Paul Levitz

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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Brooklyn Blood

Brooklyn Blood 928 1427 Paul Levitz

In Brooklyn, a serial killer is on the loose–and when strange clues lead down a paranormal path, a detective confronts his inner demons to solve the case.

After returning from a tour in Afghanistan, detective Billy O’Connor returns home to a Brooklyn he doesn’t recognize. As he tries to return to his normal routines, his PTSD is easily triggered and he suffers severe hallucinations. Once he begins to work a gruesome homicide case, however, O’Connor has difficulty sorting out what’s real–and after he uncovers some strange clues, he’ll have to face the unthinkable to bring the killer to justice. 

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From New York Times Bestselling authors Paul Levitz (75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Myth-Making) and Tim Hamilton (Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation), this volume collects all sixteen chapters originally serialized in Dark Horse Presents Volume 3 #17-#22 and #24-#33!

More details and order info at Penguin Random House

Read related interviews: Brooklyn Blood Spills To Applause

Brooklyn Blood Spills To Applause

Brooklyn Blood Spills To Applause 960 300 Paul Levitz

Comics Veteran Paul Levitz on ‘Brooklyn Blood’ and His Eisner Hall of Fame Nomination

by Graeme McMillan

“I like to feel that I played a part in making comics a better field for creative people,” says the writer, editor and executive.

Paul Levitz is having quite the year. The veteran comic book creator and executive served as DC Comics president between 2002 and 2009, capping off a 35-year stint with the company. He has has been nominated for a place on the Will Eisner Hall of Fame, but he’s hardly resting on his laurels; this week also sees the release of Brooklyn Blood, a collected edition of his horror crime serial from anthology series Dark Horse Presents.Heat Vision talked to Levitz about the origin of the new project, and also where he sees the comic book industry from his particular vantage point.

I want to start with Brooklyn Blood. You’re a writer who’s worked in multiple genres through your career, and one who’s demonstrated a consistent desire to push yourself — your Doctor Fate run just a few years ago is evidence of that, in terms of cultural influence as much as anything. But even with all of that, Brooklyn Blood feels like a departure. Where did you come up with, “Oh, Lovecraftian horror noir, that’s a good idea”?

Brooklyn Blood really started as a more straightforward police procedural, a genre I’ve loved forever. But stories take you where they will… Doctor Fate started with thinking about the original character’s connection to Egypt, and before I knew it, Anubis was ready to drown the world in a second great flood. Once I focused on Brooklyn as a setting — taking advantage of my old hometown now being cool — the geographic coincidence of three very different mass deaths in a single-mile stretch led me to look for the common cause, and it turned out to be Lovecraftian.

How did you hook up with Tim Hamilton? His work brings so much to the story.

My pal Christine Norrie, an Eisner-nominated artist herself, recommended Tim, and his work on [the graphic novel adaptation of] Fahrenheit 451 clinched it. Brooklyn Blood required someone comfortable with smooth shifts from gritty reality to horror that’s either in detective O’Connor’s imagination or reality, and Tim did that straddle magnificently. He’s also a Brooklyn resident, so getting the ambiance and the settings worked out especially well.

How was the experience of writing short chapters for an anthology? Books like Dark Horse Presentsremain an oddity in the American industry, sadly, but you were writing shorts for classic anthologies Ghosts and House of Mystery way back when. How did you find returning to this kind of writing after years of thinking of story in terms of 20- to 22-page chunks?

Anthologies can be great, and I loved reading things like Dune when it was originally a serial in Analog. There’s a certain power to building stories within constraints, self-imposed or otherwise, and having to structure this one in eight-page chapters kept it moving at a pretty rapid pace. That said, I think mysteries are more fun to read in a single volume, and I think Brooklyn Blood comes together better that way.

Since stepping down as president and publisher of DC in 2009, you’ve done an impressive variety of work, both for DC and elsewhere, with non-fiction books for Taschen and Abrams. You’ve made a point of staying active in the field, not settling down or settling at all. Was this pent-up energy from being an executive for so long and wanting to explore different creative avenues?

There’s so many ways to have fun as a creative person with how comics are exploding as a cultural form, and I’m enjoying as many as I can. I do a lot of teaching, board work on not-for-profits and Boom! Studios [Levitz signed on to the publisher’s board of directors in 2014], consulting projects, and when I sit down to the keyboard, I like to either revisit my old friends or stretch myself. We worked hard to expand the possibilities for comics; why not take advantage of it?

Along those lines: The comic industry is a very different place today from when you started out — thanks to changes that you were involved with at DC — and there are many more possibilities for different types of creators and stories to be found by readers these days. As a scholar, fan and creator, where is your head at when it comes to the state of comics right now?

