Dan Jurgens and Paul Levitz Discuss the Enduring Legacy of Superman

Before Awesome Con, held in Washington DC March 30th-April 1st, the Library of Congress held a discussion with two comic industry legends, Dan Jurgens and Paul Levitz to discuss Superman who turns 80 years old this year. He debuted in Action Comics #1 which was released in May 1938 and a cover date of June 1938.

Levitz has held numerous roles within the comic industry including writer, editor, and executive and was the President of DC Comics from 2002-2009 and worked for the company for over 35 years in various roles.

Dan Jurgens is both an artist and writer who has taken on Superman numerous times, including the famous death, and wraps up his current run with the character in this week’s momentous Action Comics #1000 passing the torch to the next generation of creators in a way.

Before their panel discussion, I got a chance to sit down with the two of them to talk about their fondest memories of the character and what makes Superman so super to survive 80 years.

Graphic Policy: We’re here celebrating the 80th birthday of Superman. What’s your earliest memory of Superman?

Dan Jurgens: I always had that consciousness of Superman. My earliest solid memory was walking into a drug store, which at that point just had your general magazine stand, which had comics on the bottom wrack and buying at that time Superman #189 for 12 cents. That was my first comic book I ever bought. So that was my first solid memory of Superman. I knew who he was but that was my first tangible experience.

Paul Levitz: It’s amazing how you remember the physicality of buying comics.

DJ: Oh yeah.

PL: I think we all did in out generation. I think I probably experienced the George Reeves television show before the physical comics. The first time I had my own Superman comic was Action Comics #300 which my babysitter gave me to shut me up when I was five years old. It had a subscription ad, a dollar for a year of Action Comics. So I conned my parents into sending for a subscription and I had that subscription for a couple of years after that.

GP: Both of you have worked on this iconic character. How does it feel to have worked on a globally recognized character that means so much to so many people?

DJ: I think we’re reminded often at how iconic Superman is. The reality is as a writer or artist when you work on it, it’s a pretty solitary experience. It’s always somewhat alarming to see how you can do something that goes from the privacy of your office or studio and your privacy of your drawing board to become a national or even an international story. And that’s only because Superman is so iconic. And we get reminded of that quite often.

PL: You feel like you’re being made a custodian of something that’s precious to you and precious to other people. There’s a lot of characters you can writer where it’s a character. It’s a story. You can screw up their life some interesting fashion. You can change them in some fashion. Someone out there will care. But, they’re mostly going to care in a good way because they’re going to be curious, going to be interested, going to be excited by what you do. When you’re working with something like Superman that has survived so long, you know you don’t want to be the one to screw it up. You know what it meant to you and you want to hand it on to whatever is going to follow you hopefully in better shape than you got it and hopefully more successful than you got it.

GP: Is there extra pressure working with this particular character?

PL: Yes.

DJ: Yes.

PL: Yes.

DJ: Yes.

DJ: I know when I started on Superman it was as an artist and that was just fine and I could handle that. When the call came in from the editor at the time, a guy named Mike Carlin, he said “would you like to write a couple of issues?” I said “sure, no problem.” I hung up the phone and said “ok, now what have I stepped in?” I’ve never had that with any other character but there’s something about Superman that’s special in that way.

PL: I mean it’s the level of responsibility. Years ago we did a series of tv commercials with an animated Superman and a live Jerry Seinfeld for American Express. I remember sitting there and arguing with Jerry about a line for one of them that I wasn’t willing to approve. I’m arguing about Jerry Seinfeld about something. Jerry’s basically saying, “I know what’s funny.” And I have to say, “it’s my job to know if Superman would say that or not.” And, I was pulling on my collar the whole time. He loved Superman and was trying to be faithful but it just didn’t sound exactly Superman. You just feel that weight on you that you have to get it right.

GP: For each of you, who is the character to you? If you had to boiled him down to his essence, what would that be?

