THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER
Comics Veteran Paul Levitz on ‘Brooklyn Blood’ and His Eisner Hall of Fame Nomination
“I like to feel that I played a part in making comics a better field for creative people,” says the writer, editor and executive.
Paul Levitz is having quite the year. The veteran comic book creator and executive served as DC Comics president between 2002 and 2009, capping off a 35-year stint with the company. He has has been nominated for a place on the Will Eisner Hall of Fame, but he’s hardly resting on his laurels; this week also sees the release of Brooklyn Blood, a collected edition of his horror crime serial from anthology series Dark Horse Presents.Heat Vision talked to Levitz about the origin of the new project, and also where he sees the comic book industry from his particular vantage point.
I want to start with Brooklyn Blood. You’re a writer who’s worked in multiple genres through your career, and one who’s demonstrated a consistent desire to push yourself — your Doctor Fate run just a few years ago is evidence of that, in terms of cultural influence as much as anything. But even with all of that, Brooklyn Blood feels like a departure. Where did you come up with, “Oh, Lovecraftian horror noir, that’s a good idea”?
Brooklyn Blood really started as a more straightforward police procedural, a genre I’ve loved forever. But stories take you where they will… Doctor Fate started with thinking about the original character’s connection to Egypt, and before I knew it, Anubis was ready to drown the world in a second great flood. Once I focused on Brooklyn as a setting — taking advantage of my old hometown now being cool — the geographic coincidence of three very different mass deaths in a single-mile stretch led me to look for the common cause, and it turned out to be Lovecraftian.
How did you hook up with Tim Hamilton? His work brings so much to the story.
My pal Christine Norrie, an Eisner-nominated artist herself, recommended Tim, and his work on [the graphic novel adaptation of] Fahrenheit 451 clinched it. Brooklyn Blood required someone comfortable with smooth shifts from gritty reality to horror that’s either in detective O’Connor’s imagination or reality, and Tim did that straddle magnificently. He’s also a Brooklyn resident, so getting the ambiance and the settings worked out especially well.
How was the experience of writing short chapters for an anthology? Books like Dark Horse Presentsremain an oddity in the American industry, sadly, but you were writing shorts for classic anthologies Ghosts and House of Mystery way back when. How did you find returning to this kind of writing after years of thinking of story in terms of 20- to 22-page chunks?
Anthologies can be great, and I loved reading things like Dune when it was originally a serial in Analog. There’s a certain power to building stories within constraints, self-imposed or otherwise, and having to structure this one in eight-page chapters kept it moving at a pretty rapid pace. That said, I think mysteries are more fun to read in a single volume, and I think Brooklyn Blood comes together better that way.
Since stepping down as president and publisher of DC in 2009, you’ve done an impressive variety of work, both for DC and elsewhere, with non-fiction books for Taschen and Abrams. You’ve made a point of staying active in the field, not settling down or settling at all. Was this pent-up energy from being an executive for so long and wanting to explore different creative avenues?
There’s so many ways to have fun as a creative person with how comics are exploding as a cultural form, and I’m enjoying as many as I can. I do a lot of teaching, board work on not-for-profits and Boom! Studios [Levitz signed on to the publisher’s board of directors in 2014], consulting projects, and when I sit down to the keyboard, I like to either revisit my old friends or stretch myself. We worked hard to expand the possibilities for comics; why not take advantage of it?
Along those lines: The comic industry is a very different place today from when you started out — thanks to changes that you were involved with at DC — and there are many more possibilities for different types of creators and stories to be found by readers these days. As a scholar, fan and creator, where is your head at when it comes to the state of comics right now?
I think the creative medium of comics is in a second golden age, with more types of stories being created than we’ve ever had in America. The comics industry I came into was a small niche in American publishing — maybe 3 percent? — compared to the sales comics forms have elsewhere, often 14–35 percent of overall trade publishing, and I think we close this gap by diversifying the genres we publish. Children’s comics and memoirs are experiencing great growth; who knows what’s next? Comics can tell any kind of story.
You’re nominated for the Hall of Fame this year. Is that a moment that makes you pause and look back at your career to date? And if so, what do you see?
I’m incredibly honored to be nominated — on the same list as Thomas Nast — and proud of what I’ve accomplished in each stage of my career: As a comic fan doing [early fanzine] The Comic Reader, as an editor, writer and executive. I like to feel that I played a part in making comics a better field for creative people, and that’s why we’ve been able to start the graphic novel explosion and see comics’ stories move into other media so successfully. Besides, as a college dropout who’s getting to teach at schools like Columbia University, I’m getting a bit of the last laugh. Does it get better than that?
