For 44 years, the name Paul Levitz has been associated with DC Comics. From his time as a young editor to his years as an acclaimed writer to his time as President and Publisher at the company, Levitz has helped define an entire era of comic book history. This month is the first time in 44 years that his name isn't on any DC Comics on store shelves.
As a writer, Levitz is often remembered for his work on Legion of Super-Heroes. While he's also known for his work on the JSA and for creating a handful of characters in the '70s and '80s, it's his time writing the teenaged superhero team of the 30th Century that is arguably his most memorable. Collaborating with artist Keith Giffen for much of his run on the Legion, he ended up writing more than 100 issues featuring the characters, including 1982's "The Great Darkness Saga," which usually tops every "Best Legionstories" and was the third-most voted Best DC Stories of all-time in our recent reader survey.
In the first installment of our multi-part interview with Levitz, the writer/editor retraced his initial steps into the DC offices, breaking into the comic book biz by creating one of the industry's early fanzines.
In this secondpart of our interview, Levitz talks about his time writing stories for the company, why he's got mixed feelings about his earliest stories, and why he disagrees with one of Keith Giffen's statements to us in his comprehensive interview last month.
Newsarama: Paul, you said it was the "normal convention of the field" at the time for DC editors to pick up a little freelance writing work. What kind of stuff did you write when you first started writing while also working in editorial for DC?
Levitz: At first, I wrote a few mystery stories for the anthology mystery books. Ultimately, I got to write some Aquaman stories - my first superhero work.
I got to create a little sword and sorcery book called Stalker, which Steve Ditko and Wally Wood drew, which was, you know, amazing talent to be working with me at the age of 17.
Nrama: Yikes. Age 17. That's amazing. Looking back, what do you think of your early stories? It sounds like it was your training ground.
Levitz: Yeah, I was learning my trade. Most of that stuff I look back on as not being particularly skillfully written. But for my age, eh… pretty good, I think, for my age.
Nrama: And all this time, you were also working in editorial? At what point did you become a full-time editor? How old were you?
Levitz: When Jenette Kahn came in as publisher, I was 19 and I became a full-time editor, and a couple of years later, I was given the Batman books to edit.
Nrama: So you made it to the big-time as an editor. Were you still writing?
Levitz: By then, I was writing things like the first run I did on Legion, the run I did on Justice League, a bunch of much more forgettable stuff - or at least, I'm hoping people forget it.
And the work was better, more solid. The editorial work of that period, I'm very proud of. I think that was very solid, by the standards of the time.
I certainly wasn't in danger of being on anybody's list of the top handful of writers in comics in the '70s, but people were patting me on the head.
Nrama: To me, age 19 sounds so young to become an editor and be handed the Batman books and be writing. Maybe it's because I met you when you were just a tad older than that, or maybe it's because I have kids that age and can't imagine them being that far along in their career.
Levitz: Yeah, looking back now it seems young.
Nrama: At what point do you feel like, looking back now, you became a "real writer." Of which stories do you say, "OK, I'm proud of that craft?"
Levitz: Well, the turning point when I felt I was a real professional is when Julie Schwartz asked me to do stuff for DC Comics Presents. The rest of the work I had gotten from guys who I was the assistant to. Was that professional nepotism? Not exactly, but there's kind of a natural bias inherent in that.
Julie was a total professional, and in many ways was the gold standard of being an editor at DC. And I thought, if he thought I was good enough to actually want some of my stuff and publish it, I guess that means I'm a real writer.
Nrama: You're known for the work you did on the JSA, and also on the Legion of Super-Heroes title. You were on the Legion more than once in your career. When did that start for you?
Levitz: Jim Shooter had been writing it, and he left to take a staff job at Marvel in mid-'76 I guess. Early '76? Mid-'76, I think.
That left the book open.
Denny O'Neill was editing it at the time. Denny didn't know the Legion and didn't particularly love the Legion, so he wanted a writer who knew the stuff.
Nrama: You already said you were a huge fan when you were younger. Did you want the book?
Levitz: I think I probably would have killed anyone else who stood in my path to get the assignment! But a lot of the major writers at DC in that time period were not Legion fans, so it wasn't like I had enormous competition for it.
