didio nycc 2013

While I attended many panels over the course of New York Comic Con 2013, I’ve chosen to start with the ones that will matter most to you guys. With that in mind, I’m going to fast forward to Sunday Morning.

On the tail end of the convention, Dan DiDio, Co-Editor of DC Comics held a surprisingly intimate discussion about his tenure, the directions that DC has and will be heading, and his thoughts on the state of the brand – and on his birthday, no less!

The panel opened with a brief celebration, the assembled fans singing happy birthday to the controversial captain of the comics giant.

From there, John Cunningham, VP of Marketing for DC, took us on a retrospective of DiDio’s life and career, starting with a baby picture and taking us through his first rejection, some questionable fashion choices, his tenure over the incredible ReBoot, and to the beginning of his time at DC. That’s where things started to get interesting.

DiDio is a highly polarizing figure in comics, drawing all manner of hate from many contingents. It is admittedly hard for many to transfer that level of outrage from a monolithic figure to the man in the cap that sat before the audience, but the panel neither cemented his status nor absolved his many unpopular decisions. What it did do was provide some fascinating context.

The meat of the panel began with DiDio’s first major event, “Infinite Crisis”, which he called his proudest achievement at the company. DiDio immediately set a tone of honesty and frankness, explaining that Infinite Crisis grew out of the effects of DC’s formation. DiDio reasoned that the fusion of National, Detective, and All-American Comics into a shared universe was flawed, lacking the synergy of the later Marvel titles. “Infinite Crisis” was an attempt to smooth out the edges of this patchwork universe, though he sadly did not provide examples.

He spoke further on the mega-event, discussing how it was emblematic of changes within the company. DiDio cited “Batman: Hush” as the pivotal moment that set the stage for Infinite Crisis. Before “Hush”, he told us, the company was moving more and more towards artist books and graphic novels; “Hush” proved that monthly books could bring that same star power to bear. Once editorial realized that, they couldn’t be satisfied with how things were and set about updating their toy box.

“Infinite Crisis”, somewhat unsurprisingly, was DiDio’s baby but, for a time, it looked as though he wouldn’t be involved with it. DiDio told us that he had been planning to leave the company until Paul Levitz came to him and asked him to say. Levitz believed that this story needed DiDio to succeed, and once it was done, DiDio was entrenched. With a good-natured chuckle, the publisher joked how close we were to being rid of him.

He took a moment to discuss one of the Crisis’ most famous moments, the death of Ted Kord, saying that it was an example of heroism and realism meeting. To DiDio that upsetting instant was about proving that there could be consequences – that not every hero has an answer to every situation – but that a hero faces those moments with the same courage, regardless.

Where many saw cheep stunts designed to leverage popular low-level characters, DiDio saw proof that DC had succeeded in making people care about their characters. He said that he was very proud of the love that the company was able to inspire for characters like Ted or Stephanie Brown, as evidenced by the outrage following their deaths. DiDio even went so far as to say that Kord’s death was “everything that they hoped.”

As if unsatisfied with poking a wound that had mostly healed, each of the aforementioned deaths leading to seminal runs, DiDio looked back at “Identity Crisis”, namely the rape of Sue Dibny. He insisted that no one involved took that story lightly, assuring the crowd how carefully the scene was plotted and proudly stating that he was very happy with how respectfully it was handled. It’s an opinion that strongly differs from that of many fans, and it could even be mistaken for complete ignorance  of the controversy, but a statement that the care taken in writing that scene was based in the knowledge that “you shouldn’t do this in comics” makes it clear that they understood the dangerous ground they were treading on.

Moving on from “Infinite Crisis”, DiDio answered questions about the subsequent period and its significant changes to the brand. 52 was another feather in DiDio’s cap, but it was far from certain. DiDio gleefully admitted that 52 was a late addition to DC’s lineup, an opportunity too good to pass up: a year-long gap in the timeline.

What DC tried to obscure at the time was that they had no idea what happened in that missing year.

