PAUL LEVITZ: Living In An Amazing World

paul-levitzPaul Levitz had been with DC Comics since he was in high school. He has been a freelancer, an assistant, an editor, and is now President & Publisher of DC Comics. Paul took time out of his day to chat with First Comics News about his long career in comics and what a publisher actually does.

First Comics News: In the early days of fandom you were associated with The Comic Reader, can you tell us what you did there and give a little bit of explanation about what The Comic Reader was to fan who may only be familiar with publications like Wizard?

Paul Levitz: Through a circuitous history going back to fandom founding father Jerry Bails, The Comic Reader was the first comics fanzine focusing on news of the field. It passed from editor to editor, and wasn’t being published when Paul Kupperberg and I started our news-zine Etcetera in early 1971. After a couple of months, Paul dropped out of co-editing, and the previous editor of The Comic Reader gave the accumulated subs and the name to me.

In those days, many comics still didn’t carry credits, and no publisher announced a publication schedule in advance. TCR was the first fanzine to fill in those gaps and so served as a monthly “TV Guide” for fans of the period. At its peak in my run (1971-73), we had about 3500 circulation…the largest number of any zine you had to pay for and slightly larger than the attendance of the largest con at the time. When I gave up, I sold the zine to the editors of the Menomonee Falls Gazette, (a leading strip zine of the period), who continued it for many years.

It all looks very quaint and childish in the era of the internet and desktop publishing programs, but at the time, it was a solid resource for fans and pros alike, and got me acquainted with both communities, making friends I’ve worked with ever since.

1st: You started at DC as an assistant editor to Murray Boltinoff, Joe Orlando and Tex Blaisdell, how did you get the job at DC?

Paul: I actually started freelancing for DC at the very end of 1972, doing letters pages for Joe Orlando. He knew me from TCR, and when Marv Wolfman dropped the assignment, (because he was going to take over as editor at Warren, a black & white magazine format comics publisher), Joe offered it to me.

About six months later, Joe’s then assistant, Michael Fleisher, decided to take the summer off, and Joe asked me to fill-in. I did, starting the day after high school ended, and Michael decided not to come back, so I stayed on. I was working 2-3 days a week, and going to college the other days.

Tex Blaisdell got to do a couple of titles sort of as a spin-off from Joe’s office, so I helped him out. The 100-page titles were overloading E. Nelson Bridwell’s ability to pull reprint material together, so I got to be reprint editor on Murray Boltinoff’s and even one of Archie Goodwin’s, too. The credit read assistant editor on the 100-page books, but I didn’t have anything to do with the front matter. Then Gerry Conway came on board as an editor, and I worked with him as well. It was on Joe’s and Gerry’s books that I served as a real assistant, and started to learn my craft.

1st: Now this was a time when DC only published a few comics, and some were bi-monthly, what was it like working at DC in those days?

Paul: Actually, DC was publishing about 33 issues a month when I started (about the same as their production from the ‘50s through the ’78 Implosion). Lots of these were bi-monthlies, so there were probably 40-50 different magazines in the house.

The company was very small, fewer than 35 people. A great atmosphere in which to learn, because everything happened within literal arm’s reach, about a third of a floor in 75 Rock held everything but the accountants, who were on another floor. You could touch the whole process.

All of the comics industry was in the NY metro area, except for a small office Western maintained in LA doing licensed titles, and virtually all the 200 or so creative people in the field were clustered around NY as a result in those pre-fax/FedEx/Internet days. The only exceptions were a few stars like Jack Kirby, and the foreign studios in the Philippines (for DC) or Spain (for Warren).

1st: In 1973, you started doing a series of “Behind the Scenes at the DC Comic World” was this assigned to assistant editors or was this something that came out of your roots at The Comic Reader?

Paul: Sol Harrison, who ran DC’s production area for many years, asked me to do the page. Mark Hanerfeld had done a similar fan page a few years before. I also wrote the Direct Currents pages at the time, taking over from Nelson. I imagine my TCR experience made me a likely candidate for the assignment, but text pages, letters, bullpen, whatever, were always sought-after assignments for the young staffers since we either weren’t ready for prime time or couldn’t get enough assignments to keep our typewriters busy.

1st: You worked on the Amazing World of DC Comics, how did DC get into the fanzine business?

Paul: Sol wanted to create a learning experience for the young staffers, and reach out to the increasing number of comics fans, so he created the Amazing World project. I don’t think it was to get DC into the “fanzine business” because I don’t think it was ever much of a business…but as Junior Achievement it was a fabulous experience, and I think all of us who worked on it got the chance to do some work we’re very proud of decades later.

1st: Why doesn’t DC still do something like this today?

Paul: Sigh…three possibilities: (1) there are so many good fanzines and news sites that there’s no real opportunity for DC to do unique good work, as there was in the ’70s; or, (2) the company’s just too large to pull together the folks to do it; or, (3) none of us running the shop have the willingness to put the energy into teaching that Sol did. Maybe all three?

1st: Your first credited work was co-scripting Justice League of America #114 with Len Wein, you collaborated with a lot of people in your early career was this something you intended or was this just how people started out in those days?

