Author Topic: Paul Levitz Talks About 75 Years of DC Comics (all three parts)  (Read 3257 times)

Offline Reginald Hudlin

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Paul Levitz Talks About 75 Years of DC Comics (all three parts)
« on: December 10, 2010, 11:21:32 am »

Paul Levitz Talks About 75 Years of DC Comics (Part One of Three)
Posted by admin on December 6th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Conducted by Nathan Wilson

Paul Levitz has a perspective on the comicís industry that few can share or fully appreciate due in large part to his lengthy tenure as an editor, writer and executive with DC Comics. Beginning with DC in 1973 as an assistant editor after working on his own fan magazine The Comic Reader, Levitz worked his way up to becoming a writer on The Legion of Super-Heroes by the mid-to-late í70s. This was a cherished position Levitz held throughout most of his career as he transitioned into more administrative roles in 1980. From 2002 through 2010, Levitz served as DCís President and Publisher.

Recently, Levitz has returned to writing comics, and he is now back on the titles most readers associate with him: Adventure Comics and Legion of Super-Heroes. In addition to his monthly writing duties, Levitz has also published his first nonfiction tome, 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking, with Taschen Press in November 2010. I had the opportunity to talk with Levitz about his life with DC and how this shaped his historical examination of the company.

NATHAN WILSON: Obviously, the release of your book is tied to DCís anniversary, but can you tell me about the origin and impetus for this project?

PAUL LEVITZ: The book was conceived as part of the 75th anniversary celebration and the DC guys went out and talked with a number of different publishers about the possibility of doing it. Ultimately, they worked it out with Taschen. At that point, I was asked if Iíd be interested in writing it, but I was still doing the day job, so it wasnít very practical. By the time I was moving away from the desk job, they still hadnít found a writer. All of the graphic research had been largely finished, so they said ďyou have time for it now, donít you?Ē I said, ďSure, love to do it.Ē

WILSON: How long then did it take you to put all of this together, when did you begin?

LEVITZ: Well, the art directors have probably been working on it for two or two-and-a-half years. My portion of it took about a year.

WILSON: What kind of research was involved for you in reconstructing DCís history into a viable narrative?

LEVITZ: Part of it was to build the chronology. The first question in a project like this, always, is you canít do everything, so what are you going to do? I had three-quarters of a word for each issue DC had published, never mind every animated program and movie and everything else, so obviously I wasnít going to be able to cover subject matter comprehensively in depth. I started out with the idea that the art can tell the art side of the story, so letís concentrate on the context and the process. I went back and dug through my own files, through previously published things and found stuff like a great article Lloyd Jacquet had done maybe 50 years ago looking back at the beginning of DC that had been reprinted in an old issue of Comic Book Marketplace. Discovered that the first issue by DC was printed at the old Brooklyn Eagle, I had forgotten that, so letís put that in. From there it was a process of deciding chronologically what are the key things you have to talk about to have the context make sense.

WILSON: In looking back at the book not just as a history of DC, but also as a history of the comic-publishing industry, how do you see your book alongside others by such authors as Les Daniels and Jim Steranko? What distinguishes your book from other histories in terms of scope, outlook and contribution in your opinion?

LEVITZ: Looking at the prose separately from the rest of the book for a moment, I think part of what it brought to bear was the perspective of someone who was an insider for half of those years and knew most of the people from the beginning. Thereís only three or four of the pivotal people in DCís history who werenít still around when I came into the game. I at least had an ability, hopefully, to have my work reflect the personalities of the individuals and the connections between them in a way that would be very hard for Les to do, and Les is a brilliant historian of the material. I certainly leaned on his books for certain things, particular a lot of the work he did in the Wonder Woman book was useful to me. But, he didnít have 50 or 100 conversations with Shelly Mayer over the years. He didnít know Julie Schwartz for 30 years of his life as a friend. Hopefully, all of those experiences color it in a way that makes it more interesting or more useful or just different.

WILSON: I think that does come through in parts and gives a more personal aspect and experience to the book.

LEVITZ: Thank you. I was trying. Again, I had very limited space, so how do you contextualize the contributions of someone like Julie, who did so much. Even for a moment or two, talking about his relationship with his wife, how he managed his life, how he managed his office. Hopefully those help conjure a certain amount of the picture. The longer version when I do a longer book. [Laughter.]

WILSON: Is that something you would actually want to do after this 700-page work?

LEVITZ: Thereís a lot of stories to tell, so who knows how that will work itself out over life.

WILSON: Was it difficult for you writing something nonfiction when the majority of your experience has been in the fiction realm of comics?

LEVITZ: One of the things I argue in teaching writing, which Iím doing now in this new stage in my life, is that fundamentally the skill sets (whether youíre writing fiction, nonfiction, or marketing communications) are really just reflections of each other. I try to explain to the class the five questions of journalism, the who, what, where, when and how/why are just as relevant in writing fiction as they are in writing nonfiction. If you can answer those about your character, you can build a viable character. If youíre writing a marketing puff piece for your corporation and youíre trying to build an identity for the management team or whatever the case may be, or the culture of the corporation, youíre answering those same sets of questions in many ways. It definitely was a different way to work, a different set of research materials, of reference materials, different speech limits, itís the longest piece of prose Iíve ever written by far, so I was using a somewhat different set of muscles, but theyíre related muscles I think.

