One of the former DC publisher’s fondest memories as Batman editor was shepherding the landmark issue. PLUS! We talk some other fave projects like The Untold Legend of the Batman and the reinvention of Catwoman!
In tandem with The LEN WEIN Interviews, I talked to Paul Levitz (check out Part 1 here) about his time as editor of the Batman books, which is one of my favorite periods in the Darknight Detective‘s publishing history — more specifically, the late ’70s into the early ’80s.
Over those few years, DC put out some of my all-time fave Batman comics, and one of the most significant to Batfans in general was Detective Comics #500.
I remember it on the stands at the stationery store in Highland Park, N.J., where I often got my comics at that age. It was so thick and I really understood the symbolism of this comic reaching that milestone. I was just turning 14 but in those days there were so many reprints in comics, I was pretty well-versed in Golden Age and Silver Age comics. And I was immersed in learning Batman‘s history.
Still, Detective #500 was a bit of an education for me: I wasn’t really familiar with Slam Bradley, for example, and hadn’t really considered just how many non-Bat characters had made Detective their home. The issue also had a Batman story that’s often touted among the Batnoscenti as one of the all-time greats.
Anyway, when I asked Paul about some of his highlights as Batman editor, he brought up Detective Comics #500:
Paul Levitz: That was going to be, in many ways, my farewell to editing comics. We really went all out in a lot of ways. I was really pleased to see Alan (Brennert)’s story from that get listed in the best Batman stories of all time.
Dan Greenfield: To Kill a Legend, right?
Paul Levitz: The whole collection of stuff was pretty outstanding. I had such fun with that issue, getting Carmine (Infantino) to do Batman again, doing Slam Bradley in Detective again, getting Walter Gibson to contribute something to Batman again—and it turned out to be Gibson’s last piece of writing.
I didn’t know at the time, I think no one was aware at the time, of the degree to which that first Case of the Chemical Syndicate was cribbed from a specific Shadow script. Certainly, we all knew the Shadow had been a major influence on Batman and getting Gibson to do something for that issue was such a real treat.
That’s also a book that I read when it came out and I remember — being the age that I was, I was 12 or 13 years old — and I remember reading it and it was an education to me. Slam Bradley I had never heard of until that issue. The Walter Gibson story, and also seeing a lot of the other characters that had been in (the comic)… And I loved the wraparound cover that Dick Giordano had done. It was sort of a jam cover in the back if memory serves me right, with…
The whole wraparound was a jam. We had very few DC jams. That might be the first real jam.
Yeah, and the big profile of Batman and Robin with the big magnifying glass: Great. And like you were mentioning, To Kill a Legend.
Right. The alternate world version.
What are some of the other stories that you remember from that time?
They mostly fade together as half-images. I remember we did the Maxie Zeus stories in there. I think we had some Demon stories … in Detective.
Yeah, right after the merger (with Batman Family) there were some Detective stories. There was also a Bat-Mite story, too, wasn’t there? It was like the first time we’d seen Bat-Mite. It was like “Bat-Mite’s Excellent New York Adventure” or something like that. Was that under your guidance?
Al Milgrom was the one who supervised its creation. I inherited the story and I guess I was not really the editor of the issue it was published in but Al was the one who gave Bob (Rozakis) the (go-ahead) to do that wonderfully fun story.
We also talked about DC‘s first real miniseries — The Untold Legend of the Batman:
Paul: Len’s effort on Untold Legend of the Batman … was the first Batman mini-series and the first mini-series DC did. World of Krypton (which had been published first) had been a cannibalization of something created for Showcase. Untold Legend was the first thing we did specifically intending it to be a mini-series and the goal was really to use that as a, “Here’s the mythology of the Batman” story, to set a groundwork for things and pull it all a little more neatly together.
Dan: Which it did, too. I recall it felt like it took all of these disparate elements, even with having Harvey Harris…
The old private eye …
Yeah! Where Bruce Wayne was the first Robin and all that stuff. Definitely as a reader it was a great primer. Even with some of those stories that I had read — a lot of ’em through Batman Family and through the 100-Page Spectaculars (or back issues) — Untold Legends I thought was a great example of how to basically fit all of that stuff together. …
Now inside Batman at that time, there was a run of stories where you brought back a bunch of Silver Age characters that hadn’t been seen in years like Kite-Man and Calendar Man. Crazy Quilt hadn’t been seen in a long time, the Monarch of Menace and all that. Now, do you remember what the thinking was to reintroduce all those characters or is that just lost to the mists of history?
I don’t think there was any overarching principal behind it. We had a bunch of writers in Marv (Wolfman), Len and Mike Barr who had read a lot of the earlier stories so they found it an easy thing to fall into. We even had a couple of stories that Michael Fleisher did in that period. Michael had, of course, read all the old Batman material for doing his encyclopedias. In fact, he did a Crime Doctor story.
Right. That was in Detective, correct?
I think so. So I think it was just, “Gee, we remember this. Let’s see what we can do with it.”
Since I know that you’ve handled so many stories over the years, other than Untold Legend of the Batman, are there any stories that jump out at you that you remember working on? Do you have any favorites from that time period?
One had sort of an enduring contribution. I think what we did with Catwoman was to move the character in a direction that stuck for a very long period of time thereafter. Frank (Miller) added a lot of radical elements in his Year One days but the positioning of Catwoman as being a more ambiguously, “Is she good, is she bad?” character, with a real relationship with the Batman — for lack of a better term — I think really started with the stories we did in that period.