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

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



WILSON: I think that goes more toward your central argument that DC’s characters are modern myths, that there you are in Italy and there’s 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 weren’t 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 book’s 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, that’s 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 “depth of commentary and debate” 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.

We’re at a very different stage of evolution than we were 30 years ago. When I go back and look at that article, it’s somewhat naïve and juvenile. I’m not an enormous academic now and I certainly wasn’t then, but we’ve 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 they’ve just gotten approval to have a comics-studies minor and they have 21 different comics related courses at the university now. Who the hell would’ve thought that could have happened?

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

LEVITZ: I’m 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 don’t 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 don’t know the details of any of that. They used to run the names of the committee in the books themselves, so it’s 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 “aren’t comics for illiterate kids?” And they were just trying to work their way through that.

WILSON: I didn’t 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 hadn’t gotten that crazy yet.

WILSON: You say in the beginning that one of your goals is to “place DC’s history in the larger context of the culture that shaped the company.” Looking back at DC in these early periods, what do you think explains the shift and transformation of DC’s 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 we’re not as interested in heroism, but we’re convinced the world is going to work out fine, so let’s just have a laugh and get through the day? We’re busy doing things and we don’t 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 hasn’t been introduced yet, so there’s not a great passion for the version that’s being put out at that point? It’s 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 isn’t 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, you’ve 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, “Let’s try something else if people don’t want vanilla and chocolate any more, anybody got any other ideas?”

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, it’s 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 Reeves’ 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 wasn’t 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 don’t think it’s 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 Kellogg’s to sell the commercial time on Adventures of Superman.



Next: Levitz talks about the “relevant years” and the ways that comics have wrestled with the changing nature of youth culture.


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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. [] […]