WILSON: Since the book is through Taschen, who do they see as the primary market and audience for the book? Will it be geared toward the Direct Market or more toward the chain bookstore outlets? Comic-book fans will obviously be a big part of any audience, but who is the most successful audience in your opinion?

LEVITZ: The people who have come up to me who have ordered it in advance include an awful lot of scholars in the field and people who are interested in related parts of the field. I was at Ohio State University for their tri-annual comics and cartoon-art festival which is very heavily weighted to the newspaper-strip world. Any number of people who you or I might not naturally number as comic-book people, but people who are interested in comics as they are related to the whole field of cartooning, talked with me about their excitement about the book. I was just over at LUCCA in Italy, at the festival there, and they had copies already since the book was printed in Italy. I was signing a bunch of them for people It was fascinating to see how many people there were people who were interested in making the investment.
WILSON: I think that goes more toward your central argument that DCís characters are modern myths, that there you are in Italy and thereís a definite international flavor and reception for it.

LEVITZ: The characters, as opposed to the comics themselves, are a part of world culture at this point. I think there are a certain number of people who werenít interested in comics but are curious where did this Batman guy really come from who will be curious about the book. Taschen seems to have unique skills at selling very high-end books and they seem very confident in the bookís success and they have been working very hard. I was thrilled in Italy that the newspaper La Republica, which is one of the largest in Italy, maybe the largest, devoted eight pages and the cover of their magazine section to the book, so that immediately touched 2 million people who got a free sample.

WILSON: Wow, thatís amazing.

LEVITZ: Yeah, wow indeed. Seeing eight pages of it free is a hell of a lot better than going out and plunking down 150 Euros for it. Still, if a very modest percentage of those people are made curious by it, that would be a better sale in Italy than I would have expected.

WILSON: In your preface to the book, you discuss the ďdepth of commentary and debateĒ in relation to the studies of comics history and how this reinforces the characters having such a mythic value. What types of debate are you referring to here?

LEVITZ: Well, particularly apropos to your audience, I wrote an article 30 years ago for The Comics Journal arguing for a higher criticism for comics, a body of critical theory for analyzing comics. About a year ago, a college-professor friend of mine, Randy Duncan, who is very involved in comics studies, reminded me of that article and that he had read that as a graduate student, and it was one of the things that motivated him to work on comics studies. He asked would I mind doing the introduction to his college textbook he and his collaborator were doing on comics, which would be the first one on comics in the field.

Weíre at a very different stage of evolution than we were 30 years ago. When I go back and look at that article, itís somewhat naÔve and juvenile. Iím not an enormous academic now and I certainly wasnít then, but weíve gone through such an evolution of there being one or two academics who had a little bit of curiosity about comics to there being this vibrant culture of comics studies. Someone at the University of Oregon mentioned that theyíve just gotten approval to have a comics-studies minor and they have 21 different comics related courses at the university now. Who the hell wouldíve thought that could have happened?

WILSON: Thatís shocking because when I finished my doctorate in 2007 in History, there was tremendous difficulty in convincing people of comicsí viability as a scholarly pursuit.

LEVITZ: Iím sure there is hesitation at a lot of universities, but there is a vastly growing number who take it very seriously and are increasing the support they have for the field.

WILSON: Definitely. You should check out the resources at Michigan State University and their comics collections, which is where I conducted the majority of my own research.

LEVITZ: Great.

WILSON: Well, getting right into the book, you discuss the origins of Wonder Woman, the hiring of William Moulton Marston, and you mention briefly a DC advisory board who defended comics against criticism. I donít know much about this organization, so can you tell us a little more about it and the criticisms leveled at DC in the late 1930s and early 1940s that necessitated its creation?

LEVITZ: Well, I donít know the details of any of that. They used to run the names of the committee in the books themselves, so itís very easy to find. I think Pearl S. Buck was on it at one point. It was a reasonably luminary group of people. I think the general criticisms were the classic ones of ďarenít comics for illiterate kids?Ē And they were just trying to work their way through that.

WILSON: I didnít figure it would be the extreme of the Wertham investigations in the 1950s, so I was curious about this early query into comics.

LEVITZ: It hadnít gotten that crazy yet.

WILSON: You say in the beginning that one of your goals is to ďplace DCís history in the larger context of the culture that shaped the company.Ē Looking back at DC in these early periods, what do you think explains the shift and transformation of DCís publishing outlook away from superhero titles in the 1930s and 1940s toward kids and cartoon books in the late 1940s and early 1950s?

LEVITZ: We were going through a time of enormous change in the country obviously. Were we moving from a point where weíre not as interested in heroism, but weíre convinced the world is going to work out fine, so letís just have a laugh and get through the day? Weíre busy doing things and we donít need the idealization of heroism in the same ways and fashion. Is it that the basic superhero story has been told and the next level of way to tell it hasnít been introduced yet, so thereís not a great passion for the version thatís being put out at that point? Itís hard to separate it all out. Those are the things that I think comic studies are more useful for from an academic standpoint than this sort of celebration, which really is inside peeking out at the edges.

