When Words Collide

Mon, June 21st, 2010 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
2

VINTAGE PAUL LEVITZ

A few years back, as I was preparing my chapter on the Levitz Legion from the "Teenagers from the Future" book, I had a conversation with Paul Levitz about his inspirations and narrative techniques. I used the interview for background and pulled out some quotes for my chapter, but the full interview has never been published. So, here you go - a time capsule from May 15, 2007 - as Paul Levitz, three years prior to returning to the "Legion of Super-Heroes," speaks about his work on the series:

Tim Callahan: You e-mailed me and told me that you don't remember saying it, but according to a letter column comment in the Baxter run of "The Legion of Super-Heroes," you said that you were inspired by Robert Altman's "artful use of organized chaos." So I guess we'll start there. What do you like about Robert Altman's films?

Paul Levitz: I guess what I found interesting in them is the way he weaves. That the pieces of his puzzle are relatively more...equal pieces, yet each have their moments through the course of the film.

I came into his work through "M*A*S*H," being very much at the right age at the right moment-the last hour of Vietnam, and I was a kid who was old enough to carry around a draft card, so the commentary on the particular themes of military, of the war, were likely to be engrossing. But looking back on it, I think the thing that made the work distinctive was how he played the lives of the characters in and out of eachothers'.

TC: And you think that actually translated into your comic book work, or is Altman more of just a general inspiration?

PL: It's a sensibility that I've found attractive in different forms of literature over the years. And at one extreme you've got it there in film, and in another very mundane extreme you have it in the work of a writer like Ed McBain and how he developed the 87th Precinct over the years, and how you had subplots there from novel to novel-as the characters' lives developed-and rather than telling a deep interrogatory of a single character you were playing the ensemble.

TC: "M*A*S*H" is still your favorite film?

PL: Uh-huh.

TC: And when was the last time you saw it?

PL: Oh, three or four years ago.

TC: But you do go back to it every once and a while?

PL: I certainly have gone back to it over time.

TC: You don't regularly view it, though.

PL:It's not as bad as some of the books on my shelf where it's sort of, "It's been a few years since I read this, let's do another round."

TC: Oh really? What are some of those books?

PL: "The Lord of the Rings" is probably the simplest example.

TC: Do you find yourself mostly attracted to fantasy and sci-fi?

PL: My reading habits over the years are probably about half history and nonfiction material. In genre fiction it's mostly just science fiction/fantasy or detective/mystery.

TC: Now just to go back to cinema for a minute, are any of the other Altman films from that era, like "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "The Long Goodbye" or "Nashville," are any of those influential to you at all, or is it just, basically, "M*A*S*H?"

PL: "M*A*S*H" certainly was the one that brought me into it, I mean I've seen a number of the others. I remember "Nashville" very fondly, going with a pack of people-I remember [Steve] Gerber being there that evening, but of course those were all the days where when you saw movies at the movies, that was it!

It wasn't available for you to see again, potentially, for another ten or twenty years. 'Til the technology caught up, and I'm not a crazed movie buff, so it's not that these were films I generally saw ten or fifteen times. As I got older and began to recognize Altman's credentials, I saw probably more of the later work than I did the early stuff, but his work pattern thinned out pretty much by that time.

TC: Any other favorite directors from the 70's or 80s? Maybe someone who...

PL: I'm not a film guy. There were a lot of people whose work I learned to respect, but...

TC: You're just not a film buff.

PL: That's not where I took my particular tools from. Didn't watch enough of it, notice credits enough, that I could give myself any derivation there.

TC: Good to know. So, jumping over to Roy Thomas and his - I guess it was about 70 issues - "Avengers" run. You say you actually analyzed his "Avengers" issues as an exercise in learning about continuity and structure...

PL: I use the term "reverse engineer."

TC: Right. How did you actually do that? Did you make lists of things or diagram them out?

