This month, for the first time in 44 years, Paul Levitz is nowhere to be seen in the pages of the DC Comics on-stands. Not as a writer, an editor, publisher, or president - although he's had all of those roles in the company.
In 1972, Paul Levitz was such an avid fan of comic books that he ended up on the masthead at DC Comics.
He was 16-years-old.
For the next 37 years, Levitz stayed on that masthead, never leaving DC and working his way up to eventually become President and Publisher for the last seven years of his career there.
During his years of leadership, Levitz also became a well-known writer. Best-known for his work on Legion of Super-Heroes, he's also associated with the JSA characters and co-creating characters like Earth-2 Huntress, the Stalker series, and Lucien the Librarian.
In person, Levitz is a wealth of knowledge - not only regarding the history of comic books, but just about any other topic, particularly anything to do with science fiction or history. Soft-spoken and spectacled, Levitz has an unassuming demeanor. His dark eyes speak concern and kindness, as he usually listens patiently to his fans or friends while wearing a small, tight-lipped grin.
Over the years, Levitz went from writing Legion of Super-Heroes to behind behind-the-scenes in the formation of Vertigo Comics and the ascencion of Frank Miller and Alan Moore. The New York native was there when DC decided to get rid of its infinite earths - and was in charge when they brought 52 of them back.
With the conclusion of Doctor Fate (his last DC project to date), Levitz is putting all his hard-earned business expertise to work in the world of academia. But for comic book fans, perhaps even more enticing is the potential to listen to Levitz speak about his decades in the comic book industry. So Newsarama took a stab at it - listening for about an hour as Levitz tried to summarize years and years of experience in one interview.
Newsarama talked to Paul Levitz, writer, editor and industry executive, starting in this first installment with the unique way he broke into the business in the early 1970's.
Newsarama: Paul, you posted online recently that this month was the first time you wouldn't have a credit on something in decades. I was amazed that, for the vast majority of your life, you were steadily - month in, mouth out, without even a break - working on something that was published.
Paul Levitz: It's pretty weird.
Nrama: Yeah, most people take a break. And you also posted recently about your first job. You were a fan before you were a writer - tell us about that.
Levitz: Sure. I think of myself as sort of being the tail end of the first generation of comics fans - people who were, in some form or another, active in fandom.
To be a fan in the first generation sort of required that you did something, not just that you liked comics. Today, we use the term fan or fandom for people who are just emotionally connected to the thing but haven't necessarily participated in any fashion. Back in the day of the dinosaurs, the indication was you were a fan if you actually did stuff. It didn't have to be a lot. You know, went to a convention, wrote for fanzines, indexed material. But you had to be doing something beyond simply loving the material.
Nrama: OK, I already know that you were hanging out in the DC offices as a teenage fanzine editor. But let's back up to why you became a fan. What was it about comic books that caught your eye? Were you an avid reader?
Levitz: I was an enormous reader. I devoured comics. I devoured science fiction books, science books, detective stories, Landmark Books of history - a lot of the forms that I still continue to read, although thankfully not on a Landmark Book level anymore.
And comics were just sort of one of the food groups.
I really wasn't conscious of who was writing it or drawing it. My first loves were [Mort] Weisinger's Superman titles, which didn't have any credits. Mom was restrictive about the amount of comics I could read, so I could only buy three new ones a week - there were at least three DC's I wanted, so I didn't really discover Marvel until I was about 11 or 12. Some of my friends were reading it, but I didn't dive deeply into it. And the DC's were uncredited, by and large, until I was about that age.
And as I said, I didn't think of myself as a future writer. That was not a career path that I anticipated at all. That really came once I was already active in the business.
Weisinger's Superman stuff, and I was reading the Legion. The Legion [of Super-Heroes] was my first really great love as a comic. When I started reading Marvels, the Avengers with Roy Thomas (and mostly John Buscema working on it in that period) became a great love as well.
Books were just something that naturally appealed to me.
Nrama: So what was the first thing you did that made you a full-fledged fan? The fanzine? Was Etcetera the first thing?
Levitz: Oh, I did a variety of really bizarre, horrible little fanzines that were kiddie stuff that, you know, three people saw. And the first one was executed with carbon paper.
Nrama: How old were you for the first one?
Levitz: I guess I was probably 11. Was it 11 or 12? Yeah, I guess 11. Gosh, long world ago.
Nrama: What got you excited enough about comic books that you wanted to write about them?
Levitz: I had seen a copy of, actually, The Comic Reader that a friend had gotten. And that was the first experience I'd had of what a fanzine was. And it was kind of my childish imitation of that.
I worked my way through carbon paper, up to Xerox paper, and then finally, really, the turning point was when Don and Maggie [Thompson] announced that they were going to shut down Newfangles. Paul Kupperberg and I launched Etcetera to try to fill the voids so that we would know what was going on in comics, scraping together 16 bucks, which was a little more than it is now, but still wasn't very much, and launching the idea of doing a real monthly TV Guide for comics.
And P.K. dropped out after a few months from being an active partner, and then he continued to write from time to time, participate in a lot of other ways over the years. But I continued to publish it for three years.
Nrama: What year was this?
Levitz: It started in '71. I was 14 and he was 15.
Nrama: You mentioned carbon paper, and I'm old enough to know what that is. But a lot of Newsarama readers probably aren't. Let's just clarify for people who might not know the time period. Nowadays, putting some articles together is as simple as posting it online. But publishing a fanzine was a completely different experience back then, right?
Levitz: Well, if you look at it with an eye of modern technology, it looks like it was produced by a couple of developmentally-disabled idiots, because desktop publishing allows you to do so many things today that weren't possible then.