I think the creative medium of comics is in a second golden age, with more types of stories being created than we’ve ever had in America. The comics industry I came into was a small niche in American publishing — maybe 3 percent? — compared to the sales comics forms have elsewhere, often 14–35 percent of overall trade publishing, and I think we close this gap by diversifying the genres we publish. Children’s comics and memoirs are experiencing great growth; who knows what’s next? Comics can tell any kind of story.

You’re nominated for the Hall of Fame this year. Is that a moment that makes you pause and look back at your career to date? And if so, what do you see?

I’m incredibly honored to be nominated — on the same list as Thomas Nast — and proud of what I’ve accomplished in each stage of my career: As a comic fan doing [early fanzine] The Comic Reader, as an editor, writer and executive. I like to feel that I played a part in making comics a better field for creative people, and that’s why we’ve been able to start the graphic novel explosion and see comics’ stories move into other media so successfully. Besides, as a college dropout who’s getting to teach at schools like Columbia University, I’m getting a bit of the last laugh. Does it get better than that?


brooklyn-blood-teaseTHE DAILY BEAST
Legendary Comic Book Writer Paul Levitz Unmasks the Horror Lurking in Brooklyn

By Spencer Ackerman

Somewhere between a cop thriller and an occult monster story lives the hall-of-famer’s latest, his first set outside DC Comics in four decades, firmly set in his native borough.

Brooklyn was a place residents worked to escape in Paul Levitz’s day, which was decades before an influx of wealthy whites transformed it into something barely recognizable to its natives.

But its hold on its children can be felt in the bitterness, the contempt and the truth behind the opening lines of Levitz’s newest comic book: “I got Brooklyn in my blood. But it sure as hell isn’t this Brooklyn.”

The lines belong to Billy O’Connor, a pissed-off Marine veteran of Afghanistan turned asshole cop whose struggle with PTSD fuels the engine of Brooklyn Blood, Levitz’s first original comic in 40 years published outside DC Comics.

Levitz, an East Flatbush native raised in the shadow of Tilden High School, spent decades shaping DC Comics as a writer, editor and eventually publisher. But on Wednesday, the smaller-press Dark Horse Comics will publish a collected edition of Brooklyn Blood, Levitz’s hybrid detective thriller/horror story, a collaboration with artist Tim Hamilton.

It’s a creative stretch for Levitz, one of the first comics fans to turn professional, who’s most widely known as the driving force behind DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, a 30th century intergalactic task force helmed by teen heroes Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, and Lightning Lad. Brooklyn Blood riffs off Ed McBain’s detective fiction, he says—“great procedurals and often structured to work around not developing too much detail about an adversary”—and felt it was important to ground such a work in a familiar place.

“O’Connor is channeling my amazement at the borough changing. Not disgust, part joy, part amazement… and some worry that the working class transformative power of Brooklyn may get lost in the shift,” Levitz tells The Daily Beast.

Brooklyn Blood, first serialized in the anthology series Dark Horse Presents, is a nervous tale driven by trauma. O’Connor’s flashbacks to his armored personnel carrier running over an insurgent roadside bomb both complicate and help him unravel the case of a serial killer stalking Park Slope. With help from a psychic, O’Connor and his Muslim partner, Nadira Hasan, get sucked ever deeper into a seemingly random spate of slayings that connect to something ancient and occult lurking within the fabric of the borough. There’s even a guest appearance by the borough of Queens.


Brooklyn-BloodNY POST
Ex-head of DC Comics now tackling the real, bloody history of Brooklyn

And you thought the scariest thing in Brooklyn was at the bottom of the Gowanus Canal.

As the head of DC Comics, Paul Levitz worked with the biggest names in the comics business — Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.

But after retiring and deciding to write an original story of his own, the East Flatbush native chose to leave capes and costumes behind and write about something far more astounding: the real, bloody history of his home borough.

“I noticed three of the city’s five greatest loss-of-life disasters all took place within a mile of each other in Brooklyn. That’s kind of weird. It’s a big city. Why? That became a story hook,” said Levitz, who served as president and publisher at DC from 2002 to 2009.

“What would happen if a serial killer was committing murders in the spots where those mass deaths happened? Where would that lead?”

Where it led was the book “Brooklyn Blood,” a supernatural thriller about a grizzled 78th Precinct gumshoe trying to work out why corpses and ghosts are showing up at the site of those disasters — the 1776 Battle of Brooklyn, the 1918 Malbone Street train wreck and the 1960 Park Slope plane crash

It’s part police procedural, part Lovecraftian horror story — and a history lesson on the surprising body count racked up in and around Park Slope before the neighborhood was more synonymous with the phrase “food co-op.”

The setting isn’t far from where the comics-industry legend, 61, grew up, reading books from seminal crime writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Ed McBain.As a teenager, Levitz took over running a defunct comics fanzine called The Comic Reader, and his work soon caught the attention of DC — home to the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel — where he was offered work as a writer and began climbing the ranks.

