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Wham! Wow!: DC Comics at 75

By Tom Ashbrook

The superheroes of the comic book world have worked their way deep into the American imagination – and managed to hang on. They’ve been attacked and celebrated, and they’ve gone to Hollywood and Broadway.

This year, DC Comics, which created Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and many others, is celebrating 75 years of comic book publishing – from the first grainy, grinning, all-new format in 1935.

Paul Levitz, former publisher of DC Comics and a longtime writer for many of its most enduring characters, says comic books are our society’s way of creating myths. And they help us play out universal human feelings and aspirations.

“It’s a natural human reaction to dream of what it would be to being empowered, to be able to solve things that you can’t otherwise,” says Levitz, whose new book is 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking. “The dilemmas that we face in the world – whether it’s the economy or what’s going on in our lives, our jobs, our personal lives – all are things that we wish we had more control over, more ability to affect. And the great superhero characters all reflect some element of that.”

DC Comics has also created such memorable characters as Lex Luthor, The Joker, Robin, and The Green Lantern, and Levitz is celebrating the whole long list. He says the characters often embody a very compelling human longing.

“The fundamental fantasy of Superman – that Lois would realize that I’m an incredible person if she could look past my glasses and just see my inner Superman – that’s so basically human,” Levitz tells On Point. “How many of us have had that feeling at some moment, when we wish the other person would just get us?”


Paul Levitz, a 38-year veteran of DC Comics. He was president from 2002-2009, and he’s now a contributing editor. During his decades at DC Comics, he has written most of the classic DC characters, including Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman. His new book is “75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking.”

Charles Henebry, lecturer of rhetoric at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He is a longtime comics fan and has written extensively on the place of comic books in popular culture.

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  • Jim Van Dore

    As one of the first generation of organized comics fandom, I’d love to hear Paul talk about what it was like in the 60s to find other fans like him and to edit some of the central fan publications like The Comic Reader. What memories does he have of Jerry Bails, Rich Morrissey, and others from that era?

    Jim Van Dore
    Norfolk, VA

  • Jesse Campbell

    This is a comment/question for Charles Henerby.

    I’ve been a comic book reader and fan since I was a young boy (now in my thirties) and have been excited each and every time a movie has come out that was adapted from a comic. Unfortunately, these movies have left me feeling something is missing and wanting more. This is not fan-boy complaint about false origin stories or Hollywood cash-in opportunities, but an inquiry into the visual rhetoric of each medium. Certain attributes of comics like hyper-human male and female bodies, the creative use of sequential art used in timing, and the use of text as imagery and dialogue come to mind as the things that make comics rhetorically superior to their movie counterparts.

    Chuck, as a professor of rhetoric do you have any ideas why someone who loves comics so much would feel let down by their movie adaptations?

    Thank you in advance.

    Jesse Campbell
    Resident of Cambridge, MA

  • http://www.bookofzo.blogspot.com Joshua Hendrickson, Talent OR

    In the long-running war between DC and Marvel, I was always on DC’s side. Marvel has the more slavish fanbase, and the Stan Lee approach to comics writing appeals deeply to a boyish mindset (Hulk can beat the Thing! No, the Thing totally destroys the Hulk! etc). But DC has the great American icons: Superman, Batman, the Joker; of the three, Superman may be a shallow creation, but Batman and the Joker have psychological and cultural depths that may forever be plumbed. Moreover, during the 80s and 90s DC published great writers like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Neil Gaiman, whose respective titles WATCHMEN, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, and THE SANDMAN elevated comics as an artform and have not yet been bettered in the mainstream. THE SANDMAN in particular is a major work of fantasy fiction which has not yet received its due from the mass of critics, but which has deeply enriched the lives of its readers.

  • cory

    Does the power ring of the Green Lantern Corp beat Superman? (He isn’t yellow, after all)

    Leftfield, Wisconsin

  • Jerry Steinhelper

    Mr. Levitz,

    As huge as this book is, you still had to omit so much. What process was used to deem it’s importance?

    Whatever the process was, I’m just glad for the inclusion of the Inferior Five (a long time favorite).

  • Nick from Massachusetts

    It’s not just super heroes any longer.

    Comic Books or more appropriately, Graphic Novels, have become a new and complete source of literature today with their own methodology incorporating pictural representations as well as well written verse.

    YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW MANY MOVIES, and I am not just talking the super heroe movies, ORIGINATE FROM GRAPHIC NOVELS, several of them nominated for academy awards.

    Case in point: Road to Pedition, V for vendetta and so on.

  • Solvei Blue

    Indeed, Nick–the new hit series “The Walking Dead” is based on a comic book as well.

