Paul Levitz Talks Taschen Re-Issue, Explores DC Comics History

"Legion Of Super-Heroes" writer, ex-DC Comics President and Publisher, current Columbia University teacher and comic book historian Paul Levitz is a man whose name has been synonymous with DC for decades. He's also the man wrote the book on DC Comics -- literally, as he and publisher Taschen Books released the mammoth "75 Years Of DC Comics: The Art Of Modern Myth-Making" in 2010.

Readers who were unable to purchase Levitz's $200 epic history of DC Comics the first time around noe have a second chance as Taschen is reissuing the oversized book as five slimmer, cheaper hardcover volumes, the first of which, "The Golden Age of DC Comics," is available for preorder, now. Levitz and Taschen revisit DC's past with brand new art and never before seen interviews with influential creators such as Jim Lee and Joe Kubert in each volume.

With "The Golden Age Of DC Comics" kicking off the re-issue, Levitz spoke with CBR about how he went about dividing up the original book, his time helming DC Comics and his personal feelings about the evolution of fandom from the homemade zines of his young adulthood to the blogs and mainstream media coverage of today.

CBR News: Taschen is currently preparing to re-issue your book "DC: Modern Myth-Making" in smaller chunks. How many will there be altogether, and what was the impetus for re-issuing them this way?

Paul Levitz: Taschen has some unique publishing strategies that they've exercised before with large art books, and this relates to some of the approaches they've taken historically. What they're doing is they're splitting the book into the five different eras that we used as our breakpoints in the history of DC, but each of the different volumes gets about fifty percent more art. They found so much wonderful artwork, so in one sense each volume is certainly physically much smaller than the original, but each one is also much richer. There's not a lot of edits on the written side; the main thing that we added in each volume, besides a little bit of updating and clean-up, is an original interview, which was a lot of fun to conduct for each. We got one of the last interviews with Joe Kubert for the Golden Age, and then to talk to Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams and Jenette Khan and Jim Lee about their different eras. That was a great deal of fun because these were all people who are good friends and hopefully I was able to get some interesting different direction out of them. But the amount of extra art that's being added is just phenomenal -- we found, for instance with Kubert, one of his early sample pieces, and that's archeology as much as anything else!

Is the extra art stuff you wanted to put in the original book and had to cut out, or is it new material you've found in the intervening time?

Both! Some are things that just got squeezed out of the first one because there was only room for so much and some of it has surfaced since.

Logistically, what's the plan for release? Are we going to see a new volume every year?

I haven't hear official updates from Taschen other than the first volume -- I've seen an early sample come off the press on that -- but I think there'll be at least several more volumes next year.

Obviously you have a long involvement with the publisher, but what fascinates you most about DC and these eras of comic book history?

We've lived through such extraordinarily interesting evolution in comics; I've been teaching a course in the American Graphic Novel at Columbia this term, this friend of mine Jeremy Dauber who is a professor out there approached me about teaching the course, and it brought me back to looking at the whole evolution of cartooning in America. How the form and medium evolves from comics to comic strips to comic books to what's evolving in the original graphic novel today, in some ways as another different media form with different kinds of audiences, different kinds of story-telling potential. It's a wonderful story when you look at the wide range of what that development's been over this last hundred years or so, yet we're really still at the beginning of the journey. There's a tremendous opportunity for comics to tell many, many more different kinds of stories, and that's still unfurling as we watch.

To touch on each of the eras going backwards, currently the big thing everybody's talking about is digital comics. You talked about it in the big Taschen book, but what's your current take on how digital comics have impacted comic book publishers?

I don't think we've really seen it yet. I think we will; a lot of the discussion I have with Jim Lee in the interview with him in the last volume focuses on the digital world because Jim's been very intelligent about that, behind the scenes for a long time, and is now on point with DC to be one of the leaders in terms of developing what their future will be. We don't know at this stage what will happen. Will there be a successor form to comics that will be a combination of cartooning and interactivity on some level that becomes more popular and becomes transformative, the way radio drama really was not a viable form once television drama replaced it after a period of time? Or will it be something where two different mediums will take similar kinds of themes and be able to explore them in very different ways, the way comic strips and comic books have coexisted very successfully for many decades? It's weaker today for comic strips, obviously, but there's still interesting things popping up. Where does it all go from there? What role do webcomics play in all this? It's been an exploding medium over the last decade. I don't pretend to know what the future will be; I just know it's barreling towards us at an extraordinarily fast pace and there's so many people's creativity being awakened through it that it's fascinating to watch.