But even though the first original comic book ever made rolled off the Brooklyn Eagle’s presses in 1935, Levitz notes, the entire comics industry was in Manhattan.

By age 19, he’d happily said “fuhgeddaboudit” to Brooklyn for good and moved across the East River.

“Brooklyn was not cool in those days,” Levitz, 61, said.

Of course, the borough’s cachet has seen a rebirth in recent years to rival that of Superman’s 1993 rise from the dead, as Levitz saw when he returned to visit after his daughter moved to Boerum Hill after college.

‘I noticed three of the city’s five greatest loss-of-life disasters all took place within a mile of each other in Brooklyn. That’s kind of weird. It’s a big city. Why? That became a story hook.’

“We worked so hard to get out of Brooklyn!” he joked.

And when a pal who runs indie publisher Dark Horse Comics asked Levitz to write something, he decided to return to his roots by setting the story in Brooklyn and finally penning the kind of crime story he’s loved since childhood, although with a paranormal twist.

“I had an opportunity to play in that genre after decades doing superheroes-slash-science fiction,” Levitz said.

He was able to funnel some of his head-scratching, homecoming experiences into the main character of “Brooklyn Blood” — an Afghanistan war veteran who returns to the streets where he grew up to work as a cop, only to find them filled with hipsters drinking pumpkin-spice beers.

Suffering PTSD, Detective Bill O’Connor is haunted by the ghosts of his past — which are soon joined by the ghosts of Brooklyn’s past when a murder victim is found in Prospect Park.

That’s the approximate site of the Battle of Brooklyn — the first major battle of the Revolutionary War, where about 300 members of the Continental Army were slaughtered by the British.

The connection isn’t obvious in the story until O’Connor walks past the Fort Greene Prison Martyrs Monument — where the remains of American prisoners from the war are buried — and spooky skeletal poltergeists start coming out of the ground.


The 1960 Park Slope plane crash. (NY Post photo)

He starts seeing ghost planes crash over Park Slope — where a United Airlines jet plummeted in 1960 after colliding in midair with a TWA propeller craft (which smashed into Staten Island), killing 134 people. Then there’s a ghost train rocketing along the subway tracks beneath Malbone Street where 93 people died when a Brighton Beach Line train crashed near the Prospect Park station in 1918. O’Connor soon realizes these aren’t just his regular war flashbacks.

Levitz teamed up with Fort Greene-based illustrator Tim Hamilton to bring the story to life — so to speak.

The pair pored over history books and old articles and walked the streets to get the Brownstone Brooklyn scenery right before filling their tale with monsters and explosions and casting a noir-ish shadow over everything.

“I really do enjoy history, so I was able to go around and take pictures of most of the things I put into the novel,” said Hamilton, who has previously adapted Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”″ into a graphic novel and has done art for The New Yorker and Mad magazine.

The pair also used their own homegrown knowledge — it was Hamilton’s idea to include the Prison Martyr’s Memorial from his neighborhood, while Levitz knew what the fatal train tunnel in the Malbone Street disaster actually looked like from riding the rails as a kid.

“In my youth, I used to ride in the front of the train looking deep into the tunnel, so I’ve got a pretty good visual sense of what goes on. In the old days, you could easily see out the front of the cars, so you learned a lot more than you do now,” he said.

Which is just as well, because Hamilton, like many New Yorkers, hadn’t even heard of the wreck.

“They don’t make a big deal about it at the Transit Museum,” Levitz quipped.

The 1918 Malbone St. train wreck. (NYCTA File Photo)

The 1918 Malbone St. train wreck. (NYCTA File Photo)

“And [the city] renamed Malbone Street to Empire Boulevard pretty quickly after the disaster. Real-estate values — the guiding history of much of New York City.”

The comic culminates in an epic showdown between O’Connor and his mystic foe at the Hell Gate Bridge — which isn’t in Brooklyn, but is where the Brooklyn-made General Slocum steamboat sank when it caught fire in 1904, killing 1,021 people.

“Once it became a supernatural story, the fact that the city’s great disaster prior to 9/11 happened at a place called Hell Gate was a natural payoff,” Levitz said.

Also, the scene just looks cool — and has the right infrastructure for a ghost train, a ghost plane and a ghost sea monster all at once.

“When you’re talking about deaths that happened a hundred years ago and in many ways hadn’t been memorialized, you didn’t have a distinctive visual to play with,’’ Levitz said.

“So being able to work with something as vivid as a railroad bridge, it’s pretty cool architecture.”

With comics currently enjoying unprecedented popularity thanks to the explosion of superhero stories on the big and small screens, plus Brooklyn’s new popularity, Levitz is looking to tap into the zeitgeist of both.