    I am just wondering when a Wonder Woman movie will finally be made. After numerous Spider Man, Batman, and Superman movies, it’s time Wonder Woman had her day in the Hollywood spotlight.

    I imagine that Hollywood is having trouble figuring out how to tell a story that is essentially feminist; that is, one of the central dramas in Wonder Woman’s story revolves around a woman who was raised in an environment where women are warriors and rulers experiences culture shock as she encounters the sexism that’s rampant in modern American society.

    It’s too bad they’ve waited so long; once upon a time I had dreams of seeing Lucy Lawless play WW; now I think she’s too old.

    –Solvei Blue, Burlington VT

  • http://www.WPLN.org Keith

    Mr. Levitz,

    Where are the new comic book story writers coming from and where are the experienced writers going?

  • Rob

    DC superheros, primarily Superman, seems to have been relegated to second tier behind Marvel offerings. Do you see that as true and if so, why?


    Rob Mitchell
    Nashville, TN

  • A Boston Listener

    Why is it that nearly all comic characters have the same kind of super powers; they are just ‘peacocking’ abilities like super strength, flying abilities, or abilities to cause severe destruction.

    When will we get characters with super power abilities in cooking, accounting, friendship making, model train building, etc?

  • Solvei Blue

    To Boston Listener: Obviously, because that would be boring in the extreme.

    Comics appeal precisely because of their fantastical nature.

  • Ed Barna

    from :One More Good Day

    “Picked up a hammer in his little right hand”

    He loves Superman,
    Batman the same as Superman, Wonder Woman
    as much as either–Battlecat, Prince Adam,
    He-Man–but not
    Skeletor, not
    Darth Vader, not
    John Henry. He doesn’t want the side of the record with
    John Henry on it, because he believes in Superman,
    Batman, Wonder Woman, Battlecat, Prince Adam, and He-Man, but not in
    dying, and at the end,
    John Henry lays down his hammer and he dies.

  • Timothy

    Crisis on Infinite Earths was a ground breaking DC event that radically changed DC comics–what crossover event do you think was a mistake and why?

    PS Thanks for writing the Legion of Superheroes!

  • Mort Cohen

    My uncle, Sol Cohen, worked at DC Comics in the era of the beginning of Superman. I believe that he was an executive in charge of publicity. I would appreciate hearing, on-air or otherwise, if anyone knows or remembers him.

    I remember when he sold his house in Bayside, Queens to retire to Sunrise, Florida the sale included a garage filled with Superman and other comics. In retrospect, those comics were worth a lot more than the house.

    After he left DC Comics, he and my father, Harry Cohen, published lesser known comics such as Journey Into Fear, Strange Mysteries and Modern Romance.

  • John

    Art Spiegelman has a great story that his father was too cheap to buy him the superhero comics and instead bought him bags of the banned and discarded EC comics.

  • jim blanchette

    Tom, thank you for this. EVERYTHING I know about metallurgy, I learned from the Metal Men. Everything I remember about chemistry, came not from school but from Metamorpho. My love of science, mythology, and reading all come from my formative years feading comics. I am blessed working as a retailer in the industry for over 20 years.
    Mr. Levitz, I can not thank you enough for your work at DC, particularly your Legion era. (Lovin’ the new stuff.) The new book is fantastic, I keep my copy here in the store, it is a lovely reference work. If you are ever in Boston, please feel free to drop by New England Comics in Malden.

  • Solvei Blue

    With regards to the question of black superheroes, a little while ago on Io9.com (a sci-fi/comics fan site) there was a heated debate about whether Spiderman could be convincingly cast with a black actor playing Peter Parker. The pro side (which I agree with) argued that there’s nothing race specific about Peter Parker and indeed his life story–growing up poor, in the city, raised by a woman who’s not his mother, teased for being smart–could be extremely relate-able for a lot of African American kids. The anti side basically said that no, he’s white and people will get angry if you cast him as a black man. Which is more an argument about catering to racists if you ask me but hey. It was an interesting discussion. You can read the discussion here:


    By the way, as you can tell, I really love comics. I can’t call in because I’m at work but I just thought I’d say I’m another woman who loves comics; it’s one of the things my boyfriend and I bonded over when we first met. I’ve loved them since I was buying the Azrael/Batman story arc off the stands when I was 12-13 years old.

  • Katia Green

    My husband is a lifelong comics believer. I joined the ranks in my late 30s thanks to Chabon’s novel Kavalier and Clay, which illustrated the historical poignancy of the comic book hero in a way I had never before understood. Now our girls are reading Wonder woman and Tiny Titans. Love it.

  • Elden Stormwalker

    I have been reading comic books as long as I can remember being able to read.

