In a panel commemoration the publisher’s rich history and the publication of Taschen’s “75 Years of DC Comics,” former DC Comics publishers Jennette Kahn and Paul Levitz, current co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns, and legendary creators Jerry Robinson and Dennis O’Neil spoke at Comic-Con International in San Diego about their lives and experiences with the company.
“This is the 75th anniversary of ‘New Fun’ #1, the very first DC comic,” Levitz began, “and contrary to the press release, I was not there at the time.”
Levitz began by asking the panelists about “moments of unrecorded history.” Robinson said, “I’ve been associated with DC in one way or the other for 70 of those 75 years.” He reflected on a time when the DC crew was a small and intimate environment, working with Jack Kirby, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane, and other classic artists in a small office. “When ‘Citizen Kane’ first came out, it really fired our imagination. Here on the screen, Orson Welles was doing the kinds of storytelling … we wanted to do on paper,” Robinson said. “We were excited when we heard Orson Welles loved the comics and was influenced by the comics.”
Next came Dennis O’Neil. “As a scruffy freelancer, I just thought DC was a closed shop. So when I was trolling for work, I didn’t go to DC, I just didn’t think there was any point in it.” Once he came over, he found the environment “congenial, and just a little uptight.” “We were told not to pass the president’s desk, even though his door was closed, because we were not wearing a suit.” O’Neill described working closely with Julius Schwartz was one of the “treasures” of his life. When they first met, though, “I don’t think he’d ever seen a scruffy East Villager, and I knew authority figures sucked!” After O’Neill added an unsolicited bit of story that met with Schwartz’s approval, though, their relationship blossomed.
O’Neil also witnessed National Publications throw off the shame it held in publishing comics and embrace the medium instead.
In response to O’Neil’s characterization of Schwartz as a businessman, Levitz recounted a second-hand anecdote about Schwartz “smoking tea,” “so maybe he knew about your East Villager ways than you thought!”
Lee said that in the mid-eighties, DC Comics like “Watchmen,” “Dark Knight Returns,” and Howard Chaykin’s “Shadowrun” caught his interest. “At that point, I was a senior in college and kind of disenchanted with comics,” Lee said, but those and other titles reinvigorated his interest, as did the increasing control creators had over their creators.
While working at ABC, DiDio wanted to do a “Metal Man” TV series. “When I met Jenette Kahn, I felt I had a kindred spirit in wanting to keep this project alive,” he said. The series did not quite happen, but DiDio got a tour of the DC offices. “I was more excited about going to the DC Comics offices than anything I’d done in TV.”
“She introduced me to Mike Carlin, and I said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do Metal Men, the real one with the robots and not that crappy one that just came out where they have souls,'” Didio continued, “and Mike said, ‘yeah, I wrote that.’ ‘And we’re going to fix it!'”Didio laughed.
The biggest perk of DiDio’s job, he said, was “I got a copy of ‘Canceled Comics Cavalcade’ #1 and #2.” “That was a good deal. And it was good they didn’t print them.”
Geoff Johns said that he used his lunch money to buy comics, with only a Little Debbie in lieu of lunch to sustain him throughout the day.
Asked about turning points, O’Neil reiterated that, “When I began 45 years ago, it really was disreputable.” “Now, lord help us, I teach at a major university, and so do a lot of people in this room. We have as much respect as any popular art form.”
“While I wasn’t looking, we became respectable. And I don’t know how well I’m handling it,” he concluded.
Levitz said, though, that O’Neil’s work on “Batman” and “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” was “among the first to take the material seriously on its own terms.” “That’s a turning point that you had a part in,” Levitz said.
O’Neil said that because Schwartz had no precedent to follow, he was open to many new ideas. “You could pitch Green Arrow becoming a social activist, and he couldn’t think of any reason not to.”
Kahn spoke about giving writers and artists credit, including appropriate compensation for their work. “It said, ‘this is a place where you can do your best work and you will be rewarded for it,” Kahn said, “but more than that, we need the work.” She said that she recruited Frank Miller, who wanted an unusual format for an unusual project that would become “Ronin,” which lead her to look for ways to make that work.
Levitz prompted Lee to discuss digital comics. “We are in the infancy of digital comics,” Lee said, recalling his first iPod and the advances since then. “I think the big difference will be with you as readers of how you internalize the material.” Lee said that he will always prefer paper, but future readers may have no problem flipping their iPads for double-page spreads, reading Twitter comments in-line, and so forth. “I think they’re all tools to the ultimate thing we produce, which is stories and entertainment, and that will remain constant.”
Following this, Levitz noted that much of the material in “75 Years of DC Comics” comes from material Robinson preserved, which would have been an unusual practice at the time. “Comics were appreciated in Europe; they appreciated it there first, just as they were the first to appreciate American jazz,” Robinson said, and noted that many readers overseas thought the translations of American work were “an indigenous art form.” Robinson later curated one of the first gallery exhibitions of comic and cartoon art, which was reviewed in the New York Times. The next exhibition in the 1970s at the Kennedy Center, remains one of the largest shows of its kind. He also included fine art inspired by comic art, including one by Mel Ramos based on Robinson’s Joker. “The art arrived and it was insured for $350,000. I hung it next to my Joker cover, which I think I got $100 for,” he said. “That’s when I learned that life wasn’t fair.”
Asked what he would change in DC Comics history, DiDio set his sights on “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” He said that, after the universe was recreated and several of the characters reset, “things started to unravel a bit” in the rebuilding process. “There was a moment when DC owned the comics business,” he said, adding that if the company could have held that excitement and “building for the future” they might be in an even stronger situation now.
Johns told a story from his time working with Richard Donner’s company when an executive (no longer at the company) asked if they could do a Green Lantern movie without the ring. “I thought then that we’d never get a Green Lantern movie made. Now we do, and he’s got the ring.”
During a short question and answer period, a fan asked about the thinking behind Wonder Woman’s change. “Wonder Woman was at a point where she was a little stalled, and we wanted to get people excited for it,” DiDio said, adding that “it doesn’t mean the other one doesn’t exist, this is just what we’re doing right now.”
Another fan asked about “changes that didn’t quite happen.” Lee laughed knowingly for several seconds. “I really wanted to kill Dick Grayson,” DiDio said, then, pointing at Levitz, “that one stopped me!”
Kahn discussed forming the Wonder Woman Foundation with Gloria Steinem, which coincided with Wonder Woman’s fortieth anniversary and honored extraordinary women over 40.
A fan followed up Marvel’s challenge regarding a crossover (from the Mondo Marvel panel), but all DiDio would confirm was, “Next week, Central Park, Marvel vs. DC softball game.”
Asked about how digital comics might change how comics are created, Lee said, “It will definitely change how they’re written.” He noted formatting differences like landscape format and fewer panels per page. “Creators might find a way to use the fact that you can’t read all the dialogue boxes clearly at once to a creative purpose,” Lee said.
After being thanked for creating the character, Robinson talked about the origin of Robin, which was not inspired by the bird but rather Robin Hood. “I wanted a name that was not a superhero name,” he said. “We vetoed a lot of names that sounded like they suggested superpowers.” The costume was based on N.C. Wyeth’s take on Robin Hood.