“I hope ‘Brooklyn Blood’ can be a little bit of a trend-setter,” he said.

“I’m hoping people in Brooklyn hear about the story and are curious enough to take a look. I promise no ghosts come with it.”

Levitz and Hamilton are doing a signing at Crown Heights’ Anyone Comics on July 27.

That, too, is the site of an important Brooklyn event.

“I was bar mitzvahed a couple of blocks from there!” Levitz said.

The joys of awards

The joys of awards 1200 375 Paul Levitz

I’ve been very lucky in my life to have received some lovely recognition for my work, none more so than being inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame. The HOF is a collection of some of the great pioneers and master crafts people of comics and cartooning, and it’s an honor to be among them. It’s not a perfect selection system, and over the 30 or so years it’s been around, many worthy and talented folks have been inducted and a few obvious candidates haven’t made it in yet (Max Gaines leaps to mind).

It’s on the shelf in my mind with my 1972 and 1973 Best Fanzine Comic Art Awards, the Inkpot, the Bob Campbell Humanitarian Award, the DicK Giordano Humanitarian Award, the Comics Pro Industry Appreciation Award, and the several awards (including an Eisner) that 75 YEARS OF DC COMICS: THE ART OF MODERN MYTH-MKING Scored.

To all involved in these, thank you…and to all of you who allowed me to do the work that qualified, thank you as well.

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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.

Publishers Weekly on ACTION CELEBRATION

Publishers Weekly on ACTION CELEBRATION 150 150 Paul Levitz

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.)

Commencer à travailler dans une startup, c’est comme entrer dans une machine à remonter le temps faite de miroirs. Vous commencez par voir de nombreux visages familiers, mais vous êtes rapidement entouré de personnes que vous ne reconnaissez pas. Et lorsque vous regardez ces visages inconnus, vous ne pouvez pas toujours vous fier à votre première impression pour vous faire une idée de qui ils sont et de ce qu’ils font.

A Conversation With Karen

A Conversation With Karen 1200 375 Paul Levitz


I was privileged to have my good friend and long time colleague Karen Berger at the Columbia class I co-teach with Jeremy Dauber.  Happy to share with you a transcript of that conversation.


KarenBergerPL: Karen comes into the story (of comics) at the beginning of the 1980s at your age, basically, fresh out of college.

KB: Younger.  I was 21.

PL: (She was) unread in the world of comics.  It was not something that she liked or enjoyed as a child growing up.  We’ll get her to confess the one or two that she might have touched.  I was hiring for a position to assist me and ultimately within a short period of time replace me as the operations or administration person for the editorial department.   It didn’t strike me that that person have a background in comics.  Karen was friendly with Marc DeMatteis, a writer who was doing a little bit of work for me at that time, as well as work for other editors at DC, and she heard that there was this position.

Why in god’s name did you want to come work for a place that did something you didn’t read and didn’t like?

KB: I needed a job.  I was another English major, fresh out of Brooklyn College.  I majored in English Lit, and minored in Art History, particularly in modern art.  What I really wanted to do was work at an art magazine like Art In America or do something related to modern art.  But those jobs are hard to find.

PL: We all know comic book jobs are easy to get.

KB:  That world was pretty hard to penetrate, and I guess being from Brooklyn College wasn’t good enough, but that’s alright.

Anyway, then Marc DeMatteis, an old friend of mine, a few years older than I am, had started writing comics while I was still in college.  Marc had been in Brooklyn College forever, because in those days as a humanities major, you had to take a language.  Marc always took Spanish, and he always failed it.  He stayed in school just to take Spanish.  He finally went to Empire State University.

House_of_Mystery_v.1_282Marc used to drag me to this funky little comic book shop on Flatbush Avenue.  I didn’t know comic book stores existed.  It was a dusty, icky place.  He showed me the first comic he’d done for Paul, I think it was a Weird War Tales…

PL: House of Mystery.

KB: It was buried in the back of the store in this box.  This place was so weird.  I remember reading it, and it was good.

So when I graduated, I took the summer off, did some traveling with a friend of mine.  When I came back I started looking for a job.  The modern art world wasn’t looking good for me.  Marc said, “Hey, you know Paul Levitz, the editor I always get so nervous seeing when Ishow him a script?  Well, he’s looking for an assistant, and he doesn’t want anyone who is a comic fan; it’s basically an administrative job.  Why don’t you send him your resume?”

Amazingly enough, I guess we hit it off.

PL: And you showed up for work.

KB: What really fascinated me about comics, not really having read any as a kid was the layered approach to comics storytelling.  I think I was like most people at the time, not thinking about a comic was created—they just appeared.  But there was actually a script.  My eyes were really opened to the process, the creativity involved.

