Where Your Heart Is 2: The PopMatters Exclusive with Radical’s Barry Levine

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 comicbook 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 Two.

Where Your Heart Is, Act Two: The Comics Of Tomorrow

It was in a TED talk given by media commentator Johanna Blakley earlier this year that she identified a critical failing in the structure of entertainment metadata. In a sense, our protocols for measuring are broken, and they have been for some time. But, Blakley argues in her beguilingly elegant talk, we’re on the cusp of a breakthrough.

“I’m going to argue today, that the social media applications that we all know and love or love to hate”, Blakley opens, “are actually going to help free us from some of the absurd assumptions we have as a society about gender. I think that social media is actually going to help us dismantle some of the silly and demeaning stereotypes that we see in media and advertising about gender. If you hadn’t noticed our media climate generally provides a very distorted mirror of our lives and of our gender. And I think that’s going to change”.

Blakley goes on to explain the centrality of demographics, the rigid systems that enshrine restrictive labels meant to expose an underlying predictability to media consumption. Age demographics for example (think of ads targeted to the 18-49 demo appearing on Thursday night TV shows) is it own particular brand of autocracy. The assumption behind demographics however, remains the predictability of taste.

But social media is different, Blakley argues. For one, forming relationships online that defeat demographic definition is far easier. It is easier to find and connect with someone around shared taste rather than age or what educational theorist Ken Robinson jocularly refers to as ‘date of human production’. For another, traditional media companies (like Nielsen) are hitting a wall when it comes to exercising the usual metrics of age, gender, ethnicity on the internet. What’s far easier to measure on a clickstream, is attention. What is it you’re reading, viewing, downloading, uploading?

And if for no other reason, this is exactly the breakthrough in media consumption that could only be dreamed of in the twentieth century. Before the monitoring of a clickstream, taste was presumed, and dictated to end-users. But now, we’re faced with a condition wherein taste can be more accurately monitored.

So the monitoring of media end-users is hardly the totalitarian nightmare that Orwell predicted in 1984. But is there an even more direct way to promote an evolution of thinking beyond the strictures of the demographic?

There’s a chuckle from Barry when I mention my thoughts on Radical books I’ve read in preparation for this interview. Earp: Saints For Sinners, but as far back as Hercules: The Thracian Wars and Hercules: The Knives of Kush, there’s been a very definite focus on grounding mythic moments in the psychology of the moment. The Hercules books in particular are essays on fractured countries, echoing the divided psychology of those pro- or anti- the war in Iraq. Earp is the new condition that arises directly from the financial meltdown.

“You’re the first person to comment on that”, Barry remarks with a slight chuckle. “We do that a lot… Earp, Aladdin, and Hercules. Especially Hercules, when we did that, that wasn’t done with monsters and three-headed hydras. There was a sociological and political reason that we tried to imbue in our books. To give it more depth. The same thing with Earp. Earp we took advantage of our financial situation, of the recession. And what would happen if money was king again, and credit cards meant nothing? What would happen, where would people gravitate to? And having a Vegas-like atmosphere, having a few of those around the country, that’s where people go to when they want to make quick money, when they want to escape. So yeah it is a statement on that too, but at the same time we’re having fun with the iconic nature of taking Tombstone and bringing it to a contemporary vein”.

By this time in the conversation there’s already a familiar kind of rhythm that I’ve settled into with Barry. He’s easy to talk to because his ideas are clear. What’s more, he’s made them accessible. And without my referencing Johanna Blakley’s TEDtalk, he’s already responded to the same problem Blakley’s identified, and developed a strategy to combat its inequities.

The problem is to craft the kind of stories that people can rally around. Mythic stories, like Francis Ford Coppola’s the Godfather trilogy, or Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy where the situations evolved are larger than the characters who live through them. But among all of the work being produced, how do you stand out? Barry’s answer is simple, and elegant, you capture and sustain attention, by tapping the zeitgeist. These books are about today, but their stories last forever.

But of course there’s more to the equation that just that. Radical’s staggeringly high-quality output is supported by high-quality creators. Barry is first to bear this in mind.

“And the cover [to Earp: Saints for Sinners #1] is spectacular. Alex Maleev did an incredible cover. I mean I love Alex, he did all the covers for us, the secondary covers, on Last Days of American Crime. He’s worked with the artist [Greg Toccini] on the interior art on Last Days. He’s done covers on After Dark. And Alex works with all the big companies. But we allow the artists to do stories and take chances and give them opportunities that no-one else will give them”.

When asked Barry goes into a little more detail. He speaks about the recently released Time Bomb scripted and created by weird Western gunslinger Jonah Hex-scribe, Jimmy Palmiotti. Barry confirms Jimmy’s praise for his association with Radical in a number of interviews.

Jimmy’s often asked, “Why do you work for Radical?”, Barry informs me. To which he usually responds, “It’s the only company I’ve ever worked for that’s given me carte blanche”. Barry goes on to talk about Rick Remender the amazing talent behind the videogame Dead Space and Marvel’s profound meditation on the ethics of race, Uncanny X-Force. Barry continues: “Last Days by Rick Remender, who’s one of the top writers, he’s used to people knowing him from Fear Agent and Punisher, and no one’s ever given him an opportunity to do a crime book with a slight sci-fi twist on Last Days. And it’s as edgy as you’re going to get. And I feel, you don’t fix what’s not broken. And in some rights, that book should have shrink-wrapped. But we are very much believers in the success of art. We don’t censor our writers”.

There’s a familiar iron in Barry’s voice when he talks about creative and intellectual freedom for his writers. He’s rallying against something, a fundamental restriction that most people cannot even sense the shape of. I’m reminded of Coppola’s commentary on the Restoration edition to the epilogue movie of his trilogy. Coppola speaks about how the only thing that will return his passion for making movies is the freedom to try something new. “But to be condemned”, Coppola continues his meditative tone on the DVD commentary, “to make the same movie, over and over again. It’s sort of like Jean Paul Sartre, its sort of like somebody’s idea of Hell, that you have a medium, the Cinema, which maybe we’ve touched 8% of what its language is of what it can do… and to be told by the people who own it, by the people who make money with it, who buy jewelry for their wives with it, ‘No you can’t anymore experiment with it, you can’t take it into new territory, you must do the same thing over and over again’… That is a bitter, bitter pill to swallow”.

And of course, the overwhelming sense of trust that Barry evokes comes from his taking the entirely opposite position. Radical books capture mindestate, they build images that will go with you through time. Images that will grow with you, and that you will grow around.

“That’s how I figure that”, Barry enthuses. “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”.

Talking to Barry, it feels like you’ve brushed up against the comics of tomorrow. But that’s only true for one reason. Because for Barry, the comics of tomorrow look very much like what they ought to have been today.