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!

Carmine & Covers

Carmine & Covers 960 300 Paul Levitz

A recent Facebook post looked at a published JLA cover by Neal Adams and an unpublished but surviving earlier version by Gil Kane, noting that the changes from one to the other were comparatively minor.  The poster (David Seidman, a good soul) wondered why.

I have no inside information on that particular incident, but it made me think it was worth talking about the broader subject of Carmine and covers.  In the era of newsstand sales being the dominant model for comics in America (let’s say roughly 1935-1984?), the conventional wisdom was that the cover was by far the most important element in an issue’s success.  Different theories were built around this (e.g., change the logo’s color and the dominant background every issue so potential customers would notice subliminal it was a new release, or put a talking gorilla prominently in place).  Certainly the principal character mattered, and Steve Ditko’s innovation of the Marvel ‘corner box’ was a way of making sure that even in racks that hid the bottom two-thirds of an issue, the character was still up there as bait.  But if it was a very popular character, they might be on multiple covers at the same time (remember when there were over 20 Richie Rich titles?), so the specific cover still mattered, maybe as much or more than the starring persona.  That was, of course, the logic Carmine was brought up in, and in part, his ticket to the top.

Carmine was pretty much inarguably DC’s star artist in the mid-60s when he was promoted to supervise or design most of the company’s covers.  DC’s best sellers were still far outselling pretty much everything on the newsstand.  It’s likely that the issue of LOIS LANE with Superman yanking off his Clark Kent glasses and insulting Lois as stupid for not seeing past them outsold the FANTASTIC FOUR that began the Galactus trilogy when they went on sale the same day, much as we’d all agree the esthetic worth of the two stacks in the reverse order.  But the Marvel titles were gaining in sales efficiency–the percentage of copies printed and shipped out that actually sold.  That was a critical factor in profitability, and the best measure of immediate response to the appeal of the comic.  Given the belief in the covers’ importance,  deciding to have a single visual hand on DC’s covers and placing that responsibility in Carmine was a weighty decision.

It was a few years later when I began spending time at DC and with Carmine, and another few before I was present when he designed covers, so I’m not sure when he evolved his practices.  But by the early ’70s, he had a very fixed ritual: an editor would bring the completed artwork for an issue in to Carmine’s office, he’d thumb through the boards (maybe reading a bit, maybe not) looking for the critical visuals or elements.  There might be some back and forth with the editor, and then Carmine would pick up his chosen tools: a ballpoint pen and a piece of bond typing paper.

Two idiosyncrasies here: typing paper is not in the same proportion as a comic book, so any sketch done on it is likely to require some adjustment to fit those proportions.  And after decades of using an artist’s pencil (and on occasion, pen or brush), Carmine was chasing to use a very different tool.  My personal interpretation of this is that he wanted to be an executive, and so he used the tools of an executive even though he was stepping into an artist’s role again for the moment.  He had disposed of his drawing board and art files, and whether it was a matter of self-image or how he wanted to be seen, I believe that was his unconscious motive.

The sketches that emerged from this process were raw design dynamics, occasionally with some emphasis on expressions when the faces were large enough images, but principally defining the poses, ideas and negative space.  Many were inspired, many were powerful.  And when you’re called upon to do a dozen in a week, some based on issues that had very limited visual imagery, the duds can easily be forgiven.

Sometimes no cover emerged: when Gerry Conway brought the boards for the first version of SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER-VILLAINS in to Carmine, the pages were flipped, the absence of a headquarters for the villains noted, and the whole issue sent back for a redo.   Or other changes could be required: my first Aquaman story was sent back for another, better writer (David Michelinie) to redialogue after Carmine reviewed it in the cover conference.

Artist editors (of whom DC had several in those years) might have picked up a pencil and offered dueling ideas occasionally, or more often took Carmine’s sketches and drew over them, preserving the dynamic and adding detail and expression.  I watched Joe Orlando do that many, many times, to great effect.  And there were times when editors brought in a finished piece of art they’d been offered as a potential cover for approval; I watched that happen with Wrightson and Kaluta pieces, and I’m sure there others.

And there were artists who were regularly in the office who were invited into those meetings, most often the principal cover artists of a period; Neal Adams, Nick Cardy, others.  (Joe Kubert was, of course, both editor and cover artist on his titles; I never got to watch him and Carmine work up a cover but it must have been a joy to see.).  And when the artist returned with the cover, it was brought into Carmine for inspection and approval.

I don’t know what happened with that JLA cover, but I can imagine Carmine looking at Gil’s version, wagging his cigar in disappointment, and asking Neal to come in from his workspace a few offices away to fix it.  Neal might have even volunteered to do a new version.  And I’d lay a side bet that editor Julie Schwartz would have been silently shaking his head, unconvinced that it made a damn bit of difference.  And, of course, no one knows whether it did.

Brooklyn Blood Spills To Applause

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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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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!


Jenette Kahn INTERVIEW

Jenette Kahn INTERVIEW 960 300 Paul Levitz

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



June 8, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Batman or Superman, and why?

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

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

Art or commerce?

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

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

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

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

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

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

No frogs in the sheets or hazing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Paradigm? 960 300 Paul Levitz

There’s been a bit of conversation lately about something Denny O’Neil kindly labeled “the Levitz paradigm” – a plotting tool I used in the Legion’s heyday to keep track of the many fluid plots and subplots.  The physical ‘device’ is pretty simple, and the theory is one that was rapidly evolving in super hero comics in the ‘80s but which has deep roots in soap opera.  Warren Ellis said some nice things about it recently online, and I wanted to both point out its prior ancestry and my modest contributions.

