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Simonson on Art, Comics and “Legion of Super-Heroes”

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Walt Simonson steps up to the plate to illustrate this week’s “Legion of Super-Heroes” #5

This week, writer Paul Levitz makes a detour from the action in his ongoing DC Comics series “Legion Of Super-Heroes.” Instead, for “Legion” #5, Levitz examines the daily lives of the Legionnaires, checking in with the various members for a day-in-the-life of story that spans the Legion, their headquarters and everything in between.

“Legion” #5 also marks a departure when it comes to the creative team as series regular artist Francis Portela steps out and comic book legend Walt Simonson, the man behind “Orion,” “The Mighty Thor,” and half the creative team on “X-Force” (along with his wife and industry giant of equal stature, Louise Simonson), plus a host of other major mainstream comics, steps in for a self-contained story.

CBR News caught up with the veteran writer/artist to talk about the issue, along the way stopping to discuss his working relationship with Levitz, how Simonson’s father influenced his art process, and why the legendary creator is as excited to draw Stonehenge as he is the Legionnaires!

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CBR News: “Legion Of Super-Heroes” #5 is sort of a stand-alone story. What attracted you to drawing a single-issue story?

Walt Simonson: I’ve known Paul Levitz for a long time, we go back to pretty much the beginnings of both of our careers. Back in, gee I don’t know, ’77, somewhere about then, we hooked up and he was writing “Legion” back then and I did the layouts that Jack Abel finished, who was an inker. I did a full issue — I think this was in a longer issue. They had a little more heft. It was “Super Boy and The Legion Of Super-Heroes,” it was kind of a long-ish thing, and it was fun. I mean, I hadn’t worked with Paul before really and we did the issue then. Basically every fifteen to twenty years we get together and do another issue, so this was our time!

And that’s really true for all of the comics I’ve done. It’s one of the things I find interesting, to try and find out what’s different about the different locations, the people, the costumes, all that kind of stuff, and then bring that knowledge to bear in some way on the drawing.

As you mentioned, it’s basically every fifteen or so years you and Paul get together to do a “Legion” thing. With this issue did you go take a look back at any of your other “Legion” work and compare or think about how your style has changed from the last time you drew the Legionnaires?

I didn’t do a lot of that. I remember the old jobs, some of them fairly clearly, although the one that goes back into the ’70s was a long time ago. But I didn’t really go back and dig out that stuff to look at. I actually looked at some of the recent Legionnaire stuff, some of Yildiray [Cinar’s] stuff and some other guys in for the past year or two or more. I have some of the trades of “Legion” stuff, I went back and dug that work out to see kind of how the drawing was done, who was working on what, what kind of feel they gave to some of the characters or their backgrounds or the conference room.

In my own case I know what my work is like, at least as I’ve developed over time, and in many ways I’m more interested to see what other guys are doing because that’s the stuff I’m not doing. I may find some bit of inspiration somewhere, something I wouldn’t have thought of looking at my old work. So I look at a lot of fairly recent stuff. At the time I was working on it DC sent me a couple of PDFs of, at the time, unpublished issues, so I was able to look at that. A concrete example is the cover of the comic, which is a crop shot of the Legion clubhouse. While it’s always been this rocket ship with its nose stuck in the ground it has looked really very different based on that kind of model over the years and even fairly recently so I didn’t take a lot of liberties but I found some recent versions that were coherent and tried to use that imagery with the clubhouse I drew.

Having looked at so much work by other artists, do you feel there are any new artists whose work you really admire, or any up-and-comers you are keeping your eye on?

You know, probably nobody I could name; if I like something I pull it aside and put it in a pile and kind of go through it every so often. The guys who I could name as the new guys have probably already been in the business for fifteen years! [Laughs] I mean one of the guys I’m a huge admirer of is John Paul Leon, and John Paul was one of my students back in the early ’90s at the School of Visual Arts, started working on “Static” for Milestone originally while he was still in art school. He’s just flourished into an astounding draftsman and storyteller who spends a lot of time considering the work and trying to figure out how to make it better. I’m just fascinated by his stuff and the work he does. Bernard Chang and some of the guys in BLVD Studio, I think those guys are phenomenal. So there’s stuff like that but there’s no real young new guys, at least none who I’ve connected a name up and go, “Oo, this is that guy.” But one guy, again this is not a brand new guy at all, but Olivier Coipel who’s been around for a while and been doing “Thor” over at Marvel — with Olivier I’m just in awe of his draftsmanship, I pick up any comic he’s drawn because I just think it looks great.

