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PopMatters Exclusive with Barry Levine – Part III

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.

Concluding this week, The Iconographies presents the final in 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 Three, the final act.

Where Your Heart Is, Act Three: Some Things Deserve To Last Forever

There’s a now familiar passion in Barry’s voice. “If you do that with the writer, you’re nurturing part of their creativity and part of their imagination. It’s hard enough writing these books. It’s hard enough creating these universes. But if you go in and tie one hand behind their back and say, ‘It has to be like this, and we can’t have this being shown’, then you’re losing what you’re hiring them for.

“We’re not afraid to take chances, I’m not afraid to print things other companies won’t.” It’s not hard to get swept into Barry’s thoughts on the nature of the industry. Or, even better, it’s not hard to get swept up in what Barry believes the industry ought to be. Barry thinks like a hurricane, he thinks like how Clint Eastwood shoots. And by now, there’s a rhythm. Listening to Barry talk about his company, there’s a fierceness in his voice. Not in the sense of Radical being something he can own. But in the sense that this is his line in the dirt. This is how he stands up for what he values. This is that moment right at the end of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, when they walk out of that whorehouse better men and rescue Angel from the Mexican Army.

No apologies, standing up for what you value should be easy. And it is.

I can recall earlier in the conversation, Barry’s idea about a post-geographic existence. That L.A. is useful, but that he would have built the company even living in Timbuktu. “You live where your heart is,” he’d said. And later in the conversation, Barry will reference the early days of the company. The company before the company, the company before office space. Those days that he and his business partner Jesse Berger took meetings at Coffee Bean.

He’ll pick up by answering about 2008. The year the shockwave of the financial crisis fully hit. “It was great,” he’ll begin enthusing, “I wouldn’t change that for anything. Jesse and I would initially take meetings at Coffee Bean. And all these people would think that we had stock in Coffee Bean ‘cause we would only meet at Coffee Bean. Well, that’s because we didn’t have any offices. And then we moved into this house that Jesse got us, with a room downstairs that was about 450 square feet. It was a basement, and we had 9 people in that room. With phone calls bleeding into one another.

“But most of the people that were in that room I mentored, and they’d never did this before. And they learned the hard way. They learned through trial and error. They were calling, and you know, they still do, they call every single comic book store once a month in America. Even if they bought one copy. We had four, five people doing it per day. For a period of like 10 days. And now we call the top 100, 250 stores… the people we need to talk to right now. Because it would just be impossible to call every single store.

“And it’s just that, we bled for it. It was hard times. Me, personally, I wouldn’t ever *@#&%ing stay more than an hour and a half in that office ‘cause I would have gotten a rifle and shot everybody. It was just so claustrophobic.” There’s that now familiar chuckle in Barry’s voice as he recalls the bad times. Did he ever imagine it could feel like this, I wonder. How could he have, I correct myself, how could he have known the impact he would have?

“But it made everybody better,” he’ll say, as he continues talking about those early days, “And once the money came along…” His voice trails as he’s taken back even farther in time. “I mean it’s just like me, when I started out. I started out in England. I started out as a photographer and I had nothing but a camera and drive. I had not done $#!+. I had to do anything and everything just to keep alive until I started selling my pictures. But that made me a better photographer. Because it made me appreciate where it came from.

“What I have now, and what I didn’t have then. It taught me a lot. It taught me how to really watch people. And that’s how we do our covers. My photography is part of a lot of our covers. Because I learned from artists by reading books. Artists like Turner, his skies and backdrops, backgrounds. How he does foreground, mid-ground and background influences a lot of the stuff we do. Cold palettes, perspective… that’s the kind of stuff that I did. I wasn’t known for just shooting a band in front of a wall. A lot of the stuff I did was really theatrical. I even did a fantasy book that The Who’s business manager financed, with all these actresses and all these big beautiful sets that I lit theatrically. I wouldn’t give any of that up. I had good times and bad times and I learned a lot.”

Barry will say all of that in just a few minutes. And that would be the moment. The Money-Shot. After that, nothing more can be said or will need to be said. Radical will be established as a values-driven company. The first of a new breed of company where the ideas matter.

