Superman is almost 74 years old, but doesn't look a day over 30. The same can be said for Batman, who's approaching age 73.
Comic book characters have a way of staying forever young, and they have that same impact on their legions of fans. That's good news for DC Direct, the merchandising arm of DC Comics, creator of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and many other comic characters. Since 1998, DC Direct has churned out more than 700 action figures and numerous statues based on these characters. Most of the products are made from PVC.
DC Direct's products are sold at more than 2,000 comic shops in the U.S. alone. Most of its products are bought by adult fans and serious collectors. (Mass-market products — those that are more intended for kids — based on DC characters are made by Mattel Inc.)
Getting products from the drawing board to the hands of collectors can be a lengthy process, according to DC Direct creative services design director Jim Fletcher.
“The whole process has to be done nine months to a year out,” he said in a recent phone interview. “We have to plan pretty far in advance.” For example, DC Direct already is at work on products based on The Dark Knight Rises, a Batman movie that won't be released until July 2012.
(Both DC Comics and DC Direct are part of the Time Warner Inc. media conglomerate, which also owns the Warner Bros. movie studio ... which is releasing the Batman movie. Sometimes, synergy is more than a buzzword.)
The product-making process begins when DC Direct chooses one of a dozen sculptors that it works with. The sculptor then often works with the artist that created that particular version of a character to make sure that the design is as accurate as possible.
“The sculptor takes the artist through the process,” Fletcher said. “One of the things DC Direct is known for is matching styles of artists. We can go from hyper-real to cartoony.”
Proving his point, Fletcher explained that DC Direct's sculptors have worked with everyone from Jim Lee — known for his realistic portrayals of Batman and more recently of the Justice League — to Sergio Aragones, the cartooning legend best known for his many cartoons in the margins of Mad Magazine. The Mad connection is appropriate, since the first figures made by DC direct were of Mad mascot Alfred E. Neuman and two versions of the Black Spy and White Spy from Mad's Spy vs. Spy feature.
Sculptors can use wax or other materials, depending on their individual preference. One challenge they sometimes face is making a sculpt based on a version of a character that's several decades old. That happened recently when DC Direct released a Batman figure based on the design of original Batman artist Bob Kane — who passed away in 1998.
“In some cases, the original artist isn't around,” Fletcher said. “Then we try to use as much reference as we can.”
Once a sculpt is made, it's sent to one of several factories in China that DC Direct works with. The factory then makes a prototype of the figure or sculpture — often in PVC, and occasionally with some ABS parts or accessories — and ships it back to the U.S. Once the prototype is reviewed and paint masters are made, it's shipped back to China for full production.
DC Direct also faces the same challenge faced by all pop culture retailers: What will fans want to buy next year?
“We have a lot of creative meetings,” Fletcher said. “Sometimes we'll know if something big's coming up with Superman or Batman. We pretty much have to be ready.”
Even then, sales of a product can be less than expected. A recent line of figures based on characters created in the 1970s by comics legend Jack Kirby didn't sell as well as Fletcher thought it would.
But, thankfully, there also are cases where a product launch exceeds expectations. That happened to DC Direct recently with a series of figures based on Blackest Night, a DC Comics series featuring numerous characters, some of whom are transformed into undead zombies.
“We jumped on Blackest Night early when we saw some designs from [writer] Geoff Johns that looked really cool,” Fletcher said. “We did eight waves of figures based on Blackest Night, and that's a lot. Fans gravitated to it.”
DC Direct also has had recent success with several waves of figures based on designs by artist Alex Ross. Figures based on Batman and related characters as seen in the Arkham City video game also have sold well.
Like all makers of plastic products, DC Direct can be affected by increases in resin pricing. The unit won't skimp on design — since high levels of detail are a main reason why fans continue to buy its products — but its products can be affected in other ways.
“Sometimes we've had to make a [figure's] cape thinner to take cost out, or eliminate an accessory like a gun or weapon,” Fletcher explained.
DC Direct products continue to sell well at Comic Heaven, a comic shop in Willoughby, Ohio. Owner Jim Williams said most of his customers who buy DC Direct figures buy them in packs of more than one figure.
“If [DC Direct] comes out with a figure they haven't done before, that will tend to sell more,” said Williams, who added that he hopes a recent price increase on the products won't affect sales.
Recent Spy vs. Spy figures sold well at Comic Heaven, as did figures based on the DC Comics series Flashpoint, Williams said.
DC Direct got a publicity boost this past summer when sculpts for several new figures debuted — and were introduced by Johns and Lee — at Comic-Con International, a massive pop culture event held every year in San Diego.
Other new products on the horizon for DC Direct include figures of Alfred E. Neuman dressed as various Justice League members. In prior years, DC Direct has made figures based on Bugs Bunny and other classic Warner Bros. Cartoon characters — also owned by Time Warner — but Fletcher said the unit has no plans to make more at the present time.
As you might expect from someone who works with superheroes everyday, Fletcher isn't afraid of what the future will hold for DC Direct and its products.
“We haven't seen a big drop-off in sales, even with the economy the way it is,” he said. “People still want these products.”