Even after the weekly series started, plot points were frequently drawn from the cover images as the writers’ ideas morphed and changed. It’s the sort of thing that could have ended in disaster, but DiDio seemed to relish the challenge, holding utter faith in the four superstar writers, at least in hindsight. Looking back, he said that Greg Rucka’s Question story held a special place in his heart and spoke fondly of the madness in the DC offices. Despite the care with which he timed the story beats of “Infinte Crisis,” reportedly demanding a big moment every three months, Dan’s fond memories of the unbridled creativity and down-to-the-wire jam sessions were impossible to disguise.

Cunningham’s next questions were about Grant Morrison and his arrival and rise at DC, which paralleled DiDio’s. The jolly executive simply answered that he was the only one in the office who could decipher Grant’s accent, a gift from some Scottish coworkers on ReBoot. It was that strange and simple advantage that Dan credited with facilitating the strong relationship between he and Morrison.

Morrison worked closely with DiDio on 52 and pitched an ambitious Batman story that would drive the entire company until its 2011 relaunch. According to DiDio, Morrison’s original pitch largely reflected the story we got, but he admitted that, in Grant’s design, Damian was ‘’just a clone.”

In contrast with his relationship with Morrison, DiDio admitted that he “doesn’t get artists.” He illustrated his point with a story about one late night artistic jam session that he attended to show support. The artists sat around a table, DiDio told us, dead silent, seemingly immune to the food he brought. Eventually he just left, feeling as though he were a ghost at best and a distraction at worst. He chalked it up to deadlines, but the next morning the artists were all talking about what a great time they had and how much fun they had working together.

That incident proved to DiDio that there was a world he simply wasn’t in touch with. Luckily for him, he said, he has the aid of Mark Chiarello, DC’s art director, whom he credits with much of the company’s successes.

Cunningham then turned to the New 52. DiDio answered with complete confidence and a twinge of sadness that he had been sitting in a meeting with a number of retailers when it was brought up that no monthly comic had broken the 10K copy mark in months. Hearing one retailer admit that he’d be out of business if things didn’t change, DiDio knew that something had to be done to reinvigorate the industry.

The obvious answer he heard was to raise prices, but that would lose new readers. “It’s easy to raise prices when you get free comics,” he chuckled, referring to the comp copies that DC employees receive. Without fresh eyes coming to comics, he reasoned, stores would go out of business, requiring further price hikes and further troubles. That couldn’t be the answer.

Simultaneously, DiDio felt that there was a problem with DC’s brand. As he had mentioned, DC differed from Marvel in that their characters weren’t designed to work together to make a single universe. Time changed certain characters, but left others alone; the need for iconic versions of DC’s trinity (Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman) ensured that those three characters would always strain against their longer histories. Effectively the DCU had become a world of legacy characters, Hal Jordans and Wally Wests, leaving the trinity feeling old and static.

The answer was to completely remake the DC Universe, creating a single, stream-lined continuity that would encourage new readers, revitalize the trinity, and clear out the complications that weighed down the brand.

When the New 52 started, DC was adamant that this was not a reboot. Many fans felt that this was semantics. For many, the New 52 was too different to remain connected to the previous continuity and the changes were too arbitrary. DiDio saw things completely differently. I his view the New 52 wasn’t a reboot because it was a complete reimagining, too different to be a reboot, not too similar. “Marvel does a new #1 every week,” this needed to be bigger than that.

DiDio took a moment to mourn the old DCU, admitting that he has at least one-hundred long boxes in his basement from before he started working at DC. In the end though, it came down to what was best for the brand. Much as he loved what had come before, DiDio told us that it was important to him that the next generation of readers had a DCU that was for them.

He acknowledged that the line had not been a universal success, but attributed that to the industry. “Some things work, some things don’t,” he said with a shrug, “you know how it was before the New 52? Some things worked, some things didn’t.” No matter the ups and downs of it, DiDio called it a success, citing increased numbers, greater involvement of lapsed readers, and an increase in quality at other publishers that he perceived as in response to DC’s leadership.

