Cease and DC’d? Could COVID woes decimate the comics publisher?

This week's massive job losses at DC Comics are a warning shot for an industry already in COVID-fallout trouble...

It might seem bizarre in the current climate of Marvel‘s cinematic success, but in the mid-90s, Marvel Comics teetered on the edge of bankruptcy with a very real danger that they might cease to exist as a singular publishing entity.

Though there are nuances to the situation, it’s generally agreed that selling off the cinematic rights to many of their key characters allowed them some financial leeway to weather their financial problems. The sales for the screen-rights to The Fantastic Four and The X-Men to Twentieth Century Fox and Spider-man to SONY ultimately created the situation of various characters being unable to meet others on the big-screen and it was only with the recent deal between SONY and Marvel that kickstarted any sort of reunion with Spider-man appearing in the later Avengers movies. Disney had purchased Marvel in 2009 (for the princely sum of $4 billion) and in 2019 they bought 21st Century Fox, essentially laying some (potential) groundwork to ultimately reunite Marvel‘s key superheroes in one shared universe…. and make significant profits for all.

Warner Bros. own DC and has had less success with a cohesive cinematic universe, though the reasons have been tonal rather than about rights issues. But even with the rise of notable independent comics publishers such as Image, IDW and others, DC and Marvel have remained the two big players in the comics industry. There was natural ebb and flow but it felt like they would be around forever.

But the COVID pandemic has been an unanticipated-sized impact on the industry. Many comic shops were forced to close under health guidelines, curtailing the amount of comics that could be distributed and the very comics themselves were thrown off schedule with the companies realising that they couldn’t continue to play all their staff for product that couldn’t be sold. Many titles were put on indefinite hiatus or cancelled and their creative teams either furloughed or simply let go. With no real end in sight with regards to the pandemic, even the most optimistic outlooks have been predicting notable losses and changes and financial hardship on a company, store and individual level.

Bluntly, no-one is safe.

In the past few months several comic shops have closed their doors permanently and now it looks as if DC could be facing some fundamental problems in its immediate and long-term future. Warners Bros. – faced with losses in publishing and film distribution in the current climate – are in the process of announcing major cut-backs across their companies. Warner Bros. CFO Kim Williams, Warner Bros. Worldwide Television Distribution president Jeff Schlesinger and Ron Sanders, Warner Bros. president, Worldwide Theatrical Distribution & Home Entertainment and Executive Vice President, International Business Operations are gone  with possibly around 600-800 jobs lost within the WarnerMedia empire)… and it seems that the axe is cutting its way through the DC offices.

Apparent departures, though not officially confirmed as yet, appear to include major movers-and-shakers such as Bob Harras (DC Editor-In-Chief),  Hank Kanalz (SVP Publishing Strategy & Support Services), Bobbie Chase (VP, Global Publishing Initiatives & Digital Strategy), Brian Cunningham (Senior story editor). Industry site Bleeding Cool reported that a number of creators with ‘exclusive’ agreemeets are having their contracts scrutinised. Even legendary artist turned DC Chief Creative Officer, Jim Lee may have his position and duties redefined. Some rumours suggest over a third of all editorial staff may lose their jobs.  DC Universe, Warners‘ digital platform is also good as gone with many of the initiatives it was due to launch victims of corporate mergers and already finding homes elsewhere such as HBO MaxDC Direct, the company’s in-house merchandise and collectibles manufacturer is being closed after more than two decades with Warner Bros. Consumer Products formally taking a more active role.

The online FanDome convention, due to take place for 24 hours over 22nd August and still devoid of many specifics about its schedule, is likely to face massive scrutiny from the press as well as fans… and it is believed that many of the necessary meetings to restructure the recently merged AT&T/Warners enterprises, especially  DC will have to take place in the next week if any reassurance is to be found for fans and financial supporters.

Some are referring to the current state of affairs as a DC ‘Implosion’ which references the hard winters of 1977/1978 when its company-wide ‘Explosion’ initiative was adversely affected by recession, printing-costs, blizzards and subsequent poor core sales across the entire US. It led to DC Comics announcing staff layoffs and the cancellation of approximately 40% of its entire line of titles in June 1978 and it took a long while to recover.

“This is a transformation of making things better,” AT&T CFO John Stephens said on Tuesday, trying to put a more positive spin on current developments. “Not because we needed to adjust anything but rather because we’re striving to get even better than the launch was, to get even better than WarnerMedia has traditionally performed.”

Comic empires periodically survive major hardships and financial downturns, but this one seems to be the biggest in a long while. But it is almost impossible to consider that DC could completely cease to exist – its characters and comics are – in better times – a high-profile and highly-profitable part of the entertainment industry and the idea that Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and The Flash would simply snuffed out by some real-life Crisis on this Earth, would make no sense in the modern multimedia landscape. But if the COVID situation continues, the financial hardships will become ever-more prevalent and damaging on all levels – so much so that the eventual other side of the situation may not come soon enough to avoid massive changes… fewer jobs, fewer comics, fewer opportunities outside a tightly-controlled central enterprise of which DC Comics are but one element.

Disney and Marvel have so far avoided such wide-scale consequential hardship, though their situation is equally at risk to the financial landscape at the moment and could easily become as perilous for similar reasons.