Feature Interview: DC’s J’el Ehrlich explains why Superman has endured

DC Comics introduced America to the comic book more than 60 years ago (New Fun #1 in 1935) and shortly afterwards invented a whole new universe of fantasy and adventure with the introduction of Superman, the first in an ever-growing entertainment...
January 1, 1997

DC Comics introduced America to the comic book more than 60 years ago (New Fun #1 in 1935) and shortly afterwards invented a whole new universe of fantasy and adventure with the introduction of Superman, the first in an ever-growing entertainment species called the superher’es.

Consumer marketplace dynamics have changed irrecognizably since the Depression era, yet many of the characters who sprang from the imaginations of illustrators and writers of the ’30s are just as relevant to audiences of the ’90s. Whether as toys, promotional vehicles for major consumer-goods companies, or the lead roles in upcoming blockbuster film and television shows, the superher’es continue to keep people entertained.

As senior vice president of promotions at DC Comics and Warner Bros. Consumer Products, J’el Ehrlich (formerly of Marvel Entertainment Group) is the custodian of DC’s superher’es’ public personae, as well as the marketing contact for those marketing partners who want to tie in to the DC brands.

Ehrlich, who is in the midst of planning a promotional extravaganza around this summer’s release of Warner Bros.’ latest Batman feature film, Batman and Robin, spoke with KidScreen recently about some of the marketing challenges facing such long-lived properties.

Superman, Batman and some of the other original superher’es were created by a group of people who developed characters with real-life problems and real-life issues that audiences could relate to.

Their stories were exciting, yet they had a soap opera feel to them. They were richly textured characters who lived in fantastic settings.

Whereas today, look at something like the Power Rangers. They were a real phenomenon. But three or four years from now, I doubt that there will be many people who will be able to remember their names, or where they came from. Those characters just don’t have the depth. You don’t know about their personal lives. You don’t know the interpersonal relationships between the characters, not in the same way that you knew that Superman had this thing with Lois Lane. That’s what gives characters depth and makes audiences relate to them, no matter what form you see them in, whether in a comic book or an animated TV show or a movie.

In fairness, today, you are creating characters with multi-media applications in mind. The focus is, ‘let’s create a character who will be an immediate success on television, usually animation, and commercially successful as a toy.’ That means making a quick hit that is able to transcend the various forms of entertainment, as opposed to developing a character that can evolve over time and really build a relationship with an audience.

Superman has been around in one form or another continuously for almost 60 years. He’s always been there in the form of a book or comic or TV show or movie. And the secret to keeping him fresh and relevant is to always make his life interesting.

Despite their powers, and the fact that they may be out to save the world, the superher’es still had real-life problems. They faced the same kinds of crises that we all face.

In 1992, there was a feeling at DC that Superman was a point in his life where he had become invulnerable. He could never be overcome. There was no one who could defeat him, and we were worried that this might take something away from him as a character-that people would find him too indestructible. The fact is that as much as we like our her’es to win, we also like them to be vulnerable so that we can be surprised.

So we killed him-or at least a mega-villain named Doomsday did. He died and for three months, we stopped publishing Superman, and people were blown away. To all the world, this decades-old superhero was gone. And people thought, ‘These people at DC must be kidding.’ When people saw there was no new comic book over three months, they started flipping out. We sold 25 million of that series. It was on the cover of The New York Times and every other major newspaper. Right there on the front page next to the article covering the President’s trip to Israel.

Of course we brought him back, but there was that sense that he was vulnerable, and that if he didn’t do the right thing, he could be defeated.

I think it’s also important that, every couple of years, an event takes place in Superman’s life that takes him to a different set of problems. He just got married. After a 60-year courtship with Lois Lane, he got married. And that’s created a whole new buzz and potential for new story lines.

Same thing is true of Batman. After so many years of having Batman playing the lead role in the Batman and Robin relationship, now (in the feature film Batman and Robin scheduled for release this summer), we’re going to have Batman in a world where Robin says, ‘Hold on a minute, I’m not your number two anymore. I’m equal to you.’ So in the film, there is a whole new relationship in which Robin has his own vehicle and his own life and even a Batgirl to contend with.

Kids’ awareness of things around them is truly unprecedented. They have been able to catch up to their adult counterparts. You can’t trick them. They know more than ever before, so when you create for them, you have to entertain, be as

cool as ever and give them some information they can use.

