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Denny O’Neil

Denny O’Neil 150 150 Paul Levitz

Denny’s gone, brought social conscience to comics. He was a journalist at heart, and knew his obit would have Batman in the lede, but I think he’d have been prouder of this way of looking at his life. Not that he was the first, much less the only one, but damn it he was the loudest. Not personally, he wasn’t a shouter. But the stories he told and edited screamed for justice for the causes that mattered to him. From GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW to SEDUCTION OF THE GUN, and in subtle moments as well as the loud ones, he set the standard for giving a damn.

He was a teacher, maybe the best of his generation teaching writing and editing in comics. He taught me copy editing, and how to parse my dialogue for comics to be effective. His disciples filled the field. He was the most economical of writers, communicating with his collaborators in the briefest of art directions but getting great work from them, offering tight dialogue that was precisely on point.

He was a philosopher, searching for ways to make the world better…even exploring how a new religion might be necessary for a time when it was no longer about man mastering the Earth, but learning to live in harmony with it. And having buried the lede, he made Batman what he is, writing the stories and editing others that set the tone for the post-camp Dark Knight on through everything that Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan leaned on.

Denny got a second lease on life from his marriage to MariFran, and they shared amazing years until her passing. Once she was gone, it was only a matter of time until he followed.

This is the second of my poker buddies to cash in their chips in about a month. He lived a full life, was shocked at the recognition he achieved, and leaves behind his son Larry, with whom he shared many personal and professional joys.

But most of all, and ever so relevant at a moment like this, he taught us that we could…no, we should…damn it, we must use our podiums as writers, editors and teachers to push the world to become a better, more just place.

-30-

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Artifacts

Artifacts 150 150 Paul Levitz

When I was a neophyte assistant editor and aspiring writer, there weren’t a wealth of books on writing comics. There were a couple of decades-old pamphlets by the already prodigiously energetic Stan Lee and Bob Kanigher, some of the advice in which was probably as valid as the day they typed it on a noisy old manual typewriter. And there weren’t book editions of comics that incorporated the original scripts (I tend to use SANDMAN: DREAM COUNTRY in my writing courses because it has Neil’s script for “Calliope” along with the several short stories in the volume), or other easily accessed resources to learn from.

General practice was to toss scripts for finished stories in the trash at the office; they were industrial by-product, not even ultimate work product. Some writers kept carbons, a few made photocopies when they delivered the scripts (no Kinkos or local copy joints all over the place in those days, much less a home printer/copier/fax/scanner/dogwalker). But for the most part, while original cmic art was treated very casually (I apologize to all the artists whose work I proofread in blue non-reproducing marker before I learned better), comic book scripts were treated even worse.

Notwithstanding this, I saved a bunch of scripts from the trash for my own eduction. I’d pick out one each from the writers whose work I respected, or maybe a particularly interesting tale to study. I was limited to the scripts that passed through Joe Orlando’s editorial office–as his assistant I could take what I wanted of those, but it would have been de trop to raid Julie Schwartz’s garbage down the hall (assuming he hadn’t poured his yankee bean soup remains from lunch all over it, anyway). I learned what I could from them, then filed them away somewhere at home.

One that I was very glad I saved was a script that was one of the very last that Bill Finger delivered, I think for WEIRD WAR TALES. I don’t recall any specific lessons I learned from it, but about 30 years later I had the privilege of passing it on. Before several of the films based on DC characters I made a habit of having a dinner on the premiere night with some of the comics folks who had contributed to the underlying mythos. The evening of THE DARK KNIGHT premiere, I had the pleasure of reuniting three of Batman’s ancestral families: introducing Elizabeth Kane (Bob’s widow) to Jerry Robinson both to Athena Finger (Bill’s granddaughter). Before the dinner (maybe it was at lunch?) I presented Bill’s script to Athena, discovering that it was the only artifact of her grandfather she would possess.

There are days when being a pack rat feels really good.

[The other scripts I saved went to Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, along with copies of all of my own scripts. In normal times, they’re available to anyone who wants to look at them, though advance notice is a good idea as they’re probably off in some warehouse facility.]

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A Moment In The DC Library

A Moment In The DC Library 960 300 Paul Levitz

For a long stretch the responsibility for the DC Library went to a woman named Gerda Gattel. Gerda was a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust years in Germany, and worked at Timely (the Marvel predecessor) in the 1950s, possibly as a letterer, but was caught up in one of their periodic shutdown/layoffs. She came over to DC, and served as the secretary to Irwin Donenfeld, the editorial director and then moved into production as the proofreader.

