At the San Diego Comic-Con International in July, we sat down with DC Comics President and Publisher Paul Levitz, joined by Vice President Direct Sales Bob Wayne, and conducted this extensive three-part interview. In Part I, we talk about the state of the comic market in comic stores, book stores, and the newsstand channel. In Part II, we talked about the impact of movies on comic sales, and about DC's aggressive move into importing European material into the U.S. this year (see 'Interview with DC Prez Paul Levitz, Part II'). In Part III, we talked about how comic stores can share in the growth in book format comic sales, and about the challenges facing the market (see 'Interview with DC Prez Paul Levitz, Part III').
I usually start off these conversations by talking about the market. Tell me what you see in the direct market this year, compared to last year?
Levitz: I think we've had a pretty healthy situation overall. My sense seems to be that the periodical side of the business is up a reasonable, modest growth level, probably a little better than the market. A couple of small guys got beaten up pretty badly this year, so some of their share's gone. Marvel's had a good year. We've had an up year.
In the numbers we're seeing, periodicals are up nicely, into double digits.
Levitz: Yeah, maybe just into double digits--healthier than the past couple of years. The book formats are continuing to grow at just a wonderful pace, both in the comic shop side and the book distribution channel. When you look at the long-term effect of increased mainstream reviewing of comics, the increased range of what's taken seriously as comics, all of that continues to bode well.
That New York Times Magazine story was unbelievable (see 'Cover Story in Graphic Novels in NY Times Magazine'). When you start to say it's the next form of literature, you can't get much better than that.
Levitz: The last time the Times did a long story in the magazine section about comics was in '89 when it looked at the dark side of this stuff, and [said] maybe no human being should be allowed to read it. That's pretty good progress. You can argue about which stuff they chose to decide was the best literature, but the fact that they'll call any of it literature is wonderful progress. We're just generally seeing that in most of the coverage for the last year (for example in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie reviews which kept talking about how much better the source material was than the movie). The level of cultural literacy that comics are an interesting form is higher than it's been in the time any of us have been around the market.
Wayne: At the same time the DC direct business is up by a very healthy margin, with the changes we've made, the new interpretations of the characters we're doing. We also have a bit of a ripple in some of the books [from toys]. When we do a Kingdom Come action figure wave, we also do another real good order session with Kingdom Come trades. They definitely reinforce each other.
So overall, what's your feel on the collectible toy/figure category?
Levitz: I'm not as good at the market in that one because it's much wider, much more diverse, so I don't pay much attention to it as a total. We moved from a one-flavor to a two-flavor operation with the Cartoon Network license.
That was nice to see.
The long-promised corporate synergy.
Levitz: Almost as long as we've been in DC Direct with a brand name, the guys who have been working on it have kept coming in and saying, 'Can't we do something other than the DC stuff? We know how to do other things. There's this other Time/Warner thing, there's this license we could get from outside.' My answer has always been that first we've got to get ours to a scale where we're doing it right, and we're doing it well, and we're generating enough profitability to make it make sense that this is more than cross-promotion. I think we've reached that level enough to justify working with the rest of our family and using our expertise on their properties. Hopefully we'll get some other opportunities besides Cartoon Network that will come along in the next year.
Let's talk about the book channel. You mentioned that the book format comic business is growing in that channel. Last year we talked about pocket growth, and whether it was going to continue to grow to absorb all the many new titles that were being launched. What's your feeling about that now?
Levitz: It's a continuing challenge in the book business. There's more stuff coming out than can be properly shelved. It doesn't seem to have hurt our category as much as it seems to be putting a lot of pressure on the manga side, and I think the manga side will feel that very intensely. Although it's done phenomenally well in the bookstores, the publishing programs out there that are starting, with established publishers, and other new people coming into it, there's so much product coming I think you're going to hear some creak on that end.
One thing I didn't ask about last year, which probably indicates its level of importance these days, is the newsstand market, or what's left of it. When we look at the market I now have a pretty good handle on what the size of the book business is, the direct business, but the newsstand business, I don't have any feel for what's left of it in terms of size, or number of stores.
Levitz: Some of it depends on what you're measuring. If you count traditional, periodical comics on the newsstand, I'd be shocked if we could get $15 million retail. It's tiny. That's a very generous order of magnitude for it, I think.
Based on shipping in $100 million, right?
Levitz: The efficiencies suck, but not quite that badly. It's a great sampling method. It still remains the best method of putting a copy in somebody's hands when they've never seen the comic before.
Better than bookstores?
Levitz: Yeah, because in bookstores we're still in a dedicated section. Somebody's got to come over, have a little more impulse. Basically it's a narrower portion of the audience that comes into bookstores than comes into newsstands.
What kind of outlets comprise the current newsstand market for comics?
Levitz: Convenience stores, travel terminals, a certain amount of super markets. You have some of them serving odd places like Wal-Mart and places like that, although not so much for traditional comics. Something like Mad gets significant newsstand distribution. Mad probably sells as much on newsstands as the whole comic book business.