Comic Fodder

Lamentations for Levitz

Sorry if this column is twice as long as normal, but the subject matter merits it.

In the midst of all of the merger excitement and corporate reshuffling, not enough has been said about the one item that may signify the most important development from the viewpoint of a comic book fan: the removal of Paul Levitz.

The move might be wonderful for Levitz himself. He has had a wonderfully lengthy career in his position as CEO and Publisher of DC Comics. Originally in the DC writing stable, he handled the big characters, but was most beloved for his excellent abilities on the Legion of Super-Heroes. As most wildly successful things have a habit of turning out, Mr. Levitz stayed on that title for much longer than he originally planned, but eventually the demands of his duties demanded he give something up, and rather than stay at work all day and never get to see his family, he decided he needed a break from writing a monthly title.

The Legion was never really the same after he left (although to be fair, every series that came after has its own proponents, and some fans have criticized Levitz's run, too), but the position he had filled was important, and he made a great team together with Jeanette Kahn. And when the day came for Kahn to move on, Levitz was there to provide one of the most stable transitions of stewardship over our beloved characters as you could ask for. Now, close to 30 years later, it was to be expected that someone of that stature start making noises about retirement. Luckily for us, they got him to write some stuff first!

Levitz wrote a few issues of JSA a while back (82-87), and they were good. They had a dated feel to the writing, the feel of a serial where you got to see their adventures for the month, but no earth-shattering revelations or changes to the character. While we like to see things shaken up on occasion, there has been a tendency in comics the last few years that there has to be some imperative for change. It is usually over-hyped, and just as likely to be reversed in six months or less, and this 'imperative' has gotten a little tiresome. So when Levitz had this window, it was a nice reminder that you can still tell stories that are entertaining, but don't have to have monumental consequences on one of the characters. It also showed how to do a story that didn't take up thirty entire issues, a throwback to the days when comics had a wider readership, and you could get just five or six issues for a continuing story, without the requirement to have read the past three years to understand everything. But I digress...

Writing is in Levitz's blood. Whatever retirement options he might have been contemplating, he has always had that little bug inside his head saying, "Wouldn't it be nice to get to write a series or two again? I'll have to get back to that one of these days." Perhaps it was the JSA assignment that sparked things again, but that bug has been buzzing around his mind for several years, and when talks of this revised arrangement for DC Comics within the structure of their larger entertainment empire started, it provided for the ideal place in time to make the leap.

The timing was fortuitous for the Legion as well. The Legion had fallen on hard times for too long, and the latest revamp had been met with a thud. But Geoff Johns and James Robinson have been doing some things with the Legion lately, and their version was the closest to where Levitz had left off with his run. If Levitz was contemplating doing some writing again, and Johns was going to be busy with the Flash reboot, and Levitz now had some free time to actually sit down and read some comics for a change and catch up on what ha been developing with some of his old character friends...

Voila! It's one of those things that make you think there really is a mysterious force moving things into place for you to recognize and take advantage. Levitz will take over Adventure Comics, and before too much longer, the Legion of Super-Heroes will overshadow Superboy, and possibly even push him out. That's what happened in their original title, so it's not like there isn't a precedent. My own inclination is to find a way to add Superboy to their membership, and that's definitely an option for Levitz if he chooses (the rumor is that Superman will actually be starring). While some people may be wary of having a writer from way-back-when being given a relatively new series and be responsible for making it hip for the new kids, I'm not worried. For one thing, check out what longtime veteran Dan Jurgens has done with the reboot of Booster Gold. Jurgens has been around for an extremely long time, but I find his treatment of Booster to be very modern and commendable. For another, Levitz's JSA bit showed he's still got the chops to put out, at the very minimum, a comic that would be slightly better than average. Of course, our expectations will be much higher!

So why is this column titled "Lamentations for Levitz," you might ask? Everything sounds so freaking hunky-dory, we might have to watch out for sugar shock, the way things are being described. Well, it's because we know what Levitz has done for the industry in his key positions, and we have fears about Time Warner's plans for "exploitation."

Levitz has been a guiding hand for DC for decades. Even if his workload got so he couldn't sit and read many of the monthlies, he was still informed of big developments, and he was still involved in any discussion where the status quo might change. Most recently, he was the deciding voice on casualties for Infinite Crisis. Dan Didio had somehow gotten the impression that Dick Grayson was a throwaway character, and since it was an event comic, they "needed" a "big" death. Under Didio's logic, Grayson was disposable, but still big enough. According to general reporting, Levitz stepped in and overruled that idea, to the ever-lasting joy of 96% of the comic-reading public. Who knows how many other bone-headed ideas have been proposed in the last two decades, and how instrumental Levitz has been in keeping DC's collective efforts from a disaster of that type. If more stories could be told, we might think we owed him an unpayable debt.