Paul: The credit you’re referring to on JLA #114 was to “Felton Markus,” a pseudonym of Mark Hanerfeld. Mark was my predecessor on TCR, an earlier assistant to Joe Orlando, and a dear friend to both Len Wein and me, but he definitely wasn’t me.

I collaborated a lot in my career in several different stages: Early on, one way to get writing gigs was to do staff rewrite work, and if you did enough work on the job, sometimes the editor would give you a shared credit. After I started writing regularly, I often over committed myself, particularly up to about 1978, and often had to call in friends to take over for me.

Conversely, as a fast writer, I was often called in to pinch hit for a friend or an editor in a jam on anything from doing a typewritten plot breakdown based on a verbal plot they developed, to finishing a job they couldn’t do. A lot of these were fun opportunities to do something I’d never have had a chance to work on otherwise, but overall I wish I’d been doing better work on most of my collaborative efforts.

1st: Your first solo super hero writing was in Adventure Comics #437“A Quiet Day in Atlantis” What was it like to have this story published?

Paul: My first stories were actually in Weird Mystery and Ghost Castle; I only “graduated” to Aquaman in Adventure thanks to Bill Finger. Bill had come in on a Friday to deliver, and was supposed to have two scripts, but only had one done. The check he wanted to pick up was for both, and although Joe wasn’t in, I wasn’t going to hold back a paycheck for Batman’s co-creator…even though Bill was legendary for delivering late and having excuses. But Bill never delivered that story because he died, and by the rules of the time, I was responsible for making up the pages. I asked Joe to let me do something more fun than a mystery story since I had to do it free, and he let me have the Aquaman assignment, and I got to work with Mike Grell. What fun!

1st: Was there any difficulty at DC with you both writing and working in the editorial department?

Paul: Pretty much everyone in editorial wrote or drew as well as working staff, it was a peculiar custom that went back to comics’ roots in the pulp magazines, and a concession to the poor salary levels both media had often experienced. It’s not the greatest system, since there’s plenty of inherent conflict of interest. Arnold Drake’s forgiven me for replacing him on Phantom Stranger (when I was the assistant editor on the title) for example, but it wasn’t right. While there were many such questionable moments at all the comic companies of the time, it remained accepted practice for a long time, and most the conflicts had as much or more to do with creative issues as economic ones.

1st: In March 1976 you did the Karate Kid series and started a long association with the Legion of Super-Heroes. What attracted you to the Legion and had you been a Legion fan prior to this?

Paul: I loved the Legion since I was a kid. It was my favorite title, the first I collected (in Adventure Comics), and completed. The chance to write the series was one of the great opportunities of my career, and I felt like I blew it. My run from 1976-1978 was so choppy, with so many fill-ins and rushed jobs because of my schedule, and so many artist switches, I’m not very proud of it. I was also learning my craft basics at the time.

When Mike Barr invited me to come back to the title in 1981, I was determined to do a more professional job. And although there were high and low moments, I’m very proud of the 100 issue unbroken run, counting the formats and annuals and the like, and glad people remember it so fondly.

1st: You wrote Legion stories for 12 years, why did you stop and do you miss writing?

Paul: I gave up when my kids were young to spend more time with them. Since writing was a second job, it was taking about 3 Sundays a month to do the LSH, and since I could afford not to write (my staff gig having gotten more lucrative over the years) I thought it would be better to have more time to hang with them. And while I miss writing during the ensuing years, I’m so glad of the time I’ve had with them.

1st: Would you consider writing something new?

Paul: I hope to do a lot of writing again some day, when the staff job ends. Meanwhile, I just sneak in odd projects every now and again.

1st: You have done a lot of work on DC’s horror titles and titles likeLegion and All-Star Comics; was there a conscious decision to stay away for the main DC Universe?

Paul: The mystery stories were always work, not passion, it’s not a genre I love to read or write. Within the DC Universe, I always preferred to work in corners where I wouldn’t have to spend much energy coordinating with other writers or editors. Hence the emphases on LSH, JSA, or even strips like Starman. I love continuity, but it’s a lot of work.

1st: You had a long association with the JSA, were they childhood favorites?

Paul: The JSA characters were particularly fun because of my personal connection to them, the first JLA/JSA is the first comic I remember buying at a newsstand.

1st: You co-created the Huntress with Joe Staton, do you still feel pride about this character, or did the post Crisis retrofitting make her feel like a different character?

Paul: Joe’s Huntress painting that was my housewarming present for my first solo apartment still hangs by desk, as does her origin page art fromDC Super-Stars and a Birds of Prey TV poster…she’s a favorite “child.” (For the curious, also hanging in the study are a John Byrne LSHcover, a Ditko/Wood Stalker cover, and two TCR covers by Walt Simonson and Rich Buckler; the rest of the art is crowded out by the shelves). Joey Cavalieri’s post-crisis Huntress is really his, but I still smile when she shows up.

1st: In a similar note, how do you feel about the JSA of today compared to the All-Star Comics version?

Paul: I’ve enjoyed Geoff’s and David’s work on the title, different takes, but some of the same assumptions.

