The Legion of Super-Heroes at 50: Talking to Paul Levitz

The Legion at 50: Paul Levitz

In his role as president and publisher of DC Comics, Paul Levitz would know a thing or two about the Legion of Super-Heroes. The team of super-powered teens from 1,000 years in the future has been an important group of characters for DC Comics since it was introduced in 1958 and is the focus of this week's Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds event.

But as a Legion writer in the late '70s and most of the '80s, Levitz is also regarded as one of the most memorable and certainly fan-favorite writers to guide the evolution of the Legion of Super-Heroes during their 50-year tenure. From his frequent use of the now-beloved Interlac language to the drama of his epic Great Darkness Saga, Levitz's contribution to Legion history has not only greatly influenced ongoing fan loyalty to the team, but is credited by current Legion of 3 Worlds writer Geoff Johns as a "huge high point in Legion history."

"Paul and Keith [Giffen] did what every creator strives to do when they get the chance to work on big, iconic heroes in the DC Universe," Johns told Newsarama last year. "You try to explore that mythology and build upon that mythology and look into the corners. And Paul did that with every aspect of the Legion, between the characters and the actual world. His future was fleshed out so well. Every character had a relationship with somebody else; every character felt real; and their adventures were as much emotionally driven as they were story driven. And that's why his run caught on. That's why his run still stands the test of time."

As Newsarama celebrates both the 50th anniversary of the Legion and this week's release of Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds #1, we spoke to Levitz about the Legion of Super-Heroes. And following the tone of our discussion with other past Legion creators, as well as current Legion writer Jim Shooter, we talked with Levitz about why the Legion has lasted so long, the team's importance to DC Comics, and whether the executive will ever write the Legion again.

Newsarama: With the Legion not only lasting 50 years but also being the focus of this week's Legion of 3 Worlds by Geoff Johns and George Perez, the team seems to be pretty timeless. Would you agree? And if so, why?

Paul Levitz: "Timeless" is a strong statement. "Enduring," certainly. It always struck me that the most powerful characteristic that kept the Legion appealing to people was the diversity of characters on sort of an even keel. If you go to play Justice League, most of the people want to be Superman and Batman – or Wonder Woman in your case, but in my days there weren't very many girls wanting to play the game. If you go to play Legion, then everybody could have their own favorite. And I think that was part of the magic. You could possess a piece of it in a different way in your head.

I think part of it also goes to the same power we've seen Pokemon exhibit in recent times. Kids love worlds of secret knowledge. "I know all 150 Pokemon; I know which one will evolve into which one; I've got the chart up here; oh mom, you're so stupid for not knowing that Charizard and Charmander are the same thing on the evolutionary trail." I think the Legion had a lot of that going for it a generation before, and maybe people are discovering that again.

NRAMA: The Legion is credited by many as being the first super-team of the Silver Age. Did the Legion help to launch the Silver Age and establish the tone of that era?

PL: I can't make that one work. I think when you look back on it as a historian, you put the pin of the timeline earlier than some other things, but when you look at the causality, the causality of the Silver Age seems to go fairly smoothly from Challengers to Fantastic Four on the one side of the equation, and then from Justice League to Fantastic Four on the other side of the equation.

But there's no question Legion outsold any superhero group of the Silver Age until the end of its run in Adventure Comics in 1968. Neither Justice League nor Avengers nor any of the more "minor" superhero groups sold as many copies as Legion was selling. So in that case you could argue it was the dominant superhero group of its time. It was the only DC superhero group that was monthly during those years, and it sold probably twice as many copies as Justice League for most of those years, and certainly more copies than any of the Marvel ones in that period.

NRAMA: During your time on Legion, one of the things with which you're credited is giving the group a more mature direction. Was that one of the goals at that time in comics?

PL: The second run I had on Legion came just at the moment when the direct market was evolving as an important force in the business. When I did my first run on it from '76 or '77 to '79 or '80, the perceived wisdom of the business was we were creating comic books for the average American kid – or at best, the bright American kid.

By the time I came back, it was clear that the future of comics was going to be built off the bright older kid who was at least old enough to get to the comic shop, and that became a license to do more sophisticated lengths of stories, structures of stories, and to make the assumption that your reader was actually coming back every month and feed them a story that developed over time. The first time I was doing that, it was a very novel idea – particularly for DC – to be doing extended story arcs and to be making that kind of assumption of age.

My first really long story in that first arc of my career – something called “Earth War” – is probably the longest story DC had published to date at that time. It was five issues, and a couple of them were extra-length stories, so I think it exceeds the page count of any story DC had published by that time. Marvel had certainly done things as long or longer, and certainly things that were much more sophisticated. But it was a step in our progress as a company.

NRAMA: As the structure of the stories was evolving during that time, did the characters evolve for a more sophisticated audience as well?

PL: Well, once you begin to be able to tell a story over more time, then you have the opportunity to play off the personalities of the characters and the life events. "Gee, I haven't done anything to Vaneta in the last year's worth of issues. What can I do to her now? Am I going to have her get interested in somebody outside her marriage? Am I going to have one of her children develop an interesting bad habit that she has to deal with? Or kidnap one of her kids and have her go on a rescue mission to deal with it? Or am I going to have the mysterious person from her childhood come back and do something that affects her?" All of those are a little unsettling for you. And out of that you get good story material.

NRAMA: One of the things we're doing as Newsarama talks to various Legion creators is asking them to name some of their favorite moments in Legion history. And many of them have pointed to The Great Darkness Saga, which is often named by fans as a favorite as well. Why do you think that story stands out among others? And do you feel like you accomplished what you were trying to do with it?