But wait, there's more! Paul Levitz has also been on the forefront of improving the industry itself, acting on behalf of the "little guy," the writers and artists and teams producing our favorite fare. Levitz was able to lead the entire industry in moving away from a business where you signed all your creative rights away if you cashed their check for your latest comic, and organized things so that comics worked more like a legitimate business, more respectful of an individual's rights and contributions. He has consistently worked for things like this, and without him being where he was, creators might not have the royalty payments we are familiar with today. His speaking out on behalf of Jack Kirby to persuade Marvel to give Kirby back his original artwork was unprecedented at the time, and a really stand-up thing to do. Even the judge, during part of the case the Siegels are waging against DC, had nice things to say about Levitz as a witness: that Levitz was one of the most sincere and honest of all the participants, even if he had to admit something that would hurt the case of the company he worked for. Every piece of info on the guy you can dig up tells you he’s an honest, stand-up guy.

Now we turn to the potential dark side of Levitz not being in that position any more. The big suits are finally getting serious about wanting to fully "exploit" DC's character library. That would be okay if it simply meant they were going to get off their duff and put out some awesome movies. We all know it's more than that. We don't want to see lady's pajamas with a picture of Deathstroke on them. We don't want them to license out something that becomes the horror that was the Halle Berry Catwoman flick (and seriously, as an award-winning actress, can't you speak up when the script is that horrible?!?). Just as Levitz protected DC characters from ill-advised comic plots, he also functioned as a gatekeeper between the characters and the suits. Good projects would get a green light to go ahead, but if something set off the red alert, Levitz was ideally positioned to put the kybosh on it (I'm guessing the Catwoman nightmare was originally presented differently, and took the drastic downturn once the license money was already paid out).

Nelson's Harry Potter experience suggests she is good at keeping talent happy, and knows how to merchandise the (censored) out of a good character. While fans will remain wary, it is entirely possible that she will be able to increase positive exposure to good characters in the licensing and marketing areas, while avoiding that thin line that suddenly screams out 'inappropriate,' or 'overexposure.' The trouble from our vantage point is that we trusted in Levitz. He is a comic fan, he loves the characters, and we know he's one of us. To have that key position turned over to an outsider who may not share our love and protective instinct is a big deal, and not something we can just accept because Warner Brothers tells us it will be great.

So the lamentations are not for Levitz, they are for us. When it came to the proper stewardship of our characters, we could rest easy at night. While a series or ten might be poorly written at any given time, at least they weren't being allowed to do something like kill Dick Grayson. And we could also be reasonably sure that after Catwoman, if a project wasn't going to be excellent, it would stay in development hell if Levitz had any sway in the decision. With that protective presence gone, everything is up in the air now. The future is uncertain, and we have to hope for the best, while fearing that Batman and Superman will show up singing on a cable variety show while the JLA comic consists entirely of alien midgets, written and drawn by Gray and Palmiotti.

The saving grace is the corresponding news that Levitz will also be on hand as a consultant, not just to guide Nelson for the first part of her new role, but as an editor to give his input on future developments. While Marvel moves faster and can seem crazy ("Peter's identity is public! Marvel is changed forever! Wait, now NOBODY knows it! And Mephisto blotted out his marriage! What baby?"), this arrangement sounds more like that of a mature company that wants to do more with what they've got, but without upsetting the entire apple cart. Hopefully his presence will keep that wise stewardship in place, while the new structure allows for some exciting positive movement in other formats.

Check out Kurt Busiek’s entry for a similar view of Levitz’s huge impact on the industry. Oh and Kurt, if you’re reading, Paul Levitz’s text piece was in DC Profiles #13, published in Wonder Woman 233, with July 1977 on the cover. It mentions his being a business major at New York University, and due to pick up his masters in 1979. No comments there about his career being elsewhere, the text piece was written by Mike Gold, and no Levitz quote, so perhaps you’re mashing up two different text memories. However, Levitz himself does talk about his original plan to leave before Jeanette Kahn and go do some writing and teaching. I am the search master! (You owe me an autograph if we ever meet up at a convention.)

Congratulations on your new job, Mr. Levitz.

Now get to work!

Tpull is Travis Pullen. He started reading comics at 5 years old, and he can't seem to stop.