DiDio briefly touched on Vertigo’s role, as Cunningham brought up the cover to Sandman Overture. DiDio stressed the importance of bringing in writers who aren’t already at the company. He also surprised me by claiming that Neil Gaiman had called him with the idea after many unsuccessful attempts by DC to commission further Sandman stories.

The floor then opened to questions.

The first to the mic inquired how DiDio reconciled DC’s attempt to provide the ‘most iconic’ version of a character with their recent ‘no marriage’ policy, given the long-lasting marriages of characters like Barry Alan and Aquaman.

“There are rules and exceptions,” DiDio began. “These are superhero comics…I don’t want to read a book about a marriage,” he said, balancing that statement with a preference for stories that look at how the heroes juggle their duties with their personal lives. DiDio then, somewhat surprisingly, turned on the marriage ban. As a publisher DC has to speak in generalities, he told us, and press releases and official statements are bad at expressing subtleties.

“It’s ridiculous to make that statement,” he said in reference to the idea that there will be no marriages at DC.

DiDio explained that the possibility of marriage is still very much on the table but that it would take a very particular story to take advantage of it, Jeff Lemire’s Animal Ma, for instance. DiDio reminded us that most of DC’s heroes had been aged down, making them a bit young to settle down, and that the New 52 was designed to be the DC Universe for a long long time. “we’re two years into the new continuity,” he argued, “Why do you want to get to the end – not that marriage is the end!”

The next question came from a female fan who asked why most of DC’s events in the last ten years had raped, killed, depowered, or erased female, disabled, or characters of color. A good-natured DiDio answered, “I think we have strong diversity.” The co-publisher pointed out that DC had the highest number of female led solo-series of any company. He also dug into his past again and revealed that his wheelchair-bound sister was the one who first brought him to comic conventions and got him reading. “She passed away very young, but she was my inspiration.” He closed out his answer with assurances that DC is making every effort to be inclusive.

The next question was about the series of high-profile falling outs between DC and various creators. DiDio responded that this was a part of working in comics, but that social media has greatly increased the profile of such instances. He cites old issues of Comics Journal which he claims contain letters from creators with similar complaints as we see today.

DiDio seemed eager to answer more questions, but the panel had run over time. He did stick around to talk to fans, however, first in the room and then outside.

One fan in particular caught my eye. A young woman approached DiDio and asked if Renee Montoya would return to DC. DiDio seemed troubled by the question, unable to answer as he wished. “We’re waiting for the writer who can write her best,” he told her. Perhaps knowing that Greg Rucka, far and away the most prolific and acclaimed writer for the character, had been rather unapologetic in his statements about DC that weekend, the young lady sunk a bit and began to move on. Before she could leave the mob in front of DiDio’s table, however, he called her back. He beckoned her in and whispered into her ear. A moment later, she stepped away and begin to tear up. Concerned, another girl and I followed her and asked if she was ok. “He just made me so much better,” she answered.

It was not what I was expecting to hear.

I followed Dan out and waited for the crowd to die down. As I did, I found myself next to a young woman dressed as Zatanna. We started talking and it was fascinating to hear her view on the panel. She described herself as a big fan of tumblr and very critical of DiDio, however she had been stunned by the difference between the faceless corporate overlord she knew on the internet and the man on stage.

It was certainly an impressive transformation. It made me think back to the question about female representation at DC. Especially with such a small crowd, I expected that most of the attending fans were critics of DiDio eager to hear justifications. Nonetheless, the crowd had subtly but undeniably sided with DiDio when he and his track record on diversity were challenged. I can’t help but wonder how many of them were converts.

Zatanna told DiDio how impressed she was with him and how upsetting it was to see him portrayed so negatively online. She even offered, perhaps rather cleverly, if she could start a DC tumblr for him. DiDio thanked her and informed us that there are corporate limits to how much he can interact with the fans online. He also surprised me by revealing that he generally has to stick to a script when answering questions from fans. I had always assumed that, as co-publisher, he outranked the people writing press copy and was, therefore, free to say what he wished.

