Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Paul Levitz: The History of the Past and Future

Words: Christopher Irving
Pictures: Seth Kushner

“Look, I had one of the great jobs on the planet, and I enjoyed it thoroughly,” Paul Levitz leans back in an armchair. His office’s view of New York is panoramic behind him. “I wish all well to the people who have taken over the different pieces of the responsibility. I hope they have as much fun as I did, last as long if not longer. Try to leave the thing in a better shape then when you find it, and that’s what I tried to do. I generally think I pulled it off.”

Levitz has had an eventful and unique career: starting in the ‘70s as a fan-turned-professional, he rose in the ranks of DC Comics from Assistant Editor to President & Publisher, heralding and championing formats such as the graphic novel, pushing for creator’s rights while simultaneously going to bat for the founding contributors to DC’s history, and working to further an awareness of both DC Comics and the comic book industry itself.

Levitz hasn’t just seen the history, but also lived it.

Just recently, he authored the fine coffee table art book by publisher Taschen: 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking. Clocking in at an impressive fourteen pounds, 75 Years is proof that history is pretty heavy stuff—literally and figuratively. 75 Years is the definitive history of DC, as told by Levitz in a combination of informative essays, massive fold-out timelines (that also include the high points of cultural and world events, providing even more context to the history), and large art reproductions. A copy sits on the coffee table in his office, taking up most of the surface.

Despite his youthful appearance, even more so after shaving off his trademark moustache (Levitz jokes that it left him to go to college), Levitz has seen half of that history first-hand. But after near forty years at DC, he’s earned the chance to step down from his responsibilities as Publisher and return to his roots as a writer. Levitz is proof that you can go home again, as he returns as writer of Legion of Super-Heroes and the newly-reinstated Adventure Comics, once more directing some of the characters that defined his writing career.

“Parts of it are absolutely wonderful,” Paul says of his return to a writing career. “It’s great to have a good portion of the audience really welcoming me back into the game and not saying [puts on silly voice] ‘That’s nice, it’s the old timers’ day! Now can we see the real players?’ There’s a lot of adjustment to the lifestyle and transition in my life, so I’m still getting used to all of that and still thinking about the other kinds of things I want to write besides the comics, as those opportunities start opening up. The reception to the Taschen book was wonderful, and a terrific way to start my career. It’s fun to be back with the Legion of Super-Heroes and writing my old friends.”

The Legion premiered in the pages of Adventure Comics in 1958, back when the title starred Superboy, as the Boy of Steel’s time-traveling pals from the future. They eventually took Adventure over, and were shepherded by talents such as a young Jim Shooter and Cary Bates. Levitz first took the creative reins of the future superhero team for a brief stint from 1976 to 1978, and soon returned to writing them for most of the 1980s. Legion benefits from a devout fan base but, due to the constant rebooting of DC Comics continuity, has been restarted itself on a handful of occasions to better mesh with the new “present” of the DC books.

“The blessing and the curse of the book is the fact that you’re in the future and you can do so many different things,” Levitz reveals. “That’s part of what makes it magic, because you have the ability to create and destroy whole worlds. It also creates a wonderful temptation to create and destroy whole worlds and go off in different directions.

“The complexity and history, even before all of the reboots, was always one of the things that scared some of the readers off. I guess, along the way, there were significant efforts to find a more ‘modern way’ of treating it. There was some fun stuff done along the way, and some stuff that made me shudder, but that’s the way it is with everything.”

Levitz’s current stint on Legion and Adventure combines the look and old continuity of the classic versions of the characters with the quicker pacing of a 21st century superhero comic. It has that rare success in superhero comics today, where each issue works as individual and accessible yet also functions as part of a greater whole.

“I certainly try to set a balance between taking advantage of the serial form and dynamic of that, and hopefully having it make sense when it’s all collected. The audience is entirely different, obviously, both in size, age, and personality from when I last did the series.”

Levitz notes continuity as one of the expected challenges in long-running contemporary comics; luckily, it’s one that he’s old hat at juggling. With its future setting and large cast, Legion of Super-Heroes is historically one of the more continuity-laden superhero comics.