And the people.  The people at DC Comics at the time, and the freelance writers and artists, were just really great people.  There’s always a loser here or there.  But most of them were really welcoming, and it was really a great time.  I think my interest in art also helped, and the fact that I liked to read weird shit.

PL: And we weren’t doing weird enough shit, in your definition, early on.  The nature of the evolution of the field at the time was that of a craft that was passed on from those that knew it, to the apprentices.  If you were smart and energetic, you could become a journeyman fairly quickly.

Karen got handed some editorial responsibilities within a year…

ComicsCodeAuthorityKB: Within six months.  Paul was editing House of Mystery and he said, “Well, I want to see if you know how to edit. “ Pretty much, that was Paul.  As you know , he’s pretty direct.  “I want to see if you have any editorial skills, so we can co-edit this first issue together and we’ll see how it goes.”  And after the first issue, he took his name off.  I guess I did a good job.

PL: You didn’t wreck the car while you were taking the driving lesson.  That’s the basic standard for these things.

KB: I don’t know if you remember this, but one of my stories in that issue was actually rejected by The Comics Code.  It was written by Marc.  I was crestfallen.  Now I wear it as a badge of honor.

Three and a half years later, when we were closing down the series because no one was buying it anymore, I did manage to sneak that story in.  The Comics Code at that point was…

PL: Neutered.

KB: …and it went through with flying colors.  The story was called “Government Vampire.”  I think it was a soldier in Vietnam who gets bitten in a cave, and eventually comes back to America and becomes President.

PL: Prescient already.

As you can see, Karen’s more comfortable in long form storytelling rather than short. 

KB: You can write an eight-page story, a really good eight-page story, you can write anything.  It’s a great format.

Legion_of_Super-Heroes_Vol_2_295PL: So, for a couple of years most of your work is doing maintenance work on existing titles. Some fun stuff: we got to work together on Legion of Super-Heroes, during some of the best work that I did.  An incredible editor to work with; she would find—

KB: Right after The Great Darkness Saga.  I started on #295.

PL: She would find where you went off the rails in the process.  Not where she wanted it a different way, but where you weren’t achieving what you set out to do.

She was clearly a restless creature, and this was a time of experimentation.   The direct market was emerging, we didn’t quite know what it would be; the newsstand was disappearing.  There was a lot of freedom to invent new titles as the House of Mystery sort of things were disappearing as creatures of the newsstand.

You did some early experiments that we look back on with great fondness, that are much more viable for today’s diverse audience than they turned out to be at the time.  Angel Love with Barbara Slate, which was a sort of modernized Archie, and Amethyst, Princess of Gemworldwhich was—

KB: My favorite.

angelPL: That was a classic Oz kind of fable.

So how’d you have the guts to come in and suggest these things that didn’t match anything the company had done for decades? 

KB: Because I wasn’t a fan coming into the business, it gave me an objectivity which helped in terms of looking at what was being done in comics.  Also, selfishly, I just wanted to edit stuff I wanted to read.

I didn’t really respond to super hero material.  Being a woman, and back when I was growing up, comics weren’t geared for women at all, outside of Archie, and romance comics—

PL: There weren’t any romance comics left by the time you were in the business. 

KB: But when I was at sleepaway camp they were passed around.  And I read MAD Magazine, because I had big brothers who were MAD readers.  That was a great hybrid introduction to comics.

PL: So this is basically just selfish?  I don’t like what you publish, and I want to edit something I want to read?

KB: Pretty much.  I was reading Stephen King, and a lot of weird stuff in college. Carlos Castenada. I wasn’t a real science fiction reader, as you were. I just loved things that were sort of off the beaten path. I was attracted to the otherness, the outsider perspective.

I sort of relished the fact that I was an outsider to comics. People who got into comics said that they got into comics because they felt like outsiders, and I thought I was a regular—

PL: A normal person?  We fixed that.

KB: But I really liked the fact that I could say, “Why?”

There was a navel-gazing from too much continuity, too much of the same old thing.  Why not try?

I give a lot of credit to Jenette Kahn, who as you know was President & Publisher at DC for many years.  I still remember the first time that I met her, she said to me, “I think we can tell any kind of story in comics.”  I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about—I was 21, it was my first real job.  Well, this is what comics is.  But it stuck with me;always.

I was really fortunate to be at a company—with Paul, with Jenette, and my boss (for years) Dick Giordano—that fosted freedom of expression, and taking chances and taking risks.  If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t have been able to do this kind of stuff.

PL: So one of the formative experiences you have at this moment is we’ve started to work with these crazy British creators: Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons; and you’re given editorial responsibility on Swamp Thing, so you’re brought into contact with Alan immediately.  Swamp Thing was not a prestigious thing to be given to edit at this point…

KB: It was a dying title.  Len Wein, who created it had brought it back because we were making these horrible movies—

PL: The guy in the rubber suit.