It’s not hard to get into the rhythm of a values economy. Not hard at all. Some things, the great Dwayne McDuffie reminded us, deserve to be seen. Some ideas should last forever.

But it’s what Barry says next that just blows me away. What he says immediately next? It’s the game-changer. It’s that thing deep on the inside of us, that we had to hide from sight, for fear of it being damaged.

“We put a lot of work into our books. We’re not like other companies, putting out 10, 15, 20 books a month. We put out three, maybe four books a month. And now that we’re doing illustrated novels, where it’s written in prose… like a novel, but with 40 fully-rendered illustrations… now it’s a whole other story because that’s for the iPad and that’s for Android. And there’s music that we can put into it because we’ve built our own recording studio. And there’s narration we can put in there. And there’s movement. It’s a whole other interactive experience.

“Because right now, 25% of publishers have a revenue stream that comes from derivatives. Publication on Amazon, and we’re trying to be ahead of the curve. There’s always going to be a huge market for people who want to hold something. Who want to have something in their hands. And that collector’s market will never go away. But there’s people that we want to get to that won’t buy comic books. That won’t go into comic book stores. And those people would gladly download these stories on the iPad or Android.”

Barry’s talking about Jake the Dreaming, Radical’s newest young-adult project slated for a December 2011 release. From what I’ve seen (and there’ll be a preview of the book released on May 7th), Jake the Dreaming is pretty much a revolution in a can. It’s not just there to hit the power vacuum of a Harry Potter-demographic disappeared, Jake the Dreaming is the future of literature.

But Barry’s talking about more than just Jake. He’s talking about your life. And the life of everyone you’ve ever known.

The number one question for the 21st century is, “Did they know?”

The men who where there at the time, didn’t just oversee the invention of superheroes. They invented popular culture. They tore into the idea ghetto-izing the popular as genre fiction in pulp magazines and insisted that comics and superheroes be visible in the largest of mass media at the time—newspapers. But those men who invented the genre of superheroes and the medium of comics, did they know? Could they have known how these iconographies would stretch into the future?

This was the invention of their tomorrow. Our today. It was the birth of a world where ideas can live forever. And when Barry says that he wants to reach out to people who don’t go into comic book stores? What’s he really saying there?

Something revolutionary. These words are a manifesto. A statement about where we are. About what the entertainment industry always should have been. And about now, what it can be.

Data Shadow: A First Glance At Jake the Dreaming

It’s the world of your dreams, the way you’ve always dreamt it. Fractals swirl high above the main characters in a distant blue sky. Wolves made from giant gears and levers and ancient mechanistic clockwork yap tirelessly at heroes, hounding them to the very edge of the cliff. It’s every nightmare you’ve ever had. And every dream of victory. Forms morph, elementary shapes amalgamate, things twist out of and then back into shape.

And there’s that lantern. Something guiding you in. Something standing out. Something exceptional.

I want to hold this in my hand, and so do you. I want to feel that sleek, rich paper between my fingers. Because this is what victory would feel like. This is my youth again, and yours, too. This is the undoing of every secret betrayal of childhood. Every fiction that never quite lived up to expectations. This is the conquest over every insignificant fiction you and I both have ever read. This is what will make libraries matter again. It’s high adventure and danger and value. A life of meaning and value.

The Iconographies is privileged to bring you a first glimpse of Jake the Dreaming, the illustrated novel that will grace the shelves of bookstores this winter. The first of Radical’s illustrated novels, the first of many to come. But you won’t have to wait until then. At least, not that long for a sneak peek. You’ll get a preview of Jake the Dreaming on Free Comic Book Day on May 7th.

Just looking at it now, Jake the Dreaming feels like pure imagination. This is how your childhood saw the world. This is what it felt like to be on the precipice, grappling your way towards surety. This is how the world looked, sewn together into strange new forms. This is what it felt like when dreaming wasn’t a choice. Just one image. One image is more than enough. One image and you know that Jake the Dreaming is about the most important drama you’ve ever lived through, that it’s the drama of not-yet-but-soon.

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