Random

In the news

In the news 150 150 Paul Levitz

Today the announcement was made that Boom Studios! has agreed to a sale to Penguin Random House, a deal I played a small part in as a member of Boom!’s board of directors for the last decade. It’s my hope that this will prove to be a good outcome for most of Boom!’s stakeholders: creative talent, staff, retailers, readers and shareholders. Like any change, it won’t be perfect for everyone, but sometimes there are unintended and unforeseen good outcomes (when I bought WildStorm for DC, we laid off their special projects team as an unhappy part of the transition–but Ted Adams pulled many of them together to form IDW and bring many interesting projects out). My thanks to Ross Richie and Scott Lenet for inviting me onto the Boom! board, and for letting me exercise some of my comics muscles for all these years.

On The Spot

On The Spot 150 150 Paul Levitz

So it’s early 1973, I’m 16, a high school senior, and lucky enough to have landed the assignment to do DC’s house pages–the equivalent of the Marvel Bullpen pages. They alternate between Direct Currents, the listing of what’s coming in the following week, and Behind The Scenes, a general sort of hype page. I’ve only done one of the latter, when I’m told that for the next one my lead should be about this exciting new title DC is about to launch, something I’m told they expect to be a breakthrough hit. The last couple of launches have been SWORD OF SORCERY and the massive commercial creative and creative success, SWAMP THING, so this should be cool.

It’s confidential enough that I’m sat down at a desk in the production department, camped between the women who do cover and text page paste-ups (if you’re too young to know the term, think desktop publishing with zero tech and lots of rubber cement involved). The boards are brought out gingerly, not having been dumped in the usual production flat files where more mundane things like Joe Kubert’s TARZAN or Kirby’s KAMANDI are stored. This is the comic that’s going to give DC momentum against the burgeoning success of Marvel, coming out against their newer hits like Roy Thomas & Barry Smith’s CONAN or the just-starting TOMB OF DRACULA run by Marv Wolfman & Gene Colan.

I look down.

It’s PREZ #1, by Joe Simon & Jerry Grandinetti. Two solid and talented professionals who have literally been doing successful comics since well before I was born. But in about a page or three I know this certainly isn’t going to be one of them. It’s a tale of a teenager becoming the President of the United States, channelling a bit of the then-recent film WILD IN THE STREETS. But tonally? If Marvel’s capturing the style of the moment, this one is sliding backwards like an awkward Time Machine.

I manage to write a column, and devote more space to the upcoming SANDMAN collaboration between Joe and Jack Kirby…a one shot that would indeed be a hit, if not a project with enough creative bandwidth to sustain a series afterwards for more than a few issues. No memory of what I said to the folks who had waxed enthusiastically about PREZ, but despite the fact that I’ve never been famous for my diplomacy, I must have hidden my confusion. I’d go on to have a long friendship with Joe, and to edit Jerry on some delightful war stories, but I don’t think I ever told either of them about this day.

I could have been wrong. It happened often enough in the decades that followed, and I can’t claim a fraction of the creative success that Joe achieved in a career that included co-creating Captain America and whole romance comics genre. It would have been an interestingly different comic world if I had been, right?

Recalling A Failure

Recalling A Failure 150 150 Paul Levitz

There are quite a number of projects from early in my writing career that I regard as failures: either assignments that I took on and dropped midway for one reason or another (lost KARATE KID when Carmine felt–probably justifiably–that I wasn’t ready to write series yet; abandoned TEEN TITANS faster than Kid Flash could have when LEGION became available), or where I just blew it.

Probably the best of my failures was WONDER WOMAN. Jenette Kahn asked me to take on the series because she felt I wrote female characters well. I hadn’t loved the character growing up. Bob Kanigher’s long run in the 1960s had felt like the weakest of DC super hero titles, and while I had enjoyed Denny O’Neil’s Diana as Diana Rigg issues, that wasn’t really Wonder Woman anyway. I was rooming with Marty Pasko when he wrote his tales, so probably prejudiced in their favor, but all in, not a member of the pantheon I was aching to script.

