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

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

 


From Green Lantern #76, ©1970 DC Comics.

 

WILSON: Moving into this Bronze Age then, you talk about the impact of these new writers emerging in the late 1960s, the efforts to change DC characters with Wonder Woman as a new icon of modern feminism with Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine, and of course, Green Lantern/Green Arrow. For Green Lantern/Green Arrow then, it’s often held up as the primary example of social relevance in comics and it’s received a lot of attention, probably more today or since then as opposed to the early 1970s….

LEVITZ: Well, it got about as much attention as anything possibly could have at the time. Comics were not as much part of the public discussion as they are today, but I think anything that certainly resembled a fanzine discussed it at great length.

WILSON: Since it was fledgling title and this was an effort to revamp sales, if it did receive that much attention at the time do you know why DC did not then carry that over to other books, try to explore more socially relevant topics in other books than letting it go by the wayside with Green Lantern/Green Arrows?

LEVITZ: I don’t think there was any general perception that attention translated to sales. Usually sales is the main reason that, from a company perspective, where writers are told to do this, that usually happens in response to a sales pattern not just some noise. It certainly may have inspired other writers to be inclined to do things.

WILSON: But you don’t see much in other books or similar efforts, which is why that book stands out so much for its examination of drugs, race, etc. It may be the best example, but would you say it’s the only example during the period?

LEVITZ: No, I don’t think it’s the only one, but it goes far beyond the rest of the material. [Robert] Kanigher does a fair amount on race in Sgt. Rock and elsewhere at the time. Other writers begin to deal with more serious subjects in stories, but not with the same impact as what Denny [O'Neil] was doing.

WILSON: During the ’70s, you also discuss the shift away from newsstands toward local comic shops and the creation of the Direct Market system. What role did DC specifically play in the role of the non-returnable comics industry?

LEVITZ: That’s a book in itself. [Wilson laughs.] It’s a long, complicated story, I can’t give you just one thing. DC did a lot it should be proud of but so did other people, and it’s just a long story.

WILSON: Ok, moving on then. Somewhat related, did DC play any significant role in the development of the convention scene during this period?

LEVITZ: Very limited. The growth of the comic conventions were really driven by the fans and the publishers began to be involved in it very late in the game.

WILSON: In taking the book as a whole, I would argue that the “Dark Age” chapter is by far the strongest.

LEVITZ: Really? Why?

WILSON: Well, I think you provide the greatest detail here. I think you tie the stories that DC was publishing and promoting into what was going on in the larger society in a much more succinct and stronger way than in the other chapters.

LEVITZ: Interesting. Obviously, your reaction is your reaction, but that’s fascinating to me. I’m glad.

WILSON: Thanks. In looking at that darker period, do you believe that’s one of the key reasons why comics with kids have been hit and miss. Did the push towards darker storylines at all affect…

LEVITZ: No, I don’t think that mattered at all. The relevant thing was that comics were no longer being sold at a place where kids could find them. There’s a tendency, I believe, on the part of the content-oriented commentators on the history of comics to focus exclusively on the content. To sit there and say, “If only there were a wonderful comic book for kids, it would have changed the course of history here.” The fact is that you couldn’t get a comic to a kid. There wasn’t a distribution system. I was just speaking with Charlie Vess a day or two ago and he was reacting to the success of his Rose story in the Bone cycle because it had gone through Scholastic’s unique distribution system and he was astounded by the number of copies they were able to sell. If you don’t have a pipeline reaching where you want to go, it clearly doesn’t matter much what you’ve got at one end of it because it ain’t going anywhere.

WILSON: Was that ever a concern then in shifting over so much toward the Direct Market?

LEVITZ: Sure. But concern and solution are two separate things [Laughs.]

WILSON: Yes. [Laughs.] There are a lot of kids titles out there now, but…

LEVITZ: There are an enormous number of them but cumulative sales of the vast majority of them put together are negligible. BOOM! just did a big press release announcing the great success of something they did, I forget what the issue was, that hit 24,000 copies which was the biggest number they’d ever had for a single title or some similar statement. The weakest comic intended for kids in the era when comics were basically being sold to kids sold four or five times that. And the successful ones sold 40 times that. There were probably about half as many kids in America at that time too. In the absence of a system to distribute comics to kids, it’s lovely that people are publishing some of them and hopefully over time distribution methodologies will increase, but it’s one of the areas where digital might make a relevant difference. The fact that there’s a lot of them being done now is creatively satisfying for people but it hasn’t really changed the dynamic of where and to whom the comics are being sold.

WILSON: I would agree with that because having kids, especially when you go to the chain bookstores, you see that they have the trade-collected kids comics, but they’re not prominently displayed, they’re sometimes hidden or mixed in with other illustrated series or storybooks.

LEVITZ: And kids don’t buy books for themselves, generally, in a bookstore. Your children are lucky if they have a parent who genuinely loves comics, but, absent that, it’s a big barrier to break through to triumph over “Am I going to get you a classic Dr. Seuss or am I going get you…” you understand where I’m going here.

 


 

Next: Levitz talks about DC’s eventful 1980s and the coming of royalties for creators.

 

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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. [TCJ.com] [...]