Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Showcase Presents: the Legion of Super-Heroes

Our book today is DC Comics' Showcase volume featuring the very beginnings of the Legion of Super-Heroes.

Several parts of that last sentence have no doubt confused those of you not among the cognoscenti. Allow us to clarify. The Legion we're referring to was (will be) formed a thousand years from now, after humanity has undergone untold catastrophes and bouts of cultural amnesia. In that time a very rich man well-versed in history gathers three super-powered teenagers around him who remind him of 20th century legends, legends of the famed Superman and his Justice League. The implication of a future devoid of heroism is left unexplored for most of the Legion's early history (actually, for almost all of the Legion's history, until an epochal moment in time known as the Giffen Reboot), but then, that rich man and that origin story are also left unmentioned in the Legion's earliest years, the years chronicled in this marvellous Showcase volume.

We must here distance ourselves from those who reflexively maintain that comics don't count as literature worthy of comment. We have little patience for such a stance, as some of you may know - anything intelligently created may be intelligently reviewed, without shame of provenance.

No, the real point of interest here in this Showcase volume isn't the worthiness of its contents but their revolutionary nature, and that revolutionary nature will be largely invisible to readers born after 1960.

Picture the scenario: young Clark Kent, living in rural Smallville, has already launched himself on a career as Superboy. He flies out from a homemade tunnel underneath his parents' house to fight crime, then flies back to do his homework. His only companion in adventure is his super-powered dog Krypto.

Krypto is his only companion in adventure because there isn't anybody else in the world who can do the things they do: there are no other teen super-heroes. Looming over the whole story of Superboy is a crushing weight of simple loneliness, and it's a thing no Superboy writer ever explored directly. But indirectly, they never forgot about it: Krypto was almost certainly dreamt up by the writers to alleviate the stark and slightly unappealing uniqueness of Superbody himself.

And this is true to the Nth degree for the invention of the Legion of Super-Heroes. One day Clark Kent encounters three teens who know his secret identity. They tell him that his career as a crime-fighter served as the inspiration in the future (the writer of the issue, who was Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, although the Showcase editors appear not to know this and don't credit him, strikes a perfect Superman note in Superboy's reply to this: "Why ... uh ... I just do my job"), and they invite him to come forward in time with them and join their club, the Legion of Super-Heroes.
That's where the loneliness creeps in: Superboy, who's already experienced con men, mind-readers, and alien imposters, accepts their invitation pretty much instantly. Three fellow teenagers, each with a superpower as amazing as his own (Saturn Girl can read minds, Cosmic Boy controls magnetism, and Lightning Boy - afterward Lightning Lad - can generate electricity), and they want to know him, want to share adventures with him! Our writers (Jerry Siegel, Otto Binder, the mighty Edmond Hamilton, and others) have never made Superboy smile so wide.

The irony here is that this future world Superboy finds is the one he SHOULD have crash-landed on in the first place, the one his father Jor-El envisioned for him. Not rural, non-tech, backwater Smallville, Kansas, but the shining super-tech world of the 31st century, so similar to Jor-El's own vanished world.

But all of that is hindsight, however enriched: in our present volume, there are only smiles and silly menaces and an ever-expanding roster of superpowered teens with whom our hero can pal around.

There's Triplicate Girl, who can, not surprisingly, split into three hard-fighting separate selves. There's Shrinking Violet, who can shrink herself down to any minute size. There's Dream Girl, who's dreams infallibly predict the future (except for all the plotlines in which they tecnnically don't). There's Mon-el, a Daxamite with powers equalling or exceeding that of Superboy himself. There's Phantom Girl, who can slip effortlessly through any solid object (if, at this point, you're sensing a certain element of ... shall we say, uselessness? in the powers of the Legion's female members, you should keep two things in mind: 1) this was 195-friggin-8, for cripes sake, and 2) the Legion writers saw this even then, which is why they were so quick to introduce Supergirl into the mythos). There's Ultra-Boy, who can utilize a wide variety of super-powers, but only one at a time. There's Bouncing Boy, who can inflate himself like a beach ball and bounce, bounce, bounce. There's even Matter-Eater Lad, whose super-power couldn't be easier to gu.ess - rock, steel, anything (in a crossover that'll likely never happen, that is, humble Matter-Eater Lad could simply EAT Wolverine's claws ... which would make Wolverine look pretty damn silly).

This big fat Showcase volume features this merry band of young adventurers in a wonderful array of adventures. 'The Legion of Super-Villains!' 'The Secret of the Seventh Super-Hero!' 'The Face behind the Lead Mask!' 'The Legion of Substitute Heroes!' 'The Legion's Suicide Squad!' - these and many more adventures unfold in the clean, happy optimism of the era, long before our teammates take to dressing like '70s porn stars (in case you're wondering, ladies and gentlemen, that right there was the exact moment when Beepy began paying attention to this review), long before sad endings, long before introspectionor multiple realities or compulsive, almost comically frequent re-boots. This is the happy beginning to all that.

Don't get us wrong: Legion history has a half-dozen truly great moments (Legion fans will be in uncanny agreement on most of these), and none of them is in this volume. In a way, that's fitting - not the best, but the beginnings, which are equally important.

There are those who will say (indeed, who've already said on this site) that card-carrying Legion fans are the most twisted, the most obsessive and picayune of all comics fans. Having read such pronouncements, any innocent bystander might wonder if they run some RISK by reading this volume.

Such innocent bystanders needn't worry - just reading and enjoying these innocent, energetic tales from the '50s won't put them in any danger of being able to divulge Chlorophyll Kid's real name, or the homeworld of Doctor Landro, the galaxy-renowned specialist in fourth dimensional surgery. You won't be contaminted - but you just might be enchanted. And you might even be tempted to cheer (to yourself, of course, so only Saturn Girl could detect it) "Long Live the Legion!"


Greg said...

One of my favorite scenes recently is in JSA #5 when Superman wistfully recalls meeting the Legion. "When I was your age there weren't any other kids around that could fly...[beaming]...they had a clubhouse. They had 'flight rings.' Every single ONE of them could fly."


beepy said...

Just Krypto, you say. Awwww, I had no idea your childhood was that lonely.

steve said...

Greg! I was floored by that GREAT scene too! It isn't often Superman is written that well. Good nod!

Kevin Caron said...

In the JSA issue you mention, is it implied that Superman has met the original Legion, or the new, crappy, rebooted Legion?

Great post, Steve - I thought about the 'lonely Superboy" angle before - I love it.

As far as Jor-El choosing podunk Kansas to send his boy to, rather than a more Krypton-like, technically advanced society... Perhaps this was conscious - maybe Krypton's destruction had to do with their own advanced technology, and he wanted to send Kal to a quieter, non-tech haven?