Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Interview with Paul Levitz@STGCC 2011

A tired Paul Levitz

It was a very tired Paul Levitz who I met on the second and last day of STGCC 2011. It was 4.30 pm and another 3.5 hours to go before the event closes. Maybe it was jet lag or end of con fatigue. Or maybe it’s because he had another appointment after this (with a pretty lass no less), but Paul was visibly distracted.

But you can’t blame the man. Paul Levitz had and continues to have a long run in this business. He is a legend, especially if you are a DC Comics fan. He joined DC in 1973 as an assistant editor, went on to become the youngest DC editor ever. He was appointed Executive Vice-President & Publisher in 1989 and President & Publisher from 2002 to 2009. Currently, he is Contributing Editor, but more importantly, he has gone back to writing the series he is most well known and loved for, the Legion of Superheroes.

Still, the half an hour we had with Paul, his professionalism and passion for the medium comes through. The man walks the talk.

Q: How has life been like since you stepped down as DC President? Why did you resign?

A: The job scope has changed and it has given me the freedom to travel to places I find interesting like Singapore instead for traveling for work. There are always reasons why one stepped down. I’m happy to be back writing and teaching instead of being on the road all the time.

When one is in a transitional process, things happen in phases. So we’ll see what’s next.

Q: You are now the Contributing Editor. What is your role, do you get to intervene?

A: I do not have the magic powers to intervene. They (the DC management) are driving the bus. There are a lot of decisions to be made, whether they are good or bad decisions. No one makes the right decisions all the time. Hopefully you make more right ones than wrong ones. And hopefully you make more big decisions that are right than big ones that are wrong. All companies need the people who are working for them to be on their side. They don’t need a backseat driver. They need backseat cheerleaders.

Q: This is a question I have asked the rest because this is STGCC and you guys are in Singapore, Southeast Asia. Are getting artists from this region a form of outsourcing?

A: I joined DC in 1973. Even during then, comics publishers were already going overseas to get bargain foreign labour at discounted price. There were clear savings as Filipino artists were not getting the same page rate. Alfredo Alcala had to go to America in 1976 to get that kind of rate.

So what are talking about here? In the 1970s, we paid the Filipinos USD$17 to 19 a page. In America, artists were getting USD$60 a page. But if you were a Filipino artist working for a comics publisher in the Philippines, you were getting USD$3 to 4 a page. So all thought they were getting a good deal. All thought they were screwing each other.

Q: But with current economic downturn in America and the falling exchange rate for the USD, is it harder for your overseas artists?

A: For the creative people, the first challenge is getting creative work that pays. The exchange rate would be the least of their problems. It is to get work and keep busy.

Q: Someone described to me recently that the main difference between DC and Marvel is that Marvel sells Fear. The discrimination and hatred faced by the X-Men, recent series like Civil War, Secret Invasion, Siege and Fear Itself! But DC sells Hope. The return of Hal Jordan, the Brightest Day series, and now the 52 reboot. What do you think of that?

A: (paused and smile) That sounds nice. I have not read Marvel for years now. Of course, I have read the classic stuff, but not anything in the last decade.

52 is ambitious, challenging and filled with excitement. It is a very interesting new take.

Q: How does it feel to be back writing the Legion? How have the fans responded?

A: It was fortuitous timing. I had gone back to writing. Geoff Johns had just done some Legion stories (Action Comics and Adventure Comics), but he had no time to continue with them. So the slot was available.

As you know, Legion fans are a very special bunch of people. They are please with the stories in general. I’m glad they are responding to my stories as a contemporary writer. In American baseball, there is the oldtimers’ game before the start of the big games. The old players would come out to field to throw the ball around. I’m happy that that is not the case for me. The fans have been very welcoming and generous. So it’s great to be back in the real game.

Q: But times have changed and even your writing and approach to these classic characters have changed. For example, Shadow Lass broke up with Mon-El (sent off to the Phantom Zone again) and is now literally sleeping with the enemy, Earth-Man.

A: When I first started writing in the mid 1970s, I was writing for 9 to 10 year olds. They were intelligent but the core audience for the books was kids. Now with direct sales, the audience is 16 to 35 year olds. This allows you to do different kinds of stories because of the maturity of the readership.

The 16 year old of 2011 is very different from the 16 year old of the 1970s. They are better educated, their ideas about sexuality has changed. There is the internet. So when all these started in the 1980s and when we did the Baxter edition of the Legion, I was able to write the story of the violent death of Karate Kid. Although the story was reprinted for the newsstand edition, the primary market was still the direct sales and in the comics shops.

Q: Any chance of you writing a Marvel series?

A: The odds are against it. There are some characters I’d like to handle in the past but that’s unlikely to happen given my years of association with DC. I’d rather focus on prose and fiction, and on medium that I have not worked on like historical non-fiction.

Q: Grant Morrison is rebooting Superman again for the umpteenth time. Which is your favourite version of Superman?

A: You don’t go past the comfort food of your childhood. For me, it’d always be Jerry Siegel, Leo Dorfman (The Amazing Story of Superman-Red and Superman-Blue) and Ed Hamilton. Stuff which I read when I was 11 or 12 years old. Peter Graham once said that the “golden age of science fiction is 12.” All forms of popular culture carry different emotional weight. Is Neil Gaiman a better writer than Issac Asimov? I don’t think so as a professional writer myself. But Issac Asimov was great was when I was 12 years old and remains great.

Q: It’s just like for me, Superman is always drawn by Curt Swan.

A: That’s precisely it. Back in the days when I asked Curt Swan if he could draw my Legion story and when he said yes, it felt fabulous. I grew up reading his comics and now we were colleagues. He would ask me not to put too many Legion characters in one panel.

So people like Curt, Gene Colan. I would hand them my handwritten scripts! (Levitz’s Batman stories drawn by Gene Colan are recently reprinted in Tales of the Batman: Gene Colan Volume 1)

Q: What do you think of the recent spate of superhero movies based on comic books?

A: If you asked me in 2002 after the first Spiderman movie just came out, I’d not have listed Iron Man as something that would have been made into a movie. But now you have things like Scott Pilgrim.

Comics are not designed to be perfect for films. You need adaptation as there is an intrinsic value in each medium for things to work. As I have been teaching in my writing class, you take a movie like The American President (1995) and compare it with The West Wing. Basically, you almost have the same cast including Martin Sheen and both are written by Aaron Sorkin. But it’s so different.

Q: Will you be writing a sequel to 75 Years of DC Comics?

A: Well, someone should write 100 Years of DC Comics when it is time. But it would not be my turn. I was born in 1956 and I would be nearly 80 by then!

And then it was over. We shook hands, I gave him a copy of Ray Toh’s new sketchbook and he was off for his next appointment.
Thanks to STGCC for arranging the interviews!

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