Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: You’ve arguably had the ultimate internship over the years, going back to when you published one of the first widely read fanzines until Joe Orlando gave you your break. It was Joe, wasn’t it?
Paul Levitz: Joe was definitely the one who gave me my first assignment and was a wonderful mentor in many, many ways.
CB: I’ve heard so many great stories about him. It made me sad when I actually began this little odyssey about 3 years ago when I realized he and a handful of others are forever out of my reach. How did it feel to work with Joe and others?
LEVITZ: I’ve had a great deal of luck and as I once joked with Mark Evanier when we were bemoaning someone’s death, it’s very rare in life that you get to make friends of your parents or your grandparents generation. Just by the nature of life if you know folks that old it’s almost inevitably family members who you know mostly with sort of a specific, formal relationship: an uncle or whatever.
Mark and I and a handful of others of us, the fans of a certain generation, really got to know some fascinating people who became friends across the generational barrier, aside from our love of their work. The joy we took from that, merely getting to know people whose life experience of a whole other era has been one of the fascinating journeys.
CB: Well said. I know some of the follow up conversations I’ve enjoyed with my interviewees have taught me so much. Learning from what I fondly refer to as the Old Guard has been particularly instructive and enjoyable. I could talk to Jack Adler for hours…
LEVITZ: That’s the only way to talk to Jack. (Mutual laughter.)
CB: He’s still very sharp.
LEVITZ: Good man.
CB: Lew Sayre Schwartz, who has good things to say about you, by the way, Joe Giella, Gaspar Saladino…
LEVITZ: Gaspar. I haven’t heard much of him in a long, long time.
CB: Gaspar seems very content in his semi-retired state and seems baffled as to why anyone makes a fuss over him.
CB: A very unassuming man. You mentioned Joe (Orlando) being a mentor. What sort of things do you recall learning from him?
LEVITZ: It’s way too long a list for an interview, but let me mention lots of editorial tools and tricks that I still use; using what I call editing art for the art blind. In working with some of the newer artists that I’ve worked with for the last six or seven months that I’ve been back writing I’ve had occasion to pull those back out of the Fuller Brush case and suggest things like, “How about this?” It’s wonderful to be able to do that, and just fundamentals about how to approach creative work, how to approach plotting, how to work with creative people. Stuff I’ve used my whole life.
CB: Tony DeZuniga in particular said that Joe taught him a great deal from an artistic standpoint and said something to the effect that Joe always had time to teach. A born teacher.
CB: I can’t imagine you expected to go as high as you managed. What was your goal when you started at DC?
LEVITZ: To pay my way through college, basically. Get a real job. One that would be around for a while. I was in a five year Bachelor’s/Master’s program that NYU offered in Business and I figured that I could pay for it by working at DC a couple of days a week and taking my classes for a couple of days and put my skills to work probably in something in the business side of the technology world. I was a science geek as a kid and I thought that was an interesting part of the world. But I knew about as much about what my future would be like as the average 16-year old…nothing.
CB: (Chuckle.) Some of us are still trying to figure it out.
LEVITZ: It’s okay. The journey’s part of the fun.
CB: You got to be part of that gang of “Woodchucks.” What was that like when you were helping to produce The Amazing World of DC Comics?
LEVITZ: It was wonderful fun to be surrounded by young people who were basically at the same stage of life. We were all kids. Some of the guys were a little older, married, but everyone was really starting out. We were all passionately interested in comics, so in those days it was a physically fairly tight community because in the business everyone was pretty much in New York.
If you worked in comics you could really count the exceptions on a couple of hands. We were the new kids, and it was, “Who did you meet?” “What’s going on?” You’d find this old stuff that had never been thought about before. What can you learn from that? It was a great series of discussions and people were paying us for learning which just seemed ridiculous. Not paying us well…but certainly paying us as much or more than we were worth.
CB: Did you work most closely with Sol (Harrison) or Jack (Adler) or…
LEVITZ: It was a small place. There were 35 guys on staff at DC, so you worked with everybody to one extent or another. Sol and Jack were both energetic teachers of the art forms. Amazing World was Sol’s pet project, certainly. Jack would be stoving your head in teaching you how to do something whether you wanted to know it or not, or if you were ready for a discussion of how to best wire a stereo he’d give you an education on that subject.
CB: As I looked at some of the articles you’d written in Amazing World it almost seemed like you were being groomed for the production process whereas you had guys like Guy Lillian doing the interviews. Were you fast-tracking that direction?