I don't look back with great pride on my first run, because I was overcommitted those days. There were way too many fill-ins, too many sort of choppy things.
I did some stories there that I think showed potential. But most of it, for one reason or another, doesn't hold up fully.
DC is about to print those, in the next year. Part of me is thrilled; part of me shudders.
And when I left at the end of that run, at the time of the DC Implosion, I kind of figured, OK, I had my shot at doing the childhood thing. It's a shame I didn't do it better. But OK.
And I was working on the Superman newspaper strip for a couple of years. Some other odd jobs as a writer.
And then when Mike Barr was editing the Legion, he asked me to come back on it.
I basically thought to myself, well, OK, if I'm going back, this time I'm not screwing it up. There will be no fill-ins.
And I managed, the way I count it, at least a hundred-issue straight run of the main thing. And that's certainly the work that, as a writer, people remember me for the most.
Nrama: Let's back up a minute. You said, "the DC Implosion." Can you explain what you mean by that?
Levitz: It's kind of a mythical thing at this point, but the winter of '77 was a hideous winter in America, particularly in the Midwest, where the comics ship from. And newsstands sales went to hell. They'd already been lousy, but they got even dramatically worse.
In the summer of '78, DC was about the launch a major initiative called the "DC Explosion," which was increasing the page count of the books to 40 pages and raising the price to the astronomical price of 50 cents.
As the sales were coming in from the winter, the parent corporation was scared to death about the shape of our industry and wanted us to take a more conservative path. We had to cut back, had to shrink some books back to 32 pages. We had to cancel a lot of titles.
It was a very unpleasant time for the field.
Nrama: You mentioned that you lost your job on the Legion at that time, and you did some work on newspaper stuff for the company. Was it common, that people had their work cut back?
Levitz: There were some people laid off, but I wasn't affected by that. Just, in juggling up the writing assignments, it made sense for me to give up Legion, I guess to Gerry Conway, if I'm remembering right, to fulfill his contract. And I picked up the Superman newspaper strip as my primary writing assignment for a couple of years there.
Nrama: OK, so you said people remember you for the Legion. Do you like being remembered for that? Are you proud of it?
Levitz: I mean, it was a wonderful run. A lot of it was with Keith Giffen, who has this insanely fertile imagination, so that all the technology could be updated and all the worlds could be invented.
We were in sync enough that we could have brief conversations, or brief things I would do in the art direction, and he would build a whole world out of it, which was terrific.
I think he commented in his interview that he did with you that he thought it was generous of me to list him as a co-plotter.
Nrama: He did.
Levitz: I don't think so. It's not that he was structuring the plot in the architectural fashion that a writer is supposed to do in those days, but the imagination he brought to the work affected every plot and affected every story in very important ways.
That's when comics are at their best, when they're truly collaborative. And I've had the delight of having that happen with a number of artists that I've worked with over the years, with Keith, with Joe Staton, recently with Sonny Liew on Doctor Fate.
And it's the most joyful way of creating comics, when one and one equals three.
I'm not sure in most situations you actually know what each of you have contributed to the final work. But it works, and it's wonderful.
A lot of the Legion was the joy of just how many characters there were and you always had somebody else's life you could screw up, just playing god with these characters I knew from my childhood and saying, hmmm, what would happen if…? and then letting it work itself out over time.
Nrama: When did you stop on Legion? Was it in the late '80s?
Levitz: I stopped writing it in late '89. My two older kids were 2 and 4. And this was a moonlighting gig. And by that point, I was in a very serious business job at DC, and making a decent living that I didn't need the freelance income. And I wanted to spend more time with the kids.
Nrama: So more than 100 issues of Legion then bam, almost no writing for the next… what, a decade or more, from what I saw in your bibliography?
Levitz: I essentially took 20 years off from writing, except for a handful of stories that one editor or another talked me into doing.
I really wanted the weekends to be on the soccer field, or at the dance recitals or whatever with the kids.
So I said, OK, it's time to put the freelance side of me aside and concentrate on the day job. And enjoy my kids.