Our latest interview series features the former chief of DC Comics itself — focusing on his time as the Batman editor.
Paul Levitz is the subject of our fifth ongoing interview series, joining Neal Adams, Denny O’Neil, Mike Allred and Len Wein. Except for Mike Allred, these series are an offshoot of my Batman’s Hot-Line blog within 13th Dimension.
Paul has an incredibly storied and varied career. In one capacity or another, he’s worked with just about every talent in the industry going back decades. But I was particularly keen to discuss not his legendary writing on Legion of Super-Heroes, for example, but his time as editor on the Batman books, which coincided with the time I really became a regular comics reader.
I’d been reading comics since I was around 5, but it wasn’t until I was about 12 that I lived in a place where I could walk to the store on my own and pick up books on a regular basis. Of course, it was driven by my love of Batman and who happened to be writing those comics? Len Wein, in large part. And who was editing them? Paul Levitz.
Just last month, I launched The Len Wein Interviews. The Levitz Interviews are in effect a companion series. There’ll be overlap for sure, but the perspectives will differ: One was the writer, the other the editor.
And if you’re looking for a quick way to read a lot of these stories, pick up the brand-new hardcover Tales of the Batman: Len Wein.
Paul‘s beginnings as Bat-editor coincided with the epic DC Implosion of the late 1970s. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s one of the most fascinating inside-baseball stories in comics lore and too complex for me to detail here. A good overview can be found at Brian Cronin’s Comic Book Legends Revealed at Comic Book Resources.
Dan Greenfield: Just to be precise, when did you take over the Batman books? Was it ’78? ’79? Do you recall how that all transpired?
Paul Levitz: It was during the Implosion, in ’78. We were juggling everybody’s schedule and since we basically had to play 52-card pick-up with the line, on many, many levels, one of the core decisions, core priorities, was we wanted to group all the titles with each of the major characters together.
Julie (Schwartz) — being Julie — was offered the choice of either doing the Superman line or the Batman line. He’d been doing the star books out of both but not the lesser titles. Although he, on many levels, liked Batman better as a character and liked doing those kinds of stories better, historically he felt he should keep the Superman books because Superman was the star of the line and, of course, there were also at the time the Superman movies with Chris Reeve.
And maybe the lingering ghost of Mort Weisinger in the air with Julie having lived all those years with Mort being the … more powerful editor in the line based on editing the Superman books when the Superman books were paying the company’s rent.
So he chose to keep Superman and that made Batman available to me, which was very exciting.
Now this was the first time one editor was handling all of the Batman books or at least the first time in a long time. Isn’t that the case?
First time in modern times. It’d been very hard to tell who was in control of which titles in the late Golden Age period. Certainly Jack Schiff seemed to be overseeing the Batman material but the exact boundaries and borders of it are not clear and by the beginning of written editors’ credits, that ceased to be true almost immediately.
So, you at the time would have had Batman, Detective and Brave and the Bold. Now if this was during the Implosion, when this all shook out, did you have a hand in the merging of Batman Family with Detective? How did that play out? My recollection from what I’ve read is that Detective was actually on the chopping block and the decision was made to keep the flagship book and merge Batman Family into it as opposed to the other way around.
There was about a day or two in there where we were talking about cancelling Detective. I think actually it was (exec) Mike Gold who very passionately rose to its defense, pointing out that that’s what the company was named after and we couldn’t do that so… The book would have pretty much been the same book either way but certainly it was a better thing historically to keep the Detective name alive. We owe a debt to Mike for that.
Now, from a storytelling process, I do recall that you worked with Len Wein and a number of different writers and artists but if you took over at that time, what were some of the things that you were thinking about when you wanted to approach the books and have them be cohesive and have them basically take place in the same universe even if they didn’t cross over directly.
Like in the early ‘80s, there was that whole period where, every two weeks, the story would jump from Detective to Batman, to Detective to Batman. It wasn’t like that but there was definitely more of a cohesiveness. Tell me a little bit about that.
When I took over the books, the first thing I did was re-read the whole run of all the Batman stories. In those days, you still could, so I just grabbed everything out of the library and read all the stories from Batman and Detective and World’s Finest and the Robin stories from Star-Spangled, re-reading some of them in some cases and reading them for the first time in others. And I did a small bible for the writers to work from — which, as far as I know, has not survived, that anyone’s ever turned up — which may be the first time a DC editor did a written bible for one of the characters.
I was lucky enough to have some really terrific writers who were also good friends of mine — Len, Marv (Wolfman), Denny, Mike Barr occasionally pitching in and the goal, as you expressed, to make it cohesive. It wasn’t long before that The Brave and Bold had had a very choppy history with Bob Haney writing some wonderful stories but stories that didn’t always match the rest of the Batman mythology or the mythology of the other characters as they were being depicted and, with them all in hand, I really wanted ALL the pieces to fit together.
Since we’re on Brave and the Bold — we’ll go back to the other titles — what were some of the stories from Brave and the Bold that you remember that really kind of adhered in your mind to what your vision was for that particular book? Because my recollection is that there was a definite sea change over the last 25 to 30 issues of the book. As a reader, it felt different than it had before. What are you recollections as far as stories at that time?
Well, again, the goal is to get it more stylistically in tone with the rest of the Batman books. It’s always a challenge on a team-up book. Some of the things that sell really well are team-ups that are … apples and porcupines? Because the reader looks and goes, “How do THEY fit together?” and you have to make sometimes a really extraordinary effort to figure out some plausible way that they do. But we worked hard on that. I don’t really remember the specific stories anymore. It’s almost 30 years … more than 30 years! 35 years!
Really, in my mind, it was to make the tone fit. That it was a serious Batman, to make the depiction of the characters and their behaviors…