UNFINISHED BUSINESS: An Interview with Paul Levitz

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Paul Levitz, former writer, editor, publisher, and president of DC Comics, about his most recent graphic novel for Dark Horse Comics entitled Unfinished Business, the story about a rabbi, a priest, and a minister who walk into bar. The catch is that they’re all dead and are confronted with a bartender who may or may not be God, who sends them an a life (or afterlife) changing mission. Paul was gracious enough to sit down for an hour with me to discuss the graphic novel.

***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!

Matthew Brake: I know you and I have talked a little bit about the inception of this story, but could you talk a little bit about your motivations for writing Unfinished Business?

Paul Levitz: I don’t think I’m ever quite sure what motivates me to write something that isn’t an assignment along the way. Mike Richardson over at Dark Horse was asking me what I wanted to do next. He was suggesting at the time that the preferred format they were working in was four-part miniseries. 

Okay, what do I feel like doing? 

Tim Hamilton, who I had worked with on Brooklyn Blood, my immediately preceding project for Dark Horse, wasn’t in the mood to do more of that. He was playing with children’s books for a while to figure out something new to do, and this came to me.

Matthew Brake: Say a little bit more about that, because you’ve said before that this story is, in part, inspired by a joke.

Paul Levitz: Oh, I mean, the heart of the story, obviously, is the opening joke about “a rabbi, a priest, and a minister walk into a bar.” There’s lots of variations on it. But that’s sort of a classic gum line and then what’s the payoff for it? And I went to, perhaps, the most extreme possibility.

Matthew Brake: So that was the inception, and then, was it taking that joke and then crafting the story of where this could go? Or did you already have some ideas in mind about a message you were trying to convey?

Paul Levitz: It’s not so much a “message story.” As a writer, I think my philosophies or my politics are relatively transparent within my work, but I don’t usually sit there and say, “This is a time to do a tract about or this is a time to do a sermon about [blank].” I had a dear old friend who was down with cancer at the time who was a rabbi. That may have been a piece of the influence. I wanted to do a story that could sort of include him. I mean, the rabbi in the story is not defined as being of the same sex and behaviors as my friend, David, but he was a bit of an homage to him and probably part of that came from conversations I was still having with David in the years of his illness.

Matthew Brake: I do want to come back and talk about your friend David later because I appreciated your afterword where you discuss that relationship. But when you’ve come to my class, you’ve spoken about the difference between art and craft and how with craft you put together a story where you understand the mechanics of the story, can write a story correctly, and meet a deadline. However, with art, it can come from a more personal place. I’m curious with this story, the craft is there, but would you call it art because it comes from a personal place?

Paul Levitz: You know, art is in the eyes of the beholder to some extent, and I don’t know that what I accomplished with the story rises to my definition of art. I think a lot of it was based in my craft. To the extent it was art, it was because I was touching subject matter that was unusual for me to play with and that opens some interesting doors to being thoughtful about it.

Matthew Brake: I appreciated the way the three protagonists come together. They come together. They’re uneasy with each other, and then for a time, they part ways. It almost reminded me of the Chinese restaurant scene from the Defenders on Netflix where you have Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist come together.

Paul Levitz: I didn’t see that series, so I don’t know the reference. But I can imagine.

Matthew Brake: It’s sort of worth the watch…well, about half sort of worth the watch (laughs)

But I liked how the minister, the rabbi, and the priest seem almost like superheroes gathering. Before they become a team, they’re uneasy with each other. Then they temporarily part ways, but they come back together later. Did the structure of that kind of superhero storytelling affect any of your writing or those character decisions?

Paul Levitz: That’s an interesting question. 

Maybe. 

I mean, most of the stories I’ve done in my life use superhero tropes. But I think part of it was really an attempt to capture a very human moment. There are times in our lives when circumstances throw us together with people we wouldn’t actually be together with. You don’t really have room in the structure of a comic to go through that, but in the real world, you go through that exercise that is a search for common ground: “Where did you go to school?” “What did you study?” “Where did you grow up?” “I don’t recognize that accent.” 

