January 2014 | Case Studies | Casebook

Heroic Logistics Saves the Day for DC Comics

Tags: Demand Planning, Global Logistics, Manufacturing

Comic book covers

DC Comics' September 2013 covers feature an unusual print technology to showcase its biggest villains in 3D. Applying lenticular technology to comic books for the first time created myriad logistics challenges for the publisher. 

The DC Comics team leaps into action to create special 3D covers for 52 titles, fighting evil production setbacks along the way.

In 2011, multimedia company DC Entertainment — publisher of DC Comics — made a groundbreaking decision: To hit the reset button on its 52 monthly titles, which include Batman, Superman, Swamp Thing, and Aquaman. The September 2011 relaunch—called The New 52—was a huge success, reinvigorating the DC Comics universe and attracting new fans to the comic book company's base of loyal followers.

As the second anniversary of the relaunch approached, the publisher wanted to commemorate the occasion. After discussions with his staff, Dan DiDio, co-publisher at DC Entertainment—which operates offices in New York City and Burbank, Calif.—decided to celebrate the anniversary with three-dimensional covers on the September 2013 issues of all 52 DC Comics titles.

The move would require a radical departure from the normal process of publishing a comic book. Typically, the editorial department places the issue's storyline six months before the publication date. Three months in advance, the writer crafts the story, and one month later, artists pencil, ink, color, and letter the issue. Finally, the completed art heads to the printer in time to drop at comic book stores about two weeks prior to the on-sale date.

Meanwhile, three months before the book hits shelves, the sales staff is talking to comic shop owners about upcoming issues, and the distributor, Diamond Comics, takes title-by-title orders, so DC knows how many copies to print.

To attain its bold vision for the special September 2013 covers, DC's staff would have to rework that process. Cover concepts would need to be created before editors knew what storyline would appear in the September issue. Artists would be asked to develop images in a new way, suitable for 3D viewing. Covers would have to be printed at a different facility and location, then married up with the interiors. Production planners would be called on to determine print run quantities even before orders were collected.

"The scope seemed daunting," admits DiDio. Nevertheless, the DC Comics team steeled itself to tackle the challenge.

Forecasting Fan Reaction

Comic book fans are a passionate group, eagerly anticipating the next issue of their favorite titles, and unrestrained in their feedback about the direction a story or character is taking. Many are ardent collectors as well as fans, with some even buying two copies of a title—one to preserve, the other to read. DiDio knew that the 3D art would be a hit.

The question was, how much of a hit would it be?

Typically, DC can base its print runs on a combination of past sales activity and orders placed from comic shops. Store owners know their clientele, and are the best source of information on what titles are resonating and what demand will be. But because of the many steps involved in creating the covers, it wouldn't be possible for DC to shop samples around so store owners could see what the covers would look like in time to place orders. DC executives would have to forecast demand.

DC tested the whole process by creating a very limited run of a specialty book, Superman Unchained. A few months before the issues shipped, DC distributed it as an incentive to retailers at regional road shows to generate excitement. The publisher also began releasing animated image files to the media, so fans online could get a sneak peek.

Thematically, each of the 52 issues featured one of DC's classic villains. They dubbed September "Villains Month," tying it into a popular mini-series called Forever Evil that focused on villains' storylines.

A Whole New Angle

The challenge of guessing at print runs would pale in comparison to turning an idea into 52 separate works of art via a new medium: lenticular technology.

Lenticular technology involves printing an interlaced image, comprised of numerous images from different perspectives, on the back of a plastic lenticular lens. The lens serves different perspectives of the interlaced image to each eye,creating a stereographic view—essentially giving two-dimensional prints the appearance of three-dimensionality, without the need for 3D glasses. These images have been appearing in a variety of places, but never before on U.S. comic book covers, and with a feel close to that of paper.

The company that holds the rights to lenticular technology, National Graphics, had approached DC a few years earlier with the idea of using the technology for comic book covers.

"We knew we had to find the right way and time," DiDio says. "We finally found a celebratory event."

