Interview conducted September 5, 2001 by Milton Griepp.*

1. We're here with Paul Levitz and we're going to start out by talking a little bit about your background.  I think a lot of retailers who've come into the business recently probably aren't aware of how long your history goes in this business.  Tell us a little bit about how you got started in the comic business.  I was a kid who loved comics growing up.  The only thing resembling a comic shop that I ever worked at was a used bookstore that was one of the early pioneers in selling old comics before there was a comic shop.  You can even find ads for it still surviving in New York con program books from '67 or so.  It was a famous old Brooklyn place called My Friend's Bookstore that Andy Helfer and Jimmy Palmiotti and Sal Quartuccio and many of us wandered through in those years; Howie Chaykin, the list goes on.  I loved comics; I was interested in them.

This was a period of time when there was very little information readily available for fans about what was going on.  The leading fanzine of the period was Newfangles, which was by Don and Maggie Thompson--a very personal newsletter about the field.  They announced a year in advance that they were going to go out of business because they didn't want to go through the hassle of returning any subscription money.  This way they allowed people to buy by the month to work down the end of their subscriptions.  That announcement arrived at my house and struck Paul Kupperberg--a good childhood friend of mine -- and me as an enormous personal tragedy.  How were we going to know what was going on in the business?  With all the lack of sense of what is impossible and unrealistic that goes along with being kids, we pooled sixteen bucks and started a news-zine called Etcetera.  We called up DC, Marvel, and a few of the minor publishers of the day and said, 'Please tell us everything you can possibly tell us about what's going on,' and we started out in the fanzine business.

It turned out over the course of the next three years that by virtue of being in New York (where pretty much the whole American comic business was in those days), being energetic, and being the first people to show up in a while who actually cared who had written and drawn stories, that the professionals really liked it existing and having it around.  The availability of the information became more important to people than the quality in which it was delivered, and we were forgiven a great many sins of packaging.  By the time I gave up doing it (Paul dropped out after a few months) about three years later, it had a circulation of about 3500 and was sort of the TV Guide for the comic business under the name of The Comic Reader.

You were still in high school then?  Yeah.  I gave it up when I graduated high school.  I started to free-lance a little bit for DC in the last six or eight months that I was doing it, including doing some early staff work.  The last issue was published two weeks into college; I was still sixteen.


2.You mentioned that you started doing some freelance work for DC.  How did you get from freelancer to your current position at DC?  Most of the kids from my generation of comics fandom who were from the New York area who wanted to get into the comics business were able to.  It was a changing of the guard period.  There was beginning to be a little bit of expansion after years of stagnation.  A lot of us got shots at coming in.  Even the more energetic comics fans from more geographically removed locations were able to come in.  I was unusual in that I was one of the very few kids of my generation who was interested in both the creative and business sides.  I'd been going to school taking business courses, assuming that I'd have to get a grown-up job at some point.  That set of knowledge ending up fitting some vacuums at DC in the change and evolution of the company.  I guess I was on staff about three years as an assistant editor, and then about five as an editor/what we then called 'editorial coordinator' (which was basically the administrative business person for the editorial department) when I moved over to the full-time business side toward the end of 1980.  I've been doing some version of the same job since.  The titles changed a number of times over the years, but it's basically been being the business side of the company.  The specific responsibilities have changed a little bit.  I went over to the executive VP version of the title in '85 and added the publisher title in '89.  It's been a pretty direct continuity.

Can you describe your current areas of responsibility?  I'm basically responsible for the day-today operation of the company, and the business operation on a more long-term basis.

Does that include publishing and licensing?  We divide the business into three segments: the publishing business, media licensing, and product licensing.  For me, the media licensing is working more on the deal and mechanical sides of our movie and TV projects.  I get a little involved creatively on the animated stuff, but not a whole heck of a lot.  On the product licensing side, it's working with our colleagues at Warner Brothers Consumer Products.  We have a group here headed by Cheryl Rubin, who's our VP of Licensing and coordinates that process within DC.  Joel Ehrlich is our Senior VP of Advertising and Promotion.  He sells promotional licenses like the Onstar Batman campaign that's out now.  He dual reports to me and to the consumer products people on the coast.  We all sort of work on those projects from time to time.  Publishing is the business you live in all day long and you're much more familiar with.