KB: At the point in my career I was given the choice to either become a full time business person or a time editor.  I’d inherited Paul’s administrative role as editorial coordinator, with schedules, payments and all that kind of stuff.  I edited a few books on the side.  The company was growing, adding books, and Dick said you can take either path.

In a heartbeat, I said “I want to be a full time editor.”  So I got Swamp Thing, Wonder Woman, a couple of other awful old titles.

The sales of Swamp Thing were pretty low at the time; I don’t know if it was on the verge of cancellation.  But it canged my life.

PL: It changed comics. 

KB: For sure.

PL: So you started to do this, and because you’re doing so well, we give you the ‘get out of town’ card.  We need more artists because the line is expanding, maybe there’s even a writer over there, they do sort of speak the same language, and Alan’s doing some interesting stuff.  Jenette and Dick were travelling a couple of times a year over to England, but it was clear there was more excavating to be done, and somebody needed to drink much more beer.  I don’t remember if we volunteered you… 

KB: Jenette did, actually.  We used to do these editorial retreats several tiems a year either at Mohonk Mountain Lodge or Tarrytown House, where we would sequester the editors with Paul, Jenette and Bruce (Bristow, the marketing guy at the time).  It was a great time.   The time of Dark Knight and Watchmen and the industry was really changing and expanding.  We had a lot of great meetings, talking about philosophically how comics could change.  It was a really great scene.

Theat’s where Piranha Press came from, an indie imprint of ours that predated Vertigo.  It lasted a couple of years.

Anyway, Jenette said she was going to UKCAC (the UK Comic Art Convention) the next week, and would I like to go.  She was thinking she needed someone to work as British liaison with the artists there, and I knew a couple of them.

My friend was getting married the next week. So ohmigod, what am I going to do?  I called my friend, and said  “This is a good career move, and I can’t come.”  We’re still friends, which is good news.

When I was over there, what really dawned on me was the huge talent pool that I felt was untapped: a great underground scene in comics in England at the time.

DC was doing these great new versions of Batman and Superman (with John Byrne) and George Perez was on Wonder Woman.  We can go back to old DC characters, update them and make them cooler.

swamp_thing_047_parliamentPL: One of the key reasons was the company wasn’t yet ready to offer deals that were enticing people to create original properties.  So one way to overcome that was to bring half of it, an old name, a piece of an idea, and you develop something new around it.  That was a workable thing for a number of projects, many of which are thankfully forgotten.  One or two of which proved the concept. 

KB: Because I liked horror and the supernatural, I looked at those characters.  And the (super hero editors) wouldn’t let me play in that sandbox even if I wanted to, so I had to go into a territory that nobody gave a shit about.

PL: Did they not let you into their sandbox because you were a girl or because you were the new kid? 

KB: I never felt it was because I was a girl.  I never felt that at DC, at all.  It was a non-issue.

If anything being a woman editor gave me a great advantage working with freelancers, (mostly) men because a lot of them were afraid of me.  Don’t ask me why.

PL (whispers): I can explain. 

KB: I’m not bossy.  I spoke my mind, in a nice way, but with a lot of men when working with other men there were a lot of ego issues.  Outdoing each other.  And I wasn’t a threat to them.  I also think because I was on that side of the desk, if there was going to be an issue it was less likely.

PL: But for all you say you didn’t like super-heroes, you were doing Legion, which was the second best-selling book in the line— 

KB: That was soap opera, not the typical adolescent power fantasy.

PL: I’m going to flash forward a couple of years.  You’ve been hanging with the brits,you’ve developed a couple of titles.  It’s the late 1980s and there’s starting to be a defined flavor.  On its good days, in comics there’s an editor with distinct enough taste that you begin to identify a category or style of books with them.  You’re starting to have that reputation, and there’s not a model for what to do about it. 

One of the things that you launch in that time is Sandman, using that model of take an old name and do something new with it.  Let’s pause for that story. 

black-orchidKB: I met Neil on that first trip to London, but I didn’t realize it was him until a year later.  He was a guy outside a bar wearing a suit.  A nice guy, holding court, talking to some other people.

He was a nice guy, and he was sending me short stories as pitches.  Okay, but never quite right.  But he was persistent.  When we re-met I connected the name to him.  On my second trip, we made it a formal pitch session, with meetings every hour on the hour, like being a therapist.

Then and now 2000 A.D. was the main British place we looked, but there’d been WarrioMarvel U.K. and some small press comics.  I had recommendations from Alan and Brian, and Nick Landau, the publisher of Titan Books, had recommended Neil.  And that’s when we reconnected.

At that meeting, Neil pitched us a new take on Sandman, but at that time the character was being used in All-Star Squadron that Roy Thomas was writing, so we can’t do that.  He asked about John Constantine, but Jamie Delano was already working on that—he was ahead of the pack because at the time he was Alan’s best friend.