WILSON: No, I understand that but in terms of this larger context you pursue and compared with someone like Les Daniels, I would say that your book raises these sorts of questions with some readers wanting to learn more even if there isnít a hard and fast answer. Somewhat related then is that since DC was such an innovator in the 1930s and 1940s with the superhero genre, DC becomes an imitator of popular culture with the Western books mirroring what is on film and television as one example.

LEVITZ: DC is also leasing a lot of characters from outside properties and licensing them in.

WILSON: Yes, exactly. How do you see this then relating to the demise of the superhero genre in the late 1940s and 1950s?

LEVITZ: As a publisher, your business is set up to be able to, if you think about it in factory terms, produce 20 things a month. Out of the established ones, youíve only got eight or 10 that are making a meaningful profit, you only have two choices. You either shut down the production lines and send people home, or you say, ďLetís try something else if people donít want vanilla and chocolate any more, anybody got any other ideas?Ē

WILSON: So, did the superhero comics then take a big and significant hit in terms of monthly sales following the end of World War II over several months or a couple of years?

LEVITZ: I think when you look back at it, itís over a five- or six-year period as you watch them fade out.

WILSON: OK, taking this into consideration then, you also start to see the emergence of live action portrayals with the George Reevesí television show, obviously very grounded in the superhero genre. Did the popularity of the show carry over to the comics?

LEVITZ: It seems to demonstrate when you look at an environment where Lois Lane or Jimmy Olsen are outselling Batman.

WILSON: I was thinking to myself that if the superhero genre wasnít as popular with the kids, would the television show reinvest the interest level for the audience in the monthly comics?

LEVITZ: For a long batch of years, Superman was paying the rent of the place. I donít think itís a coincidence that it was on television either in original run or syndication through most of those years.

WILSON: Although not an extension of the comics, do you happen to know the relationship between DC and the show itself? Did DC have an ongoing role?

LEVITZ: DC made the show, they owned it, they produced it. A man named Robert Maxwell who had been working on the Superman radio show, originally a PR guy for DC I think, a creative guy, was sent out to Hollywood to figure out how to do it. He did it, the company financed it, and the company made the different deals to syndicate it. I remember David Wolper telling me that his first job had been working with Kelloggís to sell the commercial time on Adventures of Superman.


« Last Edit: December 10, 2010, 12:59:31 pm by Reginald Hudlin »

Offline Battle

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Re: Paul Levitz Talks About 75 Years of DC Comics (Part One of Three)
« Reply #1 on: December 10, 2010, 12:48:11 pm »
NPR (National Public Radio)  did a segment of this in the morning,  last week.   What I thought was interesting during the show, the host invited callers to comment with the guest and someone called in reminding the guest of the black superheroes in the dc universe in those 75 years, namely the Milestone line, which the guest seemed reluctant to mention.

Offline Reginald Hudlin

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Re: Paul Levitz Talks About 75 Years of DC Comics (Part One of Three)
« Reply #2 on: December 10, 2010, 12:59:08 pm »
Paul Levitz Talks About 75 Years of DC Comics (Part Two of Three)
Posted by admin on December 7th, 2010 at 12:01 AM[Translate]

Conducted by Nathan Wilson

NATHAN WILSON: In organizing your book, how did you decide what would go in the main body text versus the chronology because there are some really nice little gems in that chronology that deserve further exploration such as Jimmy Olsen in the Beatlesí film Help! or the recurring role President Kennedy had in the Superman books?

PAUL LEVITZ: Some of it again is just the limitations of physical space. The time lines were done last and part of what we did was keep this tickler list of everything that deserves at least a nod. We didnít either end up having room in the main prose or in the main sections of illustrations, great, letís squeeze it into the time lines. To some extent, when youíre shaping the time lines, when you have a physical structure like that, you get to the ďThereís not enough vitally important stuff in 1964 at DC; what are three other anecdotes you can put in that would make somebody smile?Ē

WILSON: Thereís something there though, especially about Kennedyís impact on society and culture at the time, the youth culture movement of the period. Itís striking that heís also in Superman, to see what the message was to children and how he was portrayed.

LEVITZ: Itís very different. From a historical point of view, itís a turning point for the culture because heís portrayed extraordinarily differently than you can imagine a president being portrayed today in most comics.

WILSON: It seems that there is so much going on for DC during the Silver Age against the larger cultural backdrop of the 1960s and you talk about the generational differences between writers and editors. In trying to get more into the idea of context, how would you contextualize what DC did during this period, alongside this generational conflict, as you get books like Doom Patrol, which is a way-out-there type of book alongside the more status quo books DC published?

LEVITZ: You have a certain number of writers and artists who either are more in touch with youth culture than their chronological ages or who believe that they are. If you look at the 1960s, Stan Lee over at Marvel is chronologically older than his writing is. One of the reasons Marvel succeeds as much as it does at that time is that Stanís personal style is very much in tune with that moment. If you had told the average reader how old the writer was, they wouldnít have believed you. They thought it was a kid writing to them. I think you have a lot of books at DC in that period of the early 1960s where you had some wonderfully talented writers who werenít in touch with kid culture and you had a handful of writers, such as Doom PatrolĎs Arnold Drake, who were very fascinated by the youth culture and were trying to write to it, but perhaps not as successfully as Stan did. Then you get a new wave of guys in who are much, much younger and they may not be as good as writers, they certainly may not be any better in any absolute sense, but they connect to youth culture more naturally because they are a part of it.

