Decades ago in a barbershop in Barryville, N.Y., a coverless comic book would forever change the 30th and 31st centuries. That comic, "Adventure #310," featured the Legion of Super-Heroes. It was discovered by a young Paul Levitz, who would grow up to be one of the primary architects of the futuristic franchise.
The writer and longtime DC Comics executive was the subject of a Comic-Con International in San Diego spotlight session moderated by DC Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns. A crowd of eager fans was on hand in San Diego to hear from Levitz, who recently stepped down as president and publisher of DC Comics and has returned to writing "Legion of Super-Heroes." The most notable fan on hand was definitely Johns, who thanked Levitz for being an inspiration. Johns was also "excited to have Paul in a creative role again."
From there, Johns moved the conversation to Levitz's "fan boy" past, noting that his former boss basically created the concept. Levitz started publishing in 5th grade — something he blames on his parents, who he watched publish the PTA newsletter — and went on to become publisher of "The Comics Reader" at 14 years old. In the pre-Internet days, "TCR" was one of the first ways fans got information about what publishers had planned next. It also introduced young Levitz to many industry professionals, which eventually helped him land a job at DC.
Levitz start with the company came when Joe Orlando asked him to write some of the company's letter columns. But, at just 17, the young writer got a chance to launch his first series — "Stalker" — which was illustrated by industry legends Steve Ditko and Wally Wood. Then-publisher Carmine Infantino wasn't a fan of the book, and it was canceled before the first issue even hit the stands. But Levitz was now on his way to a writing career that would see about 25 million copies of his comics sold in North America alone.
The bulk of those comics would involve the Legion of Super-Heroes, a group a characters Levitz has been involved with, on and off, throughout his career. His first run on the book started in 1977, when he replaced outgoing writer Jim Shooter. "It was my favorite book as a kid," Levitz said of "Legion." "I probably would have knifed anyone who tried to beat me to (then-Legion-editor Denny O'Neil's) office."
Despite his fondness for the characters, Levitz was very unhappy with his first tenure on the book: "I just wasn't there yet." When the so-called DC Implosion hit in 1978, during which a number of titles were canceled, he stepped down from writing the series. With fewer books being published, there just wasn't enough work to go around. "I had a staff job and I couldn't be a pig."
He returned to the book in 1982, teaming with artist Keith Giffen to create one of the legendary runs in the franchise's history. He described their relationship as truly collaborative, with Giffen adding whole new scenes to his plots, to which Levitz would in turn make further additions. The highlight of their work together was "The Great Darkness Saga," a story whose mention garnered much applause from the crowd. Levitz stayed with "Legion" after Giffen left, and ended up writing 100 issues in a row. He said going in, "If I'm coming back this time, I'm not screwing it up."
With his day job as a DC executive keeping him busy during the week, Levitz had been writing "Legion" on the weekends. He eventually stepped down from his second run to spend more time with his family. Now that he's stepped down from that executive job, a return to the 31st century made sense. "I sorta ended up needing something to do." He plans to stay on the book "as long as I can get away with" and would be happy to do another 100 issues. Along the way, he's hoping to "corrupt" a few new Legion fans.
When questions turned to his legacy, Levitz said he was most proud that "people remember." The writer believes that "what matters is what you leave behind," be it your children or your stories. He's amazed the tales he's written have affected so many people. That includes some of today's creators: "It's one of the coolest feelings when you've touched someone's creative life."
As the Spotlight wrapped up, Levitz had a parting shot for the crowd who had come to sing his praises: "Thanks for enabling me to avoid honest employment in my lifetime!"
Some other interesting tidbits from Levitz:
- Jack Kirby's original cover to "The Comics Reader #100" is still hanging in Levitz's study.
- When his house was being built, Levitz's attic required steel beams to support the weight of his comic and book collection.
- On editors' opinions about comics during the 1970s: "It was fish wrap. It was bird-cage liner."
- His mother briefly studied under "Seduction of the Innocent" author Frederic Wertham, making her not too fond of comic books.
- One of his high-school English teachers was Pulitzer-Prize-winning memoirist Frank McCourt.
- On Steve Ditko: :"I enjoyed working with Steve tremendously."
- For years he wanted to write "The Avengers," but now can't see himself working for Marvel.
- He also doesn't see himself writing for other media. "I'm a print guy."
- On working with Keith Giffen again: "We're going to do something. There's a plan afoot."
- He believes his gifts as a writer are speed and a knack for serial melodrama, but notes that Mark Evanier is faster.