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

Posted by on December 7th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Conducted by Nathan Wilson

Part one ♦ part two ♦ part three



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 Beatles’ 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 didn’t either end up having room in the main prose or in the main sections of illustrations, great, let’s squeeze it into the time lines. To some extent, when you’re shaping the time lines, when you have a physical structure like that, you get to the “There’s not enough vitally important stuff in 1964 at DC; what are three other anecdotes you can put in that would make somebody smile?”

WILSON: There’s something there though, especially about Kennedy’s impact on society and culture at the time, the youth culture movement of the period. It’s striking that he’s also in Superman, to see what the message was to children and how he was portrayed.

LEVITZ: It’s very different. From a historical point of view, it’s a turning point for the culture because he’s 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 Stan’s personal style is very much in tune with that moment. If you had told the average reader how old the writer was, they wouldn’t 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 weren’t in touch with kid culture and you had a handful of writers, such as Doom Patrol‘s 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: It’s 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 “radical” 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 you’re 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 that’s Drake on Doom Patrol or writing Bob Hope with a character called “Super Hip,” 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, “This is the way we’ve been doing it for 30 years. We’re right; don’t worry about Marvel.” 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. I’ve read some studies that say comics have never known how to approach women and women’s 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 don’t 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 Lane’s 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. We’re 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 it’s a comic, television show or motion picture, when they mirror society, depending on what the talent and the publishing house are trying to do, they’re 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. It’s not intended to be journalism. It’s not intended to be: “This is what the role of a woman today is.” You turn on a television program this evening, randomly, you’ll find most of the women characters doing things related to some of how women live today, but also not. It’s fantasy.

WILSON: If you look across the board though in media…

LEVITZ: The faster the rate of change going on in society, the more likely you’re going to have significant distortions in fiction because you don’t have a base line. If you go back 150 years to village life, you’re the historian, you know that things remained fairly constant over a three- or four-generation period. Take an example from history, the famous Washington’s book of manners. A gentleman should do this and shouldn’t do that. He could reflect an ethos that was likely to be true throughout his entire lifetime: “I learned this as a child, my adopted step-children were taught this way, and they should teach their children this way.” You can’t pick up a 1950s Emily Post book and say that’s how we live now. And you certainly wouldn’t 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: It’s interesting to see how this stuff enters the comics, but also how it’s 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 women’s 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 I’m 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 “x” number of books…

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 don’t 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 DC’s 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 because…

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 “rebellious” during the 1960s versus the largely conservative DC?

LEVITZ: I think there’s 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.


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

  1. […] is the link to part two of my three part interview with Paul Levitz at the Comics Journal where we discuss DC […]

  2. […] Creators | Nathan Wilson continues his discussion with Paul Levitz about 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking. [] […]