Barry Levine is focused on Hollywood aspirations these days, but he came up in the music world as a photographer for KISS and Mötley Crüe, so he knows a gold rush when he sees one. Crüe was part of the 1980s Sunset Strip metal scene that stirred an industry craze just as Liverpool and San Francisco had done in the 1960s and Seattle would in the 1990s.
“Right now in Hollywood, the rush is on, comic books are the new sensation and they are not going away,” Levine said with an insider’s assured nod at he sat in front of a plate of pasta at a Los Angeles sidewalk café. “What’s happened already is impossible to ignore but what’s happening now and what’s going to happen next is even more interesting.”
The past-tense statement was a reference to “The Dark Knight,” “Iron Man,” “Hancock,” “Wanted” and other 2008 comic-book films that have been piling up box office receipts that, collectively, are astounding. “The Dark Knight” alone is closing in on a billion dollars in ticket sales and may even end up as the first comic-book movie to fly high at the Oscars.
The interesting future, according to Levine, is on the way because Hollywood players are climbing over each other for comic-book properties, both famous and obscure, like gamblers trying to pump coins into the same slot machine. Levine is taking a different approach –- he’s built his own slot machine.
Levine is co-founder of Radical Publishing, a company that began publishing comics this year with sleek production values and the proud agenda of treating every comic book as if it is a storyboard for a film that’s just waiting to be made. Some people make pitches in Hollywood, Levine hands out comic books.
I have to say, the guy seems to have a pretty good sensibility for the contemporary cinematic version of the fantastic; the comics he is putting out sound like movies. There’s “Caliber,” the tale of King Arthur reimagined as an Old West adventure where the magic sword is replaced with a six-shooter and Merlin is a Native American shaman; the future police-state tale “City of Dust,” a sort of tricked-out “Blade Runner” channeling of George Orwell’s thought-crime fears; and a bloody take on “Hercules,” where the embittered man-god runs with an ancient, all-star mercenary group, a sort of “300” version of “The Magnificent Seven.”
Yes, at Radical it’s all high concept, all the time. And Hollywood is paying attention.
Peter Berg, director of “Hancock” and “The Kingdom,” has a deal in place to produce and direct that grim version of “Hercules” for the screen, while Johnny Depp’s production company, Infinitum Nihil, is on board for a “Caliber” adaptation that has John Woo (“Face/Off“) attached as director. Bryan Singer, the director of “X-Men” and “The Usual Suspects,” has signed on to produce an adaptation of “Freedom Formula,” a Radical title about racing teams in the wastelands of the far future. For comics fans, too, Radical has brought in notable creators, among them top horror writer Steve Niles (“30 Days of Night” and “Criminal Macabre“) and Jim Steranko, one of the more celebrated and influential artists during the Marvel Comics glory days.
“These are very exciting times for us,” Levine said, patting a stack of the comic books Radical has produced in its first year of publishing. Exciting, yes, but then the roulette table is always exciting while the wheel is still spinning.
Will the gambles pay off? It’s too early to say. Sure, those three Hollywood projects could indeed unleash the Radical comics era in Hollywood … or they may simply unravel and add to this town’s huge graveyard of promising projects that never make it past the press-release stage.
Levine knows all this but has a strong measure of confidence that he can see the matrix of the moment. He said he works closely with the writers to refine the characters and their story no matter how long it takes, and early on he took an intense micromanaging role when it came to art direction and guiding the Singapore studio that gives the Radical line of comics its signature look. “The concept is 50% and the art — the look — is the other 50%. Look, doing the kind of photography I used to do, it wasn’t just getting the band in the studio. It didn’t matter if it was Queen, KISS, Thin Lizzy, ABBA, [Sex] Pistols, anybody, it was always about creating an environment that made them seem larger than life. All of that, every bit, helps me now.”
Levine says Radical has its own discretionary fund to buy scripts on key projects and a guiding principle of putting together packages with a writer and director attached so Levine can “walk in to studios in an advanced stage of development, not with my hat in my hand.” The man doesn’t lack confidence. He came up as a protégé of Gene Simmons, the relentless business mind and stage tongue of KISS, and from that rock monster in makeup he learned how to market a visual.
“If you can’t recognize an album cover in three seconds in the store from a poster or a one-sheet, then you’ve lost the audience,” said Levine, who accomplished his mission on covers such as “Shout at the Devil,” which he shot for Mötley Crüe.
