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Paul Levitz‘s return to the Legion universe has been under way for the past several months (writing the character’s early days in Adventure Comics and the regular ongoing stories in Legion of Super-Heroes). With a gamut of issues already out I thought it would be a great time to discuss his work. Plus I got an opportunity to find out what it was like to be a student of Frank McCourt, as well as how a journalism class during that era helped strengthen his writing ability. My thanks to Levitz for indulging my questions and DC’s Alex Segura for his assistance in facilitating the interview. This Wednesday, September 22, will see the release of Legion of Super-Heroes 5.
Tim O’Shea: Before our Legion discussion, I would be remiss if I did not ask about being taught English at Stuyvesant High School by Frank McCourt (as mentioned at this Midtown Comics Times Square signing in May 2010). What were some of the major lessons you took from his instruction? Did you stay in touch with McCourt after high school–did he know how successful you became as a writer?
Paul Levitz: McCourt was teaching English, not yet officially Creative Writing, when I was his student. Vivid memories include the range of literature he opened our eyes to—Achebe and Mishima, the examples that still stick with me, and their very different world views and life experiences. He was very encouraging to me about my interests in comics, and my fanzine publishing, which was great. We stayed lightly in touch—I recall sending him the trade of Great Darkness when it first came out, and an email note back—and saw each other several times after he became an author. The best moment was a fund raising dinner for Stuy’s 100th, at which he presented me with an award (predominantly for my work on the 100th Anniversary book about Stuy). The other lesson, from a distance in time, is the power a good teacher has—looking at the long list of writers who came through his classes over the years, and our attachment to him. It’s one of the reasons I’m starting to teach now.
O’Shea: Also in the same YouTube video you mentioned briefly that you took a “a good journalism course” at New York University. I was curious as to why that class left such a good impression on you?
Levitz: My natural speech pattern is fairly long sentences, and somewhat pedantic. My early writing tended either to mimic that too much, or to build sentences for my characters that had far too many short, colorless words. The teachers (whose names I sadly don’t recall offhand) were two NY POST editors living through the shift from the left-leaning and gentrified POST under Dorothy Schiff to Murdoch’s early, right-leaning and British style tab…but in between telling tales of their suffering, they taught parsing sentences well, and the joy of brevity.
O’Shea: With the Adventure Comics series, you’re retelling the origin of the Legion. Are you re-examining the origins to re-examine/clarify the continuity of the group and/or as a means to set dynamics in place that you can utilize in the main Legion title?
Levitz: Geoff raised the challenge of build a trade that can be a starting place for reading the Legion. I think I took it too literally, and that led to doing stories that among other qualities reach back to the team’s beginnings. But while I’m there, I’ve been able to put in place quite a number of nuggets that are picked up on in the current tales.
O’Shea: This is your third round writing the Legion, as you have matured as a writer, has your understanding of certain members of the cast evolved as well–are there characters you’re more comfortable writing than you were on your first or second runs on the property?
Levitz:Might be too soon to tell—there’s a lot of them I haven’t had as much time with as I’d like yet. Hope so.
O’Shea: Was writing two monthly books your idea, or did DC editorial suggest one of the books after you had committed to the other?
Levitz: It sort of evolved circumstantially. Originally it was Legion in ADVENTURE, then a solo LEGION, then it was well, might as well keep running them in ADVENTURE too.
O’Shea: In the Legion book, the current storyline features the kidnapping of Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad’s twin children. Were you hesitant to build a plotline around putting the heroes’ children at risk, given the recent negative reaction to the death of Liam (Roy Harper’s daughter) in the Justice League: Cry for Justice?
Levitz: I haven’t followed the reactions you’re referring to, but I think there’s a reality to children being at risk in the world, and certainly in the melodramatic world of the Legionnaires’ lives, it’s not unexpected.
O’Shea: I found it interesting that in addition to the large cast that the Legion enjoys, you’re also exploring the future of the Green Lanterns in the main Legion title. What motivated you to explore the Lanterns in the Legion series?
Levitz: Started doing that almost 30 years ago…why stop now?
O’Shea: In the most recent issue of Adventure Comics, Superboy “knows he’s destined for greatness as Superman, but how does a teenager deal with that knowledge?” Given how deeply examined Superboy and Superman have been explored by storytellers over the year, how challenging was it to tackle a story like this with a fresh perspective?
Levitz: There’s a literary concept called exhaustion, which looks at the literally thousands of tales told of these characters with some amazement that anything new can be added. I’m lucky to be working in a portion of their mythos that hasn’t been as fully explored.
O’Shea: In ADVENTURE COMICS #519, you take the story to the past and Smallville. Can you talk about which residents of Smallville we get to see, or would that be giving too much away?
Levitz: Not too many ‘name’ characters, but there’s a few fun moments at a barn raising.
O’Shea: As a person who wrote monthly comics in the 1970s and 1980s, how does the pacing of comics compare now to then, if at all?
Levitz: The largest shift—which I’ve far from mastered—is that in the days of my previous work, collected editions were a rarity, and now a near certainty. This means you should simultaneously build stories to work as serial dramas in monthly bites and in their ultimate book format; no mean trick. The other pacing shifts are more subtle, and vary more from writer to writer, so we’ll see how my version goes over.
O’Shea: Given how well-versed you are in Legion community, while writing these new stories is all the institutional knowledge of the characters solely in your head–or do you have the books on a shelf nearby for reference?
Levitz: I’ve already made a mistake or two relying on what’s in my head, but I often go to the books themselves, for reference and for inspiration. It’s no secret that my library has an awful lot of comics on its shelves…