Thinking through the possibilities, I focused on an elect in her mythos that I did find fascinating: she was the only one of the great heroes who had given up immortality to take on her heroic role. Surely that would be a key that could unlock good stories!

Except I challenge you to find the least homeopathic drop of that idea in the three and a half issues I wrote before running in despair. No fault of editor Ross Andru, an immensely affable man if not the most script-focused of editors I’ve worked with, or of Jose Delbo, who was in the midst of a long run on the character that never failed to be solid and professional, delivering on the potential of whatever (often weak) scripts he was given by me and others.

So all the more I celebrate the wonderful work that George Perez did a few years later, breathing new life into the Amazon Princess and her mythology, and to the many great stories by others that built upon that sensibility.

Sometimes, as Shakespeare said, the fault is not in the stars, but in ourselves. That particular one was one I can’t explain, even to myself, and it’s part of why I gave a sigh of relief this month at the generally warm welcome for my AVENGERS arc. I really wouldn’t have wanted to fail on that one.

Pondering 50 Years

Pondering 50 Years 150 150 Paul Levitz

This week marked 50 years since I became a comics professional, getting the modest assignment to write Joe Orlando’s letter columns at DC. Looking back over a long and complex run, I’m particularly proud of a few things:

  • My role in writing the first standard talent agreement for mainstream comics. After the passage of the 1976 Copyright Act, companies needed to have written agreements with comics talent for the first time. We chose to embody simple but honest terms in DC’s, including things either not guaranteed before (like the return of artwork to artists and reprint fees) or ambiguous (like a specific deadline time within which the assignment needed to be completed, avoiding the occasional situation where someone would come in with work authorized ages before and since reassigned to another person). It was still fairly one-sided, but a great improvement over what had been the practice before, or how some of our competitors chose to deal with the situation.
  • Similarly, my participation in getting standard royalties put in place at DC, and as a result, elsewhere in the mainstream. That was very much a team effort, but I found a way to fund it within our budgets that made it an easier sell to management. Top talent like Simon & Kirby had gotten participations back to the dawn of the Golden Age, but making it a basic part of compensation that any successful project could theoretically achieve changed comics, and modernized the mainstream publishers at a critical moment as we moved from a focus on newsstands to comic shops and a more sophisticated audience.
  • Less a single dramatic moment, but leading the team that took critical steps to create the graphic novel form in America. Working out a unique business structure to do co-editions of our earliest graphic novels like DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN, building the strength of graphic novel series like SANDMAN, and ultimately arranging distribution that made these forms more available through changes in how comic shops could order them or bookstores could develop real graphic novel sections was the work of a decade or more, but pioneering in this fulfilled a long-held goal of mine to have comics’ best material consistently available. It seems silly today in a digital, internet-connected world, but it was radical and important in its time.
  • Finally, the fact that I got to contribute some elements and stories to the mythos of comics that have endured. It’s a delight to see Helena Wayne back in action again, or see my Lucien become Lucianne, and wonderful to see “the Great Darkness Saga” still pop up on top lists of stories to read.

Thanks to everyone who made this possible, from mentors to readers; it’s been a hell of a journey.

Some Shazam backstory

Some Shazam backstory 150 150 Paul Levitz

In the early ‘70s, Superman was still the heart of DC’s publishing program, but his power was growing weaker every year.  His decline was steeper than the general, and that point slow, ebbing of the newsstand comics business in general, and there’s no research from the time to indicate which factors were most critical.  A few years earlier, the S-symbol was powerful enough that even LOIS LANE and JIMMY OLSEN were outselling anything in the Marvel line.  It’s possible that decreasing syndication of the ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN television series starring George Reeves was the dominant factor, with the Saturday morning SUPERMAN cartoon also ending its brief run.  Or maybe it was that the last years of Mort Weisinger’s incredibly successful run as Superman’s editor had run out of steam at last, or simply couldn’t change to capture the readership’s developing tastes that were giving Marvel momentum.

