Yes, that was the ground shifting beneath the comic book industry in a historic week that saw Disney buy Marvel for a whopping $4 billion and the restructuring of DC Comics as DC Entertainment that includes the departure of longtime exec Paul Levitz.
Of the two, the DC news is more important for comic book readers because Levitz was by all accounts the stabilizing force at DC that kept both the company and to a large extent the industry on an even keel during the darkest days. Lots of folks who’ve worked with Levitz over the years have published their thoughts on his contributions and lauded him for keeping DC steady, while others have criticized his stewardship of DC as being excessively timid.
What everyone agrees on is that Paul Levitz is a class act, and I can throw my two cents behind that wholeheartedly. A few years back, at one of the New York Comic-Cons, I attended one of the media dinners DC occasionally throws at such shows to let various press folks mingle with execs like Levitz and some of the talent. I was seated at a table between Levitz and Keith Giffen, and got to listen to them talk about the old days of working on the likes of Legion of Super-Heroes and Ambush Bug. It was very entertaining and I found Paul to be very amiable and easy to chat with. He’s also a very canny executive, which made the few opportunities I’ve had to interview him on the record a little frustrating as he was not the easiest person to get a quote out of, or sometimes even a clear answer to the question.
It’s clear that Levitz has a real love for comics and that despite nominally being an executive in a Time-Warner company, he was really one of us — a guy who grew up on comics and loved them unconditionally the way they were. Others attest with detail to some of the things Levitz did to ensure DC continued to publish comics the way fans wanted them and found a way for DC to function relatively free from interference within the massive Time-Warner hierarchy.
And that’s the real reason why his departure from the executive suite is such a big deal. That Warner Bros. would one day take a greater interest in DC was a given. Thankfully, it’s come at a time when comics are seen as popular and when a library such as DC’s is seen as extremely valuable and not worth messing with too much.
So that leads to the arrival of Diane Nelson as president of the newly named DC Entertainment. The press releases and statements that heralded the announcement of her new position were full of typical corporate Hollywood jargon that made a lot about extending brands and maximizing synergy and other meaningless terms. What’s interesting to me is Nelson’s background is exclusively marketing and brand management. She’s got lots of experience selling movies to audiences around the world, and it’s no small thing to have shepherded the Harry Potter franchise — which WB has done an outstanding job with — through the filmmaking process. She’s obviously been put in this position to help the company make more money off the DC library rather than micromanage the ins and outs of comic book continuity. What she’s not is someone with creative experience. She’s not a producer, not a writer and not a development exec, so I think it would be very surprising if she did much meddling in the creative side of the comic books. The press releases make a point of saying the comics aren’t going anywhere and seems to indicate that some interesting plans are in place for DC’s 75th anniversary next year.
With Levitz no longer publisher, though, that leaves a pretty big job open at DC, and whoever ends up sitting in that seat could have a huge impact on the content of the comic books. I expect someone from outside comics will come in to the job, much the way DC brought in Dan Didio — a former TV executive — to be editor in chief of the superhero comics a few years back.
Whoever takes the job will instantly become the most criticized person in comics. There’s a few things that it would be nice to see such a person tackle — mostly shaking things up in the books and in the DC offices, which often exude a sense of being unpleasantly corporate and lacking in morale.
The choice of new publisher also will reveal more about Warner Bros.’ intentions and goals for DC’s comic book publishing efforts. Will the increased expectations the studio is placing on the division lead it away from the current publishing model of periodical comics and the relatively small direct market for a more conventional magazine or book publishing arrangement? Will we finally see DC superheroes in digital comic form? Or will the small size of the publishing market be too little for Warner to even want to bother with? (I think the latter is highly unlikely — based on Marvel’s stock reports, DC surely makes a decent profit on its publishing and Warner Bros. is smart enough to know how foolish it would be throw that away.)
All of which is a very different situation from the Marvel-Disney deal. I expect it will take years before the impact of this deal is noticeable in Marvel’s comic book line, but when it is felt I expect it will be major. But for now, I don’t see much to worry about. Disney paid a premium to buy Marvel because it likes what Marvel is doing and how much money it’s making. You don’t buy a company that is working as well as Marvel is to start micromanaging it or tinkering with it for the sake of tinkering with it.
But over time, Marvel will change just by being part of Disney. It’ll happen as Marvel interacts with Disney, and especially as executives come and go. When Ike Perlmutter or David Maisel or Joe Quesada leave their respective positions, it will be Disney that decides who’s going to replace them. Barring any sudden departures, I think it’ll be years before enough changes are made that readers of the comic books will notice a significant difference.
Will we look back at this moment five years from now and call it “the week comics went corporate?” In some ways, these kinds of shifts have been inevitable for some time given the way superheroes and comic book imagery have infiltrated the culture the past decade. But there’s always that old nagging issue that won’t go away — if the world loves comics so much, why don’t they sell better? And there’s fear with that — fear that the traditional comic book periodical and the industry that’s been built around could finally give up the ghost and go away for good, replaced by slick bookstore graphic novels, video games, DVDs, TV shows, whatever digital comics become, and, of course, movies. There’s hope here that greater investment from the likes of Warner Bros. and Disney could be great for comics, that their muscle could open up the lines of distribution and make comics more available, especially to kids. But it’s also just as plausible that the overall decline of print prompts those corporations to make a real bottom-line decision and ditch publishing altogether. I think as long as comics sales make money, Disney and Warner will see the value in keeping them around. But given what’s changed in the past 10 years, who knows where we’ll be 10 years from now?
It’ll be interesting to watch, however it turns out.