WILSON: If we think of this a conflict then between an old and new guard, was DC pretty open to this new exploration sought by younger writers?

LEVITZ: Itís not a monolith on either side.

WILSON: Well, you get this image from various comics-studies books that Marvel was about the youth because of their appeal to the quote-unquote ďradicalĒ youth movements of the period, but DC was the conservative, consensus-driven publisher. Did the majority at DC side more with the older or newer guard, or was it that there was freedom to explore both?

LEVITZ: It depends on what year youíre talking about and which DC office. You have a bunch of guys in the old guard who are trying to do more of what they perceive as hipper stuff. Whether thatís Drake on Doom Patrol or writing Bob Hope with a character called ďSuper Hip,Ē or Bob Haney on Teen Titans, those two guys would be the ones who I believe were the most consciously trying to change their vocabulary to match their perception of youth culture. You had other guys who said, ďThis is the way weíve been doing it for 30 years. Weíre right; donít worry about Marvel.Ē Then you have changes in the editorial and writing roles, and the game changes yet again.

WILSON: In getting into this late 1960s era then, you mention briefly Betty Friedan and the creation of N.O.W., the changes in the larger society that are transpiring, but the connections to the actual books are tenuous at best. Iíve read some studies that say comics have never known how to approach women and womenís movements at the time, simply falling back on parody and failing to match what is going on in society. First, were there any women writers at DC in the 1960s?

LEVITZ: You know, I donít know on the romance books because that stuff has been so inadequately researched. There certainly were no prominent women writers working in the place by the late 1960s when credits became more common. There was a small number of women who had certain assignments, but not on any of the major projects of that period.

WILSON: Well, on pages 402-03 of your book, you show Lois Laneís new attitude with Superman, Supergirl and Wonder Woman turning their backs on being superheroes to embrace lives of fashion and romance, and Wonder Woman becoming a mother figure in the Justice League. Looking at them today, through a contemporary lens, are these examples of what you call the generational conflict then?

LEVITZ: If your question is how I see the characters today, we have a great advantage that we have many wonderful women writing and drawing comics, and editing comics, and that affects the whole culture. Weíre in a different stage of society.

WILSON: Let me try to clarify it. Do you see these examples as reflective of what was going on in society at that time or simply parody?

LEVITZ: These were not historical documents. Whether itís a comic, television show or motion picture, when they mirror society, depending on what the talent and the publishing house are trying to do, theyíre funhouse mirrors. They can be showing us an idealization of what the people think is going on or they can show a corruption of it. Itís not intended to be journalism. Itís not intended to be: ďThis is what the role of a woman today is.Ē You turn on a television program this evening, randomly, youíll find most of the women characters doing things related to some of how women live today, but also not. Itís fantasy.

WILSON: If you look across the board though in mediaÖ

LEVITZ: The faster the rate of change going on in society, the more likely youíre going to have significant distortions in fiction because you donít have a base line. If you go back 150 years to village life, youíre the historian, you know that things remained fairly constant over a three- or four-generation period. Take an example from history, the famous Washingtonís book of manners. A gentleman should do this and shouldnít do that. He could reflect an ethos that was likely to be true throughout his entire lifetime: ďI learned this as a child, my adopted step-children were taught this way, and they should teach their children this way.Ē You canít pick up a 1950s Emily Post book and say thatís how we live now. And you certainly wouldnít expect it to be how your children would live. Fiction is, of course, going to have a greater degree of distortion during a time of change like that.

WILSON: Itís interesting to see how this stuff enters the comics, but also how itís presented because it usually is very bizarre, very distorted, or oftentimes, reflective of consensus opinions about an issue such as the E.R.A. debates and womenís liberation movements in the 1970s. You mention the romance comics and there seem to be a lot of DC romance comics in the 1960s. Who were the main audiences for these books?

LEVITZ: The company never did market research in those years that Iím aware of. My impression of it was that you were selling them to girls between the ages of 8 and 12 years old.

WILSON: It goes to back to your analogy of the factory model with ďxĒ number of booksÖ

LEVITZ: Yes, there was a tremendous amount of romance comics from DC and the competition in those years. Your outward evidence of success in a capitalist society is that people rarely continue doing things that donít produce a profit ultimately and those books survived as a meaningful part of the comic-book industry for close to 30 years.

WILSON: You mention briefly the Public Service Advertisements in DC books from the 1940s through the 1960s when you discuss DCís evolving social responsibility. Do you know who was responsible for these? Was it the writers, editorial?

LEVITZ: I think Jack Schiff wrote the majority of them in the 1960s. He was very proud of those.

WILSON: From what you know of Schiff, were those geared more toward the parents, the children, or general audiences becauseÖ

LEVITZ: I think you assume they were for the kids.

WILSON: Do you believe this gives credence then or at least fuel to those that contend that Marvel was ďrebelliousĒ during the 1960s versus the largely conservative DC?

LEVITZ: I think thereís a lot of evidence to support that from the period of 1961 to 1973 you can make a case that Marvel is more anti-establishment than DC on many levels.