Regardless of the cause, it was the critical problem for DC’s publishing profitability.  Carmine Infantino had inherited the mantle of leadership, and began to influence factors that might help.  Neal Adams began doing covers for the super-titles, allegedly over Weisinger’s resistance, bringing a more dynamic visual style to them.  Art assignments were juggled, with Ross Andru promoted from the very strong selling METAL MEN (and the less well selling WONDER WOMAN) to join the Krypton chroniclers.  Nothing was working to reverse the trend, and with Weisinger retiring, Carmine had the responsibility of making a more radical change.

Julie Schwartz was promoted to be the primary Superman editor, although the titles were scattered among several of the DC staff.  Julie had played a critical role in the revitalization of super heroes as a genre in the ‘60s, and put together a team that would be very critically acclaimed in fandom: Denny O’Neil, Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson.    Shifts in the mythology found Clark working in television as a more modern aspirational occupation than newspaper reporting, and his alter ego relieved of his Kryptonite weakness, which Julie viewed as a story crutch.

Unfortunately, the applause from fandom didn’t translate into sales reversing the decline.  Superman was still a star property, but could no longer carry a handful of titles to the top of the charts.

The next bet Carmine made in the replace Superman’s slipping sales sweepstakes was to get a license for Captain Marvel, the only super hero who significantly outsold Superman at points in the Golden Age.  His publisher, Fawcett, had given up the comics business in the mid-50s when the whole field was shrinking, and had settled its long litigation with DC by agreeing not to publish the character any more.  Fawcett had concentrated on its magazine business, and in the years since been sold to CBS, and was rebranded as the CBS Magazine Group.  Since the Big Red Cheese couldn’t be published without DC’s consent (and it’s not clear that there would have been any other bidders, as the super hero category shrunk after the Batman craze faded), it wasn’t a tough deal to negotiate.  DC Business Manager Bernie Kashdan did a license with the publishing terms largely on their traditional basis, and off they went.  But uniquely, DC would also control all the licensing and media rights, sharing proceeds with CBS.

With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight and unprovable insight, I’d argue the return of Captain Marvel suffered from three challenges: first, the name of the hero himself was unavailable as the trademark had lapsed and Marvel had wisely jumped in with their own Captain Marvel; second, editor Julie Schwartz arranged a really bad marriage for the creative team, putting Denny O’Neil (who favored serious melodrama) together with C.C. Beck, the hero’s original artist (and a determined proponent of the tongue-in-cheek humor that was the series’ trademark); and most seriously, misjudging that the audience had simply moved on from the innocence that appreciated the charm of the original, with its talking tiger and menacing worm mastermind.

Fan speculation fueled sales of the first issue (I recall buying a stack off the newsstand to ship over to Nick Landau, the British fan entrepreneur who would co-found Forbidden Planet and Titan Distributors), but wasn’t enough to sustain the series.  Beck was more and more frustrated, and a succession of talented creatives never found a great balance or tone.  Notwithstanding that, it would turn out to be an excellent arrangement for DC, with two television series launched and some attendant merchandising.

Flash forward to the next decade.  DC still hadn’t found a reliable creative direction for Shazam, but there were still lots of talented folks who wanted to try.  One barrier to establishing him successfully in comics seemed to be that original license.  It’s provisions hadn’t really imagined nesting him deeply in the DC universe of characters: it provided that the royalty rate would be pro-rated for a team-up like a BRAVE & BOLD appearance or the eventual SUPERMAN VS. SHAZAM tabloid, but had a ‘floor’ on the royalty rate that made it impractical to have him as a member of a group like the Justice League, or appearing in some massive mash-up (my memory isn’t clear on whether we were already thinking of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS yet).

By now I was managing the business side of DC, so after discussions with Jenette Kahn and Dick Giordano, off I went to solve this.  The most practical solution was to simply buy out CBS’ interest in the property: they weren’t going to ever go back into the comics business (in fact, they’d sell off their magazine division not long after), and while it was nice to get a modest royalty check every year, it seemed a do-able deal.  I negotiated with an only slightly older accountant for their magazine division, David Pecker.  David would go on to an illustrious career in magazine publishing, ending up running American Media, the publishers of NATIONAL INQUIRER, where his exploits would come to a controversial end.  He would also be a generous donor to Pace University, especially to its publishing program, where I’d coincidentally serve as the “David Pecker Distinguished Visiting Professor” for a year in the 21st century.  We worked out a buyout, and not only of Captain Marvel but of all of the remaining Fawcett comics assets, including stacks of comics that would find their way to the DC library.