“When I started editing Batman in the late ‘70s, I sat down and reread the run of all the Batman books to make my notes and figure out what I was going to do,” Paul recalls. “It was several days or weeks’ worth of work, but it was doable and your head didn’t explode. I don’t think it’s physically possible now, with another three decades of material that have accumulated, and the amount of publications that have come up in between.

“Comics benefit from these rich loads of mythology that are built up around each of these characters, but you have to make choices about how you’re going to manage that process. Each editor, each writer, and each line have made different choices over time, but it’s very hard to create a successful comic book universe from scratch today, because they don’t feel deep enough by comparison. It’s equally hard to manage these mother lodes of history without making it something that’s challenging to get yourself into.”

            Paul Levitz came into comics as part of the wave of fandom entering the industry’s ranks from around the late ‘60s to mid-‘70s. An entire generation of professionals, such as Marvel editor/writer Roy Thomas, writer and Editor E. Nelson Bridwell, and writer Marv Wolfman, rose from their modest fan magazine origins to stake their positions as the next breed of comics professionals. Levitz was no exception, entering at age 14 with his and friend Paul Kupperberg’s fan magazine Etcetera in 1971; Levitz also inherited the first comic book news fanzine, The Comic Reader (as well as its existing subscription base), and was soon making the circuit as a newshound for the comic book industry. It provided his entry point into DC Comics.

“I came in with that and got to know everyone in the field,” Paul remembers. “Then Joe Orlando invited me to do his letters pages, and that was my first professional work. I also did some of the DC Bullpen pages at the time—Direct Currents and Amazing World of DC Comics.

“I started as Joe’s assistant editor for the summer, and the guy I was filling in for never came back (I was not responsible),” he adds on, jokingly. “After a while of doing it, I said ‘Okay, I’m beginning to understand things from doing rewrite work and copyediting work, as well as watching Joe do it. I think I can do this.’

“I started to do a few mystery stories, some Aquaman for Adventure Comics, several issues of Phantom Stranger, and an original series, Stalker, with Steve Ditko and Wally Wood. I was outrageously lucky to work with them at that young age with my limited talent.”

By the 1970s, artist Steve Ditko had created Spider-Man with Stan Lee, and also contributed heavily to smaller publisher Charlton, where he’d developed superheroes like Captain Atom and the Blue Beetle. Wood was a legend from the EC Comics days, having mostly drawn for publisher William Gaines’s science-fiction line, but also spearheading short-lived superhero book T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents for Tower, and establishing the Daredevil comic book for Marvel. The young Levitz was in illustrious company early on in the game, in 1975—only three years into his blossoming career in comic books.

While Stalker only lasted four issues, it married Ditko’s elongated and expressive figures with Wood’s fine inking; the looseness of the pencils were polished in by Wood’s trademark sense of visual precision. It was far from the last time that Levitz would collaborate with the legendary creator.

“I did about twenty stories with Steve over the years—the Stalker series, ‘Starman,’ a project for Mike Friedrich’s Imagine in the early independent world—and we always played well together,” Levitz says of his old collaborator. “He’s a great storyteller, very crisp and clean, and extraordinarily professional. He prefers to let his work do the talking, so he’s not much of an interview subject. He’s a very nice man.”

“The whole world of comics was very small,” Levitz says of the tumultuous decade of the ‘70s. “There were about two hundred people in the United States making comics, and they were almost all here in New York. Everybody knew everybody and everybody played cards with everybody, or volleyball or whatever your thing was. It was a very closed world. There was no glamor; there was no money in it, and the older generation was literally fading out as we watched.

“[Howard] Chaykin has a great line: we came in at the end of the beginning. We got to know the people who had created the business, but we had a lot of room to create change because the seats were becoming open so rapidly.”

Levitz learned from some of the best, while not only working alongside them in an editorial capacity, but also continuing to grow as a writer while playing in the sandbox of the DCU. His writing skills were honed on nothing less than writing Justice Society of America—DC’s original superhero team from the 1940s, who then lived on a parallel Earth—and creating Batman and Catwoman’s daughter, The Huntress, in 1977. Two years later, Levitz killed off the Golden Age Batman, and wrote in the 1950s disappearance of the JSA, blaming it on a McCarthy-like Senator’s vendetta against the masked heroes. That latter plot point would remain a firm part of the characters’ history, through all iterations of the DC Comics—from the revamped version of the JSA in the 1980s, to creator Darwyn Cooke’s magnum opus comic book DC: The New Frontier in 2004.

