Random Causality?

Random Causality? 150 150 Paul Levitz

I stumbled across a piece by Tom Brevoort about some of the first comics he read as a kid, in which Tom took joy at a JSA reprint in SUPER-TEAM FAMILY, and figured it might have appeared to plug the then-recent relaunch of ALL-STAR COMICS. Not illogical, but an example of a frequent type of error made by fans, academics and even those of us with insider experience: assuming logical causality.

It’s possible Nelson Bridwell (who edited that reprint issue) was motivated by the ALL-STAR relaunch; he was a great fan of the Golden Age and curious enough about doings in other editorial offices (as opposed to some others at DC at that time) that he’d have been aware of it. But it’s equally likely he chose the story for a JLA 100-Page issue a year before that got cut to ordinary periodical size, or just thought the first super-team belonged in his first reprint collection of that name. I have no memory of the events, but I’d lean to the former theory…but with no more certainty than Tom, even though I was working a few feet away from Nelson at the time.

My favorite illustration of the randomness of the day was my own experience on STALKER. The series was launched when Carmine Infantino asked a couple of editors for sword & sorcery titles, presumably motivated by CONAN’s success for Marvel. As Joe Orlando’s assistant editor, I used my inside track to pitch an idea as a sword & sorcery fan, and he got Steve Ditko and Wally Wood to illustrate it. An astounding bit of luck for a 17-year old new writer.

Carmine, however, wasn’t impressed by the material as it crossed his desk in cover design sessions, and cancelled the title as of the third issue. When Carmine’s secretary, Shelley Abramson, typed up the December 1975 production schedule though, she accidentally included STALKER #4. In those dinosaur days, correcting it would have meant retyping the entire page, and Carmine decided to simply let us have a fourth issue. Random enough for you?

Ball boy on Murderers’ Row

Ball boy on Murderers’ Row 300 300 Paul Levitz

DC-LOGO_SuperStarsThinking about how I learned my trade, I realized that one of the ways I was incredibly lucky was the timing of the years of my apprenticeship at DC. The company was very small, and those of us just starting out got lots of opportunities to learn from an awesome group of talented people. Kind of the equivalent of getting to be the ballboy on the Yankee’s legendary Murderers’ Row, back when it was led by Ruth and Gehrig. But the Yankees had only 6 super-stars in that line-up, and DC was fielding a full nine: during the three years I was an assistant editor, this 30 person company had offices for Bill Gaines, Carmine Infantino, Julie Schwartz, Joe Orlando, Joe Kubert, Joe Simon, Archie Goodwin and Denny O’Neil …just listing the Eisner Hall of Famers. Oh, and there was Jack Kirby, writing , drawing, editing and sending in his wisdom from California.


Denny O’Neil

That meant I had a chance to observe the different approaches and strengths of a diverse group of masters of our form. Evesdrop from the hall, and overhear Julie Schwartz’s straight-forward plotting tips (“If you can change the hero’s name and the story still works, it means the story’s no good.”), lean across the desk from my boss, Joe Orlando, and watch him turn a pencil into a camera, showing how an uncomfortable hand move was bad storytelling, or be lucky enough to sit in on a cover conference, and watch two or three of these guys duel , shaping ideas. Some times you’d turn in a piece of your own work, and get an instant lesson (“Tightening your copy” by Denny O’Neil has served me for decades). And, of course, watching the work in progress on all their books, you got a good idea of how the craft should be performed.

Just celebrating the Eisner HOF winners gives short-shrift to a handful of other top talents. Gerry Conway was in his peak years as a comics editor and writer, and took particular care to pass along what he’d learned at Marvel to his not-much-younger juniors. Nelson Bridwell understood the multiverse in a way that no one living since ever has. And the production processes that are so important to good comics were explained by two of the men who had invented many of them, Sol Harrison and Jack Adler.

Alex Toth

Alex Toth

Besides the staffers, there were almost twenty other Hall of Famers freelancing for DC at the time. I got to learn by watching their work, seeing some of them translate my scripts in to finished comic art (17 and getting to create a title for Steve Ditko & Wally Wood to draw!), editing scripts by a couple of the most prolific writers of DC’s first fifty years, being saved from horrendous error by at least one (thanks, Len, for making sure I never used a non-repro blue marker to proof Bernie’s art) and making lifelong friends of more than a few. Oh, and after you’ve opened an acrid note from Alex Toth sending back a script he refuses to draw, you’ll never wince at anyone else’s invective.


