Levitz Explores "Legion of Super-Heroes" and their "Secret Origins"

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" seems to be the motto DC Comics is going by when it comes to "Legion Of Super-Heroes," its long-running comic book series currently written by former DC Comics President Paul Levitz. While DC is shaking up both continuity and creative teams on many other titles for their upcoming September relaunch, Levitz is staying firmly put as the "Legion Of Super-Heroes" writer, picking up threads and themes from his "Legion" and "Adventure Comics" storylines post-September.

Levitz, whose earlier runs on "Legion" made him one of DC fandom's most popular writers, is joined by artist Francis Portela on the renumbered series, which follows the Legion's newest recruits as they help rebuild the intergalactic organization. If that is not enough, in October fans will get a double dose of Levitz as he and artist Chris Batista unveil "Legion: Secret Origin," a six-issue miniseries dealing with the unexplored history of the Legion's founding.

With so much Legion activity going on, CBR News decided to put on our flight rings and pay Levitz a visit, speaking with the writer about his two series, as well as how he's retooling the "Legion Of Super-Heroes" for new readers, and his thoughts on his status among fans.

CBR News: Now, you are not just writing "Legion Of Super-Heroes," you've also got the "Legion: Secret Origin" miniseries coming out in October. What can you tell us about "Legion: Secret Origin?" Does it set up events for "Legion Of Super-Heroes" or is it a standalone story?

Paul Levitz: They are pretty separate; I think the idea on "Secret Origin" is that we've told the basic story of the incident that sparked the Legion a zillion times, any number of us has written versions of that. So when the guys asked if I was inclined I said yeah, but let's do this with more emphasis on secret than on origin and try to use the six issues to try to focus on a number of things that we didn't know was going on around the time the Legion was born, and really to enrich the universe, enrich the characters, because it is the origin of these characters. It's set a number of years before the current running series is going on, but we'll plant some things that will come to seed in the series. But mostly it takes place within its own tale.

Turning to the ongoing series, will this new "Legion" be radically different than your pre-September run, or will it retain the same sort of tone and feel as the current "Legion?"

I think Dan [Didio] has said in a couple of interviews that on the list of books "Legion" is probably one of the least changed titles in the New 52, but there is still significant change. The month before you have a couple of tragic things go on in the two running Legion books that have been happening, [and] the launch of "Legion Lost" affects the lives of another eight or nine characters in important ways. So you pick up issue #1 with a fair amount having happened between the months, more than you would customarily have. There's new members in it, a bunch of old members have appeared to have died -- the Legionnaires assume the "Legion Lost" people have perished -- you have resignations that have taken place as a result. There's a series of transitional things, and hopefully some tonal shifts as well.

In the past, whenever DC has rebooted Superman's origin, Legion's origin often gets changed as well. Post-relaunch, will Clark Kent Superboy be involved in (or still be the inspiration for) "Legion?"

Clearly there will be a relationship back to Kal-El, Clark Kent, however you want to define him. We're not revealing at this point exactly how all of that works in part because we're watching what Grant [Morrison] is doing; he's really taking the lead with the transitions on Superman and the more we can see what tone he's going for and how he's fitting it together, the more likely we are to be able to fit in nicely with that.

From the first issue solicits we know there will be characters coming in from the Legion Academy. With this tonal shift you mentioned, will you be exploring the world of "Legion" more in the upcoming series -- doing less work with individual characters and delving more into the worlds they come from, the status the Legion holds in the United Planets and so forth?

I think you get a couple of those things. The status of the Legion in the UP is something we explore a lot in the "Secret Origin" series. There's always been a couple of fundamental, largely unanswered questions about the Legion. One, many of these characters have the same power as other people on their planet -- what makes them so special that they're the singular person who "represents" that world within the Legion? Hopefully we'll address that question for quite a number of characters in the process and the sort of psychology of that question. The other is, if you will, the classic Robin conundrum -- why is Batman running around allowing a young kid put himself in that kind of danger? Why is this bunch of relatively young people so important to the United Planets and the world of the future? So both of those are questions we're asking and hopefully answering effectively in the "Secret Origin" series.

In the main book, you get part of the tonal shift because you have a couple of younger characters in the book; the Legion was originally all about young teenagers, but over the years the characters have aged a bit, so by turning the spotlight more on a mix that includes these newer, younger characters I think you affect the balance of the book in a lot of interesting ways. It provokes talking about different themes and watching different kinds of reactions. There's no Legion Academy per se in the first few issues because we've explored that pretty energetically in the "Adventure" run, but eventually we'll see what's happened to the Legion Academy and what's going on with all that.

Talking about the new characters, I understand that you have Glorith, Chemical Kid and Dragonwing coming into play. Can you talk a little about these new characters and their take on the Legion?

Well you've got three very different personalities there as they've been established within the Academy stories we've done so far. Chemical Kid is a very deliberately created superhero. His dad went to great lengths, we've seen, to do basically a gene transplant to give him the powers of a dead Legionnaire. He wants the fame, he wants the perceived fortune, the glory, and he's finding out what the hell he's gotten himself into in a very different way than being in the Academy. There's that moment where you go from being the star kid, whether it's academically or athletically, in your local school to the school that pulls from a bigger area, whether that's your high school or college and it's like, "Oh, this is a whole different game around here!" I think he's going though a little bit of that.

Dragonwing we haven't learned nearly as much about what her motivations are and what she's doing there. But she's already been established as being a little bit cynical about the Legion Academy experience, having watched so many kids in the class ahead of her not get into the Legion -- and suddenly she's there, and what's going on with that?

Glorith on the other hand we know almost nothing about except she's sort of bewildered by being brought into all these environments and seems to be very powerful, as magical characters often are, with connections with the White Witch and Blok, two established Legionnaires. And she has a fairly complicated story to tell and I think she'll be the trigger of one of the more interesting storylines we'll have in "Legion" over the course of the next year or so.

With all of these characters I imagine your office is just covered in flowcharts and pictures of Legionnaires connected by string!

I have joked for many years that it's sadly a book you need a scorecard to write! I've used flowcharts as a plotting tool for many, many years not just for "Legion." It's a way of sorting my thoughts as I'm stuck trying to [write a] story. So there's always a stack of them sitting in a file folder, usually a three or four page list of who I left where: "When we last saw Blok on the Sorcerers' World in 'Adventure' number blank!" so that I don't lose track of the characters. Nonetheless, there are a couple of storylines along the way that I misplaced somewhere, but I try not to!

Now, DC is trying to make all their relaunch titles new reader-friendly. As "Legion" is a complex, complicated comic book with a long and convoluted history, how do you go about giving readers a jumping on point?

What I tried to do this time was to start the focus with a relatively smaller cast. The storyline that begins in the first issue really focuses fairly energetically on five Legionnaires on a very specific mission. You get a couple of pages of information in the course of the story that establishes there are other teams off doing other things and there's a Legion headquarters, but you don't have a moment where you're sitting there staring at a table full of twenty-five characters with little name signs that say, "Hi, my superpower is confusing you!" So I'm hoping that the story will be smooth enough and inviting enough that you'll get interested in the relationships of the first couple of people. One of the things I'm trying to do is, in the same fashion, that some of the characters who are first focused on there will be meaningful in the "Secret Origin" story. Clearly not the new Legion Academy kids because they're too new for that, but you'll see a little more of Phantom Girl in the first storyline, you'll see a little more of Phantom Girl early on in "Secret Origin" because she's one of the characters whose back story has never been really explored very much. Hopefully those things make it a little more accessible.

It's not ever going to be a low information, easy ride book. But I think part of the reason many of us fell in love with it is the same reason a generation of kids love Pokemon, or "Lord Of The Rings" on the other end of the spectrum. I remember my youngest sitting there with a giant Pokemon chart of the 150 Pokemon and how one evolved into the other and how it fit together, and he seemed to really enjoy having that "secret knowledge." I think he felt the same way about that, in many ways, that I felt about the Legionnaires in my time. So I'm hoping that continues to be a joy that a certain group of readers have, that they'll fall in love with the complexity of the fantasy and want to hang around. And at the same time, because "Legion" has a solid audience that seems to follow it from situation to situation even when we've disappointed them on some occasions, you don't want to toss the history that they love out -- you just don't want to be assaulting the new reader with it.

Many of these characters are the oldest characters DC has too, and there's definitely a sense of shared history, though we still don't know all there is to know about the world.

Yeah! I did a speech about ten years ago at an event called Digital Kids and they asked me to talk about community online; this was before the era of Facebook, social media was just beginning to evolve. I said, "Look, I'm not a great digital person, I'm from the old world, but I think there are very specific things that allow creative properties to attract community and one of those things is a certain measure of ambiguity." Readers enjoy debating, well, where were the other two of the five wizards in "Lord Of The Rings," how come they didn't play a role? We see Radagast for two minutes -- is he just dumb and doesn't notice everything else going on? What is the reason for that? Why doesn't the ring have power over Tom Bombadil? And you have to care a lot. If you love Tolkien, if you love the mythos of it, that can be the subject of a half hour debate between a couple of readers, or even just a reader in his own head thinking about it and getting lost in that moment.

Switching to the art, how has it been working with artist Francis Portela again?

He's a wonderful pro; I had great fun with him on the last run. Francis is, speaking of digital, a more digital artist. He put a lot of energy in this because it's a relaunch in not only looking at updating things like costume but updating the technology of the future, building these complex wireframe environments that he can use for the Legion headquarters and things like that. Writing science fiction is much more challenging today than it was thirty years ago! Thirty years ago you could see where technology was going but it wasn't getting there real fast. Now, the technology that affects our lives is changing startlingly on an annual basis. Steve Jobs gets up and announces from now on we have the iBelly Button! It's just going to be wired right in and all you'll have to do is pat your tummy and you'll holographically project what you want in front of you! I'm not sure we're ready for that one yet, boss, but I'm sure he has someone in the basement working on it! So when you try to say this is what is going to be going on a thousand years from now and this is what it'll look like, it's really an enormously interesting challenge for the artist to rise to that, and Francis is taking that very seriously and having some fun with it.

Finally, I think it's safe to say you are a fan-favorite "Legion" writer. Why do you think fans respond so positively to your specific approach to the "Legion of Super-Heroes?"

As a kid it was a book I loved. I think that comes through in the material that I write. I was always a great fan of superhero teams; I think it's a really interesting storytelling structure, in many ways more interesting than the single superhero because you can have all the additional drama of people's lives changing, moving back and forth, all the transitions involved. And whether that be "Avengers" when Stan [Lee] or Roy [Thomas] were doing it, "Fantastic Four" under Stan or "Legion" at DC, or even "DOOM Patrol," those were all places I learned my craft. Particularly coming on "Legion" following in the footsteps of so many writers who I knew and grew up on and admired, from friends like Jerry Siegel and Jim Shooter, Cary Bates on to people I never got the chance to meet like Ed Hamilton, hopefully that respect and that passion shows. It doesn't mean they don't beat the crap out of me when I blow a piece of continuity or forget the name of a home planet or a typo sneaks in that I don't catch. But I think they know I really try with that!

"Legion Of Super-Heroes" hits stores September 21; "Legion: Secret Origin" releases October 26.

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