By Gabriel Neeb
On the floor of any comics convention, there are hundreds of titles inspiring awe, wonder, devotion, and occasionally, production and licensing deals. Many of these are benefitting not just their parent media corporations, but also the original creators of the given properties.
The reasons for this are numerous, but two of the originators of some of the methods and philosophies behind the emphasis on creative freedom and the consumable formats that allowed them to excel, met at the San Diego Comics Convention to discuss their actions as former Vertigo executive editor Karen Berger and DC president Paul Levitz met at a panel billed as “Paul Levitz in Conversation with Karen Berger,” or as Berger referred to as “Spotlight on Paul Levitz.”
The panel began amiably with a friendly hug between Berger and Levitz. It should have begun right there, except that in a surprise appearance, San Diego Chief of Police Shelley Zimmerman showed up to say hello to Paul Levitz (this due to Levitz’s acquaintance with family of Zimmerman).
Berger began the panel by mentioning that it was Levitz that hired Berger 38 years ago when she was 21 and he was 23. Over the years they’ve become friends and colleagues even though Levitz has driven her crazy and she has responded in kind. They were both raised in the New York borough of Brooklyn although they attended separate schools. This led to a quick aside that when Levitz attended Stuyvesant High School’s 100th Anniversary ceremony, he was introduced by his English teacher, Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes) as the writer of Legion of Super Heroes instead of his title at DC Comics. As a comics professional that can take pride in both creative and business accomplishments, this proved to be a source of amusement for Berger and Levitz. The first major topic was how Levitz got his start in comics. Levitz was always fixated on the fact that the writer’s name came first in the credits and mused that it was his business decisions that explain the presence of 150,000 people attending the convention and its functions, even though he takes the most pride in the writing.
Levitz was recruited to DC at 16 after graduating high school by editor Joe Orlando who discovered his work on a comics fanzine. Levitz was to assume the duties of Michael Fleischer as he went on to pursue writing opportunities. When he started, Levitz wasn’t writing but he was looking at the hundreds of scripts that would cross his desk until he actually starting writing, reaching a usable proficiency four years later.
The conversation continued with Berger asking about balancing the creative and business aspects of his work at DC. Levitz admitted that there was a period where he could have made more money freelancing as opposed to editing and he recognized he wasn’t eager to “compete” with the working writers.
Levitz recounted a time right after DC’s mega-event Crisis on Infinite Earths where DC was looking for a follow-up, so he submitted a story called, “Crisis of the Soul,” where Green Lantern turned evil. Jerry Ordway went so far as to do some initial art but the project never moved forward. Karen Berger added that although the project was submitted without a name, she figured out that it was Levitz’s proposal (as an aside, this might have been about the time Alan Moore submitted his “Twilight of the Super-Heroes” story).
Levitz continued discussing the business culture of the company by noting that he came off as a “young punk” at the start and would soon find himself in charge of employees that were as old as his father and this was soon magnified as DC was acquired by Warner Communications in the mid 1970s.Levitz soon found himself in budget meetings with Warner CEO Steve Ross, a man 25 years older than he was.
As an editor, Levitz recounted one of his most memorable battles was his relationship with Brave and the Bold writer, Bob Haney. Bob Haney was known to have “unique” approaches to the book’s star. Batman, and this pushed against the editorial direction DC was pushing at the time. Levitz found himself reigning in Haney’s creative excesses and while he was successful in that, Haney never forgave Levitz for those actions.
Levitz believes in having creators work for him, although he also believed in the ideas that writers and artists come first, an idea taught to him by Dick Giordano and Joe Orlando (and passed on to Berger), Levitz stated, “A good editor knows how to wrangle talent.”
Berger inquired as to what books and stories he was most proud of. Levitz mentioned that it was his Batman stories, specifically the Untold Legend of Batman series, the notion of Batman and Catwoman having a romantic relationship, and Detective Comics #500. The other book Levitz takes pride in was the 9/11 Memorial Special where he got to edit such talents as Stan Lee and Michael Moorcock.
Editorially, Levitz cites as influences the writings of Stan Lee, by way of Roy Thomas. As a writer he found incredible inspiration from Isaac Asimov, Roger Zelazny, Agatha Christie, Ed McBain and Dorothy Sayers. As for comic writing, he mentioned Denny O’Neil and Gerry Conway as influences.
Levitz still writes. His Brooklyn Blood story should be collected upon its completion. His next story involves a rabbi, a priest, and a minister as they walk into a bar, only they’re dead- and they need to find out why. These being the stories he could never tell as vice president at DC, despite his intense admiration for Karen Berger’s Vertigo Comics. He believed writing while on the business side to be a conflict of interest, though now he jokes about making story proposals now that he is out of that role.
Karen Berger’s respect was crystallized in her belief that Levitz gave her enough rope to hang herself. This coincided with a number of market changes. The newsstand was dying and there were more mature readers fostering the direct market. Readers wanted better stories. This meant the need for more mature language and adult situations (to use the word “fuck” Levitz and Berger had to consult DC President Jenette Kahn for clearance).
The changing market also helped in the emergence of the graphic novel as a story delivery method since it allowed for stories to be sold in bookstores and attract audiences that had never trafficked comics significantly before. Levitz was clear that some earlier formats had failed, but it was the rise of stories like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns that allowed the format to take hold in a permanent way, that these sales can now make up a large portion of a company’s revenue. It was this, and Levitz’s push for more royalties for creators which would foster opportunities creators could never have before, giving them greater potential for rewards beyond the milieu of DC or Marvel.
To Paul Levitz, “It beat the hell out of honest work.”