Dan DiDio was fired from DC Comics last week and this has obviously become major news in the comic book industry considering that the man was the company’s co-publisher, along with legendary artist Jim Lee (who is now going to be in charge on a temporary basis, according to reports), for ten years, minus a small gap between 2016 and 2018 (more on that later).
This wasn’t something that DiDio saw coming when considering that the very morning of the day he was fired he was doing business as usual, sharing information about DC on Facebook groups and overall doing what he always does.
And while it’s true that we shouldn’t celebrate the news of a man losing his job, DiDio’s time in the higher levels of DC editorial lasted almost two decades and leaves behind a lot of controversy, poor treatment of several characters and overall the perception that his reign did a lot more wrong than good. The last decade or so has been very symptomatic of DiDio’s perceptions of the DC Universe and how his vision would usually impose, regardless of what could be deemed best for the characters or the direction of the comic book line as a whole.
For those that had a lot more insight into the company, DiDio was a political guy and you can understand that considering how he reached the upper echelons of DC without being a big name or having a huge CV in terms of management and publishing; he knows how to play the game and that’s how he got to the place he wanted to be, which is not inherently wrong–the problem is how he used that degree of power to mold DC to something that in 2020 simply doesn’t work quite well.
2004’s Identity Crisis, one of DiDio’s first initiatives. Copyright by DC Comics and Warner.
I don’t want to sound like I’m attacking DiDio because I don’t know him on a personal level and he has always struck me as a guy genuinely interested in comics, but I have never agreed with his vision of what DC Comics should be and I think said vision has been holding the company back for many years now.
It’s no secret that DiDio has been influenced by great works like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen and ever since reached positions of influence in DC back in 2002 he has been trying to make the whole comic book universe more reminiscent to those books, with 2004’s Identity Crisis event, written by novelist Brad Meltzer and drawn by artist Rags Morales, being the first sample of what Didio was going for: Sue Dibny, the wife of the Elongated Man (one of the few happy and wholesome marriages in comics), is murdered and burnt alive, only to discover later on that once upon a time she was raped by the villain Doctor Light and several members of the Justice League decide to lobotomize him so he can forget their secret identities. Batman walks in when they are doing that and they lobotomize the Dark Knight as well.
Now, one can say that it wasn’t DiDio’s fault and that it was Meltzer who wrote it at the end of the day, but the former always had a strong editorial influence in several projects during his tenure (more examples later on that) and has been quoted in cons saying that superheroes shouldn’t have happy lives, which is a very illogical statement because every single hero is an individual with different experiences, developments, and contexts, but that is the world DiDio wanted to build under the perception that gritty and miserable equals quality when the reality is that superficial darkness is just as boring as superficial optimism.
I don’t blame Meltzer because he later proved in his Justice League run that he could write stories more in line to what the DC Universe is at its core, but Identity Crisis, despite having a few good moments here and there, was the first sign that DiDio’s reign was more focused on unnecessary darkness, deaths for shock value and overall pessimistic outlooks on life than genuinely great storytelling.
The infamous “hit list”
A picture that DiDio posted on social media about his now-infamous “hit list”. Copyright by Dan Didio.
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons DiDio received so much criticism from fans was his propensity to have long-lasting agendas for different characters, regardless of how popular or beloved they were by the readers. A time ago he even posted a couple on social media the so-called “hit list” he had during the making of 2005’s Infinite Crisis event, written by Geoff Johns, where he had many different ideas floating around that current DC Comics readers and fans will find very interesting:
- The Spectre would have killed Shazam.
- Superman’s marriage was going to be dissolved.
- Nightwing was going to die.
- All non-used Young Justice members were going to die.
Let’s add to that to the losses that actually happened in the event: Wally West disappeared in the Speed Force (a prelude to all the things that were going to befall Wally) and Bart Allen took up the mantle of the Flash, Ted Kord (Blue Beetle) was murdered in the prelude to the event and teenager Jamie Reyes became his replacement and so on.
DiDio always had an interest in making the DC Universe a lot younger because he thought that was going to attract more readers, which is a flawed reasoning because people by and large are attracted to good stories and good characters, not to a certain age group.
The Shazam and Superman parts are especially telling because DiDio’s time at the helm of DC Comics was particularly hard, with the former never having a clear direction or logical sense to take his character forward and the latter often misunderstood across multiple mediums and being labeled as “outdated” when there is nothing inherently wrong about the character of Superman.
His treatment of legacy characters.
The Titans were particularly affected by DiDio’s reign. Copyright by DC Comics and Warner.
Dan DiDio is not a fan of legacy characters and that has been shown time and time again in the almost two decades he has been in charge of DC Comics, often leading to controversial decisions to change said characters’ status quo. For example, it is no secret that DiDio was one of Nightwing’s biggest detractors, often trying to have him killed or sidelined because, according to him, it makes Batman, his father figure, look old.
One element that DC has that Marvel has never handled too well is the fact that sidekicks often grow and evolve throughout the years, obtaining their own mantles (like Dick Grayson as Nightwing or Roy Harper as Arsenal) and carrying on the legacies of the classic heroes (like Wally West becoming the Flash after Barry Allen’s death in the 80s. That was one factor that made the post-Crisis DC Universe feel in a constant state of evolution and growth, with some of these legacy characters becoming fan-favorites and mainstays in several comics.
