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The Man Who Couldn't Shoot Straight
Excerpt from ¡Journalista! for September 10, 2009
(Note: Red text indicates a dead link.)

 

"She doesn't use the noun 'comics' even one time.

"That terrifies me."

 

Time Warner has enacted a fundamental restructuring of the DC Comics corporate structure, removing Paul Levitz as publisher and replacing him with Diane Nelson, who will report directly to Warner Bros Pictures Group president Jeff Robinov. A new umbrella company, DC Entertainment, will work to create more of that magic "synergy" that corporate executives and shareholders so love:

DC Entertainment, a separate division of WBEI, will be charged with strategically integrating the DC Comics business, brand and characters deeply into Warner Bros. Entertainment and all its content and distribution businesses. DC Entertainment, which will work with each of the Warner Bros. divisions, will also tap into the tremendous expertise the Studio has in building and sustaining franchises and prioritize DC properties as key titles and growth drivers across all of the Studio, including feature films, television, interactive entertainment, direct-to-consumer platforms and consumer products. The DC Comics publishing business will remain the cornerstone of DC Entertainment, releasing approximately 90 comic books through its various imprints and 30 graphic novels a month and continuing to build on its creative leadership in the comic book industry.

First and foremost, congratulations to Time Warner for finally getting rid of Paul Levitz. It should have happened long ago, of course, but better late than never.

While he's managed to rack up a few genuine and admirable accomplishments during his time with DC Comics (not least being his early support for Phil Seuling and the Direct Market), one has to ask: How many initiatives has Levitz botched over the years? From the serial alienation of the company's most profitable writer, Alan Moore, to the unholy debacle that was Minx — one of the many, many publishing lines created under his oversight that were badly conceived, badly executed, badly managed and badly promoted from start to finish — Levitz has in recent years presided over what can only be described as one of the most embarrassing periods in DC Comics' corporate history.

Take just one innovation often erroneously credited to Levitz: The move toward graphic novels and book collections. While it's true that DC began collecting their works into book form in the 1980s, it's not like they were the only ones doing so at the time, or even among the first wave to do so. To give credit to Levitz is to take it away from such actual pioneers as Will Eisner and Terry Nantier. Hell, Marvel teamed up with Simon & Schuster to produce a Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Silver Surfer book back in 1978, and began their own book line contemporaneously with DC in the early 1980s... along with Eclipse, First, Kitchen Sink, Fantagraphics and any number of others. Further, while the mid-1980s saw such successful DC books as Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and and V for Vendetta, such works were very much the exception to the rule in terms of quality. The vast majority of DC's output at the time was second-rate superhero hackwork that, far from pushing the medium forward, was haphazardly assembled and dumped onto the market without the slightest effort at sustained marketing. This had the effect of drowning the works that might have appealed to non-comics reading "civilians" in a sea of godawful crap, strangling the first attempt at a graphic-novel revolution in the crib, hampering the efforts of non-superhero publishers to stand out past the usual drivel and setting the viability of the form back by a decade. As Alan Moore once put it:

You could just about call Maus a novel, you could probably just about call Watchmen a novel, in terms of density, structure, size, scale, seriousness of theme, stuff like that. The problem is that "graphic novel" just came to mean "expensive comic book" and so what you'd get is people like DC Comics or Marvel comics — because "graphic novels" were getting some attention, they'd stick six issues of whatever worthless piece of crap they happened to be publishing lately under a glossy cover and call it The She-Hulk Graphic Novel, you know? It was that that I think tended to destroy any progress that comics might have made in the mid-'80s. The companies, the marketing people, who are not terribly bright individuals, they're not terribly creative, they don't really have the hang of — well, I mean, they really haven't got the hang of the 1970s yet, so the 21st century is a long way behind them and they think in very short term measures and consequently they were more or less to blame for destroying whatever kind of momentum the comic book picked up in the '80s by immediately using it predictably to sell a load of Batman, Spiderman shit.

The damage that Paul Levitz did to comics over the years wasn't by any means restricted to one company or format: If Marvel's mid-1990s decision to buy Heroes World was the first shot in the Distributor Wars that ultimately crippled the Direct Market, DC's exclusivity deal with Diamond Comics Distributors — the first such deal signed, and the one that kicked said war into high gear — was the second. Had that deal not been made, it's entirely likely that Diamond might not be the de-facto monopoly that it is today, to say nothing of the many people who might still be in business had it not been for the catastrophic orgy of fear and greed that followed Marvel and DC's collective stupidity. Along with Ron Perelman, you can at least partly blame Paul Levitz for all that.

In more recent years, Levitz' principal failings as a publisher could usually be attributed to a management philosophy best described as "Hey, Time Warner! Look over there, fa-a-a-ar away from me." I've spoken with numerous DC employees over the years who've been frustrated with the company's cover-your-ass culture, an atmosphere that in all fairness predates Levitz but was nonetheless nurtured and encouraged by his inability to see projects through and utter failure to understand what a long-term publishing strategy looks like. Consequently one well-meaning initiative after another fell apart in his hands, and employees found themselves trying to dodge institutionally mandated failure rather than building careers based around their successes. Make no mistake: Under Paul Levitz, DC's second-banana status was essentially set in cement.

Look, I have no doubt that he's a nice guy — as you'll see from the praise of several creators linked below, Levitz was instrumental in making contracts more fair for the writers and artists published by DC, at least until recently — but I also have no doubt that he was a timid and incompetent executive in far too many ways where it counted. It remains to be seen whether incoming president Diane Nelson can turn things around — indeed, whether doing so is even on her agenda, given the clear emphasis on multimedia synergy over actual funnybook sales — but can there be any doubt that the removal of her predecessor is the jacks-or-better needed to open?

Anyway, on to the links. Here are official statements from Diane Nelson, Paul Levitz and Vertigo editor Karen Berger, and here's Jonah Weiland's post-announcement interview with Nelson and Levitz. For further commentary, here's Rich Johnston, Tom Spurgeon, Johanna Draper Carlson, Mark Evanier, John Jackson Miller, Christopher Bird, Valerie D'Orazio, Rick Marshall, Christopher Butcher and Kevin Church. As noted above, the Paul Levitz haliographies have begun popping up around the Internet: Here's Kurt Busiek, Marv Wolfman and David Pepose, and here's ICv2, turning whitewash into comedy:

The fact that a major film adapting Watchmen was finally made was a reflection of the strong ties Levitz helped build with the movie-making apparatus of DC's corporate parent, and the fact that it didn't suck was reflective of the care with which media deals were done, always protective of the company's jewels.

For the record: Zack Snyder's Watchmen adaptation sucked donkey balls, and bombed at the box office to such an extent that it effectively killed the very idea of another "superhero movie for adults" getting the green light any time in the forseeable future. As for "the strong ties Levitz helped build with the movie-making apparatus of DC's corporate parent," I'm curious: Would that have been before or after the deal with Fox, which resulted in a lawsuit that rendered the movie even less likely to earn substantial profits for Time Warner? And if those ties are so strong, why exactly is Levitz being replaced, again...?

 

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