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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:



Two weeks ago, everyone was spitting coffee into monitors regarding news of the sale of Marvel Comics/Entertainment to the Walt Disney Corporation.

Last week, same thing, only everyone was expectorating caffeine onto phosphors over the departure of Paul Levitz from his position of Publisher over at DC Comics, along with Warner Brothers taking a more active interest in DC itself. Not a buyout, but a major shift.

That’s a big two weeks.

And news like this lets me write five sentences and break it into four paragraphs and make it seem really, really important. I love it.

In all seriousness, though, one of the two above items is a much bigger deal for comics as we know them. And it has nothing to do with the fact that I was a Marvel zombie as a kid or that DC made more of the comics that I read through college. In short, there’s no partisanship here, just a relatively cool calculation. But due to the way that comics are sold these days, particularly monthly comics in the Direct Market, Paul Levitz’ departure completely and totally overshadows any possible ramifications from the sale of Marvel to Disney (short of total bowdlerization of the material, and even then, I hardly think that’s the deal that some message board posters make of it.)

For those of you who don’t see it, let me lay my reading out for you. First and foremost, Paul Levitz loves comic books. He loves the monthly stapled magazines that come out every week. He loves them even though many readers are growing disillusioned with them. Primarily because the comic books are now chapters and not (relatively) self-contained (within a larger milieu) storybooks read by an increasingly graying audience (including but not limited to guys like me, though proving it might take some doing.) Instead of being sold on newsstands and in bookstores and grocery stores and convenience stores, as they once were, the comic book is now primarily in the purview of the Direct Market. The pool has shrunk and comics were largely pushed from the mass market to a specialty marketplace.

Now, while he wasn’t instrumental in the pushing, Paul Levitz was a critical component of the fostering of the Direct Market. It was where comics were going to be sold and where the comic book was going to be king, after all. In the DM, the comic book wouldn’t have to compete with magazines or neglect from shopowners. Think of it as a wildlife preserve where there’s no poachers, where the predators are kept in check. What better place for a thing that you love, than where it is safe and carefully tended. A place where it can grow. A greenhouse.

And as the market for comics outside the DM withered, it still grew within the greenhouse. And there were occasional visitations from the outside world. The Death of Superman, Sandman, the speculator boom and bust of 1994, the WATCHMEN film, Barak Obama in SPIDER-MAN and a million other comics. All of these attracted attention from the people outside the greenhouse. There were occasional tramplings, but we all got through it, right?

Not that there weren’t some close calls. 1994 made everyone a little bit crazy. Okay, a lot crazy. Remember when comics were distributed by a handful of distributors, even a small army of them? Remember when Marvel went and said “Hey, we only need one distributor, and better yet, it’ll be one we own. Vertical integration rules!” Then they went and bought Heroes World, which was completely not ready to handle national-scale distribution on the level that Marvel needed. It didn’t go so well.

However, when that happened, things looked bad for the rest of the market. Most distributors didn’t make it out alive. Diamond limped along, and by my reckoning was able to sustain itself partially (if not solely) upon the basis of DC’s vote of confidence. What vote of confidence was that? Why, the buyout clause of course. You can read about it right here, courtesy Eric Reynolds/TCJ. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Couple of interesting takeaways there. One. The exclusive contract between DC and Diamond distribution is apparently for a 16 year period. Signed in 1995, that means it runs out in 2011. Or, in about two years. I’m trying to recall if I’ve heard anything else about re-upping the contract, because I haven’t. But really, the more interesting/alarming fact is the buyout clause. I’m not privy to the circumstances that could cause it to kick in, but Warner Brothers/DC Entertainment (as DC Comics is to be known now) could indeed buy Diamond and run it as it sees fit.

I’m not going to say that DCE is going to exercise that clause at the first opportunity and upset the apple cart by turning Diamond into a DC distributor at the expense of other publishers. Frankly, I don’t know what the details of the Diamond contract with other publishers is. I doubt that they could be dumped at a moment’s notice. Or even a year’s.

This assumes that DCE/WB wants to own a distributorship (much less the antitrust implications enacted by exercising the buyout clause). Corporations don’t do things whimsically. They do things because they think they’ll be profitable, even if they end up being colossal mistakes. New Coke, anyone? Cost/benefit analyses get run, numbers get crunched. Remember FIGHT CLUB, that part where Edward Norton tells the horrified passenger next to him about the automobile’s metric of failure rate times expected lawsuit costs compared to the cost of a recall? Same thing.

So what this will boil down to is how DCE (and to an extent, Marvel/Disney) view the Direct Market as a potential resource. Does it make more sense to plunder things? Would forcing Marvel to handle their own distribution make sense if you’re deciding to fight over DM turf? I won’t mention any other publishers by name, because frankly, even if you could get all of them to agree, the numbers are so totally skewed in the favor of DC and Marvel, comparison is ludicrous.

Will the DM be regarded as a resource with potential that perhaps needs more directed advertising and expansion? Or will it be seen as something that’ll be allowed to continue along as it has gone?

More importantly, how will comic books themselves be regarded? Are they a freaky aberration that will simply never have a wider market? This is not a horribly negative assessment, by the by, as entertainment companies are sometimes pretty savvy about how to handle comparatively segmented markets and serving them. Sometimes.

Will the comics be regarded as products worth lavishing attention on or will they be seen as an obligation, a way to maintain control over the franchise? WATCHMEN, was at one time, supposed to lapse into obscurity and stop being printed so that the copyrights could revert to Moore and Gibbons. Didn’t happen and never will, because every time DC prints the books, they keep their control of the property. Will other comics be viewed in that way? If so, is there a reason to spend a lot of money on them?

I have a jaundiced view in this regard, as my experience in entertainment was a grunt in the trenches. And the company that I worked for, when times got tough, started looking for ways to cut costs. They never cut from the top, and instead cut animator positions and tried to offshore/outsource labor positions (unsuccessfully, I might add). What happens if expenses get tallied up and the numbers just don’t make sense? What if the publishers decide that the characters/franchises are the draw of the book, not who wrote or drew or colored it? And make no mistake, the franchises are the draw of these corporate deals, not the comic books themselves. I say this as a guy who’s loved comics for a long time but understands reality.

Of course, there’s every chance that the new companies won’t want to upset the revenue stream as it stands and everything will stay exactly as it is now. Personally, I don’t hold much faith in that. The DM is going to change. And since comics are tied to intimately into the DM, they’re going to get changed as well. What form these changes actually take is anything but clear.

One thing, however, is certain. The DM has lost one of its largest advocates and supporters in the form of Paul Levitz as Publisher at DC. The attention that he was able to direct towards the DM will no longer be present at the top of DC (nor will it be present in the same form at board meetings for WB.) I can imagine that there will be increasing engagement between the Entertainment (not Comics) companies and “mainstream” journalism. And why wouldn’t there be? They’re trying to maximize their investment: why would they want to keep it to just one greenhouse?

Whatever happens, we’ve seen the end of an era in comics. And whatever happens, comics will survive them. The delivery system will undergo changes, but we’ll still have words and pictures together telling stories. Everything else, however, is likely to be up for grabs.

Interesting times indeed.

Matt Maxwell

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