Thursday, July 23, 2009

Comics! Long Live the Legion!

Well, the celebrated and much-anticipated "Legion of Three Worlds" storyline is now concluded, and if DC's own gossip is to be believed, the Legion timeline is now fixed and canonical again. "No more Legion reboots" was the editorial refrain - star writer Geoff Johns was entrusted with creating the 'real,' final version of the venerable Legion of Super-Heroes and nailing that version to the mast once and for all.

A brief big picture recap:

In the 31st century, three alien teenagers - who'll later be known throughout the galaxy as Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad, and Cosmic Boy - use their combined superpowers to save the life of mega-zillionaire R. J. Brande, who in gratitude (and perhaps out of nostalgia) finances the creation of a super-team just like the legendary ones from the 20th century (The Justice League, the Teen Titans, etc). This team - the Legion of Super-Heroes - soon boasts teenage members from many planets throughout the United Federation of Planets, plus one spectacular guest-star: using time-travel technology, the Legion recruits Superboy, Clark Kent before he grew up to be Superman. For thirty blissful years, DC Comics published the adventures of Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, and the team developed a rather intensely devoted fan base. The team's enormous roster changed from time to time (members died, members were added, etc), but the basic concept of the team itself - future teenage superheroes living, loving, and fighting evil in the far future - stayed the same. And I loved it, as I loved no other comic book in the world (not even Superman).

Then DC Comics ran the Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series that changed the very nature of all its continuity. In the new clean-slate comics world that resulted, Clark Kent had only adopted a superhero identity as an adult - he'd never been Superboy, so he obviously couldn't have shared adventures with the Legion. Which threw the Legion into creative limbo. First one set of writers and editors rescued it from that limbo, re-creating the Legion from the ground up, then later a different set of writers and editors used a reality-altering plot gimmick to re-create the Legion again, differently ... and so on. By the time all these successive reboots were done, nobody - and I mean nobody - could tell what the 'real' Legion was, what had and hadn't 'happened' in its past.

In the decades since Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC writers have been slowly, systematically dismantling the changes it implemented, and one of the last to go was that no-Superboy change (the reason it was so slow to change was entirely corporate: the whole while, Paramount was making money off its successful TV series "Smallville," which featured a young Clark Kent who most certainly never puts on a costume and calls himself Superboy). And as that no-Superboy stance started to crumble, writers and editors naturally started thinking of ways to re-integrate some kind of Superboy into the Legion again. A couple of recent storylines came right out and said Superman did indeed have a career as Superboy (the exact parameters of it are still very vague), during which he shared many adventures with the Legion of Super-Heroes.

A brief small picture recap:

In this current plot, the Legion who shared those adventures with young Superboy has grown up, just as Superman has. They're seedy, unkempt adults now, with lots of burned-out cynicism where their hope and optimism used to be, and the United Federation of Planets has grown distinctly disenchanted with them. Into this charged relationship comes an insane, alternate-reality Superboy who's dumb as a post and homicidally inclined. He assembles pretty much every 31st century super-villain the Legion has ever faced and attacks the team with the rather uncomplicated goal of killing them all. Superman comes to help from the 20th century, and the Legion also manages to summon two of those other-incarnation versions of the Legion to help out in the epic battle that follows.

While that epic battle is raging, Superman, Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and Cosmic Boy are off in another dimension, fighting the long-time Legion adversary the Time Trapper, who has opened up portals to a gazillion other dimensions and times - thus creating the narrative potential for Johns to use "Legion of 3 Worlds" to reboot Legion history one last time. I could almost picture it happening - big climactic fight, gigantic time-space explosion, Time Trapper defeated and destroyed, and from the wreckage, a new Legion, teenagers full of hope and happiness, who thank Superman for all his help and send him off to the 20th century so they can go back to having adventures with his teenage self from a bit earlier in the 20th century.

Well, the battle does rage, although it shouldn't at all. The single biggest flaw of this imperfect mini-series is the way Superboy-Prime (the crazy alternate Superboy) is presented as virtually unstoppable. He manages to kill several Legionaires without really trying all that hard, and they don't manage to do more than slow him down, which is absurd. For the course of three entire issues, Superboy Prime is engaged in one long fist-fight with, by my count, seven individuals who are as strong or stronger than he is - such fist-fights, when conducted by nutso teenagers with no combat experience, end in said nutso teenagers getting pounded into tapioca in about ten minutes. In addition, this Superboy Prime is fighting several opponents who can a) blind him, b) freeze him, c) render him completely immobile, d) turn his blood into daffodils, or lead, or kryptonite, and e) make him think he's won and so convince him to just stand there while he gets his lights put out. None of that happens. One of his opponents is an adult Daxamite (i.e. already more than his physical match) wearing ten Green Lantern rings. That's as close to God as you get in a secular world, and yet Superboy Prime is still going strong at the climax of this issue.

