I was very sorry to hear that comic book artist Steve Lightle had passed away on January 8th. I have been a fan of his work for many years.
Steve Lightle was born on November 19, 1959 in the state of Kansas. Growing up he was a huge fan of DC Comics, especially Legion of Super-Heroes. As he recounted in a 2003 interview published in the excellent book The Legion Companion by Glen Cadigan from TwoMorrows Publishing:
“One of the oldest drawings that I’ve got was done in second grade, and it was a massive Legion fight scene that I probably did sitting at my desk when I should’ve been doing my work.”
In the early 1980s Lightle was in DC’s new talent program. His first published work was actually for Bill Black’s Americomics / AC Comics line in 1984, where he drew a handful of covers. Right from the start on these early pieces Lightle was already doing impressive work.
Lightle’s work soon after appeared in DC’s New Talent Showcase anthology, and in fill-in issues of Batman and the Outsiders and World’s Finest.
Less than a year into his professional career Lightle was asked by editor Karen Berger to take over as penciler on Legion of Super-Heroes from the outgoing co-plotter & penciler Keith Giffen, who after a stellar run felt burned out drawing the title, with its cast of thousands and myriad futuristic alien worlds. A surprised Lightle was happy to accept the assignment. His first issue was Legion of Super-Heroes volume 3 #3, cover-dated October 1984, which was co-plotted by Paul Levitz & Keith Giffen and scripted by Levitz. Lightle was inked by Larry Mahlstedt, who he would be paired with on most of his mid-1980s run.
In only his second issue Lightle has to draw the death of Karate Kid, one of his favorite members of the team. He did a superb job rendering this tragic event, as well as in the next issue where Princess Projecta executed Nemesis Kid for the murder of her husband. The storytelling on these sequences was stunning, really bringing to life the tragedy of Levitz & Giffen’s plots.
Lightle only penciled Legion for about a year, from #3 to #16, with a couple of other artists providing fill-ins during that time. Lightle, with his highly-detailed art style, was not an especially fast penciler, and that played a role in his departure.
As he explained in The Legion Companion:
“[T]he fact is, I took myself off the Legion… I had convinced myself that my inability to do everything I wanted in every issue was somehow meaning that I was delivering less than a hundred percent, and therefore I shouldn’t be on the book…. So the funny thing is, looking back, I can’t even understand my thinking on this.”
Although his run on Legion was relatively short, Lightle nevertheless had a huge influence on the series. He created the Legion’s first two totally non-humanoid members, Tellus and Quislet, and designed new costumes for several established characters.
Lightle also remained on as the cover-artist for Legion, drawing nearly every cover for volume 3 until it ended in 1989 with issue #63, as well as several covers of the reprint series Tales of the Legion and for the four issue Legion spin-off Cosmic Boy. Lightle also co-plotted and penciled “Back Home in Hell” in issue #23, a story which saw a traumatized Mon-El forced to return to the Phantom Zone when the serum that protects his Daxamite physiology from lead poisoning wears off.
Lightle is regarded by many Legion fans, myself included as one of the series’ definitive artists.
Following his departure from Legion of Super-Heroes, Lightle penciled the first five issues of the Doom Patrol reboot in 1987 and covers for various DC titles, plus several entries in their Who’s Who series.
In 1988 Lightle also began working for Marvel Comics, drawing a fill-in issue of X-Factor and becoming the cover artist for the reprint series Classic X-Men, an assignment that lasted from #30 (Feb 1989) to #56 (Feb 1991).
Yesterday I was attempting to recall when I first saw Steve’s work. I *think* it was when I bought Classic X-Men #39 in the Fall of 1989. Classic X-Men was in the middle of reprinting the epic “The Dark Phoenix Saga” by Claremont, Byrne & Austin from a decade earlier. I was 13 years old, and the dynamic Wolverine cover by Lightle immediately grabbed me. I missed the next issue, but a couple months later my parents got me #41, which had another amazing Lightle cover. I immediately became a fan of his work.
