Paul Levitz

Remembering An Old Friend

Remembering An Old Friend 150 150 Paul Levitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readings & Writings

Readings & Writings 150 150 Paul Levitz

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

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

This doesn’t always work.

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

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

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

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

Ages

Ages 150 150 Paul Levitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just something to think about…

Teaching & Learning

Teaching & Learning 150 150 Paul Levitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing With Words

Writing With Words 960 300 Paul Levitz

So I did a new trick that’s being published in June 2022: writing prose fiction.  It’s kind of funny that I never turned my hand to that in decades of writing, but I started off with non-fiction then drifted to comics, and unlike many of my peers in Frank McCourt’s English classes, I never had the driving urge to be a prose fiction writer.  I love the form.  Laziness maybe?  I dunno.  I have come to the conclusion in the last couple of years that my system is that of an assignment guy: when an editor comes to me with “Can you write….” I leap up like the firehouse pooch hearing the alarm bell, but left to my own devices, my initiative is far weaker.

So this started with my pal Barry Lyga (a Legion fan, former Diamond staffer, and accomplished novelist and graphic novelist) told me he was putting together an anthology of short stories themed around young people with extraordinary powers and invited me to participate, it hit all my buttons.  In tune with the ridiculous luck that has been so much of my professional life, I had sold my first short story before I wrote it.

GENERATION WONDER turned out to be a fun volume, with a wide range of writers including many more experienced at the prose format than I am, and lavishly illustrated by my old collaborator Colleen Doran, who continues to blossom with new styles and approaches to her art.  My story, “Bumped!”, is the last in the volume and I tried to offer a distinct possible future in which my protagonist lived.  I’m a great admirer of writers who can welcome you to a fantasy quickly, and particularly Roger Zelazny’s great skill at that (I use his short story “The Furies” in writing classes as an example).

To offer you the briefest of temptations to check out GENERATION WONDER, then, here are the opening paragraphs of my story:

Back in the beginning of the 16th Century, when a genius named Erasmus wrote, “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” he wasn’t just being wise and witty, turned out he was prescient.  Not quite literally, and it took six centuries to get there, but close enough.  If his contemporary Nostradamus had been that clear, we’d have had quite a guide to the future. 

No such luck. 

Turned out that the commonest side effect of the pollution war of 2132 was a dramatic downturn in most people’s vision as their optic nerves progressively atrophied in response to one of the nasty chemicals let loose in the atmosphere.  It wasn’t quite living in the kingdom of the blind, but it wasn’t just the bastard who designed those pollution bombs who was shortsighted.

GENERATION WONDER, Barry Lyga editor, is published by Amulet Books, available June 14 at bookstores and the wiser comic shops.  Let me know if you enjoy it!

Generation Wonder

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The Visitor

The Visitor 1249 1920 Paul Levitz

DOCTOR FATE VOL. 3: Fateful Threads

DOCTOR FATE VOL. 3: Fateful Threads 1641 2560 Paul Levitz

Unfinished Business

Unfinished Business 265 400 Paul Levitz

A priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a bar . . . except they’re all dead. Not a zombie apocalypse (sorry, Walking Dead fans), but a bit of Unfinished Business that heaven needs the departed clerics to address, if they can. But what awaits them if they succeed— life, afterlife, or oblivion?

UNFINISHED BUSINESS is a new original graphic-novel mystery from Eisner Award winner and Eisner Award Hall of Fame inductee Paul Levitz (Legion of Super-Heroes) and Simon Fraser (Kingsman:The Red Diamond, Doctor Who).

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Available Apr 20, 2021

More details and order info at Penguin Random House

Curating collections

Curating collections 150 150 Paul Levitz

On editing reprint collections

Another of my many dubious distinctions in comics is probably having the edited reprint collections over the longest stretch of time, 46 years now.  (Okay, I didn’t do any for decades in the middle of that stretch, but I said it was a dubious distinction.). It’s always been a fun assignment, providing an excuse to go play in the DC library or my own collection, revisit old friends, and have the pleasure of introducing new readers to tales I enjoyed.  With the latest, DC IN THE ‘80s: THE END OF ERAS about to come out, I’ll share some thoughts on the subject.