3.Can you tell me about your role versus the role of Jenette Kahn, and how the duties are divided?  Jenette's not as visible to a lot of the people in the supply chain as she used to be.  People are curious about the differences between the two roles and how you split things up.  It always changes a little bit from time to time as situations evolve, but for the last batch of years most of Jenette's effort has been focused on the media side of our business -- getting movies, TV shows, programs made of our characters.  It's an incredibly difficult process.  We've been very lucky that we've had some extraordinarily good and successful material done on our characters.  A lot of that has been very heavily influenced by her hard work.

She's also remained involved in the editorial policies of the company.  She has some very clear points of view on what she thinks makes stuff great and she's always kibitzing on that.  She takes on individual projects that she thinks make an important difference to the company.  Some of that is totally invisible to our market.  She put an extraordinary amount of effort into the land mines program over the period of a couple of years.  We went out and created comics for kids in Bosnia and Central America, in conjunction with a variety of governmental and non-governmental organizations to get kids to avoid land mines.  I've never experienced anything in my career like having people walk up to me and tell me, coming from a battle area, that they knew that comics had saved people's lives.  It really made a difference and it happened one hundred per cent because Jenette believed in that and rolled the rock uphill as far as it would go.  She's always had some interesting project like that somewhere on her radar at any given time, but it's not highly visible to the comic book retail market.


4. Could you give us the' state of the company' on DC as we wrap up the summer season for 2001?  I can try.  We're at an interesting time where we're seeing a lot of what we worked for over the last couple of decades coming to be the conventional wisdom.  You know from the discussions we've had going back at least to the mid-eighties that it's been a passion of ours to find ways to make the best material that was published able to be sold on an enduring basis.  We weren't unique in that, but we bet more heavily on making that happen and on trying to change the business in some ways to make that happen than many of our competitors.  We kept that as one of our pole stars and have been working towards that.  Now it's reached a critical mass where it's obvious to everyone.  And you see some incredible things happen as a result.

Part of that phenomenon has been trying to move comics into being more acceptable to the mainstream audience.  We worked very hard from the time of Julie's old science fiction graphic novels in album form to try and crack the Science Fiction Book Club.  We got tossed out of there, and tossed out of there, and not listened to.  Then we finally cracked them some years later, around the time of Dark Knight.  I picked up my latest Science Fiction Book Club mailing and they had Vanguard Press's Amazing World of Carmine Infantino as an offering.  It's such a full circle to have helped open the markets, the readers' minds, in a wider group to all of this, and to see everybody else now able to move into these channels.  On the one hand it's very gratifying.  On the other hand it's a little odd looking around at some people who have just suddenly discovered the sun rises in the East announcing the amazing discovery that 'The sun rises in the East!'  We feel very good about having played a role in having led the industry to some new paradigms.  At the same time we're very challenged by seeing people trying to catch up on them and it makes us think about how we get to the next new paradigm.

I'm also curious about the state of DC as far as -- are you having a good year?  Do things look stable?  Things look good?  In general, what is your feeling about the state of DC as a company right now?  I think we did well this year off the things we expected to keep growing.  The graphic novel side of our business has had a terrific year.  The 'tchotchkeria' business, as my tribe would be wont to call it, has been having a phenomenal year.  We're looking forward to Dark Knight as our year's finale.  We've had some good success this year both with Green Arrow and with the Stan Lee projects.  We're coming off some fun stuff with Our Worlds At War, some of the stuff that came out of WildStorm, with the diversity of material that they're producing, some of the interesting things that have started in Vertigo this year...  I was just reading over lunch the Hunter relaunch on Books Of Magic, which I'm having a lot of fun with as a reader.  I think the over-all quality of the material is at a pretty solid point and we're very happy with that.  It remains a challenging marketplace in which to make an honest buck.  But comics usually are that, so we're not surprised by or inordinately frustrated by it.


5.From your perspective, all channels combined, what do you think is the size of the market for new comic publications, both periodical and book, for 2001, and what do you think the year-over-year trend looks like?  I'm not sure, Milton.  One of the things I'm not fond of about the industry is the limited degree to which we have real hard statistics.  We're somewhere between four hundred and five hundred million dollars for the year in paper products, which doesn't include any sales in the digital form of that.  But I don't think there's really been a lot of commerce in the digital forms yet.