The renewed efforts to make Shazam an integral part of the comics’ universe met with mixed results over the following decades, but with one film having scored a box office over $365 million, a second in production, and BLACK ADAM opening next weekend to great anticipation, I guess that deal worked out.  I don’t have access to the information (or, frankly, the analytic skill) to figure out the return on investment, but I think it’d beat any reasonable financial test.

On My Affection For The Avengers

On My Affection For The Avengers 150 150 Paul Levitz

I came to Marvel relatively late: my comics reading began with the Weisinger-edited Superman titles in the early sixties, and moved from there to the broader DC line slowly.  I read a few Marvels along the way from friends’ stacks, but my mom limited me to three new issues a week in hope of preserving my eyes from the lousy print and tiny lettering, as well as focusing me on prose books.  That kept me squarely in DC’s grasp, with only a bit of dalliance with the few and short-lived THUNDER Agents.  It wasn’t until my father took a week’s vacation for my elementary school graduation (he was the PTA president, unusually enough for a man in those years in Brooklyn’s culture) that the turning point came.  That was June of 1968.   Dad was happy to indulge me more, I think the comics vaguely reminding him of the pulps of his youth.

Now that was a fascinating moment to be let loose.  The DC line was getting shaken up radically, largely by the influence of Carmine Infantino changing editorial and freelance assignments that had been frozen for much of the last decade.   Neal Adams and Jim Steranko were introducing new visual styles to the heroic titles.  And there was a real feeling of wonder, not simply because I was approaching 12 years old.  (I heard the “The golden age of [science fiction] is 12” quote as attributed to Sam Moskowitz, but no longer am certain it was his first.  Regardless of authorship, I think the principle of imprinting on popular culture around that age is very sound.)

Group books had long been my favorite: The Legion of Super-Heroes especially, but Justice League and Teen Titans as well.  In part it was the sheer quantity of characters, I think, and maybe the visual diversity?  (Notice that the THUNDER heroes all dressed differently too.). In any case, it was The Avengers #54 that caught my eye in a candy store/soda fountain store on Clarendon Road, a few blocks from home.  Fantastic Four never had, perhaps because they all wore the same uniforms (notice Challengers hadn’t made my DC fave list either), notwithstanding that my childhood friend Alan Leiblich had good enough taste to select a subscription to it as a birthday present.  But that issue of The Avengers had 8 different costumed characters on the cover!

There was no going backwards once I was unleashed.  Sorry, mom. 

The Avengers quickly became one of my favorites, not surprising as I came in on a peak period of Roy Thomas and John Buscema’s work, just as they introduced The Vision.  I went backwards too, collecting the earlier issues and discovering the unique dynamics of how heroes moved in and out of the line-up, utterly differently than any of the other group books of the period.  (I wouldn’t learn much about the Justice Society for a while, and anyway, although their heroes changed frequently, it wasn’t because of story-driven reasons, just the invisible editorial hand guessing at popularity.). My not very mint Avengers #1 cost $5 from a used bookstore off Church Avenue.

One of my first fanzine efforts with lifelong pal Paul Kupperberg was devoted to an index of The Avengers, focusing on the first 60 issues or so, clearly showing that my collecting had been effective and my passion unsated.  Thankfully, almost no one saw that Xerox copied un-masterpiece, or at least have been kind enough not to embarrass me with it since.

Anyway, I started writing comics a few years later, and not long after got the chance to try my hand at groups, starting with the revived JSA.  Being an analytic type, I went back and studied The Avengers, particularly how the line-up changed and plots moved through the series.  I charted it all out (and no, none of those charts survive), with particular focus on Roy’s long run, which seemed to me the model I wanted to emulate.  My tonal style was definitely heavily influenced by Stan, Roy and particularly Gerry Conway, whose assistant I was for a short stretch when he came to DC as an editor.