Well, DiDio never liked that and tried to sideline them or remove them altogether. Dick Grayson became Ric Grayson after getting shot and losing his memories in Tom King’s Batman run, Wally West was revamped as an African American young Kid Flash in New 52 (more on that later) and classic Wally then came back during Rebirth only to be turned into a murderer in King’s Heroes in Crisis event, Roy Harper was killed in Heroes in Crisis, Green Lantern Kyle Rayner was sidelined for the most part since the New 52, Superboy Conner Kent has been sidelined since the New 52 as well, the third Robin, Tim Drake, has been basically ignored for almost a decade… and the list goes on.
The big problem with this is not only that he was having too much influence on how the characters were being developed, but also the fact that these characters have strong and dedicated fanbases, which makes all these decisions, from a commercial point of view, all the more baffling and illogical. Nightwing is a fan-favorite, Wally West is the best Flash for many fans, a lot of comic book fans grew up with Tim Drake as their Robin… taking these characters off the table is wasting a lot of potentially great stories and sales, which shows that DiDio never truly had his finger on the pulse of comic book readers and that is a huge mistake.
Contrary to what most people think, outraged sales are not a good strategy. Yes, you may get a boost in sales with the issue where Wally West becomes a murderer in Heroes in Crisis, but you are bound to lose readers and future sales due to this decision–I personally know people that stopped reading DC Comics once that event took place because of said decisions involving Wally’s character.
I think this was one of DiDio’s biggest issues as a publisher at DC: failing to understand the importance of these characters, their commercial value and what they mean for their readers, who are, at the end of the day, the most important part of any business.
The New 52 reboot.
Copyright by DC Comics
Boy, this is going to be fun.
The New 52 might be the most controversial chapter in DC history and for good reason: DiDio, along with co-publisher Jim Lee, wanted to reboot the comic book line and get the interest of new and old readers alike with fresh new takes on these classic characters and obviously boost sales. All good on paper and I can understand their logic in that regard, but the problem was definitely the execution and I would argue that the New 52 has been the cause of a lot of problems within DC in the last decade.
DiDio has always been obsessed with making the DC continuity more logical and he changed the universe’s structure and mood to be a lot more somber, cynical and tragic, in harsh contrast to the uplifting nature it has always had. He finally had a chance to do the reboot he always wanted and in 2011 we got the New 52.
Now, I’m not going to say that the New 52 was an absolute failure. In terms of sales, it revitalized DC and it gave them a boost that, if I’m not wrong, put them ahead of Marvel in the market for a couple of years. It was a very bold move and from that angle, I respect DiDio because a lot of people in this business don’t take big risks like that and it takes a certain kind of man to do it.
Having said that, the stories and characterizations were simply not good: it was too much of a departure from the classic perception we have of these characters and while the New 52 had a very significant success in terms of sales, in the beginning, interest started to wane because the quality of the books wasn’t good enough and the changes were too drastic.
That’s why we ended up with an edgy and asocial Superman, a blood-thirsty Wonder Woman, a complete decimation of the developments of the Flash franchise, the aforementioned legacy characters sidelined, for the most part, Green Lantern having two different continuities because the pre-New 52 one was selling so well, teams like the Justice Society of America simply vanished from the DC Universe and so on. Yes, Geoff Johns’ Aquaman and Scott Snyder’s Batman were very successful and there were other decent books here and there, but as a whole, the New 52 didn’t work and failed to gather momentum.
One of the key factors was that the heroes in the New 52 were, for the most part, unlikeable. They were constantly arguing, bickering with each other and overall being edgy for edgy sake instead of showcasing them as the versions people wanted. Let’s be clear here: no DC fan was really unhappy with the pre-New 52 continuity and as Geoff Johns proved in his Green Lantern and first Flash runs, you don’t really need a reboot to revitalize interest–you just need better writing.
I sometimes think that the New 52 felt too much like DC’s answer to Marvel’s Ultimate Universe and both start off very well in terms of sales but end up failing when things get way too edgy, way too dark and way too chaotic. The main difference was that in Marvel you could go back to the main continuity to read Amazing Spider-Man while in DC you were stuck with the edgy and miserable New 52 Superman.
And finally, even beyond the quality of the books (or lack thereof), for a reboot that was also meant to be a way to streamline the continuity, they established that the heroes had been around for just five years when the New 52 starts in Geoff Johns’ Justice League run, but since there are elements and stories so popular among readers, we ended up with two Green Lantern continuities as I said before and with Batman having four Robins in just five years, making him the worst hero at keeping sidekicks of all time.
New 52’s woes, flaws, and artistic failure weren’t exclusively DiDio’s fault, but it was his baby, his project and he insisted on making it happen.
Rebirth and discord.
Dan Didio and Geoff Johns never fully understood each other.
This was perhaps the nail in the coffin for DiDio’s time as co-publisher: the time he was given everything to succeed and threw it all in the garbage bin because of his misguided perception of what the DC Universe is.