    You asked what makes Comic Books such a durable item. In my mind, it is because in the pages of comic books, you will always find a Super Hero that is someone you can see yourself in. Everyone has a specific Hero that is your favorite because you see yourself in them. For me, it was always Marc Spector – Moon Knight.

    Also, Comics grow along with you. Robin grows up, and takes on the mantle of the new Batman. Superman has a son. And they have always kept with the times. As the world changed, so did Comics. Static was a GREAT character!

    Thank you for your time and a great show!! Wish I could have called in!

    ~Elden in Virginia Beach~

  • http://wbur Andrea

    My father, who was born in 1930 near Detroit MI, told me that when he was about 10 yrs old, he became quite ill with Scarlet Fever. He was placed on isolation in his room to prevent the spread of this illness to his siblings. He recovered from this illness, but remembers the great sadness he felt when the doctor required that his clothing, bedding, and stack of beloved comic books be burned so as not to spread any germs from his illness.

    My father also told me that Dick Tracy saved his life when he was a boy! My father’s family lived close to the Detroit River. One day, my father, unaccompanied, was swimming or wading in the river to cool off and found himself too far from the shore. The water was well over his head and he found himself fearing for his life. He said that while he floated beneath the surface of the water, he recalled a particular episode from a Dick Tracy comic book in which Dick Tracy had described in great detail the process of how to swim underwater for a great escape from some danger. My dad said he calmed his mind and then copied these motions after pointing himself toward the shore. It was not long before he felt the river’s edge beneath his feet.

  • Sinclair

    I enjoyed comics as a boy until early puberty. Thereafter, I lost interest. I have enjoyed some comic-based movies (the Keaton + Bale Batman portrayals) as an adult, but generally consider them just fantasy.

    Rather a documentary any day!

  • jim thompson, fort mill,sc


    Wonderful subject. Perhaps I’ve missed it, have your guests mentioned the comics Creep Show and Tales From The Crypt? I would devour those issues as a child in the late 60s & early 70s.

  • RealityMan

    I never got into comic books. It seems out of touch.

    The problems people face today cannot be solved by comic book heroes.

    Can someone with super strength and laser destructive eyes solve a store owners problem of obtaining financing? Foreclosures?

    What comic book character can stop the global human behavior that has lead to global warming?

    What comic book character can dissolve the tension between North and South Korea? Or solve our global economic depression?

  • Carlos

    In the 70′s as a boy I would take the bus downtown to pay my newspaper bill (I was a “paper boy”) and would spend the rest of the afternoon browsing the 3 comic book stores in town planing out which comic books I had to have and picking up my regulars. Flash forward 35 years and my 5 year old loves comics book characters without any influence from me (other than DNA). I took him to a comic book store for the first time recently and he couldn’t believe it – the variety (much less than in my days), the figures, it was like he died and went to heaven. Comic book characters will be his first mastery.

  • Joseph

    I love comics. I am primarily a Marvel reader. One thing I love is that their world touches ours. I had stopped reading for a while and started again with a special issue of Spiderman. I was getting ready to deploy and Spiderman did a special issue about Flash Thompson and his deployment to Iraq. I nearly cried at Spiderman’s description of the heroics of our soldiers.

  • Dee

    One of the most valuable lessons in life I learned was from reading Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.” I can only wish our politicians understood this now as well as I did as a kid.

  • Warren English

    I’ve read comics since I was a child in the 1960s who spent most of his time in hospital for various reasons. Batman spoke to me in a way no other hero did since he was a regular guy with no superpowers. Recently, having spent the last five of so years reading Countdown, 52, Prelude to Crisis, Crisis, Blackest Night, Brightest Day, blah, blah, blah…I wonder if it’s possible to simply tell a story within one book. These big event driven comics tire both myself, and my wallet out. I’m just about ready to give up on “Brightest Day” since it’s treading water 15 issues into the run.

    Are these “event books” driven by the fact that a best-selling comic title now averages way less than 15-20 years ago and you want to milk it for all its worth? Or is it something else?

    Thanks so much!

  • Nick from Massachusetts


    Sorry Tom, but you really did graphic novels a disservice here.

    You made it sound like comic books are silly and goofy for the immature and young ignoring the hoard of mature-subjected graphic novels that have gained much notoriety such as Persepolis and Maus – both NYT Best Seller list hits.

    Comics books have grown up but today’s show did not.

  • Dancer2

    Moratorium on headlines using Pow, Smack, Bam, Biff, Oof and other “fun” comic words?

