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Levitz on Watchmen

Interview at NYCC

Published: 02/23/2009 12:41am

We caught up with DC Comics CEO Paul Levitz at New York Comic Con, where we talked about two topics:  Watchmen, and the impact of economic situation on comic sales.  In the Watchmen interview, we talked about Watchmen supply, new channels, the new readers it’s bringing in, the movie and whether it will meet expectations, and how Watchmen will place in any change in the types of content that are popular in the current economy.  In the economy portion of the interviewwe talked about the impact of the economy on comics by format, by channel, on figures, and on the small press. 

 

At the ICv2 Graphic Novel Conference, when someone asked about what would happen to the graphic novel business if the Watchmen movie were a bust, I think heard you from the back of the room say something like “I guess the 200,000 I ordered yesterday wouldn’t be much good then.”  Can you bring us up to date on where you are with Watchmen supply?

Hopefully we’re staying ahead of the game.  The well hasn’t run dry for more than a minute or two since the madness started with the trailer.  We had a couple of challenges in that first few weeks because no one anticipated the level of effect the trailer would have.  I’d done some polling of the publishing people I know and they said, “The trailer’s maybe a five per cent lift, maybe a ten per cent lift.”  When I ran the numbers on Watchmen it was well over a thousand per cent lift over where it had been before.  So it took us a while to get ahead of the gang then but we had product shipping fairly smoothly through that. 

 

It calmed down substantially in the fall and early winter, though it was still at the top of the best seller lists twenty-four out of twenty-seven weeks since the trailer aired.  We’ve seen a significant rise from the first of the year on.  We sold more Watchmen in January than we did in ’07 for the whole year.  We’re now seeing the numbers warm up to yet another plateau so we went back for printing number twenty-three shipping this week for another couple hundred thousand copies.  And we have paper lined up and press time lined up if we need it for the next few weeks for further batches.

 

So since San Diego last year how many have you printed?

I don’t have it in my head.  It just blurs. 

 

Over a million?

It’s probably been over a million since San Diego.

 

What channels is Watchmen in that you haven’t been in before with your graphic novels?

That’s a fun step.  One of the things that the guys did took advantage of the kind of depth of reach that Random House has.  We did a program where we identified every Random House bookselling account that hadn’t had Watchmen and sent them a freebie, and said, “Here.  This is a really cool book that’s selling well.  You might consider putting this one in the window and seeing how fast it sells.”

 

These were indie book sellers?

I imagine they’re mostly independent booksellers. 

 

Over the course of this excitement we’ve had sales to Blockbuster, Target, Walmart, Urban Outfitters, other nontraditional accounts, for us, certainly. 

 

When we talked in San Diego you were talking about the opportunity that the sales of Watchmen represented in terms of bringing lapsed or new readers into the market.  Do you have any data on what’s happening there? 

It’s hard to track it with hard data because you’d really need to be doing some deep and expensive surveying to really track it.  What I see it in mostly is sort of a “pathing.”  We’ve seen a very significant uptick in V for Vendetta.  That’s been a successful book for a long time.  There’s no particular reason we should be selling a lot more V for Vendetta today except that you can imagine that a retailer who’s sold a copy of Watchmen and has somebody come back and say, “Well I like this; what else has this guy written?” would offer V as one of the logical choices.  We’re back for our second decent-sized printing of that since last summer. 

 

In the same way we’ve had exceptional success with the Killing Joke reprint.  Some of that is obviously the halo from The Dark Knight.  But some of that is also because it’s another logical thing for a bookseller to naturally move to from Watchmen.  Both are probably logical things in the Amazon system of cross-correlation (if you like this, buy this) because of the parallel author.  It’s probably a reoccurring behavior pattern.  The Amazon methodology of selling makes those things virtuous cycles.  If you get a few early adopters whose curiosity goes a little further than you would naturally expect, they start forming a pattern and it’s easier for Amazon to offer the next guy, “Well, if you liked Watchmen you’ll like this.” 

 

We also saw a significant uptick in the Maus editions out of Pantheon last year.  Art had a new book, that helps a little bit, but it wasn’t a home-run new book, not large enough to really explain the extra number of Maus copies going out there.  If Watchmen was the “best graphic novel ever” (and I put that in very, very large quotes), does a bookseller then say in response, “Well if that’s the only graphic novel that won the Hugo, here’s the only graphic novel that won the Pulitzer. Try that.” 

 

I think all of those things indicate to me that what we hoped for is happening.  Hard data, not so much.

 

Have you seen the Watchmen movie?

Ninety-eight per cent. 

 

What everybody wants to know is, “Is it going to meet expectations?”

I saw it on one of the occasions with three or four of the top talents in our field who were completely unaffiliated with it.  They just walked away blown away by it.  Zach’s visual style and the stylization with which he adapts the comic material is a totally new approach to making a movie based on a comic. 

 

There’s a wide range of expectations.  One of the challenges about any movie like Watchmen where the source material is so rich and so dense is that everyone has different things that were their favorite in it.  There will be someone who walks in expecting a specific scene that won’t have made it into the final version. 

 

That Times piece was nice where Snyder was talking about some of the things he had to cut. 

It was all done with great respect and a great amount of thought.  I don’t know whether it will have the same effect on someone who isn’t a passionate fan of the book.  If you’re a passionate fan of the book you have to look at it and say, Wow, it’s amazing what he was able to do with it and how he put it together.

 

In the Thirties there was an appetite for content that was upbeat.  People were looking for an escape from their lives, which were bleak, for entertainment where the little guy succeeds or there’s a heart-warming ending.  Comic-based entertainment has been fairly cynical or dark.  Watchmen is definitely a very dark story.  So could Watchmen be the crest of that wave?  Are we going to see more content that goes in a more upbeat direction? 

I think Watchmen in many ways is simply a unique thing.  It certainly first got its success and its notoriety as part of a wave of things that were darker than where comics had been (for example Dark Knight Returns, coming at a similar moment).  But I think its enduring success and its likely success as a film is partly driven by the fact that it just isn’t like anything else that people have seen at the end of the day.  You can measure it on the cynicism to optimism scale, or you can measure it on the depth of political thinking versus political naivete level, or you can measure it on the complexity of the story versus simplicity of story, pretty much all its settings are different than the way everything else is done. 

 

It wouldn’t surprise me if some more optimistic material welled up at a time like this, and people were dreaming of what they want.  I think you certainly see an emotional reaction to Obama through the campaign, and from the reaction at the inauguration a tremendous desire for “Give me a reason to have hope for the future.”  And politics is often very close to fiction.  So we may have some similar balance in some of that.

 

Click here for Levitz on the economy.

 
 
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