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.

Learn by teaching

Learn by teaching 150 150 Paul Levitz

Since my executive days ended I’ve been spending about half my time teaching: classes in writing, publishing, transmedia, and the graphic novel, all areas where my practical experience weighs heavily enough to balance for my lack of traditional academic credentials. I had the pleasure of learning from many wonderful teachers, both in classroom settings and in professional ones, and it was always on my bucket list to see if I would enjoy the experience. I do–because (as Karen Berger commented on hearing I was going to teach) “(I) enjoy the sound of my own voice,” but also because the energy of the students can be infectious, and I find myself learning about my subjects as I teach.

Some of the learning is from the preparation for the classes. I just finished “AN EMPIRE OF THEIR OWN,” a great examination of the Jewish entrepreneurs who built Hollywood, which seemed a logical book to read before tightening my syllabus for this fall’s “Comics, Graphic Novels and the Jews” course at Princeton. I was broadly familiar with the history, and had heard a couple of Jack Warner stories from one of the execs at Warner Bros. who had worked with him and was still around when I began showing up there, but there was so much more information and texture in the volume.

Maybe more valuable to me is the learning from codifying theories in order to teach what I’ve done by instinct. Simple lines like character is is revealed by choices, especially by choices with costs, seem to help convey fundamentals of writing. And once codified, serve to remind me of important goals to strive of in my own work.

Off to read Paul Buhle’s “JEWS AND AMERICAN COMICS” next…

A book that never happened

A book that never happened 150 150 Paul Levitz

Jeff Vaughn at Gemstone just sent me a care package of some of their recent books, including THE OVERSTREET GUIDE TO COLLECTING COMICS. A slick 300+ pages, it was a long way from the half-dozen or so typed pages at the front of the first Overstreet Price Guide covering the same subject. It also reminded me of my first book contract, a deal Jenette Kahn had instigated with Warner Books in the mid-1970s. I was supposed to write a guide to comic collecting, back when there were still only a smattering of comic shops. As I recall, I had done a pretty thorough outline for the project, which doesn’t survive. It was officially a real project for about a year before I gave up, preferring to use the time my full-time staff job allowed me to write comics instead. Roads not taken…

Jenette Kahn INTERVIEW

Jenette Kahn INTERVIEW 960 300 Paul Levitz

When Taschen decided not to do ahead with the last two volumes of the expansion of the ’75 YEARS OF DC COMICS’ book, I had already completed the interviews to go in front of the books. They’ve been generous and are allowing me to post them here. First up, a conversation with the woman who is one of my two most important mentors, a dear friend, and a vastly underrated force for the creative growth of comics at a time when it was an unlikely path.



June 8, 2012

Jenette Kahn arrived at National Periodical Publications in 1976 as a 28 year old Publisher from outside the comics field, promptly changed the company’s name to DC Comics, and over the next 26 years led DC in inimitable style and shook the comics world again and again. From changing the economic models for comics’ talent, to breaking creative boundaries championing projects like THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, many of the causes of DC’s successes in the Dark Age could be traced back very personally to her office and her convictions.

 She came to DC with a background in children’s magazines, which is how DC’s corporate owners thought of their business…but she was also a serial entrepreneur, and passionate about fine art, with friends like Andy Warhol, whose prints graced her office. The executives who hired her wanted to change DC, but could hardly have predicted the paths she took, which led her from opening DC’s doors to the British Invasion of talent, to bouncing through the mine fields of Angola in an armored half-track creating a project that would be honored at the White House.

An energetic and distinctive spokesperson for the company and the comics medium, she brought national attention to projects for the public interest, like the creation of a Wonder Woman Foundation honoring grass-roots women activists, and projects to keep the DC heroes vital and successful, including the phenomena of the 1986 reboot of SUPERMAN (a radical step at the time) or his death in 1992. Whether crusading for diversity in comics, or simply step-by-step refusing to accept their time-honored limitations, she brought her own agenda to the field.

Since leaving DC in 2002, she has gone on to be a film producer, building on her long experience working on some of DC’s most successful films to do her own projects, including the acclaimed GRAN TORINO.

Interviewing her at the Warner Bros. offices in June, Paul Levitz flashed back to so many hours they’d spent across desks there, working, planning and laughing. And as they talked, remembering the extraordinary selection of original artwork that had been on her walls, or even selected as her furniture. Journey back with two old friends, reminiscing:

Batman or Superman, and why?

My favorite character of the two, without question, is Batman. I felt so strongly about him even when I was a little girl. The reason, I think, even then, was he made himself a super-hero. He had no special powers; didn’t come from an alien planet; but worked to become the world’s best detective, to become the best athlete. It made me feel that human potential, and hopefully my own, was unlimited.

As I grew older, I also noticed that there was a serious neurotic side to Batman, and I saw him as an artist as well, and that too just upped the ante for me with Batman.