And we've got mainstream acceptance of superheroes, even if it's not in comic books but in movies and TV shows, which almost harkens back to the mainstream visibility of the Golden Age.

I think it's a great moment in comics. There's a more diverse range of creative material being done and a more diverse range of people than ever in American comics. There's such wonderful levels of energy surrounding it. We'll see where it all goes!

I've always been curious; most fans know that your own interest in comics led you to create a fanzine, which led to your career at DC. What's your take on the evolving press industry that's sprung up around comics, where you have fan blogs and sites like CBR reporting on the industry and medium, as well as mainstream newspapers and magazines like USA Today having their own comics beat?

Some of it is awesome! When I was starting out as a comics fan, one of the things I was passionate about was indexing. I worked on Jerry Bail's first "Who's Who Of American Comics," trying to identify credits for early comic books writer and artists whose work was unsigned and unidentified. Now you have, whether it's Comics.org, Grand Comics Database, you've got Mike's Amazing World, so many searchable sites providing so much data so readily available. In the old technological world, we were hand-assembling bit by bit and trying to put a fact together here or there that maybe we managed to put together in a Xerox or mimeograph form that maybe somebody could take a look at if they physically got a hold of a copy. Now, there's giant, wonderful searchable databases. So at one end you've got that, and at the other end, like Comic Book Resources, you've got the interactivity. I was on the site a couple of days ago looking at that poll that had been done by the Comics Should Be Good blog, and there's my old "Great Darkness" saga being voted in as one of the best stories. A thirty-year-old story! And you just look and see what other stuff from what time period people still remember, and where does that stack up? Why? The ability of fans to connect and discuss that and argue -- I can't possibly list that as one of the more important stories than the "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" stories by Denny O'Neil, but in the context of the current fans, does it get a better rating because it's more similar to current material? Just the ability to connect and interact in this way is a wonderful development compared to the fanzines of my era!

How would you differentiate between the time we're living in now versus the Modern Era? And what interviews represent which eras?

Jim's interview is in the Modern Era because there isn't a separate volume for the digital era. I don't know where historians will ultimately draw the lines on each of these, but I try to go back and get a feel for who had lived through the experience at the time. I think for DC's history, Jim's really been a vital force in the company from the time he came onboard when we bought Wildstorm, and that really overlaps most of the period we defined as the Modern Era in the big volume. I had asked Jim some questions that look over different parts of that period, but in may ways I think the most interesting stuff we talked about was the digital, because it's an unanswered set of questions for all of us. We go father back, looking at the Dark Era of comics. Jenette had so much to do with that, her relationship with Frank [Miller], her courage as a publisher in doing projects like "Dark Knight Returns" and "Watchmen" and changing the boundaries of what DC could do. We had fun having conversations about some of those things. We go back to the Bronze Age, and you have periods where Denny is the lead writer simultaneously on "Superman," "Batman," "Wonder Woman" and "Green Lantern," something I don't think anyone has managed since -- Geoff [Johns] comes close, but I don't think he had a significant "Batman" run during that period. He may yet, I wouldn't put it past him! Denny is a very thoughtful guy, it was interesting to trace that; then you go back to the Silver Age, and you've got Neal arriving fairly early and becoming such a vital creative force in it. All interesting people to talk to about their times!

You yourself have worked in comics through many of these eras. Looking back at the Golden Age, what was your first exposure to the really early comics?

I guess my first exposure to the Golden Age comics was reading about them in some of the early fanzines I got a hold of and the used bookstore that was the comic shop of my childhood where I worked a little bit when I was very young -- my friend's bookstore in Brooklyn, which was an early magnet and store that I frequented. Jimmy Palmiotti, Dan DiDio, Andy Helfer, Howard Chaykin -- many people who grew up into significant creative roles in the business spent time under its roof. They had showcases full of the early Golden Age books, and that's probably the first time I got to hold one, got to read one. Then, when I was working at DC, I got to burrow deeply into the library.

Before you started working on the big "Myth-Making" book, how did you define each era in your mind, and did that change when you began doing the interviews and really digging into the history?