My affection for the series is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that it was my bound volume of Avengers #1-16 that I took along on my second trip to Stan’s home, promising to be a grown-up at dinner with Joan but imploring him to inscribe it for my inner child.  He, of course, graciously did, though thinking back I wonder if that’s why the rest of our meals together involved meeting at restaurants?  Hmmm…

In any case, despite having the first 30 years of Marvel neatly bound on my shelves (along with the far larger DC collection, naturally), I never worked there.  The opportunities at DC simply came my way more appropriately and delightfully, ultimately leading to the long partnership with Jenette Kahn, my tenure running the company, and a period of writing exclusively for them.  By the time I had the freedom to do anything for Marvel, I certainly wasn’t the hot writer I’d been in the ‘80s, and the characters and mythos had evolved beyond my knowledge.

So it was a particular pleasure when Mark Waid opened the door for me at a Marvel writers’ summit, reminding their powers-that-be of my love of The Avengers, and motivating Tom Brevoort to and give me the opportunity to do The Avengers:War Across Time.  It wasn’t originally planned for The Avengers’ 60th, but in so many ways is appropriate to kick that off, as stylistically it’s a love letter to those early issues.  (It gave me the reason to do a Douglas Wolk-style re-reading of the first few years of the whole Marvel line, in order of publication, to try to get the dialogue and details right.). The icing on the cake was the chance to work with Alan Davis, whose beautiful art and sense of whimsy I’ve loved since DR & Quinch.

I’m not sure if War Across Time will lead to anything further at Marvel, but at the least it feels like a beautiful bookend to the No-Prize I have sealed in Lucite, earned by a letter expressing my childhood joy in Jack Kirby’s Inhumans in AMAZING ADVENTURES (again, a bunch of characters with very diverse looks…I never thought about that before today).  And if I get a chance to follow it up, so much the better.  Time, as Kang might say, will tell.

Questions I haven’t gotten asked…

Questions I haven’t gotten asked… 150 150 Paul Levitz

I’ve probably done dozens of interviews and convention panels over the years, maybe a hundred?  Some questions come up over and over, and at this point trigger almost prerecorded answers.  Some, of course, deal with confidential information that I don’t feel can be spoken about.  Others that I think someone might be curious about never come up.  Here’s one I think is interesting to have on the record: 

What was it like designing the royalty system back in 1980, when no comics publisher had one?

There were some fascinating debates.  The relative contribution of writers and artists was one: page rates (the only form of compensation at the time) were heavily weighted towards the artists, but it was considered fair because the time spent drawing a page (unless you were Sergio Aragones) was so much greater than the time spent writing a page.  Only MAD Magazine had a structure that paid writers as much per page as artists, and the demands on writers were very different there (fewer pages per assignment, more pitches required to sell a story, and the taut scripting that line after line of humor required).

Amusingly, perhaps, we tended to argue against our own specialties.  There were four of us in the process: Jenette Kahn presiding (who had never freelanced in comics), Joe Orlando (predominantly a penciller in his comics work), Dick Giordano (far more active as an inker than a penciller), and me (a writer).  Perhaps it’s that we value skills we don’t possess over own, which we take more for granted?  In any case, in carving the pie, Joe was the strongest advocate for writers, Dick for pencillers over inkers, and me for artists on the basis of the time it took them to produce their work.  

The overall size of the pie was constrained by the budget lines I had figured out how to raid to finance the change in the short run (we all believed—and were proved gloriously correct over the next few years—that the improved work the royalties would stimulate would more than pay for the investment).  Did we want to spread it thinly over many titles, or make it an incentive for our best-selling titles?  The latter seemed wiser to us all.  While it would take a few years for projects to get into the system that reflected talent’s response to the incentives, it’s easy to draw a straight line from the institution of royalties to the kind of phenomenal effort inherent in BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, for example.

There are generally three ways participation schemes can be calculated in media: based on the nominal retail price (the standard in book publishing in those years), based on dollars actually received (analogous to the ‘gross’ deals in film), or based on the net profits of the project (a version of which had been the very positively viewed approach used in underground comix, which talent then viewed as ideal simply because it was the only scheme where comics creatives had an upside in success, and some folks had made significant money over time).  Basing on retail had several virtues: the parallel to book publishing (perceived as a far more decent field than comics), a fairly transparent calculation that should stand up on any audits, and relatively easy to attach to our then-simple accounting systems.  It also, to my mind, had the great advantage that it was less manipulable than the other two types of calculation.  This doesn’t mean that gross or net deals aren’t honest—in recent decades both of these structures have become commonplace in comics, and in most cases seem to be used in ways that are equitable and with an honest spirit.  But they’re intrinsically more opaque, and when controlled by those of less decent intent, harder to deal with.

