Levitz Serves Duty With "Legion," Gets Dirty With Vertigo

Thu, February 4th, 2010 at 12:28pm PST | Updated: February 4th, 2010 at 4:54pm

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Kiel Phegley, Staff Writer

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From the looks of it, Paul Levitz hasn't had much time to relax since stepping down as the President and Publisher of DC Comics. While the September changing of the guard that saw DC Comics become DC Entertainment brought with it the news that Levitz would stay on as a consultant and freelance writer for the publisher, few may have expected that the industry veteran would produce piles of comics work in the immediate future, but this May sees the longtime DC staple contributing to three series. For one, his previously announced gig as writer of the relaunch of "Legion of Super-Heroes" with artist Yildiray Cinar gets underway that month, with DC today releasing a first look at the artist's interior work. Levitz will also step into "Superman/Batman" for an arc titled "Worship" starting in issue #72 taking the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight to mythic adventures and contribute a chapter to a comics jam in the form of "House of Mystery" #25, which has a round robin script co-written by a host of writers including series regular Matthew Sturges.

And all of that is only step one for Levitz's writing future. He'll also pick up the monthly "Adventure Comics" series in June. "The genesis of the 'Adventure' arc is that Geoff challenged me to do the story that could be collected into one book that you could hand to somebody to introduce them to the Legion. That doesn't really exist right now. So that's why we're going back and looking at the origins and how they develop," Levitz told CBR. However, readers shouldn't expect his tenure with the superteam he twice made his name on to be all building blocks and origins, as Levitz explained in an in depth interview where he addressed how to best integrate the Legion into modern DC canon as well as the modern DC publishing plan, why the series expansive cast is a boon to their stores and much, much more.

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CBR News: The thing I found most interesting about you coming back to the Legion at this specific time was not so much the fact you were writing in "Adventure" or one of the publishing firsts for you on this but more so which Legion you'll be getting to write. With the "Superman & The Legion of Super-Heroes" story in "Action," Geoff essentially brought the classic Legion, your Legion back to the forefront for the first time in over 20 years. Did that make a big difference for you?

Paul Levitz: Absolutely. I think my head probably would have exploded if I'd been given then task of reconciling all the reboots together. I was fond of some of the work that was done during that period. I particularly enjoyed some of the work Mark Waid and Barry Kitson did, taking it off in a different direction, and I never had an emotional issue with people doing a reboot in a unique and distinct way and pursuing a new audience. But it wouldn't have been a particularly emotionally attractive thing for me to go back in [and work with one of those reboots].

I was a great fan of "The Avengers" as a young kid. It was one of the places where I really studied and learned by storytelling, and one of my list of regrets as a comic book writer is that I may never get around to writing the Avengers. But I also know in fact that really the Avengers that I wanted to write haven't existed for ten or 15 years, so regardless of whether or not I might get an opportunity to do something like that, I could never write that book. It just doesn't exist anymore. With the Legion, I'm getting a nice opportunity to go back to my kids. They've grown up, they've changed, there's a few years of their history I don't know much about – it was kind of like they were off doing some weird shit that they weren't writing home about. I've got to figure out what some of those missing pieces are, like really...how did Karate Kid die a second time? Um...I'm not entirely sure how any of that is going to work. But as you say, it is basically linked to the material that I did and I loved before that.

EXCLUSIVE image from "Legion of Super Heroes" #1

The Legion is a very large cast and world...some would say an unruly cast. But that gives you a lot of options in what you want to play with. Do you want to get the ball rolling by establishing some of the characters again and their personal missions, or do you go in with a big plot hook and blow stuff up?

Well, I think I'm already on the record that I'm blowing up a planet in the first issue. [Laughs] So I think the exploding thing is a part of the mix, but it's all about character at the end of the day. The readers are either going to become interested in these people again or not, and the plots are a pathway to achieve that. The idea in any kind of storytelling is to make your characters meaningful and important to your reader. If they're simply playing a game of tag – good guy catches bad guy, bad guy catches good guy, they're running around in circles – that part doesn't matter. I don't mean to say that I've never done a story that doesn't have a tag element to it. I've certainly had a bunch that I look back on that way and regret, but ideally your should flow out of what's important to the characters and what the emotional journey of the characters is going to be.

