Former President and Publisher of DC Comics, Paul Levitz has lived and breathed comics his entire adult life. A comics fan magazine that he co-wrote and published in high school, The Comic Reader, led to his first job with the mega-publisher that is DC. With DC celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, Levitz took on the incredible task of writing about its numerous characters, authors and artists and their impact on the world. From Taschen Books, 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking is a mammoth tome you won’t be able to miss on the shelves of your local store. In fact, it will probably need it’s own table.
The book clocks in at 720 pages and is close to twelve inches wide and sixteen inches long. Along with Levitz’s musings, it includes over 2,000 images from covers and interiors, original illustrations, photographs, film stills, and product images. PW Comics Week recently spoke with Levitz about his time with the company, his own legacy in the industry and how nothing but a book this enormous could possibly do justice to 75 years of DC Comics.
PW Comics Week: First off, let me say welcome back to writing, Paul. Have you missed it?
Paul Levitz: Sure... but it wasn't possible to do a solid body of writing, hold down the desk job, and get to know my kids. The timing worked out nicely that the desk job wrapped up just as my youngest was leaving for college, so it was a nice segue back.
PWCW: How has the business of writing comics changed? For you personally?
PL: The most important changes are that when I started writing it was a discrete stage in a writer's career—either before or after you wrote other forms or media. Now you can simultaneously work on comics and other types of writing. And the financial opportunity for writers in comics has gotten much better.
PWCW: The new book is 720 pages. That's nothing to shake a stick at, let alone drop on your foot. Where did the idea for 75 Years Of DC Comics: The Art Of Modern Mythmaking originally come from and how long did it take to put together?
PL: The project started as pat of the multi-faceted celebration of DC's anniversary, and Taschen began work on the book over two years ago. I was involved initially in my role as DC's publisher, but didn't get on board as writer until about a year ago. There was an enormous amount of visual research for a book with some 2000 images, pulling on the DC characters across media, as seen in the culture (great photos of Superman Day at the '39/'40 World's Fair, for example), and in the process of creation. With a relatively manageable 33,000 words to do on a subject I knew well, I could step in midway and catch up.
PWCW: We've seen things like The DC Vault and The DC Comics Encyclopedia, both great resources for fans as far as character and publisher history. We know it has size on its side, but what makes this new release stand out as far as content?
PL: I think the size permitted a depth and breadth that the Vault couldn't match, and unlike the Encyclopedia (or the Chronicle Year By Year book), it's not primarily in the fiction. The characters who made the comics and the characters in them are seen primarily in context, or by visual example. If you do a DC book that's a "normal" size, you have to include certain visuals and moments—and by the time you get finished with the obligatory bits, there's not much left.
In this book, there's room for so much more, and we deliver on it: a photo of Mike Sekowsky sketching a model dressed as the non-powered Wonder Woman of the '60s, or Ali clowning around in Superman cape, or a handful of shots of Neal Adams' designs for a Superman theme park each appeal to different readers, but aren't likely to have been seen by many. And that's not even talking about pages of original art, so you can see cover sketches by Dick Sprang or Joe Kubert, or examine a page of Frank Miller and Klaus Janson's Dark Knight art roughly original size with all its detail.
PWCW: How do you view the comics world now and DC in general, versus when you started in the business? Obviously you have more responsibility from a business perspective but how about as a fan as well?
PL: For all the challenges comics face, I think we're in the best era for the medium in America in my lifetime. There's more variety in creative work being done, more different ways of reaching readers, and more business models than ever before. It's a great time to enjoy comics.
PWCW: What impact do you think your decisions during your tenure as President and Publisher have had on the recent DC history?
PL: That's ultimately for someone else's history writing to decide. I'm very proud of the work published on my twenty year watch as Publisher, and of the work I did as part of the management team of the company for three decades under various titles, as we improved opportunities for the talent to do great work and share in its success.
PWCW: What was it that finally made you and those around you take an interest in the book market in the 1980s and say, "We need to invade this territory" and start publishing collected editions?
PL: In my case, it was part of a long quest to make the best material in comics continually available, as it was for traditional books (the ability to buy Agatha Christie as well as John Grisham's latest, to cite a genre example I used to use). The first couple of formats DC explored towards that goal were unsuccessful steps, but the trade paperback format we began working energetically in the mid-80s proved an enduring one both for comic shops and bookstores.
PWCW: Most of us have heard of the Gold and Silver Age but in the book you introduce the Stone Age as a time period of the company and bring us right through to the Digital Age. How has DC comics adapted through the years?
PL: Amazingly. Think how little that was culturally relevant in 1938 or 1939 is still at the center of our culture. Most of the then-powerful fictional characters are nostalgia items now, or simply visual trademarks like Mickey Mouse, but people still care vitally about the stories of our heroes.
Part of the magic or luck is the versatility of the major characters, who have successfully moved from one medium to another, and inspired wonderfully talented people, generation after generation. That's so rare in any medium.
PWCW: What hasn't changed? Is there anything you think will remain the same no matter how long these characters and stories are being published or in what form they may take?
PL: There's some quintessential elements to each of the characters' myths that I think are part of the secret of their long success, but each writer and artist sees that somewhat differently and it would be a fascinating debate to shape into a book someday. Not today, though.
PWCW: The book was obviously a labor of love for you. What did you enjoy most about putting it together?
PL: It was a chance to visit with, and celebrate people I've known and worked with, and the incredible tales they've told that captivated me. As Howard Chaykin said, our generation of comics talent was lucky enough to arrive "at the end of the beginning." We heard the stories of how comics were created from the people who did it. Sharing those stories, and making old friends like Shelly Mayer hopefully come alive for a moment for a generation that didn't have the chance to know him...now that was great fun!
And even more selfishly, as I begin this next phase of my career as a writer, what better book project for my first than a unique celebration like this?