To digress slightly, last year between the “Thor” movie and IDW’s “The Mighty Thor: Artist’s Edition,” people have once again become very aware of your run on the character and that era of the comic. With all of that mainstream attention, has there been temptation to come back to writing other “Thor” stories or to write on your own superhero series again?

Well, we’ll have to see. This is my interview for “Legion” so I’d hate to throw a plug in for another company! [Laughs] But it was just announced that I’m going to be drawing six issues of the “Avengers” with Brian Bendis writing, which would be the first real monthly comics I’ve done in maybe ten years. I worked on a number of miniseries, I worked with Michael Moorcock a couple of times on the “Elric” stuff, I just finished a graphic novel for DC that involves a series of short stories all strung together. The overall story is called “The Judas Coin” and the individual characters are all DC characters. They’re mostly unknown ones, fairly minor ones, if you were a DC fan you’d probably know them: The Golden Gladiator and the Viking Prince and Bat Lash and Manhunter 2070. The one guy that people would know because I talked about before is Batman and Two-Face square off in this, so it’s really sort of a Two-Face story and Batman kind of shows up to lend his presence to the tale. But that was a story that I did write and draw, I inked it as well, that’ll be coming out sometime this year. I don’t know for sure when that’s going to happen. But it’s almost a hundred pages long, it took me a while to get done, and that was challenging. That was something where, with each story I was doing there were different time periods; the Golden Gladiator is the Roman Empire, Captain Fear is a Pirate in the 1700s, and so for each of those stories with whatever success I could manage I tried to draw each of the tales in a somewhat different style. So that was writing and drawing and inking myself, so that was a lot of fun finishing that stuff up.

But I like sort of bouncing around, I’m looking forward to drawing some stuff somebody else is writing for a while. Then I may go back and do some creator-owned stuff, I have some ideas about that as well which is not something I’ve done very much of, but maybe it’s about time. So once the “Avengers” is over from my end of it I may go back and look a little more deeply into creator-owned material and try and head in that direction for a little while. If I do that it would be stuff I would be writing as well as drawing. I enjoy jumping around a bit partly because the attempt there, for what it’s worth, is to try and keep fresh. I’ve done comics for a long time now but I find that I was always concerned about burning out and wanted not to do that if I could avoid it. I thought, “So some comics I write and draw, some comics I just write or just draw.” The different combinations really present you with different sets of problems that you have to solve, even if you work with some guy for a while. That means hopefully you have to keep thinking about the work, and figuring out how to make it the best story you can mange with a different partner every so often. Hopefully that keeps the work fresh.

To end things back on “Legion,” you’ve already let us know the most challenging aspects of the issue — what was the most fun part for you to draw?

There was a girl who was called Dragonwing I think, she’s a Phil Jimenez character, and she was quite challenging. It turns out that I could have done some stuff with her with an overlay, which is extremely smart in order to get this kind of transparent cloak with dragon designs on it. I was the idiot, I just went ahead and drew the whole thing! But she was a lot of fun to do sort of a Goth girl, so I enjoyed doing her. But really Glorith was very interesting, probably because of the room, probably the costume, probably the character herself.

One of the things I did like was that when Paul gave me the plot there’s all these different Legionnaires and he frequently described them and their personalities through their body language. Someone is withdrawn and you get the impression he hunches shoulders and the elbows are in — it wasn’t quite detailed in that regard but it was about the body language which was really an enormous help visually. I don’t think I ever had anybody send me a plot or a script where that was quite so concentrated, and it was an enormous aid in getting a hold of characters, some of whom I know and some of whom I really didn’t know, in something as short as one issue. In this case as a one off guy it was a great way to be given insights into the character in ways that actually functioned to aid the drawing. There were bold, gutsy people and there were very quiet, shy people who whispered, there were people with brash actions and other guys who were annoyed about that — there’s one great moment of someone being annoyed, which was a lot of fun! [Laughs] So even though the characters are only on stage very briefly, they’re with other characters and have interactions, which were fun to try to realize in their acting.

It was just fun in general. It was challenging because there were so many characters and they all had to be referenced, but it was fun to try to put it all together in a comic in which the usual bombast of “Let’s show a bunch of guys beating each other up,” wasn’t really there. It’s more a brief series of character studies. That was a pleasure to do. You know the Legion has the overall gestalt I hesitate to even touch because it’s such a huge future that Paul has developed and it has a legion of fans, pun was mildly intended there. It was neat to be able to touch that and work in that corner, and maybe in fifteen years I’ll come back and Paul and I will do another story! [Laughs] I’ll talk to Paul about that!

“Legion Of Super-Heroes” #5 is on sale now.