In short, Levitz was able to write his childhood heroes while working alongside many of his creative ones at DC.

Comics had survived the censorship witch hunts of the 1950s and a downsizing of what was once a much larger industry. The 1940s generation of cartoonists were slowly giving way to this next generation, the fans who communicated through mimeographed magazines and letter columns, who studied Superman as intensely as a Rhodes Scholar would Shakespeare, and who were ready to make their own mark on their beloved comic books. But there were still people in the business who viewed comics as a stepping stone to lead them to other things.

“Nobody could be sure that it would be around that long,” Levitz admits. “It was very fragile: the newsstand was not a healthy system by that point, and that had the good effect that you could take some chances and play around and not worry too much, because it wasn’t going to sell that well no matter what you did. It had the disadvantage that most of the really good creative people had their eye on the door and said ‘I’m going to do this just as long as I can use it as a launching pad to go on with what my real life’s going to be. I’m going to write Laugh-In, or something like that.’ Some friends of mine aspired to it.”

Where the creative were seen as “interchangeable” in those days, it was more than made up for with some of the more legendary and outstanding editors in comics history. Artist Carmine Infantino had ascended to Art Director in 1965, and then Editorial Director shortly after. Carmine pushed for artists to draw at 150% of page size, instead of 200%, which was a cost-saving measure that also turned into a new mode of visual experimentation. At that time, DC also started to bring in artists as editors, such as Dick Giordano from Charlton Comics, Orlando, and DC mainstay Joe Kubert. Infantino also started editors on freelance, such as Mike Sekowsky. Creator credits even started to appear inside of the DC Comics in 1965; it was one of the ways writers and artists started to go from being “interchangeable” to becoming appreciated.

“You might have an individual editor who either worked really well with creative people because of his natural respect for them—a guy like Julie Schwartz is certainly the paradigm of that—and developed a following around that,” Levitz elaborates. “He worked with the same creators month in and month out, because those were his guys and did the kind of stories he liked.

“Or you might have an editor who was a creator, like Joe Orlando or Dick Giordano who, as artists and creative people had passion for the media, and even if it didn’t necessarily matter for the bottom line, they wanted to do the best job they could. I’m using examples from DC because those are the people I worked with as a kid, but there are certainly people with the same feelings at many of the other handful of companies that existed.

“The basic business structure was not very creator-friendly: pay was low, the working conditions were mediocre, and it was really a question of a creator’s relationship with a specific editor or assistant that enabled them to be able to do good work.”

            It was Infantino who gave DC more of a fighting chance against Marvel Comics, pushing for a visual sophistication across the company lines. He brought Jack Kirby in from Marvel Comics to create the ambitious Fourth World books, the first ever inter-connected comic book titles. He encouraged and brought in diverse new talent such as Walter Simonson to give DC a youthful shot in the arm, and encouraged talent to meet in the DC Coffee Room, which became the hang-out of up-and-coming creators. Infantino rose even further to Publisher in 1971, and then President shortly after.

“When Carmine became a part of DC management—initially as Art Director responsible for the covers, and then Editorial Director and Publisher and President, eventually—the company had been very static for a very long time, and had been losing ground for four or five years in the marketplace,” Levitz says. “So he was encouraged to change things and he brought in a lot of talent that was very unlike DC culturally, at that point, editors like Joe Kubert who was sitting behind an editor’s desk for the first time and Mike Sekowsky was given a shot editing his own work. The whole idea of artists as editors was a pretty radical idea for DC at that moment. The earliest DC editors included some wonderfully talented cartoonists, but it had been a long time since artists were driving any of the DC book. It was more of a writers’ house at that point.

“He launched a lot of new projects, and a lot of strange and experimental forms with things like Anthro. He went off in a lot of odd directions with that. The business model at the time was fairly broken, so few of those things were triumphant successes. Probably the most commercial success he had was building the mystery comics with Joe, Dick, and Murray Boltinoff (the three editors who drove those). That line became the most commercially important stuff during his run; as the superheroes softened, those became a larger part of DC’s business model.

