Working at DC editorially since the mid-seventies, becoming Publisher in 2002, Paul Levitz is, more than anyone, the man responsible for the comics industry that exists in America today.
Alongside then-President Jeanette Kahn, he is responsible for establishing the model with Phil Seuling that would become the direct market, publishers selling comics to comic stores on a firm sale basis, as well as pushing forward creative projects that would initially support it. And he has repeatedly help propped up the direct market as a distributive model for comic books over and above other avenues such as bookstores and digital distribution, and continues to see the comic shop as his primary vendor.
It was his negotiating tactics with Warner Bros that would see DC placed within the company in such a fashion that it wouldn't have to generate instant sales to justify success, but could be considered as a research and development department for Warner as a whole, the Superman movie justifying that investment. As a result, he is directly responsible for the more experimental aspects of DC, such as Piranha and Vertigo that would, in some cases, create books he disliked but that would open up a new audience to comics.
After Marvel bought the Heroes World distributor and other direct market distributors started to suffer, he chose not to use WEA (Warner/Elektra/Atlantic) as DC's distributor, instead throwing DC's weight behind the biggest direct distributor at the time, Diamond. And in doing so, insisted on a clause that saw Diamond guarantee small and self publishers to appear in Previews – a clause that has sadly had to fade of late. Many successful non-DC comics could not have appeared without this direct intervention. His decision not to purchase Diamond Distribution, despite having a option clause in the contracts to do so, also kept the distributor independent.
Under Paul Levitz, DC would also employ many more women across the company, opposed to Marvel which, relatively, is still a boys club. This would also lead to a greater diversity of content at the company. Levitz has seen himself as more than just a publisher, but almost a guardian of Americana, preserving Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman as icons as best as he can (his involvement with work such as The Authority and The Boys, severly criticised by me in the past, can be much more positively reinterpreted in this light), and has rescued abandoned works and characters, such as the Charlton and Fawcett characters, as well as works such as V For Vendetta and Moonshadow.
Levitz also pushed the move to graphic novels and trade paperbacks within the company, providing new income streams for publishers, shops and creators, keeping readers who might have abandoned the form without bookshelf appeal, and presented a modern publishing face to new readers. The term "graphic novel" and its prevalence in bookstores has done more to make the comics format acceptable to a wider demographic than anything else in the last thirty years. And the comic shop is the place where they are stocked in depth.
But things are changing. Two weeks ago, Bleeding Cool reported that Alan Horn had passed responsibility overseeing DC Comics to Diane Nelson (who I understand started yesterday), DC's biggest competitor is now Disney, the current position seems to demand a public face that Levitz is uncomfortable becoming, and there is even talk of a name change for the company to Warner Bros Comics.
This is of course not an obituary. I understand that Levitz wants to get back into writing, both comics and prose, something he had to abandon when he took on senior roles in the comics industry. It is however a major worry that the industry will be unrecognisable without him at the helm.
If DC change distributor options, if DC shift focus on their sales outlets, if DC lose certain projects because they are not instantly profitable, if DC reduce creator-owned options, if DC are… well… no longer DC. And the comics industry may become a very different beast indeed.
It is likely that Diane Nelson will bring in another Warner corporate figure to replace Paul and facilitate the change. You thought Disney buying Marvel was big? This is bigger.
And Paul? We'll really miss you. I've certainly had my disagreements with the man over the years, but I owe the majority of my comic book enjoyment directly to his oft-controvertial decisions.
Naturally, I could be repeating the mistakes that Nikki Finke made when she reported the dismissal of Dan DiDio last year. And you know what? I wish I was. But right now, I don't think so.
And talking of Nikki Finke, she is currently reporting other changes at DC Comics, stating that Paul Levitz is staying, that DC will report directly to Jeff Robinov alongside Diane Nelson and that the company is bringing back movie deals from producers with a new strategy in mind.
It's possible more of this is up in the air than I am currently aware of. But, hell, hasn't that always been the way? Whatever happens, good luck Paul.
Expect official announcement, whatever it is, soon.
Rich Johnston Vs Nikki Finke. Damn, I'm going to lose, aren't I?
UPDATE: Nikki Finke is now reporting that Paul Levitz may be leaving after all.
UPDATE UPDATE: Heidi is reporting official, rushed through PR, confirming that Paul is stepping down, but will have an editorial and creative role in the company.