DC Comics is home to two of the most popular superhero teams in comic book history- the JSA (actually the first superhero team ever) and the Legion of Superheroes. While it doesn't seem likely that the two teams will have a crossover of a conventional sort, despite their respective popularity, there is one man whose getting the pleasure of working with both set of characters: Keith Champagne. The inker of "JSA" is going to be showing another side of himself to fans as he flexes his creative muscles and pens a tale of the Legion in a yet-to-be scheduled issue of "Legion" with fan-favorite artist Steve Lightle. CBR News caught up with Champagne to learn about the creator achieving this childhood dream and to find out what fans can expect from this story that will eventually see print.
"My Legion issue is called 'Childhood's End,'" reveals Champagne. "At its heart, it's a story about a father and a son. It takes the Legion someplace they've never been. There's still a bit of time before it's going to be published, so…no comment as to any specific plot details or featured characters."
Even though the JSA and the Legion of Superheroes may share the same corporate owners, they sure don't share the same editors and fans must definitely wonder how Champagne ended up in the "Legion" offices, with this writing job on his lap. It may seem even stranger to some fans because series writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, nicknamed "DnA" by their fans, haven't needed any fill-in writers during their tenure as writers of the futuristic teens. "It's been a long and winding road, I'll tell you that much," said Champagne. "Mike McAvennie originally offered me the chance to write an issue of 'Legion.' He had been keeping an eye open for something for me to write, based on his positive reaction to a pitch for a limited series I threw at him. He liked that pitch enough that he wanted to try me on something 'real,' and when DC wanted to generate something for Steve Lightle to draw, Mike thought of me and gave me a shot.
"Dan and Andy didn't and don't really need any help staying on schedule, but they were very gracious in allowing me an opportunity to play in their sandbox. If they had gotten pissy about another writer coming in, that probably would have been the end of my big Legion dreams. But they were both gentlemen, very supportive and encouraging. Nice guys.
"With DnA's blessing, I started putting together some ideas. I had one to reintroduce Blok, one for Karate Kid, an idea for Chameleon, something for Wildfire…just a whole bunch of things, the juices were really flowing…which is exactly when DC and Mike McAvennie decided to part company.
"Which left me dead in the water. Whenever a book moves to a new editor, it's that editor's prerogative to change directions, creative teams, whatever they want to do. I was pretty sure no one else was going to care about my little Legion ideas.
"Luckily, Legion ended up in the hands of the very handsome, intelligent, and charming Steve Wacker. He was smart enough to recognize the second coming of Alan Moore when he saw it, and next thing I knew, my issue was a 'go'. Oh…and I had to clean his office and pick up his laundry, too.
"So I pitched my ideas. Steve, Dan, and Andy liked the ramifications one of them would have on a Legion member, and I wrote it up."
For some fans, Keith Champagne has uttered the magic word: "Blok." The beloved stone member of the Legion was a popular pal of Timber Wolf during then writer Paul Levitz' classic work on the series during the 80's and when Champagne is asked if this is the story that reintroduces Blok to the Legion, the writer just smiles and says fans will have to see, reminding them that he did have a lot of ideas.
Many people might be surprised to learn that Champagne is also a writer, but he himself couldn't imagine why anyone would assume that a person doing one job creatively couldn't apply that imagination to another area. "I'm not sure anyone would even care enough to give it a second thought. If anything, there might be a curiosity factor involved when someone who's known primarily for doing one thing goes off and does something different. At the very least, people that know me personally will probably check it out. My mom wants to read it, so I'll give her a copy.
"Dan and Andy are top flight and I busted my ass to make sure my issue would live up to their high standards. Did I succeed? I think people will be pleasantly surprised after they read it. I've been writing for a long time, this is just the first thing I've written for comics and I'm proud of the story. It's not a 'disposable' fill-in. There are lasting repercussions coming out of this that DnA will be able to pick up and run with. Unlike with most fill-in stories where the toys have to go back in their boxes when you're done, I was given the latitude to do something with permanent ramifications."
The reason he wants his issue to have real ramifications is simple- Champagne is a die-hard Legion fan. "I'm a long time Legion fan. I remember reading the Legion at the barbershop when I was six years old, and I've stayed with the book through every incarnation it's had," reveals the east coast creator. "Maintaining the status quo is boring. In life, actions have consequences. I think comics should reflect that. It makes things less safe, more unpredictable, and more interesting to read if there's an element of 'anything can happen' in a comic book. Too often, storylines come and storylines go, but there's little lasting consequence from anything that happens.
"'Legion' isn't like that. I still can't believe they killed off Livewire…but at the same time, I'm glad they did! The Legion deals with so much stuff on such a grand scale, it stands to reason they won't always come out of it unscathed. And they shouldn't.
"As far as negotiating goes, I think the fact that what I pitched has ramifications to the team and to one character in particular was the reason that particular idea was chosen. DC wants the Legion to be exciting and unpredictable, they want to shake things up."
Of course, writing his first major comic book work wasn't a walk in the park and Champagne admits there were some difficulties. "Writing in general is hard, but beyond the struggle to craft a good story, scripting this book was just about as far from 'work' as you can get. Work is digging ditches for a living. This was fun, a dream come true. I knew what I wanted to do, I tried to make sure everyone stayed in character, and I made sure the heart of the story came across.