What's the year over year trend look like this year on the total market?  Damned if I know.  You can't get a statistic hard enough to measure on something like that.  If I have to guess, I would guess that it's probably stable.  But there are a lot of those markets where no sales information comes back that are becoming more and more meaningful markets.  In the mass market bookstore side of the business, there's no industry data of any form or any fashion available to anyone.  We know how we do, and we know from our customers that we are one of their better suppliers and stronger suppliers in that business.  I would certainly think you ought to be counting the Jimmy Corrigan book in the measure of what the comic book market is in this country.  I haven't a clue how many dollars worth that sold.  There's more and more material like that out there as part of our world.

Right.  Like the Sailor Moon books, which are invisible to a lot of pop culture retailers, that are going gangbusters in the bookstores.  Absolutely.  The simpler the business was as a business model, the easier it was to say, 'This is what it is, and this is what my share of it is.'  Unless you want to sit there and say nothing is a real comic book unless it is 'X,' it gets fuzzier and fuzzier.


6.Let's talk a little bit about the Comics Code.  Now that Marvel's pulled out, I was wondering if you could give us your thoughts on what the Code is going to do next.  Do you think the Code needs multiple levels?   The letters that I've gotten over the years from parents who have been concerned with issues like this really are looking more for a 'Good Housekeeping seal' than anything else.  I think having some form of levels (as we've had on our product for the comic shop side of the market for twelve years now, since we've introduced the 'Suggested For Mature Readers' label), is very important because it serves the retailer.  It enables the retailer to say, based on the community standards or local conditions, or even just the kind of audience that he or she wants to have in their shop, and how they want to organize their shop, 'This is how I can merchandise this comic--this is intended for this type of audience, and it belongs near this other stuff sold in this fashion.'  They can make a decision whether it's appropriate to sell that product to a particular consumer or to retail it in a particular fashion.

In the newsstand end of the business, you're basically selling product to a retailer who doesn't wish to have any knowledge of what it is that he's selling.  Since he can't have any intermediation that helps, the main thing that I've gotten out of parents or consumers in that end is they just want to be safe.  They don't want to have to read every comic cover-to-cover before handing it to their child.  They'd like something that identifies 'this is okay for a child.'  Over the years we've steered them toward Code-approved comics as a way of doing that.  Doesn't work for all of them.  Some of them have disagreed with what the Code is willing to approve.  It's a tool towards that goal.

So is that, no, you don't think it needs multiple levels?  I don't think the newsstand guy would know what to do with multiple levels.

If some of these same channels are selling products that are labeled for multiple age groups in other product lines, for example, sort of the way video games have four or five levels...But they're not usually carrying comic books through a newsstand distributor.  If they're carrying comics, they're much more likely to be carrying it through Diamond, or some other knowledge-based system.  The distinction I've made since the beginning of the non-returnable business is that it's a system based on knowledge of the product.  Every stage at which the product is handled, somebody who knows something is making the decision about what to do with it.  The newsstand, on the other hand, is a passive pipe that you pour things into.  It gets rather randomly moved through, and at the other end may get selected with knowledge by a consumer, or may simply get sampled on the basis of, 'Gee, that looks interesting today.'  You can't rely on that system to take advantage of any sophisticated sorting tools.  You can in the comic shops, and to a fair extent you can in the bookstores.  If Babbage's or Electronics Boutique is energetic enough to want to rack comic book product, they've generally been energetic enough to figure out what comic book product is appropriate for the reader who comes in their store.  Whether it's based on or tying into a property they've already got, or they assign a buyer to it who actually reads the material and says, 'This looks cool for our audience.'  We think they're making a pretty informed decision.  I don't think the Code or any permutation of the Code provides a particularly important tool to someone who's already willing to read a four hundred-page catalogue and make a purchasing decision based on that.


For Part II of this interview, click here. 

For Part III of this interview, click here.


*A number of times in this interview, Levitz refers to the interviewer's past life.  In that life he was co-founder and CEO of Capital City Distribution, at one time one of DC's largest direct distributors and a DC customer from 1980 to 1995.

Levitz declined to answer two questions, for which others were substituted.  One asked whether there were any circumstances under which DC would acquire Marvel.  The other asked about changes at DC since the AOL-Time Warner merger.