PL: I went back and rebuilt the plots. The same way I would chart as a writer myself for evolving a subplot, I went back and charted how he did it.

TC: I've read that you charted your plots in, sort of, columns, and tracing the different steps along each issue. That's basically what you did with his stuff?

PL: A version of it, yeah. I finally also took a couple of the issues and did beat sheets for the page-by-page as I was evolving how to pace a particular story, too.

TC: You did that while you were writing "Legion?" Or before?

PL: I would guess that it was at the beginning...

TC: Of your first "Legion" run?

PL: Probably.

TC: So you were about 20 at the time?

PL: I'm guessin' [Laughs].

TC: So you broke down the "Avengers" issues, you took a look at the structure, and then did you actually try to transpose that to "Legion" and say, "I want to have this kind of rhythm?"

PL: No, it's just, you know, trying to understand something that worked well.

TC: Admiring it and saying, "This works, I should have something that works as well..."

PL: Yeah, it's, "So, there was a gap between the two issues between this development and that, and yet it still felt fresh when I read it," or "A gap of four or five, did that work? Well, maybe. Why did that work? Why did that not work?"

TC: When I went back and looked at Roy's "Avengers" work, I noticed an almost musical rhythm to his pacing, especially once he got rolling. It seemed like the threat levels were nicely rhythmed. He'd go from local, to global, to intergalactic, and kind of go back and forth with that...

PL: Uh-huh. You want to…its one of the things you should try to do, and certainly he was a great exemplar of that. I think Stan did a lot of that first, but I found Roy's to be a more useful thing to reverse engineer because you had so much of the dynamic of different characters moving in and out from what was, ultimately, a very large cast. Stan had used that technique - of the threat levels and things like that - extremely successfully with "Fantastic Four," but you couldn't get the other elements out of it.

TC: When you were doing your first "Legion" run, were you considering things like long and short-term pacing, or were you mostly working one issue at a time with sort of a vague perspective about the future?

PL: I don't remember enormously clearly...I certainly had a perspective of where I was going and some of the stories I wanted to do, and I usually had some idea a couple of issues out of where I was going on a subplot, but it was nowhere near as richly textured as the stuff I was doing when I came back. The JSA stuff I was doing at the same period as "The Legion" was probably much more carefully structured in terms of issue-to-issue character development.

TC: Just going back to the concept of threat level for a second, did you find it a problem dealing with threat level in "The Legion?" Because you're dealing with so many intergalactic and global threats, is it hard to provide much variety?

PL: No, because you've got a bunch of characters who, taken individually or even taken in a small group, don't have the same kind of power. It's one thing if you're going to send Superboy, Ultra Boy and Mon-El after something. It's another thing if you're going to send Dawnstar and Shrinking Violet. The other thing that I think is relevant in threat level is, the threat level doesn't so much come from the power of the villain as what is being threatened. And "The Legion" gave you excellent opportunities to do situations where individuals, personal lives or families were what were being threatened.

TC: That makes sense. Now, when you were plotting out your stories, did you try to give each Legionnaire a relatively equal amount of "screen time?" Did you say, "Cosmic Boy hasn't appeared, so I'd better do something with him?" How did that work?

PL: I tried to, not so much to have everybody get equal time, but for everybody to have reasonable time. There were certainly occasions where I would go and say, "I haven't done anything with this guy in a while, what can I do to screw up his life?"

TC: And then you'd just create some sort of conflict.

PL: Uh-huh.

TC: When you approached a situation like that, would you start putting in hints, so it would sort of be the "c" or "d" storyline and have it slowly emerge?

PL: Sure. Once you make the decision, "I'm going to make Tim's life miserable," then you work back from that and say, "What am I going to do with Tim? Which of the plagues is he going to get? Ah, frogs! Okay. So we're gonna start with an egg, then we're gonna go tadpole, then we're gonna have a frog, then we're gonna have a whole lot of frogs."