All of the kind of dumb opening lines aren’t pickup lines, but are part of how we connect to each other. We search for what we have in common. I’ve never had the privilege of being in a room with multiple religious figures from different religions, but I would certainly imagine that it’s a different kind of dance. And certainly, if you’re dealing with a very Orthodox rabbinical figure, they’re generally not comfortable around women. They have a host of formal prescriptions of what they can and cannot do in the presence of a woman, including any physical contact.

I think the two Christian figures would not have as complicated of a situation but still would have some interesting barriers. The Catholic priest was deliberately chosen out of the African tradition which is perhaps more classical or more conservative than the American, and the idea of a woman priest/minister would be perhaps not uncomfortable in the same way as it would be to an Orthodox Jew, but confusing in some fashion. And then the woman comes out of a very open liturgical tradition and how does she fit with all of this? How does she deal with people who may be more closed-minded? Does she take offense? There isn’t a lot of room to explore all of that, but some of that takes place in the subtext. I did my best to indicate that all three of these people were people of genuine religious belief and sincere faith, living out whatever the right way is that they would feel their faith should be expressed. But being in that room and that bar would confuse anyone alive or dead, including them, no matter how sincere their beliefs.

The bartender, whatever the bartender represents, whether it is a sending of God or a secondary or tertiary supernatural figure, how do you react to that, and that would certainly be a bewildering moment. 

If my memory serves, I wrote most of this before The Good Place was on the air. A wonderful, wonderful show. But to some degree, when I saw it, it reminded me of what I was trying to do. Kristen Bell’s character shows up, “Where am I? What am I?” and Ted Danson is feeding her the bill of goods. Does she buy into it entirely? What makes her suspicious of it at what point? Lovely, lovely show. Beautifully written.

Matthew Brake: It also gave me some Lost vibes: the two figures, one good one bad. Getting thrown in with a bunch of people you would not have normally gotten thrown in with. Themes of free will and destiny.  Obviously, these themes…I don’t want to say that they’re universal…but they have a lot of resonance across many shows and many different traditions.

Paul Levitz: These are things we’ve been wondering about since we started having speech probably. Certainly since we started having story.

Matthew Brake: I did want to ask you about the bartender. It’s interesting you throw in a little bit of ambiguity about who she represents. As I was reading it, I was reading her as a God figure, which I found interesting because it made me think of the book The Shack, which is about a man who is dealing with the loss of a child and goes into a shack and encounters God. The author is a Christian, so his God is Trinitarian, but God the Father appears as a Black woman, for instance, and all the different members of the Trinity appear as various ethnicities, genders, and so on, so I found that interesting. I wasn’t sure if there was influenced there. But if this figure does represent God, I appreciated the choice of having her be an Asian woman whose age we can’t quite identify.

The rabbi, the minister, and the mysterious bartender.

Paul Levitz: [Simon] Fraser gets a lot of the credit for that. He didn’t care for my original description of the bartender, which was probably more traditional, and he came he came up with this figure, which I thought was wonderful, and then I wrote to it as best I could. I think in any modern way of looking at religion, whether you go to the ancient traditions that the Jews had or the Muslims adopted, you cannot depict God. Any modern way of looking at it has to concede that either we cannot understand what God physically could represent as, if there is such a figure, and the whole idea that we are created in God’s image has to be a metaphorical statement.

And what it means, whether that image is in the image of the mind of God or the image of the biochemistry of what God envisions, we don’t get to know. And any discussion of the physical image of God just sort of reminds me of the scene in Avenue Q where they start arguing back and forth, and the actor who’s playing a pseudo-Gary Coleman is loudly announcing that God was a black man, and I think it’s the Princeton character who responds to him by pointing out, “No, no. Jesus was Jewish,” and everybody just cracks up and that’s the end of it. This is obviously an incomprehensible contradiction to this group of people.