By Spencer Ackerman
Somewhere between a cop thriller and an occult monster story lives the hall-of-famer’s latest, his first set outside DC Comics in four decades, firmly set in his native borough.
Brooklyn was a place residents worked to escape in Paul Levitz’s day, which was decades before an influx of wealthy whites transformed it into something barely recognizable to its natives.
But its hold on its children can be felt in the bitterness, the contempt and the truth behind the opening lines of Levitz’s newest comic book: “I got Brooklyn in my blood. But it sure as hell isn’t this Brooklyn.”The lines belong to Billy O’Connor, a pissed-off Marine veteran of Afghanistan turned asshole cop whose struggle with PTSD fuels the engine of Brooklyn Blood, Levitz’s first original comic in 40 years published outside DC Comics.
Levitz, an East Flatbush native raised in the shadow of Tilden High School, spent decades shaping DC Comics as a writer, editor and eventually publisher. But on Wednesday, the smaller-press Dark Horse Comics will publish a collected edition of Brooklyn Blood, Levitz’s hybrid detective thriller/horror story, a collaboration with artist Tim Hamilton.
It’s a creative stretch for Levitz, one of the first comics fans to turn professional, who’s most widely known as the driving force behind DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, a 30th century intergalactic task force helmed by teen heroes Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, and Lightning Lad. Brooklyn Blood riffs off Ed McBain’s detective fiction, he says—“great procedurals and often structured to work around not developing too much detail about an adversary”—and felt it was important to ground such a work in a familiar place.
“O’Connor is channeling my amazement at the borough changing. Not disgust, part joy, part amazement… and some worry that the working class transformative power of Brooklyn may get lost in the shift,” Levitz tells The Daily Beast.
Brooklyn Blood, first serialized in the anthology series Dark Horse Presents, is a nervous tale driven by trauma. O’Connor’s flashbacks to his armored personnel carrier running over an insurgent roadside bomb both complicate and help him unravel the case of a serial killer stalking Park Slope. With help from a psychic, O’Connor and his Muslim partner, Nadira Hasan, get sucked ever deeper into a seemingly random spate of slayings that connect to something ancient and occult lurking within the fabric of the borough. There’s even a guest appearance by the borough of Queens.
And you thought the scariest thing in Brooklyn was at the bottom of the Gowanus Canal.
As the head of DC Comics, Paul Levitz worked with the biggest names in the comics business — Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.
But after retiring and deciding to write an original story of his own, the East Flatbush native chose to leave capes and costumes behind and write about something far more astounding: the real, bloody history of his home borough.
“I noticed three of the city’s five greatest loss-of-life disasters all took place within a mile of each other in Brooklyn. That’s kind of weird. It’s a big city. Why? That became a story hook,” said Levitz, who served as president and publisher at DC from 2002 to 2009.
“What would happen if a serial killer was committing murders in the spots where those mass deaths happened? Where would that lead?”
Where it led was the book “Brooklyn Blood,” a supernatural thriller about a grizzled 78th Precinct gumshoe trying to work out why corpses and ghosts are showing up at the site of those disasters — the 1776 Battle of Brooklyn, the 1918 Malbone Street train wreck and the 1960 Park Slope plane crash
It’s part police procedural, part Lovecraftian horror story — and a history lesson on the surprising body count racked up in and around Park Slope before the neighborhood was more synonymous with the phrase “food co-op.”
The setting isn’t far from where the comics-industry legend, 61, grew up, reading books from seminal crime writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Ed McBain.As a teenager, Levitz took over running a defunct comics fanzine called The Comic Reader, and his work soon caught the attention of DC — home to the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel — where he was offered work as a writer and began climbing the ranks.
But even though the first original comic book ever made rolled off the Brooklyn Eagle’s presses in 1935, Levitz notes, the entire comics industry was in Manhattan.
By age 19, he’d happily said “fuhgeddaboudit” to Brooklyn for good and moved across the East River.
“Brooklyn was not cool in those days,” Levitz, 61, said.
Of course, the borough’s cachet has seen a rebirth in recent years to rival that of Superman’s 1993 rise from the dead, as Levitz saw when he returned to visit after his daughter moved to Boerum Hill after college.