"The pacing of the story was especially tricky for me, trying to keep a reasonable number of panels on the page. It's trickier than it looks to boil everything down to 4-6 panels per page, keep the action flowing, and still find room for the character bits that make a story shine."
Despite the pressure to make this first writing venture a successful one, Champagne is confident it'll work out fine and knows that he's got a secret weapon- Steve Lightle. The former "Legion of Superheroes" artist is returning to do two issues of "Legion,"- one with DnA and another with Champagne. "It's kind of an arranged marriage, but I'm definitely not complaining. I've got Steve Lightle, a legendary Legion artist, back on board drawing MY Legion issue. For a Legion fan, it doesn't get any better than that.
"I tried to give Steve as much freedom as possible to do whatever he wants with the script. There are only two pages of the book where I specifically asked him to stick to the panel layouts I suggested. Other than that, I'm ridiculously happy to sit back and let Steve do that voodoo that he do so well. I've seen his upcoming Umbra issue and he's in top, TOP form."
Listening to Champagne talk about the Legion, it's obvious he's passionate about the series and he believes that will shine through in the final product. But with DnA already so successful on "Legion," will Champagne's adventures in the 30th century end with just one tale? "I'd absolutely love to do more Legion. I don't think it's in the cards right now, though. I just don't think Steve Wacker and DnA really need the help. I know they've got a definite plan for the team mapped out, so the last thing they need is someone coming in and screwing with things.
"If I had the power to do anything I wanted with the team, I'd take some of the secondary members that haven't gotten a lot of screen time and spin them off into a limited series and give them a little play. Who knows? If the book starts selling the way it deserves to, maybe there will be more opportunity for something like that."
It's been noted before and Legion fans themselves will admit- they expect a lot of the creators on whatever Legion book is present and they make no apologies for that. Instead of being pressured by the sure to be high expectations around him, Keith Champagne says he understands the expectations of fans and doesn't blame them- he'd expect nothing less of anyone else writing "the coolest teens in comics." "Legion fans are passionate about the team. I think that's great; I'm a Legion fan myself, so I know how it is. I busted my nuts to come up with something that I think meets their high standards. However, you can't please everyone all of the time. I'm sure some people will hate anything that changes a character in a way they don't agree with or pulls the book in a different direction than they would like to see it go. I can't control that, so I'm content knowing that I went out and swung for the fences.
"As far as keeping the team in character…the job of a writer is to know and respect the characters. As long as you're familiar with their personalities, it's just a matter of listening to how they would speak or observing how they would act in a situation."
Champagne's day job is "JSA," which chronicles the adventures of the Justice Society of America and he's having a great time on the series which has proved to be a huge hit for DC. "Leonard and I are about ¾'s done with the double-sized 'JSA #50,'" Champagne says of his progress on the series. "For fans of the team, it's all been building up to this issue and they're not going to be disappointed. What David and Geoff have done with the book is genuinely impressive. They've had this planned all along and have been slowly building up to this issue from really early on. It's a great gig.
"I don't think inkers are ignored too much. We do what we do and some people understand it and some people don't. Actually, I think colorists are ignored too much these days. John Kalisz adds so much to the book every month. He's an integral part of the team who is rarely mentioned."
Just as Champagne feels he'll grow as he writes more, he feels his inking is improving the more he works on "JSA" and hopes fans are noticing. "I'm biased, but I'd say definitely. Just the act of inking 10 hours every day, 5-7 days a week, you can't help but improve. Ten years into inking monthly books and I'm glad to feel that I'm still growing and learning every issue. I think my brushwork is much stronger, my pen work is sharper, my line weights more confident…but again, I'm biased."
One thing that almost anyone will tell you about Keith Champagne is that he's an easygoing guy who's open to talking about almost any subject. But when you ask him about letting CBR readers know a bit more about the future of "JSA," he flashes the classic Champagne smile and says, "I think David and Geoff would kill me if I gave anything away too soon. Let's just say…expect the unexpected."
Those fans who visit the Comic-Con International in San Diego this year will have a chance to meet the muscular Champagne, who's set to defend his self-appointed position as the "Best Looking Man In Comics," and he's taken measures to make sure anyone who sees him is impressed. "I recently finished getting a full, facial tattoo of Brad Pitt done over my own face so there's little doubt I'll retain my title of 'The Best Looking Man in Comics' this year," smirks Champagne and then whispers, "Actually, I've never admitted this before, but Peter Tomasi, my 'JSA' editor, is far better looking than I am."
When Champagne was last interviewed by CBR News, he was beginning to train for a short boxing stint and when asked for an update on his progress, he opts for some more humor instead. "Unfortunately, getting punched in the face repeatedly, while fun in its own way, isn't really conducive to retaining my status as the best looking man in comics. If I could be either the toughest man in comics or the prettiest…dammit, I'm going for pretty."
Other than "JSA," "Legion" and posing for his adoring fans, Champagne admits to be somewhat lacking in future comic book projects. "I wish I had some more. Someone call me and hire me, dammit!"
Champagne says he has finish inking "JSA #50" and has a few parting words for fans and a fan in particular. ""Arthur Lender, I haven't forgotten you. I haven't forgotten the milk incident. You're still on my list. Don't cross my path. Oh, and thanks to everyone for supporting my work….buy 'JSA'!!!"