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

Posted by on December 6th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Conducted by Nathan Wilson

Part one ♦ part twopart three

 

Paul Levitz has a perspective on the comic’s 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 ’70s. 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 DC’s 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 DC’s 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 I’d be interested in writing it, but I was still doing the day job, so it wasn’t very practical. By the time I was moving away from the desk job, they still hadn’t found a writer. All of the graphic research had been largely finished, so they said “you have time for it now, don’t you?” I said, “Sure, love to do it.”

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 DC’s 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 can’t 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 wasn’t 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 let’s 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 let’s 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. There’s only three or four of the pivotal people in DC’s history who weren’t 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 didn’t have 50 or 100 conversations with Shelly Mayer over the years. He didn’t 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: There’s 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 I’m doing now in this new stage in my life, is that fundamentally the skill sets (whether you’re 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 you’re writing a marketing puff piece for your corporation and you’re trying to build an identity for the management team or whatever the case may be, or the culture of the corporation, you’re 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, it’s the longest piece of prose I’ve ever written by far, so I was using a somewhat different set of muscles, but they’re 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.

 

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

  1. [...] is a link to part one of my three part interview with Paul Levitz at The Comics Journal.  I talked with [...]

  2. [...] Creators | Nathan Wilson begins a three-part interview with Paul Levitz about the new book 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking. [TCJ.com] [...]