WILSON: Moving into this Bronze Age then, you talk about the impact of these new writers emerging in the late 1960s, the efforts to change DC characters with Wonder Woman as a new icon of modern feminism with Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine, and of course, Green Lantern/Green Arrow. For Green Lantern/Green Arrow then, itís often held up as the primary example of social relevance in comics and itís received a lot of attention, probably more today or since then as opposed to the early 1970sÖ.

LEVITZ: Well, it got about as much attention as anything possibly could have at the time. Comics were not as much part of the public discussion as they are today, but I think anything that certainly resembled a fanzine discussed it at great length.

WILSON: Since it was fledgling title and this was an effort to revamp sales, if it did receive that much attention at the time do you know why DC did not then carry that over to other books, try to explore more socially relevant topics in other books than letting it go by the wayside with Green Lantern/Green Arrows?

LEVITZ: I donít think there was any general perception that attention translated to sales. Usually sales is the main reason that, from a company perspective, where writers are told to do this, that usually happens in response to a sales pattern not just some noise. It certainly may have inspired other writers to be inclined to do things.

WILSON: But you donít see much in other books or similar efforts, which is why that book stands out so much for its examination of drugs, race, etc. It may be the best example, but would you say itís the only example during the period?

LEVITZ: No, I donít think itís the only one, but it goes far beyond the rest of the material. [Robert] Kanigher does a fair amount on race in Sgt. Rock and elsewhere at the time. Other writers begin to deal with more serious subjects in stories, but not with the same impact as what Denny [O'Neil] was doing.

WILSON: During the í70s, you also discuss the shift away from newsstands toward local comic shops and the creation of the Direct Market system. What role did DC specifically play in the role of the non-returnable comics industry?

LEVITZ: Thatís a book in itself. [Wilson laughs.] Itís a long, complicated story, I canít give you just one thing. DC did a lot it should be proud of but so did other people, and itís just a long story.

WILSON: Ok, moving on then. Somewhat related, did DC play any significant role in the development of the convention scene during this period?

LEVITZ: Very limited. The growth of the comic conventions were really driven by the fans and the publishers began to be involved in it very late in the game.

WILSON: In taking the book as a whole, I would argue that the ďDark AgeĒ chapter is by far the strongest.

LEVITZ: Really? Why?

WILSON: Well, I think you provide the greatest detail here. I think you tie the stories that DC was publishing and promoting into what was going on in the larger society in a much more succinct and stronger way than in the other chapters.

LEVITZ: Interesting. Obviously, your reaction is your reaction, but thatís fascinating to me. Iím glad.

WILSON: Thanks. In looking at that darker period, do you believe thatís one of the key reasons why comics with kids have been hit and miss. Did the push towards darker storylines at all affectÖ

LEVITZ: No, I donít think that mattered at all. The relevant thing was that comics were no longer being sold at a place where kids could find them. Thereís a tendency, I believe, on the part of the content-oriented commentators on the history of comics to focus exclusively on the content. To sit there and say, ďIf only there were a wonderful comic book for kids, it would have changed the course of history here.Ē The fact is that you couldnít get a comic to a kid. There wasnít a distribution system. I was just speaking with Charlie Vess a day or two ago and he was reacting to the success of his Rose story in the Bone cycle because it had gone through Scholasticís unique distribution system and he was astounded by the number of copies they were able to sell. If you donít have a pipeline reaching where you want to go, it clearly doesnít matter much what youíve got at one end of it because it ainít going anywhere.

WILSON: Was that ever a concern then in shifting over so much toward the Direct Market?

LEVITZ: Sure. But concern and solution are two separate things [Laughs.]

WILSON: Yes. [Laughs.] There are a lot of kids titles out there now, butÖ

LEVITZ: There are an enormous number of them but cumulative sales of the vast majority of them put together are negligible. BOOM! just did a big press release announcing the great success of something they did, I forget what the issue was, that hit 24,000 copies which was the biggest number theyíd ever had for a single title or some similar statement. The weakest comic intended for kids in the era when comics were basically being sold to kids sold four or five times that. And the successful ones sold 40 times that. There were probably about half as many kids in America at that time too. In the absence of a system to distribute comics to kids, itís lovely that people are publishing some of them and hopefully over time distribution methodologies will increase, but itís one of the areas where digital might make a relevant difference. The fact that thereís a lot of them being done now is creatively satisfying for people but it hasnít really changed the dynamic of where and to whom the comics are being sold.

WILSON: I would agree with that because having kids, especially when you go to the chain bookstores, you see that they have the trade-collected kids comics, but theyíre not prominently displayed, theyíre sometimes hidden or mixed in with other illustrated series or storybooks.

LEVITZ: And kids donít buy books for themselves, generally, in a bookstore. Your children are lucky if they have a parent who genuinely loves comics, but, absent that, itís a big barrier to break through to triumph over ďAm I going to get you a classic Dr. Seuss or am I going get youÖĒ you understand where Iím going here.

Offline Reginald Hudlin

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Re: Paul Levitz Talks About 75 Years of DC Comics (all three parts)
« Reply #3 on: December 10, 2010, 01:04:37 pm »
Paul Levitz Talks About 75 Years of DC Comics (Part Three of Three)
Posted by admin on December 8th, 2010 at 12:01 AM[Translate]

Conducted by Nathan Wilson

NATHAN WILSON: During the 1980s there are a lot of different things going on for DC. And, one of the things I liked about that chapter is that there is simply so much going onÖ

PAUL LEVITZ: It was an amazing time in the history of the company.

