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DC’s Digital First ‘expansion’ may be foreshadowing much bigger changes

(Image credit: DC)

Update: DC has announced the launch of another "Digital First" comic book series, this one starring one of their most popular characters, Harley Quinn.

As we learned Friday afternoon, Harley Quinn: Black + White + Red will eventually be collected in a print edition, but its current digital first - and for the time being digital exclusive - status is yet another signal of DC's brewing plans for the platform. 

Check out Newsarama's previous take on the publisher and its digital future.

Original story published April 21, 2020 follows:

Given the way the comic book specialty (i.e. the 'Direct') market shifted on its axis Friday when DC effectively announced the possible end of the Diamond Comic Distributors' exclusive era, it was easy to pay only cursory attention to another, seemingly minor DC press release Monday. 

Publisher #2 of the industry's 'Big 2' announced a "robust" (remember that word) expansion of its DC Digital First program. The program as it has existed until now is mostly a small selection of extra-continuity titles that debut on digital platforms and are later published as physical comics - titles like Injustice: Gods Among Us, based on the DC video game, and the new and current Batman: The Adventures Continue, based on the modern-classic animated series.

(Image credit: DC)

Somewhat contradicting the Digital First brand, Monday DC announced the program will initially be expanded with the debut of stories that originated in its print DC Giants titles. A controversial program in its own right that debuted as Walmart-exclusive titles with extra-continuity stories and reprints that also rubbed some comic book retailers the wrong way (a pattern worth noting), the Giants line was later relaunched and expanded into the Direct Market as well. 

So… DC Giants stories on digital for the first time. Pretty innocuous, right?

Maybe. 

While these reprints may be the extent of the program's "robust" expansion, taking a deeper dive into the press release alongside DC's recent history and past innovations in the digital space suggests a possibility that this is just the opening act of a more significant production.

The first thing to keep in mind - and this is neither criticism nor praise, just observation - is DC is very deliberate in their communications. Deliberate is its house brand. Not to say other publishers communicate willy-nilly, but if DC releases something publicly you can be sure each word, each paragraph, and its timing has a specific intent. 

Despite those stories being available digitally for the first time, that really isn't the meaning of "Digital First." And DC wouldn't confuse a description with a brand.

And then there is the timing …

Recall three weeks ago when DC first sent shockwaves through the Direct Market by announcing they were "exploring a multi-distributor model." 

(Image credit: DC)

To comic book readers who don't follow or frankly care about the idiosyncrasies of how comic books arrive in stores or their mailboxes in this weird little industry of ours, this was maybe a minor story. For fans who just want their Batman, Amazing Spider-Man, or Dav Pilkey's Dog Man one way or another, it also might have gone unnoticed that the same weekend DC separately had a member of its sales team go out and tell retailers, "All our data shows the digital consumer and the physical consumer are two different audiences."

In DC-speak, that's a bold statement, with intent. 

And if you think the close timing of both of those loaded comments were coincidental, we've got a near-mint copy of Action Comics #1 for $100 to sell you. 

DC had been more or less silent about both of those late-March twin bombshells (trust us, we asked), only to finally follow-up on the first part Friday announcing the existence of Lunar and UCS, a seeming cooperative of regional distributors who are mail-order giant DCBS and mail-order giant/NYC brick-and-mortar retailer Midtown Comics under different brands. 

This was the other "multi-distribution model" shoe finally dropping, on DC's timetable. Names were given to what by all appearances are now competitors to Diamond, a potential change to how the Direct Market operates that can't go understated. 

And that's why it seems straight out of DC's playbook that the other 'digital and physical are two different audiences' shoe to drop (again right after the new distributor revelation) is the 'robust expansion of DC Digital First.'

If past is prologue, let's go even further back and recall that in 2011, DC used the then-seismic shift that was the launch of the "New 52" to also introduce the 'day-and-date' physical and digital release window, which nine years later we may not immediately recall was a significant innovation and a controversial topic back then. 

DC was the first major publisher - no doubt against the protests of many Direct Market retailers - to release the same, in-continuity titles they released in comic book stores the same day on digital platforms. 

So back to the present, is DC just signaling to its readers it's gonna reprint some stories digitally for the first time? 

Or is the publisher signaling that DC Digital First will become a publishing extension to its larger view of the dichotomy between its digital and physical audiences?

(Image credit: DC)

There are possible cues in its press release itself. Bearing in mind Friday DC announced Lunar and UCS will begin operations next week including distributing new DCU 'day-and-date titles the week after that, on the same day Diamond announced its own target of mid- to late-May to resume their operations, DC Publisher Jim Lee said this: 

"Comic book fans want more access to content than ever before."

And this:

"In the meantime, we will have properly stoked and protected the demand for comics, keeping fans interested in our characters and stories."

While at this same time trying to assure comic book retailers of this:

"I really want to stress that regularly scheduled and solicited print comics, traditionally available on Wednesdays, will continue to be available day-and-date digitally on Tuesdays moving forward."

But:

"On the other hand, DC Digital First comics will be released seven days a week, with a strikingly different trade dress that will distinguish these titles from physical versions."

Again, this seems like either DC significantly overselling the debut of some preexisting stories as a few-weeks gap-filler that are in fact not even true digital firsts, which isn't its style…

or the strategic opening overtures to the eventual actual "robust" expansion of true DC Digital "Firsts" titles and for a second time in a decade executing a significant shift in their digital strategy along with a significant overall publishing shift.

If we had to put money on it, we like the odds better on the latter - and will be on the lookout for follow-up from DC relatively soon.

More major changes to how comic books are bought and sold may still be coming.