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

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


Cover art from Kill Your Boyfriend, by Grant Morrison and Philip Bond.


WILSON: By designating this period of 1984-1998 as the “Dark Age” in thematic scope and perhaps even the market instability, what signaled the end of this era and moved comics away from this into the “Modern Age”?

LEVITZ: It was somewhat arbitrary, but yeah. I’m not sure it wasn’t a line drawn in the sand. I think we’re 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 we’re looking back on it from almost 60 years now and there’s been time for historians to come to a consensus that say this is what catalyzed it because here’s how the dominos fall. I don’t think we’re ready to do that for the end of the “Dark Age” and the beginning of whatever the next one is, the “Modern Age” 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 “Age of the Storytelling Epic” or “The Era of the Folklore Approach.” We need a little time for that.

WILSON: You mention in this latter section Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis and this got me to think about more fiction writers who have made this crossover into comics. During your time at DC, there’s 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. It’s 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 don’t know Jodi Piccoult or the story about how she came in, but by that time, it wasn’t 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 somebody’s 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 you’re interested in pleasing your audience then you know you’re performing to this crowd that is very intensely involved with what has gone before and they’re willing to let you change things but you have to have a very good reason, the changes have to be important. And they’ll stop and consider it and as you’re telling the story, if you change a little background that’s going to stop them as they’re reading the story. They may think it makes sense or is crap, so it’s a very delicate process for a group of people we feel like we know in our audience. We’ve invited them into the room and they know an awful lot about you. They know an awful lot about the story you’re telling and they have very specific expectations, and the writer and editor want to satisfy those but go beyond them.

When you’re 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 aren’t presold or preinvested in it. You’re 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 you’re 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 isn’t a significant number, but there’s 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 there’s still an enormously different challenge. If you’re Chris Nolan and you’re sitting down to do the new Batman movie, Batman Begins, and there hasn’t 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 it’s a case of the last time we had a movie of this character people weren’t 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 didn’t 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. It’s 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 hadn’t 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, what’s the greatest change or changes you’ve 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. I’m 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: It’s 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 weren’t assumed to be hanging around very long, they weren’t assumed to be involved in what I was doing, and now I’m 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 they’re reading and be able to Google something if it’s mentioned in the story and educate themselves about it. Not even a piece of comic’s history, but some fact or some piece of societal information. You’re 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, I’ll leave that to the judgment of history whether I’ve succeeded in it. It’s 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, I’ve had to change considerably. My strongest point as a storyteller in the bulk of my career was serial fiction. I’ve developed the “Perils of Pauline” 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, “How is this going to look in the book version?” To be able to do something that is an effective serial story and an effective compiled story is probably an elegant skill that I’m sure I don’t 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: There’s 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 wasn’t an editor long enough or full-time enough that it’s 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 “I’m sitting here reading your comics in the hospital because it’s the only thing that makes me feel better with the pain.” That’s about as good a day as you can have.



Paul Levitz’s 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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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 […]