WILSON: Exactly. Not just with characters, but with marketing, with characters, from a television medium, and everything. You mention there were all these ideas to modernize the character of Superman but there were limitations on what could be done. Can you tell me more about what these limits were and why they would occur?

LEVITZ: Itís always a combination of things when youíre managing a character, a property, however you want to define it, that has that level of commercial success in so many different media. You want to make it fresh and relevant to the time that itís in, but you also want to preserve what you perceive to be the essence of the character so that you donít throw the baby out with the bathwater. I canít say that DC has always made the right decisions over the years or that any other company has either, but DC at least has, through some combination of good luck and good judgment, managed to persevere with it and thatís always been part of the process.

WILSON: OK, but in looking back at the John Byrne title then, what are his greatest contributions in your opinion to modernizing the character, to making Superman, as you say, ďrelevant to the time?Ē

LEVITZ: I havenít looked back to reread that story in a bunch of years, so Iím not sure I can answer it as a reader. He clearly succeeded in getting a bunch of people to try it fresh who had given up on Superman. He raised the sales of the comics many times over. It may be the combination of the visual look that was distinctive to Johnís work to the story bits he played around with. But he invited in a new group to play.

WILSON: During this period again, you also discuss weekly comics and the often lackluster attempts at this format. Why is the format so hit-and-miss, and what do you believe points to the success then of books such as 52, Wednesday Comics or, maybe even, Brightest Day?

LEVITZ: The fundamental problem of a weekly comic book is that itís too much material for particularly one artist to create. You might be able to have a writer who can create a comic book every week, though not many of us work at that pace and Iím not sure how long that would be sustainable. [Laughs.] But in theory itís workable. Part of what readers appreciate in comics is that they generally favor in recent decades stories that are around 25 pages long. Thatís the most common, happy length for a comic book and no artist can produce that every week. Readers do like a consistency in things. The best successes in comics over the years have been by talent who have stayed on a project for a sustained period of time. To find the right writer and right artist who are in tune with where the marketplace is at the given moment and have the writer work at an absolute top limit of known writing speed and have the artist work at three or four times the fastest of what a current artist works defies all laws of physics. The successes that were finally achieved were when some central editorial team put together a team that just worked. Whether that was the Superman comics when they were being written and created in a pseudo-weekly fashion or 52 when they developed a team approach that was a good synthesis and successful. But itís not a common model for building comics today, so itís been very challenging to have that happen. Itís worked a few times in recent years. I think that Dan DiDio personally deserves a lot of credit for building those models, I think a lot of that comes from his experience in the television industry where he brought over some of the working models from there. But itís like asking why arenít there people who can run a one-minute mile?

WILSON: Even with four people writing 52 and having read the author notes in the collected trades, those seem to be intensive writing experiments and sessions going back and forth.

LEVITZ: And you are working at a velocity that simply isnít the norm in this business. In the same fashion that there are sound economic reasons why television shows donít generally do 52 new episodes a year. It would also be really hard to produce 52 new episodes of an hour-long drama. You probably couldnít do it. The sheer physicality wouldnít be possible. You might be able to do it with a half-hour situation comedy, but it would be a very impressive thing.

WILSON: This is also the period where Vertigo gets its start and you spend time in the book discussing the various authors and editors who initiated the project. You focus on Neil Gaimanís Sandman and its ability to cross gender in audiences. Vertigo seems to have a very solid handle on this and Iím curious if itís just a combination of the writers involved at Vertigo because you see a lot of back and forth between writers who write for Vertigo and those who write for DC or Marvel. What do you think explains why Vertigo has the ability to do this while DC proper or one of the other big publishers doesnít have this power to cross genders?

LEVITZ: Which ability?

WILSON: The ability to cross genders because if you talk with female readers, there appears to be a greater attention paid to Vertigo titles than those published in the mainstream DC realm.

LEVITZ: Iím not sure that young women are as interested in reading about superheroes. The fundamental dynamic of the superhero story has historically been more appealing to boys than to girls. There are any number of very successful superhero comics over the years that have had a better gender balance than others, but the genre as a whole has been a more male genre. Vertigo doesnít generally work in that genre and thatís a starting point. Youíve had a number of really talented female editors working within the Vertigo mix and help screen the material and shape the material, starting with Karen herself obviously. I would posit that she is a very positive force in that process. Vertigo has probably averaged around 50-percent female editorial staff for most of its existence while DCU has probably never been more than five or 10 percent, and I donít know the Marvel staff members well enough to comment. Thatís probably a piece of it also.

WILSON: Has there ever been a concern within DCU then, and obviously theyíre not going to abandon the superhero genre, but since itís been let go during the 1950s, was it ever a thought to incorporate more of the diversity expressed through Vertigo into the DCU itself to make superheroes more approachable toÖ

LEVITZ: I donít think theyíre equally approachable. I think the whole myth of superheroes is that they simply arenít appealing to women as they are to men. Iíd like to think I had a pretty good track record on that myself as a writer, as the Legion historically had a pretty good number of female readers, Chris Claremont on his years on the X-Men had a tremendous number of female readers, and there may be any number of other superhero titles that had a fair balance. But overall it would surprise me at any point if you started to have a title that was both a traditional superhero and a majority female audience.

