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Wednesday September 22, 2010 10:34 pm

Warner Bros. Comics & Stories

Warner BrosWell, at least Batman will still be published out of New York!

I’m no pundit and I’m certainly no reporter or journalist, and I’m not even a DC insider, although I should point out that before Paul Levitz bought Wildstorm, he tried to buy the company I co-founded, Malibu Comics.

I was saddened, though not surprised that Warner Bros. was splitting DC Entertainment into two divisions and keeping all their old school business in Manhattan. My sympathies go out to all DC employees who are getting let go and to all freelancers who are getting their books cut out from under them. This is not an easy time, and it’s not going to get easier.

I think lost in all the discussion and rundown of DC’s recent shift is that the biggest piece of the puzzle has yet to be explained or admitted to. Warner Bros. which folded DC Comics into a new company called DC Entertainment just a year ago, now took DC Comics out of that company and moved DC Entertainment – along with all of the money-making portions of the company – to the West Coast.

DC Comics, the comic book division, is now its own stand-alone entity. An island of old-school publishing left without its support network. This has been hailed as a victory for the comic book people.

It isn’t. It’s a wake up call.

Here’s how I see it. Naturally, your mileage may vary…

Warner Bros. will be folding in all of those administrative, licensing and merchandising jobs from DC in NY into the WB empire in Burbank, effectively absorbing them and overseeing them. If WB wants to make movies or cartoons or TV shows with the DC characters they will, with little, if any, regard for the actual comic books themselves. You’ve no doubt read recent articles that the push is on at Warner to produce more entertainment with the DC characters since Marvel has not only lead the way, but kicked DC’s butt.

After all, Marvel can get everyone excited about a Thor movie; Warner, for whatever reason, has trouble making a new Superman or Batman movie despite the fact that they each make a billion dollars. The focus on entertainment chatter is: “Marvel makes movies; DC can’t.” That’s gotta hurt. The window for superhero movies won’t last forever.

But none of that is about the actual printed comics. It’s only about the characters. Warner Bros. now controls the characters. DC Comics has the comic books. And the ugly truth is that no one needs a Batman comic book anymore to make a billion dollars with a Batman movie.

In fact, the actual Batman comics don’t even fit into the rest of the Batman licensing/merchandising/TV/movie entertainment empire. Batman comics may be in continuity with each other, but they’re outside the continuity of the business empire – they don’t look or feel like they fit in with the sheets, pillow cases and Happy Meal toys. Don’t think that’s not important or relevant.

With all the new changes, the Warner Bros. comic book division is now left in New York to its own devices. A victory for printed comics? Maybe for now, if you need to spin it that way. “The people of comic books fought a brave battle against the corporate interests and avoided the forced march to Burbank” is certainly one way to look at it.

And regardless of the moves, dozens of Batman comics will still come out, retailers can breathe a sigh of relief, and the old wheezy direct market system run by Diamond can chug along for a while longer.

But Warner Bros. didn’t just keep the comic book makers intact; they abandoned them.

Look at this a different way. Remember, printed comic books are in NYC, the digital stuff that all the cool kids are playing with now and in the future is part of Warner Bros. in Burbank. Separate entities, different bosses, different worlds.

With DC Comics fending for itself, sales of printed comics will continue to fall. We’re in an epic collapse of printed material and have been for some time. That’s not changing. And DC shows no interest in changing their publishing strategy even there aren’t enough fanboys left to support dozens of $4.00 comics every week. The staff in the comic book division will start to dwindle, a few at a time as people retire, get better jobs and see the handwriting on the wall. Over time - 2 years? 3 years? – Warner Bros. will look at their bottom line and wonder why they need to be in the comic book publishing business (I think they’ve made that calculation already).

Remember that when Diane Nelson took over the company, she didn’t mention comic books at all – just the characters. They are all that matter. They are the machine from which all money generates.

Warner Bros. is in the entertainment business. They can already put the characters they own into movies, TV shows, animated cartoons and online products. They’re not in the underwear, T-shirt, toy and collectible watch business, so they license the characters out. They get paid for a license, get paid to create the art for the 300-thread count sheets, and get paid a royalty based on sales.

And instead of losing money in the old-fashioned printing comics industry, they’ll just license the characters to some other entity to make those comics. Much the same way that George Lucas licensed Star Wars to Dark Horse. If I were Mike Richardson or Ross Richie, I’d get a business plan in shape for what’s coming.

The rationale when Warner Bros. finally closes down DC Comics will be simple: we gave printed comics enough rope and the division couldn’t keep up. It’s been proved over time that there aren’t enough people who want printed comics anymore. Just look at the numbers. What else could we do?

But, you say, they’ll lose comic books as an IP generator! How short-sighted! Not really. Warner Bros. already owns all the big superheroes that Marvel doesn’t. Name a superhero movie based on a comic book that wasn’t owned by Marvel or DC that generated $500,000,000 or more in revenue and spawned money-making sequels and toy lines and cartoon shows. Or just name an independent comic book that did that. Warner Bros. and Marvel have that market cornered.

And if some lucky soul is fortunate enough to create an independent comic or even a superhero comic that Warner Bros. wants as a movie, they’ll just write a check, like they would for a novel. The parent company already got out of the book publishing business when they spun off the Time Warner Book Group to Hachette in 2006.

I’m sure they’re looking to shed Time Magazine, too. They don’t want to be in publishing. They want to be in the world of movies, TV and iPads and any other noun that starts with a lower case “i.” They want to be in a world of the future, not trapped in a 1930s industry.

So let this be a wake-up call for DC’s old-school comic book publishing. You’ve bought yourself some time to prove your worth. What are you going to do about it? I know exactly what I’d do and it doesn’t involve publishing more titles for fewer readers at higher prices.

[Artwork: the famous water tower at the Warner Bros. lot]

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