DC Entertainment, part of the Time Warner family of companies recently acquired by ATT, last week announced a deal with retail giant Walmart to bring comic books back to mass-market distribution channels for the first time in decades. According to the announcement, four exclusive DC titles will be carried at over 3,000 Walmart stores nationwide, featuring some of the top talent in the comics business.
The news has some in the business ecstatic about the potential for expanding the footprint of periodical comics, where sales are stuck in a perennial rut, but is also causing concern among the 1200+ independent comic retailers.
Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, instantly gives DC a huge potential audience for its comic line at a moment when its properties are highly visible through other media including movies, TV and games. According to DC Publisher Dan DiDio, that factored in to the choice of the four titles to launch the new strategy. “These new monthly books combine new and accessible stories with reprints of classic comic series,” he said. “It’s a great way for new readers to get into comics and follow the characters they’ve grown to love in TV and film.”
The new DC comics will be 100-pages each, priced at $4.99, and feature a new lead story backed by reprints of material from the past two decades. The 100-page format of the Walmart-exclusive Giants recalls a program DC used briefly in the 1970s, well-remembered by fans of a certain age as an introduction to the company’s deep catalog of older stories and characters.
The first titles announced as part of the program are Superman Giant, Justice League Giant, Batman Giant and Teen Titans Giant. According to the announcement, Superman and Justice League will be available the first week of each month; Batman and Teen Titans on the third week, starting July 1.
DC also provided some details about the new books and their creative teams.
- Superman Giant will kick off with a two-part story by Jimmy Palmiotti and Tom Derenick, plus reprints from The Terrifics #1 (2018), Green Lantern #1 (2005) and Superman/Batman #1 (2003). Once the two-parter has wrapped up, the title will roll out a new 12-part series by industry phenom Tom King, drawn by Andy Kubert, starting in September.
- Justice League Giant will initially spotlight Wonder Woman, with solo stories by Tim Seely in the first two issues, followed by a 12-issue run from Amanda Connor and Jimmy Palmiotti in September. The first issue will also reprint Justice League #1 (the book that launched DC’s successful New 52 run in 2011), The Flash #1 (2011) and Aquaman #1 (2011). This title is clearly aimed at comics-curious fans of the DC movies.
- Palmiotti also pens the first new story for Batman Giant #1 (art by Patrick Zircher), which will feature reprints of Batman #608 (2002), Nightwing #1 (2011) and Harley Quinn #1 (2011). In September, superstar writer Brian Michael Bendis takes over with a 12-issue arc.
- Teen Titans #1 launches immediately into a 6-part story by Dan Jurgens with art by Scot Eaton, Wayne Faucher and Jim Charalampidis, backed up by repritns from Sideways #1 (2018), Teen Titans #1 (2003) and Super Sons #1 (2017).
Back on the newsstands
DC’s move reverses a 40 year trend that has seen comics disappear from newsstands and convenience stores, their primary sales channel from the 1930s through the 1970s, as a result of the rise of an alternative channel known as the Direct Market, which distributes them to comic book specialty stores on a non-returnable basis. The shift to the Direct Market, now dominated by a single distributor, Diamond, dramatically increased the profitability and predictability of the comics market but reduced the visibility of comics beyond the core fanbase who frequent local, independently-owned comic shops.
Expanding distribution could help DC’s publishing efforts, which have risen and fallen with changing fan tastes and retailer ordering strategies. In the company’s eternal competition with rival Marvel Entertainment, a division of Walt Disney, DC is nearly even in unit market share (37.9% compared to Marvel’s 38.4%) but trails in retail market share 42.6%-25.7% according to the latest sales figures from Diamond.
The new DC books at Wal-Mart are aggressively priced at $4.99 for 100 pages (a standard 24-page comic goes for anywhere from $2.99 to $7.99, depending on the format and creators involved). Although only one story in each book is new material, it is not clear how much they will add to the bottom line, particularly given Walmart’s reputation for squeezing suppliers hard on margins to keep prices low for customers. However, as an investment in creating more visibility for the characters, more readers, and a bigger footprint for the DC comics brand beyond the several hundred thousand regular patrons of comic stores, it’s easy to see the business logic behind the deal.
Not everyone is happy
As news of the deal spread throughout the comics industry over the weekend, some comic shop owners expressed concern about the implications of a major retailer getting exclusive content from fan-favorite creators. The main sticking point isn’t just competition from Walmart, which is terrifying for any small business, but the fact that comic stores will not have a way to sell content that is sure to play well with the hardcore fans who constitute the lifeblood of their customer base.
It also means that diehard fans will have to go to Walmart to read Tom King Superman stories or Brian Bendis on Batman, spending money at the retail giant that would otherwise go toward their monthly comics budget at their local shop. Walmart may not count those pennies, but they mean a lot to independent stores already operating on a razor’s edge of profitability.
Another issue is that some of the country’s most densely populated urban areas do not have Walmart stores nearby. For example, there is no Walmart near Manhattan, and none within the city limits of San Francisco, Seattle or Boston. That situation is likely to create a secondary market for collectibles that will not benefit DC, Walmart or the creators of the books, but may put money in the pockets of resellers and speculators.