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
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 I found an unpublished Angel & The ApeChristmas story by John Albano, Bob Oksner and Wally Wood to include. For ACTION COMICS: 80 YEARS OF SUPERMAN, I remembered the unpublished Siegel & Shuster era Superman story in Marv Wolfman’s collection, and for the DETECTIVE COMICS volume that followed, the Lew Sayre Schwartz Batmanbreakdowns in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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Denny’s gone, brought social conscience to comics. He was a journalist at heart, and knew his obit would have Batman in the lede, but I think he’d have been prouder of this way of looking at his life. Not that he was the first, much less the only one, but damn it he was the loudest. Not personally, he wasn’t a shouter. But the stories he told and edited screamed for justice for the causes that mattered to him. From GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW to SEDUCTION OF THE GUN, and in subtle moments as well as the loud ones, he set the standard for giving a damn.
He was a teacher, maybe the best of his generation teaching writing and editing in comics. He taught me copy editing, and how to parse my dialogue for comics to be effective. His disciples filled the field. He was the most economical of writers, communicating with his collaborators in the briefest of art directions but getting great work from them, offering tight dialogue that was precisely on point.
He was a philosopher, searching for ways to make the world better…even exploring how a new religion might be necessary for a time when it was no longer about man mastering the Earth, but learning to live in harmony with it. And having buried the lede, he made Batman what he is, writing the stories and editing others that set the tone for the post-camp Dark Knight on through everything that Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan leaned on.
Denny got a second lease on life from his marriage to MariFran, and they shared amazing years until her passing. Once she was gone, it was only a matter of time until he followed.
This is the second of my poker buddies to cash in their chips in about a month. He lived a full life, was shocked at the recognition he achieved, and leaves behind his son Larry, with whom he shared many personal and professional joys.
But most of all, and ever so relevant at a moment like this, he taught us that we could…no, we should…damn it, we must use our podiums as writers, editors and teachers to push the world to become a better, more just place.
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When I was a neophyte assistant editor and aspiring writer, there weren’t a wealth of books on writing comics. There were a couple of decades-old pamphlets by the already prodigiously energetic Stan Lee and Bob Kanigher, some of the advice in which was probably as valid as the day they typed it on a noisy old manual typewriter. And there weren’t book editions of comics that incorporated the original scripts (I tend to use SANDMAN: DREAM COUNTRY in my writing courses because it has Neil’s script for “Calliope” along with the several short stories in the volume), or other easily accessed resources to learn from.
General practice was to toss scripts for finished stories in the trash at the office; they were industrial by-product, not even ultimate work product. Some writers kept carbons, a few made photocopies when they delivered the scripts (no Kinkos or local copy joints all over the place in those days, much less a home printer/copier/fax/scanner/dogwalker). But for the most part, while original cmic art was treated very casually (I apologize to all the artists whose work I proofread in blue non-reproducing marker before I learned better), comic book scripts were treated even worse.
Notwithstanding this, I saved a bunch of scripts from the trash for my own eduction. I’d pick out one each from the writers whose work I respected, or maybe a particularly interesting tale to study. I was limited to the scripts that passed through Joe Orlando’s editorial office–as his assistant I could take what I wanted of those, but it would have been de trop to raid Julie Schwartz’s garbage down the hall (assuming he hadn’t poured his yankee bean soup remains from lunch all over it, anyway). I learned what I could from them, then filed them away somewhere at home.
One that I was very glad I saved was a script that was one of the very last that Bill Finger delivered, I think for WEIRD WAR TALES. I don’t recall any specific lessons I learned from it, but about 30 years later I had the privilege of passing it on. Before several of the films based on DC characters I made a habit of having a dinner on the premiere night with some of the comics folks who had contributed to the underlying mythos. The evening of THE DARK KNIGHT premiere, I had the pleasure of reuniting three of Batman’s ancestral families: introducing Elizabeth Kane (Bob’s widow) to Jerry Robinson both to Athena Finger (Bill’s granddaughter). Before the dinner (maybe it was at lunch?) I presented Bill’s script to Athena, discovering that it was the only artifact of her grandfather she would possess.
There are days when being a pack rat feels really good.
[The other scripts I saved went to Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, along with copies of all of my own scripts. In normal times, they’re available to anyone who wants to look at them, though advance notice is a good idea as they’re probably off in some warehouse facility.]
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For a long stretch the responsibility for the DC Library went to a woman named Gerda Gattel. Gerda was a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust years in Germany, and worked at Timely (the Marvel predecessor) in the 1950s, possibly as a letterer, but was caught up in one of their periodic shutdown/layoffs. She came over to DC, and served as the secretary to Irwin Donenfeld, the editorial director and then moved into production as the proofreader.
Gerda was strict and organized. In both her work with Irwin and her time in production she prepared the production schedules for the company. Back in the pre-computer era, not the equivalent of a modern work flow chart, but simply a straight forward layout of what was coming out and calculated back from on sale dates, due to production dates for the different components. As part of that responsibility she prepared annual schedules in the early 1970s, which changed a bit during the year but very little by our current standards. On those she’d get to indicate which titles would have ‘giant’ issues, with guidance from the company leadership of course. When she retired at the end of 1973, I somehow inherited the responsibility for the annual schedule (yes, I was a whopping 17 years old, and I got to help decide where those 50¢ Giants would pop up on the schedule…don’t ask me why I was chosen).
Gerda’s strictness included her attitude towards the editors, particularly any of the then-newer ones who weren’t as organized as she like. Joe Orlando vividly recalled being called to come in from vacation to turn an issue into production when it was due, commuting into the city to take it from its (unlocked) cabinet and walk it down the hall to its labeled drawer in production…where it sat untouched until several weeks after his vacation was over. (Comics were produced more leisurely in those years.)
But she lovingly tended the Library…chasing fans who visited or turned pro out if she thought they were a danger to its organization, ensuring that new bound volumes were collected each year, and giving staffers the opportunity to add their personal collections to the binding process (at their own cost, naturally) which started me on the path to binding my entire collection.
When Gerda retired, I got to help tend the Library, and one day in my exploration of its depths, I found a small stack of her papers. The most interesting was an issue of AQUAMAN, with a note tacked to it in her letterer-precise handwriting, saying “My greatest mistake.” The issue was folded open, and careful examination showed a caption, with a circle around a single word. The caption described the Atlanteans as “a gentile people.”
I could feel her blush.
The earliest stories of Huntress, one of the Gotham City heroes featured in the upcoming Warner Bros. film Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, are collected in a new title.
The daughter of a hero and villain–the Earth-2 Batman and Catwoman–young Helena Wayne is unique in comics. Trained by her parents, she became a superb athlete, and studied law with the hope of bringing criminals to justice. But when her mother died after being blackmailed into resuming her life of crime, Helena traded her books for a mask and a crossbow and set out to seek revenge as the Huntress!
Now this fan-favorite character’s classic 1977 origin story as well as her first several years of solo adventures are collected in a single volume. Written by Paul Levitz (Justice Society, Legion of Super-Heroes) and illustrated by Joe Staton (Green Lantern), Steve Mitchell (Iron Man), Bob Layton (X-O Manowar), and more, The Huntress: Origins also features an insightful introduction by Levitz.
More details and order info at Penguin Random House
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.
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.