“He did a number of things that helped talent and was in charge when DC started to return original art to artists; he was the first to start paying reprint fees in the business. That was a major issue, because so many things were being reprinted and artists and writers were afraid that publishers were just going to switch to just all reprint material as a cost-saving thing. They weren’t great or easy years to run a comic company.”

Amongst the uncertain terrain of the 1970s comic book industry, Carmine Infantino made an indelible mark on the company, and was the spark that ignited further change beyond his departure in 1976. Carmine was replaced with production man Sol Harrison as President, while a bold choice was made for the new Publisher of DC Comics: 28 year old Jenette Kahn, who put things in motion that would even further improve conditions for creators at DC Comics and reach out to affect the entire industry.

“Jenette, not just for DC but for the whole industry, was one of the first outsiders to land in the field, along with Jim Galton, who’d landed at Marvel at about the same time,” Levitz observes. “Both of them were in very different ways, breathes of fresh air. The thing that was the most radical about Jenette is that she was a fundamental believer in creativity. She had created magazines, fought with publishers over her deal for creating those magazines, she had hung with people like Andy Warhol in the artistic community, and she had a great belief that the essence of any creative business is its creativity.”

Kahn came in from a youth magazine background, and is responsible for officially changing National Periodical Publications to DC Comics. She also tapped legendary designer Milton Glaser for the new DC logo: a slanted “DC” set in a circle bordered with stars, known as the “DC Bullet;” it would remain the company brand for almost three decades.

“As soon as she got there she saw the shape our field was in, which was not our glory days, and she wanted to find ways to change that, both by taking more creative chances with the material itself and the form, and creating a better set of economic deals with the talent that would give them more incentive to do the work for comics. The comic book business, at that point, had declined a bit more towards that classic Russian joke: ‘If they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work,’ and you had many creators in the field who had drawn little compromised boxes around their lives: ‘Well, I’ll write the character, but I won’t add any new villains, because I’m not making enough money to make that worthwhile.’

“She wanted to find ways around that, and a lot of the work we did over the next batch of years was to create things like the first written contracts for the field for all the contributors, the first royalty plan, and things that would hopefully align the creative talent with the publishing business better, and let everyone live together.”

Jenette Kahn came to DC at an ideal time: Jerry Siegel, the co-creator of Superman, had started a crusade to regain credit and compensation from DC Comics and their parent company, Warner Communications, before the release of the big-budget Superman movie. Jerry was working as an underpaid postal clerk in California, while Joe was practically destitute, his vision having failed him years before. In a settlement that came about from a combination of industry support for Jerry and Joe, as well as media attention, Warner established a policy of regularly crediting the pair as Superman's creators, and also granted them $20,000 a year for life pensions.

“I can’t speak for the whole company,” Levitz states. “There were many different reactions to that. Certainly there were a lot of people who were sympathetic to the fact that these were the creators of one of the great properties, and they weren’t living well. Regardless of what the legal situation was, I don’t think anyone felt that was the way the story should end. A lot of people were very happy when it did work out.”

Jerry was a guest of honor at a special DC Comics convention held from February 27 to 29, 1976. Paul was in charge of the panels, and apparently put on a hell of a show: other guests included Batman co-creator Bob Kane, Scribbly cartoonist and legendary editor Shelly Mayer, and editor Jack Schiff.

“Both were very nice old men. Jerry was more talkative and Joe was very quiet by that point,” Levitz recalls. “We had many, many years of friendship.”

Levitz would remain a trusted friend to both men until Joe’s death in 1992 and Jerry’s death four years later. The various Superman maquettes assembled over his uncluttered and orderly office desk aren’t just testimony to his love of Superman—but to his love for the Man of Steel’s beloved creators themselves.

“In 1978, we were coming to one of those inflection points where it was a question of costs being up and sales were mediocre. What was going to be the next price point for comics?” Levitz says. The direct market of comic book specialty stores was still growing, and comics were primarily still dependent on newsstand sales, which involved returns of unsold books. “DC decided that the right next move would be, instead of going from 35 cents to 40 cents for the standard 32-pager, let’s jump up to 50 cents for a 40-page comic. We figured out how to do that on the presses, which were fairly radical for that moment, and then add eight pages of content, very much like the stuff recently done with the $3.99 books. We got those books out.