LEVITZ: I don’t know that it was fast-tracking. It’s just that the business side of the field interested me more than most of my peers. I wrote hideously simplistic articles on things called “Comic Economics” for somebody else’s fanzine at some point: Joe Brancatelli’s when I was just a kid. All sorts of foolish little analyses of how many pages you got for how many cents and what type of effect that had. It was a time when the comic business was waking up and perhaps considering coming back to life and most of the New York kids who were interested in comics got a chance to play in the game and if you had any skills to offer or were willing to work hard there was a reasonable chance you’d get to play for a while. They’d see what it is you were good at and maybe get a chance to do some more of that.
CB: I realize the world has changed, in some ways quite radically, but it almost seems sad to me in retrospect that there’s no longer some of the opportunities that there were when some of your peers went to the weekly open houses at DC or the opportunity to interact through the lettercols. Do you think there are opportunities like that any longer?
LEVITZ: It’s a different world. You can’t separate the good and evil of a time. It’s a wonderful thing to live in the 21st Century and to have modern medicine keeping us alive for so many years and to be sitting here comfortably in air-conditioing doing my work this afternoon despite the fact that it’s 900 bazillion degrees on the streets of New York…
CB: With the humidity.
LEVITZ: With the humidity. But the air smells of hydrocarbons rather than smelling of horseshit, and I don’t know which of those two things is better. There’s a wonderful book by William Manchester called “A World Lit Only by Fire.” Manchester is just a great historian looking at the world as it existed in the early Medieval Period I guess. If I remember correctly about the year 1,000 or 1,100, and he very vividly captured not the lives of the Kings and Queens, but what the world was and there was some wonderful, simLevitze things in all of that, and there was the simple fact that you really weren’t going to stay up long after dark because candles cost money, and each time and each period has its glories and its challenges.
Overall I think most of us would rather be born in this time with the life expectancies and the sciences that exist now than we would a thousand years ago. I think that applies to all the little micro areas, too. It’s a delightful thing to be working with an artist in Istanbul and to pop open my e-mail in the morning and there’s the latest page Yildiray has done the day before that he’s scanned and sent to me. That was an undreamable possibility in the industry that I came into. And if the tradeoff for that is that we’re not all sitting around at the Brew Burger on Friday night shooting the breeze about which editor is an idiot to work for or how we’re going to figure out how to make this a better industry in some fashion or another, those are just the tradeoffs of life.
Now, do the Internet use groups and message boards provide an adequate replacement for the letters page? In a lot of ways, yeah. In others, you give up some stuff, but the world is what the world is at any given time.
CB: You certainly can’t turn back the clock, and while I appreciate nostalgia as much as the next person, I don’t want my high-speed internet taken away. (Chuckle.)
LEVITZ: Yeah. And I don’t think you want your measles shot taken away either.
CB: I’ll have to check out that book. It sounds interesting and seems to be reminiscent of a book I read by Michael Crichton along those lines set in Medieval France. He did a great job of researching the era.
LEVITZ: Crichton did a great job on that stuff.
CB: He made you understand just what it was they were dealing with in traveling back through time to that era. Doublets because there was no elastic, for examLevitze. Little things you don’t think about.
LEVITZ: Exactly. You don’t walk out and think that 150 years ago the dominant smell in any city was excrement. That was just it. End of the day. There wasn’t any place to get rid of it fast enough. I think it’s probably a significant improvement. A wild guess on my part…
CB: (Laughter.) I certainly wouldn’t disagree. As I was looking over your voluminous credits at the Grand Comic Database I see you did quite a few jobs of answering letters in the columns.
LEVITZ: I think I did more of that than anybody alive in the business.
CB: Was it at all tedious?
LEVITZ: I generally enjoyed the forum. If you were writing one that got mail. The mystery titles tended to not get much mail. If you didn’t get much discursive mail it tended to get a little more tedious than a superhero book that got lively and intelligent letters. I got a couple of lifelong friends out of people who were just regular letter writers on books I did, so there’s always that.
CB: As a kid I dismissed the horror books. They didn’t interest me, but as I’ve gone back and looked at House of Secrets and House of Mystery it’s remarkable how much great talent worked on them. I think they got overlooked unjustly sometimes.
LEVITZ: Well, I’m not sure that most of the guys look back on what we did in those books as shining moments in our career, but it was a learning thing. As an editor on those titles I bought the first work in the business for people from Marc DeMatteis to Michael Golden to Mark Bright. The first work for DC from people like Frank Miller.
