Deep Inside The Comics Business Of 1980s & 1990s With PAUL LEVITZ

"Crisis On Infinite Earths #7" cover
Credit: George Perez (DC Comics)
Credit: Vaneta Rogers (Newsarama)

For 44 years, the name Paul Levitz has been associated with DC Comics. From his time as a young editor to his years as an acclaimed writer to his years as President and Publisher at the company, Levitz has helped define an entire era of comic book history. This month is the first time in 44 years that his name isn't on any DC Comics on store shelves.

After talking to the long-time New Yorker about his beginnings in comic books and his run on Legion of Super-Heroes, we turn to talk the ins-and-outs of comic book business from the one-time DC Publisher/President - particularly the transition in the 1980s and 1990s from a newsstand-based industry for kids to a talent-driven, story-focused entertainment industry it is today.

Newsarama: You mentioned Jim Shooter going over to Marvel, and I know there was a lot of movement, even in those days, between DC and Marvel. You never left DC. Why do you think that is?

Credit: DC Comics

Paul Levitz: When Jenette Kahn came in as DC's Publisher in 1976, remember the company was very small. There were probably only 30 of us when she got there. I ended up being one of the core group of people with her and Joe Orlando who were trying to figure out how to move the company forward.

Because I had some knowledge of business and because I was a crazy, hard-working kid who didn't have a life, I filled a lot of vacuum and a lot of gaps.

So I got to learn how to write contracts, because the lawyer who was assigned part-time to work on DC was very busy with his other gigs. So he didn't mind if I rough-drafted contracts that we needed, and he'd do whatever was necessary to polish them, and in the process teach me what I missed out on. (It was a guy named Bob Stein who's still active occasionally in the industry today. He's my own lawyer for many things to this day - a skilled and knowledgeable publishing lawyer.)

Jenette taught me a lot. Joe taught me a lot. But there wasn't much of anybody else to do things.

So I got to be the primary draftsman on the first standard written contract that DC ever used for freelancers when the copyright laws changed in the mid-'70s.

Crisis on Infinite Earths #1
Crisis on Infinite Earths #1
Credit: DC Comics

And then we had talked some time about developing a way to pay royalties, because it clearly made sense. I got to be the person who actually figured out how to make that work, how to get the parent company to approve our spending the money and then, with Jenette and Joe - and by then, Dick Giordano was with us - figure out how to apportion royalties and sort of set some standards for that going forward.

One of the more important things that I did, around the tail end of 1980 to the beginning of 1981, I moved from the editorial department, as Jenette becomes the president of the company and I moved to being what in modern terms you would define as a chief operating officer of the company, the head business guy.

I figured out ways to improve DC's way of working with the direct market, which was a small part of the industry but clearly going to be the future of the industry at that point. That was a big part of my job for the next batch of years. And how to build a real marketing team at DC, how to create an internal licensing division…

I sort of built my own job. The title changed a number of times over the next 30 years. The exact responsibilities changed a little bit, but basically the heart of the job was being the inside guy who made the place run for the next several decades.

Nrama: There were some pretty drastic continuity moves taking place during the '80s at DC, but as you mentioned, the switch from being a newsstand business to a direct market industry was also occurring during that time. Was that a scary time for you? An exciting time?

The Dark Knight Returns
The Dark Knight Returns
Credit: DC Comics

Levitz: It was very exciting because it was a chance to make the publishing side of the business profitable again, which it hadn't been. The newsstand was clearly drying up. If there had not been a direct market, my guess is that the industry as we then knew it would have disappeared by 1984 or 1985.

There still would have been some reprints and other things floating around, but no real comic book business.

The direct market was going to be a very different thing. It was going to be older readers, meaning we weren't going to be making comics for kids as an impulse purchase. What did that mean? Well, they'll probably know who the writers and artists are. They will probably buy based on that, in part. So credits on the covers, marketing things based on the name of the talent, will matter. Printing it better so people can actually see the artwork - you have to remember how dreadful the printing on most comics was in the early 1980s.

And we got to invent an awful lot of this. I got to be part of all those processes with a bunch of other really committed and talented people.

But I'm there in the middle of it, and whether it's finally working out a deal with Frank Miller to figure out how to do Dark Knight Returns or Ronin, or standing by the press watching the first off-set comic that DC produced roll off the press at 1:00 in the morning.

Those were very heady times, and I was still a very young kid - to be, whatever… 24 or 25 years old. And here I was in corporate budget meetings, with access to every contract that a comic fan would want to have a chance to read back to the beginning of comics.

