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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.

Learning

Learning 150 150 Paul Levitz

One thing that worries me about the increasing trend of virtual offices is the learning process.  In some fields, very specifically comics but I’m sure others as well, much of the learning is informal and osmotic.  There’s some formal or structured training, to be sure, but equally important (more important?) is what you learn by observation.

When I came onto the DC staff in the early 1970s, the company had a very small (30-35 people?) but exceptionally talented staff augmented by another handful of freelance editorial people who came into the office on their own schedules, some daily, some weekly, some rarely.

The size of the place was such that everyone was in contact with everyone else, formally or informally, and it was natural to observe others at work.  The full-time salaried editorial team was tiny: Julie Schwartz, Murray Boltinoff, Joe Orlando, one reprint/support editor, Nelson Bridwell, and one editorial assistant, Allan Asherman.  Coming in and out idiosyncratically were Joe Kubert, Denny O’Neil, Archie Goodwin and Joe Simon.  [If you’re counting, that’s six Hall of Famers—seven if count Carmine Infantino down the hall as President—which is why I sometimes have described this period of my life as the equivalent of being batboy for the Yankee’s Murderers’ Row.]

I worked directly for Joe, and later for Gerry Conway as well when he became one of the freelance editors, and learned enormous amounts of my craft from them.  Some of it in the brief instructional ‘lectures,’ some by doing tasks like rewrite or copy editing which they would review, and much by simply observing their interactions with writers and artists.  Broadly I’d characterize what I got from Joe as principally under the heading of tools to get the best work from writers and artists.  From Gerry I got deeper tools for my own writing and reviewing the writing of others.   [And not discounting that both of them played major roles in simply protecting my young self from own errors and teenage arrogance.]

But I also learned from the other people on the hallway.  Julie Schwartz’s organizational tools and disciplines made the editorial process smooth, ensuring regular work for valued contributors and punctual production of isssues barring accommodation to the rarest of talents or situations.   It wasn’t the specific tools [the equivalents of spreadsheets in modern terms] that I adopted as much as the attitudes and priorities.  

And I learned what not to do, as well.  Murray Boltinoff was an accomplished editor [his titles in any genre tended to sell better than other DC editors’ similar ones], and a decent man weighed down in those years by family challenges and his own frustrations with his career.  But watching him deal with writers and artists was both a time tunnel into DC’s past when editorial emotional abuse of talent was commonplace, and an object lesson in behaviors I never wanted to model.

There were other observational lessons: watching how some editors treated their assistants less generously than Joe and Gerry had been with me [and there’s no possibility that I would have had my long career at DC if they hadn’t gone above and beyond customary practice to carry me through a valley during those years, for which I’ll always be grateful]; watching how different editors interacted with production or the freelance craftspeople doing lettering and coloring; and learning about the processes of comics from the extraordinarily experienced and skilled Sol Harrison and Jack Adler.  Other small assignments from Carmine, Sol or VP-Business Manager Bernie Kashdan taught me things about copyright, scheduling, and dealing with Controller Arthur Gutowitz on inventory gave me insight into…well…the tricks editors used to game the system.  Denny began years of writing advice.  And freelancers coming in and out of the office taught lessons as well; Len Wein hovering over me proofing SWAMP THING together, for example.  I’m not confident that I’d have had the chance to learn any of those things in a virtual structure; much less watch artists working in the bullpen finishing up or correcting assignments, or gabbing with writers of my generation or predecessors back to legends like Alfie Bester.

Every moment has its own opportunities and challenges, and I’m sure the virtues of the emerging virtual systems will create their own.  But I feel very lucky in how I got to learn, and I hope it works out as well for this generation’s beginners.