He’d done one or maybe two stories for Gold Key before that. I don’t know that if you piled up all those stories or my first handful of stories that appeared in those kinds of books as well that there’s anything that’s in danger of winning the “This is the moment of your career; you’re going to look back on it with pride” prize, but we learned how to do our craft. And that was pretty cool. It paid dividends in the long run.
CB: Absolutely. And I don’t know who to thank, maybe you, but these Showcase Presents reprint editions have been just a treasure trove in my opinion.
LEVITZ: Whoever at Marvel came up with the Marvel Essentials line gets the credit because we basically just knocked that format off from what Marvel had done. It was a very cool format and George Brewer and his team figured out how we could modify that so that we could do it within DC’s standards of paying royalties or percentages or whatever. It’s a lovely book.
CB: I’ve enjoyed them no end and it’s a very cost effective way to get my hands on stories that I probably couldn’t have managed any other way. Also, I know first hand from speaking to several of the older generation of creators that they’ve been more than grateful for the policy that they got the reprint fees.
LEVITZ: It’s a lovely thing when you get a note back on that from somebody whose work you enjoyed when you were a kid. The first generation of creators in this business got very little economic reward and got very little recognition and to the extent that I and others were able to reach back and help them through programs like that were very good for the soul.
CB: Again, I can speak with some authority that it’s appreciated. Your name has come up more than once in my conversations with a great deal of gratitude, and when Neal Adams goes as far as to post a photo of he and you shaking hands on his website that says something as well, I think.
LEVITZ: That was a fun moment.
CB: I recently discovered that in addition to Stalker you came up with the Huntress. Are there other characters that I don’t know of that you’ve produced?
LEVITZ: In terms of my “enduring contributions” to the DC Universe probably reduces itself to Lucian the librarian who runs around in the Sandman mythology and I created a very simple version of him as mystery host for Tales of Ghost Castle. Neil (Gaiman) really made him into a real character when he adopted him for the Sandman universe. He added so much dimension to him. And I guess the third of the many Starmen of the DC Universe that I did with Steve Ditko for a couple of years for Adventure.
CB: You’ve had a number of well-known artists interpret your scripts. Was there anyone in particular you felt really got the way that you envision things?
LEVITZ: Bowing to the public judgment, clearly the most successful collaboration over the years has to be the one with Keith Giffen on the Legion. That’s the one people point to. I’ve had enormous fun with a range of other people I’ve worked with over the years. Guys who were either my generation that I enjoyed working with such as Joe Staton or the fun of having seen my scripts brought to life by a collection of people as amazing as practically a you-name-it of the first generation of guys: Ditko, Kirby, Kubert, Gil Kane, Curt Swan, Irv Novick, Dick Dillin, Bob Oksner. So many of DC’s best. I got Joe Orlando to do one of my stories once as a Legion fill-in.
CB: That’s certainly a who’s who of talent…
LEVITZ: Jim Aparo. I’m doing any number of people a disservice because there literally are too many to name.
CB: Sure. Even though you began after the Silver Age ended, nearly all those guys were still there. I always looked with particular fondness on Stalker because I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to have the team of Ditko and Wood work on a story for you.
LEVITZ: At 17 years old it’s just outrageous.
CB: It’s kind of funny. Jim Shooter made an interesting comment to me that the advantage to being a writer over an artist is that over time you tend to get better whereas an artist runs the risk of losing motor skills or eyesight or other physical drawbacks.
LEVITZ: That’s an interesting argument. I don’t know if it’s entirely fair to the artists. I think it is probably an accurate assessment for someone working exclusively or primarily in the idiom of comics. I think that writers have a couple of advantages that Jim is folding together there. One is because it is not a very physical profession. You don’t have nature working against you in the sense that your hand gets less steady or something like that. There are certainly enough guys like Al Jaffee who, at 85 or 86 or whatever the heck he is now, defies all laws of probability as he still does those MAD fold-ins and other beautiful, incredible kinds of work where, in his personal life his hand feels his age, but when he goes to the drawing board it just turns into magic.
But the other thing that’s conflated in there is writers can do more kinds of work, generally. When you set out to be a professional writer, you can go on a journey where you do comics, and you do prose and maybe do some animation or a guy gets to go on to film or you do kid’s books or trade magazines or other sorts of arguably less creative writing, but things that can help you make a living. I think as an artist, many more artists become an artist of a very specific thing, and that may also account for a type of a wear-down effect after doing 10,000 pages of comics or some frightening number like that. But, there were artists who kept learning and kept thinking and growing all along.