Art or commerce?

Hmmm…are we saying do I prefer art or commerce, or are comics art or commerce?

This is just a question: art or commerce. It’s a rorschach question.

Comics at their best are art, but we at DC published more than our share of mediocre comics, and I would never deign to call them, or dare to call them art. But hopefully even if they were mediocre they sold. At their very best I really see comics as art and the medium itself as an art form. Like the movie business, though, it is the comic book business, and the business part has to be paid some deference to. Nothing is better than the collision of comic art at its highest, and a truly responsive audience that supports it.

kahn_reeve_harrisonNow let’s go back to Groundhog’s Day, 1976, when you arrived at DC. How weird was it to parachute into the middle of a group of people who’d worked together for years, arriving as the first outsider to arrive with authority in ages?

 It was challenging to come to DC and to be younger than almost everyone on staff, and to be an outsider, and to be a woman. Although he has since denied it, Joe Orlando was always said have been throwing up in the men’s room when he heard I was hired. Joe, of course, to become one of my most favorite people to work with; a wonderful editor and person.

But, I think, what made me think that things would work out ultimately was that I loved the medium, I loved comics. I didn’t just come in as an executive thinking, “Oh, it’s a business, I’ll run a business.” I loved the medium itself—the heartbeat of DC Comics, and everyone else who was working at DC felt the same way. I thought we could bond eventually, although it would take time, over that.

No frogs in the sheets or hazing?

I was lucky, no one sabotaged me…at least not in a way that I noticed.

Were there Jenette Kahn imitations behind my back? I’m sure there were many.

JKintro.0That’s a grand tradition in the company. I walked the halls once and passed Bob Schreck doing an imitation of me, and he was utterly mortified as I was applauding.

But you know at MAD it was a form of respect. I always said, when I took over MAD in the wake of Bill Gaines’ death that I hadn’t been accepted because I hadn’t been parodied in the pages of MAD. It wasn’t until drawings of me began showing up in MAD that I realized I finally, finally had made it.

When did you start feeling like you were accepted at DC? What started to change?

I think it began when I formed very strong alliances with you and Joe. We said comics have so much potential, and if we work together, shoulder to shoulder, we can change the world a little bit. That was the initial foundation, and over time more people joined us on the Long March Through China, but that small core group would stay late, talk about all the things we wanted to do with comics, how they could be. And almost every one came to pass.

It’s amazing how much of the stuff we worked in became part of the texture of what the medium is today.

It’s so gratifying. We had passion, we had vision and we had a will to make things happen.

When I look at your accomplishments it’s a long and weighty list: giving people an economic stake in their work for the first time in mainstream comics, breaking the boundaries of what could be done with established properties with projects like THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, advocating the role of design in comics, making comics’ oldest publisher its most innovative, and leading pro-social projects like the landmine comics or SEDUCTION OF THE GUN. Can you rank them, and is there one that’s important to you that I didn’t put on the list?

That’s a tough question. I did want us to be an innovator, but I wanted just as much that our creative talent got the rights that they deserved, and that they would have a financial stake in their creations. It’s the economic side and the artistic side, and they had to go, somehow, in lockstep together.

I think that’s a good representation of your passions, and I think, ultimately, the creative successes wouldn’t have happened without the economic changes.

I do believe that’s true. I don’t think we start to see a second Golden Age in comics—or an Elizabethan Age—such fecund creativity without first making our creative talent believe they were stakeholders.

Crisis_on_Infinite_Earths_7You’ve always surrounded yourself with art, from Warhol and the great photographers to your eclectically designed homes, and with comic art from George Herriman and Lyman Young and Jeff Jones. If you could have any one piece of art from your time at DC, what would it be?

Hmm…I’m seeing covers in my head. Maybe George Perez’s cover from CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, with Superman holding Supergirl’s body and howling to the heavens 

I was betting you’d come up SUPERMAN VS. MUHAMMADALI—more hours working on that cover.

Without question. I have a lot of affection and investment in the SUPERMAN VS. MUHAMMAD ALI cover, but it was a one-off. (Jenette had personally spearheaded that project, including the enormous task of getting consent from literally hundreds of celebrities and comics people to being incorporated in the cover.) CRISIS signified that we were willing to take our traditional characters and were willing to truly push the envelope. We had decided that when things happened in the DC Universe, and when they happened they would have real consequences. If you had a death, the death would be real. People would mourn that death. I think that cover signaled what we were going to do, and we were true to it.

supes_aliYour office at DC was a salon of remarkable people, many from far outside comics. Can you pick two or three who you connected to comics over the years?

Senator Patrick Leahy—it turned out he was a BATMAN fan, or at least he was a self-professed BATMAN fan. He mentioned that at a dinner Time Warner held for him, and that became a relationship based mainly on BATMAN formed from that public profession.

