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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…

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.

dennyoneil_1970s

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.

joeorlando

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

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.