According to Comic-Con International in San Diego’s new online scheduling system, only 77 people were signed up in advance to attend Thursday’s Spotlight on Jenette Kahn. Imagine the surprise, then, when the line to get into the session extended far down the San Diego Convention Center hall. A quick survey of those waiting in line found many were there to get into the subsequent Robert Kirkman panel. But the large crowd stood ready with a standing ovation when the woman who guided DC Comics for 27 years received one of this year’s Inkpot Awards. The honor is given by CCI to individuals for their “contributions to the worlds of comics, science fiction/fantasy, film, television, animation, or fandom services.”
Among those applauding Kahn was Paul Levitz, her longtime partner in running DC and the moderator for Thursday’s session. Levitz started the Spotlight with a quick recap of Kahn’s meteoric rise to becoming a division president at Warner Brothers -Â the first woman and youngest person to achieve such a position within the company. She grew up reading comics with her brother (Batman was her favorite). She attended Radcliffe College and went on to work on several children’s magazines, including “Kids,” “Smash” and the very successful “Dynamite.” Her work on these publications put her on the radar of Warner Brothers management, who, according to Levitz, still considered comics to be a type of children’s publishing. On Groundhog Day 1976, Kahn became publisher of DC Comics.
Levitz said Kahn’s arrival was quite strange for those working at the close-knit, male-dominated company; not only was she a woman, she was also an outsider. It was no less strange for Kahn, who was shocked by the lack of women and diversity in general at DC. She also found the company plagued by “old-fashioned ideas” and too many “incoherent comics.” Still, “it was an exhilarating time” to take the helm, she said. Inspired by French comics making their way stateside at the time, Kahn saw the potential for a more upscale product aimed at an older audience. “We saw what comics could be in terms of the aesthetics,” she explained.
To achieve her vision, Kahn knew she would have to get better work out of her creators. And, to inspire such work, she knew creator rights would have to improve. Coming from a magazine background, Kahn came to the issue “with a zealot’s righteousness.” Under her leadership, DC Comics quickly phased out the back-of-the-check endorsement stamp that forced creators to sign over all rights in perpetuity. Creator-friendly programs such as the return of original art and a royalties payment plan soon followed. “We changed the industry on a moral ground,” Kahn said. Levitz agreed, arguing that his former boss was able to make such radical changes because she came from outside the industry. He said that was true of her efforts to improve diversity within DC Comics, too.
Getting back to the comics themselves, Kahn described her early tenure as “a time of tremendous opportunity.” She knew comics “were an amazing medium that could hold any story.” That attitude helped lead to the creation of Vertigo, Piranha Press and other more mature products. “We can tell adult stories,” Kahn told her staff.
Comics could also be used to promote social causes. As Warner Brothers’ “resident lefty,” Kahn often found herself to be the go-to person for issues ranging from gun control to anti-mining. The latter project involved Madeleine Albright and the Department of Defense, and would land Kahn in an armored vehicle in Africa investigating the issue first hand. She beamed with pride when she recounted a story about a Bosnian mayor who told her that the anti-mining comics literally saved kids’ lives. Levitz said Kahn was able to push through such projects because of her “dogged madness.”
That persistence paid off in Kahn’s post-DC career, as well. Looking for a new challenge, Kahn decided to produce a film project. She helped shepherd along a script that would become “Gran Torino,” targeting Clint Eastwood for the lead role from day one. Landing the actor would be a challenge. First Kahn used her Warner Brothers contacts to get in touch with Eastwood’s agent – who hung up on her after just a few sentences. Undaunted, Kahn tested the waters with other elderly actors – Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Sean Connery – but never gave up on Eastwood. Eventually, she broke through the barriers she had been encountering when she was able to contact a friend of the actor who was willing to get the script in front of Eastwood. The rest, as they say, is history.
At this point in the Spotlight, Levitz moved to a “lightning round” in which he gave Kahn a name or a phrase and asked for a short response. Highlights included:
Frank Miller: A “gifted, gifted artist and storyteller” who was recruited to DC by Kahn.
Tim Burton: “Another amazing, talented person” who really understood Batman.
Milton Glaser, designer of the original DC “bullet” logo: “One of the giants of graphic design.”
Being a girl in a boy’s world: Besides being a challenge, “the best thing was I could go to the ladies room and be alone.”
Neil Gaiman: “Enormously talented” and “a lovely, lovely person to boot.”
At the end of the lightning round, the microphone was turned over to the audience for questions. The first participant tossed out one more lightning round name: Paul Levitz. “The person who consistently said ‘no’ to me,” Kahn answered, and someone who “made me through the years better than I was.”
The rest of the Q&A session was all over the map, with several interesting details emerging. Kahn is working on producing a Spanish-language film and is bringing along another script. As DC publisher, she had to approve Chris Reeves selection for the role of Superman. She considers Alan Moore “a genius, a madman” and has “tremendous respect” for the writer. She talked about how exciting the “Watchmen” comics were when they first came out, and how the film, while “faithful,” lacked the same resonance. And she revealed that she’s a “totally masochistic Knicks fan.”
She also talked about the advent of the direct market system of distribution, which DC supported early on. Like creator rights and increased diversity, Levitz argued that Kahn’s role in nurturing the direct market remains a key part of her legacy with the company. It was “a time of opportunity,” Kahn recalled, one driven by passionate fans. Ultimately, “we decided to bet on that.”