Editor’s note: We’re very happy and excited to welcome DC Comics President Paul Levitz to Blog@Newsarama! He’ll be stopping by on a semi-regular basis to talk about comics and answer your questions. You can read his first post below and leave any questions for him in the comments section.
by Paul Levitz
Start by accepting that I’ve got one of the best jobs on the planet—if you’re a Newsarama regular that shouldn’t be a big leap. I’ve gotten to write comics, edit and publish them, and work with creators both of the comics I loved as a kid and of many of today’s best comics, as well as the creative people who translate our characters to other media. I couldn’t have envisioned this cool a role back when I was editing a fanzine called The Comic Reader and feeling like a kid with his nose pressed to the shop window looking at the goodies within.
So when Matt asked me to join the blogging community, he was inviting me to return to my roots, but with an access to information and knowledge that I couldn’t have thought of 35 years ago in my fanzine days. I’m not free to toss all of it around, of course, but hopefully I can walk the line in an entertaining manner. The good news about netiquette is I can count on you to let me know.
One of the pieces that caught my eye in this space recently was my old friend Brian Hibbs’ lengthy dissection of graphic novel sales. Brian’s a longstanding and passionate advocate of the form, and while I almost never agree with all his conclusions, he’s always got interesting points to raise. I thought he did miss a couple of observations about graphic novels in 2007, though. (None of which are as much fun as it was to watch Brian try to lead a Comics Pro discussion at DC’s recent retailer meeting–turnabout being fair play.)
Most notably, it’s an interesting moment in history when Watchmen sold (roughly) as many copies last year as a 20 year old backlist title as it did in magazine form when first issued. It shows both how far the graphic novel has come, and perversely how far we have to go. It’s amazing that almost 100,000 copies were sold in 2007, but it also shows how many people are just beginning to discover the graphic novel form. We recently did a major DC promotion with one of the bookstore chains, and as far as we can tell, it was the first time we managed to get Watchmen in virtually all their outlets.
It’s still easy to close my eyes and remember the enthusiasm in 666 Fifth’s yellow zipatone wallpapered halls as Len Wein bounced down them, showing off pages as they came in from Dave Gibbons. And now Dave’s had the fun of walking on the sands of the Mars he designed. Hard to believe how many years it’s been and that we’ve probably published more DC issues since than in the first fifty years of the company, but Watchmen still stands as one of our best ever.
Another interesting phenomenon is the difference in concentration between three types of graphic novels; manga, the strongest category in bookstores, seems increasingly dominated by a handful of properties; literary graphic novels (about 5% of bookstore sales and less in comic shops), by a couple of authors’ backlists with no major new hits in ’07; and genre graphic novels (the strongest in comic shops) seem to spread the readers around to the most titles. This is an evolving situation, and as the number of literary titles being published expands, it’ll be particularly interesting to see how the pattern shifts. And the definitions of these categories are all highly debatable.
Much of the credit for this evolution in graphic novels goes to our fans, as they’ve grown up on titles like Watchmen, Dark Knight or Maus, and moved into the work world. When we launched some of the first graphic novel collections with Warner Books 20 years ago, their sales force was very reluctant to handle them, as comics weren’t real books. Last year, when we switched to the Random House sales force, we found longtime readers on the force as our advocates. And fans who became journalists have been incredibly effective at publicizing how cool comics can be.
The best of this is still several years in the future, I suspect. The comics creative community is now being encouraged/empowered to do material about a much wider range of subjects than previously. While there have long been individual projects along the wide spectrum of possibilities, few of them got the distribution or publicity to allow them to connect with a large audience. Most books in America have very modest sales, and graphic novels were in a weaker position than many categories. That’s changing rapidly, and as we see more diverse and ambitious publishing programs from traditional comics and book publishers, I think we’ll see still further expansion of our readership.
All in, American editions of comics (including graphic novels and manga) were somewhere over $800 million in sales last year…about or perhaps over the peak of the early ’90s if you adjust that time for the crates of copies bought by speculators and never read or even sold at any retail price. And that doesn’t even try to measure the fertile creativity of the world of webcomics, which had no direct equivalent 15 years ago. We’re in a much healthier pattern this time, and it should be sustainable growth ahead.
And on that cheery note, let me buckle on my Kevlar, and turn this over to Matt for a couple of questions his readers berated him for not asking last time I showed up here…
Feel free to leave any questions for Paul in our comments field; he’ll be back to answer them soon!