COMING HOME: Levitz & Giffen on "Legion of Super-Heroes" Annual

Considered by many to be one of the greatest comic book runs of all-time, Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen made DC Comics' "Legion of Super-Heroes" a must read in the early eighties when they joined forces for the most memorable collaboration.

The success of the Darkseid-fueled "Great Darkness Saga," which ran in "Legion of Super-Heroes" Vol. 2, #287; #290-294; and Annual #3, catapulted Levitz and Giffen into the upper echelon of comic book talent and no doubt cemented their place as the writer and artist of record for the modern era version of the team, right alongside the Legion's Silver Age creators Otto Binder and Al Plastino.

In December, Levitz and Giffen will reunite on the DC Comics' property, as Giffen co-writes and draws the first annual for Levitz' current ongoing "Legion of Super-Heroes" series. This also marks the third time that Levitz and Giffen have teamed on a Legion Annual #1 having previously worked together on annuals in 1982 and 1985.

CBR News spoke with the legendary team and it was more than apparent that it's OK to come home again. In fact, it's pretty freaking sweet.

Keith Giffen: So here we go again, Paul.

CBR News: As soon as Paul announced he was coming back to writing full-time, did you both know a return to the Legion was inevitable? Or was this a long, drawn-out negotiation with your agents and publicists involved?

Giffen: No, I tackled him in the hallway.

Paul Levitz: Yeah, no agents. It's like knowing that's there's an old party you can go back to.

Giffen: It's like getting the band together.

Levitz: It's been great fun to get back in the game and have several of the people that I've worked with over the years come up and sort of say, "We can play, again?" And Keith was obviously a perfect fit on that list because of the great fun we had on Legion and the fact that his particular skill set is an extraordinarily good fit on the Legion in the way that he can build and event worlds.

Giffen: I like any book where I don't have to do any referencing.

Levitz: [Laughs] You and Harvey Kurtzman.

Giffen: There we go. The minute I found out - Paul, let's be honest. How long have I been after you to write a story for us to do together?

Levitz: Ten years, easily.

Giffen: Yeah, because I always felt that we never got a chance to say, "goodbye," to the Legion together. And now it's kind of cool, because we're saying, "hello," to the Legion together, which I think is a better circumstance. 

Levitz: The reason I dodged it all that time wasn't a lack of desire to do it. It was just that with the desk job, it was impossible to do any real serious body of writing. If I was going to go back and disturb, if you will, the dust of the legend, I wanted to be able to do it at a time when I could bring my real skills to it.

Giffen: That makes sense. You don't want to go into it half-assed after all that time. Once of reasons that [Steve] Ditko never went back to Marvel and Spider-Man and Doctor Strange was because he was afraid to be compared to past work.

What is it about your collaboration and the subject matter that just clicks? Because, let's be honest, the Legion isn't for everybody, and its history is quite massive and convoluted due to the sheer size of the team.

Levitz: We're both too nuts to be afraid of it.

Giffen: Yeah, when you look at a book and it's called "Legion" and there are that many characters, there is a certain mindset that makes somebody say, "Oooh. I want that."

Levitz: There are many more that will say, "Please, don't put me in that room again." I used to have to bribe Curt Swan into doing fill-in issues of a book that he had drawn so beautifully in my childhood. "Alright, Curt. I'll only put three or four of them in, really."

Giffen: It is a daunting book, because not only do you have this great cast of characters, but like I said, you have no reference that you can fall back on. You've got to sort of cobble this stuff together from all corners.

Levitz: And you have to keep cobbling. One of the great things about coming back to it, 20 years later, is most of what we invented for the future didn't take a thousand years to happen, it's walking around now. Or at least it's in somebody's laboratory. So you have to re-invent a world that is far enough ahead that it feels alien, and yet close enough that people understand what's going on without constant footnotes.

Giffen: Or familiar enough that they don't feel completely lost. I mean if we really thought about what it would be like 1,000 years from now, people would barely need to lift a finger to open a door or start your car. Everything would be done through implanted chips of some kind, or biotechnology. The world would be unrecognizable and it would make for a very, very dull comic when you think about that the minute somebody from the Fatal Five said, "I think I'm going to commit a crime," they'd shut down his brain, it's not an exciting comic book.