Remembering An Old Friend

Remembering An Old Friend 150 150 Paul Levitz

It’s July 4th weekend, a time when many fans of my generation remember the amazing time we had at the New York Comicons of the 1970s.  Everyone’s memories of great events is biased by the point they occurred in the individual’s life, so it’s pretty much useless to argue about when the “best” Comicons were.  But objectively, the conventions of those years had a few things going for them: our gatherings had grown large enough to have budgets that permitted flying in legendary guests (and so many of the legends were still with us), but were still small enough that the guests were totally approachable; original art was being returned to artists and so was available for sale (but inexpensive enough that you probably could have had every piece in the hall for the auction price of Frank and Lynn’s iconic DARK KNIGHT RETURNS cover); likewise the wealth of early issues being offered (unslabbed) by a roomful of dealers (okay, I didn’t think the $150 it would have taken to get a copy of ACTION #1 was wise—who says I’m a good businessman?); and publishers were beginning to support the shows without trying to turn them into ‘activations’ the size of a Vegas trade convention.

But most of all, I remember Phil Seuling on the 4th.  He was as loud and explosive as a fireworks, inviting the world to his party and furious when anything threatened to make it less than memorable.  His vision of a comic convention lives on, now almost four decades after his premature passing: even within the largest shows events mimic what he dreamed up or polished. 

I knew Phil from when I was 11 or 12, and my Dad rented him space for a used bookstore venture he briefly tried in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.  One of my fondest childhood memories is of a summer day when I walked across the borough with friends, 10 miles of hitting used bookstores and places that randomly racked new paperbacks, ending at Phil’s.  Later on, I worked on the convention program books, helped him mail out ‘progress reports’ (think of an analog equivalent to Kickstarter communications with backers but being hand-coallated in a 90 degree living room with my Mom unwilling to open windows on a summer day), helped at his dealer’s tables at my first San Diego Con, got to know Bill and Annie Gaines racing through the woods of Canada with Phil driving like a maniac (a very skilled maniac, but still), worked briefly for him at the dawn of the direct sales system and had a challenging couple of years dealing with him as I took responsibility for the business side of DC in the years when his distribution company was facing increasing competition.  Oh, and I wrote his eulogy for DC’s Meanwhile page, probably the first time a fan was so ‘honored.’

Phil was full of enthusiasm and energy, bouncing through life, a big kid who was content not to completely grow up.  He loved comics, he loved creativity, and he loved the next idea, sometimes before he’d been able to make the last one work.  He quietly supported projects by others, buying up improbable and likely unsalable quantities of early zines (or a garage full of the AMAZING WORLD OF METROPOLIS tabloid).  He experimented, putting together everything from classic reprints to coloring books.  And when he focused on something, he almost always made it better.

If you saw him with Jonni Levas, in their good years, you might hear a booming voice singing of their love.   If you saw him with Gwen and Heather, you saw a father who was always ready to be a playmate.   And while I was too young to get any kind of read on his marriage to Carole before it ended, just seeing the pics that circulate of them in costume before the word cosplay was invented tells me they had their good times too.

I made so many friends at those early shows, and had so many moments that I cherish.  But when I think of the 4th, the first person I think of is the guy who threw the best parties of my life.  And if you have a great time at a comicon this summer, stop for a second and think of him too.  He’d like that.

Readings & Writings

Readings & Writings 150 150 Paul Levitz

Here’s an author and body of work that isn’t usually high on the list for comics folks, but that I recommended several times to writers taking on Superman.  Zenna Henderson wrote a stack of stories of The People from 1952 into the 1970s, chronicling aliens from a destroyed world who have come to live on Earth among us.  Her aliens were very human, but with a number of alien abilities we’d certainly class as super-powers.  One of the stories made it to a Hugo nomination, but sadly the material mostly went out of print until rescued by NESFA for a complete volume entitled “Ingathering” in 1995.

One of the intrinsic challenges in writing any long running character like Superman is finding something new to say.  In the comics of my youth in the 1960s, it was fine to go back and retell tales every few years presuming the audience of young children had turned over, and the original comics had been shredded or were at very least, unavailable.  By the following decade, when I entered the field, reprint collections became frequent, and now, of course, if a story is even vaguely reasonable it’s likely to be perpetually available online or in a book format.  So it becomes more and more important to find a new take, rather than simply rehashing the endless ballet of hero and villain.

This doesn’t always work.