‘I noticed three of the city’s five greatest loss-of-life disasters all took place within a mile of each other in Brooklyn. That’s kind of weird. It’s a big city. Why? That became a story hook.’
“We worked so hard to get out of Brooklyn!” he joked.
And when a pal who runs indie publisher Dark Horse Comics asked Levitz to write something, he decided to return to his roots by setting the story in Brooklyn and finally penning the kind of crime story he’s loved since childhood, although with a paranormal twist.
“I had an opportunity to play in that genre after decades doing superheroes-slash-science fiction,” Levitz said.
He was able to funnel some of his head-scratching, homecoming experiences into the main character of “Brooklyn Blood” — an Afghanistan war veteran who returns to the streets where he grew up to work as a cop, only to find them filled with hipsters drinking pumpkin-spice beers.
Suffering PTSD, Detective Bill O’Connor is haunted by the ghosts of his past — which are soon joined by the ghosts of Brooklyn’s past when a murder victim is found in Prospect Park.
That’s the approximate site of the Battle of Brooklyn — the first major battle of the Revolutionary War, where about 300 members of the Continental Army were slaughtered by the British.
The connection isn’t obvious in the story until O’Connor walks past the Fort Greene Prison Martyrs Monument — where the remains of American prisoners from the war are buried — and spooky skeletal poltergeists start coming out of the ground.
He starts seeing ghost planes crash over Park Slope — where a United Airlines jet plummeted in 1960 after colliding in midair with a TWA propeller craft (which smashed into Staten Island), killing 134 people. Then there’s a ghost train rocketing along the subway tracks beneath Malbone Street where 93 people died when a Brighton Beach Line train crashed near the Prospect Park station in 1918. O’Connor soon realizes these aren’t just his regular war flashbacks.
Levitz teamed up with Fort Greene-based illustrator Tim Hamilton to bring the story to life — so to speak.
The pair pored over history books and old articles and walked the streets to get the Brownstone Brooklyn scenery right before filling their tale with monsters and explosions and casting a noir-ish shadow over everything.
“I really do enjoy history, so I was able to go around and take pictures of most of the things I put into the novel,” said Hamilton, who has previously adapted Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”″ into a graphic novel and has done art for The New Yorker and Mad magazine.
The pair also used their own homegrown knowledge — it was Hamilton’s idea to include the Prison Martyr’s Memorial from his neighborhood, while Levitz knew what the fatal train tunnel in the Malbone Street disaster actually looked like from riding the rails as a kid.
“In my youth, I used to ride in the front of the train looking deep into the tunnel, so I’ve got a pretty good visual sense of what goes on. In the old days, you could easily see out the front of the cars, so you learned a lot more than you do now,” he said.
Which is just as well, because Hamilton, like many New Yorkers, hadn’t even heard of the wreck.
“They don’t make a big deal about it at the Transit Museum,” Levitz quipped.
“And [the city] renamed Malbone Street to Empire Boulevard pretty quickly after the disaster. Real-estate values — the guiding history of much of New York City.”
The comic culminates in an epic showdown between O’Connor and his mystic foe at the Hell Gate Bridge — which isn’t in Brooklyn, but is where the Brooklyn-made General Slocum steamboat sank when it caught fire in 1904, killing 1,021 people.
“Once it became a supernatural story, the fact that the city’s great disaster prior to 9/11 happened at a place called Hell Gate was a natural payoff,” Levitz said.
Also, the scene just looks cool — and has the right infrastructure for a ghost train, a ghost plane and a ghost sea monster all at once.
“When you’re talking about deaths that happened a hundred years ago and in many ways hadn’t been memorialized, you didn’t have a distinctive visual to play with,’’ Levitz said.
“So being able to work with something as vivid as a railroad bridge, it’s pretty cool architecture.”
With comics currently enjoying unprecedented popularity thanks to the explosion of superhero stories on the big and small screens, plus Brooklyn’s new popularity, Levitz is looking to tap into the zeitgeist of both.
“I hope ‘Brooklyn Blood’ can be a little bit of a trend-setter,” he said.
“I’m hoping people in Brooklyn hear about the story and are curious enough to take a look. I promise no ghosts come with it.”
Levitz and Hamilton are doing a signing at Crown Heights’ Anyone Comics on July 27.
That, too, is the site of an important Brooklyn event.
“I was bar mitzvahed a couple of blocks from there!” Levitz said.