The big news of the week appears to be DC Comics dropping their participation in The Comics Code Authority, after nearly 60 years.  Good fucking riddance to that awful, reductive, and incredibly harmful group. I fall very much into what I call the Frank Miller* camp–books should not have age warnings on them. At most they should have suggestions, and they certainly shouldn’t have some sort of archaic, overly-secretive group of busy-bodies setting up a rule of ‘standards’ for art to adhere to. Age recommendations should come from booksellers.

But I don’t doubt for a minute that dropping the code had nothing to do with Art and everything to do with The Bottom Line.  Much like during the time period where Marvel dropped the comics code, DC is in a period of intense financial and creative adjustment. Marvel spun their move as edgy and creator-driven, DC’s spinning theirs as a move towards ‘accuracy’ in ratings by having different age criteria, but ultimately what it comes down to is: it costs money to be participate in the comics code authority. How much money, I’ve got no idea, they don’t publish those figures and last I heard it was next-to-impossible to join the CCA. But regardless of how much it costs, any amount of money is more than just coming up with your own system and not paying membership dues.

I might not have immediately thought of this as a cost-cutting maneuverer if it hadn’t been for some of their other recent, penny-ante cost-cutting behaviour; they’ve stopped shrink-wrapping their dust-jacketed hardcovers for one. In a move that is probably saving them about 25 cents per book, DC has decided to send all of its dust-jacketed hardcovers to market sans the shrinkwrap that has protected them for lo, these many years, in a move that will almost certainly see more damaged books. We had a damaged dust jacket on the Starman Omnibus Volume 6 this week actually, that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. It’s frustrating as a retailer to have that happen, for a dust-jacket, but many collectors are particular enough that a ding in a dust-jacket is unacceptable, and so the whole book is either more difficult to sell, or unsellable. Why did this happen? Well someone did the math and figured that the increase in damages would cost less than shrinkwrapping everything, and so a very nice thing that DC did went out the window, a tiny cost-cutting exercise on books that range in price from $30 to $60.

It’s a bummer.

I don’t really have much to say about their most loudly-touted cost-cutting manouver, reducing the price of their line to $2.99 a book (but with 20 pages of story content instead of 22), I think it’s a win-some/lose-some sort of decision that will attract certain customers while putting off others, who might already feel like the comic book format isn’t the best deal going.

Oh, and here’s a thing that hasn’t got much attention: They’re cancelling trade paperbacks. Here are a few recent ones:

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DC COMICS CANCELS ORDERS ON AZRAEL: KILLER OF SAINTS TP
DC Comics has cancelled all orders on the AZRAEL: KILLER OF SAINTS TP (DEC100247). This title will not be published.

**********

DC COMICS CANCELS ORDERS ON THE AUTHORITY: THE LOST YEAR BOOK TWO TP
DC Comics has cancelled all orders on THE AUTHORITY: THE LOST YEAR BOOK TWOTP (NOV100254). This title will not be published.

**********

Which, I mean lets face it, those are two VERY low selling books, but time was DC would publish both of those books, despite the low sales, just because they solicited them and were following through on a promise to the customer. Now, they’re not publishing books that don’t sell well, it’s one of those things that’s both amazing and obvious at the same time.**

I’ve also heard rumblings that I cannot really talk about that DC is going back to press on fewer titles than ever right now. Basically if it’s not making a certain sales target, it doesn’t get reprinted, regardless of whether or not it’s volume 1 of a series of trades that are still coming out. So DC fans, if you want a trade paperback, I humbly suggest that you buy that trade paperback when you see it–those books might not be in print more-or-less indefinitely anymore.***

Which all puts into perspective a quote I read from either Alonso, Quesada, or Brevoort a few weeks back, just after the editorial shake-ups at Marvel that had people promoted all over the place. One of them, and I wish I could find that interview for you, basically repeated the truism that DC doesn’t have to make money at comics, they get all that big licensing money and so they don’t have to worry about sales and things and that’s why things are different at Marvel. Before the last few months I’d be inclined to believe that, but it’s becoming more and more apparent to me that the bottom line is starting to really matter at DC, as they pinch pennies, opt-out of membership dues, and decide to stop killing trees for books no one seems to want.

Good on them.

- Christopher

* I’m sure I’ll grow out of it.

