Some years ago, while I was negotiating with DC Comics over their offer to publish Astro City after the initial 6-issue run at Image, I was in Paul Levitz’s office talking over contract terms. I mentioned there were a couple of points that were troubling to me, and Paul told me he couldn’t take them out of the contract, but he could assure me, if it had value to me, that as long as he was sitting in the Publisher’s chair at DC those clauses wouldn’t be activated. I said that no offense meant, but there was no guarantee that he was going to stay in that chair, so while I believed him and appreciated the gesture, I still had to negotiate as if those clauses could be triggered tomorrow. He nodded, and acknowledged that while he had no intention of leaving DC any time soon, that yeah, there were no guarantees. I wound up signing with Wildstorm—and then DC bought Wildstorm, and has published Astro City ever since. Though I’m glad to report that the contract doesn’t have those two clauses that troubled me, because DC bought the Wildstorm contract along with the company.
And I’ve been glad to have Paul at the helm; had it not been for those two minor contractual terms, I’d have happily signed with DC then and there.
Well, today—over a decade since that conversation—the day came. The internet’s abuzz with the news that Warner Bros. is reorganizing DC Comics, creating a new company called DC Entertainment to shepherd DC’s characters and concepts more smoothly into movies, TV and other media. And as part of that restructuring, Paul is stepping down as President and Publisher and will return to writing, as well as being a contributing editor and a consultant to the new management.
As I’ve told a couple of the comics news organizations already, the DC Entertainment news, like the Disney-buys-Marvel news, doesn’t much interest me—it’s all about movies and video games and brand management, and I’m sure it’ll change the way things get done in some ways, but the part of the industry I care most about, the comics—it doesn’t seem to affect that much at all.
But Paul Levitz leaving DC management?
That’s huge. That‘s the story that’s going to change things.
Paul has been at the forefront of just about every industry development of the last couple of decades, and has been key to how the industry’s shaped itself over those years. Shifting from a periodicals-only business to a strong backlist-oriented business with trade paperbacks and hardcovers, adding imprints like Vertigo, creating new opportunities for creators and for creator ownership, seeing that DC gave a fair (or at least fairer) deal to the creators who originated the concepts that turned up in DC-based movies, from Arkham Asylum and Lucius Fox to Robin’s motorcycles (yeah, because they called Chris O’Donnell’s ride the “Redbird” in one of the movies, Paul Levitz saw to it that Chuck Dixon got money) and more, Paul was an important part of a huge number of changes that DC’s seen, and that the whole industry’s seen. Some of them big changes everyone’s noticed, some of them behind-the-scenes stuff few people know about.
And some people have been impatient that Paul was cautious, and wanted him to move faster, to leap into new things instead of easing into them. But in an industry where many publishers throw money into the latest cool thing, only to find themselves overextended and floundering, Paul was always careful that growth and change should be sustainable, doing things like building a backlist of trade paperbacks slowly, so the revenue from the existing books would fuel the addition of new ones, and a large library was built over time. And often, when other publishers’ precipitous actions had made things unstable, DC Comics provided a backstop, a stability that let the comics industry ride out the rough waters and get to the next safe haven. To mix metaphors shamelessly.
Paul is one of a very few people who’ve been absolutely key in shaping the comics industry from what it was in the mid-Seventies to what it is today. Staggering changes, built slowly over time, so that DC (and the companies that adopted DC’s innovations) could build from strength to strength.
I don’t know who’ll sit in that chair next, and I don’t know what they’ll do. But whoever they are, whatever their experience, instincts, skill and priorities, they’ll be different from Paul’s, and that’ll change comics. In a good way? In a bad way? Probably a mixture of the two. But this, I’m confident, is where the big changes for comics publishing will be coming from. Not Disney deals and movie plans, but a new guy in what for a long time was the most stable, influential, skilfully-run office in the business.
On the other hand, while the freelancer in me braces for change, the reader part of me is delighted that we’re going to see Paul Levitz writing comics again, starting with Legion of Superheroes, the feature that established his name for so many enthusiastic fans. No door closes but a window opens somewhere, and I can’t wait.
And just to wrap up—I’m reminded of a text feature, back in DC books in the mid-Seventies, one of those “DC ProFiles” or “Meet the Staff” features, that gave a quickie bio of and interview with Paul. At the time, he was attending college and paying his way by working for DC in his spare time, and the bit of it I’ve always remembered is the part where Paul said that he couldn’t see staying in comics after he graduated, that he loved what he was doing, but his career plans would take him elsewhere.
Well, maybe you didn’t see it then, Paul, but your plans changed, and took you along a pretty damn cool career path. And comics has been better off for it. So congratulations on all you’ve done.
And now new possibilities open up, and we’ll get to see what Paul Levitz does next. Whatever it is, it’ll be worth watching.
[And I haven’t been able to find that mid-70s DC text feature again, so if anyone knows where it ran, let me know so I can dig it out, huh?]