Leaving aside my admiration or lack of it for some of the ‘innovations’ and ‘improvements’ offered in recent years, I’ll cheerfully point to one of my own failures.  In the 1970s,  Jenette Kahn asked me to take on the assignment of WONDER WOMAN because she’d enjoyed how I handled female characters in my Huntress and Power Girl stories.  At the time, Wonder Woman hadn’t included a modern run of stories to model on—this is about a decade before George Perez’s fabulous cycle.  The classic versions of the character were either aimed too young or had aged badly, and recent runs hadn’t caught fire with audiences.

Thinking about her history, I focused on the idea that this was the only one of the great comics characters who had literally given up immortality for a human existence.  That should be fascinating to explore.  It should, right?

Except you can’t find a homeopathic drop of that idea in the handful of issues I wrote before running in shame.  And don’t blame my collaborators, artist Jose Delbo or editor Ross Andru, either.  I blew it.

Anyway, there a humanity in Henderson’s stories that we often didn’t explore in Superman’s adventures.  Her aliens are scattered on arrival, so they have different challenges, from hiding among us, to intermarriage.  And I thought it might fuel a Superman writer to consider different ways to think of the Kryptonian’s experience on Earth.  My own only runs on Superman were the newspaper strip for a couple of years, and a bunch of DC COMICS PRESENTS tales for Julie, neither particularly easy forms for doing stories that might benefit from this inspiration.  But I harbor a hope that some future Superman writer will pick up Ingathering and it will lead them, somewhere….

Ages

Ages 150 150 Paul Levitz

So the scheme of sorting comics history into Ages was mostly influenced by those of us who were disproportionately fans of the super hero material.  That classification scheme gave us Gold, Silver, Bronze…and even according to some (including my big Taschen book), Dark eras.  The boundaries have always been a bit fuzzy though.  A few random thoughts on the subject:

First off, our biases show too powerfully in the whole analysis.  While the super heroes were the dominant genre of American comic books in the years when this taxonomy was developed (the 1960s and 1970s as comic fandom began to be an organized phenomenon), for most of the time of comics in America that hasn’t been the case, including now.  Younger kids’ comics have ruled for most of the years that we might focus on separate physical print comics (whether as comic books or graphic novels), with Dell as the largest publisher up until around the time of the Dell/Gold Key “divorce” in 1962, and Scholastic has claimed the title in much of the 21st Century.  Did the decline of Dell create the opportunity for the long era of the super hero dominating the field?  It’s an argument that I can’t recall seeing before, but it’s not impossible to consider.

Second, there’s no singular way to draw a line of demarcation even if we accept the Gold/Silver/etc logic.  Take the end of the Silver Age:

            On one content-based analysis, the demarcation between Silver and Bronze is often argued as either drawn at the publication of GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW #76 (April 1970), CONAN #1 (October 1970) or SUPERMAN #233 (November 1970).  A close enough cluster, but which is the trigger?

            An alternative content-based analysis looks at the moment when the long-static creative assignments.  On the DC side, you can make a case that Infantino leaving THE FLASH at the end of 1967 is the key moment.  As he took on more responsibilities as Editorial Director, he instigated changes that would unsettle every long-running artist on a series, and preside over the hiring or onboarding of several new editors as well as the replacement of a group of contributors who were being pushed out over their requests for benefits.  The singular moment at Marvel isn’t until three years later, when Kirby departs, but the transitions at DC serve to see more new names popping up at Marvel in that period.

            If we consider technology as a factor (which is always worth thinking about), the shift in the late 1960s from artwork being created “twice-up” to 10”x15” deserves examination.  It fundamentally affected the styles of many major artists, some for the better, some sadly for the worse.  Neal Adams made the argument that for the first time the artist at their board could focus on the whole page, and his work certainly demonstrates the evolution that took place as a result.

            And if we look at the issues of distribution and business, certainly Marvel moving away from being a distribution client of DC’s affiliate in the summer of 1969, and the consequent expansion of their line after a decade of constraint is an interesting demarcation point.

Alternatively, though, a lens I use in discussing the evolution of comics in America is to consider what marketing people refer to as the product life cycle.  It looks at the key marketing characteristics of a product, and suggests certain behaviors that are common to different stages of its evolution.  Product life cycles can overlap, as products that have great similarity can still be differentiated. 