But it doesn't matter. The important thing is, there is a climax, and the bad guy is defeated (in fact, he becomes what I can safely refer to as the most reviled figure of evil in the world of comics, in a turn of events that's actually flat-out hilarious - no matter what I was expecting to feel about the long-delayed ending of this series, I certainly wasn't expecting to laugh out loud), and for about half a page, I eagerly wondered if any of my expectations would come true - I wondered exactly what kind of new Legion Johns would create.

Needless to tell any of you who've already gobbled up this issue, I was disappointed - and not in the way I was worried about. Johns didn't create a new, definitive Legion I didn't like - he spent the issue's last ten pages telling readers we already have a definitive Legion: the skeevy, downtrodden adult version, low on manpower, embittered by losses, and at odds with the United Federation of Planets. The other two alternate versions of the Legion (either of which I prefer) are sent packing back to alternate dimensions, and the remaining incarnation - the disgruntled adults - settles down to what I presume will be a series of stories starting in the upcoming revival of Adventure Comics.

One of the issue's epilogues tells us that years ago, Clark Kent as Superboy went to Smallville High School and joined a team of super-heroes - and we're shown a skinny Superboy flying through the sky with members of that original, youthful Legion of Super-Heroes. And when I saw that panel, my first reaction, thinking about this upcoming Adventure Comics, was "Yes! Show us those adventures!"

Then I realized we've already had those adventures, for all those years and all those wonderful issues in the old Adventure Comics, and in Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, and in The Legion of Super-Heroes. What DC has managed to do, at last, is bring its continuity back around to a point where at least we can say those adventures 'really' happened. Hundreds of Legion back-issues are now DC continuity again, instead of being the weirdly dislocated oddities they've been since Crisis on Infinite Earths. I should call that a win and count my blessings.

But it wouldn't be Stevereads if I did that, now would it?

Because dammit, I wanted more. I wanted more of those adventures. I wanted the Legion to stay uncontaminated by the gritty realism that infuses the rest of superhero comics. I wanted them to stay heroes, appreciated by the people they protect and serve. I wanted Superboy on the team, somehow.

Whatever I get in the upcoming run of Adventure Comics, it's unlikely to be that. Apparently, the "no more Legion reboots" roulette wheel has stopped on an adult Legion of grizzled souls in a world that hates and fears them. The definitive Legion is here, and probably most fans are happy about that. And hell, if that happiness translates to keeping the Legion in some kind of regular publication, then to that limited extent I'm happy about it too.

But I've got my fingers crossed for a reboot ....


elmo said...

You surely realize that the skeevy Legion will be brougt back to glory after a series of trials? Par for the course, at this point.

steve said...

maybe, maybe - but they won't be KIDS anymore, which means all those great stories I read and loved over the decades are now firmly in the PAST. Those kids GREW UP into these adults, who'll never be those kids again. It's hard to explain.

Don't get me wrong: if some creative team takes hold of this Legion and brings it to greatness again, nobody will cheer louder than I will. But for me (and for a lot of long-time Legion fans out there, I'm guessing), an ADULT Legion is something from one specific old Legion story, not a regular ongoing thing...

Kevin said...

No, it looks like they won't be kids again, but they had already started to grow up before the first reboot, hadn't they? Perhaps they'll be played off as relatively young adults. In any case, to render them young again would have invalidated the Levitz years anyway (and it's been done). Embrace the beauty of the growth inherent to serial narrative!

Though I should point out that the BEST Legion incarnation (V4 - the one only scarcely touched upon in FC:LoTW) solved your problem, by creating the SW6 Legion (who would have been revealed to be the the TRUE Legionnaires, allowing the Giffen adult Legion to become the deep space faring New Omega Men). Alas.

steve said...

Your comments about the SW6 Legion being the 'best' incarnation are, of course, pure heresy, but oh! That delightful Chris Sprouse artwork! mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!

When does THAT get collected, in a full-color graphic novel? When?

Kevin said...

(I didn't mean the SW6 batch specifically, but the entire V4 run as a whole, and heresey or not, its true...)

And don't for get the Jason Pearson, Stuart Immomen, and even Adam Hughes artwork! Curt Swan even did a cover!

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