  • David

    When I was in my early teens in NYC in the early 1970s, the guys were into the Marvel characters. Superman and Batman were your Dad’s heros. Spiderman, Dare Devil, Iron Man, The Hulk, and others were way cooler. Drawing our own versions of these characters was a fairly serious endeavour.

    Spider man was by far my favorite, and I think the favorite of most of the guys in my crew. I had a huge stack of most of the Spiderman comics starting at about issue number 65. The earlier issues were already like gold. Too bad those comics didn’t survive my college years. They would be worth a lot now.

  • Laurence Pierce

    I’m listening to the re-broadcast of today’s show this evening, and I just had to leave this comment anyway:

    I learned to love to read through comic books. One summer when I was quite ill, my aunt Pat gave me a closet full of comic books that she had been saving since she was a little girl. There were at least a few hundred of them, and her tastes ran from Nancy and Sluggo to Archie, Henry, Green Lantern, to Superman, etc. I spent a whole summer reading them, and when I was through, I was such a voracious reader that I started reading everything!

    I think that learning and loving to read is such an important skill today for young folks, that I would love to start a comic book club as to a way to tutor children and help to love to read as my aunt helped me so long ago.

    Some people frown on comic books, but if they can get you to really love to read, I think that is a good thing.

    Larry Pierce

  • http://cyberfumes.blogspot.com Dave Eger

    I think the Walking Dead is proving that comic books can be very relevant and compete quite well. Even as these tales get introduced to a wider audience in film, the original books are always worth reading. There is so much more in the graphic novel of The Watchmen than could be put into a feature length movie.

  • http://cyberfumes.blogspot.com Dave Eger

    There was that planeteer whose power was Heart. That was kind of like a friend-making super power.

  • April Wheeler

    Unfortunately I caught the show as a previous broadcast in Monterey, California and wished I could have called in when the question was asked about women who date men who love comics.

    I think I’m pretty qualified to answer this one; my little brother started collecting comic books because he saw ME doing it, and I married such a huge comic/d&d/video game nerd that we actually missed the first day of our honeymoon because he couldn’t be dragged away from a World of Warcraft battleground. He’s a big SPAWN/Batman/Wolverine fan.

    I actually counted myself kind of lucky that I’d just happened to be put in a situation when I was 12 where I was exposed to comic books, because in high school guys ate it up. Young men fawned over this strange creature that was a female comic book fan and I not only loved the attention, but I felt less awkward since there was genuine common ground instead of just hormones attracting us.

    Still, there were boys that took their love too far and even I had to roll my eyes and kind of wrinkle my nose. Debating character origins is engaging, but if a guy honestly started getting angry, indignant, or offended when their view of things was challenged I usually ended up seeing them as not a “fan” but a level of nerd that was even too nerdy for me and my other nerd friends.

    That had nothing to do with love of comics though, that was more a personal lack of social skills and a realistic perception of reality.

    For the most part, girls love boys who love comic books because we really long to see men be passionate and dedicated to anything. If a man is so committed to a storyline that he’s willing to make a date out of standing in the cold outside a closed mall waiting for a release date, hey – That’s sexy!

    He’s going to be eager to cuddle just for the warmth anyway, and he won’t be embarrassed by the PDA because he’s to busy bragging to his other gamer friends about how his girl is even willing to be there.

    The conversations that go on in those lines are fantastic and I can’t wait to do it again on Dec 7th.

  • http://www.bookofzo.blogspot.com Joshua Hendrickson, Talent OR


    what a great post.

    Female nerds (nerdettes) may be rare but we male nerds worship them accordingly.

    The day I met my wife, I noted with glee that she kept her money and i.d. and stuff in a small metal X-Men lunchbox. Even better was the magnet inside that lunchbox depicting the Death character from The Sandman. Realizing she was a nerdette, I decided to court her, and a year later we got married on Halloween with ourselves and our guests in costume.

    For the life of me, I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to be a nerd–the life of the mind is the pinnacle of existence!

  • Nonie

    You mean that we comics-reading women are rarer than our male counterparts? Okay, if you say so.

    I’ve been reading ‘em for, oh, about 40 years myself. And I love how the Internet makes it easy for fans of ANYTHING to find each other and talk.

    The one thing that really annoys me in comics is the endless Huge Galactic Crossover of Dooooom! storylines, where all of the company’s characters are wrenched out of context and written out of character so the comics company can make big sales.

    However, if they can’t make big sales, they can’t stay in business, so what the hey.

    So. Female comics fans. (YES!) There are a lot of us, and a lot more whom you can interest in comic books. The trick is to talk WITH us about them, rather than just AT us.

    And to remember we REALLY don’t care which supers could beat up whom. Without testosterone, that’s about as interesting as counting sand.

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