“There were a bunch of new books coming out in that period, and then the sales figures began to dribble in from the previous winter and they were hideous. It was one of the worst winters the U.S. had had for a while. Newsstands took a long time to report and direct sales were small enough to be largely irrelevant at that point and the budgets went to hell. Management was looking at the numbers and said ‘Look, you’re bleeding all over the place. What’s the least risky way you can run DC?’

“We ran around in circles and figured out how many titles should be cut, and the 40 cent 32-page book was slightly less risky than the 50 cent one, and the line got trimmed dramatically. Because the increased pages had been marketed as the ‘DC Explosion,’ the in-joke became that it was the DC Implosion. [It was] not a very fun summer.”

The DC Implosion was yet another sign of the growing pains felt by the comic book industry of the ‘70s, as the newsstand was failing as a distribution system. It took the vision of Phil Seuling, a comic book fan and dealer, to approach DC Comics directly with a new distribution model—via his own Seagate Distributing, he would purchase comics directly from DC at a discount for resell to comic book stores. This direct market approach came without the option of returning unsold stock, and reduced the sales risk to the publishers. Unfortunately for the DC Implosion, though, the approach that would boost the industry was still in its infancy. However, three years after the Implosion, in 1981, DC experienced their first growth since ’77, thanks to the direct market and increase of comic book stores.

“We would have disappeared if we had relied on the newsstand, with my best math having the industry end around ’84 if the comic shop world hadn’t evolved,” Levitz notes. “There might have been a residual reprint business, but there wouldn’t have been any meaningful business after that. It provided a need to find a new solution, and mercifully the comic shops existed and with some encouragement and support, were able to grow into that solution for the next generation of the field.”

1982 saw one of the high points of Levitz’s run on Legion of Super-Heroes. His “Great Darkness Saga” ran through five issues (#290-#294) and pitted the Legion against an unknown and all-powerful foe. When the revelation of Jack Kirby villain Darkseid is made in the penultimate issue, it instantly folds Legion into the bigger picture of the DC Universe’s history. “Great Darkness” made the very clear statement that the Legion of Super-Heroes were not only part of the same world as Jack Kirby’s operatic Fourth World books, but in defeating Darkseid, the heroes were on par with the present day DC Comics heroes. It also underscored the importance of the New Gods characters, providing more gravity to the prophecies regarding Darkseid’s fate as foretold in The New Gods. Two years later, Kirby would attempt at the final word on The New Gods with his Hunger Dogs graphic novel.

It was clear that Levitz’s Legion was as woven into the tapestry of the DC Universe as much as the other titles, with another link to the continuity’s relative past beyond the inclusion of time-travelling heroes Superboy or Supergirl on the team roster. “Great Darkness” was a precursor to the multi-part story arcs that have been the norm in monthly comics for over a decade, with each issue leading into one another in an organic fashion. In many ways, it was to Legion of Super-Heroes that “The Dark Phoenix Saga” was to X-Men; like the X-Men story, it was the first time its publisher produced an extra-length issue simply because a story required it for its conclusion.

“By the time I was writing the Legion the second time, in the ‘80s and the direct sales market was beginning to emerge, I was making the assumption that a lot of my audience was a bit older and more sophisticated and could follow a storyline that went on,” Levitz reflects. “So many of the storylines continued over a significant period of time and they weren’t structured to come out as trade paperbacks, because we didn’t have any trade paperbacks in those days. It’s a little weird to read ‘Great Darkness’ now in a collected edition, and ‘the surprises ain’t surprises.’

            “I think it’s good to balance both elements: you want to give a good solid bite every time someone comes to the sandwich, and you want it to add up to something that’s more than the sum of parts when it comes together.”

            “The Great Darkness Saga” was recently reissued in a deluxe hardcover and, despite Levitz’s view of it as a weird experience; it reads more fluidly than most early ‘80s comic books, with less expository dialogue or heavy captions that ran so prevalent back then, a trend that would continue with the launching of the 1984 series. The new Legion title was aimed at the Direct Market (with the original redubbed Tales of the Legion of Super-Heroes for the newsstand), at a higher price point and with higher quality paper stock. Levitz’s aforementioned assumption towards a more mature audience is reflected in his storytelling, with less captioning and punchier dialogue; the cast seemed smaller, as well, allowing Levitz to focus on fewer Legionnaires with more energy spent towards characterization. The Legion, thanks to the direct market, seems to have grown up a bit more.

