Brooklyn was a place residents worked to escape in Paul Levitz’s day, which was decades before an influx of wealthy whites transformed it into something barely recognizable to its natives.
But its hold on its children can be felt in the bitterness, the contempt and the truth behind the opening lines of Levitz’s newest comic book: “I got Brooklyn in my blood. But it sure as hell isn’t this Brooklyn.”
The lines belong to Billy O’Connor, a pissed-off Marine veteran of Afghanistan turned asshole cop whose struggle with PTSD fuels the engine of Brooklyn Blood, Levitz’s first original comic in 40 years published outside DC Comics.
Levitz, an East Flatbush native raised in the shadow of Tilden High School, spent decades shaping DC Comics as a writer, editor and eventually publisher. But on Wednesday, the smaller-press Dark Horse Comics will publish a collected edition of Brooklyn Blood, Levitz’s hybrid detective thriller/horror story, a collaboration with artist Tim Hamilton.
It’s a creative stretch for Levitz, one of the first comics fans to turn professional, who’s most widely known as the driving force behind DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, a 30th century intergalactic task force helmed by teen heroes Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, and Lightning Lad. Brooklyn Blood riffs off Ed McBain’s detective fiction, he says—“great procedurals and often structured to work around not developing too much detail about an adversary”—and felt it was important to ground such a work in a familiar place.
“O’Connor is channeling my amazement at the borough changing. Not disgust, part joy, part amazement... and some worry that the working class transformative power of Brooklyn may get lost in the shift,” Levitz tells The Daily Beast.
Brooklyn Blood, first serialized in the anthology series Dark Horse Presents, is a nervous tale driven by trauma. O’Connor’s flashbacks to his armored personnel carrier running over an insurgent roadside bomb both complicate and help him unravel the case of a serial killer stalking Park Slope. With help from a psychic, O’Connor and his Muslim partner, Nadira Hasan, get sucked ever deeper into a seemingly random spate of slayings that connect to something ancient and occult lurking within the fabric of the borough. There’s even a guest appearance by the borough of Queens.
Somehow, despite the supernatural elements of the story, the least realistic thing about the comic is the idea of a serial killer in Park Slope, the least distinct and interesting neighborhood in Brooklyn.
“Well,” Levitz says when I ask him about the Park Slope setting—or, more accurately, vent my Park Slope antipathy—“I could argue the contradiction between a ‘peaceful’ neighborhood and the manic crimes add texture...but mostly it was the history that led me there.” To say more would probably spoil the story, but Levitz has a fair point.
He also has a secret weapon: his collaborator Hamilton, whose deep pools of black ink combine with smooth linework to look like a mix between Gahan Wilson and Sin City-era Frank Miller. Hamilton, a Brooklyn resident himself, renders a faithful, familiar 7th Avenue. His color palette is appropriately muted, full of mustards, soft blues and bursts of pink that feel somehow like a woozy borough at dusk, humid even in the fall when the story takes place. Levitz’s friend, the comics artist Christine Norrie, connected him with Hamilton, whose adaptation of the Ray Bradbury classic Fahrenheit 451 had caught Levitz’s eye.
Levitz is a crucial figure in comics history. His LOSH is the definitive version of a fixture franchise for DC that has fallen into eclipse in recent years, despite a recent televised depiction on the CW show Supergirl. But Levitz’s work off the page has similar staying power. It was under Levitz and his similarly legendary publishing partner Jeanette Kahn that DC, ahead of rival Marvel, implemented a royalty system for writers and artists. With creators compensated more fairly than before, DC underwent something of a creative renaissance that stretched beyond revitalized Superman or Batman stories and into the launch of mature-readers imprint Vertigo and black superhero sub-universe Milestone Media.
Levitz’s time as a DC executive ended in 2009. But in 2015, he and artist Sonny Liew revamped the Doctor Fate character. This version of the superhero mystic was an Egyptian-American living in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
Though Levitz long ago decamped for Manhattan, his daughter lived in Boerum Hill and Williamsburg, making it not so easy to disentangle from a borough he hasn’t lived in since he was 23. But the ghosts of his childhood linger: the zoo in Prospect Park, classes at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, taking in the Children’s Museum in Crown Heights or the majestic Brooklyn Museum on Eastern Parkway, where he later volunteered making up boxes for the gift shop.
“Brooklyn was the place you worked to get out of in my day,” Levitz remembered over email. “It's long been a launching pad for immigrants and their families (I'm first generation American), and still is, but now there's this cool aspirational dimension for young people. I think that's unlike anything we've ever seen before...and amazing.”
And in his blood.