Joe Orlando

It wasn’t as storied an office environment as E.C. Comics or the heady first decade of Marvel, and the creative quality of DC’s output from 1973-1975 doesn’t match what the company would achieve a decade later, but as a safe place to learn, it was pretty amazing. I only wish I’d thought to ask more questions and write down some of the lessons I was offered (there was a long lecture from Joe Orlando one day tracing the evolution of comic art and illustration placing names like Noel Sickles properly in the ‘family tree’ as he saw it that I wish I could recreate).

And, of course, I was much too young to realize what a unique experience I was having. Or would have a minute later when Jenette arrived and the bullet took an entirely new spin… Sigh…


Remembering 150 150 Paul Levitz

Around this time of year I get especially nostalgic about one of my old friends and my first professional mentor, Joe Orlando. Next week will be 44 years since he called me into his office as I walking the DC halls, digging up material for The Comic Reader, and offered me the assignment of compiling his letters pages, launching my freelance career. And it’ll be 18 years since he passed away, his heart giving out as he walked down the platform at Grand Central, heading home to join his family for Christmas. In between was over a quarter century of learning, collaboration, debate, and so much laughter. We swapped books, ideas and occasionally even skills: Joe knew far more about comics than I did, but there were some things I could help him with too.

If you’re reading this, you probably already know Joe was one of the great E.C. science fiction artists, one of the first artists on Daredevil, and the editor who spearheaded the revival of the mystery genre at DC. But he was an incredibly diverse creative spirit, working on everything from National Lampoon’s “First Lay” comics to Sesame Street books to a Henry Kissinger cover for Newsweek. And more, he was en enthusiastic and effective teacher, developing the talents of a generation of young artists and writers. If you enjoyed comics in the 1970s and 1980s, you benefited from his teaching and cheerleading, as so many of the generation of us coming up in those years were encouraged and developed at his hands.

But what I miss most is the twinkle in Joe’s eye, the elfin laugh as he planned his next moment of mischief, and his warmth. No situation was too grim for Joe to lighten up: when his old friend Bill Gaines passed away, Joe recalled a piece he’d illustrated for Mad, a deathbed scene with the man who was about to die reaching up and giving his friend “The Last Tag” with his last breath. It hung on our bulletin board for a long time afterwards.

If you haven’t finished your holiday giving, consider a donation to the Joe Orlando Scholarship Fund at the School of Visual Arts, where he taught for many years. Or to the funds at that school named after his mentor, the wondrous Wally Wood, or our colleague, Archie Goodwin. Even a small check to these funds is a nice way to remember these legendary creative people who gave us all so many great tales, and each taught so many other creators who to improve their craft. Their address is Visual Arts Foundation, 220 E 23rd, suite 609, NY, NY 10010, and it’s tax-deductible.

Non-profitable dreams

Non-profitable dreams 150 150 Paul Levitz

Digging in the storage unit today, I ran across an odd artifact: the letterhead of the Narrative Art Alliance Inc. Never heard of it, huh?

The NAA was probably the second not-for-profit incorporated related to the American comics industry, after ACBA, which went defunct in 1977, around the time the NAA was founded. The founders were mostly young people in the field, concerned with a number of issues, including the way comic conventions could be altered to make them more beneficial to the creative talent. We were full of good intentions, but sadly didn’t make them—or the NAA—a concrete reality that lasted. Most of the folks made lasting differences in the comics community, though, one way or another, and stayed friends for many years.

Based on the yellowing sheet of letterhead, our initial board included Steve Gerber as Chairman, Carla Conway, Scott Edelman, Carl Gafford, Stu Hellinger, David Kraft, Doug Murray, Marty Pasko, Jim Salicrup, David Simons, Mary Skrenes, Roger Slifer, Ed Summer, Duffy Vohland and me. I also recall Irene Vartanoff serving as our treasurer, as she watched the tiny treasury fade away over the next few years.

It makes me all the more grateful for the hard work the founders of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the Hero Alliance did to make those organizations into enduring institutions, and to hope that the several smaller not-for-profits in comics grow and prosper.

Gaspar Saladino

Gaspar Saladino 150 150 Paul Levitz

My words never looked better than when rendered in the careful calligraphy of Gaspar Saladino, and if I must say farewell to him, I won’t do it referring to him by his most frequent but inadequate title of ‘letterer.” Gaspar was an artist with design, creating logotypes that have endured and influence, ads that sent us running to the newsstand, and what he did with “simple” sound effects or words in balloons. His work on Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson’s SWAMP THING run established a new level for what lettering could do to add to storytelling in periodical American comics, bringing more drama with his innovative style.
I grew up enjoying Gaspar’s uncredited work, mostly on Julie Schwartz’s titles, and then was delighted to meet the man and have the opportunity to have him render my awkward sketches into a beautiful logo for ADVENTURE COMICS and to have him collaborate by bringing his talent to my comics and newspaper strip run. He was a smiling craftsman, enjoying each challenge or even routine task. I’m sad to hear that he’s passed, but I have beautiful examples of his talent hanging on my walls to cherish with my memories.


Noel 150 150 Paul Levitz

Noel Neill passed, and the world lost a small beacon of courage, charm and character. Like most of my generation, I ‘met’ her through her portrayal of Lois Lane on THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, conjuring a 1950s combination of Nellie Bly and MY GAL FRIDAY. But I was lucky enough to actually befriend her in my years at DC. Her sparkle didn’t diminish with age, and she was a Lois that made it easy to imagine why Superman might have picked her out of all the women in the world.
One brief tale: about a decade ago, Noel called to ask my advice. She’d been invited to the premiere of HOLLYWOODLAND, the film about the death of George Reeves. She was concerned that going might hurt her relationship with DC (as if anything could damage our fondness for her). I reassured her, but she was still nervous and wavering, trying to decide. After unsuccessfully encouraging her to just go and have fun, I tried the tact of asking if George would have wanted her to go. That decided her–the sensitivity of her long dead friend’s feelings were much more important than whether she’d have a good time.
Thanks for the performances, Noel, your friendship, and the occasional pleasure of hearing your unchanging and ever delightful voice.


Darwyn 150 150 Paul Levitz

One of the highest peaks creative work can achieve is personal vision—that nirvana when a writer or artist is able to produce something that is unique, peculiarly and utterly their own. And on that peak, a summit is reached when that personal vision is shared and delights an audience.

Darwyn Cooke climbed the mountain in comics with personal vision, and with a distinctly different track than almost any other creator. After achieving success as an animator, he simply woke up one day and decided to try his hand at comics, and from the first comics he produced, did them as brilliantly as any of his generation. His NEW FRONTIER reimagined the entire DC universe in the context of the times in which it was originally published, a time just before Darwyn’s own, and in a country and culture just adjacent to the one he grew up in. It was true masterwork, outrageous as a first effort in the form.

Accomplished and acclaimed as he was, Darwyn was appreciative of those whose groundwork formed the foundation for the mountain he climbed. Invited to share a panel dais with Jules Feiffer to talk about noir, his blush was almost visible in the bytes of his response. The truth was, his work on the PARKER graphic novels would bring a younger (and larger) crowd to the discussion than the audience for Feiffer’s KILL MY MOTHER, but Darwyn’s respect and admiration for Feiffer came out in his sense of honor at being invited to speak as the older man’s peer.

I have a particular hatred of lung cancer for its toll in my family, and now add to that my anger at it taking from us an extraordinary talent, performing at his peak, and with so much more to give the world. Farewell, Darwyn, and know that we are richer for you having shared your vision of heroes with us.

Grading week

Grading week 150 150 Paul Levitz

Not my favorite part of teaching, this is the week where final projects come in to be graded. Tell the truth, I didn’t much care for grading on any basis: as a student, I was never particularly grade-hungry (and was lucky enough to be part of a generational cohort where having insanely perfect grades wasn’t a requirement to get into a good school, especially coming from Stuyvesant, whose grades were considered on a steep curve by most of the colleges at the time); as a manager, I much preferred ‘essay’ type reviews for my team to the “check the boxes” type; and the only thing I like less as a teacher than grading projects/papers is giving tests, which are silly when dealing with students taking writing courses or doing graduate-level work.

For the courses I’ve taught repetitively, I’ve developed final projects that I think add to the learning process. For my writing course at Manhattanville, I ask the students to develop a pitch–it can be for a novel, a screenplay, a comic, or a business-to-business proposition. Pitching yourself and your ideas is a fundamental task in life, and writing is one of the best ways to learn it. Develop a good written pitch and you think about the structural elements you’d use in a verbal presentation, too. I’ve had some charming and skilled ones over the last few years, and some less so, of course. But I got the surprise this year of a graphic novel pitch that is of publishable quality, which I hope to help the student find a path to publishing. For transmedia: the future of publishing, one of my grad courses at Pace, I ask the students to envision how technology and cultural change will shift a category of publishing in the next few years. I think of it as the Fred Smith challenge. He envisioned the possibility of FedEx in his grad school thesis, and then both improved the world and got rich in putting into effect. Kind of a high goal, but they can get an “A” without hitting that bar.

Time to see what’s in the pile waiting…

Farewell, traveller

Farewell, traveller 150 150 Paul Levitz

If you came to love DC comics first in some faraway place, say a thankful farewell to Phyllis Hume today. Phyllis had one of those jobs invisible to the general public, unacknowledged on any masthead, but vital to changing the world’s comics culture. She began her involvement with DC as a paralegal in the corporate trademark department, but really made her impact in long decades managing DC’s international rights. She travelled relentlessly for decades, building partnerships and true friendships across the globe, and working to get comics published by people who loved comics.

A tough little woman from Brooklyn Heights, Phyllis helped make possible some of the first truly beautiful editions of American comics, long before DC (or any American comics publisher) was ready to produce oversize hardcovers, or art book-quality volumes. Titles from WATCHMEN to ancient classics like CAPTAIN MARVEL AND THE MONSTER SOCIETY OF EVIL happened on her watch, and with her support.

Sadly, she had a rough parting from DC when the international markets changed and she and her then-supervisor saw different paths ahead for the company. One of my regrets as an executive was the occasions like this when I couldn’t bridge gaps between good people and manage to keep both on the team. But those circumstances didn’t detract from my great respect for Phyllis, or appreciation for the work she’d done.

The world of comics is better for the efforts of many largely anonymous people behind the scenes, connecting the creative talents with their audience. We’ve been lucky to have folks doing this who don’t treat it as a job, but as a responsibility to both the talent and the audience. Phyllis Hume was one who made the world of comics larger by making distances, cultures and languages smaller gaps, and for that I’m grateful.

Chatting with Sonny

Chatting with Sonny 150 150 Paul Levitz

Fun this weekend chatting with Sonny Liew at MoCCA and Midtown Comics for our signing. Email’s a wonderful tool, but nothing really replaces conversation for getting to know each other. The panel celebrating Sonny drew a full house, and we want through a slid show of his career (so far), while chatting about details that included some I didn’t know (like Shelly Bond giving him a shot at inking his own pencils on MY FAITH IN FRANKIE, then pulling in Marc Hempel when she saw Sonny wasn’t quite ready), and some Sonny didn’t (the challenges the Minx line faced when chain bookstores gave up on it completely after just a couple of volumes, just as he was doing THE REGIFTERS).

His THE ART OF CHARLIE CHAN HOCK CHYE is getting wonderful reviews, and that was probably a major reason for the enthusiastic audience. We talked about the fact that it may be a unique approach to a graphic novel, mixing history with a completely fictional ‘spine,’ and his process, including a year of research before the year and a half of drawing. He composed it in thumbnail drawings, rather than a formal script.

We also talked about our process on DOCTOR FATE, where we work from a full script that I provide, but often revise bits to take advantage of Sonny’s perspective. We discussed a couple of examples, most notably how his reaction to the character Akila as originally proposed led her to be depicted as much more traditional Egyptian young woman than originally planned.

And a special nod of the head to David Mazzuchelli, who was Sonny’s teacher at RISD, for joining us in the front row…but even more for his efforts encouraging Sonny and connecting him to the American comics world.