PL: I think part of the reason it stands out for the people who were there at the time was that it was the first solid use of the Kirby Fourth World mythos outside of Jack [Kirby]'s own work. For the stories that followed it taking place set purely in a Fourth World logic, it was the thing that made Darkseid a part of the DC Universe. And I think for a lot of us who were at a magic age when Jack came to DC in 1970 and introduced Darkseid, that was a character of enormous power, and to see him firmly nested in the DC Universe was a very, very cool moment. It was something I was very proud of doing at the time, and I think that had a lot of resonance.

It also was a very long and ambitious story for its time. Again, this was probably something like a 125- or 130-page story at a time when most DC comics still were 22- or 44-page stories. You'd have a rare 88-page story. So hopefully, we used the length well and were able to do something that was unusually exciting as a moment.

NRAMA: When you came up with the idea of The Great Darkness Saga, was that a goal? To bring Darkseid and the Fourth World into the DC Universe?

PL: Oh, absolutely. That was part of the magic. I'm not a very good villain creator. That's one of my limits as a comic book writer. And it was an opportunity to take this incredible villain who the Legion had never faced before, who was powerful enough to hold off the entire Legion of Super-Heroes, and use him on a very cosmic scale story. I don't remember anymore if Keith [Giffen] was the first one who suggested it or I was, but both of us were big fans of Jack's and of Darkseid in particular, and we had a lot of fun with it. I guess it must have been me, because the first story on that arc, I did with Pat Broderick. Keith didn't come in until the second piece of that story. So I guess it is my fault.

NRAMA: It's all on your shoulders.

PL: It's definitely not all me. The reason people remember that story with the affection they do and the respect they do has a tremendous amount to do with the magic that was going on back and forth between me and Keith at that moment. He added so much to that material – so much imagination – that my writing on that is better than probably any other story I did. And a lot of that is a reflection of what Keith brought to it.

NRAMA: As you look back on your run on Legion, is The Great Darkness Saga what you would call your greatest accomplishment, and if not that, what else?

PL: I bow to the will of the people. If that's what people remember as the great story, I'm certainly willing to concede it. I'm very fond of the Sensor Girl arc; I'm very fond of the four-issue cycle we did with Universo where the Legionnaires were prisoners on a prison world and I had an opportunity to really play with their heads; I'm very fond of the story we recently reprinted in the paperback, An Eye for an Eye, with the Legion of Super-Villains; and mostly, I'm fond of the fact that, when I look back, I managed a 100-plus-issue consecutive run without screwing up, which is one of the rare feats of comics, for a writer to hold the mark that long.

NRAMA: Through this interview, you've talked about how Legion was the highest selling team through the Silver Age, how it launched the long-form story at DC, and how it brought one of DC's most important villains, Darkseid, into the DC Universe – so is it fair to call the Legion of Super-Heroes an important part of DC's history?

PL: I think it's fair to say so. It's one of the 10, maybe, enduring books that have been published pretty well consecutively for a couple of generations. It's a very short list of creative concepts that have lasted with only brief interruptions. You get past the longevity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, and the next tier down are things like Flash, Green Lantern, Legion, Justice League and Teen Titans now in modern times has caught up to that.

NRAMA: Does the Legion of Super-Heroes still hold a place of importance for DC?

PL: It hasn't been at its peak the last five or seven years in terms of commercial importance, but it remains one of the titles that people want to see done well. And when we manage to do it really well, usually the sales catch up.

NRAMA: You've mentioned Superman's popularity a couple times in this interview, and he's ushering the Legion into television with the upcoming Legion appearance on Smallville. How important is Superman's link to the Legion?

PL: I think it's an important part of the mythos. The logic of the kids going back to get the greatest hero of all time was, I think, a very resonant one. You've seen in so many different media the magic of, if you could go back in time and meet someone, who would you want to meet? And this was the comic book incarnation of that. Plus, he's a fun character to write.

NRAMA: Who are your favorite Legion characters?

PL: It depended on whose life I was playing around with at that moment. Over the years, at different points, Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad, Timber Wolf, Element Lad – I had fun with so many of them. Dream Girl, who I had no interest in as a kid, proved to be one of the most fun characters to write when there was a write-in fraud that made her win the Legion leader election, and I decided to let it stand because they had artfully figured out a way to dodge the official rules of the contest, and she turned out to be just a hoot-and-a-half to do.

NRAMA: Favorite moment that you wrote?

PL: I'll stand by the majority vote and go with Darkness.

NRAMA: Favorite moment that you didn't write?

PL: The Death of Ferro Lad cycle.

NRAMA: Why?

PL: Jim [Shooter] was obnoxiously good, and nobody has any right to be that good at 13 years old as a writer – and particularly if you look at it in the context of what was being done, at DC in particular but in comics in general. The kind of storyline that he did there – the consequences of a hero committing essentially heroic suicide, sacrificing himself for the benefit of his team – the death of a character was still a very shocking thing in comics in, I think it was 1966, when the first of that came out. And doing a realistic sort of ghost story around the sacrificed character, which I guess is six months or a year later, is astounding stuff for that time and just has tremendous emotional depth for somebody who was too young to have any emotional depth at that point.

NRAMA: You weren't willing to call the Legion of Super-Heroes "timeless," but you said it's "enduring." Do you think the Legion is something that will endure long into the future?

PL: I hope so. It's had a great run and there's no reason to believe it doesn't have more in its future.

NRAMA: Would you ever go back to the Legion and write it again?

PL: They keep threatening me! But I tell them they have to go and negotiate it with my wife. I only left the Legion because I was at the point where the kids were young, it was knocking off three Sundays a month that I needed to be on a soccer field with my kids during the years when they actually wanted to see their father, and the day job didn't let anything else fit with it. It's the sort of book I would love to have another shot at writing someday, if I ever get to be a writer again. It's just kind of hard to do with a day job.

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