Interview conducted September 5, 2001 by Milton Griepp.*
7.Over the years, DC has been very direct market retailer-friendly. I remember when DC put out its first contract for distributors; I think it was in Denver at a World Con. That was the early eighties--that was the best deal at the time for distributors and for that channel. Over the years DC's done a lot to support the growth of this retail channel. Do you think that the mom and pop retailers that form this channel now are the future of the comics industry as well as its present? Let's separate out two or three pieces of that. First of all, thank you for the kind words about the past. Possibly the six months I worked hardest in my entire career was the six months leading up to that contract you mentioned. We had a wonderfully smart distribution consultant we called in, a man named Leon Knize who had built distribution systems for things from Coates and Clark Sewing Notions to the first ever (unfortunately unsuccessful) system for having studios participate in rental income from home video. Mind you we're talking about 1980 when the penetration of videocassette recorders was about the three of us. Jenette and I both believed that the comic shops were a much more powerful potential future for comics than the newsstands as they were set up then. Both of us were fairly young and less credible corporately perhaps than we might have been years later, so we borrowed Leon from corporate and had him go out and analyze the business to confirm what we already knew, and to help us build a new system for working effectively.
At that time DC wasn't even offering its distributors thirty days credit. A number of distributors, including some of our friends who are still in the business today, were quite prepared to lynch us for that absolutely unreasonable term. For about six months I was turning around and saying to the distribution community, 'Hang on, we're trying to come up with something really good.' I was running around following Leon, who thinks faster than I do and had forty more years of knowledge than I had at that point in my life, trying to follow the logic of what he was analyzing and the different plans he was offering. It was a very challenging time for a twenty-four year old kid; I'm glad you remember it fondly. The plan did a number of very good things for the business in terms of putting us on the track we wanted to be on. I've believed from the beginning of the comic shops, literally from the day when Sol Harrison wandered out of his office after a meeting with Phil Seuling (Phil pitching this idea of direct sales) to ask me my opinion as a comic book fan whether there was any point to this, that '...it's better for comics to be sold by people who care about them.'
If the goal is to sell something cool to a cutting edge audience, you need people who have a sense of what's on the cutting edge, what is creatively innovative, and who are prepared to put the time and energy into making that work. I don't know and I've never known whether individual sole proprietorships, small chains, larger chains, are the best business model for that. I'm not a retail guy. But somewhere in the system you have to have somebody who really looks at the product and cares about it for it to work. If you don't funnel something like the comic medium through that, I don't think we get anywhere. The retailers who have come through the last few years of tough times seem to be in generally pretty good shape now. They're adding stores in some instances, they're expanding stores in some instances, and they're just breathing a sigh of relief in a lot of instances. It seems like the system is reasonably healthy. We're understored, we all know that. Getting back to the number of stores we need is a major challenge for us to reach the consumer. We're still in a hell of a lot better shape than we were when you and I and a bunch of other people started rolling that rock uphill and we were sitting there with five hundred stores serving the country, and none of the five hundred had enough money in the bank to buy lunch. So it's half full and half empty, but I certainly hope they will be a part of the future for the long run, and that we'll get ourselves closer to the full run instead of the half-full.
8.Let's move over to another channel. You mentioned earlier the growth of the bookstore channel for the distribution of comic material. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of the bookstore market at DC, and if you could share any information about the percentage bookstores are of your publishing business, that would be very useful for people to start to get a handle on just how big this is relative to other channels. Let's start with why it's important. I think the most powerful answer to that is that we as an industry have not succeeded in having casual or mild purchasers of our comics. The good news and the bad news about the comic shop environment for most of its life was that we could get these thousand-dollar-a-year purchasers, but we couldn't hold anybody at any lesser level. The store was too far away, the stuff might get sold out before people came in, the product itself wasn't editorially satisfying unless you really immersed yourself in it and made sure you read every issue; a whole host of things kind of came together to create that 'You're in the pool or you're not in the pool.' It's been my view that no matter how much we could grow that segment of the population, there was still going to be a limit to how many people can commit that heavily to comics.
