Evolution of the
I want to start off this week's column by clarifying my observations about DC President Paul Levitz that I gave at the end of my last column. I do not in any way wish to back off from my contention that Paul's initial career goal was to become a successful corporate executive, and that the comics industry was a convenient means for him to achieve that ultimate end. Where I may have given somewhat of a misimpression, however, is in perhaps giving you the idea that I think that Paul's choosing his career path, and then using the comics industry to meet his personal objectives, was in some way wrong. Nope, that's simply not true.
I'm going to try and clarify my position about Paul's career in comics a bit by paraphrasing a quote that I believe was made by Otto von Bismark (the Iron Chancellor), who had to deal with the German parliament during the 1880's. His comment was to the effect that "Those with weak stomachs should neither observe sausage making, nor politics..." Bismark's quote becomes cogent when you take into consideration that every corporate executive is forced to be a politician. Successful corporations come about through a dynamic of sometimes quite contentious interactions between people who hold very strong opinions about how the company should be run. Learning when to push your ideas forcefully, and when to pragmatically allow others to gain the initiative (only to have their flawed ideas ultimately cause their downfall), is a critical skill that is needed to move up the corporate ladder.
Over his 25 year career within Warner Paul Levitz has honed his political skills into a fine art. From personal experience I can attest to the fact that Paul is a ferocious poker player. That is based, however, on my observations from my own skill level, which is moderate, at best. Paul is playing every single day in a poker game in which the stakes are astoundingly high, against other players who frequently have even greater playing ability, and a lot more chips. The fact that he has managed to survive 25 years of interactions within the snakepit of executive jostling for power at Warner is to my mind truly astonishing.
Returning to the subject of the evolution of the Direct Market distribution system during the early 1980's, I related last week about how I misunderstood Paul's objectives from the beginning because I placed him in the same category as Jim Shooter. Shooter was a strong advocate for comics within Marvel, and was my ally right from the beginning in trying to sway the Marvel executive team into focusing on selling more comics in comics specialty shops (the Direct Market). I assumed from Paul's extensive interactions within comics fandom prior to his ascendancy to the leadership of DC that he would fulfill a similar role within the Warner management team. In that regard, I was completely wrong. Paul's first objective was to ingratiate himself with his superiors at Warner. Growing the Direct Market was for him, by far, a secondary objective.
Now that I have 25 years of hindsight on what happened during those early years of the Direct Market, I have to admit that Paul Levitz was right in his approach, and that Jim Shooter was wrong. Jim remains a good friend of mine to this day, but his current ability to influence events within the world of comics is minimal. Paul Levitz, on the other hand, has managed to not only survive within the Warner power structure, but also to thrive. He now has far greater power to sway the world of comics in very positive directions than Shooter ever had during the early 1980's. In fact, when I look back upon his record, I have to admit that Paul Levitz was at the helm when DC has had some of its greatest artistic and marketing triumphs. This would never have come about if he would have allowed his passion for comics to overcome cold logic. While I doubt if he would ever admit it, I believe that Paul's decision-making at DC has been greatly influenced by the old poker adage that "You are only able to ultimately win if you're able to somehow stay in the game..." As a a result of this world view, avoiding taking any actions which might ultimately threaten his personal career has been his #1 goal throughout the past 25 years that he has been the leader of DC.
While my hindsight now gives me clarity, I have to admit that Paul's unilateral decisions to bolster his own career at the expense of what I perceived to be "right" at the time still rankles. While I may now admire Paul's political skills, the idealist within me still seethes at some of the decisions that were made. What this all taught me in the end, however, is that I am simply not cut out to be a politician, or a corporate executive within a power structure which I do not directly control. I have exactly the same fatal flaws of idealism which brought a sad premature end to Jim Shooter's career at Marvel. It was when I came to understand this failing in my own personality that I withdrew from active participation in trying to change the world of comics. Pragmatism and compromise on issues that I perceive of in terms of right and wrong are simply not possible for me. I live by my heart, rather than my brain, and that frequently causes me to make serious political errors. As a result I end up being vastly less effective in social interactions than an adroit politician like Paul Levitz.
In my next column, I am going to start pulling together all of the divergent bits of information that I've provided you during these many weeks. The evolution of the Direct Market into its present form was a very complex interaction, and if you've read most of my past columns, you now have the contextual background needed to understand what was about to happen in the fall of 1981, and why. Suffice it to say, there was a lot of scheming, and an extraordinary level of backroom politics.
To be continued...
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