The last of the factors was playing with the math and finding a definition of the pool that might accomplish all this.  The total royalty pool percentage ended up at 5%, a number picked for its use in the children’s book business at the time (and remember that comics were definitely still considered children’s reading at the time), and the threshold set at 100,000 copies.  That was both a number that was achievable by our best sellers (though few titles hit it), and if you calculated the amount typically paid out in page rates times the low cover prices times that mark, the page rate ‘earned out’ as if it were an advance.

Ideally, from a competitive standpoint this would also be a much more expensive plan for Marvel to implement, given how many more copies their books were typically selling in 1980.  We had hoped it might give us a lead in hunting talent for some time as a result, but to the credit of Jim Shooter and Mike Hobson’s efforts, Marvel was convinced of the absolute necessity of following along and implemented an almost identical plan within a month or so.

So much of this changed over the ensuing years as the comic shop market replaced the newsstand as the principal point of sales for comics, as the number of competing publishers exploded, and the variety of deals for comics talent expanded offering many opportunities (some good, some illusory).  But the basic principle that aligning the financial success of the company with financial success for the talent proved right and enduring, and I’m proud of the work we did at the time, and the spirit in which we approached it.

On Lucien’s Origin

On Lucien’s Origin 150 150 Paul Levitz

Tex Blaisdell was a long time comics pro, both skilled and well liked, but by the early 1970s, not in top form.  He’d done work on many newspaper comic strips, most recently a stint on Little Orphan Annie after its creator, Harold Gray’s death.  For some of that time he’d collaborated with Joe Orlando on Annie, and they’d grown friendly.  When his time on Annie ended, he shifted to mostly inking for DC, spending considerable time working in the office’s open bullpen area.  But that was a tough way to make a living, compared to the more lucrative newspaper strip field.

DC was going through a phase where the ‘mystery’ titles (scary stories far softer than the classic E.C. material) were the most successful,  and in a generally difficult market for comics on newsstands, were launching more titles in that genre and rebranding others to try to get the benefit of that magic (WEIRD WESTERN, WEIRD WAR, WEIRD WORLDS, WEIRD MYSTERY and even for a moment, WEIRD ADVENTURE COMICS).  Editor Murray Boltinoff’s titles were often the best-sellers, but in his 60s, he wasn’t anxious to take on additional assignments, so Joe ended up carrying a larger load.  To help Tex out, Joe and publisher Carmine Infantino decided to give him a shot at editing a couple, with the assumption that Joe would keep an eye on his work (and that as Joe’s assistant, I’d take care of the administrative side).  WEIRD MYSTERY would shift to Tex, and he’d launch a new anthology, TALES OF GHOST CASTLE.

Proximity giving me the advantage, I got the assignment to write the first issue of GHOST CASTLE, from intros through the three stories…everything but a Sergio Aragones page.  Scheduling on the art side would ultimately make that not quite work out, and one of my stories would run elsewhere with a David Michelinie/Marty Pasko tale filling the third slot.  For the host, I came up with the conceit of a librarian in the ghost castle, Joe sketched him out as a tall, gangly fellow, modelled after Tex hunched over his drawing board, and we tagged him Lucien. 

In the waxing and waning that DC often experienced in the ‘70s, GHOST CASTLE was gone after three issues, and Tex’s editorial career ended within a year.  Lucien vanished from the minds of all but the most trivial-minded for over a decade.  The mystery tide went out as well, as the newsstand channel of distribution faded in the ‘80s, and by the end of that decade most of those titles at DC or any other comics publisher were gone.