I believe that a number of the comic shops have succeeded in recent years by using our backlist on a bookstore model to create a $200 to $300 a year customer. The mass market bookstore venue enables us to expand that pool. Hopefully, the role of the bookstore is to introduce literate people, interested in fantasy, creativity, the fantastic, the imaginative (the areas in which we tell stories well in comics) to sort of slowly hook them on it to one degree or another, to keep customers who are mildly interested, and to feed customers who grow more passionately about it to the places where they can get a greater hit. I think that's a very important part of the future of the business.
Any time we've looked at that core goal of 'can you get more people reading comics?' one of the crushing barriers to it is getting them someplace they're not. It's very hard in marketing any kind of product to convince people to change the physical habits of their life to shop somewhere else for something they don't know they need. You'll go way out of your way to buy a car, because that's a lot of money and it's a big deal. But comics used to sell best when they were right there in front of your nose as a kid and you could pluck them off a rack. The mass market bookstore gives us an opportunity to put comics in front of the most likely next purchasers of comics, and to get them interested and involved in the medium. I think that can be very powerful for us all.
As to the percentage of our business, it's changing so fast I'm not sure. What I can tell you that'll give it some perspective is that the mass market bookstore market for comics is now larger than the newsstand market for comics, which is not what people would have intuitively expected. And it is growing at a very nice clip. I don't think it's anywhere near any type of maturity, partially because our competitors are just now stepping up to the plate and beginning to offer their product more effectively to the bookstores, and partially because there are a lot of people coming into bookstores who haven't yet found their way to that section. We are consistently working with the stores to get them to devote some specific space, or better specific space to graphic novels and comics, and to improve how they merchandise them, and we're having some real effect. All of that said, it's got many, many years to grow before it's nearly the size of the comic book specialty market.
Right, no question. Is it over 20% of your publishing? I don't think so yet. Note: We asked in a written follow-up question whether he would clarify that sales were over 10%. He declined to answer.
9. Going to another way of making editorial material available for a longer term than a typical periodical life span on the shelf, why do you think DC comes to such different conclusions from Marvel on the topic of overprinting comics and making them available after the initial release? I don't know why Marvel comes to the conclusions they come to, and it really doesn't matter to me why they come to the conclusions they do. They make the best judgment they can for the business as they see the business, and God bless them. We need and hope them to be successful and wish them well.
Why do you overprint? There's a wonderful old turn-of-the-century definition of when a publisher's doing a good job that comes out of the book business that I'm going to misquote and can't attribute. It goes something like, 'a publisher is doing a good job when he gets the last copy of any book to the last person in the world who wants it.' I think that's part of our job. Creative people live to tell stories, and to make a living by telling stories. A publishing company's job is to get those stories to the people who want them, and in the process generate money for itself and for the creative people who have created them. It doesn't mean we don't sell out and find ourselves unable to go back to print on something. That certainly happens.
We've misgauged by either underprinting or overprinting different comics over the years by significant numbers, as you well remember from your past life. I think this would have been a really missed opportunity on any number of occasions going back to the first Dark Knight, if we'd actually printed only what people had ordered. If I remember correctly, on the first Dark Knight, we got hard orders for the first prestige issue of about seventy-five or eighty thousand copies. We made the outrageous decision at the time to overprint by fifty or sixty percent and essentially bet the whole profit of the project on the copies we were overprinting. We were still wrong by a factor of a couple of hundred per cent.
We sat there after the book came out, with all sorts of reorders coming in from you and the other distributors who'd been supportive. Nobody knew how many the market could take. Should we do a second printing? No major publisher had done a second printing of anything for the direct market. Ever. But people were coming to the shops and wanted it. Is this going to destroy the collectibility of the project? We said, 'The collectors are going to want the first printing, the real thing. We'll label the second printing as a second printing and we'll get it out there so that people who want to read the story can get excited about it and come into it.' Before we were done, I don't remember how many we sold -- three hundred, three hundred and fifty thousand copies, something like that.
