During Paul Levitz's 44 years at DC Comics, he wasn't just a well-known writer (although most readers revere his work on Legion of Super-Heroes). In fact, he was, as he describes it, the "squirrel running the engine" from the early 1980's until he became president and publisher in 2001.
After spending the first installment of our lengthy profile interview with Levitz talking about how he first entered the comic book industry; and our second discussing his years writing memorable stories like his run on Legion of Super-Heroes.
Then the third chapter he discussed the business of comic books in the '80s and '90s. And now we turn our attention to his more recent work, while also giving the writer a chance to summarize what part of his career gives him the most pride.
Newsarama: We talked about the 1980's and 1990's, but there was a format that emerged during that timeframe that we kind of glossed over: the graphic novel. I've been told that you played a pretty important role in developing that format.
Paul Levitz: I think we were instrumental in launching that format, in many ways. It was something that was very important to me in the beginning of my career. I had not succeeded in the first couple of experiments to find a way to have permanent editions of the really good stuff. But the third version of it - the trade paperback graphic novel really stuck and became the definitive form that would exist for at least a couple of decades.
Nrama: What was the first trade paperback?
Levitz: Well, that really depends on your definition. The first trade paperback of comic material in sequence - as opposed to a "best of" kind of thing - was a collection of Jack Katz's The First Kingdom from Simon and Schuster in 1978, I think, if I'm remembering right.
But the first one that makes a difference is, really, Dark Knight Returns. That's the first one to come from a comic publisher, it's the first one really to be marketed as, "here's a cool, serious comic that you can read beginning to end."
And that ended up defining the format.
Nrama: And that, you had a hand in.
Levitz: Yeah, I had a few hands in that. [Laughs.]
Nrama: So you became the president and publisher in 2001. That was about the time that comic book movies started making it big consistently, wasn't it?
Levitz: Yeah, that was the beginning of it.
Nrama: Did that impact the comic book business as you became president during that era?
Levitz: Well, the culture shifted. The culture is always shifting. The success of the movies affected some of the material that was in the comics, certainly, just as the movies were affected by the material that was in the comics.
The changes in how comics were perceived, how comic book people were able to work in the movie industry while they were still comic book people became a wonderful shift in that period. There were people in television too.
Suddenly, a comic book credit was a good thing to have on your resume, as opposed to a lead weight, for a creative person.
Lots of things shifted. But lots of things were always shifting.
I think the reason I was able to be at DC for so many years is that the industry was almost continuously changing in that time, so I never got bored.
Nrama: Were the elements of that movie era that stand out as unique accomplishments for you?
Levitz: On the movie side, the thing that I put the most time in was working on Christopher Nolan on his cycle of Batman movies, which I think were incredibly impressive work on Chris' part. I mean, my role is not even homeopathic, it's so small, but it was great fun. Movies are a director's form, not a licensed source form.
I was proud of what Zack Snyder did on Watchmen. I thought that was a work of art, even though it was not the same level of commercial success.
Nrama: I remember that you were the one who challenged the DC staff to do the weekly 52 series. There have been a lot of weeklies at DC since then, and even a few weeklies and almost-weeklies at other companies. DC is now doing several series twice- monthly.
Levitz: The idea of doing a comic weekly was something that had seemed natural to a number of us for a long time because the readers were coming in weekly. Creatively, it's a complete bitch to execute. It takes more than a week to make a comic. End of story. No matter what you do.
But if you could, it was a very natural way to satisfy readers. We tried it with Action Comics Weekly. Bleh. It didn't click. It didn't work.
Mike Carlin pretty much made Superman a weekly comic even though it wasn't labeled as a weekly comic, and that was much more successful for a good stretch - an incredibly successful melding of diverse creative talents into kind of a seamless whole for a while.
But it always seemed like a tempting goal. There were a number of other near-experiments along the way.
When Dan and the guys were pitching - God, which crossover was it?
Nrama: It happened right after Infinite Crisis, I think.
Levitz: Yeah, it must have been Infinite Crisis. So they're pitching the crossover and they say, "and then, we're going to leap ahead a year later."
And I said, "Well, that's been done. And hasn't usually been done well. If you're going to do it, you have to do something to pay it off."
And 24 had, I guess, fairly recently come out on television at that point, and it was doing well. So I said, "Maybe the way to do it is to do something, I don't know, like 52 and tell the story of the missing year."
And Dan's eyes lit up. And he gathered up his easel and ran out of the room with, I guess, Geoff Johns was with him and maybe somebody else had come down to pitch it. And they went off.
And they came back with, really, a very different approach to how to make it work - a team writing approach from Dan's experience in television, which was not at all a way that comics were being produced in those years, and a set of creative ideas on how they would execute. All of that was theirs.
And they pulled it off.
Nrama: So who is Paul Levitz now?
Levitz: An older guy!
Nrama: I know you're a bit of a historian, and you've just finished up a run on Doctor Fate. What's keeping you busy these days?