Soon after I saw Lightle’s cover artwork on Avengers Spotlight and Excalibur. He also drew a number of Marvel Universe trading cards.
In the early 1990s I was beginning to get into DC Comics, and one of the invaluable sources of information on the oft-confusing post-Crisis universe was the 16 issue loose leaf edition of Who’s Who in the DC Universe edited by Michael Eury.
Lightle illustrated several profile pics for Who’s Who, including a dramatic rendition of Ayla Ranzz, the former Lightning Lass, in the “Five Years Later” era of the Legion. I don’t know if Lightle ever drew any other Legion-related artwork set during this period, but now I wish he had. It’s a very striking image. He rendered Ayla as a beautiful, athletic figure in dynamic motion.
In 1992 Lightle’s work began appearing regularly in the bi-weekly anthology series Marvel Comics Presents. He drew an eight part Wolverine and Typhoid Mary serial written by Ann Nocenti, which was followed by a Ghost Rider and Typhoid Mary serial by the same team. The storyline culminated in the intriguing and thought-provoking “Bloody Mary: A Battle of the Sexes” by Nocenti, Lightle and co-artist Fred Harper in MCP #150-151 (March 1994).
Lightle’s artwork, with his innovative and unconventional layouts, and its sense of atmosphere, was incredibly well suited to depicting the ongoing story of Typhoid Mary and her fractured psyche. On several chapters coloring was provided by Steve’s wife Marianne Lightle.
Lightle was also the regular cover artist on Flash for DC between 1997 and 2000. He produced a series of very dramatic images during that three year run.
In the late 1990s I *finally* discovered, via back issues, Lightle’s work on Legion of Super-Heroes from the mid 1980s. I immediately recognized he was one of the all-time great artists on that series. Around this time I was fortunate enough to get to know both Steve and Marianne on social media.
I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes looks the Lightles gave of their incredible work for the all too short-lived Cross Plains Comics, which adapted and was inspired by the works of writer Robert E. Howard.
Among the projects Steve and Marianne worked on for Cross Plains was Red Sonja: A Death in Scarlet. Steve co-wrote the story with veteran Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja writer Roy Thomas, and penciled & inked the issue. Marianne Lightle colored it under the pen name Tayreza.
Red Sonja: A Death In Scarlet was intended to be a three issue miniseries, but unfortunately only the first issue ever came out. Nevertheless, it worked well as a stand-alone story. The artwork by Lightle was magnificent. I definitely wish he had been given more opportunities to draw Red Sonja.
It’s been observed by Legion of Super-Heroes fans that a number of the creators associated with the series have found themselves repeatedly drawn back to working on it throughout the years. At one point someone might have even jokingly referred to it as “Legionnaire’s Disease.”
Whatever the case, Lightle was one of those creators who found himself often returning to the teen heroes from 1000 years in the future. He drew the covers for the four issue miniseries Legends of the Legion in 1998, an Umbra solo story in The Legion #24 (Nov 2003), a cover for the Star Trek / Legion crossover (Nov 2011) and several covers for the New 52 reboot of Legion of Super-Heroes, along with an Invisible Kid solo story in issue #8 (June 2012), plus a few other Legion-related items.
Over the last two decades Lightle was working on several creator-owned web comic book series, issued under the umbrella of Lunatik Press. Among the series Lightle created was the space opera Justin Zane, the martial arts adventure Peking Tom, and the sexy funny animal series Catrina Fellina.
Steve and Marianne Lightle lived in the Kansas City region most of their lives, where they raised their children, and where their grandchildren now live. Throughout my interactions with Steve and Marianna on various social media platforms over the past two decades they always impressed me as genuinely good people. Steve’s death at the age of 61 from cardiac arrest brought on by Covid-19 is a tragedy. My thoughts go out to Marianne and her family in this difficult time.
There is currently a fundraiser on Go Fund Me to help the Lightle family with Steve’s medical bills and other expenses. If you are able, please contribute. Thank you.