“The DC Universe had the advantage of being at the beginning, when there hadn’t been anything done before, so that you could create something that wasn’t designed as a universe but just became a rich world that slowly got knitted together. Some very talented people have tried to do that from scratch: it ain’t so easy.”

            The landscape of the DC Universe was changing as much as that of the industry: DC celebrated their fiftieth anniversary by publishing Crisis on Infinite Earths, a twelve-issue “maxi series” that resulted in a complete reboot of DC continuity. From 1986 on, the mainstream DC superheroes long continuity, with alternate Earths and decades of backstory, was streamlined for a new audience.

            Meanwhile, the rest of DC continued to change, thanks in part to the direct market’s allowance for more mature comic books, the new regime’s opportunities for creators to maintain ownership of their work and to receive better royalties, and Kahn and Levitz’s embracing new formats. An unpublished World of Krypton storyline from an Implosion-killed Showcase comic book became the first miniseries, modeled after successful TV event Roots, in 1979; Levitz followed it up with The Untold Legend of the Batman, a retelling of Batman’s origin that featured the first DC work for artist John Byrne and was conceived for the new miniseries format. 1981 saw a Madame Xanadu one-shot comic book by writer Steve Englehart and artist Marshall Rogers, published without the Comics Code and sold to the direct market.

Kahn’s ultimate creative coup was in luring cartoonist Frank Miller over from Marvel Comics, where he’d made a mark with his noted run on Daredevil, to produce his own creation, Ronin, in 1983. He followed that up with the post-modernist Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, a noir tale on an aging Batman’s return to crimefighting in a hypothetical future. Dark Knight (soon redubbed The Dark Knight Returns) also became DC’s first success as a collected trade paperback, a harbinger of formats to come.

Writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons pitched a finite series to then-Managing Editor Dick Giordano, titled Who Killed the Peacemaker?, placing a group of superheroes DC had just inherited from the defunct comic book company Charlton. Giordano, Levitz, and Kahn prompted the British creators to do their own archetypal characters, and the pivotal Watchmen was born—grabbing a coveted Hugo award and becoming a successful trade paperback for years to come.
“The better opportunity for it seemed to be in doing it as an original, because that way the characters could wrap at the end of it, which is what Alan and Dave wanted to do,” Levitz recalls. “They could also get a better financial deal because they’d be dealing with something that was a more original piece of property.”

Both Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns brought newfound media attention to comics, and inspired a movement towards more adult-themed superhero comics. Those two books alone have been noted for changing the course of the superhero, sparking a post-modernist slant on the tiring men and women in tights genre. It was no longer taken for granted that superheroes could do no wrong, as they were seen struggling with their inner demons as much as any supervillians.

“They came out at a first moment when, effectively, the creative community was waking up and these were two of the first great projects,” Levitz says of Watchmen and Dark Knight. “Now you sit there and you can rack this year’s graphic novels and find ten things people did that take wonderful chances going into different directions to choose between. We had a long period where there weren’t many people taking chances.

“These were clearly brilliant talents in our field at the right moments in their career. To steal from your title, they decided to ‘leap the tall building.’ The ambition of the work, the level of energy and skill they put in it set it apart, not just from what was being done that year, but also from what was being done in the previous twenty.”

            By the time Levitz concluded his stint on Legion of Super-Heroes with #63 in 1989 (with artist and co-plotter Keith Giffen), he had spent seven consecutive years crafting DC’s future, and around twelve total. Levitz’s final issue featured a universe on the edge of chaos, a chaos that would manifest itself in succeeding team Keith Giffen and Tom and Mary Bierbaum’s “Five Years Later” arc. The future of their run was no longer a bright and optimistic place, but a dark one torn by the ravages of war; it was like tonally jumping from Star Trek to The Empire Strikes Back.

            Paul Levitz left to spend more time with his family, and would only sporadically write comics for the next two decades. Legion would be rebooted twice in the time he was away, but would be returned back to the original continuity in time for his 2009 return to his beloved characters.

