Jenette Kahn, First Female Comic Book Executive
Jenette Kahn talks about working in comic books.
First Female Comic Book Executive
Jenette Kahn talks about growing up around art, falling in love with comic books, and championing creators' rights as president of DC Comics.
- Jenette: I loved DC Comics. I felt I had the best job in the galaxy. I was always interested in anything visual. I really owe that to my mother. She truly loved painting. She decorated my room with a poster of a Matisse painting. It was vibrant, and rich, and exciting. I'd wake up to it, go to sleep to it. I fell in love with it. Comics were a staple of our life. We had a Five and Dime with a big wall rack of comics. My brother and I would read as many as we could until, of course, the manager of the store would say "Buy them or get out!" We would take our few dimes and buy whatever we could pool together. For me, it was Batman. He seemed sort of like a dark obsessed artist, which has always been one of my weak points. He didn't have any special powers but he transforms himself into a superhero. I thought "If he can do it, I can do it to!" I saw Dynomite as being that older brother who is like really hip and is introducing them to all the hip things that are going on in the world. It became the most successful magazine in all of Scholastic's history. Now I said now that it's such a success, I want to get a royalty. They're like "Oh, no, no, no! "You would make more than the Chairman of the Board!" I am like "That is so not the point." And so I created a third magazine and I called it Smash because I wanted to smash Dynomite. This was 80 comic books a month, merchandise, television, movies, it was so over my head that I had to say yes. The beginning was difficult. We basically manufactured male fantasy. Everybody who created those fantasies, they were men too. There was a lot of fear and loathing that I had been hired. It was said that one of my all-time favorite editors was throwing up in the men's room when he heard about it. Back then, comic books were not making money. There was still this ephemeral, disposable media for kids. I saw comics as an art form. I am like "Oh, no! We're a comic book company. "We should be proud of it." One of the first things I did was change our name to DC Comics, based on the first comic book Batman was published, Detective Comics 27. The first lynchpin of creating a new DC began with creator's rights. I felt that there were artists and writers who had great ideas and they were not bringing them to us. I went in to Bill Sarnoff and I said "I believe we could be publishing many new titles, "many great ideas, and what's standing in the way "is that we don't share revenue." That argument actually carried the day. We started to see wonderful ideas come in from our creators. The next step, of course, was content. We were telling stories at that time driven by plot. I said we should reverse the equation. We should have all of our plots driven by character. The first big change in content came when I had lunch with Frank Miller, an amazing artist and writer who was working over at Marvel. I loved looking across the street with a tremendous amount of envy and I am thinking how can we get Frank over to DC. I said "Tell me what you're dream is as a creator, "and I will try to make it happen." The Dark Night Returns became a seminal book in comics. We were able, really, to usher in an Elizabethan age where comics became a sophisticated art form. We were in the business of telling stories and that meant we could tell any kind of story. Ultimately, that's what we did. We were 35 people when I came to DC Comics. Only two of them were women, I guess I made the third. By the time I left, we were 250 people and half were women. By doing that, the comics that we started to publish changed as well. There were stories where women could see themselves in the comics. Women should gravitate toward power. If your heart is in the right place, if you have a moral compass, with that power you could effect really positive change.
- Jenette: I had a very brief marriage and now I'm in an extremely long-term romantic relationship. I never had children and my father, when I was getting divorced, came to see me and he said "You know, I just came to see you to make sure you're okay." And I said "Oh, okay, you cannot imagine how "happy I am to be getting divorced!" I said "If there is any regret I have, "it is just a small one, is that..." I was 39 at this point, "is that I probably won't have children." He said "Nettie, there are so many ways to be a mother, "and you have been a mother to so many people." And, I think that that is true, whether it's people I've worked with, the kids at Kids Magazine, the people I mentor, there are so many ways of being a parent and I've had the pleasure of that, if not in raising my own children, in being part of raising some other people's as well.
- Jenette: First and foremost, I thought comics had to be entertaining but that didn't mean that they couldn't have relevant social messages in them too. We created Landmine Comics for Bosnia and Serbia, for Central America, and in the story, a favorite dog is killed by stepping on a landmine and Superman can't save him. Many people afterwards said, "How could you possibly kill the dog?" We did have to show the consequences. It was something where it was important to understand that land mines really were lethal. Years later, I was a guest at the San Diego Comic Book Convention, and it was opened up for questions after my panel. Someone stood up and said, "I was in the military and "I was distributing those comics "on the ground and I saw what a "difference it made." Nothing meant more to me than hearing that.
- Jenette: One of the things I really liked about the Feminist Movement, it was also about the liberation of men. I felt that very strongly when I came to D.C. Almost everybody was male and substantially older than I, and yet I saw the amount of fear that men had about saying the right thing, anticipating what I wanted to hear. Almost all of them were the sole breadwinners in their families and they didn't know if they would survive this new regime, whether I would keep them on or fire them. They thought they had to scurry around to please me and then go home and reassure their wives and children that it would all be all right. I think how much easier it would have been for them if they had not been constricted into gender roles themselves. Feminist movements are humanist movements and I very much believe in it.
- Jenette: My brother and I had a comic book collection. It was a modest collection but nonetheless our collection. One day, we came home from school and our comics were gone! My brother is like "Mom!" and I am like "Mummy!" and she said "Well, I gave them to the "Johnson kids because you "had read them all." And we're like "You so don't understand!" because of course with comics, it's not just reading them the first time, it's reading them again and again and again. It's this incredible intimate relationship and this familiarity you have with comics that make them a part of your life. Reading them once doesn't mean anything.
- Jenette: My family was very evolved, my parents especially, in terms of gender roles. I have an aunt who is a psychoanalyst who was never reticent about speaking her mind. And she said one day, "Netty is never "gonna get married and be happy." And I heard this. I'm like, "What?" I was about 10 years old, I'm thinking, "What?" And she said, "Well your father does "everything for your mother. "He dries dishes, he does food shopping, "he takes the clothes to the cleaners. "You'll never find a man that will do that." And yeah it was wonderful. My father was a total contributor in my mother's life, as she was in his.
- Jenette: Follow your passion. You're going to work for the greater part of your life. You have to get up every morning and if you want to go to work, if you're excited by work, if you're thinking 'I love this,' then that will propel you through the years and it will give you untold pleasure. If you really get up thinking I want to be President, I want to be a Senator, I want to run a Fortune 500 company, I want to make a lot of money, those are angles that ignore the journey itself. It's the journey that is most meaningful and you might end up being President. You might end up making a lot of money but if those things don't happen, at least you can say I loved what I did and I loved waking up every day to do it.
- Jenette: Even though I was this 25-year-old pipsqueak, Milton Glaser, the legendary designer, a lion in the world of design, he was my design director on Smash. It was one of the most extraordinary collaborations. We always had to deliver the magazine to Xerox which was somewhere in Connecticut. We would always get lost. We had endless, endless conversations. To this day, Milton who is now in his 80s, will still say to me, "Jenette, remember when we "were both so young and we were just winging it?"