I don't know how many people read comic books for the decade after Dark Knight who came into stores and said that Dark Knight was what turned them on to comic books, but I think it was a pretty significant number. That lightning doesn't happen very often. I think it's our job to try and capture it when it does.
10.What do you think the future is of newsstand distribution of comics? I think the newsstand distribution industry in general has been going through enormous turmoil for the last decade and will continue to do so for a while. How comics will fit with the system as it emerges will depend on what the system is. I think if you define the newsstands to be getting comics to a place where a completely casual purchaser can sample them, then I hope there will always be a newsstand equivalent to that.
Mad Magazine, which has probably been the best-selling comic or comic-style publication on the newsstand for the last thirty-five years at least, without interruption, continues to do reasonably well on the newsstand. It's a great casual purchase. It's obviously been harder for anybody else to emulate that, or for us to do equally well with the material that is more specifically designed for the specialty market on a newsstand environment. There are things that continue to work very well there. The Archie stuff continues to do very well on the newsstand. They have a good fit with an audience because they reach the young girls at the supermarket through the checkout pockets. They produce a really good product for that audience. It's a good fit. When we see what the newsstand ends up looking like hopefully we'll be able to continue to design things that will work well for it.
11.What's the future of the periodical format of comics? I think people like continued stories. I think the 'Perils of Pauline' aspect of what we do is one of the fundamental kinds of fantasies that make us unique. It's not an accident that people in that core group, that thousand-dollar-a-year purchaser we were talking about, come in every week to buy comics. We need to entertain them in the fashion that they want to be entertained. I'm really happy that it's not the only way we can entertain people anymore, that people are interested in the extraordinary variety of formats that exists now. The range of stories is changing because those formats allow people to tell stories differently than simply in a twenty-two-page bite every four weeks. I think the periodical part is going to continue to be important for a long time to come.
A growing or shrinking part? It depends on the stories that get told. If you come up with new and compelling stories to tell in that format, I think it has plenty of opportunity to expand because it's a way people like to buy comics. If we keep telling the same stories the same way, then it will shrink.
12. Well that's a nice segue into my next question, because you talked about how the editorial material will drive the future of the format. Talk a little about what you're most excited about at DC editorially. The things that I find most exciting both here and elsewhere in the business are the doors that have been opened to us. Until very recently, this was a business that had a few boxes. You could write mainstream comics, which were twenty-two page monthly stories. Maybe over here on the side we'll do one that we call a limited series so that you can actually have an end to it. Or you can write independent or alternative material, which is fine as long as it's in black-and-white and you don't get paid a whole hell of a lot, and it's got to be a very specific kind of story as well. Or you can do this over here. Nothing crossed. God forbid you mixed a manga sensibility with a story about people in their civilian lives that revolve around relationships and sex with something that has science fiction in it. You couldn't put those three things in one thing without somebody's head exploding. Nobody could really afford to invest in a kind of creative project that ran a hundred or more pages long, committed from the outside and intended to be published in a unique fashion. Maus comes along and it is the exception to all rules that shows what you can do with the medium when you set your mind to it. Nobody steps up to bat to try and publish anything remotely similar because it's too daunting. I don't mean similar in content, but similar in terms of ambition.
We now have a business where it's clear that the personal voice of the creative talent is more important than it ever was. What the people have to say is more important, and the format can follow the content instead of dictating it. Whether you're doing a story about a person's life, or a story about Batman, you can sit there and say, 'How do you tell this story? How can we best market it, package it, construct it physically?' That opens so much editorially. It opens the ability to tell stories in uneven, unreasonable chapters. It opens the ability to mix text and comics, use different printing techniques, and use different storytelling techniques in ways that were dabbled in here and there over the years. None of this is necessarily the first time ever that somebody has done this. But now, on a wide span, we're able to commit ourselves to a publishing program that says, 'How do we do this? What can we do with it? How do we take this vision as far as we can?' And that ranges from as far as being able to work with authors from within the business and outside the business who are ready to step up and take on extraordinary challenges like this, to taking artists who historically were given, in the old days of my youth, a thirty or sixty-color palette to play with on a single class of paper and say, 'How can we do this? What can we do? What's the most exciting way to do it?' That opens such worlds editorially that every time I sit down with the creative people who are playing with one of these projects, you just end up in wholly new territory.