The projects have been born many different ways, but in pretty much every case the format and available page count was set before I got the assignment to assemble the contents.  That was true when I was curating the reprints for the back of 100-Page Super-Spectacular issues or LIMITED COLLECTORS’ EDITION tabloids, and is still true on today’s hardcovers.  Budgets matter, and there are always assumptions about what will have an audience large enough to justify it being published.  The hardcovers I’ve edited in recent years are the largest volumes I worked on, and as celebratory volumes, have had budgets large enough to allow for some interesting opportunities.

My first goal is always to include something (or somethings) unique that will elevate the book from simply being twice-told tales.  The very first comic I got a full editorial credit on, LIMITED COLLECTORS’ EDITION #C-34, CHRISTMAS WITH THE SUPER-HEROES, set the tone.  I found an unpublished Angel & The ApeChristmas story by John Albano, Bob Oksner and Wally Wood to include.   For ACTION COMICS: 80 YEARS OF SUPERMAN, I remembered the unpublished Siegel & Shuster era Superman story in Marv Wolfman’s collection, and for the DETECTIVE COMICS volume that followed, the Lew Sayre Schwartz Batmanbreakdowns in Dale Cendali’s.  The new ‘80s book couldn’t have anything of that great provenance by definition, but I was able to go for scarcity instead: a chunk of the first, seminal Style Guide by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez and Dick Giordano, a story from the Superman newspaper strip of the period and Alan Moore’s Twilight proposal.  All items that someone might possess, but none ever in a published DC volume.

The next step is to create a balanced list of targets, sources that deserve to be included in the theme.  For the END OF ERAS, it could have just been a collection of the genre titles that were wrapping up in that decade, but there were two reasons to include a good swath of super-hero material as well: fans were more likely to pick up a book that included their favorite characters, and there’s a San Andreas-size fault line between the pre-CRISIS DC universe and post-CRISIS.  So the major heroes had to be represented.  Off to the bound volumes!

There are three different decision rules operating here:

First, for the heroes, the goal is to find a story that represents the era both in its storyline and creative contributors.  For Superman and Batman, I found stories that touched on the pre-CRISIS interpretation of the Golden Age versions…and for Superman, it was a given that Alan and Curt Swan’s delightful “Whatever Happened To The Man of Steel?”  would finish off the book.  Wonder Woman allowed me to bring in Don Heck, and The Flash of course was required to show Carmine Infantino’s later period. I considered some Green Lantern and Justice League choices, but opted instead to represent the back-ups of the time with Firestorm.

For the vanishing genres, selections from series required picking a prime example, and one that could stand alone.  Sometimes that meant calling up the talent who had worked on them, sometimes pawing through to find a qualifier.  The decision rules were complex: better to find a Jonah Hex drawn by Tony DeZuniga to show the original creator’s art; for Warlord an issue Mike Grell inked himself since he had chafed under longtime inker Vince Colletta’s brush; if there was a dominant contributor, include them (could Bob Kanigher and Sam Glanzman’s epochal run on Haunted Tank be ignored?).   TV comics could be covered by SUPER FRIENDS, and toy tie-ins (not a vanishing genre in comics, but by and large from DC) by MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.

Selections from the anthologized stories were, I admit, far more arbitrary.  There were hundreds of pages of mystery and war tales to pick from, and if science fiction was a smaller stack, it was still a rich pile.  Your choices would certainly vary, but I was pleased to put in contributions by longtime DC contributors like Irwin Hasen, Lee Elias  and Gil Kane…as well as young and rising voices. 

When the budget permits, adding essays is a distinct pleasure, and I’ve been able to reach out to so many old friends and fascinating people.  My all-time favorite was getting Laura Siegel Carter in the ACTION volume, marking the first time a Siegel contributed to a Superman book they were earning royalties from.   

I’m back at it, finalizing the next volume, ‘80s: THE EXPERIMENTS, getting legal to dig out some dusty old contracts (yes, I signed them but do you REALLY expect me to remember three or more decades later when I can’t recall what I had for dinner yesterday?) and clear some interesting items for the collection.  

In going through the collection’s odder corners, I found what is certainly DC’s rarest experiment, but unfortunately can’t include it as it’s an early ‘90s project.  We teamed up with Time Inc. to do a test magazine, an issue of WHAT’S UP? that combined comics using the Looney Tunes and other DC goodies with a sort of kids’ PEOPLE/ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY.  Only a few copies were printed and were used for market research testing, which sadly indicated the idea wouldn’t work  to Time Inc.’s then high standards.  If I get to do ‘90s volumes, I’ll try to include some of it then.

Still having fun.

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