I think I've had a particularly good opportunity in picking up the Legion at this moment in that Geoff built and left hanging this really interesting character in Earth-Man who is espousing doctrines that we find evil not only in the absolute but also evil as a reflection of what we find wrong in our own world today. But he's doing it very sincerely. He's clearly incredibly wrong-headed about how he sees the world, but he started from a good place. Where does that go to? Who does he become? How do we use that as a fulcrum to show off some really interesting things about human personality – both his and the Legionnaires.

While in science fiction in general your stories are always going to be commenting or relating to the present or to timeless ideas in one way or another, it feels like in a very direct sense that the science fiction world of the Legion has also been linked to the current DCU a lot in the past few years in a way that it often wasn't in the past. There's been a lot more direct crossover in the past two years even.

I think that's fair.

I know you're playing with Green Lantern Corps and other concepts like this in your new direction. Will you continue to reflect a little of what people see in other books in your title?

I don't know if I'm reflecting what people are seeing in the other books in a literal sense because it's very hard to time what you're doing to something that specifically someone else is doing at that moment. That's always been a challenge with the Legion, and one of the joys of the Legion is that you don't always have to synchronize what's going on as tightly. But I've always delighted in the DC Universe connections in the Legion. I did an awful lot of that in my earlier work. I introduced the idea that Universo had been a failed Green Lantern, then getting his son to become a Green Lantern in the earlier material – and obviously all the Darkseid and New Gods stuff that formed the spine of "The Great Darkness Saga" and other things along the path. This even goes back to the first time I got to write a Legionnaire, which was doing Karate Kid when he had his own book for three and a half seconds set in the 20th Century.

So those are all things I love to play with and I hope to do some more of. I think there will also be some opportunities since I will be relatively more of a full time writer than I've been before and will therefor be writing other things for the company beyond the Legion, there will be some things I write in other books – seeds that I'll be planting – that may end up being relevant to the Legion.

Levitz' "Great Darkness Saga" is considered to be one of the greates LoSH stories ever told

That's an element that's interesting whenever a writer comes back to a property they've got a long tradition with...the idea that they can do their "greatest hits" and bring back things like Darkseid or whatever. Is that a method that's been in your mind or looking attractive in any way?

I'm still at a fairly early stage in all of this. So on the one hand, I'm enormously tempted to take all the toys off the shelf and play with them. On the other hand, I'm trying to constructively work with the number of things I can do simultaneously. There's a lot to do in getting Legion to have the momentum it ought to have again. The previous two times I went on this book, I went on when it was already a very successful DC title. This is the first time I'm stepping in when it hasn't been published in, whatever, a year and hasn't been extremely successful for the few years before that. So just as we have the whole challenge with the readers of bringing them in, I have the challenge in front of me of getting this up to the right kind of speed. Maybe some of the classic DCU stuff will be a part of that. The Green Lantern mythology certainly – we have some wonderful stuff going on in the first story line with Sodam Yat and a new character who's "birthed" on Oa for lack of a better term. But there are only so many pages to work with. And we have to be careful how we're proceeding with all of it.

You've been slowly building exactly what your new battle plan will be for the last few months, and the first book people will see is "Legion of Super-Heroes" which we've been talking about. Then after that "Adventure Comics" will pick up as written by you. How will those two books end up playing off each other?

"Legion" comes out in May, and then in June you start the sequence of stories in "Adventure." The "Adventure" stories at least at the beginning are set structurally to show the origins of the Legion. It goes backwards to create an introduction to the Legion in the 31st Century. It's not going to be like "Batman" and "Detective" or "Superman" and "Action" moving the same story back and forth, but I would be remiss if I wasn't deliberately emphasizing elements in the historical material that could get picked up on in the current material or planting relationships back and forth or hopefully using the opportunity to inform you about what's going on in the current material.

