If there's one thing for certain about Steve Lightle, the popular "Legion of Superheroes" artist who made a name for himself with the super-team in the 80's and is set to return to illustrate the newest incarnation of the DC Comics team in "Legion" soon, he knows how to make an impression.
"'The Legion' is the only comic book published today that is printed entirely on photoplasmic hard light sheets," says Lightle when asked what makes the Legion superheroes so unique." It's good for the ecology, and can be transmuted into platinum at conveniently located transmutation depots throughout the galaxy. What's not to like? The images can actually step off of the pages and, through the use of 31st century technology, the characters can meet your family and impress your friends. Some people say that the Legionnaires have even helped them pick up dates at the mall."
Furthermore, Lightle says he believes the teen superheroes from the future are popular with fans simply because fans have been bullied into buying the comic- the fans aren't really fans! "Extortion, blackmail ... it varies from reader to reader," says Lightle of the reasons for the Legion's fake popularity. "Most Legion fans are afraid what might happen if they ever stop reading the book. They fear for their families."
"So, when does the real interview start? What are you pointing at the tape recorder for ... I ... ohhhhhhhh ... ahem, so ... uh ..."
With a smile and a hearty laugh, Lightle relaxes in his chair and indicates that he's ready to get serious…or as serious as Steve Lightle can be.
"'The Legion' is our window into the future of the DC Universe," explains the artist of the core concept behind the Legion of Superheroes. "It is set in the 31st century and is, in a sense, the last word on the DCU. It's also an extrapolation on the concept of super powered beings interacting with society. The Legion is basically the ultimate exploration of a superhuman subculture interacting with human societies. Well, there was 'Watchmen,' which examined the idea from a less romantic perspective, compelling us to explore a grim, somewhat fatalistic, perspective. The Legion, on the other hand, is at its best when it gives us a more hopeful view of the world that Superman, and other DC heroes, are currently striving to preserve and nourish. It's almost as if the 31st century universe of the Legion is the culmination of all those battles for truth, justice and the American way. Except, it's been expanded to include not just the American way, or even the Earthling way, but a universe of hope for all peoples and societies. One of the great things about the Legion has always been the message that we really can all pull together for a positive purpose, regardless of our ethnicity, or our differing creeds and traditions. Well, there you have it ... the serious answer I was afraid of. (laughs) The Legion has always had members from exotic worlds, like the shape shifting Durlan known as Chameleon, or Umbra, mistress of the Darkfield and champion of her home planet of Talok 8, or the insect winged Shikari of the mysterious race of the Kwai ... Ultra Boy, Brainiac 5, Gear, Dreamer, XS, Valor, Kid Quantum, Gates, Wildfire, Sensor, Triad ... One of the great strengths of the Legion is its diversity. In fact, I hold the distinction of having suggested the first non-humanoid Legionnaires in the long history of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Tellus and Quislet were the first nonhuman members of the Legion, and I'm very happy that Paul Levitz and I broke that barrier by creating them. I think that the series has always been blessed with a very diverse readership; due in large part to the message of acceptance that people understand is an integral part of the Legion. Has the tape run out? See? That's what you get for asking questions like that."
If the name Paul Levitz rings a bell, there's a good reason- he's the man currently in charge of DC comics and considered by many to be the greatest writer in the Legion's history. But even with a friend like that, Lightle's had to earn his position as a fill-in penciller on upcoming issues of "Legion" and explains that was complicated recently when series editor Mike McAvennie was let go from DC. "Editors come and go," explains Lightle of the situation. "That's just a difficult fact ... especially at this moment in comic history. Through the years I've known several different Legion editors, and I've come close to working on the Legion on a few different occasions. This latest thing though ... it just got curiouser and curiouser. Mike McAvennie let me know that he wanted me to draw a story arc or make an appearance as a guest artist, which was all good by me. He assured me that he would get his writers on it, but that they were very busy at that time, and he wasn't sure when I'd be getting the script. It might have been in a matter of a few days, or it might be ... longer. So, I started developing another series, because the last thing you want to do is just sit on your hands waiting for work that may or may not be coming along. I wanted to stay in contact with the Legion editor though, because I've always had a sincere love for the series. I didn't want this falling through the cracks. At a certain point, it became impossible to reach Mr. McAvennie, and that's when I heard the rumor that he was no longer editing 'The Legion.' I decided to ask Paul Levitz for the lowdown, and he confirmed the rumor, and told me that they hadn't yet chosen a new editor for the book. Still, Paul was very encouraging about my Legion prospects, and I wasn't quite ready to drop it. After all, not only was Paul offering encouragement, but several voices in Legion fandom had begun to call for me to do the series again. I've always been thankful for the sustained support that I've received from Legion readers. They are unlike any other fans out there. They constantly amaze me. In this particular case, they lifted me up when I really needed it. Anyway, when The new editor was finally assigned to the Legion, I made up my mind to contact him ... but before I could, he called me ... and got my answering machine. (laughs) After a short game of phone tag, we finally got to talk, and I think it went pretty well. He told me that he wanted to get me a script to start on, but it wasn't quite ready yet. I did get the impression that he was anxious to get it going though, which I liked. Maybe he could tell that I was itching to draw the Legion, because he asks me if I had time to do a cover for an issue that spotlighted the character Umbra. Next thing you know, I'm also drawing the interiors to that issue as well. So, the way to 'The Legion' was a bit complex, and I got kinda worried, but when the floodgates finally broke ... (laughs) By the way, I'm not snubbing the new editor of 'Legion' by not mentioning his name. You see, I think he is enjoying being the mysterious 'secret editor.' I don't want to ruin his fun. I will say that he seems like a good man, and I think he's going to do right by the book. Legion fans should be encouraged."
