It's the end of an era in graphic novel publishing. DC Comics' president and editor-in-chief, Jenette Kahn, who's been running the company since the mid-'70s, will step down by the end of 2002, and executive v-p and publisher Paul Levitz will assume her duties, in addition to his own. Levitz took a few minutes recently to look back over Kahn's career and his own, and to talk to PW about DC's future book publishing plans.
Levitz credits Kahn with giving creators an economic stake in their work and fostering the creative environment that's allowed DC to build its backlist. He told PW, "In the mid-'70s, Jenette was really the first executive at any of the major comics publishers who believed that treating creative people with respect was critical to the success of the business. In the book field, that's a commonplace, but for comics, it was a fairly radical idea. It was both morally the right thing to do and good business. She was able to begin the process of getting creative work done at the major companies."
Things won't be changing much under Levitz, especially in book publishing. "For the majority of the last decade, it's been my responsibility more than hers," he said. Levitz has hired Dan DiDio as v-p, editorial, with a mandate "to improve the level of energy and aggression in buying our upscale material—particularly, as we get larger and larger, we don't want the process of acquisition to slow down."
The Kahn/Levitz era's biggest innovation now seems obvious: keeping the best comics DC published in print as books. The key decision—to do book-format collections and to keep them in print—began with Frank Miller's bestselling The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, Levitz noted, "which no American comics publisher had done up to that time. In the early '90s, we began to create a set of economic incentives for the distributors that served comics shops to invest in backlist—the whole idea of backlist was fairly nuts as far as they were concerned."
The development of DC's backlist for comics shops also meant the list was available for bookstores through DC's corporate parent, Time Warner, and, over the last five years, the backlist has seen double-digit annual sales growth. "I think we're still trying to learn how to reach a new audience through bookstores, and that's a very exciting prospect for us," Levitz said.
Levitz also takes over Kahn's role as a liaison between the publishing company and its sister divisions in film and television. DC's taken some heat for not immediately releasing a tie-in title to the hit TV series Smallville, an updated version of the Superman story. The problem, Levitz said, is that "doing a TV series, you don't know what it looks like until after you've filmed a few. It's actually easier to do a YA novel or a mainstream novel, both of which we're doing for Smallville, more quickly than it is to do a comic book. But we will be doing a comic with Mark Verheiden, who's one of the writers on the show."
And despite steadily shrinking sales of monthly comics, Levitz doesn't see them being supplanted by graphic novels altogether: "The majority of our customers still come to read our material on a weekly basis [as comic books]. The comic format has clearly not had the kind of growth the book format has in the last few years, but the book format has revealed a market of people who want to buy and read titles six or 10 times a year. That's a very different behavior pattern than the one our customers have had for a long time."