Matthew Brake: This question is more tongue-in-cheek, but I can’t help but notice that of the three “people of the cloth,” the Jewish rabbi comes out looking the best. Personal bias creeping in perhaps? (laughs)

Paul Levitz: Probably. I mean, I tried to give them each their moment. The priest gets sort of the physical victory in the process and gets the most directly tortured, so he overcomes the most in it. Reverend Moore gets sort of the most personal battle in dealing with her unborn child. I obviously have my biases, and, as I said, part of the inspiration for the book was to do something in honor of David, who did not get to read the book ultimately or read the script, but I had hoped he would be around long enough to.

Matthew Brake: I do want to tackle some of the specifically religious content in the book. There are a number of themes and ideas that appear. We could talk about certain motifs with the priest and the temptation of Jesus and the stigmata. There’s a blink and you miss it nod to General Theological Seminary In New York. We’ll talk about free will and destiny in a bit, but I want to note the setting that kicks off this whole story: a religion and science conference. 

This location seems to be incidental at first, simply serving at the location to launch the story. But the theme of faith and science interacting does appear throughout. That’s where our three protagonists are when they die [spoilers]. The people who bombed the place, their motive seemed kind of thin because they’re simply saying, “How dare they spend our tuition money on this!” But it does seem like it goes a little deeper, because part of the devil’s goal is to stop the advancement of science. Part of the protagonists’ mission is to protect a doctor who’s making a medical breakthrough, so I found that interplay of religion and science really interesting. I don’t know if that was playing a bigger role in your mind than I’m imagining it was, but I just found that that theme fascinating.

Paul Levitz: Well, it’s a space that I find interesting. I know scientists who are people of religion and find no contradiction in that. Not even when I was writing the book, but particularly in this last year, I found it fascinating and frightening that people of the cloth are rejecting science at a moment when science is acting to save so many lives in such a dramatic fashion.

I can respect the absolute religious belief that some people have that we put ourselves in God’s hands and we should just let God do with us what he will…at least as I peripherally or superficial understand from the Christian science attitude towards it. I can’t buy it, but I can respect that. It seems to me that if you posit the existence of a supreme being that has set this all up, then they’ve included science as one of the things they’ve set up, and that makes it as natural as sitting there by yourself waiting to die. That’s my way of looking at the world. 

When I teach writing, one of the stories I use to teach is a novella called The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster Bujold, and I use it because it is simultaneously a perfectly crafted detective story and a perfectly crafted piece of science fiction. I use it for discussion of genre. 

The story revolves around, whether it’s a futuristic universe or alternative universe, whatever it may be, but a sort of high science but politically or socially medieval or feudally structured planet on which the son of the ruler, the son of the duke supervising the planet, has to go solve the mystery of the murder of an infant child. It turns out the child was murdered by his grandparent because he was born with a birth defect that actually was a very easily cured birth defect, an equivalent of cleft palate as best I can tell. That provokes a really good discussion with the students, not just about genre, but science fiction, which at its best, in my view, powerfully uses metaphor to make us think about issues, so I raised that with my students.

So do we do that? Do we do we kill children because they’re not up to our standards? And you get a fairly lively conversation. I usually use that at a school that’s not one of the super academic schools. And a lot of kids are like, “Well, they used to, but they don’t now.”

And you progress from that to a discussion of China’s one-child only policy or the fact that you can get an amniocentesis or other sort of test and discover what flaws your prospective child may have and make a decision. And I don’t have any right answers about where morality ought to set the boundaries of this.

Matthew Brake: I’m glad you went down this road because one of the key elements of the story is about Reverend Emily and her pregnancy. She uses the language of “unborn child” and talks about how she wants it to live for a long time, so this obviously raises some interesting moral and religious discussions about the nature of something like abortion and the type of language we use for pregnancy: a child, a fetus. Did you have any thoughts and concerns about that use of language while you were writing about her.

