SDCC 08: From Paul Levitz's Point of View
Today, we wrap up our recounting of San Diego Comic-Con with the first part of a conversation with DC Comics President and Publisher, Paul Levitz. While we’ve spoken previously about the whys of DC coming to the convention, this year, we spoke with Levitz about the convention and DC’s movie buzz, his own experiences, and some larger DC topics.Newsarama: Paul, this year was a pretty unique year for DC at Comic-Con – you had very strong Dark Knight momentum behind you, and Watchmen momentum carrying you forward. Does that buzz play a role in how you prepare and plan for the convention? Paul Levitz: They’re sort of separate tracks. On the one hand, we were very busy with a whole host of things relating to the films, so that distracts you, or side-tracks you, however you may want to put it. On the other hand, you can’t let your confidence in the success of the films allow you to ignore the comic book business that’s going to go on here, all the projects the different imprints are going to announce, and all the things the creators want to talk to people about. San Diego, for us, has always been particularly important for showing the creators how we connect them to their readership, and you can’t just point and say, “They’re all going to love this because of the movie, so you can stay home and relax.” We have to do both things at once.
NRAMA: Before we get more into the business side of things, we spoke last year about your perspective of the con as a fan. You’ve been coming to the show now for…you’re in your thirties for attendance, right? PL: Probably…35 years now, right. NRAMA: What are your thoughts of the show this year? Certainly this year saw the most mainstream media coverage by far, and with it, a huge emphasis on the more “Hollywood” side of things that were going on… PL: I think this year I probably have less perspective on the convention as a “convention” as I’ve ever had, because of the Batman movie and the Watchmen trailer – the media involvement in the convention is so high, I’ve spent more time giving interviews than I have for comic books, which is a very odd experience for me. So I’m not sure I have a good perspective on it… NRAMA: Well let’s talk about the wave of attention that you’re getting caught up in this year – Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, G4, MTV, the New York Times, the national news feeds – everyone was at San Diego this year covering it in some way or another. What do you think about that attention in relation to the show itself and the industry? It seems that, as an industry, comics may have reached that point of “we got what we wished for…now what do we do?” Certainly from the floor, it feels as if everyone is paying attention to comics... PL: A couple of perspectives on this – one is a keynote speech I did the last year we did the San Diego Con trade show, so that’s maybe seven or eight years ago, and it was on that theme – “We won. Now what?” The good news is that the world cares about our stuff. The bad news is that increases the challenge that our stuff has to be better than ever, because it’s now competing for peoples’ attention along with other versions of entertainment with the same themes, or other stories with the same themes. The good news is that I think it opens up opportunities for creativity in comics vastly wider than that door has ever been opened in America before. The bad news that goes with it is you can’t try and make a living selling crap. We’re going to be in a time where your work has to have a personal voice, a personal vision. The great characters will be fine. The also-ran fourth imitations of the great characters may not be so fine. There’s a lot of transitional challenges for us. This is a business where creative talents who were good people and hard working and professionally competent could continue to get work year after year even if they didn’t necessarily find an audience, because no one was sure what the creative talent’s work and the audience was. Back when I came in comics, and we didn’t have credits on the stuff, if you were the weakest of the superhero artists, but a good fill-in guy, and dependable in an emergency, well, we don’t know why this month’s issue of this book did worse than anything else – at least you got it in, so terrific, we’ve got another assignment for you next month. If you’re living in a world where the critics are picking apart everything we do, and connecting it to sales logic, part of that what I said will get worse for the talent, and tougher to maintain a career. It might get harder for publishers to publish as much as they used to. We have to do our jobs better. These are class problems, but they are very real problems. The other anecdote about what you asked – the wonderful piece that ran in The New York Times a couple of months ago, David Brooks Op/Ed column – he did a piece on Alpha Geeks where he made the argument that basically, we won. We’ve altered the culture of the world…I think there’s a lot of truth in that. NRAMA: You said that you had a lot of interviews this time around, and last year, you mentioned that a lot of your time was taken up with meetings…so have you had any time on the floor at all this year? PL: I got around a little – didn’t manage to buy comics this time, though. I made it as far as Sony Online, but didn’t make it to Artists Alley, which I try to get through at least once. I did sit on a few more panels than I normally do, so that was fun. But yeah – it’s pretty hard to navigate through all of this. NRAMA: Let’s talk about the meetings that you’re a part of during the convention. Are they the high-powered get-togethers with Producers, Warner Bros. Executives and such, or are they lower key? PL: A lot of them tend to just take advantage of geography, so they tend to be a little bit of everything. I had a meeting on Sunday where four or five of us were talking about a new comic publishing project that we’re looking at developing internally for 2009 – with something like that, it was just easier to get the four or five of us together in the booth’s conference room and talk than to find times in everyone’s respective schedules and set up a conference call or the offices in New York. A lot of everything goes down out here. We’ve had meetings with film guys, meetings with TV guys, meetings with foreign publishers…we didn’t do a printer meeting this year, although we did have a chance to talk with folks that we needed to talk with on that front. NRAMA: A couple of things business-wise, leading into the show in regards to the different directions that DC is going now. A week or so before San Diego, the Motion Comics debuted. What’s your involvement in that? It seemed odd that it’s branded more Warner Premier and Warner Bros. rather than DC… PL: Well, it’s a Warner Premiere business venture. When they wanted to do it, part of my role was traveling with Diane Nelson, who ruins that division to England and sit down with Dave Gibbons and show him the stuff and see if he was okay with it, and get his input on how we could make it better. Dave got very involved and took an active role in how we were developing the Watchmen Motion Comic. Since that, I’ve been less involved, but still involved with the folks on our team which is led by Richard Bruning on this project, in discussions for what we may select as upcoming Motion Comics, what ways we might test it, and that sort of thing. NRAMA: I thought that it was odd that Superman: Red Son was listed at the show as an upcoming Motion Comic, although it wasn’t mentioned in the original news about the project. It seems to be an off choice to include in the initial wave, that is, a non-canonical, and even non-iconic Superman story which recasts Superman as a different character… PL: We’re trying an eclectic mix of things – a bunch of short stories, a bunch of things that are more animation friendly like Mad Love. I don’t have any memory of who had picked Red Son as a possibility, but it was an acclaimed Elseworlds story, and the gang took a look at it, Richard picked it apart, and felt that it would translate well into the medium – so we’re doing it. NRAMA: The other thing that was really making a debut here in a big way is DC Universe Online, the joint MMO between DC and Sony. We’ve spoken with Jim Lee about it, and have touched on it before in other ways…but what’s your take on it? PL: There’s an army of people who are enjoying playing in and with fictional universes online. Is that a different gene receptor than playing with them in your imagination or in your head and reacting to reading a comic book? Is that different than playing the old Mayfair Games DC game, or is it something different? One of the great things about our characters is their proven ability over 70 years to move form medium to medium. There’s nothing in the history of popular culture that translates as well into as many places. So that almost obligates us to experiment with each new medium as they arise, to see where they’ll have long term, good native homes. The Sony team has an enormous commitment to doing this right; Jim has great passion and has assembled a wonderful team, and has been working on this as a big part of his life for three years now. I think, if you like that kind of stuff, it should be a very good experience. The more open question is, if you haven’t experienced that kind of stuff, and you like our kind of stuff, will there be a great experience there that will bring people into it, and they’ll find that they like that kind of thing and that way of enjoying our characters? I think it’s one of the most exciting initiatives we’ve got in part because it’s native to where it’s being developed. It’s being created with an eye on taking advantage to everything that form of gaming is rather than being shoehorned into it. NRAMA: With Jim involved in the DCU online, and Jimmy Palmiotti writing the story for DCU vs. Mortal Kombat, is there a company-wide push to make sure comic creators and storytellers are at least involved in these new media initiatives with the characters? PL: We tried hard to get guys like Jimmy or Marv or Len involved in our videogame projects so that we had someone hands-on involved with the project who really had a passion for the characters and help build the bridge, and wasn’t just coming at the new project from the “approve/disapprove” standpoint. We wanted our folks to become parts of the teams and be integrated into them – sort of our embedded DC person within the troops. The difference with that and what’s going on with Sony Online is a matter of tremendous scale. We’ve embedded a whole army within their large army, and the size of that team is many times the size of a game like Mortal Kombat versus the DCU is. Check back tomorrow, as we ask Levitz his views on the “Watchmen effect” – what does he think about the trailer causing a spike in trade sales, what happens when Warner Bros. comes back to DC and asks for “Watchmen 2” and more…