Talking the Legion with one of its greatest writers.
UPDATED: 10/21/17: Happy 61st birthday, Paul Levitz! Now, typically we do a 13 COVERS tribute around here but that’s usually more of an artist’s thing. In this case, I wanted to re-present this interview about the Legion, which is probably the title Levitz is most associated with as a writer. So if you haven’t read this, check it out. And if you have, enjoy it again!
I’m not a Legion fan but my friend Van Sias is. I’ve known Van for years and when he pitched me a piece about the Legion of Super-Heroes, I told him to have at it. Maybe I’d learn something. Van’s a really enthusiastic guy so I was more than happy when he got to live out a dream and talk to Levitz about the Legion’s legacy. — Dan
By VAN SIAS
I have a confession (or two or three) to make:
1. As a 7-year-old way back in 1980, I would make my own Bouncing Boy costume, which consisted of stuffing my pajamas with pillows.
2. Sometimes, to help keep the old noodle sharp, I’ll quiz myself with questions like, “What planet is Shrinking Violet from?” or “Who died first, Ferro Lad or Chemical King?”
3. I know the alter egos of everyone to ever don a flight ring, no small feat considering you’re dealing with alien names and all.
In other words, I’m a pretty serious old-school Legion of Super-Heroes fan. I throw in “old school” as a qualifier because I haven’t really dabbled much in the reboots. I did give the “Three-boot” a shot, and it was intriguing, but as far as “5 Years Later” or “Zero Hour,” I pretty much stayed away from all that. Even “The Lightning Saga” storyline in Justice League of America a few years ago didn’t really do it for me.
Anyway, a joy for me the past few years has been to pick up the Showcase black-and-white reprint books, putting all the old stories right in my hands. Recently, while on vacation, I stopped in a comic book shop and picked up a volume of the Legion. I went to the register to pay and the shop owner ringing me up said something to one of his employees with an incredulous tone to his voice:
“Whoa, we have a Legion fan here!”
And I thought to myself, “Hmm, where is he going with this?”
Then the other guy replied, “He’s like the only one!”
The Legion is awesome! I know the team’s not everyone’s cup of tea — one of my best friends and fellow comic-book readers constantly gives me grief about my fandom — but why?
To gain some insight on that, I naturally turned to 13th Dimension, which, in turn, connected me with one of the pre-eminent Legion writers, Paul Levitz. What follows is a conversation that I found to be one of the most thrilling comic-book experiences in my life:
Van Sias: What brought you to writing about the Legion? I know you were writing about the JSA in the late ’70s.
Paul Levitz: Jim Shooter was writing it regularly at that point and he left DC to go to Marvel for a staff job, so the assignment came open. I was a Legion fan since childhood, and I think I would’ve killed anybody in the office who had gotten in my path of doing it! So I charged down the hall to Denny [O’Neil] who was editing it at the time and Denny was not particularly familiar with the Legion. He hadn’t been a reader over the years; it hadn’t been something he loved. So he wanted to have a writer on it who knew the material. I fit that bill and I got away with getting the assignment.
Van: Did you envision writing the title as long as you did?
Paul: I didn’t stick with it that many years the first time out. I was on it about two years. I was doing a lot of fill-ins, because I was young; I had overcommitted myself. I disappointed myself in a lot of ways in that stretch.
We also had enormous difficulty keeping a regular artist on the book at that point. [Jim] Sherman was trying to do it, but it was a little too much of a commitment at that stage in his career and that made it more challenging, as well. When I was done, I figured, “Well, you got your chance to do this thing you love; you did a couple of decent things, but overall, you did a relatively unimpressive job — at least a relatively forgettable job — and that’s it. On to the next things you do in life. End of story.”
I ended up back on the Legion, and I was determined in going back to it that if I was going to do it again, I wasn’t going to mess up this time. I ended up staying — one way of counting it — basically 100 consecutive issues and I was very proud of that. That was very rare in those days. I went on the series before there were even royalties in mainstream comics and without royalties, there wasn’t really any economic incentive to stay on these books for any great length of time. There had been some people who had really long runs, but it was fairly rare to get 100 issues done, and I was probably one of the half-dozen or so people who had done that at DC at that point. And I was very proud of that.