Speaking of encouragement, that's something Lightle says he's been feeling nowadays and smiles when he's reminded of all the great things that have been said about him recently, making his return one that is universally anticipated it seems. "It feels great!" he shouts, checking to see if anybody's staring at him. "I'd love to repay the faithful Legion fans by doing my best work, and I really look forward to contributing something to all the new Legion readers who may not be familiar with my work. I'm looking forward to being the new guy on the book. Being a returning hero would be nice, but I'd really like to start fresh ... you know, let my work stand on it's own. What do you think, should I draw the book under an alias? I wonder if I could pull something like that off. It would be a fun experiment."
Putting his clever schemes aside, Lightle explains that while one of his stories will be written by the current "Legion" writing team of DnA (an acronym for Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning), the other story will be written by someone else who he doesn't want to quite mention yet. "The story that I'm working on now was scripted by Abnett and Lanning. I'm half way through the pencils, and I'll be inking it too. I think I'll leave the story details mysterious for now. I will say that I like the script, and I think that it will have a lasting impact on the character of Tasmia Mallor ... Umbra. My second issue probably won't be scripted by the same team; I believe that I'll be paired with a talented guest writer, and yes, we have talked about what characters we might use, but I don't want to spill the beans too soon. It may feature characters that haven't been seen much lately ... like Ferro or Karate Kid ... or maybe Quislet. Who knows? (laughs)"
The truth of the matter is, while the "Legion" was a high point for Lightle personally, he's done other work since then, and it leads many to wonder why the characters have become so important to him. Lightle says that the connection to the Legion is deep not only because of his success with the character but because of all the time he spent beforehand as a fan of the characters.
"Well ... You do know that the Legion is printed using 31st century hard light technology, and ...
"Seriously, as a comic creator, whether I'm writing or drawing a story, I always try to find the thing within it that makes it special for me. You try to make each work your very best. When I co-plotted Wolverine and Typhoid Mary stories with Anne Nocenti, I made the stories personal and relevant. I was committed to the Doom Patrol when I drew that series. Recently I wrote a Red Sonja story with the help of Roy Thomas, and I was so involved in that project that I even scanned the pages that I drew and oversaw every step of their production. I try to give my all to each assignment that I take on. With the Legion it's really easy to find that personal connection, because I've been a fan of the series since my childhood. The first Legion drawing that I can remember ever doing was created at my school desk in 2nd grade. Me and the Legion ... we go wayyyyyyy back."
Even with his long time love for the characters, Lightle reminds fans that any artist tackling the Legion has to able to take some pressure and will be asked to be quite creative. "Well, the series is famous for giving artists nervous breakdowns because of the tremendous creative demands. You have to be ready to create new technologies, species and cultures at the drop of a hat. Of course there are the demands of drawing a book with a 'cast of thousands' ... but the payoff is that making those kinds of demands on your creative powers is very exciting. And the results can certainly make it all worthwhile."
