BACK ISSUE! 22 (Jun 2007)
Following on from the article in BACK ISSUE! 15 which featured both Dave Cockrum and Mike Grell, this issue turns the spotlight on scribe Paul Levitz and artist/writer Keith Giffen.
At the time of the joint interview, Paul was president and publisher at DC Comics, while Keith was handling Countdown for DC and Starlord for Marvel.
Paul's love for the Legion is well-known, as is evidenced by his three separate tenures as the writer of a title which he acknowledges would be “a pain in the ass” unless you really loved it.
“You'd literally have to write the Legion with a scorecard and notes. If you didn't know them and love them, it was a lot of hardwork,” he said.
Keith was more direct. “If you didn't care for these characters, it woluld be agony,” he said.
Both agreed that the biggest incentive to accept the Legion gig was that it guaranteed a monthly paycheck, “which was the Holy Grail', Keith stated.
“Even if you didn't love the Legion, no-one in their right mind back then would go “A monthly book? A regular income? Hell No!”.
Paul agreed, saying “it had been written for the cash a couple of times in the past”, to which Keith pointed out “And it showed”.
Something the creators had to deal with was the lack of a ready reference for Legion characters and worlds, which was a blessing and a curse.
It was in the days before encyclopedias, DC Whos Who guides and wikis on the net.
“There are 18 to 20 members at any given time and you can't reference things,” Paul said. “But I really loved the fact that the Legion was off in its own little corner so I didn't have to worry about how the streets of Smallville were organized or who Superman was fighting this week. We coud have this wonderful science fiction time inventing things.”
Reflecting on his initial run, Paul was critical of many of the stories but was rightly proud of the Earthwar saga.
"The five-parter may well have been the longest story that DC had done to that date,” he said.
“Artist Jim Sherman found that doing a monthly was really out of his reach, even if we cut some of the pages out for backups and things.
“He has commercial commitments. Jim is a wonderfully successful commercial illustrator and designer.
“He was sort of perfect for the Legion because he was very much a Curt Swan for his generation.
“He really knew how to draw faces and emotions the way Curt did. But there was just no way he could keep up with the book, so we had him and Mike Nasser as the theoretic primary alternative for him.
“As the scheduling became more challenging, more and more people jumped in, and eventually, Joe Staton replaced him.”
Keith, on the other hand, was one who felt keen to take on the artistic chores even if he was aware of the difficulties it would pose.
"What I saw in the Legion was a lot of untapped potential in terms of the visual take on the book,” he said. “What you can do with different cultures, how you can approach the characters, how you can make the stories really stand out.
“Paul, I seem to recall you coming over to me and led with 'I'm going to use Darkseid'.
'If I had any doubts at that point, that pretty much evaporated because I was a big fan of the Kirby Fourth World stuff.
“And to me, reality has always been a distraction. I was really thrilled when I picked up the Legion because I would never have to look up a Studebaker again!”
Giffen came on after a run of artists which included the afore-mentioned Staton and Jimmy Janes.
“Jimmy was spectacularly ill-cast for the series,” Paul said. “He was a good meat-and-potatoes storyteller, but ke knew reality better than he knew fantasy.”
The Great Darkness Saga was another storyline fondly-remembered, with Paul recalling that many moments of inspiration came from his time in the Legion Amateur Press Alliance (APA) Interlac, during which period this blogger was also a member.
An example was the notion that Validus was a child of Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl.
“Legion fandom back then was very vocal,” Keith said. “Paul and I had a very good relationship with fans, we would include them in certain aspects of the book, makin them feel appreciated.
“This was before the internet. You had to wait for this APA phone book to come in the mail. And there would often be a litle nugget in there and we'd go 'Maybe we should use this one'.”
Among the members were Tom and Mary Bierbaum, who would later become Legion scripters in their own right.
(*And if you're interested, Interlac is still going strong.)
Paul points out that the glory of writing the Legion was that they could “do things that were real change”.
“In most comics, you have the challenge that you can't kill any of the principal characters, you can't kill them off,” he said.
“In Legion, you could kill somebody every couple of years, mayy somebody in-between, screw with their lives in one fashion or another!”
“Well we had to keep ourselves interested, but I think from day one, when it comes to Karate Kid, I was campaigning for him to get the bullet,” Keith said.
“I despised the character. KK was the one that rubbed me the wrong way … and when we killed him, I left the book. I was fulfilled [laughter].”
Ironically, Keith was also working on Countdown at the time, the series which culminated in gruesome deaths for KK and Una, one of Duo Damsel's bodies. It would be the third time Keith killed off the martial arts hero (the second being the SW6 batch version during the Five-Year-Later period).
Keith expands on the reason he originally left the book.
“It was the poster,” he said. “When DC wanted to do posters, I said “Let me see if I can put on a poster every single character that appeared in a Legion book since it started.'
“And by the time I was done with it, it's like being force-fed pizza for a year. After that, do you still want more pizza?”
|Keith Giffen's infamous poster.|
“I lost a collaborator when Keith left,” Paul said.
“I ended up with some good people: Greg Larocque was very solid. Steve Lightle came closest to Keith as being a collaborator. He came up with Tellus. He always had a bunch of ideas.”
But Keith admits one can never really leave the Legion.
“It's like a siren's song calling to me over the waves,” he said. “You can only ignore it for so long. Then you go back and say “Oh God. Here we go again.”
Never were truer words spoken. Paul and Keith reunited on the Legion on several more occasions, the last time during the run which would ultimately led to the Legion's cancellation.
Given the directive by DC to wrap up the series, Keith came up with a plotline that destroyed the Legion and left it in tatters. Sun Boy and Star Boy were killed along the way, Mon-El lost an arm, while leader Phantom Girl deserted her post in cowardice.
The only saving grace perhaps was Paul's twist that the story could have taken place in an alternate universe, but that was scant consolation for the hundreds of fans who felt cheated at the end of the arc.
The Legion has not returned since the end of that series.
**The article covers other subjects, such as the creation of the Pocket Universe as a band aid for John Byrne's Superman revamp, Keith's aim to topple TEEN TITANS as DC's top-selling book, and the reasons behind some of the 5YL developments.
Bits Boy runs the comprehensive Legion completists’ site Bits of Legionnaire Business.