Gerda was strict and organized. In both her work with Irwin and her time in production she prepared the production schedules for the company. Back in the pre-computer era, not the equivalent of a modern work flow chart, but simply a straight forward layout of what was coming out and calculated back from on sale dates, due to production dates for the different components. As part of that responsibility she prepared annual schedules in the early 1970s, which changed a bit during the year but very little by our current standards. On those she’d get to indicate which titles would have ‘giant’ issues, with guidance from the company leadership of course. When she retired at the end of 1973, I somehow inherited the responsibility for the annual schedule (yes, I was a whopping 17 years old, and I got to help decide where those 50¢ Giants would pop up on the schedule…don’t ask me why I was chosen).

Gerda’s strictness included her attitude towards the editors, particularly any of the then-newer ones who weren’t as organized as she like. Joe Orlando vividly recalled being called to come in from vacation to turn an issue into production when it was due, commuting into the city to take it from its (unlocked) cabinet and walk it down the hall to its labeled drawer in production…where it sat untouched until several weeks after his vacation was over. (Comics were produced more leisurely in those years.)

But she lovingly tended the Library…chasing fans who visited or turned pro out if she thought they were a danger to its organization, ensuring that new bound volumes were collected each year, and giving staffers the opportunity to add their personal collections to the binding process (at their own cost, naturally) which started me on the path to binding my entire collection.

When Gerda retired, I got to help tend the Library, and one day in my exploration of its depths, I found a small stack of her papers. The most interesting was an issue of AQUAMAN, with a note tacked to it in her letterer-precise handwriting, saying “My greatest mistake.” The issue was folded open, and careful examination showed a caption, with a circle around a single word. The caption described the Atlanteans as “a gentile people.”

I could feel her blush.

A Stan Lee Story

A Stan Lee Story 150 150 Paul Levitz

My favorite meal with Stan was at Hamburger Hamlet in LA, probably in the early 2000s…his public ‘avatar’ wasn’t on that evening, not even to charm the waitstaff, for whatever reason. He said that Marvel was looking to have him do more editorial work again, and then said “What does an editor do these days?”

“Well, Stan, to all intents, I haven’t been an editor almost as long as you haven’t,” I replied, “But I think the heart of the job is still the same–to get the best work out of the creative people.”

I talked about the different ways different people used to accomplish that goal, and we warmly remembered Archie Goodwin–the best editor I never could manage to learn from, because so much of his technique seemed to be in his personal style of relating to people.

“But Paul, I wasn’t much of an editor. I wrote almost all the stuff myself,” Stan said.

“I worked with all your artists, Stan, and no one ever got as great work out of them as you did. Never mind Jack and Steve, you got the best work of their lives out of Don Heck and Dick Ayers. Good guys, incredibly professional, but you got so much more out of them than I did.”

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He smiled, and the ‘avatar’ started to come on. The Stan Lee we know from the stage said, “Every time I sent Dick a script–he was doing some western, I don’t remember what it was–he’d call and say “What do you want me to do with this one, Chief?'”

“And I’d say, it’s a western, Dick, I want to see the spurs shining and hoofs flashing…” and Stan never got to finish, because I was laughing out loud.

“That’s how you did it, Stan, that’s how you were a great editor. Dick and I got along great, but our conversations were his ticking off pages per day in his little date book, figuring out when he’d be in for the next job. He counted on me to keep him busy, and I did, but you got him excited.”

Stan has a complex legacy, with his own massive creativity clouded by unresolvable debates over the relative value of collaborators’ contributions, actions he might have taken in a more perfect path to help them achieve more economic rewards, and his statements about their collaborative process. But as someone who knew and worked with pretty much all of them, I believe Stan was the irreplaceable catalyst, without whom the magic that was that first decade of Marvel Comics would never have happened, and perhaps neither would have the changes that spread through the comics field from there.