Levitz: One of my favorite history volumes is William Manchester's "A World Lit Only By Fire." It's a beautiful study of what life was really like in the Dark Ages. You try to imagine someone living in that world where how much of a candle you dared use was an economic decision for how much light a prosperous family could afford to do at night. Showing up in our world and seeing even two seconds, imaging the connectiveness, understanding what we're doing right now, besides the fact that they'd be screaming, "witchcraft," and going for the torches, just making it comprehensible would be so incredibly difficult. I think it's going to be even stranger 1,000 years from now than it was over this last change.

Giffen: Paul, all we have to do is think back. You and I remember a world without computers. If somebody, way back when we first broke into comics, handed us a laptop, an iPod Nano and a motion control [Laughs], it would be a bit of a shock. And that's only been 20-25 years.

Levitz: You watch the reaction of the kids. If I pull out my old fan magazines that I did when I was young and I show them to my kids, their reaction is, "So, were there dinosaurs then, Dad? Because it looks like you did it with a stone and a chisel." Because any idiot with desktop publishing can do something vastly more beautiful than the hardest-working stuff that I was capable of at that time with rubber cement, a typewriter and a little bit of press type here and there.

On the flipside of that discussion, there is a very loyal and devout legion of Legion fans. What is it about the concept that you think breeds such intense admiration?

Levitz: I think the heart of what goes on in the Legion is the same kind of superhero melodramatic soap opera that made so many generations of so many titles work. What makes it particularly distinctive is that it's a very meaty sandwich. The kind of stories that I enjoy doing juggle an awful lot of characters. There's a lot of information - more so even today than a generation ago, because when you are writing in the era of Google, you know that if you toss a concept in there that somebody isn't 100 per cent familiar with, they can look it up pretty painlessly, practically without picking their head up from the comic.

Giffen: If I knew what made the Legion so popular, I would have never left the book and it would be a #1 bestseller. It's kind of hard to put our finger on. Now, in today's day and age of comics, I think one of the appeals of "Legion of Super-Heroes" is that it's one of the few books that is, with the exception of the occasional reference to a modern day problem to keep it timely, "Legion of Super-Heroes" is pure, unadulterated escapism. You can go anywhere. You can do anything. You can have as much fun as you want. You don't need to worry about the fact that they need Mil Waklin in "The Outsiders" next month.

The Legion fandom had a sense of wonder and I think the Legion, at its best, just really nailed that solid.

Another cool thing about the Legion is that when you're writing it or drawing it or whatever, you do get this kind of weird wish fulfillment. I know I used to do this - I'd sit down thinking, "Man, when are we going to have a black President? Oooh, I'll draw one. When are we going to have a woman President? Oooh, I'll draw one." You can almost project forward the things that you would like to see today and actually do them - experience them, I guess vicariously through writing it or drawing it: a black President, a woman President, a planet exploding, a world that is completely at peace or a world where magic works.

Levitz: There is stuff in it that is metaphor for things that are going on today. I mean, the whole issue that Geoff Johns introduced into it with the material about xenophobia is in many ways a fair analog for the current clash of civilizations and for some of things going on in American politics, particularly. But at the same time, it's projected on this larger kind of alien scale and you can play with it and hopefully you get some of it to, as Keith said, happier resolutions. We have to find a better way not to blow each other up.

Can you share any details about the story you'll be telling in the annual, and specifically, will there be any call backs to past storylines and/or plot threads that you previously explored?

Giffen: In my case, it's all about the Emerald Empress. She's my favorite villainess and that's why I was onboard.

Levitz: Obviously, people who have been reading and enjoying the new run will come into it more smoothly, but it should work pretty decently as a stand-alone. There are things that hearken back to character developments from years ago. Keith and I working together and then Keith with other collaborators has played with the Shrinking Violet and Lightning Lass characters and their relationship a certain amount, and as you can see from the cover, they're back in the forefront of this story. They kind of get their glorious moment in the process, which is nice.

Giffen: The plot I was handed is a self-contained story. It's about the Emerald Empress. The Legionnaires are there - you don't have to go back and read a past issue to know that the Emerald Empress is pretty pissed off at Sensor Girl because it's spelled out in the book. When you go to see a sequel of a movie, you don't need to see the first one to know that The Joker hates Batman. These are things that are accepted within the course of the story. So if there are references to Emerald Empress having a vendetta against this person, this person and this person, that's accepted. You don't need to know what the vendetta is. Villains hate.