** I’m all for publishing Art that doesn’t sell well but is of quality, literary or artistic. Sales are not the only barometer of quality, and I applaud those who believe in a work so strongly who decide  that despite apathy of hostility from the marketplace that a piece of art must be seen: bravo. But publishing Azrael trades that no one wants makes the Lorax cry.

*** As an aside that doesn’t directly tie-into this essay, I will note that there are positive changes in DC’s Collected Editions dept. as well, including the fact that much-demanded-by-retailers graphic novels of SUGAR & SPIKE and FLEX MENTALLO have finally, finally been added to the publication schedule. Shake-ups all over, it seems.


27 Comments on “Is DC dropping the Comics Code just another cost-cutting measure?”

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  1. Nathan Schreiber says:

    Interesting points, nice article

  2. Tweets that mention Is DC dropping the Comics Code just another cost-cutting measure? at Comics212 -- Topsy.com says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ricardo Amaral, Tom Spurgeon. Tom Spurgeon said: chris butcher suggests that we're seeing a new, super-frugal DC — http://bit.ly/fY3tj5 [...]

  3. Nick H. says:

    Oh, christ. Cutting the shrink-wrap is probably going to lose DC a big wodge of money from me. I’m one of those customers who is particular about new books being in new condition, and I bought lots of their deluxe hardcover collections over the past few years – Starman, Ex Machina, Seven Soldiers, JLA, etc. And for me, the shrinkwrap has been a godsend, especially as, due to a combination of no local comics shop and the discounts, I order them from Amazon. No shrinkwrap means the chances of the books getting damaged before they reach me has gone up massively now, and this gives me The Fear.

    I’ve got Starman 6 (which you mention) on order, so I’ll see what that’s like when it comes. If it ends up being in poor condition, it’ll get returned and I’ll be going through the rest of my orders to cancel any similar books. And, more than likely, that money will NOT find its way to DC after all – as I say above, I don’t have a local comics shop, so it’s rare that I manage to visit one. And even if I do, I’m left at the mercy of what they have in stock. And on top of that, having to pay full price makes me think harder about my purchase, and makes me more likely to say “Actually, I don’t need it that much…” and save my money. So, probably I’ll end up buying only 1 in 10 of what I was buying before. Well done, DC!

  4. ADD says:

    So my Flex Mentallo HC won’t be shrinkwrapped? I will definitely be inspecting DC HCs more closely for damage before paying for them. I wonder how many more returns this will result in? Seems foolish and short-sighted.

  5. Greg McElhatton says:

    Nick — Well, at least the one good thing is that if you’re ordering it from Amazon, if the book is damaged, you can send it back and have them ship you a replacement for free.

    Chris — Another cancellation from a few months ago that didn’t seem to get a peep was Manhunter Vol. 6 (all the second feature/backups from Streets of Gotham). Still really bummed about that.

  6. The Comics Code Is Dead: A History and Recent News » Comics Worth Reading says:

    [...] guy Christopher Butcher speculates on DC’s reasons, asking if the cost-cutting was the significant factor. He puts [...]

  7. Anthony says:

    I don’t suppose this might be an opportunity to boost DC’s digital comics offerings? If they can’t afford to print TPBs of low-selling stuff, maybe selling the issues online (which wouldn’t recur such costs) would be an adequate substitute?

  8. Nick H. says:

    Greg – there is that, but it only helps to an extent. I only return books if they’re severely damaged – if they’ve only got little dings which I’m unhappy with, I’ll just suck it up. Last time I had to return a book for a replacement it was because it appeared as if someone had, literally, tried to bend it in half – and it wasn’t the postman, as the ‘envelope’ was fine. Boggles the mind that anyone thought it was acceptable to send such a book out in the first place.

    Also, in a case perhaps closer to the DC hardcovers, my three-volume New X-Men HC set is missing one volume. First copy that came from Amazon had a shoddy dustjacket. Returned it for a replacement, which turned out to be even worse – the binding was damaged as well. So I cut my losses, asked for a refund, and figured I’d pick it up from a shop eventually instead. Only, at that point it time, I was blissfully unaware of Marvel’s awful record of keeping things in print. Ah well, so it goes.

    Which is a long way of saying that if I get a DC HC from Amazon with a damaged dustjacket, I’d have little confidence that any further copies would arrive in any better condition. Which is why I very much appreciated the shrinkwrap, as it adds the extra peace of mind knowing that it won’t get damaged in transit, while an un-shrinkwrapped book might.