You look at Joe Kubert and you look at Will Eisner, both of them doing amazing and interestingly different kinds of creative work in their 80’s and there are writers who ran out of ideas in their 40’s, or their 30’s. Jim may be absolutely right statistically, but I don’t know that it’s a law of nature so much as how it’s worked out for a lot of people.
CB: Well, I’m not the sort who looks on the world as having a lot of total absolutes, but I thought it was an interesting observation.
LEVITZ: Jim’s a very smart guy.
CB: As I think about it, Len Wein has been doing a lot of work in the animated arena and it didn’t even occur to me until he mentioned he was doing work on video games and I’d have never considered needing a writer for that.
LEVITZ: He and a couple of the other guys of that generation made that as a very successful transition to something that didn’t exist when they were writing comics.
CB: As a matter of fact Len was another who commented about your role in his collecting a tidy sum for his Lucius Fox character after you insisted he get a creator’s equity.
LEVITZ: He’s very kind to share that story a number of times now.
CB: Was anyone a particular influence to you to become a writer or was it something you aspired to on your own?
LEVITZ: I didn’t really expect to be a writer. Going back to that first conversation with Joe (Orlando) when he called me and asked me to work on his letter columns, I very vividly remember that the remark was, “Me? I’m not a writer.” He replied, “I’ve read your fanzines. You write well enough to do letter columns.” If I expected to be anything in the business, I would have expected it to be much more likely that I would have been in an editorial role or something like that along in the process.
So a lot of the credit for that really goes to when I was working with Joe. He was teaching me by my doing rewrite work on scripts that were in other kinds of editorial work and just learning the ropes that way. You rip apart something that has problems; learn what’s right or wrong with it and take it from there. “Oh, I could do this, I think,” or sometimes, “I could do it better than this.”
CB: And obviously you made that transition to editor. Was that a natural ascension?
LEVITZ: You know, when you’re that young you don’t have a really great sense of how outrageously lucky you are, I think. Its kind of like, “Oh, you want me to do that? Okay.” That’s why they send 18-year olds out to war. They believe they’re invulnerable. You probably haven’t realized yet that it’s great that you woke up in the morning breathing.
CB: It appears over the last several years that the business has become more about licensing than anything else and it is, of course, first and foremost a business and obviously you do the sorts of things that generate revenue most efficiently. Is the publishing aspect getting short shrift or is it one of those normal cyclical things?
LEVITZ: Well, if you look back over the history of the business there have very rarely been any moments when publishing was profitable collectively for people in the business as it has been for the last 5 or 6 years, so I think a lot of that is the fairly short term point of view. It’s rather reminiscent of the moment in Casablanca when he walks into the casino and says, “Gambling?! You mean there’s gambling in here?” Probably from 1940 onward, maybe without a break unless I’m forgetting some year in there, but I don’t think so, the net profits for the industry were more from licensing than they were from publishing. So it’s not either a new development or a surprising development if that’s going on. It has happened most of the time.
There have been occasional moments when nobody was making any money in publishing and the only thing keeping the industry alive was licensing revenue. When I came into the field in the early 1970’s that was a fair description of the circumstance. By the mid-1970’s at least. So the fact that in the last handful of years publishing has been a reasonable profit center of its own is really delightful and impressive. In terms of my career it was one of the things that was a goal for me to try to get the publishing side of the company I was working with to be a significant contributor.
It’s something I’m very proud of. But it wasn’t ever going to be in danger of beating the licensing end on any regular basis. I think licensing is a lovely business. You stand there with a bucket and money comes into it because of something that has previously existed that you have connected to the public. There are costs attached to that, both money that has to be paid to the original creators of the properties, legal costs, certainly, to a very significant degree, some marketing costs, but you’re not bringing a product to market and taking a risk with it the way you are publishing. So you ought to get into that racket.
CB: What with all the popularity of the movies it seems to be a major trend lately.
LEVITZ: It’s a good one. It helps pay the rent.
CB: When you see a credit for plotting vs. actual scripting, what is the exact distinction?
LEVITZ: There are a wide variety of possibilities. I would occasionally give a plotting credit or a co-plotter credit to artists I was collaborating with who had offered a lot of ideas into the process. Keith Giffen is a good example I think. I credited Keith as a co-plotter on a lot of the Legion work that we did together because Keith would pop up with an idea. There might be a series of issues that he didn’t, but there would be other issues he’d add an idea to. When you see it in a more rigorous fashion, such as when there are two separate writers and one is credited with plot while the other is credited with script, most often that will represent that the first writer has developed the idea for the story, possibly outlined it for an artist to draw and the second writer has come in and done the final dialogue. But in every variation, there were periods on the mystery stories where you’d sell a one paragraph plot for fifteen bucks and it would be given to another writer to do completely from there.
