For Paul Levitz, this year marks a return to writing comics and the characters he helped define at DC Comics almost two decades ago.
For fans, it means some of their favorite teams and characters are returning, getting Levitz's unique brand of treatment again.
In May, the writer will launch a brand new Legion of Super-Heroes title, returning to a group of characters he helped define during his run on the title in the 1980s, and he'll also be writing a story in the revamped Superman/Batman.
And now comes news that Levitz will be writing Lucien of Sandman fame, a character he created back in 1975 that now resides in the Vertigo universe, as he takes part in a chain-written issue of House of Mystery in May.
Although Levitz was a prolific writer for DC during the mid- to late-'80s, most modern readers have known Levitz as an editor and later the company's publisher, a role he left late last year when DC Comics became DC Entertainment. In his new role at DC, under the direction of the company's new president, Diane Nelson, he is serving as a contributing editor and consultant while also returning to his writing roots.
Besides all the Levitz projects that readers will see in May, the writer is also taking over Adventure Comics later this year, beginning with a storyline called Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes: Secret Origin.
Newsarama talked to Levitz to find out more about all these writing projects and how it feels to return to some familiar characters.
Newsarama: Paul, let's first talk about this House of Mystery project. You're writing the issue with regular writer Matthew Sturges, but you also have Bill Willingham, Alisa Kwitney and Dave Justus involved. How did you all write a story together?
Paul Levitz: It's a chain story. So Bill wrote the first chapter and set up a dilemma within the House of Mystery and its unique environment. Justus came in to do the second chapter. And the job of each succeeding writer was to solve somewhat the problem set up by the preceding, and make it worse for the succeeding.
So with those first two sections done, they dropped it on me, and I had to determine how to make it work and make it more complicated to resolve.
Nrama: It sounds like quite a writing challenge. Or was it more of a fun project for you?
Levitz: It was pure fun. If nothing else, it was fun seeing the look on the editors' faces as they were sitting there saying, "You told a dirty joke here?" [laughs] "This is Vertigo! Isn't that what you're supposed to do?"
It also became an opportunity to write the Lucien the librarian character who I created when I was very young, and all of whose value was added by Neil [Gaiman] when he picked him up and used him in Sandman many years later. This is the first time I've gotten to play with him as a real character. That was a hoot for a couple pages.
Nrama: Where did the idea for this project come from?
Levitz: I think Willingham and Sturges came up with the idea in between them. Then they and the editor on the book came up with a list of victims. I'm not sure which of them suggested it would be nice to invite me, but I'm thrilled that they did.
Nrama: Before we talk about your Legion-related projects, what can you tell us about your Superman/Batman story that begins in May? How long will it be?
Levitz: I'm not sure yet. The first chapter's done. I think the goal is to have it be around four or five issues, but it's not tightly enough plotted to know exactly how many issues it'll be yet.
Nrama: What can you tell us about the story?
Levitz: It's a fun exploration of Lex Luthor's personal quest for immortality. And in the process, it provides an opportunity for us to view the different characters from different perspectives. So you're looking at issues you might not have explored before in their regular monthly books very frequently, or maybe ever.
Nrama: Let's talk about your upcoming work on the Legion. Has it been a little different coming back to them after some time away? A few things have changed, haven't they?
Levitz: Oh, you know, any time you see your kids after 20 years, they've probably done something while you weren't looking. But it's a load of fun. You're trying to figure out what the kids did behind your back, and what exactly is missing from the story that they didn't write home from college about. There are a few details we haven't quite figured out about what's gone on in their lives. I'm not quite sure how Karate Kid died a second time. Someone will provide some inspiration on that at some point.
But it's great to see the old kids and to be able to start screwing around with them again.
Nrama: And with the brand new ongoing series you're launching, it's all set in the future?
Levitz: Mostly. I mean, there's no law against them visiting the 21st Century again. But the core material is in their own time.
Nrama: This picks up the story after Geoff Johns' reintroduction of the Legion. Are you expecting to add some new members as you begin this new run on a Legion title?
Levitz: Absolutely. There will be some new characters introduced in the first issue, some of whom will turn out to be new members, some of whom will turn out to be corpses – possibly some who will turn out to be both. That's always part of the fun of the book.
Nrama: Has it been a challenge to write them for a modern audience? Are there things you're doing differently from the last time you wrote them?
Levitz: Some of the tools have changed. In my Legion run of the '80s, I heavily used the introductory transitional caption that relied on a reference source, like "Encyclopedia Galactica," or, you know, "Vaneta's Guide to the Best Way to Make It Through a Comics Convention Without Having to Slap All the Fanboys." But that's not a very commonplace or workable tool today, so I'm not leaning on it.
On the other hand, you get new tools like the improved graphic ability to do the identifier captions that Mark Waid and Barry Kitson introduced, with the little arrows to the guys saying, this is who they are and this is what they can do. I accidentally misidentified those in an interview as coming from Geoff's run, and was properly corrected by a wiser fan, so I apologize to Mark.
But you try to change the mix of the tools and use the modern ones.
Nrama: Is there a different sensibility among the audience that influences your storytelling?
Levitz: There aren't easy labels for a lot of it. Language shifts over the years; sensibilities shift; things like how you cut from one scene to another change. And I've tried to adapt to all those ways and explore what the best way of making my particular approach as a writer work for the audience that I hope will be attracted to the material.