They really want to know about our characters. They ask questions. You can’t just give them stuff and expect them to accept it. Kids today will challenge you. They question everything.

Yet the irony is that for all of that sophistication, the one thing that remains true about kids is their desire for fantasy and adventure.

There’s a lot of pressure on kids at school, with grades and among peers, as well as having to deal with a nanosecond world.

At the same time, they’re being bombarded with commercials, new TV stations, computers, the Internet. In every room, there’s a TV and a VCR. So there’s so much coming at them now that maybe now more than ever before, kids want to escape into fantasy. They respond extremely well to these superhero characters who are living in a fantasy world and whose adventures are simply beyond anything that these kids could come up with themselves.

The world of entertainment has changed so much. It is so much more competitive. There is so much more choice and the consumer has become very sharp. We need those retailers and manufacturers and packaged-goods partners, and they need us.

These three factions have embraced each other out of necessity and have said, ‘We’d better all work together because if we don’t, we’ll never achieve anything alone.’

Here is something that has never happened before in the history of this business: You can go out on a studio lot and in the commissary, you can hear a conversation about George Clooney [the star of the next Batman movie], while at the next table, there will be a conversation about Kraft and Burger King, and at another, a conversation about Wal-Mart, Kmart and Toys ‘R’ Us.

And I’m sure if you went to Kellogg or Wal-Mart, you’d probably hear people talking about the next hit movie. ‘Is there any way we can help the studios using our relationship with our consumers?’

In the end, I think the consumer is winning because overall we are making more exciting and more sophisticated products. You cannot make inferior products and force them onto consumers. Those days are long gone.

My job us to caress and nurture these characters, and to make sure they are being used in character. My job has become one where I listen and try to help people, as opposed to selling and giving them the rights to the characters.

In the old days, I would go in as the marketer of an intellectual property and I would talk about Q Scores, ratings and the essential components of the character.

Now, my role is more one of asking the clients a whole bunch of questions about their businesses so that I can match what I’ve got with the client’s needs.

More often than not, I’m going into a meeting to say, ‘OK, here is the incredible Batman. I’m prepared to offer you Batman, as well as the 16 doors that are open to you should you choose to buy into him-like the studio stores, theme parks, licensing, home video, DC Comics, Warner On-line, Wal-Mart, Kmart.’

Today, the real work often begins after the client says, ‘Yeah, I’m thinking of utilizing your character.’

For some reason, mankind has this one common characteristic called insecurity. No one seems to have a really great image of themselves. I would say that it’s very, very rare to meet someone who I would describe as a very secure person. The ability to wear something and make a statement through another character gives people a good feeling, whether it’s a Batman logo or a Michael Jordan cap or a Chicago Bulls sweatshirt. I think [licensing] fills a really basic psychological need for identity.

When you put on the ‘S’ shield, you’re not saying you’re Superman, but you are making a statement. There’s something to it. Kids in particular use it as a means of interacting with the characters that they love and of being cool to their peers.

I think licensing is here to stay and I don’t think it’s peaked. There’s so much out there that people have a great deal to choose from, so in that sense, the more there is of licensed products, the better. And it will always change-like fashion styles.

Retailers have, out of necessity, become some of the most sophisticated marketers around today. Look at Sears. What a turnaround.

Why? Because they recruited the right marketing people. They made the right commitments. They really tried to understand who they are and who their customers are. One minute, we hear that Sears is dead, and now, we hear about a new Sears that is appealing to a new customer. I applaud that.

Look at Wal-Mart. It’s incredible what they have accomplished all the way from their commitment to service to the way their stores are laid out to branding credit cards.

Kmart, same thing. These guys were seeing their epitaph being written a couple of years ago, and now they’ve turned it around.

Five or seven years ago, the message was, ‘Retailers, you’d better get your act together.’ Now they have, and in the process, they’ve learned how to get the most out of their partners. They’ve learned to ask for certain things from people like us, which in some sense has made life more difficult, but at the same time, has improved our relationship and the manufacturers as well.

I think what they’ve said to us is, ‘OK, let’s truly be partners. Let’s not just fake it, and if we’re going to take risks for you, we want you to take risks for us. We want you to really care and learn about our business.’

We’ve recognized that we cannot live without the retailer. And the retailer in turn has learned that partnering with us and being more aggressive is going to result in a better product and a better story to tell to the consumer.

About The Author


Brand Menu