The concept of Bizarro Comics would have been laughed out of the room ten years ago. 'Why are we even having this meeting, why are we having this discussion, how in the world can we do this other than as a donation to charity? Are you all nuts? Let's go home.' Now it's not only a reality, it's not a surprising reality that we're able to publish it. We move on to the next thing immediately after it. That is so wonderfully cool.
I'm excited by the accelerating pace of creative opportunities. I grew up in a business where you literally couldn't get work in comics if you lived outside a fifty-mile radius of midtown Manhattan, where you could only tell a handful of stories and be compensated in very straightforward ways that really didn't offer the creative people much incentive to invest any energy. Now we're in a time where DC is working with writers and artists on four continents in more formats than I can count, publishing under different styles, different imprints, things I love, things I hate, things I don't understand, and we haven't begun to scratch the surface. We started out envying the European comics for all the things they could do that we couldn't. Now we may put out as diverse a mix as they do, or more, and it's only going to get better from here.
13. You talked a little bit about the impact of format flexibility on what you can publish. DC has recently begun publishing more new material as original graphic novels rather than as periodicals first and then collecting it into a trade-paperback format. Do you see that direct-to-graphic-novel publishing model expanding for DC in the future? It will be a very important part of our future. The trick of a graphic novel, if there is a trick, will come as we discover what being a novel is. When you write a novel in prose you have a choice of literally hundreds of different ways to pace a story. You can go from different chapters with different characters' points of view, different time. Alan Moore did that tour-de-force where he took Northampton where he lives and literally did each chapter set in a different period of his history including down to doing the dialect for the period. Comics can do that now, but you can't do that in the periodical format. To do that in graphic novel format, or the single volume format, becomes the key. That leads to enormous creative opportunity.
We have a fascinating slate of stuff coming out of Vertigo; at WildStorm with some of the experiments with extraordinary science fiction writers who are doing original work, something that we've really not seen happen on that scale before; from the DCU, in explorations of how to tell stories of characters that are structured and paced in ways that weren't done before.
A lot of other companies in the publishing business are reaching that same conclusion and are ready to move into it, which happens to be one of the areas where DC's long-run approach benefits us because these are projects that take a long run to get done. It's probably a three-year process to get a graphic novel going, so the stuff that we have out there now in many ways represents how brave we were three years ago. We're braver now in what we're acquiring. The creative community, as they see what's coming out, will be braver still in what comes out in the next tranche after that. If somebody tells you they're going to double or triple the number of graphic novels they do in a year, however, then they're either talking about squishing together a bunch of things that were previously intended to be serial, or they're in possession of some chemicals I wouldn't usually use.
14. What do you think of the influence of Japanese pop culture on American? Do you think that's a threat, or an opportunity for DC? I'm talking specifically about graphic story telling and manga as the most relevant manifestation. It's a threat and an opportunity. The threat is the degree to which my eight-year-old's favorite comic for a bunch of months was Digimon. He wanted to know how soon the next issue was coming home. He would sit there poring through it in a way that I hadn't seen since I brought home a stack of Captain Carrot. It's a new competitor. On the other hand, if we can magically infuse the American culture with a fraction of the interest in reading that Japanese culture has, that would have to be good for comics. Certainly if we can infuse the American culture with a fraction of the interest in reading comics that Japanese culture has in reading manga, we'll all retire really quickly. It's not quite as good as being in Iceland, but it's close! I once ran the numbers and I think Iceland has the largest circulation comic on a per-capita basis of any country. They actually beat Japan with their Disney Barks stuff, but I'd certainly settle for the Japanese numbers.
*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.