1st: After you had been with DC for some time you wrote forStar*Reach, since you worked in the editorial department, wasn’t this considered a conflict of interest?

Paul: Star*Reach wasn’t considered competitive to DC, since it didn’t appear on the newsstand and DC barely noticed the direct sales outlets at the time, so it was a chance to do some different projects…and Mike Friedrich was an old friend.

1st: You worked with Jack Kirby on Kamandi, what was it like to work with Kirby?

Paul: I’ve had more of an administrative relationship with Jack than a creative one; other than his cover for my last fanzine (one of the rare times he drew Batman) the only creative work we did together came when I did some pinch-hitting. Towards the end of his ’70s stay at DC, Jack was eating up more work than could be easily teed up for him, not hacking, just his great speed, so I got to do two plot breakdowns to keep him going, a Justice Inc. and a Kamandi (for Denny O’Neil and Gerry Conway, respectively). It’s great to have had even that chance.

I count Jack and Roz as friends I’m very proud to have had; they were always warm to me back to my fanzine days.

1st: Focusing on you role as publisher, for much of you career you were a writer and editor, is it difficult to give up the individual creativity of writing and instead focusing on the bigger picture?

Paul: Writing and editing are different, and being behind a managerial desk is even more different. There’s no question that the creative tasks are more emotionally rewarding when they work well, and more frustrating when they don’t. But you have to be prepared to live an emotional roller coaster of a life to be a freelance writer for your whole career, which I wasn’t prepared to do, and I found the managerial path led to greater challenges than staying on the editorial side. I think it was very hard for the great editors to stay fresh over decades-long careers, particularly when the stylistic range of comics was narrower, and I don’t think that would have suited my attention span.

1st: As publisher what exactly does your job entail?

Paul: What I love about my job is the diversity: this week has included meetings with a toy company about a new line of DC products, talking to an ad agency about a promotion featuring our characters, working on a strategy to involve DC in the manga business, (and following up on meetings in Tokyo the week before on that subject), discussing how to position a new group of DC titles for marketing, chatting with a screenwriter about which of our characters he’d want to work on, two film scripts to read and comment on when I finish this, plus the normal routine of working with our departments from editorial to licensing about the current projects, deals and new business. There’s the usual administrativia of budgets, human resources, and other nuts and bolts. I’ve gotten to have an effect on so many areas of our business and learn about them.

1st: How is a DC comic different then a Marvel or Image comic?

Paul: I think there’s probably more difference among the different types of comics we publish than there is between some of our titles and their competitive equivalents at other publishers.

1st: DC Comics has a long history of purchasing other companies characters; DC purchased the Quality heroes, the Fawcett heroes, the Charlton heroes and now the WildStorm heroes. Why does DC purchase them?

Paul: I think it’s a little different each time, but we’re in the comics business, so when we have a chance to grow on a sensible economic basis, we try to take advantage of it.

1st: DC also licenses classic heroes like the Spirit and theT.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, does this fit under the same schema?

Paul: Pretty much, except those are smaller scale and the company usually gets far fewer rights, and those for a shorter time.

1st: DC has struck gold with the team of Loeb and Lee on Batman, how does DC choose their creative teams for their comics?

Paul: Most of the time it’s a combination of an editor needing to fill in an assignment and asking what he or she perceives to be the most suitable talent, and the talent building relationships among themselves and coming in paired. It’s a rather constant and awkward process, but sometimes it’s magic.

1st: This has been and tremendous year for superheroes on other media, what does DC have in the works for film, television and animation?

Paul: Lots, but I can’t announce anything new here, so I won’t waste time reiterating the ones you’ve probably heard about.

1st: Being part of AOL/Time Warner, is it easier to get these projects done because you are already connected to a multimedia company or harder because you don’t have a variety of studios to pitch ideas too?

Paul: There are strengths and weaknesses to both scenarios, but overall it’s great to be part of a strong, creative company. AOL/TW has been very supportive of DC in good years and bad, and when we do projects, most of the time they’re of far higher quality than we might have achieved if the companies involved weren’t commonly owned and didn’t invest in the productions as heavily.

1st: DC has a wide variety of products from Powerpuff Girls toLucifer, what is DC’s publishing philosophy?

Paul: We’d like to produce comics for everyone who’s willing to read them. There’s an old saying that a publisher’s job is to get the last copy of a (specific) book to the last person willing to read it; I think there’s probably a corollary for comics.

1st: What is DC’s mission statement?

Paul: To use our core creative medium of comics to generate and keep fresh properties that can be of value in diverse media and merchandising applications.

1st: What is planned for the rest of the year at DC?

Paul: Lots…but I’m already doing most of my work on projects that will have more relevance in 2004 and 2005, so I’m probably the last guy to ask what’s coming next. ’Cept maybe THE SANDMAN: ENDLESS NIGHTS, of which I’m particularly proud.

1st: Is DC where you want it to be?

Paul: Never. It’s the great blessing of our medium and our characters to be able to be successful in so many different creative possibilities; we can never do them all. Keeps life interesting.

1st: Thank you for finding time to chat with me, I appreciate it and your candidness.

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