Today the terms “A plot” and “B plot” are conversational language, but in the ‘80s that wasn’t the case.  Stan Lee and Roy Thomas had been developing the tools in comics since about 1965, and Robert Altman had been weaving it in films, but it hit the broadest mass culture when it moved to network prime time with HILL STREET BLUES.  

 If the ‘paradigm’ was anything beyond a charting tool, it was a few (sometimes ignored by me, sadly) guidelines:


  • start your secondary plots low and raise them slowly (maybe as a C or D plot before it gets to be a B, much less an A).
  • every time you visit a plotline, it needs to progress in that visit (if it’s boy meets sheep, one of them should end the scene in an emotional moment, for example).
  • vary the number of beats before you escalate to an A.

DC_Guide-to-WritingAnd all of this is, of course, secondary to basic plotting rules like making stakes important to the characters, and flowing plots from the characters themselves.  Or one that I’ve grown fonder of in my recent years of teaching, that what reveals/defines character is choices, particularly choices with costs.

It’s a fairly simple and useful charting tool for doing serial comics, and if you’re curious to look at it, check out Denny’s DC Guide to Writing Comics.

The Strip I Didn’t Dare Frame

The Strip I Didn’t Dare Frame 1782 651 Paul Levitz

The background of this post is a daily SUPERMAN that I wrote around 1980, during my two year run on the newspaper strip. It’s kind of a charming moment, and in its own way reflects the paranoia that every writer has about every editor (or publisher) sometimes…are they doing this because they hate me? Perry’s being his customary blunt approach to goad Jimmy a bit.

I was particularly fond of this one because it felt like a real personality piece, and George Tuska was at his best on the strip capturing human expressions like Jimmy’s frustration and shock. And it was among the handful of originals that George and Vinnie passed on to me as souvenirs of our collaboration, back in the days when most pieces of original art couldn’t be valued at more than a McDonald’s lunch. In the early days of original art being returned, I even recall Vinnie selling his by taking a ruler to the stack of returned pages, and offering a price per inch of the pile. They’d both be amazed at what some of their strips are going for now.

But this is one I never hung up. Given my role as publisher (or just the ‘business guy’ before I got that title), I had to make the decision not to publish things fairly often. Sometimes wisely, sometimes not so much (particularly with the benefit not only of hindsight but of facts not available at the time). And while I hope I never made those decisions capriciously, or in the spirit that Perry’s expressing here, I felt that hanging up the strip where it would be read by our contributors would probably be sending the wrong message…


Welcome 960 301 Paul Levitz

Welcome. Crawling slowly into the digital age. Looking for something that can replace the contact and conversation that I had with my fanzines (back in the dinosaur age of comics), or the almost 20 years of writing lettercols. I know this is a very different platform, but I’m hoping it can satisfy some of the old itch and I can enjoy some of the new freedoms.

If you’re here on day one, I assume you know who I am…if not, the propaganda can be found under “Backstory” (write comics long enough and you start thinking you’re a fictional character). If you’re one of the thousands of folks who enabled me to spend my life playing with my childhood toys and obsessions, thanks. If you’re not, welcome anyway—maybe you’ll find something interesting.

If you’re here waiting for the nasty revelations, you’ll be disappointed. I’ve been insanely lucky in my career, and this isn’t settle scores, and I have no taste for mean spirited gossip. You will get anecdotes that take you behind the scenes, but my memory is kinda cluttered with nonsense like Legionnaire home worlds, so it’s often fuzzy, or at least skewed to what I found interesting. And there’s plenty of things I can’t or won’t discuss.

But if you’re curious about nuggets of comics history, or observations about the field, popular culture, or my worldview, hang around. This is a new toy and I’m not certain how often I’ll play here, but I’ll try to keep it interesting.

The design team tells me that we are only in BETA mode, and there are glitches to be debugged, copy to be finalized, books to be added to the ones already posted and the like. But please jump in, join the conversation!



Paul Levitz Returns To His Roots To Write Brooklyn Blood For Dark Horse

Paul Levitz Returns To His Roots To Write Brooklyn Blood For Dark Horse 960 300 Paul Levitz

FROM BLEEDING COOL: Paul Levitz is returning to writing comics now that his tenure at DC Comics has come to a close, and while he’ll continue teaching, which takes a fair amount of his time and attention, this represents a new phase for him creatively. Last week we saw the arrival of Doctor Fate from DC, and readers might have wondered what’s coming up for Levitz. We’re happy to announce today that his next project, appearing in December 2015 will be the detective, occult series Brooklyn Blood. Serialized over as much as a year and a half in as many as 15 installments in the anthology Dark Horse Presents, the story will be illustrated by Tim Hamilton and be set, as the title suggests, in Levitz’s native Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Blood will feature Irish cop and Iraq/Afghanistan war vet Billy O’Connor and a fellow female Arabic-American detective Nadira Hasan. The series will focus on experiences that will challenge their perceptions of the explained and unexplained, all turning on Brooklyn’s history, the mysteries of which initially inspired Levitz to create the story.

We’re happy to have Paul Levitz here today to talk about this phase of his career, the impetus behind Brooklyn Blood, elements of genre, and a generational shift in comics which he finds very promising indeed.