When Neil Gaiman began SANDMAN, he wanted to connect it to the larger DC universe of characters.  He didn’t have a reputation yet, the Vertigo brand hadn’t been born, and, well, new titles needed all the help they could get.  On the other hand, the company wasn’t willing to put its star characters on just any title spreading them thin.  DC had done that in the ‘60s (Batman guest-starring in JERRY LEWIS, for example), and it hadn’t been an effective long term strategy.  So Neil scooped up the hosts from the defunct mystery line, snuck in a hard-to-recognize JUSTICE LEAGUE villain, and of course connected the tale to the previous SANDMAN series going back to the dawn of DC.   Cain, Abel and Goldie showed up much as they had been, but Lucien got a significant promotion: from the librarian of a ghost castle to the librarian of the entire realm of the Dreaming.  I was delighted to see the old guy get a new lease on life.

And delighted again, now three decades later, to see him…er, now her…come to life with Vivienne Acheampong’s masterful performance as Morpheus’ most loyal servant.  And in a lavishly beautiful production whose budget for a single hour of programming probably exceeds the total that had been spent on DC’s one movie, two live action tv series and multiple live action serials that had been filmed by the time I wrote those brief words introducing the character.  What a strange journey it’s been…

A Thought About Sandman

A Thought About Sandman 150 150 Paul Levitz

I don’t think anyone likely to be reading this website isn’t going to check out the new SANDMAN series when it drops on Netflix this Friday, and based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think anyone will be disappointed.  I’ve known and enjoyed working with all three of the key creative folks: Neil through all the years of SANDMAN and his other DC work, David Goyer both from his comics and our conversations during BATMAN BEGINS and other adaptations, and Allan Heinberg from his time on the LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES cartoon series.  And I’ve admired much of what they’ve done in all the media they work in.

Maybe a decade or so ago, I convinced Neil to do an evening for Columbia University, where I was ingratiating myself into teaching.  He was, as he always is, both generous and gracious about it, and did a splendid performance to the crowd at New York’s Symphony Space, including both a reading, discussion and q&a.  I don’t recall what prompted the moment, but I was up there with him, and perhaps we were talking about my then-recent book, 75 YEARS OF DC COMICS: THE ART OF MODERN MYTHMAKING.  I mentioned that I really don’t think the super heroes are truly mythology, notwithstanding the title that Taschen had attached to the book.  Mythology exists to explain the forces beyond our understanding, often the forces that terrified us (weather, seasons and other natural forces particularly for the pre-scientific societies, for example).  The super heroes are more like modern folk tales, a theory I’ve come to embrace even more as continuity has been discarded in favor of multiple versions, much like the way folk tales grow and shift in the telling, especially from one country to another.

SANDMAN, on the other hand, is built on a true, modern mythology.  Think about the Endless.  They represent forces that continue to mystify and terrify us, especially people in the core ages that fell in love with the series.  What twenty-something hasn’t wondered about their Destiny, been tortured by Desire for a new love, had a moment of Despair fearing for the Destruction of civilization, or tasted a bit of Delirium as they experimented in an age-appropriate way?  How can you not Dream of your future and all its possibilities, pleasant and terrifying at that age?  And it’s also the time of life when you’re likely to be confronted by Death taking a loved one or even a friend, even if you’ve avoided understanding mortality to that time.

Neil’s response, in his magical British tones, was simply, “I was just thinking of words that began with D.”

Pardon me, if I Disagree.

A confession about the Stranger

A confession about the Stranger 150 150 Paul Levitz

For the ancient history buffs, the Phantom Stranger launched as a title of his own in 1952, at a time when it was pretty rare for DC to debut a character in their own pages.  The original thought was to do a riff on Mark Twain’s the Mysterious Stranger, and if you look closely at that first issue you can see the lettering was originally done for the longer word and then corrected.  It was part of a mystery moment for DC: Sensation Comics had become Sensation MysteryStar Spangled Comics demoted Robin from the cover feature in favor of Doctor 13, The Ghost Breaker, and House of Mystery (named after a popular radio program) had debuted.

