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PopMatters Exclusive with Barry Levine – Part I

Article by Shathley Q

With increasing contestation between print and digital, the new millennium potentially holds even more profound impacts than the ambitious redefining of comics culture effected during the 90s. After the financial meltdown of 2008 forced the Big Two of DC and Marvel back into hyper-recognizable brands (Batman and Iron Man, for example), the struggle for the comic book has easily become the struggle for the comics medium itself. More than anything else, what seems to have been lost is a sense of innovation. Industry legend and inventor of the graphic novel format Will Eisner’s idea that comics can come to represent the daily fabric of human life seems to come in a distant second to the mass-marketing that’s taking place around superhero brands.

But maybe the way out of the forest, is through. Radical Publishing, which was in the words of President and Publisher Barry Levine ‘founded but not founded in 2007,’ offers an enticing new business model: transmedia. Barry has staked his claim on the idea that if comics is truly reflective of the fabric of everyday life, then it has more to learn from engaging and interacting with other, larger forms of media. For Barry Levine, and Radical itself, it is not simply a question of either/or. The survival of comics is integrally linked to the flourishing of all forms of media. Movies and videogames are not the death-knell of comics, but an opportunity.

Earlier this year, PopMatters was afforded rare access to the inner circle at Radical. What we encountered in Barry was a true leader. Caring, passionate, motivated and, above all, intelligent, Barry enters the world stage with Hunter S. Thompson or T.S. Eliot, men of letters who redefined the publishing industry ostensibly through acts of sheer will.

Over the course of the following weeks, The Iconographies presents a series of features on its time with Radical, and particularly with Barry himself. Up for discussion was the history of the company’s founding, the state of development of the most dynamic transmedia company today, and Radical’s stance on talent management.

Where Your Heart Is, a story in three acts. This week, Act One.

Where Your Heart Is, Act One: Home And Far From Home

“It was a loss leader,” there’s iron in Barry Levine’s voice as he speaks plainly about the first Radical publication, Hercules: The Thracian Wars, penned by industry legend Steve Moore, writer on the long-running British comic Judge Dredd. It’s an iron that confirms, even before Barry reaches the end of his sentence, that this was a choice. A gambit, rather than a gamble. “We started it in concept, but we didn’t have the money to actually print the comics,” Barry begins, “We just did Hercules and we did Caliber, and made sure I art directed everything and worked with the writers. And on the content and you know, trying to get first two books at only a dollar a piece, just so we could brand ourselves. It was a loss leader, but we ended up selling like 25,000 each book. And it put us right up at the top six, seven, comic book companies. And people were, like, going, ‘Who the hell are these guys?’”

Given the recent runaway success Radical has had with enticing and holding on to talent, it seems somehow cognitively dissonant to hear the company president speak about humble beginnings. Over the past few years Radical has hosted the critically-acclaimed horror writer Steve Niles, creator of the moody Alaskan vampire tale 30 Days of Night, Leonardo Manco, illustrator on DC/Vertigo’s prestigious and long-running Hellblazer, David Hine, Batman writer on DC’s flagship title, Detective Comics, Rick Remender, writer on Marvel’s newly-minted Uncanny X-Force, Jimmy Palmiotti from DC’s runaway hit Jonah Hex, to name but a few high-profile creators.

Radical certainly has the feel of an academy, a rallying point for high-profile talent to gather and enact more personal projects, projects that may fall outside of the marketing machine that operates the brands of larger companies. But this feel is a testament to the kind of company Barry and his business partner Jesse Berger have managed to put together. With a strong focus on talent and high quality production, Radical has quickly skyrocketed to one of the prime movers in the comics biz. But more than that, Radical feels very much like the kind of company you can root for. It’s hard not to want them to succeed. And harder still not to celebrate their clear and often unambiguous successes.

The tone of the company, though, comes back to Barry himself. In his sixties, Barry has already seen two careers through to their finish, one as a rock photographer, the other as soundtrack composer for movie projects. Radical is Barry’s Angra’s violin, a second (in his case, a third) wholly new direction that he has once again succeeded at.