Looked at that way, we might parse the modern history of American comics:

            The life cycle of the newspaper comic strip, beginning at the turn of the 20th Century and fading into near irrelevance towards the end of the century.  As a product, it’s ubiquitously available, what marketers define as a convenience good, focused on an entire family audience, produced with the cheapest possible technology, and priced invisibly as part of another purchase (the paper itself).

            The life cycle of the newsstand comic book, beginning in the 1930s and fading out in the 1980s (by my estimate if the transition to comic shops hadn’t occurred, the traditional comic book would have vanished by around 1985).  Again ubiquitously available, a convenience good, focused on children from the beginning of reading (5?) to puberty (12?), produced with cheap technology, and priced cheaply.

            The life cycle of the direct market comic book, beginning in the 1980s and still going, probably in the market maturity stage.  Now a purchase that requires going out of the consumer’s way which means it is what’s defined as shopping good or even a specialty good, focused on people from 16 to 35 (originally primarily men but broadening out), produced with relatively high technology, and priced more expensively.

            The life cycle of the graphic novel, beginning in the 1980s and still in what marketers might consider either the market introduction and development stage or market growth stages.  We can argue that it is again ubiquitously available via the internet, yet a shopping good (consumers select based on a number of factors), with an audience that’s evolving as we speak, produced with relatively high technology, and priced at a wide range of price points.

And webcomics, well, maybe it’s too soon to tell what they’ll be here in America, but they’ll certainly have a life cycle of importance of their own.

Just something to think about…

Teaching & Learning

Teaching & Learning 150 150 Paul Levitz

I’ve been teaching on an undergrad and graduate level at a number of colleges for the last dozen years or so, usually 3-4 classes per term.  I don’t teach required courses, or relatively conventional classes because I’m not the best person for them; traditional pedagogy isn’t something I ever studied, and my goal is to bring my unusual life experience to the students. 

This upcoming term I’ll only be at Pace University, but with a nice diverse workload: undergrad creative writing program Writing Comics & Graphic Novels, graduate M.S. in Publishing program the practice of Comics & Graphic Novels, and my first-ever course in their business school, New Ventures In Arts & Entertainment Management. 

I’ve always used guest speakers in my classes, and had some wonderful ones (Chris Claremont, Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, Laura Lee Gullidge and Miss Lasko-Gross were among the ones we’ve had at Columbia; Vivek Tiwary and Fabian Nicieza are reoccurring ones at Pace).  But what I learned from the plague years of teaching via Zoom, besides that I really prefer being in a physical classroom, is the ease of bringing in speakers from distant places when the school offers the right technology.  And Pace usually does.

So last year for Alternative Literature & Media at Pace  I was able to bring in a great range of folks: Cheryl & Wade Hudson, who founded Just Us Books (an early children’s book line featuring people of color), Lee Marrs (co-founder of WIMMEN’S COMIX, one of the few underground comix cartoonists to also contribute to DC, a computer animation pioneer), Isabel Yap (fan fictioneer turned sf writer(, and topping it off, Alison Bechdel (if I have to tell you who she is, not sure why you’re on this website).  Needless to say, I learned things from each of them that I didn’t know.  I was even able to get one of my former Columbia students who had done a wonderful paper on Fun Home to join in.

Speaking of learning, I seem to learn three categories of knowledge while I teach: first, ideas that I focus on as I try to codify what I already know to share with students; second, new slang (well, relatively new—I’m an old guy, after all) from my writing students; and third, the occasionally obvious thing that I overlooked or never considered.  An example of the third was this past term, in a discussion of the external and internal media forms and how comics treads that line in an interesting way, the point was raised that song in musical theatre is often used as an internal form to reveal emotion and thought.  Obvious, right?  I just never focused on that, despite having enjoyed musical theatre since Fiddler as an adolescent. 

Learning from students and the process, getting to share my experiences and others, and enjoying the vitality and energy of the young…overall, a very rewarding experience.  And I’ll admit to a certain satisfaction from being a college dropout, whose odd life has enabled him to have entre to this profession.  My colleagues used to occasionally point out that I was pedantic, and now I’m making constructive use of it.