Since the New 52 was failing, DC and Warner gave Geoff Johns creative control in 2016 to relaunch the franchise and that’s how we got DC Rebirth, which was a glorious return to form for DC and where we got some of the characters’ best stories in years.
And the reason behind this success was very simple: Johns played to the characters and the universe’s strength, going for a more uplifting, positive and hopeful characterization of DC and returning the characters back to their best, with the likes of Peter Tomasi and Dan Jurgens’ Superman and Action Comics, respectively, Tomasi’s Supersons, Dan Abnett’s Titans, Johns’ Doomsday Clock, Robert Venditti’s Green Lantern, Abnett’s Aquaman run, Scott Lobdell’s Red Hood and the Outlaws and many more being extremely recommended highlights from this 2016-2018 period of DC history.
But according to reports, DiDio wasn’t happy about the success that Rebirth was having and in mid-2018 he got another crack at the top creative position, quickly moving forward to dismantle the return to form that Johns had established in such a skillful manner. Honestly, I’m not surprised they didn’t see eye to eye and less surprised that DiDio wanted to tear down everything DC had going for them simply because it wasn’t to his liking.
Perhaps the big sign of that was the hiring of writer Brian Michael Bendis and Tom King’s Heroes in Crisis event, with the former quickly dismantling everything that Peter Tomasi and Dan Jurgens did with the Superman books, especially breaking his marriage and aging up Jon Kent, and the latter built an entire event to showcase that all DC characters were suffering from a different trauma or depression, turning Wally West, who had enjoyed a tremendous return with DC Rebirth, into a murderer and openly mocking Johns’ statement that Wally was DC’s symbol of hope.
DC Rebirth was a massive success for the company. Copyright by DC Comics and Warner.
Then we got Batman falling deeper and deeper into depression and insanity in Tom King’s run, Nightwing becoming Ric Grayson and a completely different character, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick tearing down Abnett’s run, the cancellation of Supersons due to Jon Kent now being an edgy teenager and the multiple delays of Doomsday Clock, to the point now it is viewed more like an Elseworld because Rebirth is by all accounts dead.
And there was no need for any of that; DC was doing well in terms of sales and had a clear direction for the future thanks to what Johns set up with Doomsday Clock, even signaling the return of the Justice Society and the Legion of Superheroes, but they eventually returned through other stories and without the same impact. And now we have an aimless DC, without a clear notion of what they want to do and where they want to go to.
Leaving aside everything I said before this section, I think DiDio had to be fired for this reason alone: for having a winning formula firmly established and throwing it away just to go back to the edgy and dark structures of the New 52, which clearly didn’t work. We only need to see stuff like the Bendis-led Leviathan event (or anything else written by Bendis in DC), Tales of the Dark Multiverse, Geoff Johns being pushed aside, the overreliance on Batman books… everything feels so predictable and lacking the heroism that has defined this company.
This was DiDio’s desire and it’s even more telling when he stated that facsimile editions of the comics they made 30 or 40 years ago were selling better than their new stuff and he was still talking about pushing the boundaries and stuff like that. Even when the problem was so obvious, he couldn’t adjust himself to the idea that perhaps his way wasn’t the best and that, even now, new generations are still attracted to more uplifting and conventional stories of heroism in comics.
In terms of business, Dan DiDio proved to be a very stubborn man at times where he should have been a lot more flexible and never managed to fully understand what made these characters so successful, to begin with. I’m 25 years old and DiDio has been in the upper echelons of DC Comics since I was 7 years old. How is it possible that I have a better notion of how Superman works than a guy who has been close to the character for almost two decades now? Even as a writer (which I am), that shouldn’t be the case. You shouldn’t be losing to Marvel in terms of sales, considering that they have their own share of problems and they are even worse than DC’s, but somehow DiDio found a way to not make it work.
What now for DC Comics?
Copyright by DC Comics
Now that DiDio is gone, no one is fully sure of what is going to happen with DC Comics. There are rumors of AT&T shutting down the comics division and also rumors of them working to improve the quality of their output, so we will have to wait and see what is going to happen on that front.
From my perspective, I think the solution is very simple: quality writers that understand the characters, more straightforward storylines, creative teams that can last in a run more than six issues and not going for unnecessary grittiness or deaths for shock value. DC has a plethora of phenomenal characters of all types–the fact so many of them are underperforming should be considered almost a crime.
Once again, I don’t wish Dan DiDio any ill will and I don’t think he was the only person responsible for the brand’s failures in recent times, plus I think he deserves credit for keeping such a phenomenal roster of artists in the company–pretty much every single great artist in the industry has been working at DC during DiDio’s time at the helm. Andy Kubert, Tony Daniel, Brett Booth, Gary Frank, Bryan Hitch, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, Sean Gordon Murphy, Clay Mann, Joelle Jones, and so many others–even the worst DC stories during DiDio’s reign have some of the best art of the last twenty years in the industry.
But it was about time DiDio and DC parted ways. If done right, this could be the game-changer that the company needed to get back on track and inject new life into their comics. As a longtime fan of DC, I certainly hope that’s the case.
All the best to you, Dan. It was… eventful.
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