When you talk about the building blocks of the Legion, you almost always go back to those original three Legionnaires as a foundational cast. But on the whole for this run, are you starting with a kind of core cast and then building out and around it, or are you trying to incorporate as many new players as you can from the start?

I never focus on a core cast. I think the joy of the Legion is the breadth of the cast, so there's a lot of guys around – a lot of supporting characters both that I've used before and ones that are being newly introduced, ones that turn out to be Legionnaires and ones that turn out to be corpses. You don't quite know who will go in which direction. There are, as you say, some characters that are just central to the mythology. I've got a couple of things going on with Saturn Girl both in the historical material and the future material. I enjoy very much the way Geoff nuanced the relationship between Saturn Girl, Lightning Boy and Cosmic Lad in their early appearance. That's providing some grist for the mill to play some games. The goal is that if you read the first couple of stories and you don't realize that this particular character has been around for 20 years, you don't notice. It's just a character, and it doesn't stop you in your tracks, and it doesn't confuse you. If you do know that this science police officer has been around and has had a particular relationship with this particular Legionnaire for good or for evil, well that adds something to it. You take the Easter Egg and go, "Well, that's something cool if she's over there!" There's a moment in the first "Adventure" story where it's particularly relevant to get the science police to the infirmary on Mars, and Colossal Boy has a reaction to that that the other Legionnaires don't. If you're not an old Legion geek, you're not going to know why the hell that's there, but I don't think it's going to bother you. If you were reading my stories, then you know why he reacts to that.

Lightning Lad concept art

The Legion has changed a lot over the years, one newer element to this cast is the idea that while the Legion was introduced and originally worked as a young, teenage soap opera comic – something Waid and Kitson played with a lot – here the characters have grown up a bit more without R.J. Brande around playing the father figure and such. Does that at all affect how you view the cast?

Well, I married off a couple of them in my first stuff and gave Saturn Girl and Lightning Boy kids, so hopefully by that point at least they weren't teenagers. I think they're all still young people. I think by the 31st Century, 30 may be the new 18. I'm not sure what the number is, but life will be longer, God willing, and your growth pattern will be a little slower and different for each person. I see already the ways that my kids are much older than I was at their age, certainly more sophisticated about a lot of things. That impacts my point of view I think. The goal is to have them as interesting people. You don't want them all in settled, stable relationships where they're together with each other for 1,000 years to come. You want to screw up every one of their lives one way or another.

Have you seen much of what your artist has done for the book at this stage?

Yildiray is just a wonderful piece of work doing "Legion." He's such fun to watch and is going to be an immediate star with this. Regardless of whether the book works or not, I think people are going to connect with him because he does wonderfully interesting people in a great science fiction environment.

When you write, do you give a lot of detail for your artist or have a bare bones story and let them shape the page as they will?

I learned how to write comics from a guy named Joe Orlando. He said, "Your job is to call the angle, call the shot, call the emotion, call the action. The artist can fuck around with it and add to it, but your job is to build the starting road map." If you know you're working with someone you've worked with for years who enjoys plotting and has particular gifts and skills, then you invite them in to do the job. Certainly when I was working with Keith Giffen in the 1980s, I wasn't giving Keith as detailed a set of instructions as I would with Yildiray, but the baseline starting point is that the writer is supposed to put it all there for the artist to improve upon.

Speaking of baseline starting points, I wanted to ask a bit about your "Superman/Batman" story. While a lot of people have looked at this idea of you playing with "Batman Beyond" elements in your work, I've heard that your doing a lot with the title characters in taking Superman to space and having him viewed as a god. Did you want to make this story have an old school "anything can happen in a Superman comic" feel more akin to what was done in the '50s and '60s?

