Reading the Tea Leaves: Bob Harras Named Editor-In-Chief of DC

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Yesterday, DC Entertainment announced that its comics division’s new editor-in-chief was Bob Harras. A couple of things immediately seemed curious about that appointment. One was that DC hadn’t actually had an editor-in-chief since Jenette Kahn (who held the position for 22 years) left in 2002. The other is that Harras has already been an editor-in-chief: he held that position at Marvel Comics from 1995 to 2000, which was not exactly Marvel’s most fondly remembered era.

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That said, Harras isn’t a terribly surprising pick, either. For the last few years, he’s been running DC’s Collected Editions division, the one area where they’re clearly a market leader. (Among other things, they currently kick Marvel’s ass in bookstore sales–by close to a five-to-one ratio in 2009.) Not all of their recent format experiments have worked out (although a few, like Showcase Presents, have been solidly successful), and a few key titles have fallen out of print from time to time, but they’re generally pretty good at getting almost everything the company publishes collected and packaged in a way that bookstores know how to sell. Harras-era Marvel, despite the financial and distribution problems it had to struggle with, did have some very successful publishing initiatives (the Ultimate line was one of his legacies). And at a moment when DC’s dealing with severe turbulence–rumored extensive layoffs, bicoastal reorganization, scrambling to keep on top of a changing marketplace–it’s probably a wise move for them to reinstate a high-level editorial position and fill it with someone who’s been in the business a long time and has experience running a mainstream comics imprint.

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Of course, “editor-in-chief” at DC in 2010 may well mean something very different from what it meant at Marvel in 1995. DC now has a position it didn’t have in Kahn’s day: Chief Creative Officer, which is what Geoff Johns is doing. It may well be that Harras’s version of editor-in-chief-dom will have less to do with determining story content and overall creative direction than with keeping the various publication lines at DC running smoothly, keeping an eye on the market (he’s got a lot of experience thinking in terms of the long-term publication life of a project rather than just its immediate performance as a pamphlet), and bringing in new talent. Harras is also generally good at maintaining friendly relationships with big-name creators–with a few notable exceptions–and that’s something DC could really use right now, after years of creative brain-drain.