Perhaps Judy Collins, the singer/songwriter. She is an Ambassador for UNICEF and someone I knew from outside comics. When she asked me what could be done for kids who were affected by landmines, I thought we could publish comics that would warn children of the dangers of landmines. Actually, we proceeded to do just that.

Who were some of the unlikely people you were thinking of?

ExitArt8_12Some of the others who were in your office seemed unusual, but I don’t know that the connection to comics was as clear. Jaron Lanier, Tom Wolfe…

Jaron Lanier, who invented virtual reality, that incredible writer Tom Wolfe, hip hop spokesperson and architect, Fab Five Freddie, Ice-T…I guess it was a motley crew.

You’re responsible for creating successes in children’s magazines with KIDS, DYNAMITE, SMASH; in books, with your own IN YOUR SPACE; in film as a producer, with GRAN TORINO; and, of course, comics. Other areas that you’ve been more quietly involved in for years, like Harlem Spaces or Exit Art. But you gave comics the greater part of your career. What was the magic that kept you there?

I loved the medium, I loved the characters, I loved the creative process. Actually, I also loved the people I worked with at DC, and that was critical. We had a warm, collegial atmosphere—it was a great place to come to work.

I think it was also that we were building something; that we were dedicated to change, making comics a sophisticated art form, developing our characters, empowering our talent. Change takes place slowly, and it took many years to implement the things that we envisioned early on. The ability to do that, and to continue to grow, and to continue to push the envelope; that’s really what engaged me for so many years.




Celebrating Denny

Celebrating Denny 150 150 Paul Levitz

Celebrating Denny

Denny O'NeilWhen Denny entered the comics field, intending to stay for a year or two en route to other writing forms, the idea of being celebrated as a comics writer by the public on any level was absurd. Stan had barely begun his promotion of Marvel as a brand (the fabled Merry Marvel Marching Society was only a year old), and the explosion of comics into the larger pop culture that would happen with the BATMAN television series was months away. As his son Larry O’Neil pointed out, his father would never have dreamed at that time of the recognition and success he achieved in the field, something that was still true as I sat across the card table from Denny Friday nights in the mid-1970s. By then we knew comics could be art, and could make a difference in raising consciousness of social issues, but I think all of us who gathered around that poker table have been surprised and gratified to see the world come to agree with us.

On a lovely Saturday evening at the Garner Arts Center, a funky old factory converted into a gallery and events space in Rockland County, a bit north of the old WIZARD offices. Garner was giving Denny O’Neil (a Rockland resident for some years now) a lifetime achievement award, and Nyack proclaimed it ‘Denny O’Neil Day.’

Attendees included Dan DiDio (DC generously sponsored the event), Michael Uslan, Larry Hama, Jack C. Harris and Danny Fingeroth, with former O’Neil sidekick Jordan Gorfinkel quietly in the audience. Lots of nice chatting with old friends at the reception, good words from all about Denny’s massive contribution to comics, and delightful to watch as Denny’s son Larry showed up to his father’s surprise to present the award.

Green-Lantern-Green-Arrow-cover-colorBut I think I had the big treat, getting to moderate and grill Denny on the makeshift stage, we talked about whether his the work was art or craft, and he gave a thoughtful answer about his need to approach his writing from its professional goals, without waiting for inspiration. Not a head-on denial of whether it was art, but a clear emphasis on striving for craft.

Denny credited Stan Lee and Julie Schwartz as the most important influences on his comics career, describing Stan as the most important comics writer, and talking about Julie’s then-revolutionary approach to modernizing characters in a way that has since permeated many media.

We touched on technical aspects of Denny’s writing (the shortest yet among the most effective art directions done by a comics writer, and his amazement at the opposite approach taken by Alan Moore and the epistolary approach used by Neil Gaiman in communicating with artists). With blow-ups of the covers of his work all over the towering room, key issues like BATMAN #237 and GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW #76 were hailed, and his long-ago CHILDREN OF TOMORROW and WANDARR work for Charlton wee fondly recalled. Denny talked about his first Marvel work on MILLIE THE MODEL as being ideal, because it gave him a freedom to fail as he learned the form and Stan’s voice. Denny was kind enough to say that THE QUESTION series resulted from a conversation he and I had coming back from a dinner, when I encourage him to write something that pushed the envelope again, without worrying about whether it made money, and to leave those concerns to me.

denny_oneil_vintageWithout a doubt, the most singular creative difference in Denny’s work was his role in bringing what was then called relevance, but now might be described as social justice issues, into mainstream comics in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Denny spoke about his focus on raising issues, yet not suggesting answers in the work. He was particularly proud of the work on themes of ecology, and the fact that there was now a widespread acceptance of the importance of the subject (climate changes deniers aside, he pointed out).

L’chaim, Denny! Writer, editor, teacher. Here’s to celebrating your impactful work, with Marifran and Larry by your side, and with the honors you so richly deserve.