Levitz: About half my time is teaching, which is great fun. When I got up from the desk, I sent letters around to a variety of schools that either had writing programs or publishing programs and said, "Hi, I don't have the usual credentials, but I've done some interesting stuff in my life. I think I could be useful." I had some wonderful teachers in my career. I'm one of Frank McCourt's kids from Stuyvesant, among other teachers, but he's certainly the brand name of the bunch.
So it was always something I wanted to do at some point in my life. And since I was lucky enough to be able to choose whatever I wanted to do without worrying about the economics, I sent those around. And a number of schools said, "OK, come on by."
And I've been teaching writing and this graduate program in publishing at Pace. I've gotten to teach the American graphic novel at Columbia and most recently this year at Princeton - kind of outrageous things for a kid who's a drop-out.
It keeps me among young people and gets me out of the house. The problem with being a writer is you're locked in your room, and I was used to playing with a group of wonderful people every day. So that's about half my time now.
The other half is writing. My Brooklyn Blood series is running in Dark Horse Presents at the moment. Doctor Fate just wrapped up, and we'll see what happens next. I'm doing some history and popular culture writing - putting together my next book project, but nothing to announce on that yet.
Taschen's about to reissue my big 75 Years book in a somewhat less big, somewhat less expensive format this upcoming spring. And I do some consulting work - I'm on the board at BOOM! Studios, one of the midsize comics companies, and I'm on the board of the CBLDF. Hopefully, I'm helpful to them a little bit. And I've consulted for all kinds of other kinds of companies in the digital world, the publishing world, on little projects.
Just things to keep my business hand in and be useful a little bit.
Nrama: It's great that you're able to talk shop with young people.
Levitz: I haven't yet taught a comic book writing course. I'm probably going to do that next fall for the first time. But just teaching writing has made me a better writer. It's made me think about things. And I think one of the reasons that Doctor Fate had a fairly authentic voice for a 23-year-old main character was that I was spending a fair amount of my time around kids in their 20's. The language changes, the attitudes change, and unless you get yourself in the middle of it, you get more and more out of touch with it.
Nrama: Looking back on your decades of writing and editing and overseeing DC Comics, what do you feel most proud of?
Levitz: The things that I would put on my corporate tombstone, if you will, would be devising the credit and business terms we used for the direct market, which significantly invested in the growth of the comic shops and the direct distribution system; my role in helping devise the first standard royalty plan for the business; my role in developing the graphic novel format in this country - those are some of the things that are more singly mine.
I'm proud of my role in launching and developing Vertigo as a very different model. I think the Vertigo imprint is one of the things I'm proudest of that we did at DC over time.
There were lots of things that didn't work that I'm still proud of. I'm very proud of Milestone. It was not a great commercial success. It didn't survive as an ongoing entity. But I think it was one of the noblest tries, some brilliant material and tremendous efforts by the guys who founded it. And it was a very, very different structure for a traditional company to work in.
We were were good to our readers, we were good to our business partners, we were good to our writers and artists, we supported the filmmakers who were developing things - some of them, like Chris Nolan, did incredible work. We ran a good company, and we had good people working there by and large - not perfect. By the time I was president, we had a staff of about 300 people, and you're not going to have 300 people without having some personality issues and some imperfections. But we had a lot of really great people, and we did a lot of really great stuff.
In many ways, the bottom line to all of it was, the group of us - Jenette Kahn, me, Joe Orlando, Dick Giordano, people on the business side like Bob Wayne, and line editors like Karen Berger and Andy Helfer - took the company that was the oldest company in the business (and in those days the most corporately owned company in the business) and for much of a 25-year-or-so period, it was inarguably the most creative company in the business and the industry leader in moving the field forward.
There were some small companies that did really amazing and innovative things, but they didn't succeed in having a sustained impact, or it took them a long time to grow into having sustained impact. But we had a real, major presence for a very, very long time, changing the business for the better.
And I think we made it better for the writers and artists. I think we made it better for the retailers. I think we made it better for the readers.
Not everybody agrees with all of it. There are certainly things that, if I had been smarter on a given day or I had had more perfect information, I would have done differently.
But the overall batting average we had, I think, was really an exceptional one.
You know, you look back - the period when EC was doing revolutionary work is about a half dozen years. The years when Marvel was changing the industry (and changing it for the better in many, many ways) is about a 10-year period between Fantastic Four #1 and when Marvel becomes the largest company in the business, but a much more stable company, in terms of what it's doing.
I think we were the innovative leader maybe longer than anybody else has ever been, which is kind of amazing.
Nrama: And all this because you were so adamant about creating a fanzine. You said earlier that you felt like nobody could recreate the way you made it in the business - that you owed a lot to the people who gave you a chance (and you owed some of it to luck). I assume you're glad it happened this way?
Levitz: Absolutely, yes. I'm profoundly aware of how lucky I've been, professionally and personally, in my life, and my debt both to specific people and institutions along the way, and more generally to the beneficence of a kindly universe.