Paul Levitz Talks About 75 Years of DC Comics (Part Three of Three)

Posted by on December 8th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Conducted by Nathan Wilson

Part onepart two ♦ part three



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 on…

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: It’s always a combination of things when you’re 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 it’s in, but you also want to preserve what you perceive to be the essence of the character so that you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I can’t 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 that’s 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, “relevant to the time?”

LEVITZ: I haven’t looked back to reread that story in a bunch of years, so I’m 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 John’s 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 it’s 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 I’m not sure how long that would be sustainable. [Laughs.] But in theory it’s workable. Part of what readers appreciate in comics is that they generally favor in recent decades stories that are around 25 pages long. That’s 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 it’s not a common model for building comics today, so it’s been very challenging to have that happen. It’s 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 it’s like asking why aren’t 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 isn’t the norm in this business. In the same fashion that there are sound economic reasons why television shows don’t 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 couldn’t do it. The sheer physicality wouldn’t 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 Gaiman’s Sandman and its ability to cross gender in audiences. Vertigo seems to have a very solid handle on this and I’m curious if it’s 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 doesn’t 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: I’m 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 doesn’t generally work in that genre and that’s a starting point. You’ve 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 don’t know the Marvel staff members well enough to comment. That’s probably a piece of it also.



WILSON: Has there ever been a concern within DCU then, and obviously they’re not going to abandon the superhero genre, but since it’s 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 to…

LEVITZ: I don’t think they’re equally approachable. I think the whole myth of superheroes is that they simply aren’t appealing to women as they are to men. I’d 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 women…

LEVITZ: I don’t 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. You’ve got the whole period around 1972 when Dorothy Woolfolk comes back into the company and she’s editing both the romance comics and the girl superheroes. She’s 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. It’s 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 “comics place in the culture changed.” 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 wasn’t a meaningful news item anywhere. By the time the ’90s 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: It’s 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, “Can I write an article on comics?” 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.


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6 Responses to “Paul Levitz Talks About 75 Years of DC Comics (Part Three of Three)”

  1. […] the last installment of my interview with Paul Levitz at the Comics […]

  2. […] wonder because in an interview at comics journal, former DC Comics President Paul Levitz claimed, on very little evidence, that girls just don’t …. This despite the fact that Levitz himself wrote strong female characters in Legion of Super-Heroes […]

  3. […] about comment by Paul Levitz regarding women and superheroes in his three-part interview with Nathan Wilson for The Comics Journal.  And a discussion of what you can do as a fan (for starters – read Ragnell’s letter […]

  4. […] about comment by Paul Levitz regarding women and superheroes in his three-part interview with Nathan Wilson for The Comics Journal.  And a discussion of what you can do as a fan (for starters – read Ragnell’s letter to […]

  5. […] what women or girls want from superhero comics. In this respect I am probably pretty similar to former DC publisher Paul Levitz, who (as you might have heard) told the Comics Journal I think the whole myth of superheroes is that they simply aren’t appealing to women as they are […]