A panel at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con focused on Paul Levitz’s three runs writing DC Comics’ Legion of the Super-Heroes.
In addition to writing Legion and many other comics, Mr. Levitz co-created Stalker with Steve Ditko and Earth 2’s Huntress with Joe Staton, wrote 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking, and was President of DC Comics from 2002 – 2009.
I attended this panel because I became a Legion fan with Issue #302 and sought out every previous appearance I could find. They were a young super-hero team with a long history, but not with so many appearances in other books like Superman and Batman. I liked that such a vast array of characters seemed to get equal time in an issue and have distinct, likeable personalities. The visuals on the book, by Keith Giffen at the time, were unlike anything I’d seen before in a science fiction comic series. It was perfect reading in high school. When I hear the words “comic book” today, my first thought is always Legion of the Super-Heroes.
Mr. Levitz was interviewed by Tom Galloway, who began the panel asking Paul to discuss what he’s currently writing.
Paul Levitz: I have a book due out in October, Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel. It tracks Will’s unique career. Abrams Comic Arts (a publisher at the convention) is giving out a little teaser of the art that will be within the book. I’m currently doing Dr. Fate with Sonny Liew that’s been well received. It’s a different sort of book for me because it doesn’t feature any characters whose names include “boy” or “girl.” (Laughter from audience) I also will have a story beginning in Dark Horse Presents titled Brooklyn Blood. I’m doing this with Tim Hamilton and it’s a supernatural police procedural. That will be out later this year.
Tom Galloway: What’s your first memory of the Legion?
Paul Levitz: My first encounter with the Legion was Superboy and the Legion of Super-Villains. The first real memory was Adventure Comics 310, which was a coverless copy I read in a barber shop. After I read that I went to digging up every earlier issue I could find.
Tom Galloway: Did you have any favorite characters at the time?
Paul Levitz: Lone Wolf (later renamed Timber Wolf) and Element Lad. I liked them because they were isolated characters. I was an only child. My social skills weren’t that strong…So, I’m sure not unlike people in this room, I related to those characters.
Tom Galloway: Did you every write any fan fiction?
Paul Levitz: No. I never did any fan fiction. I did some one page comics, but it wasn’t real fan fiction.
Tom Galloway: How did your fan experience at that time influence your later career as a writer?
Paul Levitz: I was a great indexer and cataloger. The Legion was a great title for that! Placing the stories in order were important to me. Reading about Jim Shooter being thirteen years old writing the book, when I was nine…Maybe I could do it?
Tom Galloway: What writing abilities do you consider essential to writing Legion?
Paul Levitz: I think you have to be deeply grounded in science fiction, particularly the golden age of science fiction. It’s like Star Trek — The 1950s model of Earth going out to conquer the universe, just like Eisenhower wants. Everyone is happy, the military is industrial, the government benign, and whites are in power…The universe has gotten a lot more diverse since then.
Tom Galloway: How come the title scares off writers? Is it because there are so many characters?
Paul Levitz: I don’t know. I love the book. There’s a joy in knowing so much about it. The Legion was like my secret knowledge.
Tom Galloway: Do you think someone could write the book without any previous knowledge of it?
Paul Levitz: Yes. It would have to be taken on fresh. It would have to be rebooted. (Moans and groans from the audience. Paul throws his hands up) Sorry, that’s the way it’s done. The first two times I wrote Legion, I read all the previous issues to familiarize myself with the characters. I didn’t do that the third time I wrote it. Maybe that was the problem with that run.
Tom Galloway: Where did the idea of all the subplots come from?
Paul Levitz: That came from Roy Thomas’ writing. A, B, and C plots have now become conventional speak. They’re now known by everyone — They used to be a secret. Star Boy did have a rough time in the subplots.
Tom Galloway: Did you start a story with characters or plot?
Paul Levitz: Both…I have failed at times with both. (Laughter) Things happen to characters that matter to them. On my good days, I tried to bring the story back to them. I tried to find what mattered to them emotionally in the story.
Tom Galloway: Was Wildfire a copy of (Marvel’s) Hawkeye?
Paul Levitz: Not a conscious copy. I tried to develop his frustration in having no body but still having these emotions. How would it make him feel?
Tom Galloway: Your first writing was on Karate Kid. How did this lead to Legion?
Paul Levitz: (Smiles) DC was legendary for getting onto trends late back then. Carmine Infantino, the chief editor, told all authors to write martial arts books. I was Joe Orlando’s assistant at the time. I pitched bringing Karate Kid to the twentieth century. Then Carmine decided I wasn’t a writer again. This was not without justice. I was seventeen years old. I wasn’t awful — DC had done worse stories. But I was pretty obnoxious at times. Dave Michelinie came in and took over. He was kind of embarrassed to be on the book. He used a pseudonym while writing it.
Tom Galloway: How did you get on Legion?
Paul Levitz: Carmine got fired. (Audience laughs) Jim Shooter went to Marvel. I went around asking, “Who do I have to kill to write this book?” Denny O’Neil didn’t know anything about the Legion. Denny taught me a lot about writing. He wasn’t an overwriter — someone who used too much dialogue to tell the story. He showed me how to narrow it.
