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.
How did it feel to work in a scene where you knew all of your material was going to matter to a lot of people?
That part is wonderful fun. That remains a great joy in working in comics today. I adore the fact that people read and react to my work. One of the really nice things about the comic book business is we remain relatively accessible creative people so you go to a comic convention or go to an appearance at a store and people show up who have read your stories and they have strong feelings, saying you did this well or you did this not as well. I think, I don't know why, I wish that had been more fun. Or the occasions when I have the privilege of having a conversation with someone who vividly remembers an issue that I wrote, that their parent brought them when they were 12-years-old home in bed and 30 years later they’re able to remember the cover of it, how they felt about it emotionally, and why that started them reading comics. Also by the way, they’ve lived this really interesting life, doing creative work themselves now and their doing work I am a fan of in some other field. Life doesn’t get any cooler than that.
Speaking of those ardent fans, can the people who fiercely debate characters and the intention behind their stories find all answers within the books?
Hm, well the purpose of the book is not to live within the fiction. There are other DC projects that have been done over the years, encyclopedias and the like that live within the fiction as it’s created at a particular moment in an attempt to give a definite point of view, saying this is the official origin of the character as of today. That wasn’t the mission here and it wasn’t a possible mission when you are looking at something over a 75-year-period that has evolved and changed. In many ways the characters have become folkloric in that we recognize the essence of them but we’re comfortable with the somewhat different retellings. The story Smallville is not the same story as in the Chris Reeves movies or as it is in this month’s issue of Superman comics. But we recognize Superman in all of them and we’re comfortable with all of those creative people who are in some way or another acknowledging each other’s work and respectful of it.
Some people don’t know you have been a professor at Columbia and Pace University, teaching classes in transmedia storytelling and publishing. Incorporating your academic background into the comic book world, you once said that the skill sets of writing fiction, nonfiction, or marketing communications are reflections of each other. Can you expand that idea?
Sure, it basically comes out of how I work with my students in the writing courses. When you hit kids of a college age one of the base concepts that I try to convey is the importance of writing and storytelling within their lives because they haven’t yet usually been introduced to the idea that writing is a skill, storytelling is a skill that spills out from English class. They’re still in many cases mentally assigning it the same utility in life as algebra. As most adults learn over the years, particularly ones that get into interesting lines of work, storytelling becomes a very important part of what you do, whether it’s making a case for a business, or whether you’re trying to convince your boss to give you more funding for whatever you want to do. And certainly writing and storytelling for entertainment and information are finally important things for society, so I try to introduce a certain amount of the interconnectedness. One of the ways I spend time talking about that, I talk about poor Steve Jobs occasionally as an example and I’ll point out to the kids Steve Jobs as he was presented to the world was just to some extent an invented figure, an avatar. Not in the sense that it was a lie, but in the sense that this is clearly a polished identity that served powerfully as a spokesperson for Apple and whether it was physically how he presented himself, wearing the trademark black turtle neck routine, or the emphasis on his concern on design, there was a clear story being communicated. I don’t know whether that was Jobs’ own definition of himself as time went on or whether or not that was inspired by the great PR person, marketing person, or whether that emerged from something some writer wrote about him years ago that he looked at and said ok if they’re looking at me that way, that’s working, they’re respecting me because of that, let me work with that image. I try to use that to get the kids to think about the concept that nonfiction and fiction is fundamentally related. If you are reporting a story, you define the who, what, where, when, how, classic stuff you learned in journalism school. But if you’re creating a character, you need to know who, what, where, when, how too. And it there are really two sides to the same coin.
That's genius. How do you think the different characters of DC relate to that idea?
Oooph. That idea is probably worth a whole series of books. The stories are so complex. You look at Batman, and I just did an essay for an update of a book that the British Film Institute published a few years ago where I did about 4,000 on just why Batman is the most protean of the superheroes. There have been thousands of Batman stories. There have been dozens of important creators, never mind guys like me who wrote a couple of stories along the way but people who defined the character, whether a writer or an artist of the era, the number of influences are enormous and you really would have to dive in deeply and analyze to think about the things that happened in Denny O'Neil’s life that lead him as a former journalist for example, as a guy who had at least briefly been on a crime beat in his youth to craft the kinds of story of Batman that he did and at the time that he did versus the things that let Frank Miller as a young creative person in this field to have the fire to do a Dark Knight Returns and to introduce a level of politicization, a different social outlook. Some of it is a difference in generation, the medium and it’s openness, but some of it is in fact who the creators were, just as you were asking. It’s a long analysis, and I’m not sure you could ever get it right. The most challenging thing I think from a scholarly standpoint is always trying to address authorial intent because speaking as a creator, as people analyze my stories I often find people find meaning I didn’t know was there and sometimes it has revealed something that was going on in my subconscious or sometimes I think Uh, what are you talking about?
Influential comic book artist Joe Kubert appears in the work. What does he talk about?
We spoke a little bit about his early years, his interesting observations about the era when he came into the field, whose reputation or whose later work was not as important as their early work and why he thought that to be the case. We talked about the being an artist and how computer technology changed the field. It’s a number of pages long. We weren’t able to exhaustively look at Joe’s enormous career, but I tried in each of the interviews for these volumes to capture the personality of the person and have that come through because these are all people I knew well and also to capture something of the moment and really focus in on things that would be of specific interest to people who were passionate about that particular era and Kubert was an important figure in the field for six or seven decades. It was an astounding career Joe had. But I tried to concentrate mostly in the Golden Age volume interview on things that in some way or another related to his Golden Age experience.
What are the craziest fan dedication to superheroes you remember?
I think one of the most interesting categories that I’ve ever seen is what happens sometimes with sketchbooks. One of the neat things that goes on in comics again because how accessible we are is that there are serious fans who take giant sketchbooks and go to comic conventions and either invite or commission artists to create work around reoccurring themes. So many of them ask the artist to draw whatever they feel like on a given day, and those are fun, nice, and pretty. But over the years, I’ve seen everything like one lady whose sketchbook is composed of asking the artist to draw a comic book character eating his or her favorite food. The wit in the individual drawings is so astounding, of course they’re all moments you wouldn’t naturally see in the comics themselves. The artist stops and thinks about who the character is, and you get a joy out of that. There are also sketchbooks that are entirely draw my favorite character in not suitable for work pictures. But I think that sort of scene where people see the world of these characters is a wonderful thing. In many ways, it’s the greatest tribute because there are people who work on these projects for years.
How do you feel about the future of digital comics?
I think it’s a wonderful moment in the comic world. At least in America, there’s more diverse material being created today using the comics form than ever in history and new things are popping up every single day. The young generation of readers that have matured have pleasure and visual imagination and they really don’t see a boundary in the medium, so they enjoy it as memoir, journalism, genre-fiction... they’re even starting to experience it in educational mode, with more and more textbooks using comics file material to convey information. And I think we’re just at the beginning at that enormous explosive growth. It’s wonderful to watch.