So he said, “What about Black Orchid?”  I thought he said Blackhawk Kid, with Neil’s funny little British accent.  It turned out to be Black Orchid, and I said I have no idea who this character is.  But Neil’s a great storyteller even back then, and gave us a great pitch, and he and Dave McKean went back and did this great proposal and we went from there.

Sandman_no.1About six months later, we had another editorial retreat, and Jenette remembered Neil pitching Sandman.  I called Neil, and asked him to go back, ditch the continuity and make it his own.  He made this brilliant proposal.

PL: And the rest is history.

KB: When we started, we had no idea it would be.  Or that Neil was going to become the force of nature he became.  Neil was always extremely talented, with such a fertile wild imagination.  But some people can really go with it, and some can’t.  There was obviously something special about him and his gift.

PL: That’s a great moment to diverge on.  One of the many things that makes your career distinguished is that you are significantly responsible for the largest number of new writers in comics in the last twenty years.  The people who came in either  for you or for your team, where you worked on their first stories. 

You saw a lot of people with fertile imaginations, people who were very good at spinning a story, and you can fill a significant portion of this room with writers whose first stories you bought.  There’s a gift in separating the ones with potential from the ones who don’t.  Can you articulate what you used as your ‘spider-sense’ (to borrow from a writer you didn’t recruit) to tell the difference?

KB:  A lot of it is a gut sense.  What  I responded to personally.  And a structural aspect, a mechanical aspect.  Structure is very important: can they plot a story, structure it in a way that’s not predictable.  Can they think out of the box, and then pull it off.  DO they have a great ear for dialogue.  Dialogue is really key.  You can have a feh story, and if you someone who’s really good at dialogue, you don’t even realize it.

Also the passion behind it.  With anything creative, you have to really want it, pursue and perservere.  You also have to be open to feedback.  Most people were welcoming, but some weren’t, and comics are a very collaborative medium.  You’re writing for an audience, and you have to be open to feedback and reactions.

I responded to people who had interests outside comics, people who knew what was happening in the world, in science and politics.  I’m fascinated by people who are fascinated by things.  That was a really key thing.

If you look at the writers I worked with over the years, you can see there influences came from beyond older comics.  Which is I think one of the things  that most of the super hero comics were retelling versions of the old stories.  I just didn’t want to do that.

PL: So we’re starting to have a handful of books that are being jokingly referred to as the ‘Bergerverse’ and they have a characteristic in them that I would later describe in conversation with you as “you know your book is working if it bothers me.” 

KB: I used to drive him crazy.

PL: I’m sitting there as the publisher, and she’s sitting there with the mandate to push the boundaries.  And also to unsettle the readers’ point of view about how the universe works.  If they were about magic, it wasn’t about hocus pocus and the rabbit comes out of the hat, but about how magic’s a force in how things aren’t going right in your personal life. 

We’re trying to figure out what to do with this.  We’re dependent on the direct market, which is the core of our business at this time.  We’ve tried this experiment with Piranha Press, which produced some interesting material, but failed in the marketplace.  That was our first alternate imprint. 

You’re not the most commercial part of our line—that’s still the traditional super heroes—but something is working, and in particular, what’s working is these first trade paperback collections of Sandman.  We’re nervous enough about it that the first trade isn’t the first set of issues, but the second storyline, issue #8.  We think the first cycle is too dependent on DC continuity. 

KB: There was a big feature in Rolling Stone by Mikal Gilmore—a huge thing at the time.  We actually took an ad out, which was huge—we didn’t spend anything (then).  That actually factored into our decision.

#8 introduced Death.

Sandman_8PL: I really think it’s one of the most brilliant single issue comics ever done. 

KB: I think so too.  And I think that’s where Neil crystalized as a writer.  Everything fell into place, his sense of humanity, his accessibility, his originality.  It wasn’t drawing on the other DC characters he used in the first storyline.  That first storyline could have gone off into the weird DC character world, instead of taking this left turn into this magical—

PL: –mythology. 

KB: As a non-comics reader, I felt starting there was right.  Then we quickly went back and did the first storyline.

PL: Also because that first book did well, and the new had something we could follow up with.  It seems like we’re talking about inventing the wheel here, but the idea that we could actually have a sequential reprinting of a series of a comic book was still a really outrageous idea.  We’ve talked about Cerebrus and Dave Sim’s “phone books” (in class) but nothing like had been tried by a publisher that had mainstream distribution.  Comics didn’t do any kind of market research, so we didn’t have any real idea of what was going on. 