Empty chairs

Empty chairs 150 150 Paul Levitz

With the recent run of deaths of comic creators from the generation who worked from the ’50s onward, it occurs to me that depth of emotional reactions from those of us who came into comics may use some explanation. Like so many out there, we had grown up on the work of folks like Steve Ditko and Russ Heath, who were consistent presences in our comics spinner racks every week or two. But not to diminish the grief of those of you who only knew these folks through their work (and getting to know Steve, for example, was a hell of a challenge), but these were members of a VERY small community that my generation was admitted to in the late ’60s and early ’70s. My best estimate is that there was only enough work going around in 1972 when I started for about 200 full time jobs or solid freelance existences in American comics, and although there were always a number of folks who weren’t full timers, most comics were done by people for whom this was the primary source of income. Most of the folks (90% perhaps) were in the NY metro area in the days before FedEx (much less digital), and besides working together, shared studio spaces, apartments, poker games, volleyball and softball in Central Park, dinners and movie nights.
Think about how small a community of 200 is…maybe a graduating class in suburban high school? While not everyone hung out together (Marie Severin never sketched me, to my great regret, Russ and I had sort of a nodding acquaintance since he was one of the few who had departed New York by then, and I didn’t do a eulogy posting for Gary Friedrich because we didn’t even meet until years after he left comics), but everyone knew everyone, and had both creative and personal feelings for each other. And most of us were together for much more than the four years of high school. So when one of us goes, it’s not just the loss of their magic from our reading pleasure, it’s the reaper standing by the desk that might have been next to ours in class.
I was extraordinarily lucky as a young man to get to work with some of comics’ first generation, and to become friends with many people who were a decade or more older than I am. But it feels awfully weird to look around that community in my head and count the empty chairs, and I don’t think I’m the only one feeling that way.
If you “only” miss these folks for their work, thanks for your sympathy and for your support whether from buying their work years ago or donating to Hero Initiative. But if members of the community get a bit weepy, maybe this will help you understand why.

Moments from the Bronze

Moments from the Bronze 150 150 Paul Levitz

One of the most distinctive rituals at DC in the early 1970s was the walk down the aisle to get a cover designed. The newsstand was still virtually the only form of distribution of comics in America, and conventional wisdom held that the cover was by far the most important aspect of a comics’ sales potential other than the main character. By the time I started as an assistant editor, Carmine Infantino had been designing almost all of DC’s covers for several years; a responsibility he took on in his first staff position as art director in the late ’60s and kept with each promotion. Was it was more important in his view than any alternative business task, or simply more comfortable? Probably a combination of the two, and there’s no question he was extraordinarily skilled at the task.

One or another of the editors would walk down the corridor, a complete inked issue or perhaps two under his arm (by my time on staff Dorothy Woolfolk had left, and the next woman to be named a full editor (Karen Berger) wouldn’t get that title until 5 years after Carmine’s departure. Carmine preferred to use the cover design meeting to thumb through the pages, looking for visual drama or potential, and occasionally to use the opportunity to conduct a bit of quality control.

Most often, after a brief look and perhaps a short discussion with the editor, Carmine would pick up a ball-point pen and a sheet of bond typing paper, and start sketching. The aspect ratio of the typing paper was off that of a comic cover, but his compositions were often such dynamic constructions that they survived the adjustments that would be made by the pencil artist who would actually render the cover. Those artists who most often did the covers were used to Carmine’s structural compositions (more like a large thumbnail than a rough sketch), and could bring them to life beautifully; just look at the powerful pieces created by Joe Kubert or Neal Adams this was, or the beauty of Nick Cardy’s covers from the period.

Since a couple of the editors were amazing artists in their own right, once in a while the sketching process became an artistic duel, or a layered collaboration (a SWAMP THING sketch by Carmine much overlaid by Joe Orlando survived and has been reprinted a couple of times as an example of this).

Once in a while, though, it was quality control time. Anthology mystery books occasionally were sent back in their editor’s arms to be remixed, another, perhaps more visual story to be chosen from inventory in place of one of the proposed tales. The inventory of the two principal mystery editors of the day (Joe Orlando and Murray Boltinoff) was deep, so this wasn’t a major setback.

More frustrating (and far rarer) were moments like the classic discussion of SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER-VILLAINS #1, during which Carmine looked through the issue in search of the villains’ headquarters, and finding none, sent editor Gerry Conway back to have the already finished issue redone to include one. (The earlier version has been reprinted a couple of times, and you can make your own decision about whether it was improved by the guidance.) Or when Carmine read my original dialogue for an Aquaman lead for ADVENTURE COMICS, and decided I wasn’t ready for the task. David Michelinie was given the polishing job, and it became a rare Jim Aparo job that didn’t carry his lettering, with Ben Oda’s balloons pasted in over the originals. Looking back at my work of the period (I haven’t ever had the courage to look at the script that was redone and compare), I’m sympathetic to Carmine’s judgment. I was probably still a member of the ‘Not Ready For Prime Time Players.’