I think the genesis of that story line was playing around with the idea of a story that would have long term ramifications. At one point in its construction, I was trying to do it as a "same time next year" story where it would take place over a four or five year period with each issue taking place in a different year. As the story evolved, that structure didn't end up working out too well. But I hope it's not an old time story in that it will feel like what was done in the '50s and '60s...I wasn't even writing comics in either of those decades. I was even too young to be reading them in the '50s. But the part of what you said that I did try to do was to do a story that would not have naturally been in either of their books and to take advantage of that. I look at the conjunction of where the characters lives were and not be locked into the continuity of four other titles for each of them going on at the same moment. This could be just a story of this particular moment in their lives. And then you try to do an interesting character resonance off that.

Saturn Girl concept art

Lex Luthor will also play a big role in this arc. There are all sorts of dynamics you can pull with different villains, but with Lex as the true arch villain, who will he be in this arc?

I'm having a lot of fun with what Luthor is doing in this. It's going to have some very long term ramifications. Lex is trying to direct his own personal immortality in some very interesting ways.

You're going to be taking part in a fun exercise with "House of Mystery" #25 where you're one of several writers working on one story. You're listed last in the credits as I've seen...are you last in the order and having to wrap the story as a whole?

Thank God I'm not the one who has to wrap it all up. My piece is done. There were two pieces before me that I believe were Bill [Willingham's] and [Dave] Justus. When they had their chapters finished, [editor] Angela [Rufino] passed it over to me. I did my piece and passed it back. Then it went to Alisa [Kwitney] and Sturges has to figure his way out of all of it, and he's a better man than I to dare try it. It was a hoot to have a chance to do something like that. The last time I did a round robin story was "DC Challenge" a thousand years ago, which had its genesis in a fairly well alcoholically-lubricated evening at San Diego con. I don't know how this "House of Mystery" one got cooked up, but it was delightful to make my Vertigo debut. It was even more delightful to have the pleasure of watching the editors get slightly more and more uncomfortable with the territory I was going into and then me going, "But I thought it was a Vertigo book, and a dirty joke was okay, guys!" [Laughs]

Is it good to loosen yourself up on something that's so short and succinct? Does that help gear you up for something as daunting as two ongoing Legion books?

I spent more time reading the run of "House of Mystery" getting caught up than I spent writing the four pages, but that's fun too because I hadn't been reading the series. I got to learn about the lives of all these characters and see how they ended up developing. One of the interesting benefits to playing on this side of the game now is that I have the opportunity to read more comics than I've been able to read in the last batch of years. It was fun. I got to write a character I created...Jesus, over 35 years ago and hadn't touched since that Neil [Gaiman] had really made into a read character as opposed to the talking head I wrote. That was a lot of fun even though I only got to give him six or eight lines. But at least I finally felt like I got to play with him after watching his little plastic figure just sit on my desk for years. I got to do a couple of lines that I never could have been able to do put in "House of Mystery" when I was assistant editing it all those years ago.

Part of what I hope to do in returning to the writing side of my life is do a lot of the stuff in comics that didn't exist when I was doing it the last time. Hopefully that will have some affect on things like "Legion" where the differences are subtler – because as you said there are great similarities in the characters. But hopefully I'll be writing all kinds of comics that didn't exist in the old days.

I was about to say, there was no such thing as an original graphic novel back when you were writing regularly. Is that something you'd like to take a crack at?

Not only do I want to do that, but I've been sitting around as publisher for at least the last five or seven years arguing with creative talent about what could be done with the graphic novel, and saying, "You haven't tried this. You haven't tried that structurally. Why don't we try something new?" I want to be a part of that process of exploring the potential for the form. I have one Vertigo Crime premise that I've pitched at Karen that I haven't been able to get back to to flesh out.

"Legion of Super-Heroes" #1, "Superman/Batman" #72 and "House of Mystery" #25 all ship in May from DC Comics.

TAGS:  dc comics, paul levitz, legion of super-heroes, superman/batman, adventure comics

 
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