CB: Have you done any writing outside the comic field?
LEVITZ: Not a lot. Little bits and pieces early on in my career. Hopefully now I’ve got a little more time and freedom to do so.
B: I noticed that you’ve been exclusive to DC but did contribute to Mike Friedrich’s Star*Reach for a while. Was it a chance to do something a little different?
LEVITZ: It was a different time. It wasn’t perceived to be particularly competitive to the mainstream comics of the period. What Mike was doing was in many ways the precursor to the independent comics as they exist today, but in a time when there were very, very few comic shops and the major publishers didn’t perceive this as a part of their business model even. So there wasn’t a problem in doing that while you were working at a larger house. Mike was an old buddy of many years and had a lot of fun doing it. We played around with an original character and did things you couldn’t have possibly done at DC at the time.
CB: When you worked with some of the other editors, I noticed you listed as assisting Gerry Conway, Murray Boltinoff, Ross Andru…
LEVITZ: Not Ross. By the time he was an editor I was long since doing my own books. I may have even moved out of the editorial department. I did work on Murray’s reprint books for a bunch of years, the reprint material in the backs of his books and worked with Gerry pretty much the whole time he was a freelance editor for DC. He was a good teacher and a good guy.
CB: What do you think is a good, concise description for what make a successful editor?
LEVITZ: Someone who makes their creative people do their best work.
CB: So kind of an inspirer, perhaps?
LEVITZ: Everybody’s done it differently. I got in a long discussion once over a hamburger with Stan (Lee) about that late one night. What a great editor did. I had a good laugh with him convincing him he was one.
CB: What does the term “editorial consultant” mean?
LEVITZ: Any time they’ve got a question they can pick up the phone and call me. Whatever they want it to be.
CB: Do you think fandom is still a viable force after all these years?
LEVITZ: Define fandom.
CB: There are still a few fanzines out there, but they seem to be darned few.
LEVITZ: Well, there are 4 million websites. What’s a website besides a digital fanzine?
CB: You wrote the introduction to Darwyn Cooke’s excellent book “The New Frontier,” and you mentioned with regard to characters, “A wise man taught me that the reader can tell which are placed in the mosaic with sincerity and only those can endure.” Would you care to reveal who that wise man was?
LEVITZ: That’s one of Joe Orlando’s old lines. Joe always said that the reader can smell sincerity. They’ll forgive sincere bad work, but they won’t forgive insincere mediocrity.
CB: Lew Schwartz told me once that one of the reasons he loved drawing Bill Finger’s scripts was that he wrote very visually. Do you feel you have that ability?
LEVITZ: If I write very visually I don’t know that I’d dare compare myself to Bill because he was really one of the guys who had a great gift for it. I’m confident based on the reactions I’ve had from artists over the years that I write scripts that artists find comfortable to draw. My learning to write comics from an artist had something to do with the fact that I communicate well with them and give them tools to work with. There are wonderfully talented writers in this business whose material is just a bitch for an artist to draw because their communication process with the artist is not necessarily as good as their internal creative process. And thankfully I’ve never had that as a problem.
CB: Do you provide much in the way of reference or is that a good tool?
LEVITZ: It depends on the situation. These days it’s a lot easier than it was years ago because you have the internet to pull stuff from. Now all you’re doing is giving them a URL.
CB: You’re one of the most renowned of the Legion writers and are back on the gig again. Based on some of the postings I’ve seen you make you’re having an absolute ball at it. Any comments?
LEVITZ: It’s fun to be back in the game and to have people enjoying what I do.
CB: Is it difficult to write for a group that large? How does it compare to writing for say an Aquaman title?
LEVITZ: It’s different. There are different sets of skills you have to exercise in order to keep track of everything. But on the other hand you have in many ways much more potential available to you because you can screw around with so many more character’s lives. I probably have to do a little more work on the “where is everybody this issue” keeping track process than I would have to do writing Aquaman, but on the other hand with Aquaman, as with any other single superhero character, a big piece of the challenge is just finding something new that you can do to them within the strictures of keeping the characters alive and happy and available for product licensing and whatever other means of exploitation are necessary. All tradeoffs.
CB: Deadlines, friend or foe?
LEVITZ: Not a problem. Just not a big deal.