Paul Levitz: I tried to be reflective of what I thought that particular character’s language would be. I’m a fierce believer in choice. My daughter is a Planned Parenthood executive. She has deeply educated me at dinner tables over many years about the realities of what the situations of many or most of the women who are seeking abortions are. We’re entering into a time where the technology that I was using as my red herring in the story, CRISPR, will probably be able within a generation to say, “I’m going to have this little boy, and I don’t want him to have a widow’s peak. I’d like him to have a full head of hair. Can you fix that?” I don’t think you, Matthew, would be more handsome with a full head of hair or that your life would have been better with more hair. It’s not a bad widow’s peak. It kind of looks scholarly and interesting.

Matthew Brake: I do what I can. (laughs)

The “widow’s peak” in question.

Paul Levitz: You grow it much better than I do this mop of hair.

“The mop.”

But in the next generation, parents will have a choice about that in all probability. Some of that is pretty harmless. I don’t think it’s big deal if you have to choose your child’s hair color or eye color. Some of it gets pretty fucking creepy pretty fast. So, again it’s just sort of not laying a complex issue out there, because this is an entertainment, but trying to take the reader into the beginning of a territory that may lead them to think about something.

Matthew Brake: There’s a moment in the story where God and the devil confront each other, and it’s very reminiscent of the book of Job. So I don’t know if that text played any part, especially given some of the very real circumstances of suffering that inspire the book, including your friend David.

Paul Levitz: I might have read the book of Job at some point in my life I wouldn’t cliam to have read it anytime recently. I’m about as far from a biblical scholar as you can get.

Matthew Brake: You did all right with this one.

Paul Levitz: I had a couple of good consultants to double check things with. They kept me out of trouble.

Matthew Brake: I did appreciate the reference to God and the devil playing chess with people’s lives. There are obviously a lot of images from our culture like that. There’s the famous image of Death playing chess in The Seventh Seal. Also Lost, although that was more backgammon, but the idea of the Jacob and his unnamed brother, who represented evil, playing a game with each other. There’s one comment made, however, where God, or the bartender I should say, rebukes the devil for treating humans as only chess pieces because they can “surprise you,” and I found that idea interesting that even this divine figure can be surprised by human choices, which plays into ideas about free will and destiny right?

Death plays chess in The Seventh Seal.

Paul Levitz: I think if we have free will, and I like to believe we do, there’s not much point in giving us free will if you believe in a divine reality unless you’re giving us the ability to be amusing.

Matthew Brake: I know you say you’re not a theologian, but you sound like what I would call an open theist who would say God can be surprised because that’s the only way free will make sense, am I right? God can maybe be surprised.

Paul Levitz: You know, I’m certainly not a theologian. That implies a level of education and a level of time spent considering the issues. I’d argue that I’m more of a logician. If “this condition” exists, what are the logical consequences of it? That’s how you think as a storyteller. 

I don’t have any use for formal religion. I can’t logically envision a universe in which a creative force that could do this could give a damn whether you’re facing East or West or which foot you’re standing on or whether you’re wearing linen or cloth or what part of your body you’re covering. It just makes no sense to me. 

I can envision being judged based on the choices that you make in the course of a lifetime. But I can’t envision that the trivialities weigh equally with how many people you’ve murdered. How many lives have you improved? Maybe that’s a failure of my imagination, but at least that’s my worldview.

Matthew Brake: That’s actually a good segue into a follow up question.

One of the things I do appreciate about this volume, as I said, is your personal afterword where you acknowledge your religious heritage, coming from a Jewish background, while also acknowledging your own lack of adherence to organized religion. 

But I want to return to the figure of Dr. David Kaufman, who you name your Jewish rabbi protagonist after. I’m wondering if you could say something about his influence on you because you mentioned your conversations with him. So was he someone you engaged in conversations of religion and spirituality with? And if so, would you mind providing some insight into the nature of some of those conversations? Were they religious and theological inquiries? Were they of a personal nature? You can also decline to answer of course if that’s too personal.

Paul Levitz: David and I had an interesting journey. As a young man, he was a student in English at Tulane. He loved the Legion of Superheroes and would send long, long letters about it, many of which were published, and we connected through that. He was an aspiring comic writer, and we connected a little bit on that. And then he kind of vanished from my radar. 