The earlier eras, I think, I had fairly well defined in my mind because I had approached them as a reader or as a fan. It was a little more of a challenge to define the later eras because I had worked in them, and when you're in the middle of something, it's hard to get objective distance on it to approach it as a historian or academic. I certainly never claimed to have approached it with the objectivity of a true academic who's studying it dispassionately. We went through a fair amount of debate what to call the era that we ultimately decided was the Dark Ages of DC Comics, because it was simultaneously a Dark Age because of some of the material, but it was also kind of a Shiny Age with all the foil covers and holograms and cool and strange collectible craziness going on at overlapping times. So certainly, as you move closer to the Modern Era, the more tentative the distinctions are. There's a line that I think is a very valid one, that journalism is the rough draft of history. When you're doing a project that is a historical project that runs close up to present times, you're starting to mix in, effectively, journalism. That part really becomes a rough draft.

Because of that, were there things you didn't want to talk about because they were still in play or were still unfolding?

No, we had very little room in the book to explore all the little pockets of history and detail, so there wasn't a lot that we could say. "Ok, this is a subject that I want or I don't want to talk about." Pretty much there's a clear path of, "This is what we have to cover." I had a little bit of freedom as to which personalities I wanted to pay attention to as a way of telling the story. But when you're writing something like that, they sort of speak to you and they define their own rules.

What new material are you most excited for fans to see in the re-issued volumes?

I think the interviews are something people will really enjoy. I don't know if an interview is enough for you to buy a big [volume] like that, but I think the visual discoveries -- Josh [Baker] has been such an extraordinary art director on this project. He's found so much cool stuff that people will continue to be thrilled with some of the new things that got pulled out of the files.

Did you have a favorite interview or one that really stood out in your mind?

They're each different experiences, you know? All of the people there are good friends of mine and people I worked with for many years. The interview with Joe Kubert, we spent more time talking about things that happened before I was born, and that's kind of fun and funky. The interview with Jim Lee, we're talking more about the period that may happen in the days when I'm no longer a part of comics, and that's kind of fun too. Sitting with Jenette and talking, we were partners in crime for so many years, we had so much fun together -- they each were very different experiences.

During the time you were working at DC, especially during the '80s, did you feel like what you were doing was going to change the industry drastically?

Certainly, '85/'86 we believed we were doing things that were important. There was a magic in the halls when "Watchmen" pages would come in from England, or when "The Dark Knight" stuff would be brought in. The energy we were putting into creating the prestige format, creating the trade paperbacks -- you never know if the things work, but you know you're taking a chance on something that's great. We tried a couple of times to create reprint formats of the great old works that didn't work before the trade paperbacks evolved. But when we saw the response to the early trade paperbacks, we thought we had cracked this problem that had been very important to many of us, certainly to me as an individual, for a long time.

What other times would you define as the magic moments in DC history?

For me, the years where, if I had a time machine and could just be sitting there watching, I'd be there in '40/'41 when Batman and Superman grow into themselves, "Wonder Woman" is launched, "Flash" and "Green Lantern" and "Justice Society" are launched, incredible moments in DC's history. I want to be back in '67/'68 with that extraordinary era of experimentation that Carmine [Infantino] sparked; I was twelve then, and sort of fulfilled the old Sam Moskowitz quote that the Golden Age of science fiction is twelve. The Golden Age for me was that moment. Those were two of the really great moments in time for the company.

Finally, after doing all the research and categorizing, what do you think DC can learn from it's history and what do you think DC should focus on as it moves into the future?

I think the guys and gals who are driving the bus now will find their own path and their own magic. When you look back at the history of DC, I think you see there were similar moments in the company's history of extraordinary bursts of creativity. Some of those were occasions that happened in part because of what happened with the world economy, what was going on at the comics industry at the time and not just at DC. To have been at DC and part of the magic in 1985/1986 when we were rolling out "Dark Knight" and "Watchmen" and Chaykin's "Shadow," taking steps on steps that would lead to Vertigo, things like "Sandman" that would lead to the whole trade paperback revolution, were awesome moments. I don't know if any of what we did that helped make those things happen would be useful today, because it's a different time and a different world. But my fervent hope is that there will be several more of those fertile, magic periods for DC in the many years I hope it continues to be around -- and continues to be one of the great comic books companies.

"The Golden Age of DC Comics" is now available for preorder from Taschen.

Baltimore Comic-Con Giving Fans Chance to Name Frank Cho-Created Mascot

More in Comics