There were also are moments when an editor would simply march down the hall carrying a cover, fully illustrated and submitted on spec by an artist with no connection to any specific issue. Only a handful of artists did this: Neal Adams, Bernie Wrightson and Mike Kaluta come to mind. Sometimes a story would be crafted around the image, or the cover might run without a specific story connected to it (most often on a mystery title).

Covers actually had the most time-consuming production and printing process of any part of a comic at this time, so designing the cover last potentially put pressure on. But most of the line was on a production schedule that allowed this painlessly, and to my recollection, no comic ever shipped late as a result.

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An infuence examined

An infuence examined 150 150 Paul Levitz

Deep into a chronological binge re-reading of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, a project long on my to-do list. I was introduced to the series decades ago by Mark Hanerfeld, my predecessor on The Comic Reader, and read something like the last half of them as they came out and the earlier ones as I could find them.

McBain is a textbook for a number of qualities: the structure of a police procedural, serial character development across separate novels, and simple, effective pulp writing. Going in sequence (the series began as I was born, in 1956) offers an amazing ‘core sample’ of how the world has changed. From the astounding shift in technology in the home (an early book has one of the cops reminiscing about the radio dramas of his youth and the shift to television) and work environment (McBain offers CSI-level detail of the police laboratory processes of the time, which feel frighteningly primitive now), to the tremendous shifts in perceptions of race, gender, and sexual diversity, it’s quite the time machine.

As I read, I realized how significant the series was on my recent work on Brooklyn Blood. I use a quote from another mystery author, P.D. James, in my writing classes to spark discussion: “Read widely and with discretion. Bad writing is contagious.” Good writing is contagious, too, and McBain certainly infected me even though it was over a decade between the last time I’d read one of his books and when I began my first procedural. His very visceral descriptions of the city are utterly absent from my work, reminding me of the difference between writing prose and comics; I got to lean entirely on Tim Hamilton’s artwork to conjure that. Not that you can’t use description powerfully in comics, but the format for Brooklyn Blood, with 8 page chapters originally published a month apart, didn’t encourage that. I wonder how I would have written it differently if it had been published in another structure?

Finding your direct influences in a fascinating and mysterious journey. Although I’m a great Tolkien fan, the inspiration that he provided for The Great Darkness Saga wasn’t apparent to me until years later, when I reread it in proximity to one of my periodic renewed visits to his Middle Earth masterpiece. If you’re ever so moved, see if you can spot the two lines in Darkness that are the direct links between the two. I’m not above conscious use of my inspirations, of course. The about-to-be reprinted Earthwar draws its fundamental structure from my love of Doc Smith’s Lensmen cycle, but only as to the matryoshka doll reveals of the levels of villainy, as opposed to the more wholesale inspiration it provided for the Silver Age Green Lantern’s mythology.

McBain’s series was adapted into a handful of movies (theatrical and television scale), a tv series, and even comics. But look to the books themselves if you ever want to study his textbook. It’s a worthwhile course.

Curating memory

Curating memory 150 150 Paul Levitz

The ACTION COMICS celebration volume is hitting stores this week, so I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts about it and my journey with ACTION. In a way, I came to comics through ACTION, as #300 was brought to me by my babysitter when I was 6, the first comic I remember owning. I’d read others, from the boxes of comics older kids kept in their garages (a Brooklyn behavior of the ’60s), but this one was mine. And it had a subscription ad in it, offering a year more for only $1…a sum I managed to talk my parents out of, and soon the copies were coming through the mail slot, folded and wrapped in a brown wrapper.

I never got to write a story for ACTION, or even a letters page, though some of my ‘house’ pages like DIRECT CURRENTS certainly showed up there. The closest I came is the five page Superman story “The Game,” which is in the celebration volume. Neal Adams and I produced it not knowing whether it would make it into ACTION #1000 itself or get slotted for the celebration. Close, but no cigar.

There are a lot of stories that could have made it into the celebration volume, and a lot of other writers who would have had interesting commentary to offer. Almost got Michael Chabon to contribute, but other deadlines intervened. Still, Feiffer, DeHaven, Tye, Yang, Hajdu…not bad. And I remembered about Marv’s unpublished Siegel & Shuster era Superman story and he was willing to include it.

