The biggest (and best) gift you can buy a comic book fan this holiday season is “75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking,” the new release from Tashen that began as a historical project but now may qualify as a history-making one with its colossal ambitions, insight and collected rarities. The 720-page, $200 book features essays by Paul Levitz, who is coming up on his 40-year anniversary with DC, a tenure that saw him work as writer, editor, executive and, for eight years, president of the company. On Dec. 14, at 7 p.m., Levitz will join DC’s new editorial leadership, writer Geoff Johns and artist Jim Lee, at the Hammer Museum for a free lecture event keyed to the book and the history of the venerable company.
GB: The most famous issues of DC history have been reprinted so often, but this book presents artifacts that go beyond the familiar library. Describe a few that you find especially compelling.
PL: The range is so wide, it really depends on your passion, but I think some of the coolest are the pages of original artwork, reproduced close to their original size. Looking at Frank [Miller] and Klaus’ [Janson] work on “The Dark Knight Returns” isn’t something that many people have been privileged to do, and it adds a new dimension to this famous work … or seeing Brian Bolland’s “Killing Joke” art that way, when he no longer produces any physical artwork anymore in this digital age. There’s also material that literally no one’s seen outside the people who created it: rough sketches by Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino, Joe Orlando, Dick Sprang … even a very tiny taste of Lew Sayre Schwartz’s compositions for “Gorilla Boss of Gotham City”
GB: We know the giants of the industry who created the DC Comics history, but in any corporate or creative history there are overlooked figures. Tell us about one.
PL: One of the greatest joys I had in the book was touching on stories like Shelly Mayer, the cartoonist who did the pioneering memoir, “Scribbly,” that in many ways is the ancestor of much of the graphic novel movement, went on to be the editor who launched Wonder Woman, Flash and Green Lantern, and then goes back to cartooning. I stand by my line from the book, that when Shelly Mayer left the building, you could say the Golden Age went with him.
GB: The actual size of the book is bit jaw-dropping. How did such a massive endeavor get underway, and can it be possible that there were things you regretfully had to leave out?
PL: DC is such an enormous, rich story that I left out far more than I included … hard as that may be to believe as you lift the book. With millions of comic pages, 40,000 comics (and therefore 40,000 covers), thousands of hours of cartoons, TV and movies, there were a lot of tough choices to make to cut “down” to only 2,000 illustrations.
GB: The comic book industry, by some appraisals, now exists more to create intellectual property for film, video games and toy aisles than as a pure publishing business. How do you feel when you hear that? And do you fret about the creative future of DC if that’s true?
PL: Bob Kane grew up loving movies, and in many ways Batman was a child of his afternoons at the Bronx theaters. He loved the films made of his hero, and would have been immeasurably pleased to see the success of “The Dark Knight.” So in many ways, the link between the media was always part of comics history, and I suspect always will be. The good news is that American comics are more creative than ever, and the ideas developed there find many types of homes: Some are perfect just as comics and some move to other media.
GB: Tell us about one pivotal point in DC Comics history and a snapshot of the personalities involved.
PL: Jenette Kahn arrives as publisher on Groundhog’s Day, 1976, to an office that had never been led by an outsider, never had a woman executive, and an industry that thinks it’s doomed to extinction as the newsstands fold up. She’s 28, never held a corporate job, never worked on a comic, and passionately goes on to improve how all comic book publishers would deal with their creative talent thereafter, giving them a stake in their work.
GB: What’s the silliest super-villain in DC history?
PL: Whew — what a contest! Perhaps silliest and most embarrassing in retrospect might be Egg Fu: a gigantic egg with a Fu Manchu-style face who first confronted Wonder Woman in the mid-1960s. Or maybe that’s just ’cause I first saw him on a newsstand when I was a kid and started laughing then …
— Geoff Boucher
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