To be that young have a part in shaping what the future of comics would be - I was insanely lucky.

Ronin trade
Ronin trade
Credit: DC Comics

Nrama: What was your position when there was a change to DC's relationship with Warner Bros.?

Levitz: DC and Warner Bros. were sister companies when I came on board, but the turning point administratively was in 1989, when Time and Warner merged. Prior to that, DC was part of Warner Publishing, which was a unit of Warner Communications that had a book company, MAD Magazine, DC, a newsstand distribution company, and some other minor interests.

As they were juggling out and putting together Time Warner, we were moved over to being part of Warner Bros., the movie company. We were a functional unit of that and our bosses were suddenly in Burbank, and we had to adapt to their systems in some ways.

Nrama: And what was your job at that time? That was about the time you stopped writing. Were you still basically in that operations position?

Levitz: Yeah, my job from 1981 to 2001 was basically a similar job. It was running the operations of the company. Jenette was the president of the company and the guiding force, and I was the squirrel running in the engine.

In '89, I think my formal title at that point was executive vice president and publisher. But the titles were really secondary.

Nrama: We talked about how the '80s saw the introduction of a new customer and market, reflected in the stories of that time. How did the Warner Bros. switch fit into that puzzle?

Levitz: There was very little impact in the early years of Warner Bros. Warner Publishing had been a very benevolent corporate overlord toward us; Warner Bros. equally so when we moved over there.

There were more resources available in theory and sometimes in practice. We were able to invest more in building some parts of our business, able to pay some people better, which was nice.

Credit: Warner Bros.

But generally speaking, the movie companies didn't view comics as a particularly relevant part of their world. They wanted us as part of them because we have Superman and Batman - particularly in 1989, Batman was going to be a key asset of Warner Bros. for quite a number of years (in their perception - rightfully so).

But the actual operations of a comic book company were not particularly exciting or important to anyone.

We had good bosses over there, had good relationships with them, and it meant I was on planes to Burbank more often in my life. But there weren't dramatic day-to-day changes because of it.

Nrama: You mentioned that because of you were marketing to an older customer, you had to build up the names of the talent to sell to them. That had ramifications in the early '90s with the formation of Image and other studios. Did you see that coming at all? Or did you guys question the bubble that was being created in the '90s by speculation?

Levitz: We had been expecting something on the model of Image for seven or eight years, maybe more, before it happened. It was United Artists. The model had existed historically in the movie business. It was very clear that that could happen in the comic book business.

We kind of were figuring it would be Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson, and Jim Starlin who would be likely the guys who would start it in the mid-'80s. That didn't happen.

Credit: Walter Simonson

But it was no surprise when it launched.

The timing and the success they had in the first couple of years certainly was surprising. Some of it was great. Some of it clearly was not going to be sustainable because so many of the copies weren't being sold for anybody to read, but they were being sold in carton loads for "investment." That was clearly not going to be sustainable.

I had a set of mixed feelings. On one hand, the "Death of Superman" is a wonderful thing, because you're making a lot of money for the company and you're reaching a lot of readers. And on the other hand, the part of it where you hear about people buying a full carton of it, I'm almost embarrassed to take that money. This is not what we're in business to do, but… we can't stop you.

Nrama: Did you sense that somebody was going to go down? Was there competition with Marvel at that time, heightened by the success at Image? You were on the business side of it. Did you see danger on the horizon with this for somebody? Did you feel like DC was pretty secure?

Levitz: Well, we were in a very lucky position because we had the most stable parents in town. We could always go live with mommy and daddy. There was no situation where we were in danger unless the whole business evaporated.

Credit: Dan Jurgens (DC Comics)

But we certainly knew there were risks being taken.

Ultimately, the worst disaster that hit the business was not just the speculative side of it - that was a problem. It had been a problem before, back in the black and white boom in the '80s. We saw that as a reoccurring problem.

But was the fallout from Heroes World that really damaged so many shops and closed so many retail outlets. And that was a function of what was going on at Marvel, but not what was going on at Marvel as an operating/publishing business. Most of it was what was going on because of Marvel's owners.

It was the same thing that pushed Marvel into bankruptcy. The operating business of Marvel was a very healthy business. But financier Ronald O. Perelman's manipulation of the financing at Marvel pushed them into bankruptcy. And that made it an enormously challenging time for the people who were running the company, and an enormously challenging time for the industry as a whole.

Continue on for Levitz four-part interview about all-things DC Comics Part Four, and go back for Part One and Part Two.

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