Nrama: The tone of comics has certainly shifted over the years from bright to dark to gritty to upbeat. Has your approach to the Legion been influenced by anything like that?
Levitz: One of the most important shifts that's Legion-specific is that, in Geoff's run, he introduced the theme of xenophobia much more energetically to the work, with the character Earth Man and what he was developing on Earth at that point.
And I think that's enormously relevant to the current audience 'cause we're living in a time when the tendency of human beings to blow each other up, based on what their labels are, has grown more and more terrifying. So xenophobia becomes a perfect metaphor for that.
I don't know if that makes the material inherently darker, but it raises a set of issues that are timeless and yet very timely, that I'm fascinated by exploring, and using the Legion as a metaphor for exploring.
I think Geoff also added some fun nuances to it. I enjoy Earth Man to no end because I think he offers a great opportunity to explore a great set of issues.
Nrama: What issues?
Levitz: The whole issue of intent vs. tactics and goals. And some of the philosophical debate there. Is he completely evil? We'll see.
Nrama: One of the things that was apparent during your time as publisher at DC has been the effort to make the universe more diverse. Will you be applying the idea of diversity to the Legion?
Levitz: Oh god, I hope so. I think that's something that Jenette Kahn had brought to DC as a significant priority when she arrived here in 1976, and I've certainly always believed in very much in my own writing. I've never succeeded in it as well as I would like. But I added a number of characters to the Legion and the DC Universe in general, some of whom were very trivial, that reflected some diversity. I think you'll see that certainly continue in my Legion work, and hopefully in anything else that I do. We're still enormously underrepresented.
One of the interesting things on this Legion run is the artist is a young man in Turkey, and we haven't had the chance to play it up, but I hope that at some point in the process, that'll get me off my ass to reflect some greater diversity in that direction as well. Take advantage of his life experience and knowledge.
Yildiray Cinar is at a very cool moment as an artist. I think, with any luck at all, this will be his breakout assignment. Whether readers fall in love with the Legion again, or fall in love with my writing again, I think he's at a moment where he's going to be a star very soon.
Nrama: The Legion is playing a large part in the upcoming Superman event. And we've been told the Brainiac and the Legion of Super-Heroes crossover will tie up a lot of loose ends about why the Legion is in the 21st Century. Will your stories tie into that at all, or spin out of them? Are you coordinating with the Superman writers at all?
Levitz: I'm starting after that, so in theory, they're sort of handing back the puzzle pieces after their game. So I mercifully don't have to do a lot of coordinating, which has allowed me to start writing while they're still actively working on that. We're actually beginning with a little more lead-time.
Nrama: And this first storyline ties into Green Lantern Corps? How does it fit with that group of characters?
Levitz: I think you've already seen Sodam Yat, "the last of the Green Lanterns," sort of in the Legion time. And I put that in some fairly large quotation marks. We have him back in this first issue. And we have a new character birthed on Oa, so you'll find out what his story is.
And certainly, the Green Lantern mythos will be very relevant to the Legion for at least the first story arc, partially just simply to invite readers in from another direction. Part of the challenge of writing the Legion right now is this is the first time I'm taking over the book where it didn't have momentum as a major DC title. So I'm very happy to link to the things that people are interested in within the DC Universe to bring them in. I've had the Green Lantern mythos in my work years before very frequently. This is another opportunity to go after that in a different direction.
Nrama: Will this tie into your Adventure Comics storyline, as it tells the Secret Origin of Superboy and the Legion?
Levitz: The challenge of the run on Adventure came from Geoff, who said, "Can you create what might be somebody's first Legion book to read, that doesn't exist? So the best idea I could come up with is, let's do a run about the origins of the Legion – not Lightning Lad landed on the Korbal and the Lightning Monsters blasted him and he got superpowers kind of stuff, but the arc of how these characters developed.
So the first story is "Playing Hooky." And it's really driven around Superboy's emotional reasons for wanting to be in the 31st Century, and what he gets from it. And that really picks up very much from what Geoff was doing in Superman: Secret Origin, and from some of the tonality of the stories that have been running in Adventure, even though this is Clark rather than Conner.
Nrama: It sounds like it's introducing a modern audience to the Legion through Clark's eyes.
Levitz: A little bit. If it works. And the Legion of the 31st Century. And why it all matters. And then we'll progress through a number of other characters during that story, and we'll be seeing different aspects of the mythology of the 31st Century through each of them. Hopefully in the process, we'll be learning some things that are interesting Easter eggs or relevant background for the Legion series that's going on in its own book. But not reflecting moment by moment.
Nrama: So these tell two very unique stories? Because you're basically beginning two runs on comics about the Legion at the same time.
Levitz: It's a big universe.
Nrama: As a final question, we've talked before about how it felt to get back to these characters. How has it been to return to writing in general? And will we see very many other writing projects from you?
Levitz: I hope you'll be seeing a lot more writing from me. I signed on for a fairly significant body of work for DC over the next few years. I'm a fairly fast writer, certainly by modern standards, because I learned how to write when it didn't pay very well. I had to write fairly quickly. So I'm used to juggling. I've been doing all this material while I was still doing a fair amount of the old job until they get the new team in place here. And I'm working on one very large non-comics project that hasn't been announced yet. So it feels good to be using those muscles again.