“I wanted our art to stand out beyond anything,” Barry continues to muse. For him talking about those early stresses, not so long ago, is clearly relaxing. Perhaps it’s simply down to a pragmatism hardwired into his personality, but even when talking about stressful times, Barry comes across as unflappable. And yet, at the heart of it all, there’s that iron in Barry’s tone that I’m quickly becoming familiar with. That cool, focused, driven edge that seems to say, the encountering the unforeseeable is forgivable, but delivering less than your best never is.

“It was only in 2008, when we got this money from our investors in Singapore, that we were able to fulfill our initiatives,” he continues. “We were able to print, using the right paper we wanted, to do everything we wanted to do that other people take for granted. Especially… I’m a big proponent of the interiors having to be as good as the covers. Otherwise you’re making the books for just a very small segment of the audience. That’s the kind of thing you can get away with if you’re DC and Marvel and do whatever you need to do because the brands sell themselves. But you can’t do it if you’re an up-and-coming company. Every aspect of the way you promote the art… everything… has to be very, very specific. And after those first eight months, Diamond (Distributors) gave us best new publisher of the year. Which was cool, because it validated our efforts.”

It’s that call to the re-popularization of comics that rings most true. The recent relaunch of classic Gold Key properties by Dark Horse under industry heavyweight Jim Shooter (properties like Doctor Solar: Man of the Atom, Turok and Magnus, Robot-Fighter), came replete with a tour of the characters’ classic history. Somehow, and this opinion does not detract from the amazing work done by Shooter and the creative teams on the various books, this move just felt wrong. It felt like somehow we’ve lost steam, and these properties have lost essential relevance to the fabric of our everyday lives. Like this properties have become the purview of scholarship, rather than something we can all spontaneously relate to.

Barry’s answering a different call here.

What’s at the heart of the matter for him is speaking to the broadest possible segment of the audience— all of it. Rather than tuck comics away in comic books and keep comic books locked away a neighborhood comic book store, Barry is of the first of generations to de-ghettoize comics after the tangible victories won for creator rights during the 90s. By now, it’s a pyrrhic tale; comics won only to have lost. The battles fought since the 80s and won visibly during the 90s, battles around ownership and creative control, seemed to come with its own peculiar poison. That comics would ultimately undergo a self-marginalization, retreating into the world of the comic book store and away from the mainstream of popular culture.

With the focus on high quality production values, Radical seems very much to want to buck this trend.“You know, we’ve never been a company that was trying to sell 40-50,000 books. We understand what the scenario is and how you build your brand. We also didn’t want to wait 20 years to build our brand like Dark Horse or IDW, who I respect a lot (both of those companies), because that’s what they do 24/7. And from that point on, we were able to get our own building, to staff up, bring in the people we wanted to bring in at that time, and start bringing on additional titles.”

It’s Barry’s discussion of place that prompts my next line of inquiry. The idea of a fixed place, of having a place where things can take place. Put concisely, does Los Angeles matter? Does the physical geography make for a different, more productive mental geography? Or is it the opposite? Are the glamorous streets of Hollywood something that needs to be bolstered against? Do creators need a recess to enter into that will ultimately keep the fast-paced glitz at bay?

There’s a chuckle from Barry and warm laughter. The question’s put him in an altogether different mood. And his response, to this question more than to my earlier ones, is Barry at his most personable. I’ve accidentally stumbled into a favorite area of his to discuss, and Barry is welcoming of the question and the chance it affords him.

There’s another chuckle, then Barry starts up.

“To be honest with you, it wouldn’t matter it I lived in (#3*2@3%2)ing Timbuktu. Los Angeles doesn’t influence my perspective on content, stories, artists, anything… You live where your heart is, you live where your mind is. It just so happens that we do other things beside comic books. We’re a full-on transmedia company. And we do electronic books, we do e-commerce, we do social gaming, we do a lot of stuff with our content. And L.A. is a good place to have access to all the ancillary aspects of creating your universe, creating your intellectual properties. But I live here because this is where I ended up, this is where I’ve been since I was 15. But we use artists from everywhere. From Brazil, to China, to England, to Italy, places in america, it all depends on the talent.”

The Iconographies exclusive with Radical President and PublisherBarry Levine continues next week.

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