Saturday, August 20, 2011

Baltimore 2011: Legion of Super Heroes Panel

The Legion of Super-Heroes panel consisted of Mike Grell, Keith Giffen, Mark Waid, Barry Kitson and Chris Roberson. Paul Levitz was originally scheduled but had to cancel. Jack C. Harris, an editor on early Legion stories, joined on the panel. Bob Greenberger moderated the panel. Grell was running late, so he appeared in the middle of the first question.

Greenberger first asked the panelists how they were introduced to the Legion and what they saw as the appeal of the group:

As the newest member of the Legion family, Chris Roberson started off by citing DC Blue Ribbon Digest in 1979 as his introduction. He particularly loved they included these lists of Legion characters that he memorized. He went so far as to join the Amateur Press Associations (APAs) and taught himself Interlac, much to the amusement of the other panelists.

Barry Kitson grew up with the Curt Swan era Legion. He recalls tracing Swan figures so he could make his own Legion paper figures. He also reminded us that British comics distribution was haphazard back then, so sometimes you'd get a later story long before you found the rest.

Mark Waid grew up in the Deep South where there was no Marvel distribution to speak of, so he collected all the DC he could find. His first LSH story was "Death of Ferro Lad" which he said was mind blowing at the time because all the other comics he'd read were happy and fun.

Jack C. Harris had been around since the Legion first started in Adventure Comics. He looked ageless. He described Legion as an "accidental series" that grew out of a bunch of appearances here and there until it finally took over its own series.

While Keith Giffen and Mike Grell knew the series, it was more of a regular pay check. What appealed to Keith Giffen was world-building; he saw "limitless potential" in drawing the worlds and background of the Legion. What he didn't like doing was real-world reference work, so being able to make up while he went along appealed to him. He recalled Levitz using Westminster Abbey in as Great Darkness Saga and hating having to do the homework. He preferred letting his imagination go free to show how the different worlds looks and existed. He or Grell commented that it was sometimes hard for artists to maintain that otherworldliness when they're on a tight deadline and the tendency is fall on old science fiction tropes like Adam Strange or Flash Gordon.

Depending on how you looked at it, Mike Grell had the good or bad fortune of coming in the door at DC while Dave Cockrum was on the way out. Grell was warned immediately that he was about to start receiving a *lot* of hate mail. He hadn't done anything so he couldn't understand why. He was replacing Cockrum, the Legion's most successful and popular artist to date. His first Legion story would also feature the death of a Legionnaire. The Legion fans are nothing if not loud and loyal. At that time, Legion was the ideal entry book for young readers – Harris commented on it as well as how with the Justice League, you already knew those characters from their own series, but with the Legion half the fun was discovering them for yourself.

On that front, Chris Roberson was asked how two fanatical fandoms like Star Trek and Legion were going to manage together. Roberson admitted he was part of the narrow VENN diagram that liked both. But he gave a perfect description that could apply to either franchise, showcasing their similarities rather than their differences. The Legion/Star Trek crossover book for IDW is set just after the Great Darkness Saga.

Waid talked about his own experiences as a former fan turned Legion editor and writer. He'd spent a month creating IGC's Legion Index, cataloguing all the Legion appearances to date. He was also the editor of the Who's Who in the Legion of Super-Heroes. He mentioned the struggle with creating civilian names for so many minor characters. Levitz would come back and say "no, that won't work/doesn't make sense". His logic was that each world had a particular naming convention. If Imra Ardeen was from Titan, then all others from Titans should follow a similar pattern of vowels and syllables. Ironically Waid said he'd used that convention now and it worked quite well.

Then Waid switched to editing the main book with the Zero Hour Legion and returned for the three-boot with Barry Kitson. Both iterations provided different challenges. With the Zero Hour, Waid described it as a big house of cards. All the things that made the Legion's history work no longer applied or existed in their continuity. It didn't matter how much they changed things around, the foundation was basically on shifting sand. They tried their best to make it work.