WILSON: What about then for female superheroes, the limited number of course, but those like Supergirl, Wonder Woman, etc. I mean even from your own book, Wonder Woman has a great appeal to women, you have the Steinem story of Ms. Magazine, the Lynda Carter show in the 1970s for younger womenÖ

LEVITZ: I donít think the love for the character necessarily means that they love the comic expression of them. Or maybe they do and with the right writer at the right moment, that can happen and have a larger audience. Certainly any version of that has been tried by the company at some point or another in time. Youíve got the whole period around 1972 when Dorothy Woolfolk comes back into the company and sheís editing both the romance comics and the girl superheroes. Sheís given Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, and Supergirl on the theory that we can sell more of those to girls with a woman driving the bus. Itís not clear that it particularly worked, and the company abandoned the experiment fairly quickly.

WILSON: In this connection then between comics and the larger culture, you talk about the Death of Superman event and you call it an idea not explored since ďcomics place in the culture changed.Ē What change are you referring to here?

LEVITZ: The fact that comic books begin to be a part of the public discussion in a different fashion. When Jerry Siegel wrote a death-of-Superman story in the early 1960s there was no newspaper or magazine that would consider doing a story on the content of a comic book story. It wasnít a meaningful news item anywhere. By the time the í90s story took place, you had any number of newspapers and magazines and television that were commenting from time to time on the medium of comic books as they would on things in other media.

WILSON: What do you see as the catalyst for this change in media attention?

LEVITZ: Itís a combination of things. You had an entire generation of people who had grown up reading comics that were written to a more intelligent audience either the stuff Stan dealt with and led the charge on at Marvel or the stuff Julius had led the charge on at DC. The kids who grew up reading that material, many of them had become journalists by that time and were wondering around newspaper or magazine offices saying, ďCan I write an article on comics?Ē An awful lot of the early journalism done about comics was done by people who were passionate about comics and were convincing their editors to let them do it. I think that was probably the leading edge of the change. 

WILSON: By designating this period of 1984-1998 as the ďDark AgeĒ in thematic scope and perhaps even the market instability, what signaled the end of this era and moved comics away from this into the ďModern AgeĒ?

LEVITZ: It was somewhat arbitrary, but yeah. Iím not sure it wasnít a line drawn in the sand. I think weíre not distant enough from that change to be able to look back and say this is the moment that mattered. Showcase #4 is a very bright line because weíre looking back on it from almost 60 years now and thereís been time for historians to come to a consensus that say this is what catalyzed it because hereís how the dominos fall. I donít think weíre ready to do that for the end of the ďDark AgeĒ and the beginning of whatever the next one is, the ďModern AgeĒ for a lack of distance from it. We had a lot of debate over what the best title for that chapter is. You can make an argument for it being called the ďAge of the Storytelling EpicĒ or ďThe Era of the Folklore Approach.Ē We need a little time for that.

WILSON: You mention in this latter section Brad Meltzerís Identity Crisis and this got me to think about more fiction writers who have made this crossover into comics. During your time at DC, thereís Jodi Piccoult and to some extent Greg Rucka. First, how do these relationships come to be and what is the great appeal of comics for such fiction authors?

LEVITZ: I think Greg may have started with comics before he did prose, particularly the stuff he did with the independents predated his prose work. Itís really many different stories. A lot of them, in the first wave of people crossing over in that period, were people who really loved comics and had a connection to it. Brad had a college roommate who became a comic-book writer, so he had a window into the world from that. I donít know Jodi Piccoult or the story about how she came in, but by that time, it wasnít unusual, there was enough press about it, an agent or editor of the publishing house made a suggestion and called up. It ceased to be something that would a negative to somebodyís career. It was an easier marriage to make.

WILSON: Why do you think there is often more freedom with DC characters in regards to what writers can and cannot do in the realm of television and film as opposed to the genesis medium of comics?

LEVITZ: I think they have very different limitations rather than more. The comic book environment is dominated by an audience of people who know the material incredibly well, so if youíre interested in pleasing your audience then you know youíre performing to this crowd that is very intensely involved with what has gone before and theyíre willing to let you change things but you have to have a very good reason, the changes have to be important. And theyíll stop and consider it and as youíre telling the story, if you change a little background thatís going to stop them as theyíre reading the story. They may think it makes sense or is crap, so itís a very delicate process for a group of people we feel like we know in our audience. Weíve invited them into the room and they know an awful lot about you. They know an awful lot about the story youíre telling and they have very specific expectations, and the writer and editor want to satisfy those but go beyond them.

When youíre dealing in film and television, you know going in that the majority of people who will be appreciating the work do not know a lot about the character and the backstory. They arenít presold or preinvested in it. Youíre being encouraged by the people who are supplying the awesome amounts of capital required to make those projects to develop something that will please a tremendously wide audience. If youíre making a motion picture of a character who has never been in anything but a comic book before, you better do something that will bring 10 million people to show up. This character may never have had more than 100,000 people interested in their adventures before. Not that 100,000 isnít a significant number, but thereís an enormous difference in telling a story to those who have been around for a number of years listening to you develop that tale and then managing to invite 10 million people over a weekend to see a film who know nothing about a character before.

