Paul Levitz Returns To The Future With Legion of Super-Heroes

The future of the DC Universe is brighter than it's been in a long time. Not only is classic writer Paul Levitz returning to theLegion of Super-Heroes, but he's doing so with two series. We talked to him exclusively.

Following fan-favorite writer Geoff (Blackest Night, Green Lantern) Johns' high-profile relaunch of the 51-year old Legion of Super-Heroes franchise over the last few years in stories such as "The Lightning Saga," "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes" and Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds, Levitz - whose 1980s tenure as Legion writer saw the series become one of DC's most popular titles - is returning to the future not only in the current Adventure Comics series, but also a brand-new Legion of Super-Heroes book. We talked to him about the future of the Legion, society and why xenophobia is a good thing... in terms of writing.

You're taking over Adventure Comics and also launching a new Legion of Super-Heroes book as well.

Yep, that seems to be how it mutated.

You have an incredible history with the Legion. This will be your third time writing the team.

You know, it's not only my third time, it's also my second time taking it over after Jim Shooter. I'm thrilled beyond words.

What is it that keeps bringing you back? What is it that interests you about these characters?

I think there's a few levels to answer that on. The first, most primal, one is my inner five-year-old. Legion was the first book that I really fell in love with as a kid, the first book I collected... My bound volumes still include a lot of my subscription copies with the damn crease in the middle. I used to make little Legion figures out of paper dolls and Creepy Crawler molds when I was really young, so it's very satisfying to a very small person within me.

On a more professional level, one of the things that's always been satisfying to me as a writer is working in the corners of the DC Universe where I didn't have to play well with others all of the time - things like Justice Society [of America] and Legion where, although they fit the continuity of the line, you didn't have to do a ballet around "Why isn't Superman just flying in from Metropolis to solve the problem this week?" That's always been attractive.

Most significantly, and what I think is key to the readers of the Legion, is that it's a world that is large enough and imaginative enough that you can really fuck up the lives of so many different characters, and there's always someone new to play with. I don't know when you were a Legion reader, what kind of terrible things I was doing that week -

I pretty much was in it all the way from "The Great Darkness Saga" all the way up to the "Five Years Later" run.

Then you got to watch me do a bunch of terrible things to people! We killed characters in that time, we screwed around with their love lives... We had what might have been arguably the first extra-marital affair going on in mainstream superhero comics... All of those things provides you enormous ammunition as a writer. I lead off the new run by destroying the homeworld of one of the characters.

Start small.

[Laughs] Yeah, it's got subtlety going for it. But that gives you material as a writer. It's so challenging as a writer - I have so much respect for the guys who are working on franchise characters where you have to create excitement but always come back to where you started. That's an enormous challenge. The challenge in the Legion is to sort through all the richness that you have to work with, and come up with something that's new and not what was there before, and challenging, and surprising, but yet, not contradictory on what's already been established.

Paul Levitz Returns To The Future With Legion of Super-Heroes

So the Legion you're going to be working with in the regular Legion of Super-Heroes book, that's based on what you left behind, and as updated by Geoff Johns. It's come back around after a couple of reboots.

I think I would characterize it by saying that we're picking up the story after some gap after my last issue and what we saw in Geoff's work in Legion of Three Worlds and "Superman And The Legion of Super-Heroes." Something's happened in that time that Quislet came back, Tyroc showed up, other stuff has happened - I don't have a complete list of things to be revealed, but it's quite clear that things have happened in people's lives. There's at least one major Legion romance that's gone to hell in the time inbetween. And that's a great liberty as well, it's not leaping forward but stepping forward just enough so that you have some abiguities to work with.

Visually, I've always taken the approach that you have to convey the story in a fashion that makes sense to readers in a particular time period. So, really, the costumes can be updated and technology can be updated. You'll see more of a visual evolution.

Are you going to be dealing with the gaps between your last issue and Geoff's first?

My first story picks up more from the end of "Superman and The Legion of Super-Heroes" than Legion of Three Worlds, in the sense that you get [alien-hating supervillain-turned-faux-superhero] Earth Man back. The first page of the first issue deals with Earth Man getting dealt with by the Science Police, and not necessarily gently, and it kinda goes running from there. I imagine I'll go back and explore things that happened in the inbetween on occasions, but I don't think those will be flashbacks. I think you'll pick up the story when the story is and you might learn things that happened that you didn't know about.

You talked about sidestepping continuity, but isn't the Adventure series "Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes: Secret Origin"? Isn't that based firmly in continuity?

I don't mean sidestep continuity in the sense of development, I love continuity as development. I meant continuity in the sense of making sure you line up with what everyone else is writing that week.

So what is "Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes: Secret Origin"?

It starts from a challenge that Geoff [Johns] gave me, which was that if you want [a new reader] to pick up Legion of Super-Heroes, there's no book to hand them. You're bringing someone in in the middle of the story no matter what you're doing. You can say, "Here's 'The Great Darkness Saga,' this is the best regarded Legion story published," but then you have to hand them the Cliff's Notes to go along with it because of that wonderful insanity. [The challenge was] can you do something with what you're doing in Legion that would be a good first Legion book?

I'm trying to do something that will be an introduction to the characters, an introduction to the worlds, an introduction to some of the history in it, without being a version of the old Mayfair Games Sourcebook that I did. I've done one chapter that I had a ball with, which is "The Last Will and Testament of RJ Brande." In one of Geoff's stories, [Legion founder] RJ Brande is assassinated, and this is a pre-recorded will as he's telling Brainiac 5 what a pain in the ass he's been since he's known him from when he was a child, apologizing to Chameleon Boy for abandoning him on Durla, revealing things about his own background about how he got off Durla, how he made his money, how he lied to the Legionnaires over the years... Over the course of it, we retell the incident that created the Legion, and we begin to show a little bit of the history and a little bit of the relationships. That may be the first or second story, we're playing with doing one that's very Superboy-focused as a way of edging into more easily than that, but I haven't hit the keyboard so I don't know how well that'll work out.

Is this the modern Superboy, or the Clark Kent Superboy?

It's Clark Kent. It's the current modern take of Clark Kent as Superboy, but it's not Connor Kent.

Is this an ongoing series, or a limited run inside Adventure Comics?

I assume success and failure will determine that [laughs], but as far as I know, I have the space as long as I want it.

Paul Levitz Returns To The Future With Legion of Super-Heroes

Something that characterized the Legion up until the end of your run, and that seems to have gone to the background since, is the optimism behind the concept. Geoff's "Superman and The Legion of Super-Heroes" - and to a lesser extent, Legion of Three Worlds - focused more on a xenophobic future, which seemed at odds with that. Are you looking to return to the optimism, or stay with the more pessimistic status quo?

Both. I think what Geoff introduced with the xenophobia is a very natural tension that allows some very modern storytelling. The whole issue of "Are we going to learn to get along with each other as a planet" is even more topical today than it was when I gave up the Legion 20 years ago. You look around the world and so much of the challenges to do with our survival have to do with, can we figure out a way to realize the labels we attach to our different tribes are going to unite or divide us? I take particular joy in doing this new version of the book with Yildiray Cinar, an artist from Turkey - where I don't think we've ever had an artist from before - The world is getting to be a smaller place. We damn well better figure out how to live together.

The perhaps naive optimism that was expressed in the earlier Legion that it will all just evolve this way naturally is challenged by what's been introduced, but that's one reason why I find Earth Man such an interesting character to screw around with: He embodies that set of contradictions and that set of challenges. The story that I just finished for Adventure, we go back and, not retcon, but reveal a dimension of what went on on [his home planet] Durla and what went on there, which is another piece of that same xenophobia. I think it's enormously fertile territory to work with as a writer.

Since you last wrote Legion, comic storytelling has shifted, especially in mainstream comics. It's gone to - maybe not a more mature place, but definitely a more mature audience. Is that something that you're keeping in mind as you return to the book?