With the three-boot, Waid had a different problem. They came to him and said "we don't know how to sell this book". No one perceived Legion as that reader friendly book Grell described anymore. You needed thirty years of backstory/continuity to get half of the stories. So they wanted him to start fresh. Kitson looked at all the different costumes/character designs for the LSH and redesigned them accordingly, taking the best bits here and there.

Grell discussed working with Murray Boltinoff. Grell mentioned how he had no sense of humor. To his great credit, Boltinoff would treat every job very professionally and looked at each issue individually as if they were the first one. That sometimes meant that continuity went out the window and Boltinoff was quite happy. The Legion faithful were not so happy about this though. Interestingly, Boltinoff is credited with freshening up LSH with bringing in Cockrum, but Harris implied heavily otherwise.

Different artist/writer teams worked in different ways. Grell recalled how Jim Shooter would submit these massive scripts from 60-80 pages with the most miniscule detail mapped out, while others were more creative/lenient. Giffen talked about getting the several page scripts from Paul Levitz and reading them on the commute back. Then he'd tear them up and do them from memory, distilling them down to their best bits. He told Levitz this only a few years ago. Levitz would also include any number of references (i.e. previous appearances of characters) Giffen would ignore. He favors consistency, not hard-line continuity. Make sure a character looks or acts the same, but he hated the "Well, he can't appear here, because he's over there having lunch" type scenarios. He apparently angered the Superman office so much that he wasn't allowed to use him in LSH anymore as Superboy or Superman. He left with a bang, so to speak, by blowing up the moon before Biernbaums took over. Everyone said how angsty and moving it was, but really it was just Giffen having a hissy fit.

On the costume front, Grell and Giffen talked about the unique challenges inherent with the LSH. Giffen redesigned/simplified Colossal Boy's costume because he couldn't figure out how Cockrum's costume. Grell actually owns the sketchbook of Cockrum's LSH costume designs that he still uses for referencing. His particular bugaboo was Shrinking Violet's green costume. For a recent commission of Shrinking Violet, he studied the sketchbook to figure out the black detailing on her cleavage. He realized finally after so many years that it was a SV. Giffen talked about the massive LSH poster he'd created, showing every character that had appeared in the series. The average JLA issue might have a crowd shot of only eight main characters, but the Legion could have thirty and Levitz loved those big "oh bleep" moments.

The "oh bleep" moment for Giffen was at a pivotal moment in the Great Darkness Saga where Levitz put a panel description where "all the inhabitants of Daxam rise off the planet together." Now understand he never called Levitz usually. But this time Giffen called and asked "Are you shitting me?" Levitz calmly reminded him of an art technique using dots (stippling?) to show all the people.

The question and answer session ran for the last ten minutes of the panel or so. Waid received the "save DC" plea from one fan, but he said it was very very unlikely. Polar Boy would probably be quite handy, let's just say.

Asked about their least favorite Legionnaire, the older writers had their obvious picks. Keith Giffen proudly announced it was Karate Kid and he killed him three times. Mike Grell hated Tyroc. He'd tried to include African Americans in earlier stories only to be told "there are no black people in the future". They'd all gone off to an island and existed in separate dimension. Grell had even colored a character black only to have to change it, "because they'd get letters". Even when it was changed he was told that it still looked like a brother with pink skin. So when he drew Tyroc he gave him Elvis' Vegas costume, pixie boots, and styled him after Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, a football player and actor. Williamson hadn't minded, until he saw the actual art. Mark Waid never particularly liked Wildfire. Kitson and Roberson didn't name particular dislikes.

Overall, the panel was quite delightful. Grell and Giffen, in particular, were hoots and a half. Greenberger kept the panel moving at a brisk pace with his list of questions. I left wanting to revisit some of the earlier eras and notice all the details I missed or didn't appreciate the first time around.

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