

We might still get some good comics. I enjoy Jonah Hex most months, even though its continued existence is mainly due to the upcoming movie (and to some extent Dan Didio's reported soft spot for the character). But unless your comic maintains a minimal sales level, or has a champion at the VP level, or has been optioned for a movie, don't expect it to last for long in its present form.

Prices? DC is quietly instituting the Marvel-esque $4 for a standard comic, or at least testing the waters. I'll have another post about that in the (near?) future...


Ian Aleksander Adams said...

While a lot of it seems true, I can't help feeling like this post is just a little on the pessimisitc side...

I almost hope so, really - I mean, I'm sure someone over there cares if they put out crappy batman comics versus good batman comics. Even if it's just because better comics equals more interest in the movies, eventually.

Dave Carter said...

A little on the pessimistic side? I think I was being a lot on the pessimistic side...

All things being equal, would the PTB at DCE prefer to put out good comics as opposed to crappy ones? I too would hope so. But I don't think that good comics are the primary driving force for DCE right now.