When I was writing Legion last time, the idea of writing a five part story was a fairly unusual thing. I think I wrote two of the first three or four of those stories that DC ever published. So you've got a change in dynamic there that needs to be addressed. The question is - if I boil it down - "Your audience is older, what does that allow you to do?" Well, I really wrote Legion two different ways in the past. The [1984 relaunch] Baxter book was the first direct market-only version of the Legion and one of the first direct-only books at DC, so we moved to assuming that we were dealing with a more mature audience there. You had a greater level of sexuality, a greater level of diversity and a greater level of violence even. With the death - the first death - of Karate Kid, [his wife] Projectra's execution of Nemesis Kid was the first time in DC history that we had a superhero deliberately killing a villain. I would hope to continue that process of evolution.

I'm certainly aware that I'm writing for an audience now that is not just older in years, but also older in sophistication. When I look at my kids, they know about how the world works emotionally, socially, sexually, much more than I did at the same age. I think that evolution takes place at all ages now. We're more plugged in, we're more aware. Knowledge of science is wider-spread, we're dealing with a much more sophisticated audience in all those areas, and you'd better be feeding them something interesting. Hopefully I can rise to those challenges.

Talking about, I don't want to say "growing up faster," but having more sophisticated ideas at a younger age, does an awareness of that change the way that you write the characters? If the teenagers and young adults of the 21st century are more evolved than their 20th century counterparts, how does that impact characters of the same age in the 31st century?

I think what's going on now, in 21st century life, is that people are growing up faster, but they're also growing up slower, too. I've heard one theorist make the argument that we've added a new stage to life; now it goes, Childhood, Adolescence, Odyssey, Adulthood. The idea that people of a certain age are discovering themselves more, trying on new careers, traveling the world more because it's more accessible... So they're more mature in some ways, more experience, but not as committed to a path as early. I'm sure it will continue to evolve over the next thousand years. I mean, adolescence is a modern invention; I don't remember the sociology exactly, but I think it was 19th century? It used to be that you'd go straight from childhood to adulthood: "Get your ass out there and start working for a living." I'm sure there will be a lot of nuance and changes, but I try not to define all of those pieces too exactly. We're talking about fictional characters a thousand years from now, so I try to talk metaphorically about age, not literally. The occasions when I've been more literal about it have blown up in my face.

How does it feel to be returning to the characters after so long? Does it feel like you're competing with yourself? As you said, "The Great Darkness Saga," is the most highly regarded Legion story and for many people, myself included, you're the definitive Legion writer.

I'm not so much competing with myself as I'm competing with the wonderful new talents who have come along since then. Guys like Geoff, Grant [Morrison] - Grant had a couple of things published when I left Legion, Geoff was just reading comics - so many wonderful guys at DC and elsewhere. I'm competing to see if I can play the game at the standard that I believe in.

I'm also competing with having sit behind a desk [as DC's President] for a number of years saying, "Guys, we can do better!" Well, this is put up or shut up time.

Is there some odd thrill in coming back to writing after 20 years of writing less, a kind of "Now I get to play with all these things I've seen other people do?"

It's more a, there's a bunch of things we couldn't do then. When you talk about the change in the form, in the change of the medium. When I stopped doing Legion, DC had collected one storyline with "The Great Darkness Saga," and their entire graphic novel and trade paperback backlist was around twenty books. There's something about doing a story knowing that it will be collected that provides new challenges and new opportunities. The changes in the audiences, distribution, technology... The changes in color! I gave a copy of "Great Darkness" to a young friend who was curious about the Legion and their comment was "Wow, that's awfully magenta."

I'm anxious to see how all of this plays out. I've watched all of this and seen it play out day to day, but I haven't had a chance to pick up the key tools. My strengths as a writer, I think, are more in the long-term. I'm not someone who you'd read and say, "Wow, that line there - That's a piece of poetry..." I'd leave that to, in my generation, writers like Len Wein or Steve Gerber. It's what I did with characters over time, and I haven't been able to do that for over 20 years, because I've been doing a single issue short story, or a short fill-in arc. This is the first time I get to do that, like I said, to fuck with their lives, and that's how you get interesting stories. Or, at least, how I do.

Paul Levitz Returns To The Future With Legion of Super-Heroes

Is there any character arc that you've wanted to, and for whatever reason didn't get a chance to?