It wouldn't always mature as a plotline the way it started, because as you play with it, you change it around, but you do your best to evolve it that way.

TC: I mentioned the "c" and "d" subplots, but how many plot lines would you have on that chart, on average? How long would the list be?

PL: I would guess that most of the time it was around ten or twelve.

TC: Really? They wouldn't all necessarily appear in each issue, obviously.

PL: Some of them weren't a "plot line," but they were a relationship that was evolved during that period of time.

TC: How did you determine the relationships, by the way? Because you sort of had - I don't know what I'd call it, because I don't want to say "soap opera," because it's more than that - but how did you figure out which characters needed a love subplot and which didn't?

PL: There's always a certain danger of Occam's Razor in these things, because one of those fundamental errors you can make is reading too much into the material. A lot of it, was just, "Is there anything going on with this character? Is there anything going on of this sort in the book?" It's a moment for, "I haven't done anything with Colossal Boy in a while, we don't have a romance going, lets give him a romance."

TC: When you were writing "The Legion," in your mind - in your concept of the Legion - what made the team different from all the other super-teams, besides, obviously, the futuristic setting?

PL: Well, you're in the future, you're in an optimistic universe. These guys don't have their own books, so you can do anything you want to them. That hopefully allows you a different level of drama-just a whole different set of tools with the Legion compared to something like the Justice League.

TC: Besides what you were allowed to do, or could do given the setting, is there a different philosophy the Legion has as a team? What's your concept of the Legion?

PL: I don't know that I have an articulated sound bite for it, but it would be that they are across a whole galaxy, so it's just a very different playground in which to write stories.

TC: Are there some, sort of, essential qualities to a Legion story? Like, "A Legion story should include...?"

PL: Nope! No more so than there is for comics in general: it should be a good story.

TC: There are certain Legion fan websites where they'll list, "In order to be a Legion story, it must have these ten things," or whatever. In your mind that's irrelevant?

PL: I think those sorts of things aren't bad default settings. But, they're just that - default settings. Some of the stories that you remember most fondly are the stories where you do things that are the furthest removed from the basic setting.

TC: The ones that challenge the concept.

PL: Or just a change of tone. Or pace.

TC: When you were writing "The Legion," and your answer may be different for your first run versus your second run, what sort of reader did you have in mind? What percentage of the story was weighted toward a new reader? Toward a regular reader?

PL: I don't know. I was just trying to tell a good story

TC: You weren't thinking about a particular audience?

PL: You always want to make the work new-reader-friendly. I was taught in the school - different people have had different articulations of it over the years - that you want somebody to be able to reasonably enter from any given issue of a comic book and come along for enough of the ride so that it's fun. If you didn't know who Darkseid was, the "Great Darkness Saga" should still have been a good comic book.

The first piece of an interview Keith [Giffen] and I did for "Back Issue" magazine went up, and I was looking over the posts that followed it (with great pleasure, because there were so many very kind comments made) and there's literally a post from some kid or another who didn't know who the hell Darkseid was and it was the first time he was reading it, so he didn't get it at the time but had enjoyed the story, and another post from some guy who knew so much that he "got it" an issue ahead of when the reveal was, or whatever, and that's part of what you're trying...particularly with a book like "The Legion" which is so mythology-rich. You want it to somehow balance being an entertaining read for the person who knows an awful lot and an intelligible and entertaining read for someone who knows relatively little.

TC: So you didn't necessarily approach it differently in your second run? Because the two runs have a different feeling...

PL: I was a hell of a lot better writer by the second run! [Laughs]

TC: You just felt you were a better writer? Because in the second run, in my case anyway, you kind of feel like you're growing up with the characters. They're evolving and have a much richer story.

PL: We were more, by that time, into the period where the direct side of the market is more meaningful, and the sort of prevailing culture around the creation of comics is much more aimed at an older audience, so that certainly was an influence on, I think, all of us who were working at the time.