    Chris – one thing that occured to me earlier is this. I don’t know if it differs by country, but here in the UK, I’ve been told by a friend who works for a bookshop that if they have books with damaged dustjackets, they can get replacements from the publisher so that they can stick a new one on and not have to return the book. Which, if the only thing damaged is the dustcover, seems sensible, as writing a whole book off as damaged when it is, in the main, OK, seems a terrible waste of time, effort and money. Would that happen with DC or not?

    Furthermore, as a retailer, if the lack of shrinkwrap affects the quality of the product in future, will that have an affect on how many copies you order for the Beguiling?

  9. Julie says:

    “Age recommendations should come from booksellers.”

    Good god, why? Do you really expect every bookseller in every store to have read every book they carry, so they can make an informed judgement? What about clueless relatives who assume “comics = kids” and pick things up without bothering to mention it’s for their 12-year-old nephew? And what about libraries? In the occasional conversations about comics with librarians I have had, a recurring theme is the immense desirability of clear, consistent age ratings and content description, so they’ll be able to buy books that meet their collection needs and shelve them appropriately with minimum fuss. Publisher age ratings are essential for children’s and YA books, and that applies just as much to youth-oriented (or youth-suitable) comic books.

  10. Steve Flack says:

    As a reader, I’m glad DC has done away with the shrinkwrap. FInally, I can look at the work before I make a decision on wether or not to purchase it. As for the condition, well, the book industry has been selling hardcovers with dustjackets without shrinkwrap for years, and they’ve had no major problems.

  11. ADD says:

    Most retailers of any size at all have at least one copy open for potential buyers to review, at least in my experience. And comparing “the book industry” to Diamond’s shipping methods is like comparing the GDP of China to that of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Ask any retailer how Diamond handles shipping of large and/or expensive items and how often they arrive damaged and unsellable.

  12. Steve Flack says:

    Sounds more like Diamond’s problem than DCs.

  13. Chris says:

    Thanks, Nathan.

  14. Chris says:

    Nick – Well, don’t take this entirely the wrong way but as a bookseller who’s not terribly fond of Amazon, I’m finding it difficult to fault anything that pushes you into an actual comic book store. Granted, it sounds like you have somewhat trying circumstances, but setting up a pre-order with a comic shop and visiting them once a month will allow you to secure some sort of discount, and letting them know that your particular about condition will usually mean that they’ll pull the nicest copies for you and bag them in store–it’s what we’re doing at work.

  15. Chris says:

    Alan- No sir, it will not. Though who knows if that’ll get a dust-jacket or not? It might be printed right on the cover, which is the direction many publishers are going these days.

  16. Chris says:

    Hi Greg, thanks for the reminder on Manhunter, I’d forgotten that had been cancelled. TBH I can’t believe we got those first 5 collections, they certainly didn’t light the sales charts on fire.

  17. Chris says:

    Well Anthony, every crisis is an opportunity. That said, given their enormous 70 year backlist, I imagine they’ll focus their efforts on ‘digitizing’ books which have a proven print sales record or enormous word of mouth first, but I could be wrong.

  18. Chris says:

    Nick- Mum’s the word from DC on replacement dustjackets, I’m afraid. I’ll talk to my rep about it this week and see what they have to say about it.

    As to your second question, I doubt our orders will be immediately affected. It’d have to be a systematic series of damages before we’d change our ordering habits on those books, and I’d say if there was a systematic series of damages, and an upswing in damage complaints/refunds from shop owners, DC would change their policies before we would have to.

  19. Chris says:

    Hi Julie,

    I don’t particularly have a problem with publishers rating their work and making that information available to booksellers, book buyers, librarians, etc., but printing an age rating on a graphic novel is frankly harmful to the integrity of the work. We don’t do it with prose fiction or non-fiction, we let ordering information and racking and book design and intelligent booksellers communicate that information. Doing it for comics just reenforces the perception that all comics are for kids unless otherwise noted. It’s time, frankly, for us to take the training wheels off of our medium.

  20. Chris says:

    Steve-

    Actually Borders is near bankruptcy and Barnes and Noble had huge slashes of staff this week. The book industry is having major, major problems with the way they do business, and hardcover books are a huge part of that. Returns, damages, pricing, all of it. Huge, huge problems.