Eh, there were small things I never got around to. But this isn't about unfinished business for me, this is about trying to do my best work under the current conditions and seeing if the skillsets that I've got, that were significant in this business, are still significant and good tricks in this day. This isn't going back and telling the missing "lost piece." I'm more interested in, if I can bring in xenophobia as a thread, what does that really mean? What does that do to the future? I've had the pleasure of listening to a really interesting Harvard professor talk on the subject of implicit bias over the last couple of years, the idea that we can and cannot shake ourselves clear of our prejudices. I'm curious to take what I've heard about that and analog it in the Legion, and see how the characters react.

You've read the Legion stories since you read last time -

Most! Not all. The first two times I took on the Legion, I read the complete run from the beginning. I confess not to having had the courage to do that this time [Laughs].

There's a lot of stuff! I don't blame you. Is there anything you're bringing in from other Legion runs, or anything you want to deal with?

Some of it I'm inheriting from Geoff. XS seems to be around in this universe, and I need to find a way to make that fit. I don't have an answer for you on that yet, but at least I know I have a question. I'm sure I will find other pieces, because there were some wonderful character moments and stories done. I enjoyed lots of work during that period. I don't have it planned that tightly. Obviously, there's a precarious balance between "Oh God, now I can tell the stories that I want to" and "Well, people really want to see what happens to this Earth Man guy. What incredibly terrible thing can I do to him that will devastate Legion fans and get them talking, and make them think of how interesting this can be." He's the centerpiece of the first five issue arc of the book, and I think the places we take him will shock the hell out of him, and hopefully shock the people reading.

You talk about Legion fans, and Legion fans can be pretty hardcore and very devoted.

God bless 'em!

You engaged them a lot in previous runs on the book. Are you going to be doing leadership contests and letter columns for this new run?

I love the fact that the fans are engaged. Part of the magic of the Legion is that the fans are involved, and the depth involved. That's what seduced me as a child, and I think it's the same thing about Pokemon that seduced my son when he was a child, and he had his chart of the 150 different Poke-creatures and what their powers were and how they involved and all that nonsense. I certainly would like to create an environment and relationship with the readers that could take advantage of that.

At the same time, because the Legion isn't as popular as it was when I took on the book either of the two previous times, I recognize that I have a real responsibility to invite a whole new audience in, and the first thing they want to see is not a chart of 150 characters and their homeworlds and their powers and how they all fit together. So I'm going to see if I can manage the two contradictory worlds.

I think the schtick that Geoff started, with what I've come to call "identifier captions," where instead of having Saturn Girl say "And by the way, I read minds," there's a caption saying "Saturn Girl, Powers: Telepathy" is a wonderful tradition and I'm hoping that will help. Also, there's an advantage that a lot of the Legion is in the 21st century [as part of ongoing storylines in the Superman books], getting them off-stage, helps to make a bit more of a gradual introduction. If you're a deep Legion fan, definitely there are easter eggs in the first issues of both of the titles that certainly you will understand that someone just showing up today will miss entirely. I hope that it's transparent enough that the new person showing up will have a good time too. For the longterm fan, if you look closely at a certain Legionnaire and they have ten fingers, fully-grown, and you know enough, that should tell you something about the last batch of years. But unless you're deeply steeped in that material, you're not going to know what that means. It won't hurt you!

You've now got me wondering who shouldn't have ten fingers. Will both series be running parallel to each other, with crossovers?

The arc of Secret Origin is really about the past. It's not linking into the continuity in the sense of reading from one series to the other, although that may evolve after we finish the first arc. There's a planted bit in the Brande story that may help with your understanding of what's happening in the other story, however.

Completely fanboy nerdy question: Is Keith Giffen going to be drawing anything at some point?

I have one storyline listed that I gave [Editor] Brian [Cunningham] that Keith circled with "I WANNA DO THAT!" Keith is interested in doing something, I had a couple of delightful lunches with [classic Legion artist] James Sherman and he wants to come back and do something... There're so many guys, either old friends or new friends who've come into the business since I was active as a writer, that it'd be great to work with.

When do the titles launch?

May for Legion of Super-Heroes and June for the series in Adventure Comics. The delightful thing is, I'm ahead of schedule so far.

Paul Levitz Returns To The Future With Legion of Super-Heroes

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