I’ve seen those first stories (there were three in the issue, plus a very short anthology type tale) credited to Manley Wade Wellman, a prolific pulp writer who did a bit of comics work, and John Broome, one of editor Julie Schwartz’s favorites.  In any case, the art was provided by Carmine Infantino, maturing into his modern style as one of the industry’s leading talents, with inks by Sy Barry.   It set up the premise of a Stranger who would enter people’s stories, have an effect on the resolution, and then vanish.  And his comic followed that pattern, vanishing after 6 issues, barely enough time for sales reports on the first couple of issues.  While it had its charms, it was pretty tepid stuff compared to the E.C. horror titles of the period, and newsstands were very crowded.

The Stranger came back in 1968 in an issue of Showcase cobbled together with a new framework by Mike Friedrich and Bill Draut surrounding reprints of the Stranger and Dr. 13.  Without waiting for sales, he was launched into his own series three months later, keeping the same format.  The early issues bounced between the reprint format and some original tales, with editor Joe Orlando using some young writers like Friedrich, Gerry Conway and Len Wein, and stalwart Bob Kanigher, then making the transition from editor to staff writer after health challenges.  The art side varied even more, with longtime DC contributor Mike Sekowsky taking a turn, and the about to be star Neal Adams dropping in.  But by issue #14 magic happened.

Len Wein got the scripting assignment (his first ongoing series) at around the moment his first legendary Swamp Thing story appeared, and was teamed with Jim Aparo, just hitting his stride a few issues into settling into it as a regular gig.  The team collaborated for a baker’s dozen of tales (a two year run in those days of mostly bi-monthly comics), and made the title one of the most interesting DC was publishing at the time.  I loved it.

Unfortunately, I didn’t love the work of the next writer on the series, as longtime professional Arnold Drake stepped in, with the art now assigned to Gerry Talaoc, of the Redondo Studio in the Philippines (with interesting interruptions by Bill Draut and Mike Grell).  Arnold had written some wonderful comics in his life (most notably the Doom Patrol, on which he was the primary creator, but also on a wide range of stories from humor comics to horror, and the proto-graphic novel, It Rhymes With Dust.   Joe gave a couple of issues to new writer David Michelinie, but he wasn’t able to continue on the series (ppssibly because of picking up assignments on Swamp Thing and the Unknown Soldier, but I can’t recreate the timeline that neatly in my head).  Arnold was continuing, and I was agitating (as Joe’s assistant editor my agitating was from a front row seat).

Then I did something I now consider wrong.  I agitated enough to take over the assignment myself.  I still think my criticisms of Arnold’s work on the series were fair ones, but taking advantage of my proximity to replace him wasn’t fair.  I wasn’t the only assistant editor of the period at DC (or Marvel) who acted that way, with varying degrees of justification or self-aggrandizement.  Arnold was justifiably unhappy about it, and we had a long period of a difficult relationship as a result, though I’m enormously glad he ultimately forgave my youthful folly (I was 17) and we became friends before he passed.

Still, Phantom Stranger became my first regular assignment.  I got to do five issues, one as a rewrite of Arnold’s last script, then four of my own before the series was cancelled.  I think I went in the right direction (bringing back Len’s wonderful character Cassandra Craft, and pulling Deadman into the series when he was without a home), but I’ll leave it to others to decide if I actually did any better than Arnold did.

I would get to return to the Stranger a few times over the years: filling in on his series when it was a back-up in Saga of the Swamp Thing in the early ‘80s, using him in a Superman team-up in DC Comics Presents, and getting to be one of the several writers speculating on his origin in a lovely issue of Secret Origins.  My version was magnificently brough to life by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, but it was hard to compete with a contribution from Alan Moore and Joe Orlando.  And now, almost five decades after I first touched the cloaked conjuror, I got to do a short story of him for DC’s Halloween anthology for this year.  It’s particularly neat because it’ll come out almost simultaneously with a Phantom Stranger Omnibus that will include all the stories I’ve discussed, allowing you to make your own judgements.

One last note on inspiration.  I particularly turned to John Brunner’s Traveler In Black for my vision of the Stranger.  Brunner’s character was a being of a singular nature, who walked a primordial and magical world, slowly helping it turn from chaos and magic to order by granting wishes of its inhabitants, though rarely in the way they expected.  It’s a lovely little book, and well worth hunting down.