3D is evil for September's DC Comics

DC Comics' September covers feature unusual print tech to showcase its biggest villains in 3D -- without the aid of annoying glasses. But just like the best bad guys, these comics come with a controversy.

Seth Rosenblatt Former Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
Seth Rosenblatt
6 min read

Somewhere in China, an entire province recently went without plastic cups for a month, according to DC Comics' co-publisher Jim Lee, in the service of the nefarious needs of DC Comics' "Villains Month."

The comics publisher bought the equivalent of a month's worth of plastic production from a factory in China to produce the unusual 3D covers that will be invading comics shops starting on Wednesday, throughout the month of September.

The cover art showcases 3D motion without the use of 3D glasses by printing the artwork directly in the plastic, said Lee's publishing partner Dan DiDio.

"We came across the technology about a year ago," DiDio said, from a company called National Graphics that specializes in a lenticular printing technique to give two-dimensional prints the appearance of three-dimensionality. Usually, though, the company prints on harder plastic items like cups, not plastic designed to feel like high-end paper.

Batman: Joker 23.1 from DC Comics

"It's extremely cost-prohibitive, but we found an event that was unique enough for it," DiDio said.

The bad guys won, so you get 3D comics covers That "event" is the Villains Month books, where the bad guys, having scored a decisive victory against all the superheroes last month, have not only taken over their Earth, but our comics. So, the Batman books will be replaced by a Joker comic, a Two-Face comic, and so on -- the replacement list is not exactly one-to-one, although there will be 52 Villains Month books plus one limited-edition cover for the "special event" comic, Forever Evil, which is the first chapter of the bad guy takeover.

The books will sell for $3.99, a dollar more in most cases than DC's standard superhero comics. Because of high demand for the 3D covers, DC said that a standard 2D version will be available at $2.99.

Each cover will have different actions. As you can see in the short video below, the Two-Face book that DC sent to CNET makes it seem like the scarred district attorney is flipping his marred two-headed silver dollar at you from the page. The Poison Ivy book has her plant tendrils reaching out toward the reader.

See the layers of a 3D comic book cover (pictures)

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"You're trying to capture the spirit of the villain," Lee said, adding that the intent was to "create something that has that real depth-of-field, and to use the technology itself.

Under the 3D cover The Villains Month covers required the artists to create five layers to the artwork, DiDio said. "There's the hero in the background, two layers of the villain, one layer for the villains power, and the logo layer," he said. Each layer had to be wholly separate from the rest.

The covers posed several logistical problems for DC that a normal comic book cover wouldn't. Because the covers had to be printed in China, they had also had to be shipped to Canada, where they could be merged with the guts of the comic.

But because they were printed on plastic, and at such a high print run, the air freight option was too expensive. Instead, the covers had to be ferried.

"It required an extra three months lead time to produce the covers," said Lee, a much longer lead time than a normal comic book cover requires.

On top of that, the technology has never been used for such a large print run before. DC printed up more than 2.5 million Villains Month 3D covers. The previous print record for this kind of cover had been a 100,000 print run for a limited edition Rolling Stone cover.

"They had to go from zero to a thousand in no time," DiDio said. Not only that, but the 2.5 million total print run represents around 25 percent more books than DC usually prints in a month, he said.

Besides the logistics of getting an enormous shipment of heavier covers across the Pacific without damaging them, Lee explained that sometimes there were problems related to the art itself.

On the 3D cover to the Joker book (seen above,) he said that originally, "the Joker layer didn't work well. There were too many lines, and they were muddied. Our art director, Mark Chiarello, had to go in and clean it up to make this technology work better."

DC had to destroy a test print run cover based on their new hit Superman comic. "We had little plastic dimples in places on the Superman Unchained test cover," DiDio said. "And then we actually threw away over 170,000 Joker covers because they were too blurry to be used."

This was not a one-off occurrence, either, Lee said.

"Depending on how the layers were sealed, we had to go back and clean it up. Even heat fluctuations [in the factory] would affect how it dried," Lee said. "We have to credit Allison Gill and our entire production department."

The production department scrutinized the covers to such a degree that they had to check the printed barcodes, to make sure that they still worked in their 3D forms.

Batman and Robin: Two-Face 23.1 from DC Comics

This is the second year in a row that DC has had an "event" to try to attract new readers since it re-launched its superhero line in 2011. September 2012 featured "Zero Month," showcasing the origins of its rebooted heroes.

As with last year's promotion, the overall goal is to draw new readers to DC's superhero books. "I imagine that a reader will come into the shop and see these out of the corner of his eye, and that will catch his attention," said Lee. "That highlights what this month is all about."

That goal might be harder to reach than DC anticipates. The lenticular covers won't be available digitally, of course, but they may not even be available in your local comic book shop, either.

Too good of a gimmick? Brian Hibbs, a San Francisco retailer who has been behind the counter at Comix Experience for 24 years, was a founding member of the comics retailer group ComicsPRO, and successfully sued Marvel in the 1990s for breach of contract, said that before the books even shipped DC had allocated them, which means that many books won't be available to people who didn't pre-order them.

"Whatever the actual formula for DC's allocation was (and it wasn't directly stated), it has left many stores without enough stock to fill pre-orders, let alone rack the 3D covers," Hibbs said.

Gary Dills Jr., co-owner of the Laughing Ogre Comics chain based in northern Virginia and Columbus, Ohio, and also a ComicsPRO founding member, reported similar challenges on the other side of the US.

"We are ordering the standard covers on a case-by-case basis," he said, adding that interest over last weekend from shops and customers was high. "There will be six to a dozen of these books that will not hit the floor in most or many shops, those are the ones where having the 2D versions [on the] same day will at least make the content available to people."

DC has said that retailers who get shorted on their 3D covers will get a 2D cover instead and won't be charged to return any of the 2D editions. Where Hibbs and Dills differ is that Dills is more comfortable with using the 2D covers as a suitable replacement for the 3D version.

"Clearly, the market would have responded very differently to this promotion (and, I firmly believe, with stronger orders all around) had all of the information been provided to all parties from the start," Hibbs wrote in an e-mail to CNET.

Detective Comics: Poison Ivy 23.1 from DC Comics

What's not clear is whether the stories inside the covers will be enough to draw people to buy the 2D versions when the 3D comics sell out, or to stick around after the 3D comics sell through. Will you come for the cover, and stay for the story?

"The worst part of this is that it will be claimed as victory regardless of how many retailers get burned one way or another," said Hibbs in a lengthy blog post about the controversy. He did concede that, "it will be successful financially."

DC's Lee thinks that there will be enough of the lenticular covers to attract new readers. "If you're going to do something cool on a cover, it shouldn't just be a stunt for stunts sake. It should be something that demands being picked up, create curiosity for what's inside," he said.

Will the Villains Month 3D covers withstand the threat of speculation and eBay re-sales and draw in new comics readers? Or will greed win the day?

One thing's for sure: Tell your comic book shop which 3D cover you want now, unless paying more than cover price is the kind of evil you're comfortable with.

Disclosure: The author has bought comics from Brian Hibbs for 20 years. His parents think it's evil that he's kept most of them.