When my turn came, I wished Dan a happy birthday and asked him what he thought the minimum age was for a New 52 reader. He answered that it was probably around fourteen. Citing his statement about the relaunch appealing to the next-generation of comic fans, I asked him what he suggested for readers under that age. I paused to say that I understood the difficulty of getting younger readers into comic stores but, in an interesting turn, DiDio suggested that they read Marvel comics.

Without a hint of condescension in his voice, DiDio suggested that children and tweens would get Marvel comics from their parents, but would come to DC when they had their own money. DiDio felt that kids would view Marvel as their parents’ comics and explore this new universe on their own.

With that I thanked Mr. DiDio and moved on.

This was certainly one of the more enlightening panels I attended over the weekend, but in many ways it also raised questions.

When I was in college, I held the perception that Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison were the driving creative forces at DC and that they were driving towards Silver Age nostalgia. DiDio seemed to me a corporate entity, secondary to these powerful writers who he employed.

If even half of what he said in the panel was true, I was hugely mistaken about DiDio. Far from the voice of reason, DiDio made it very clear that he was just as much a fanboy for these characters as Johns or Morrison.

It was fascinating to hear DiDio talk about and defend the choices he’s made as a publisher at DC. To me, his answers portray a man less arrogant or crusading than occasionally tone-deaf to the complaints of his critics. At times DiDio would respond with intelligent, thoughtful answers to perceived flaws in his management, but most of these contained or were followed by a moment that betrayed a certain sincere lack of understanding.

DiDio’s thoughts on the New 52 were a fine example. While DiDio understands that the change alienated a large portion of the ‘core fandom’, whatever that means, he seemed to be under the impression that they were upset at the severity of changes and the attempt to draw in younger fans. That’s a reasonable reaction to some very present issues in the comics community, however you’ll find many more readers who have taken issue with the half-baked nature of the reboot and the sense that it favors older, more conservative fans.

There were a number of moments like this, where DiDio responded to concerns that ranged from minority opinions to flat-out misreads of popular complaints. I can’t fault his apparent attempts to answer his critics, but answering requires the speaker not only to listen but to hear. It was a strange Mr. Magoo-esque affair where DiDio seemed likable yet somewhat oblivious.

Of course, there will be those out there who insist that DiDio was insincere, but I don’t feel in any way qualified to make that call. I will say that he seemed remarkably honest, however the number of misunderstandings that his statements require is astonishingly high.

Reflection on Mr. DiDio’s statements has led me to a couple of hunches.  Firstly, I think it is highly apparent from this panel, and from others that discussed DC and their current policy, that DiDio prefers controversy to apathy. Like Beast Boy at his worst, DC seems to be happy to be hated so long as it has our attention. Comments about the success of Stephanie Brown’s death in the same weekend that her return was announced highlighted DiDio’s lighting rod strategy quite clearly.

It also seems that there was a colossal misunderstanding about what the New 52 is. DiDio’s statements suggest that it was intended to be a full line-wide restart, much like the original Post-Crisis stories, however, a sense of familiarity in popular titles convinced many readers that the relaunch had taken an ‘if it ain’t broke’ approach. Ever since DC has slowly revealed how few of the stories we know still stand and each time there’s been a contingent of fans who are upset, annoyed that something else has been taken away or frustrated that a crucial structure has been removed without explanation of how the current story can exist alone. It seems possible that each time this happens DC is confused as to why fans expect that things are the same.

But while this is a possibility, it still doesn’t explain why the company is so bad at understanding the often eloquent complaints of its fanbase. I think that that’s really what leads so many to assume malicious intent. After all, would DC rather be cruel or clueless? DiDio makes a case for each and it’s hard to say which he prefers or which the fans prefer.

Overall I think it was a good panel for Mr. DiDio, allowing him to present himself in a human light and give more fully realized responses to complaints than we’ve previously gotten. Still, we didn’t get any acknowledgement of responsibility to fans or the many estranged creators that DC has been accruing.

DiDio’s tenure has been, and likely will remain, highly controversial, but that’s just another reason why I’m happy that he’s making himself available to the fans. This panel may have raised as many questions as it answered, but those can be the questions we take to the next one.