Radical’s comics do have a dramatic look, with lush, fully-painted panels (you can see one higher up on this page, that striking image showing an iridescent cityscape from “City of Dust) and, since the emphasis is on fantasy, sci-fi and horror, not superheroes in tights, the stories are more palatable to Hollywood players who still have a tough time with capes. “But with everybody, it’s getting easier to talk about comics and get taken seriously,” Levine said. “When you have a comic book now, people will take it and look at it and think about it. That’s not how it used to be.”
Still, the concept behind Radical isn’t exactly, well, radical.
The details of Levine’s venture may be different, but observers of the comics marketplace point to another outsider enterprise, Virgin Comics, which made a splashy arrival but eventually sank. As the familiar name hints, Virgin was part of British mogul Richard Branson’s vast and colorful business empire and the two key figures in the company were Gotham Chopra (son of spiritual author Deepak Chopra) and Sharad Devarajan, who quickly lined up a roster of comics creators that sounded like a pop culture game of Mad Libs: Nicolas Cage, Duran Duran, Jenna Jameson and Terry Gilliam. The defining goal of the company was to have Hollywood names make comics and then turn those comics into movies.
There were successes (Guy Ritchie’s “The Gamekeeper,” for instance, was a promising release and, according to Ritchie, may still become a movie) but amid the economic churn these days, the center didn’t hold and earlier this year Branson pulled out of the venture. Chopra and Devarajan crafted a management buyout and now have moved on, albeit a bit humbled, as Liquid Comics.
They have two movie projects from the Virgin line of comics still in play, most notably the war-horror film “Virulents,” which has Irish director John Moore (“Max Payne”) on board and one of the more aromatic taglines in recent memory: “What’s worse than terrorists? Vampire terrorists!”
If Virgin gave it up, can Radical endure? There are people betting against it in the comic-book industry, where any upstart publisher over the past five years is generally viewed as just the latest carpetbagger looking for a back door to the Hollywood backlot.
British writer Alan Moore, whose landmark 1986 graphic novel “Watchmen” will reach the screen in March in a Warner Bros. film directed by Zack Snyder (“300”), views the movie-minded newcomers with bitter resignation.
“There are three or four companies now that exist for the sole purpose of creating not comics, but storyboards for films,” Moore told me a few months ago. “It may be true that the only reason the comic-book industry now exists is for this purpose, to create characters for movies, board games and other types of merchandise. Comics are just a sort of pumpkin patch growing franchises that might be profitable for the ailing movie industry.”
Moore, a true iconoclast, has declined credit or money associated with the Warners film. But the buzz for the movie alone has goosed “Watchmen” to the top of bookstore sales charts and DC Comics has ordered up hundreds of thousands of copies in new printings. Levine said that should be a saving grace to comics purists.
“Not only is it good business but it elevates the process and the concept,” Levine said. “Do you think ‘300’ would have been as notable and a respected worldwide as it is now because of that film? And ‘Watchmen,’ how many people really know ‘Watchmen’ outside the hard-core fans?”
For the upstart companies the template is Dark Horse Comics, the Oregon publisher that has been nimble and savvy in publishing and fortune-kissed in Hollywood with properties such as “Hellboy,” “The Mask,” “300” and “Sin City.”
Richardson, by the way, began his company in early 1980 and he’s among the many longtime comics people who get riled up by the wave of newcomers who are so consumed by Hollywood. “We’ve had success,” Richardson said, “by making great comics, not by making movie scripts that look like comics.” He and Levine aren’t close now and an outsider might presume that goes back to the whole carpetbagger issue — but maybe it’s the simple fact that gamblers don’t usually smile at each other when the cards are still being dealt.
Regardless, Levine doesn’t seem to be fretting about perceptions anywhere outside of Hollywood right now. Radical is up to 17 employees now and this past week Levine opened up a Beverly Boulevard office in a building that looks like a castle from the street — he likes the think-big imagery and an old rock ‘n’ roll guy never sweats in front of a skeptical crowd.
“People were very dubious about us. They went, ‘Here’s another comic book company that is really a disguised motion picture company.’ And, look, I never lied to anybody. If I got into this only to make comic books, I would have to be either an ultra, uber-fan or an idiot. I got into this business to create great content that would translate itself on a multimedia platform. Look, it’s simple. I make comics. I want to make movies. It’s like that tattoo on my arm I showed you, ‘He who does not hope to win has already lost.’ That’s how I feel about my company.”
— Geoff Boucher
CREDITS: Photos of Barry Levine by Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times
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