    That’s not entirely attributable to shrinkwrap of course, but having to pay to ship back a $35 hardcover book because of a ripped dust-jacket doesn’t do booksellers any favours and doesn’t do publishers any favours either. You might want to rethink your argument in light of the fact that the book industry is kind of collapsing.

    Oh, and as for your last comment, I’d submit that Diamond’s problems ARE DC’s problems.

  21. ADD says:

    “I’d submit that Diamond’s problems ARE DC’s problems.”

    I can’t say it any better than that.

  22. Greg McElhatton says:

    Yeah, there are times when I feel like I’ve owned 1% of the Manhunter TPB print run on my bookshelf. Still sad the economics wouldn’t make that final volume work, though. Grrr.

  23. Jim Kosmicki says:

    Heck, DC isn’t keeping TPBs that SELL in print. Based on good word of mouth, I tried ordering the first TPB of the Stephanie Brown Batgirl series. Amazon took my order, and then had to cancel it due to unavailability. No online retailer that I’ve checked has it either. Even only being a few months old, it is sold out. DC is soliciting the second TPB, but no indication of reprinting the first volume, which obviously sold well enough that no copies are available at the distributor OR basic retail level. I can understand not printing TPBs that have little hope of selling (and many of those are probably ones that I would be ordering) but not printing ones that are beginning to have an actual sales history is really strange.

  24. Comics A.M. | Archie Drops Comics Code, Marking End of Era | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment says:

    [...] Christopher Butcher wonders whether DC’s decision to drop the Code was made with an eye toward the bottom line, while Johanna Draper Carlson offers an overview of the CCA’s history. Elsewhere, Mike Sterling asks whether any retailers ever “experienced any kind of real-world impact of the Comics Code Authority?” And Tom Mason makes some tongue-in-cheek recommendations for DC’s new rating system, including “G – GREYING MAN-BOYS” and “R – REFRIGERATOR.” [Newsarama] [...]

  25. Nick H. says:

    Chris – don’t worry, I understand your point of view entirely, and haven’t taken anything you said the wrong way. It did cross my mind briefly when I was writing my first comment whether I should not say anything, but given I was describing my purchasing habits and how they’d be affected, I figured I’d have to let it stand.

    I appreciate your advice about setting up a standing order with a comics shop – indeed, I used to do this, starting ten years ago, up until three years ago when the shop sadly closed, spending plenty of money each visit – and I still have the longboxes to prove it. :) That was, literally, the only shop ‘local’ to me in this corner of the UK. Now I only get to visit comics shops when I go to London, which is maybe twice a year. Too infrequently, sadly, to have a standing order with any of them.

    (At this point, I’d like to single out Gosh! as being an excellent comics shop that I make a point of dropping a decent amount of coin at when I can. Great range, great service.)

    So I do understand where you’re coming from, and I do support ‘proper’ comics shops when I can. And, certainly, if the lack of shrinkwrap makes HC from Amazon unviable, I’ll be dropping more money on them as a result, for sure. I’ve never found one which offers discounts to people who pre-order, by the way. Might be this isn’t the ‘done’ thing in the UK, or I’m in the wrong part of the country.

    Thanks for answering the questions in my other comment also.

  26. Neil S says:

    “printing an age rating on a graphic novel is frankly harmful to the integrity of the work. (…) Doing it for comics just reenforces the perception that all comics are for kids unless otherwise noted..”

    Unfortunately, that seems to already be happening. I walked into a small indie bookstore that had Scott Pilgrim shelved in the kids section. Not the pre-teen section, even.

  27. Chris Rice says:

    Chris, DC have been scaling back their TP reprint program for a couple of years now. The first I noticed was when the Death of the Joker TP went OP within a couple of months of release, and then odd Hellblazer trades started dropping – about 12 of them are OP now. Now there are loads of books that still had relatively strong sales that are completely unavailable – off the top of my head just for Batman – No Mans Land 3 & 4, Legacy, Contagion, Cataclysm, Death in the Family (in pb anyway), Blind Justice, Gaslight over Gotham, The Cult, Venom, Gothic, Terror, Year Two, Prodigal, As The Crow Flies and lots more.
    That said, they still keep a lot more of their stuff in print than Marvel do.

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