PL: He’s a guy who could have chosen anything but chose to do the right thing always. We’re all flawed, it’s part of being human. We do stupid stuff. We do stupid stuff in our professional lives. We do stupid stuff in our personal lives. We do things we look back on and think can I get a do-over on that day? And, here’s someone who’s really had the ability to make every choice in a way that could have been self-serving and very consistently chosen to do the right thing. That’s a very critical part of the essence of the character.

DJ: I agree with everything Paul said of course. I’ve written many lines in the comics where people speculate on what Superman’s life is like. They say, “he lives on a secret island with an incredible mansion” or something like that or all sorts of crazy ideas because it would not occur to most people that Superman puts on a pair of glasses, has a job, and goes to work and lives among them. I tried to actually to address a little bit of this in Action #1000. There’s a famous Superman story called “For a Man Who Has Everything.” The title of my story is “From the City That Has Everything” and it’s basically Metropolis saying thank you to Superman. How do you thank Superman? There’s nothing you can really do?

PL: *laughter*

DJ: What are you going to do? Buy him a car? Give him a vacation? I mean it really is that. In part of that story they talk about “we don’t know what sacrifices you’ve made on our behalf, but we know it must be substantial.” So, I think that’s something we try to portray. Even in Metropolis they understand that there’s this sense of moral integrity that is there and the selflessness that even though he doesn’t come out and say it people can understand.

GP: When the character started he was so different than he is today. When he began he was fighting slumlords and crooked politicians and today he’s fighting Brainiac and Lex Luthor. He’s changed over the 80 years a lot. What is it about the character that has made him enduring to last 80 years and survive such change?

PL: I start with the triangle. I think the Clark/Lois/Superman relationship was really the soul of the character that gave it birth. We all have our Clark Kent side. Whether we’re male or female. We have moments where we wish someone would see us, see the real us, what’s great about us, at least decent about us. Instead of focusing in on what’s not so great about us, focusing in on our insecurities. Jerry (Siegel) really captured that brilliantly. That’s been a very powerful engine that has made that character endure. Yes, that relationship has changed over the years, but that central triangle is really a pivotal piece of it.

DJ: I think there’s a couple of things. I think one reason he’s been so accepted is that he doesn’t wear a mask. It’s interesting. If we go back to the time, so many characters wore a mask. You look at Batman who in some ways is the polar opposite, and a lot of people recognize that, but here’s Superman and he’s so open. He’s so open because he doesn’t wear a mask backs up that idea of inspiration and hope and moral integrity. Whenever you see the Justice League assemble there’s two characters that aren’t masked and that’s Superman and Wonder Woman. There’s something about that, I think, is some sort of visual clue that’s laid out there that I’m there for you. I think he radiates that. When written well that comes through and that always endures.

GP: For both of you, is there one Superman moment that really sticks out to you? Maybe it’s something you’ve worked on or just something in general about the character?

PL: It’s experiential. If I had to pick a single moment it’s standing on the street watching Christopher Reeve pluck the cat burglar off the side of the building when I was a young man and they were shooting in New York. We were allowed to go and gawk at what was going on. I made no useful contribution to the first Superman movie. I was way too junior. But, to just be part of that was such an astounding experience.

DJ: I think when I was kid I read a story in reprint form, and Paul you can help me out here with the issue number, but it was called “Superman’s Return to Krypton.”

PL: Mhmm. I don’t remember the issue number.

DJ: At that time it was called a “three part novel from what I recall.” That meant the issue wasn’t broken up into a bunch of different stories. But that was the first time I saw, I remember being exposed to the idea that Superman had some sort of loss in his life. It’s basically the story about Superman getting back to Krypton and seeing the life he could have had and what his parents were like. When I read that I remembered thinking, and I was a little bit older because I read it in reprint form, but thinking that there is loss there. That’s kind of knowing someone personally. We see everyone on the outside and think their lives are great and then we get to know them and see that’s not the case. I saw that with Superman and that’s always stuck with me.

GP: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat.