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Sometimes, right there in the middle of a sleet-storm, smack-dab in the center of a pile of the week's comics handed over by one's petulant houseboy, there'll be a shining gem, something so odd and wonderful that it just plain makes your day. The pile of comics I read this week had just such a gem in its innards: Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #1, written by Paul Levitz and drawn by Keith Giffen.
Let's repeat that last part again, shall we? Written by Paul Levitz and drawn by Keith Giffen.
Aaaaaaah. Suddenly, the sloppy day outside feels cold and clear like an overcast afternoon on Prince Edward Island.
Paul Levitz, as some of you may know, is one of the all-time great Legion of Super-Heroes writers. And Keith Giffen, as some of you may know, might very well be the best Legion of Super-Heroes artist (I say "may" only because I retain a soft spot in my heart for Curt Swan - a soft spot I know perfectly well is irrational). These two creators are responsible for some of the best moments, issues, story-arcs, and title-runs in all of Legion history, and they haven't worked together on a Legion issue in about twenty years. Plenty of talented creators have worked on the team in that time (rumor has it, in fact, that one or two of the very best stretches are coming to reprint form sometime soon - expect hosannas here, if that happens), but there's no matching the sheer history involved when giants return to the title. I thought the same thing when Jim Shooter briefly returned to the book he made famous, and hoo-boy, I'm thinking it now, after reading this fantastic issue.
The plot Levitz dreams up is fairly simple: a poor peasant girl on the medieval world of Orando (home to the Legion member Princess Projectra, who's currently using the code-name Sensor Girl) stumbles upon a decaying temple and discovers the fabled eye of Ekron - a mysterious floating eye about the size of a beach ball that bestows immense power upon the woman who bonds with it. Legion fans will know the rest: Sarya of Venegar took possession of the eye (and it of her) and became the Emerald Empress, one of the heavy-hitters of the Fatal Five, a group of villains who've been bent on the Legion's destruction for about fifty years. Some years ago, Sensor Girl pulled a neat trick: she used her perception-altering powers to blind the eye, severing the link between it and Sarya, who by that point had had enough of her connection to the thing and just wanted to die. A lot of shamefully messy continuity has flown under the bridge since that great sequence, and in this issue Levitz takes the perfect approach to it: he simply ignores it. The eye of Ekron is buried in a ruined castle on Orando? Great!
It possesses that poor peasant girl - who's happy to have the power and doesn't notice that it's made her insane - and she promptly snags a passing Legion cruiser out of orbit and slams it into the planet. The cruiser contains Legion friends (with benefits?) Lightning Lass and Shrinking Violet, who were intending to be on vacation and now wake up in the Empress' fetid cells, which can't hold either one of them - Vi because she can shrink to sub-molecular size at will, and Lightning Lass because she possesses lightning-wielding powers that Giffen has always delighted in drawing.
The two quickly run afoul of the new Empress, and as comics-friendly readers will already have noted, Giffen really unleashes his inner Jack Kirby in this issue. It's a delight to watch, and it's a relief from the ongoing Legion monthly title, where these same Legionnaires always look tired, strung out, and fifty. Note to the DC powers that be: in the current continuity, the Legion are no longer teenagers - which means they're adults, the same kind of super-hero adult as, say, Batman or Superman - characters who'll never look older than about their very early 30s. Artists don't need to make each member look like Willie Nelson to underscore their grown-up status; instead, they can look like, well, super-heroes - like they do in this issue.
As I've said before, the key to a good Legion story is to control the roster. If you have twenty Legionnaires show up in response to the appearance of a new Emerald Empress, she gets defeated in about fourteen minutes, and you don't have an issue. This time around, only three team members are able to respond to the plight of Lightning Lass and Shrinking Violet: Sun Boy, Gates the team transporter ... and Sensor Girl, who's fairly urgent to get to her homeworld right away and see what the trouble is. This of course leads to page after page of supreme Keith Giffen fight-scenes (several of which are single-panel splash-pages, which might cause Caleb over at Every Day Is Like Wednesday to grumble about the $5 cost of the thing, but that's only because he's a talented artist himself and so a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to what might be considered lazy storytelling - and he might have a point, but me? I'm no artist, and I just loved the big, self-indulgent feel of it all).
In the end, the new Empress is defeated and Princess Projectra decides to stay on Orando and help repair the damage that deranged peasant girl did. It's a self-contained issue in the best tradition of that dying breed, and the annual's back-up features are light and entertaining (including a hilarious Legion History Board Game that's so quick and informative it should be a standard feature in every Legion book, with only one small change: surely a Legion board-game must mention Spaceopoly Lad?). There were plenty of other comics in the pile this week, but oh, this one was my own little Miracle Machine!