Levitz: And again, we've been, I think, reasonably successful in the new Legion run at bringing in a bunch of new readers who certainly aren't picking up on 100 per cent of what's there. You've got the devout Legion fans that are arguing every factual detail and every little deviation from it, as well as any little mistake that I make, but the new readers seem to have successfully strapped themselves in and said, "OK. This is fun. I'll figure it out as I go along, but I understand enough to keep going." I think the annual, in that sense, will be a very good jumping on point for people.

Will any other Legionnaires play a prominent role in the story?

Giffen: I only specified that I'd like to use Ayla and Vi. When we sat down to actually talk about the story, I sort of picked and chose my favorites. Sun Boy plays a pretty big part in there, too.

Levitz: We've got a reasonable bit of him showing up. Gates, who came along after my first run and I've not had a lot of time to screw around with, is there for a minute or two. We'll have a minute or two of the sort of larger gang showing up, but those are the guys that get the most space.

As soon as it was announced that Levitz and Giffen were re-teaming on the Legion, tongues started wagging that this would mean something more than just a one-shot annual. Is this only the first step in what will become a larger collaboration?

Levitz: Well, certainly at least every 20 years we'll do one.

Giffen: We always make a point of doing the first issue of every annual. Three times, every Legion annual, we've done the first one. To be honest with you, this is, working on this, to me, it's a lot like going home. I told Paul before, when I step onboard the pencils for "Doom Patrol," or I'm doing an issue of "The Outsiders," I'm always aware of the fact that I'm stepping into somebody else's domain for just a little while. But I don't care who has been drawing the Legion for the past 20 years - when I step into the Legion, I consider it mine. There is a comfort level there, in spite the cast and all. If this works out fine and everybody loves it and DC were to approach me and go, "Do you want to stay in the 30th Century with Paul?" Absolutely, there wouldn't be any doubt in my mind that I would accept it. It would just be a matter of when I could fit it in.

Levitz: Hopefully, we're building the Legion world enough that there will be room in it for multiple people to be playing with different pieces. We're getting a good level of support from the readership at this point. [The annual] brings in, hopefully, more people who have come to love Keith in recent years and maybe never even saw him on his Legion work but are fans of his now, and if they are aware the Legion stuff had taken place that hopefully has a positive effect.

It's kind of nice timing that it comes out at the same moment the hardcover edition of our first set of collaborations on the Legion will be issued. It's an easy thing for people to move over to if they taste it here and they say, "That was good. Do you have more of that?"

Giffen: If it happens, it happens. And you don't know, the fans might take a look at this and say, "This guy sucks." We don't know. We're hoping for the best at this point.

Levitz: I don't think that's too likely.

Keith, you have been doing far more writing than drawing the last few years. How's it going with the pencils? Just like riding a bike?

Giffen: Now that I've knocked all the rust out of the system, yeah, it's fun. When I first started picking up the pencil again and playing around, I hadn't done this consistently for going on 20 years. I'd done the quick box and the breakdowns but my hand wasn't really loose from that. It was like training the hand to get tight again. You can't just draw a line a across the face and figure those are eyes. Again, there's a discipline that you pick up, too. I would say that one of the reasons that I switched over to writing from drawing is because it's a hell of a lot easier to write "Charge of the Light Brigade" than to draw it. [ Levitz laughs]

So it's been a while, but the bug bit me and I found out that I can still do it. I can still have fun. And apparently, DC seems to like what they're seeing, so I'll probably be splitting my time pretty evenly between writing and penciling from now on for as long as they want me to.

Gentlemen, thanks so much for your time. And on behalf of comic books fans everywhere, thanks for coming home.

Giffen: Woah, woah, woah. One more thing before we go. We have to mention the inker on the book is John Dell. You've seen what he did on the cover and I've seen what he's done on an interior page. He is knocking it out of the ballpark. He's on and he's just as excited about it as we are. I just didn't want this to go by without mentioning him because he is such an integral part of the process at this point and he's really thrilled.

Levitz: On that note, I'm going back to the 30th Century. I've got a few more pages to finish today.

Giffen: Me too.

"Legion of Super-Heroes" Annual #1, written by Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen, featuring art by Giffen and John Dell, is scheduled for December 29.

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