Interview: Former President of DC Comics Paul Levitz Talks Taschen's Reissue, the History of DC Comic Books

Interview: Former President of DC Comics Paul Levitz Talks Taschen's Reissue, the History of DC Comic Books

If you want to know something about comic books, Paul Levitz is the guy to ask. He has played a number of roles at DC Comics over the past 35 years, first starting as a freelancer in the 1970s then even becoming president of the iconic company from 2002 to 2009. He has also penned a number of issues, helping shape the narratives of Batman, Superman, and many others fixtures of pop culture.

In 2010, publisher Taschen Books released the work 75 Years Of DC Comics: The Art Of Modern Myth-Making written by Levitz himself. The book was 720 pages long, 15.9 pounds in weight, and had a sticker price or $200. For those who couldn't afford the mammoth work have another chance with the publisher rereleasing the book as five separate volumes containing even more material than the original. The first book entitled The Golden Age of DC Comics is available for purchase now.

We caught up with Levitz who gave an inside look at his work reporting the story of the brand that has lasted nearly eight decades. The writer explained the comic book's historic relationship with youth in the United States. He also revealed strange dedications fans have created over the years. Referencing Steve Jobs, he even went so far as to explain the business of creating folkloric figures that resonate with the American public.

Interview by Justin Ray (@JRay05)

Each issue of a comic book reflects the time in which it was created. However, many fans pick up older issues without understanding the comic’s frame of reference. Does the book provide context for the issues?
Well, that's an interesting question. I guess when you want to understand the context in which any creative material is developed, you need to look at to look at two axes. First, what's going on at that moment or the moment before in society and culture. The other axis that you have to look at is the evolution of that particular media form, because each media form builds on many ways on what has happened before. I think the series of books with Taschen tracing DC's history has important value because they look at both the reference point of some of the things that are going on in the broader culture as they particularly influence the world of comics but it also looks at the progression of how DC itself evolved and since DC has been one of the important forces through almost 80 years of the American comics medium, that gives you a very significant longitudinal look at how that form has evolved.

Does the new series of book include more material that wasn't included in the 2010 release?
Yeah, there's about 50 percent more artwork throughout the editions. We found so much wonderful material and DC has published over 40,000 comics that there's an insane array of material to choose from and some stuff that was great didn't fit in the first book and then some things also surfaced after the first book was finished. We said geez we wish we'd had the opportunity to include that. There's a new interview with a significant figure in each period in each of the different volumes and then depending on the volume there's a fair amount of additional text. The more recent volumes where there was an opportunity to update or really fill in a whole that perhaps hadn't been fully addressed have relatively more new writing in them. Golden Age, has a little bit more in there but the amount of new art is significant. 

What did the research process look like for the collection?
The art directors began about two years before I started writing on the book and they really did a wide search. It ranged everywhere from finding one of the handful of collectors who has a complete set of DC comics and going and photographing an enormous number of them that were visually interesting of significant or would help tell the story, to looking for the more challenging material in many ways which goes back to your first question sort of how do you find the things that help tell the story of how this links to the wider culture. How do you find the photograph of a newsstand with a little kid reading a comic as they did at a particular moment in the 1940s-50s? How do you find the photograph that shows the comic book burnings, the Superman balloon at the Macy’s Parade, or even Superman at the World Fair in the 1940s. Material in the more recent decades is more readily available obviously, the media have covered comics more often so the source material is a little more evident. Then we also turned up original artwork because each of the new editions reproduces a certain number of pages from the artwork itself which is always an interesting site to see how the artist has physically worked on it. And then we found the wonderful weird things, I mean we produce in the Golden Age volume a couple of pages from the photographic leger the company used to use to keep track of its sales so you have the miniature covers the editors would look at with the sales figures just below them, just for a couple of the years for a couple of titles, so you’re able to see how that worked. Also at another point we include the progressive proofs that show you how color separations were done. The goal is really to create the equivalent of a museum exhibit in a book, or now in five books, to take this rich part of the popular cultural history and document it thoroughly with a wide variety of perspectives, so that people would have an understanding of how this important phenomenon took place.

Does the new series spend more time telling the story of a company or the story of how these figures entered pop culture?
Well I think in the case of DC, the thing people are most interested in is how the characters connected to them and what would define that moment in their own lives. So there’s a little bit of traditional corporate history of the company, like it went on the stock exchange at this point and it was bought and became part of what would ultimately become Time Warner at that point, but those are really a few words sprinkled here and there. The more interesting stories I felt were about, as I put in the introduction, the characters and the characters. Some of the people who created the company and who created the comic book characters had interesting personalities themselves. And even more interesting was what lead this particular person to do this piece of work. Then there was the characters themselves, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and others. They are just so dominant and had an effect on our popular culture. Obviously that’s the deepest dive anyone wants to take.

Can you talk about how comic books lead and have been lead by youth culture? I know that’s a big question...
Ok, I'll do my best. It depends on the period obviously as you look back but from 1940s to the 1970s in America, comics were pretty much universally the first entertainment form that children had the ability to purchase themselves. So you have the phenomenon there that for a couple of generations you really had children having massive choice over their entertainment and what direction the popular culture goes. It wasn't adults tending to what they wanted their child to read or libraries selecting. It was the kids of America who said I love Uncle Scrooge as its done by Carl Barks, I love the Superman comics that are coming from Mort Weisinger's team at DC, I love the Marvel comics that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko are creating. And they really got to choose those things that became trendsetters in the culture and ultimately leading to the massive success of the superhero movies in more recent years.

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Tags: paul-levitz, superman, batman, dc-comics, taschen-books, stan-lee, the-golden-age-of-dc-comics
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