But there seemed to be these creatures showing up for events with Neil that didn’t quite look like our regular readers.  Some of them looked a lot like Death, because some of the Goth movement were taking her as a totemic figure, and some of them were ordinary, but female.  We hadn’t seen a lot of females for a while.  Something was going on, and the material was selling in a different fashion. 

The trade paperbacks were continuing to sell over time, and that was changing the publishing model.  It started to say, you can introduce something to the core market, and if works creatively, not even commercially, you can sustain it with these trade paperbacks.

V_for_VendettaKB: We also did V For Vendetta.  The first bunch were published in Warrior in the U.K. before that was cancelled, and we made a deal to bring it over and have them finish it.  Alan and Dave Lloyd finished it, and stuck to the format of short chapters as the originals had been.  And when we finally established Vertigo a few years later—

PL: That was our solution for what the hell to do with her.  We didn’t want to market it as ‘Bergerverse’ and apparently she was saving Berger Books for later.  I probably wouldn’t have signed off on it; she wouldn’t have sold us her name forever… 

KB: Actually, I’m not selling it forever now.  That’s what happens when you go toindependent publishing.

PL: Low blow. 

When we went to create Vertigo, it wasn’t just  taking the creative sensibilities.  We had a lot of conversations about how we would do things differently outside of the more assembly-lined structure of the super-heroes.

KB: And creator ownership.  That’s when we started to do creator-owned deals.  We worked hard on it for a long time, and were constantly revising them.  It was a big deal for a company like DC to invest in creative talent like that, and to break away from the old deals.  I think they were fair deals for the time.  People were paid very well for their work.

PL: Besides the deals themselves, you adopted a different methodology.  We had conversations where we talked about a more ‘authorial’ environment, some of that was about the talent’s faith that you were looking out for their interests as well as the company’s interests and the readers’.  Whether the company asked you to, authorizedyou, or reluctantly put up with it, you would show the writers the covers, involve them in who was coloring…it was an evolving process. 

Sometimes you were ahead of where the company’s willingness was, or where mine was…

KB: I still remember when we started Vertigo we could say shit, but not fuck.  All the writers grumbled.  I went to Jenette because I knew she’d say yes.  Matt Wagner, who did Sandman Mystery Theatre was very strong on this.  And she said, sure I think we can.

I remember going into Paul’s office right after to tell him, and he said, “I wish you didn’t do that.”

PL: I think it’s a natural thing for all children to learn to play mommy against daddy.  Sometimes it works in the corporate environment too. 

KB: Jenette’s amazing.  I remember Paul used to call her “our fearless leader,” and she really was.  If it wasn’t for her, a lot of comics wouldn’t be modern.  We might have gotten there a different way, but it would have been the Bizarro world.

PL: So you’re doing these things differently, you have tremendous affection and respect from your creators.  One of the most entertaining moments in contract negotiation was Stardust.  Neil’s agent, Merrilee Heifetz, had sent this long list of criteria to the bidders, and she lists 20 things she wants—every possible thing an agent can ask.  And down around #18 was “Who can provide Karen Berger as the editor?,” which in a way was shooting herself in the foot, and in another forcing the others to realize they had to way overtop us on other aspects to have a chance.

KB: I don’t remember that, but I’m glad you do.

TRANSMETPL: You’re changing the business bit by bit.  Your team puts out the first title that changes the business model further, Transmetropolitan, where the trades did well enough to have us continue a money-losing periodical—now a very common comics model.  It’s also getting tougher because other people are trying to do what you’ve been doing, reaching for the creators you’ve developed. 

KB: At that time we had a great selection of material out there, and Vertigo was the gold standard, but I never wanted to rest on our laurels.  The editors that worked for me didn’t either.

We were always looking for new writers and artists, because that’s how you keep anything creative fresh.  Nurturing talent, letting them grow.  Alan Moore was the only writer I know who I think was as brilliant on his first script as anything else he’s done.  But every other writer was a new writer, and all went through learning curves.  Really talented but figuring it out as they went along.

Part of being a good editor is being open to new people and always looking to mix it up, keep the bar high, take risks.  Once you get comfortable and just do the things that works…that’s my problem with mainstream comics as done by DC and Marvel, so much is keeping the characters fresh but undamaged.  I’m not putting it down, even though it might sound like I am, but it’s just a whole different ballgame.

As someone who came into comics from outside, what attracted me to comics was this amazing storytelling, this hybrid medium.  There’s nothing quite like it.  The mazing mix of story and art and the different styles of art.  You’re open to so many approaches, not only in the U.S. but globally.

One of the things that I liked to do at Vertigo, and will be doing at my new gig, Berger Books, which was just announced by Dark Horse, is to really expand the talent pool in terms of reaching to other countries’ writers and artists to do original works.

PL: A perfect summation, as well as a good commercial.  Columbia’s going to lower their tuition by the amount they give you as advance orders. Thanks, Karen!


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…