The jovial Lightle has to chuckle when he's asked if he feels his art has evolved since he last drew the Legion (not including various pinups or covers since the 80's work with Levitz)- he can't help but wonder how an artist's work doesn't grow. Like former "Legion" artist Olivier Coipel, Lightle can't imagine drawing a character or body part the same way forever and strives to challenge himself artistically whenever the opportunity arises. "Well, I was a kid the first time around [when he illustrated 'Legion of Superheroes' volume 3]. I mean, I'm certainly thankful that fans remember those issues fondly, but I've learned a few things since then. One of the reasons that I want to do the 'Legion' is to show what I can do now. One lesson that I've learned ... and it's really more of a philosophy ... is that a comic artist has to be flexible enough to adapt his work to the demands of each story. When I wrote and drew a horror story recently, I used textures and a style of storytelling that wouldn't be appropriate to most Legion stories. I've drawn an issue of the Flash that should be appearing on the stands soon, and I certainly approached that story differently than my work on 'Ghost Rider,' 'Silver Surfer,' 'Batman,' 'Wolfshead,' 'Superboy' ... I even took an approach on a solo XS story that is stylistically far removed from both the work I had previously done on the 'Legion of Super-Heroes' AND the pages I'm currently drawing for 'Legion.' Each story comes complete with its own unique challenges, which is what keeps an artist vital. There is always something new to learn, and complacency is a dead end. That's the lesson I've learned, and AM continuing to learn."
Over time, Lightle has also learned to love a lot of different members of the Legion and you can see his eyes light up as he explains which members are his favorite. "One of the greatest things about the Legion is the diversity of its cast. I like different characters for their unique qualities. There is an awkwardness about Brainiac 5 that makes him an endearing character, despite his vastly superior intellect. Timber Wolf has a vitality, and a potential for ferocity, that makes him interesting. Umbra has a dignity that she carries with her, and a seriousness that masks some intriguing insecurities. Livewire is a confident, and sometimes brash powerhouse. There is an untapped complexity to Valor that I only touched on in the story, 'Back Home In Hell.' I'd like to have the chance to develop the submerged contradictions that lie deep beneath his noble exterior. And then there's Quislet ... (laughter)"
If you're one of those fans who's looking forward to seeing more Steve Lightle on "Legion" and wonder what his plans are for the series, you're not the only one- the artist himself says he isn't sure what he plans to contribute to the franchise. "That's a tough question to answer, because I've not been asked to make a long term commitment to the series. It would be very easy to get into that frame of mind though. 'Legion' is one of those books that just sparks my creative energies. I must admit that I find my mind exploring all kinds of possibilities for the series, and in that way this experience does remind me of my earlier time on the book."
But Lightle is quick to add that he's got a lot of other dream projects in mind and says, "I've always enjoyed having the chance to be deeply involved in every aspect of a book's production. My most rewarding experiences have been when I've been encouraged to contribute more than just art. When I worked with Paul Levitz, we would frequently have long story conferences, concerning our plans for the characters and what we could do to make the series as exciting as possible. I worked the same way with Anne Nocenti, and a few other writers. A comic artist's first commitment is to telling a story, and whether that is done in collaboration with a writer, or completely solo, it is the most alluring thing about this art form."
In addition to his work on 'The Legion,' Lightle says that fans should see a good amount of his work in the months ahead. "I've done a lot of artwork outside of comics for software and gaming companies, and my fair share of advertising work, but you aren't interested in that. Let's see, comic related stuff ... You can find an interactive animated Batman comic on-line. I drew that one for General Motors. It's for their Batman/Onstar promotion. There's a thing or two on the Cartoon Network web site ... Oh, and keep your eyes peeled for my upcoming issue of 'Flash' ... and the 'Legion,' naturally."
Having been in the industry for some time, Lightle's been able to observe the book, bust and rebuilding of the comic book world, which he's found quite educational. When asked about his thoughts on the future of the industry, he leans over on the table looking very contemplative and just as you think he's about to be serious, he finishes his answer with the trademark Lightle humor. "One positive thing that I've noticed is the trend towards 'superstar' writers. A few years ago many held the opinion that it was art that was more important. Unfortunately, this encouraged some creators to place less value on story content. Too many people seemed to forget that good sequential art is art that tells a story ... preferably a good story. If writers are getting more attention these days, maybe it's a good sign that more emphasis is finally being placed on the real purpose of comic books ... to tell a story ... to entertain and engage the minds and emotions of readers. Thankfully most editors are beginning to realize that you don't accomplish that with gimmick covers or by imitating superficial artistic fads. When people start getting the message that comic books can be compelling and exciting, then the comic book industry will make its comeback.
"Naturally, it wouldn't hurt comic sales if the characters could actually step out of the pages and help readers to get dates, and maybe do their homework assignments for them. We should be looking into that. (laughs)"