But for the time, it was pretty ambitious stuff.
And the second year out, it won the best fanzine award. By then, it had merged with the old Comic Reader name. I had taken that over and it had, what was for the time, you know, a very sizable circulation.
Nrama: And this was all through the mail.
Levitz: Yeah. There were a handful of comic shops in existence. One or two of them ordered 25 copies for their customers. But there probably weren't more than a dozen or so comic shops in the country at the time. So there really wasn't much of any other way to sell it.
Nrama: How did you market it to fans? Did you have an ad in the back of comics or something?
Levitz: No, no. It was basically word of mouth and the other fanzines.
Nrama: You described it as the TV Guide for comic books. What kind of stuff did Etcetera inform fans about?
Levitz: Well, some of the stories in the first year talked about Kirby's New Gods. His "Fourth World" material was just coming out.
Tarzan coming to DC with Kubert drawing it was a big deal at that moment.
People were very excited about the work that was going on at Marvel on Conan. Roy and Barry [Windsor-Smith] doing that. I don't think we wrote a lot about it, because Marvel wasn't quite as cooperative as DC in terms of making material available. But that was certainly one of the other big deals in fandom at the time.
You get a little further along, probably the best of the covers I had was one of Walt Simonsen's first pieces on Manhunter; one of his character design pieces graced the cover.
In those years, you had a combination of, I think, two things going on that were very different from today. First off, the whole industry was concentrated in New York. Probably 95 percent of the people who worked in comics were within a 50-mile radius. And there weren't very many of them. There were only, by my guess-timate, maybe 200 people working creatively on American comics. So it was pretty easy to get to know everyone.
The publishers weren't catering to fandom in any fashion. They weren't releasing information on when their next issues were coming out, or even who was doing the work in them.
So often, the creators were thrilled to be getting the TV Guide kind of information. It was telling them when their own work was coming out. It was enabling them to buy copies of it, because many of the publishers didn't bother sending comps out.
Nrama: So you had access to creators and, it sounds like, editors as well?
Levitz: It varied month-to-month, the level of participation. DC was pretty consistently good. Marvel kind of phased in and out in those early years, depending on who was on the editorial staff which day.
But I was up at the offices frequently at both places. I would sit there, and the stuff was sitting on desks, basically.
In those pre-9/11 days, for reasons that kind of baffle me now, it was possible as a 14- or 15-year-old kid to get access to those offices.
Nrama: So your way of breaking in to comic books was completely different from what anybody could do now.
Levitz: Oh, there are so many things that happened in my career that are completely un-duplicable.
I'm not sure I had working papers when I started working on staff at DC. And I'm not sure the way I was hired - I'm not sure it violated laws, but it probably came close.
Nrama: How did it come about? You were a fan and you were able to critique artwork and you had a feel for what was good. At what point did you think, "I could do that." Or did you not think that - but someone else recognized your ability?
Levitz: It was pretty clear that I could get a job in the field that would help pay my way through school. Most of the fans of my generation in New York ultimately ended up getting a job for some period of time in comics.
A lot of them decided it wasn't for them. A lot of them didn't have anything much to offer and went on to do other things. A lot of them had more ambition than comics were able to fulfill at the time and went on to do some pretty incredible other things.
But if you were in New York in that generation and you were really interested in comics, the older generation was aging out, seats were opening up, and there were chances to come in.
In my case, Joe Orlando offered me freelance writing on his letter columns originally. That was amazing. And then when his assistant, Michael Fleisher, was going to take the summer off, he asked me if I would fill in for Michael - a two-day-a-week gig. I, of course, jumped on it.
So I started on DC's staff the day after I graduated high school.
Originally, it was just a summer gig. But Michael didn't come back. He went off to freelance write and a variety of other things - a lovely career.
I never left.
So I was on the masthead at 16. And I never left. I organized my college courses into two days a week so I could spend a couple of days at DC, assisting Joe and later on, assisting Gerry Conway when he came over as an editor, packing reprints for Murray Boltinoff and other editors in the place.
So I was doing whatever day work I could scrape up and learning stuff.
I didn't think I was going to be a writer. And I didn't think I was going to hang around once I got my degree and went off to find honest work.
Nrama: What was your major? What was your degree in?
Levitz: I never finished. At that point, NYU had a five-year bachelor's/master's program in business. And that's what I was in. I got about three years of it done before Jenette Kahn showed up at DC and I had the opportunity to go full-time at what seemed to be an exciting moment, and I was already making the kind of money that you would if you finish an MBA.
So I thought, "I'll take a chance and drop out."
Nrama: What did your family think of all this? I assume you started the fanzine in the house as a teenager. And now you're quitting college. What did they think of it?
Levitz: My folks were incredibly supportive through the whole thing and utterly confused.
Here was a 15-year-old kid asking them to have the tenant who lived in the studio apartment in the basement of their house to move out so I could have that as my office space, and I would pay the rent on it.
Nrama: You wanted them to kick out a tenant so you could do a fanzine about comic books.
Levitz: Yeah. You know, "What is this?"
My whole career, certainly, they were very proud of, but utterly baffled by on some levels. I'm kind of baffled by it on some level.
Nrama: At what point did "I'm soaking up all this knowledge about the business" turn into "I want to write stories?"
Levitz: Well, as an assistant editor, I was doing a fair amount of copyediting and rewrite work. Particularly the anthology mystery books were not being written at an extraordinary level. So it certainly seemed like something… "Oh, you could do this."
And it was the normal convention of the field, I guess from the '40s through the mid-'90s, that in addition to your staff pay, you'd get some freelance work, if you were remotely good at anything.