He popped up again a couple of decades later as an English professor at Tulane who was looking to connect to the actor who was playing Jimmy Olsen on Lois and Clark to get him to New Orleans for a menorah lighting ceremony, if I’m remembering correctly, and he was hoping I could help him with that. Ultimately, that didn’t work out. This was after Katrina maybe. A little time had passed. A lot of renewal was happening in New Orleans at that moment.

Anyway, we got back in contact, and he had converted to a Hasidic order. He was brought up relatively secularly, so this was a sizable conversion. We never talked about what motivated him to the conversion. He had a pack of kids and a complicated life structure around all of that. He was qualified technically as a rabbi but was not functioning as whatever the equivalent for a parish rabbi would be. I don’t know what the right term for that is. His personal philosophy and work were remarkably worldly and liberal for a member of that Hasidic order. He made part of his living writing for politicians, speech writing and things like that, and often for liberal politicians, which was a fascinating contradiction. 

He was an aspiring detective storywriter, and he wrote a couple of novels that, as he went through different drafts, he sent back and forth to me and we’d give it them look. They often turned on plot points that were based in Jewish lore or Jewish culture with a pair of detectives who were an orthodox Jew and an Irishman. Both very vividly depicted. We got together a number of times in New York and at least once in New Orleans. I got the chance to visit him when I was down there for Neil Gaiman’s birthday party that he threw when he turned 50. While there, I got a window into his life a little bit and part of the time during that period was a particularly challenging time in my life, and he provided good counsel through it that was very helpful to me.

Matthew Brake: I only have two quick questions left. As we wrap up, first,

what are some theological or religious questions that interest, that you spend more time than not thinking about consistently or maybe just ones you’ve thought about recently?

Paul Levitz: There is a core question that is unanswerable, that fascinates me, that intrigues the scientist in me or at least the scientifically interested person I am (I don’t know if I can claim to be a scientist anymore), who understands as much as a civilian can of all of the theories behind what life is. That person stands in awe of the universe, looks, and says, “This is too complicated to be an accident.” I understand evolution. That we could have evolved this many things, this complex a set of systems…

I was in one event, where I was watching a presentation tied to the development of the vaccines that have just caught on, and it was a biochemist of a high caliber, who had charted out the number of chemical reactions that we’ve identified within the body to share sort of how you have to figure out how to manipulate those to make a vaccine work. He threw a number around that didn’t stick in my head but it’s astronomical.

It’s not like, you know, as a kid in school you learn about the water cycle, or you learn about photosynthesis and it’s these four things that have to interact to get from here to there. 

But there’s thousands of reactions taking place biochemically in our body every day. And we still don’t know what half of them do. All these new facts about the gut biome and the influence that the bacteria and other microscopic creatures living within us have on how we think, how we behave, how we feel.

I can respect evolution, I can respect scientific analysis. But part of me is simply in awe and says, “I don’t understand how something that complicated happens by accident.” That’s the part of me that (I don’t know what term to attach to it) is spiritual rather than religious that just says, “It’s amazing this happened.” Maybe it’s all an accident. Maybe this is the only time and place that this ever came to pass.

But it’s awesome if it’s an accident, and it’s pretty awesome if it’s not. If it’s not, I have to have the feeling that we’ve got an absentee landlord because I can’t understand why a being that could create this could allow what goes on. So it’s all over my pay grade.

Matthew Brake: Last question. The image on the front of Unfinished Business is this paper crane. Is there any significance to that image?

Paul Levitz: Not any massive one. Just the origami piece that the kid plays with adding the blood to give it a hint that it is in fact a mystery story and perhaps it’s not a crane but maybe it’s a dove in the sense to bring us a sort of peace.

Matthew Brake: Thank you very, very much.

Paul Levitz: My pleasure, sir. 

Unfinished Business is written by Paul Levitz, with art by Simon Fraser, coloring by Gary Caldwell & Fraser, and lettering by Nate Piekos for Blambot. You can buy it on Dark Horse’s website or your local comic book store!

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