Tom Galloway: What did you pitch?
Paul Levitz: Mike Grell was scheduled to be the artist. I concocted the name for Chemical King and I killed him because the drama was better. Lightning Lad’s death really effected me…No one, even previous writers, didn’t understand Chemical King’s powers. There was no grand plans back then. It was a child’s medium then at DC Comics.
Tom Galloway: Why the eleven page stories and the six page backstories in one issue?
Paul Levitz: It wasn’t a great structural format. They wanted more stories to be told in each issue. I did play a role in making it a double-sized book eventually.
Tom Galloway: Why did Pulsar Stargrave change from being Brainy’s father?
Paul Levitz: (Momentarily pauses) That was me? I really wrote a Pulsar Stargrave story? He’s such a stupid character. (Laughter) I don’t think that one’s mine. (An audience member states the issue) Really? (Paul’s voice goes high as he questions the statement) Really? (Even higher) I don’t know. I have to see it. (Audience member states he can go downstairs and find it on the floor) That’s true.
Tom Galloway: You got Bouncing Boy his powers back.
Paul Levitz: I love Bouncing Boy.
Tom Galloway: What did you like about him?
Paul Levitz: He’s funny. He’s comedy relief. He was brave. Part of what made the Legion good was diversity. And he works really well visually. There were a lot of illogical heroes on the team, like Matter-Eater Lad. I never found him useful. Why didn’t someone just put a bullet in his head?
Tom Galloway: Did you have any favorites from this time?
Paul Levitz: The founders (Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, and Lightning Lad). Depended on who I was torturing at the time. I got interested in them then.
Tom Galloway: Did you have any dislikes on your first run?
Paul Levitz: No dislikes. Even Matter-Eater Lad. I couldn’t figure out how to use him…
Tom Galloway: Why did you leave the first time?
Paul Levitz: It was the DC Implosion. It happened fast. I felt I had fucked up on my first run of Legion. I was not happy with my own performance. Artistically there was no coherence on the book — I couldn’t get an artist or inker to stay on the book.
Tom Galloway: How’d you get back on the second time?
Paul Levitz: I thought I was done. Roy Thomas was not a Legion fan. Mike Barr, an editor, asked me. I came back intending to have no fill-ins as a writer. I was gonna shoot for one hundred issues. I felt like I was a better writer going in.
Tom Galloway: Were you already thinking about what stories to tell?
Paul Levitz: The direct market was growing. Legion was selling well in comic shops. X-Men was the dominant book with large story arcs. The Dark Phoenix arc changed comics’ stories. I thought, ‘Can I do my own story? Can I do my own version?’ I loved (Jack) Kirby’s Fourth World. Keith (Giffen) came in as a back-up artist. Keith got excited when he heard Darkseid was involved. He wanted in.
Tom Galloway: What was he like then?
Paul Levitz: He was a crystal clear writer. He’s got a writer’s game for the craft. It became “Can you top this?” between us. We had a ball.
Tom Galloway: How did you choose personalities for characters?
Paul Levitz: I found something in their past. Sun Boy’s costume makes him an extrovert. It’s plausible that he’s going to be a flirt wearing a costume like that. Some guy in the group would use their membership to pick up girls. Saturn Girl came to Earth to join the police academy. She was kind of a tough bitch early on.
Tom Galloway: Any thoughts on the Universo Project (arc)?
Paul Levitz: It’s one of my favorites. I got to explore four Legion characters in depth. They were appropriate for that story. I had a good time saying who had the strongest minds in the Legion.
Tom Galloway: Any thoughts on Post-Crisis Superboy problems? (John) Byrne problems?
Paul Levitz: My intent was a guy at 16 years old, one hundred years in the past, would be married. I thought that one thousand years in the future, (being) 30 would still be considered being a kid. John didn’t like that. The creation of the pocket universe was a way to solve it.
Tom Galloway: Was there anything you wanted to do, but couldn’t?
Paul Levitz: Nothing sticks in my mind.
Tom Galloway: How did you wind up on Legion a third time?
Paul Levitz: The executives at Warner Brothers asked me what I wanted to do. I had a three book a month contract. They said, “Let him do Legion. People like that.”
Tom Galloway: Did you think, ‘I’m doing this different?’
Paul Levitz: I assumed a higher level of knowledge in the reader. The Internet made things easier. It was liberating to know that a reader can look something up online if they’re lost during a story or encounter something they don’t know.
Tom Galloway: How did you fell about losing seven characters for Legion Lost?
Paul Levitz: I’m not contractually allowed to say. (Laughter)
Tom Galloway: What was your direction for Glorith?
Paul Levitz: I liked using the Time Trapper’s sidekick’s name. I wanted her to be dangerous. There was no call-back to a pre-existing character.
Tom Galloway: Where were you going? Why kill two major characters?
Paul Levitz: Ask Keith. The last act with the Fatal Five was Keith. He did things I wouldn’t do.
Time was called and the panel concluded with applause for Mr. Galloway and Levitz.