TC: The Legion's unique, at least in my experience, in allowing so much active reader participation in the outcome of a storyline, especially with the voting for Legion leaders. Did you ever reach a point where a leader was elected, and that totally changed your plans?

PL: I've told the story a couple times, but the election that ended up electing Dream Girl was stuffed. And I don't remember exactly what the ballot stuffing was, but it was an ingenious - obvious, but ingenious - clear intent to stuff it that wasn't covered by the rules. And I wasn't particularly fond of Dream Girl or had any great plans to use her, but this person pulled this off and I looked at it and said, "Well, I could disqualify this stuff, but it's not technically against the rules, ah what the hell, I'll give it a try!" And I had a great deal of fun writing her subsequently, and I think, turned out some good stories.

TC: Absolutely. I guess for the next question you'll have to consider both runs, and your answer may differ, but which Legionnaires did you feel had a well-defined personality when you took over, and which ones did you actively try to add dimensions to?

PL: That's not really the way I ever would have looked at it. Part of it is - this is a book that I read with great affection since I was a child. Many of them had well-developed personalities that may or may not have been what any writer tried to develop. They were just what I thought they were in my head. And I can't really tell you which of those were, because a specific writer had done a great job developing them on a given day, although that had certainly been the case from time to time, particularly with Jim [Shooter]'s work, and which of it was just the sort of cumulative effect of how they'd been kicking around in the back of my head doing their own thing.

TC: So, in your mind, they did have well-developed personalities already. And you felt you knew how to write them.

PL: I kinda felt I knew them. I don't know about knowing how to write them.

TC: A couple of specific questions before I let you go. How did the fill-in writers work during your first run? There were issues where you were credited for the plot and Paul Kupperberg was credited with the script, but then there were those Gerry Conway issues, and it seems like you had a hand in the plot? How did that work?

PL: I imagine it worked in a bunch of different ways. I don't have a clear memory of most of them. I would think in most cases...was Gerry the only one who did full scripts through there? Maybe.

TC: He was the only one credited with full scripts.

PL: He, of course, was and is a friend, and I doubt I sat in on any of the plotting sessions. It wouldn't have been Denny [O'Neil]'s style. A little more likely with Al Milgrom, but not a lot. Probably just walking in the halls, or picking up the phone and asking a question here or there.

TC: So Denny would have steered the ship and kept the continuity going even though, maybe, you might not have had much of a hand in a given issue?

PL: Yeah, or he would have passed it around, "Take a look at this at some point," and I might have spotted something or asked a question.

TC: My final question is about the "Legion" tabloid story. The 64 pages with no ads - that was probably your first time working on that scale. How did you approach that story differently than your 22 pagers?

PL: Well, there were a couple of goals, I guess. One was that I got to work with [Mike] Grell, and Mike had been the scheduled artist when I took over the book and had been, at the time, very much a fan favorite, so it was, "How do I provide the right opportunity for Mike to do his stuff?" Second was, if this was going to be the biggest, most expensive "Legion" comic ever made, "What do we do that's important enough?" And it certainly seemed that marrying Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl would qualify on that basis. All of that very influenced, I think, by the 60's Marvel Annuals. They had some - Stan in particular had just beautiful moments in a couple of the event issues that he did there. And trying to carry that logic forward, and then adding to it by the thinking that it's a physically giant comic book, it should have some really big, rich pictures.

TC: And then you you decided to bring the Time Trapper in because he's someone who's such a huge villain and...

PL: I guess [Laughs].

TC: Someone who's a giant threat to match the giant scale of the comic.

PL: I guess. Sure. I'm not sure I remember the story at all. It's been quite a few years since I last reread it.

TC: Well, arguably, it could be considered the first Legion reboot, since the Time Trapper reset everything and the future was totally changed when Superboy showed up, and then changed it back to the way it was.

PL: Yeah, well, I don't know. I don't think we were rebooting in those days.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

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