Until DC pulled the trigger, National Graphics' full-wrap lenticular printing technology had only been used on one other periodical's cover: an issue of Rolling Stone. It was uncertain the technique could scale to the scope DC was planning, and there was no roadmap to follow to ensure everything would go smoothly—which may be one reason it didn't.

Assembling the Team

All 52 titles in DC's regular run are printed in Montreal, Canada, one month prior to their ship date. But lenticular printing requires much different equipment and materials. DC's production staff located a printer in China that owned the right type of presses.

Next, they had to find a provider that could supply the tons of plastic required—based on a guess at how much would be needed to cover the planned print run, as well as enough extra to accommodate the expected damages and waste.

They decided they would need more than 2.5 million covers in total—25 percent more than the print run for a very successful month. "We found ourselves grabbing every piece of available plastic we could find in one of the key provinces," says DiDio.

Production Begins

In April and May 2013, a team of artists—separate from those working on the inside of the books—created each of the 52 covers, developing five different images for each one, with help from the vendor's production studio.

Unlike typical covers, which tie closely into the storyline, these would feature individual images of each of DC's infamous villains dominating the foreground, while a detailed background image includes the hero—usually the prominently featured star of the title—in peril. The same process was applied to the back-cover ads, while inside-cover ads were laminated.

When the art was ready, members of the production staff flew to China to oversee the first print attempts—and get a crash course in the vagaries of plastics, humidity, and 3D printing.

One hiccup occurred when the plastic was brought in from a climate with different humidity levels, but not given enough time to adjust. The plastic cooled improperly after the printing process, creating dimpling that ruined the print run.

Early proofs also revealed that in the deepest planes of the image, fine lines would blur, distorting the image. That meant trashing about 150,000 covers, and re-creating the art to address the problem.

The window of opportunity to complete the print run and transport the completed covers by ocean, rather than air freight, was threatening to close. Presses ran around the clock until the run was complete. The entire print job took nearly two months.

"It was a massive learning project, figuring out the kinks," says DiDio. "Over the two-month process, it was touch-and-go two or three times."

Fortunately, the plastics supply was adequate, and the covers were completed in time. The production staff secured space on a steamship in the China-to-Vancouver lane—a new undertaking for a department accustomed to moving everything via truck. But that wasn't the end of the trouble.

The next deadline was at DC's Montreal-based printer, where the covers would be married up with the interior pages. The production department arranged for over-the-road transport from Vancouver to the Montreal plant, anxiously awaiting delivery.

But then the carrier lost visibility to the two trucks for two days. And when the shipment finally resurfaced, one pallet had tipped over inside the truck, damaging some of the covers. Fortunately, the durable plastic meant the damage was less than it would have been for paper.

The trial run of the incentive title had primed the printer for the process of binding the lenticular covers to the rest of the books, and the remainder of the production process went more smoothly. DC was able to meet its deadline, and produce all 52 titles in time for the second anniversary of the relaunch.

Magnified Success

The results were a win for everyone. DC Entertainment posted one of its strongest sales months in the history of the company. DC Comics' share of dollars spent in the direct market rose 10 points from 30.2 percent to 40.4 percent for September 2013, according to comics industry website BleedingCool.com.

Comic shops benefited as well, creating excitement among customers, and boosting revenue, because the books were priced slightly higher to cover the additional costs. More than three-quarters of the 52 titles sold out completely.

After some initial shortages for pre-orders because demand outstripped supply, DC was able to fill back orders from a stash of 50,000 books it had planned for waste. Several titles with lenticular covers now sell on eBay for many times their cover price.

DC isn't rushing to repeat the process just yet—it will be reserved for special occasions. But the experience did teach some valuable lessons in how to plan and execute such a complex and ground-breaking event. For example, "We got strong feedback from retailers that they want to be more involved in the process," says DiDio.

Hard Work Pays Off

Despite the significant technical and logistical challenges, DC is satisfied with the results of the effort.

"It was an exciting time for us because it was so innovative," says DiDio. "You could see the level of excitement everyone shared as we kept trying and figuring it out. I was challenging the staff, but they rose to the occasion."

Next time they're faced with a daunting production and logistics scenario, the DC Comics team will be suited up and ready for action.