Van: When you’re talking about staying on a book for 100 issues, a lot can happen over that time, and it seems like the Legion has gone through a lot over its history. Do you think, perhaps, it’s been “too much”? Especially when it comes to retaining a fan base?
Paul: Well, I guess the objective answer to it is there isn’t a regular Legion title these days. So, one way or another we disappointed the readers. I think there was a fairly unimpressed reaction to the work I did coming back on the series about four or five years ago. I certainly contributed to its failings. It’s hard to keep things around forever.
Whether the Legion is simply a concept that has outlived its time or whether it just needs someone to execute it in a new and wonderful way, you could argue either side of it.
I’d like to believe that somebody will step up in the next few years, do a new run of it. And people will remember that, love that and mine will fade into history. But that’s fine.
Van: Well, we are getting closer to the 31st century…
Paul: Yeah, I don’t think I’m gonna make it to that one!
Van: Looking back through the team’s history, the whole concept of these teenage superheroes in the 30th century, just screams innovation.
Paul: There was a lot that was wonderful about it. The vision of the future, the comparative diversity , even if it wasn’t the realistic racial diversity, at least it was a more diverse base of characters.
Van: Yes, like Chameleon Boy dealing with prejudice and even suspicions on how his teammates felt about him.
Paul: Yeah, and you had female characters who were very strong characters in leadership roles, in 1963, 1964, back when it was still normal to run ads that say “men only” in the newspaper.
There were a lot of books that the early writers Jerry Siegel, Ed Hamilton did that you look back on it and say, “There’s a lot here that’s interesting and progressive for the time.” Doesn’t guarantee that people are still interested 60 years later, but it held up for a very long time.
Van: Do you have a favorite storyline that you’ve written? Personally, my favorite is the Legion of Super-Villains storyline from Vol. 3. I loved the idea of a bigger and badder super-villain team. I still remember that panel where they’re all gathered, and I was like, “Geez, that’s everybody!”
Paul: That was certainly one of the better stories we’ve done, one of the better-executed ones. I really enjoyed doing the Sensor Girl story. That was a really interesting mystery. And one of my personal favorites was a four-parter, “The Universo Project.” And of course, “The Great Darkness Saga” is the one the readers have decided is the best and I’ve gotta defer to them.
Van: Do you have a favorite character?
Paul: It depends on who I was screwing up at the moment. I’d get involved with whatever character I was having fun with at the time.
Van: What kind of impact do you think the Legion stories have had on comic-book reading and writing?
Paul: Well, I think there’s a long stretch I’m proud of in the 1980s, where it was one of DC’s most commercial books. A lot of people came in on it. [Recently] I was looking on different retailers’ sites, and I caught sight of a store I wasn’t familiar with, and in the “about us” section, the store owners said they came into comics in the ’80s on Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s Teen Titans and all of Keith Giffen’s Legion and that’s what made us fall in love with comics and why we’re here.
So if there’s a comic-book shop somewhere in the U.S. because the Legion was doing its magic, that’s part of the answer. When you have well-remembered stories, you can’t measure what the impact of what those stories are.
People are still buying “The Darkness Saga” 30-something years after it was published. Back then there was no such thing as collected editions from any major comics publisher. There was no reason to believe you’d see that material again. And here it is, it’s still in print, still available. That’s part of the impact of it. We told a couple of stories people still care about.
Van: Yeah, I saw it in my local library a couple of years ago.
Paul: That’s cool.
Van: Yeah, that is. I hope some kids go through it or even some people who didn’t check it out years ago could grab it. Do you feel with the team there’s been some negative perception? Who doesn’t like the Legion?
Paul: Well, it’s not the flavor of the day today, but that’s fine. It was a couple of times in its history: when I was a kid and the Legion was in Adventure Comics, and it was in the day when I was writing it a second time.
And I hope it will be again.
(UPDATED 10/21/16: With Saturn Girl’s appearance this week in Batman #9 (of all places), I think you can start breaking out those flight rings … — Dan)