Vertigo, MAD and the Power of Weird Brands

There needs to be a place for material outside the mainstream.

[Note: I wrote the below back in August but obviously never published it. In the wake of the news that Dan DiDio has seemingly been pushed out of DC Comics and that DC Collectibles is reclaiming the DC Direct name it was founded under I made a few updates and am sharing it now.]

vertigo comics logoIt’s been several months since news broke that DC Entertainment was effectively shutting down MAD Magazine, the humor and comedy magazine that has been published for decades, influencing generations of writers, artists and others. That came just a short while after the announcement another DC Entertainment imprint, Vertigo, was being jettisoned and its books and characters brought under the DC brand in various ways.

In an interview from that time, DC co-publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio spoke about the state of their company as well as the comics industry as a whole, addressing some of the challenges being faced and how DC is trying to meet and surmount them.

Unstated in that interview, but looming in the background of all of this, is that as part of TimeWarner DC is now owned by AT&T. That reality was on display at the recent San Diego Comic-Con, where DC no longer had a standalone booth but was folded into the WarnerMedia booth. Instead of being in the middle of the convention, DC was off in the corner. There were still plenty of promotions for the comics that form the crux of DC’s business, but the list of artists and writers doing signing was drastically reduced from years past, limited to just a few of the highest profile talent. Previously you could find all kinds of creators there who worked on all kinds of books. Much of the focus was on the off-site multimedia Batman Experience, celebrating the 80th anniversary of that character’s debut.

mad magazine logoDC’s parent company, as pointed out here, may view it more as a lifestyle brand than a comics publisher, hoping that monetizing nostalgia for the iconic characters and symbols it’s developed over the years is more lucrative than actually putting out new stories. That includes the so-far-successful line of YA books based on DC characters that have been released recently as well as other multimedia extensions.

The secondary brands that were Vertigo and MAD just didn’t have that kind of potential. Well…they do, but you have to work harder to get there.

Many projects based on Vertigo books and characters have been developed or announced over the years. But for every “iZombie,” The Kitchen or “Preacher” that makes it to the masses, there are things like Y: The Last Man that lingers and lingers in limbo.

In some cases, the inability to create bigger cultural moments out of Vertigo’s output is chalked up to the deals being complicated tangles of ownership that split control between creators and company in a way that makes development difficult. In others, it’s a testament to the lack of vision that comes from multinational corporations that are risk averse to the point of inaction.

An ambitious company could find decades of material in the list of books published by Vertigo over the years. Any title could be turned into a movie or TV show that may not turn out to be a blockbuster grossing $700 million worldwide but, with the right marketing, could be a decent hit. And if the future is indeed one where theatrical releases are only given to the biggest of the big, the DC Universe streaming outlet could house the rest, not to mention Netflix or the coming HBO Max OTT service.

Of course I have my own personal experiences with both Vertigo and MAD, having managed DC Entertainment’s social media marketing for the better part of five years, from July 2011 to December 2015.

dc directIn that time, I handled Vertigo just as I did DC’s main brand profiles. New books were promoted, announcements shared and so on. The five years I and my team went to Comic-Con, Vertigo was part of our portfolio for on-the-ground coverage. So too, DC Collectibles, the company’s product brand for high-end statues, action figures and other goods.

MAD, on the other hand, was almost completely off-limits. We were told early on that the website and social media profiles for MAD would continue to be managed by the team that was, at the time, still in New York City as opposed to Burbank, where the rest of DC Entertainment was headquartered. They had their own thing going and while we were asked from time to time to offer our thoughts and guidance, day to day we were uninvolved.

The reason was that the MAD team had a sense of their brand that couldn’t be communicated to or replicated by those outside. That’s understandable.

Shutting down the two imprints and brands makes the culture as a whole a little less weird and exciting. These were houses of experimentation, where someone with an odd idea could do their thing and try to find an audience. Many will fall short of that, standing as lone testaments to whatever it is their creators were trying to do.

Even those that did catch on would likely never achieve the kind of scale demanded by the massive companies that now control much of the cultural landscape. That’s why, as the merger was still in the works, niche streaming services like FilmStruck and others were shut down. Meanwhile DC has cut the number of titles it publishes while finding more success with its Facsimile Editions – reprints of classic books that include vintage ads and other details – than it has with many current, ongoing books.

DiDio’s frustration with that reality should prompt the question of who it is that has put him in the position of engaging in a program he disapproves of and would seemingly like to see smothered. It makes me wonder who was calling the shots on Vertigo and MAD being shuttered.

About DiDio: In the years I was working with DC I’m not sure Dan ever actually remembered who I was without someone reminding him. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel the social media work I and the team did was important, it’s just that he was a busy guy with a lot going on at all times. Once his memory was jogged he was always imminently helpful and accommodating, willing to go along with most any of our hair brained ideas. There are few people I encountered who are as passionate about comics, the characters in them, the stories being told and the fans reading them than Dan.

DC was a great company to work with all those years ago and many of the people I dealt with are still there and doing their best. Others have either left of their own volition or been shown the door during one merger-related restructuring or another. Similar situations have happened at other media companies as the tolerance for risk and experimentation among accountants concerned about private equity debt financing falls lower and lower. We need these weirdo fringe brands to keep doing their thing for countless reasons, including that they employ more people than big, streamlined operations that just want to churn out endless variations on the same 12 super hero stories we’ve already seen.