Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

[pc monk] Paul Levitz and me

In addition to observations and reflections on the practice of Zen itself, I think this might be a place to record navel-gazing of all sorts. There's some Epicurus coming up sometime, and Long, Quiet Highway soon for Zen and writing, but for now, there's this rumination.

A while ago, I ran into this profile of Paul Levitz, the current president and publisher of DC Comics, in the Wall Street Journal. He's 51 (my age), from Brooklyn (my hometown), and has gone through most of his professional career without a college degree (as did I, until fairly recently). I have always thought that Levitz was a fairly decent guy - at least that's how he comes across in interviews - and fairly conventional at that. And when I read this piece, I thought, "Y'know, I could have been Paul Levitz." Or could I have?

Let me elaborate. When I was in high school, DC Comics had their headquarters at 555 Broadway in Manhattan; my daily subway ride to high school on the upper east side passed within a few blocks. Had I tried, I'm sure I could have been an intern or a mailroom employee or something like that there; I was a smart kid from a good school. I was a responsible guy with a good work ethic thanks to my folks, and I'm sure I would have done as well there as in the jobs I actually did get. I was also creative, with some verbal aptitude (if no art talent at all), and would have fit in nicely in editorial. I've had some success in administration and management over my work life, and know enough about my skill sets to think it's not much of a stretch to imagine that if I had gotten into the business 34 years ago (as Levitz did) that I could have made a successful career of it.

So why didn't I?

There are a few reasons, the first external. I have often said that when I was growing up, my mother and father were very supportive, and encouraged their children to believe that we could do whatever we wanted in life. Much - most? - of my self-confidence comes from that support, and I have taken some pretty risky steps because I felt that I could accomplish my goals. I feel lucky to have had such consistently encouraging parents, who made me feel from and early age that I could be a lawyer or a scientist or a businessman or a teacher or a cop, whichever I chose.

At the same time, perhaps because of our working class background or a lack of sophisticated cultural awareness in our household, there were certain career choices that never even appeared on my radar. It wasn't that I thought I couldn't do certain jobs, but there were jobs that I never even entertained the notion of considering. These choices included anything that smacked of "fame," such as acting or any position associated with being on television or in the movies. I never gave a thought as to how anyone became newscaster, for example; in the world of my youth, those people just came from someplace else. Of course, for me, this other-people category included working in comics, which I considered cooler and way more famous than television. There's was no way I would ever be part of that scene; I would no more have applied for a job at DC than I would have run for mayor.

Now, of course, I realize that working for a comics publisher is just a job, and often a pretty crappy job at that. Now I understand that there are numerous positions in any organization that have little or nothing to do with the public content and plenty of people working in "cool" industries that have little or no interest in the final product. Now I see that my working for DC would have required little more than picking up an application from a bored HR clerk and getting through an interview with some low-level supervisor. Now I see all that; back in the day, I couldn't even imagine it.

Of course, even if I had been guided by someone into breaking down that imaginary barrier and getting my foot in the door, would I have stayed on track? Levitz cites "dedication, focus, and loving what I do" as how he got to where he was. I have always tried to do things that I loved, but in the thirty years of my adult working life, I have had over a dozen jobs in at least seven different fields. While I have usually been dedicated to the task in front of me, it seems that I haven't been able to maintain focus for very long.

Perhaps that might have been different if I had indeed gotten into comics as a career at an early age. Comics have been a consistent element of my life for a long time and may have been the source of focus if they had been my livelihood as well. But maybe not; consider this, an article in response to some comics history that I found shortly after I saw the profile on Levitz. The pertinent quotation: "Comics is an industry built on exploitation." The article is a clear expression of the dirty little secret of comics: that far from being a wonderland of talent and creativity and inspiration, it has always been a seedy, shabby, and dishonorable industry, and the writers, artists, and other creative folk who have worked in it have more often than not been poorly treated, if not abused. I wonder if I could have lasted as long as Levitz has. I have left positions over matters of conscience much smaller than some of the offenses committed by the big two comics publishers; I wonder how many compromises Levitz has had to endure to follow his youthful dream. I wonder if, in the same position, I would have made the same compromises; I'd like to think that perhaps I could have been an agent of change in the system, but I realize that's unlikely.

In the end, in real life, I made the choices that I made, and at any rate the train that could have taken me to a profile in the Wall Street Journal left the station a long time ago. Speculation on what might have been is fruitless, and I have no complaints about they way things turned out. It's just that sometimes I wonder.

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