Best of all, though, was getting Laura Siegel Larson to pen a piece about her dad. It’s been a thrill/relief/pleasure to reconnect with Laura now that the long legal tangle between her family and DC is over. My long friendship with her parents was one of the nicest intersections of my fan spirit and professional life. Marred, of course, by the fact that it took so long to reach a resolution, but now rejoined and I can happily watch generations of Siegels benefit mightily from the magic that Jerry gave the world.

There are no letters pages any more, and precious little feedback on projects like the celebration, but if you enjoy it, shoot me a comment here or on Facebook or however. Hope you do…

Reading For Inspiration

Reading For Inspiration 150 150 Paul Levitz

Most writers have books they’ve read that are inspiring, not simply in their general quality, but in specific ways for specific projects. One such book for me was John Brunner’s TRAVELER IN BLACK. It’s a collection of Brunner’s stories about an unnamed protagonist, a man “of many names, but a single nature,” who travels a fantastic world, progressively bringing it to a less fantastic state as he defeats various figures of power through their own wishes. The mood and style of it seemed to me to be perfect inspiration for writing the Phantom Stranger.

Brunner was a Hugo Award-winning author, and while this is certainly one of his ‘minor’ works, it’s solid and entertaining, and a different take on the classic fantasy hero.

(My own Phantom Stranger stories should NOT be read for inspiration–most were among the first comics I wrote at 17, and show all those flaws. The exception might be the story I contributed (with the ever-briliant Jose Luis Garcia Lopez) to the wonderful SECRET ORIGINS issue devoted to multiple possible backstories of the Stranger. (Though that issue is all the more worthwhile for the version by Alan Moore and Joe Orlando, inspiring legends themselves.)

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The Joys of Mail

The Joys of Mail 2468 2226 Paul Levitz

I always was fond of the mail. Goes back at least to when the subscription copies of ACTION COMICS would arrive (from the $1 sub I talked my mom into letting me order from ACTION #300 when my babysitter brought it for me). I gave up the subscriptions after my dog arrived in my life; Chee-Chee despised the mailman, and as a point of honor would grab the mail as it came in through the slot in the front door, and toss it around. Comics with bite marks are even less mint than the mailing fold down the middle caused.

The years when I published fanzines confirmed my pavlovian reaction to the mail. Every day some new orders for The Comic Reader might arrive, or perhaps a new article or column I could publish (no email attachments to open in those days, or PayPal credits). As the circulation grew towards its final tally of 3,500, the daily take grew commensurately.

Then there was the mail that came into DC for the letters pages I was responsible for putting together and answering. All in, I did over a thousand text pages for the company, from Phantom Stranger #25 onward. I think it’s the largest number of texts anyone’s contributed to comics, but since the vast majority of such work is uncredited, that’s a biased and unsupported claim. Love to hear from anyone with a contrary claimant, however.

Those letters ranged from the youngest kids’ scrawls for the mystery comics, to long and complex analysis from serious fans of the Legion of Super-Heroes. There was a physics expert pointing out my errors in depicting a black hole, and lengthy, thoughtful literary discussions from a Tulane grad student who would become a professor there and a lifelong friend. Oh yeah, and there was the letter from Harlan Ellison to Swamp Thing that he was so pissed I printed. Sorry again, Harlan.

And when I got to the publisher’s desk at DC, some of the best mail were the thank you notes from creators whose work I had rejoiced in, either in appreciation of a payment the company made, or of something I’d thought to send. I’m smiling, recalling warm words from early Superman and Starman artist Jack Burnley for a reprint payment, and a beautifully drawn self-portrait of Jack Davis, for something MAD-related, of course.

But my absolute favorite fan letter is this one:Stan note

I didn’t really know Stan at that point in my career. Perhaps we’d shake hands once or twice, but there was no reason for me to believe he knew I existed (I have trouble remembering people I’ve casually met, and even in those pre-cameo days, Stan was a celebrity who’d encountered countless folks). And he’d taken the time to read the obit I’d written for former DC executive Sol Harrison, liked it, and gone to the trouble of sending me this note.

Stan Lee liked a “bullpen” page I wrote. ‘Nuff said.

Next time, let me tell you about a letter from Alan Moore…