Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Ten days after Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion, Warner Bros. Entertainment announced today the formation of DC Entertainment, intended to leverage DC comics properties more directly into Hollywood productions.
The comics company, headquartered in New York City, now comes more directly under the film studio's management. Diane Nelson will run DC Entertainment, according to the corporation's public release, reporting directly to Jeff Robinov, head of the Warner Bros. Pictures Group. Paul Levitz, longtime publisher of DC and president of the company since 2002, will return to writing comics for the company.
It's been a historic couple of weeks for the comics business — and this, plus Disney's purchase of Marvel, may be seen by many as the center of the comics industry changing from one coast to the other. (That explains the big shadow that passed over the Midwest!)
Paul Levitz, it will rightly be said by many, is fully of the comics industry, having started as a collector and fanzine publisher decades ago. He and Paul Kupperberg advertised their Etcetera fanzine in the second issue of Comics Buyer's Guide, then known as The Buyer's Guide for Comic Fandom, in April 1971. He's had many roles at DC over the years, and can clearly be said to have had not just a ringside seat for many moments in comics history, but an active role in shaping the industry's development, with the cultivation of lines such as Vertigo and, critically, the trade paperback. DC was a leader in making collected editions part of the business model in comics; if not for them, the comics industry would be in far worse shape financially today.
Levitz also played a major role in shaping the current direct-sales market for comics. When Marvel bought Heroes World Distribution and withdrew its comics from direct-market distributors in 1995, reports from insiders at the time were that Time-Warner, looking to react, had a variety of options on the table, including rerouting comics distribution through Warner's other distribution channels — a move that, if taken, could have dramatically changed the direct market, perhaps leaving no direct-market distributors standing to accept Marvel when it gave up on self-distribution in 1997. Levitz, by reports, fought strongly for an in-industry solution to the distribution situation — the result being the exclusive contract with Diamond. While the single-distributor situation that eventually resulted has had its critics over the years, it is almost certainly true that bringing an external, non-industry distributor into the picture would have ramped up uncertainty far higher than it already was in that volatile time.
What does the ownership — and, today, in DC's case, management of the two largest publishers by Hollywood mean for the comics industry? First, it's not clear that much will change in either case — both have been part of corporate America for a long time, answering to boardrooms of people outside the industry. The more important element, as mentioned above in the distribution case, is that there remain people at the production and distribution levels who understand the medium, its delivery systems, and what consumers expect. I don't see how that changes.
More importantly, at this time in history, it's not a bad time for a publisher to be considered something more than "just a publisher." Thanks to the happy historical accident of the comic-book direct market and its non-returnable marketplace, comic books are probably the healthiest sector of the entire magazine industry: The vast majority of our publications are pre-sold, and as noted, trade paperbacks give us a place to continue profiting from our past works. By contrast, the returnable magazine market is in a shambles, and book publishing is facing challenges of its own. These are good times to be considered not just a company whose business is putting ink on paper, but a foundry of ideas.
So it's another red-letter day. Something about the morning of September 9 in the hobby market — exactly ten years ago, Hasbro announced the purchase of Wizards of the Coast (and my first child was born — the news that had my attention that day).
And as a further personal note, I should say that in my many years researching the state and history of the industry, Paul was supportive and helpful on many research projects. We did not always agree on what the numbers meant or how I presented them, but I think he respected the need for retailers and other interested parties to have useful information. I look forward to reading more of his comics in the future!