The back cover of that issue of Levitz’s final 20th century issue of Legion was another sign of things yet to come: an advertisement for the long in development Tim Burton’s upcoming Batman film, a runaway blockbuster success, partially inspired by Miller’s take on the character, that not only brought more eyes to DC Comics, but to the comic book industry in general. It was lightning in a bottle, delivering an unexpectedly dark take on a character that had been thought of in terms of the ‘60s camp version played by Adam West.

“I think there was a hope that it would do some good, but nothing like what ultimately happened,” Levitz admits. “The business about doubled as a result. It was a combination of things: the movie was such a radical departure from what had been done adapting comics; there was little merchandising going into it, because the movie had been going into development for so long that the usual partners we had got tired of hearing ‘We’ve got a Batman movie coming out.’

“If somebody saw the movie and saw it and went ‘I didn’t realize comics were like that, or that even Batman was like that,’ they had to go to a comic shop. That had a terrific power that we’ve never seen equaled from any of the comic book films by any of the publishers.”

’89 also marked the Time/Warner merger, which garnered Jenette Kahn with a promotion to President and Editor-in-Chief, and earned Levitz the title Executive Vice-President and Publisher. DC continued to issue experimental books, from the Mature Readers Vertigo line to non-superhero imprint Paradox Press. When Levitz inherited the President title from Kahn upon her departure in 2002, he was in charge of a company drastically changed from the one he entered as a teenager, one that he helped craft through creator relationships, experimental formats, and a willingness to try new things.

In 2001, rival publisher Marvel Comics opted out of the Comics Code Association and employed their own rating system, which they maintain to this day. According to Levitz, the CMAA was more than a mere stamp emblem on every approved comic book, but did have its advantages:
“I don’t think the Code was enormously important to the field past whenever you want to count the recovery from the witch hunt of the 1950s, but it still had utility. The two things that the Code organization did, and that mattered (and utterly invisible to the reader), is that it was a legally effective way of sharing the costs of getting out all those wonderful spinner racks and waterfall racks. If you didn’t have the CMAA, it would have been extremely difficult or unlikely to continue the retail presence comics had in the newsstand all those years. That was very meaningful to the health of the business for a very long time. Another benefit that the Code seal itself had was that the guy who’s running the newsstand doesn’t know what he’s selling—he can’t know what he’s selling—so it provided a very simple form of saying ‘Here, this is okay to sell to a kid.’ Over the years we had talked about going to other forms of the rating system within the CMAA as far back as the mid-1980s, and argued it back and forth. Overall, it was always my feeling that we were better off in having more publishers working together to get comics out there than to have comics splintered.”

The complaints against the CMAA have traditionally been regarding any censorship within the comics themselves. According to Levitz, it was mostly in the early days of the Code that it was a major issue.
“There was really very little censorship (or however you want to describe it) out of the Code by when Len Darvin retired (maybe in the mid-‘70s),” Levitz notes. “He’s the last Code administrator who was empowered to do anything other than what the editorial teams of the different companies really want done. It was a very convenient form for the editorial and business teams of the publishing companies to say ‘This is going to be the standard of what we want to have as our boundaries of what we’re putting out there,’ but it’s not like there was any outside authority putting any pressure on the companies. It was just whatever could be agreed upon between the publishing companies.”

In January of this year, DC Comics and Archie both announced their departure from the Comics Code, part of the Comics and Magazine Association of America (CMAA). When asked his views on DC’s departure, Levitz answers with a smile: “Not my problem.”

Paul Levitz has seen the ups and downs of the comic book world for forty years, from both creative and marketing perspectives. While doom and gloom is a common forecast every time sales dip by a percentage, or cover prices go up a buck, Levitz doesn’t seem worried. Maybe it’s from his ground-level experience, or the optimism of the Legion of Super-Heroes’ future sticking with him past his keyboard—or maybe it’s a combination of both.

            “People will want to tell stories using this medium. What form will they be published in, whether it’s digital, as books, or as periodicals? Who the hell knows? That’s going to continue to evolve and change and the form it’s in will continue to change in the kinds of stories you tell. It’s one of the world’s great forms of creativity. You think about it and there are so many pools of great creativity in the world that keep using this in one form or another.
“It will go on long past our time.”