Simonson on Art, Comics and "Legion of Super-Heroes"

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!

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!

Simonson and Levitz have known each other since the '70s and do a "Legion" book together roughly every 15 years

Actually this was only the second complete issue that we've done, but we've done like oddballs; I did maybe ten years, fifteen years ago a little short squib of some kind. I did a short piece in a much longer "Legion" issue, a lead in for something Paul had planned for something coming up. At one point I had penciled and inked a single page where a couple of guys were aliens and one of these guys was helping a soup kitchen somewhere downtown. So we had little squibs every so often, and about a little over a year ago, when Paul was getting ready to leave DC staff and go freelance, my wife and I took him out for lunch. We've eaten plenty on Paul's nickel so we thought we would take him out and we had a very nice lunch and in the course of that I said, "Well, once you go back to writing freelance if you're game I would love to draw one more issue of the Legion, we're about due." He was amenable to that, so this was our issue. And because I was just doing the one issue he made it kind of a one-off story, so it's really a day in the life kind of story, there's not a lot of action as far as physical action goes. It's one of these things where almost every page, not quite, are different characters in different locations and we're kind of seeing different Legionnaires in their daily lives, trials, and tribulations, and then occasionally triumphs.

The solicitation teases every single Legion member popping up, so I imagined that for this issue were you crouched over, adding in panels and drawing hundreds and hundreds of Legionnaires.

[Laughs] I didn't do hundreds and hundreds! You know, Paul and I did this what we used to call Marvel style: Paul wrote a plot, I drew it, and then he wrote the dialogue from the art, which is a way [of working] that used to be common and is not so common anymore. So he really lined out who all the characters were and what they were doing and their situations. In some case it was just a single page with a couple of characters on it; some cases it was a page with three or four characters. Probably the most challenging part of it really was, even though it wasn't hundreds of characters there were enough characters, and especially with DC's relaunch of the New 52, that some of the characters had been redesigned. Some of them had not, but of course all Legionnaires over the years have been redesigned, most of them a number of times, so it was a challenge to gather their reference in a timely fashion to be able to draw all these different guys. If I'd been drawing one or two or four Legionnaires in the issue, you reference those characters once and you'd be done with your reference. In this issue pretty much every page had reference challenges.

For example, Glorith is in her room, she is writing a letter to some friends and it turns out it's her own quarters in the Legion Headquarters. In this incarnation of the Legion those quarters have never been drawn before. So I didn't have to reference them, but I did have to work out what I thought a young girl's room would look like given her sort of powers and interests. I talked to Paul about it some, I made some suggestions, and there was a redesign of her costume which I think Jim Lee did. I was sent a drawing that I think is Jim's -- if it wasn't you, I'm sorry! -- but there were some notes on it that were intriguing. Because of that it gave me a handle on something to do with her room, so in the room there's kind of a living tree which seems to echo some of the stuff that she's about. I thought it would make the room rather different from your standard science fiction quarters, stainless steel and stuff like that, and it gave me a whole direction. She has a desk which I use, a kind of old wood desk that's actually roots coming up from the legs, so it's almost a part of the living tree, and that of course just for me echoes the Odyssey and Penelope and Odysseus' bed where the part of the one leg is from a living tree originally that couldn't be moved.

Now that I've said that people who read this article will know that's what that's about, but it's a way of finding something interesting to draw and to think about when you're trying to design that stuff. There were other rooms I got to do my thing, there were several rooms like the big conference room with all these TV screens and monitors where DC has a computer model that [regular artist Francis Portela] worked out -- thank you very much, it makes life a lot easier! -- and it was just the table and all the chairs in the conference room, all the backgrounds. That made it much easier to work from because I had several different views of the same room.

One of the pages in the book takes place in Stonehenge. That was really a very kind thing that Paul did for me that was actually pretty funny. The story is, a million years ago I drew the "Metal Men" for about a year, they were bi-monthly so it was about five issues. In it there was a story, I believe Marty Pasco wrote it, we were working together, and it involved Stonehenge and stone monoliths based on that work. At the time, this was like '76 maybe, the web did not exist so we did not have any options like that and I scavenged around for reference. Of course reference was always problematic back then because you didn't have a lot of time to go searching. I'd go to the library and use the clipping file, I'd buy books that had pictures and so on, and I found a really, really teeny picture of Stonehenge in the American Heritage Dictionary, this little tiny black and white picture. And that was the entire reference for Stonehenge the time. In the way these things work, I was living in New York City at the time, and I went to the Strand bookstore -- this has got to be within two or three weeks of me finishing that job. So I'm in the Strand bookstore and I come across a series of Time Life books, which I used to love because they had fabulous pictures, which were great for reference. And these were about Paleolithic culture and the evolution of man, the development of man, and one of the books was about the Neolithic stone culture in Europe. I'm thumbing through it and the way those mostly work is they have a chapter and then a photo essay with a number of pages, and then a chapter with a photo essay, then a chapter with a photo essay, not difficult reading but they were really lovely pictures made for reference. I'm looking through it and the last photo reference is Stonehenge. So two weeks after I have to draw Stonehenge I find pictures of Stonehenge in the rain. Stonehenge in the morning. Stonehenge at dusk. Stonehenge in the fog. An overview of Stonehenge. An under view of Stonehenge. So of course I bought the book -- and never had the opportunity to draw Stonehenge again!

So when Paul and I were talking about the story I told him this and he said, "I'll fix it for you." So I have a Stonehenge page inside the "Legion" issue and that's why that page is there. And I had great reference! [Laughs] This is one of the things I enjoy about working with other creators, whether it's writers or artists, is everybody gets in their two cents here or there and you come up with something you maybe wouldn't have come up with by yourself. It was fun!

In terms of your art process, obviously references are a big thing you draw from and something that you've done throughout your career. I know before you worked in comics you were considering going into paleontology -- is that research background something you bring to each job you work on?

Well, part of it might go back to my paleo days when I was a geology major. It's also partly my upbringing. My father was a scientist, he was a soil scientist, and studied soil around the world. It wasn't just about farming, it was really trying to figure out about the different kinds of soils and how human habitation above them was related to them, how it affected them, how it could be utilized or what you had to do to be able to be there. Including things like he was in Okinawa about a year after World War II and mapping soils there, and one of the things the army wanted to know about the soils in Okinawa, they wanted the island broken into four specific groups so that they would know what kind of soap to issue their soldiers. Because in some places you could use ordinary soap and it would work fine. In some places you would have to have tougher soap, some places even tougher soap, and there were some places where no matter what soap you used you couldn't get the stuff out of your clothes, but they wanted the best tough soap they could use. So they wanted to know how to zone the island so they would know what to issue men located in different places.

But one of the things my Dad was very big on, and my brother who is a geologist I think got this from Dad as well, Dad was very much interested in the empirical evidence. He wanted to know what the facts were in the ground, so to speak, in order to start figuring out how things were working, rather than coming up with theories and then going and seeing if the theory worked. In a way that's kind of what the reference is for me. I want the story first so I know what I'm going to have to draw, and then I'm very interested in getting a hold of as much real stuff [as possible]. Even in the course of "Legion" where I'm drawing a young girl's room in the 30th century with a tree in the room I'm looking at trees, I'm trying to figure out how to make them work, I'm looking at some architectural ideas, I'm looking at desks and chairs, and then of course there's a million varieties. I'm trying to figure out some way to put those together in what I would regard as a coherent whole -- not trying to design the room as if I'm some designer from TLC and done some amazing work, but I'd like it to look like it's part of a whole.

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.

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Tags: dc comics, thor, legion of super-heroes, walt simonson, paul levitz, the judas coin

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