WILSON: You mention characters who have a lot of exposure beyond comics versus those who are solely comic-book characters. Is there greater freedom then with a Superman or Batman level character as opposed to another because of this ingrown base audience?

LEVITZ: But thereís still an enormously different challenge. If youíre Chris Nolan and youíre sitting down to do the new Batman movie, Batman Begins, and there hasnít been a Batman movie for a decade, yes the world knows Batman, but he still better bring in 20 million fresh people to see the movie in a fairly short period of time. Sometimes itís a case of the last time we had a movie of this character people werenít that excited, so how do I decide what things to bring forward and what things to change and refresh. The scale is an extraordinary difference in and of itself.

WILSON: In researching and writing this book, what did you learn about DC that you didnít know before or something that you found to be the most interesting?

LEVITZ: There were tons of little things. Some were things I had read at some point and just never focused on. I had completely forgotten, if I had ever actually noticed, that the first DC comic was printed on a press in Brooklyn, which as an old Brooklyn boy, gives me particular delight. The press was owned by a newspaper that Walt Whitman used to work for. Itís an absolutely useless but delightful fact. There were other things like the first gorilla cover done by DC was way before I thought it was or Buzzy or Binky turned out to be the first ever DC comic character to be launched without having appeared in an anthology first. Lots of lovely, little things like that. I obviously knew as much about DC as a human being could going into the project, but hadnít looked at the puzzle to see how those pieces fit together.

WILSON: Lastly, with your lengthy tenure as a writer, editor, and executive at DC, in looking back through both your book and your own personal histories with DC, whatís the greatest change or changes youíve witnessed that have not only changed the industry, but also you and how you approach it?

LEVITZ: I hold that the most meaningful change at DC that helped drive the industry was building the royalty plan so that the creative people had a stake in their work in a broad-based fashion. All of that excitement in the 1980s was catalyzed to happen by the fact that DC moved to a rational way to deal with creative talent so that the talent were in line with the publishers, and there was a motivation and reason for people to do great, creative work. Iím extremely proud of this and our role in it.

WILSON: What about as a writer yourself, taking yourself out of the administrative and looking at it as a creator?

LEVTIZ: Itís the audience. When I came to comics as a young writer, basically, assuming that I was writing comics for kids, maybe reasonably bright kids, but they werenít assumed to be hanging around very long, they werenít assumed to be involved in what I was doing, and now Iím writing generally for an adult audience, a very involved and committed audience, and in a time when the technology itself changes how people read and appreciate things, in an era when someone can have their computer screen open two feet away from the comic theyíre reading and be able to Google something if itís mentioned in the story and educate themselves about it. Not even a piece of comicís history, but some fact or some piece of societal information. Youíre writing a very different kind of story. We have an amazing audience for these types of books.

WILSON: Has that ever been difficult for you as a writer to grow and to address these changes to improve your craft? Was this transition to an adult audience with such resources at hand difficult?

LEVITZ: Well, Iíll leave that to the judgment of history whether Iíve succeeded in it. Itís a fascinating transition to just think about that difference and think about how you can and should write to people in that era.

WILSON: Have you had to change your own methods and approach at all?

LEVITZ: Yes, Iíve had to change considerably. My strongest point as a storyteller in the bulk of my career was serial fiction. Iíve developed the ďPerils of PaulineĒ approach in the Legion that was very fondly remembered by some people and I still use those tools, but now I have to have a creature sitting on my other shoulder saying, ďHow is this going to look in the book version?Ē To be able to do something that is an effective serial story and an effective compiled story is probably an elegant skill that Iím sure I donít have down pat yet.

WILSON: Of your three professions then and I know you love all three for different reasons, but is there one that is the most personally fulfilling for you?

LEVITZ: Thereís no easy answer for that. The desk job was one of the absolute greatest jobs on the planet. I delighted in it. I think I was a fairly good editor, but I wasnít an editor long enough or full-time enough that itís an equal leg of my career to look back on. The writing will last longer than anything else in its impact and its reach to people. There is no reward you get from a desk job that equals somebody instant messaging you ďIím sitting here reading your comics in the hospital because itís the only thing that makes me feel better with the pain.Ē Thatís about as good a day as you can have.




Paul Levitzís 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking is now available from Taschen Books. ISBN: 9783836519816. 720 pp. $200.

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Re: Paul Levitz Talks About 75 Years of DC Comics (all three parts)
« Reply #4 on: January 06, 2011, 10:37:30 am »
75 years? Wow! This is the one point that a lot of my aspiring comic creators seem to forget. DC has been actively promoting themselves for a long time. Many of my friends roll out a book and expect that kind of success overnight. Business takes time. Most of my successful business buddies have been at it for twenty years or more and it was at least 10 years of hard work before they saw the success they expected when they began their business. I don't know of any black comic books other than the ones created by DC or Marvel that have been actively promoted for a fraction of that time, but I'll admit I'm not well versed in the comic book field. It takes time, perseverance and
and patience. Like my mentor told me long ago, don't harp on what a company is doing wrong, focus on what they're doing right.
"Happiness is dancing when the drumming is good."