Sunday, October 23, 2011

Comics! Superboy's Legion!

Given my strong disappointment with most of DC Comics' "New 52" re-launch, I'm mighty happy the company seems intent on continuing their "DC Comics Presents" line of reprints. As I've mentioned before here, these reprints take little issue-runs or noteworthy special issues from DC's recent past and reprints them in square-bound 'mini-graphic novels' for $8 (as opposed to the glossier, thicker actual paperback graphic novels that cost twice or three times as much). It's a nifty and inexpensive way to re-visit some great stuff from the last two decades, and in many cases it's giving a new format - and new exposure - to stuff that very much deserves it. I was worried DC would discontinue these things for the obvious reason: they highlight a continuity the company has very publicly abandoned. There's something vaguely fascistic about the "New 52" (the military-style costume redesigns don't help), and these "DC Comics Presents" reprints certainly don't play ball - but happily, they appear to have been spared the axe. So those of us who don't particularly like 99 % of the new continuity (I'm allowing for the possibility that some of these new titles might grow on me - both the new "Legion of Super-Heroes" and "Legion Lost" aren't actively bad, after all, and although "Justice League" might just be the worst treatment of the team since the Age of Vibe, "Batman" is already phenomenal) might still have these lovingly-chosen reprints to remind us of the enormous heritage DC has abandoned for some quick cash.

A perfect case-in-point would be this week's reprint of the Paul Farmer/Alan Davis "Elseworlds" two-parter from 2001, "Superboy's Legion" - and it's an ironic choice, since "Elseworlds" was an imprint DC designed specifically for 'what if' type re-thinkings of their core characters. If the "new 52" titles were being marketed as "Elseworld" concepts, I'd have no problem with them at all - in "Elseworld" stories, the whole fun of the enterprise comes from the fact that no damage is being done to the standard continuity I've known and loved.

Farmer and Davis are old hands at this sort of 'what if' story, and hoo boy, there's scarcely any Legion detail they don't tinker with in the course of this story (the editors of this edition have done exactly the right thing: they've gone back to those original two issues and seamlessly melded them into one continuous book - this is the enormous, continuous adventure that original two-parter was meant to be)! Here, little baby Kal-El of Krypton gets discovered in his gestation-chamber not in the 20th century but in the 30th - by R. J. Brande, the richest man in the galaxy, who raises the boy as his own son. By the time Superboy reaches his early teens, he's an impetuous, happy-go-lucky kid with the power of a demigod (Farmer unapologetically harks back to pre-Crisis levels of power for the character - one of many retro touches that will tug at the heartstrings of long-time DC fans). His adoptive father doesn't quite know what to do with him, and Earth's Science Police are convinced he's a juvenile super-delinquent.

This Superboy yearns to form a team of teens as special as he is, a team featuring ample nods to the classic Curt Swan era of the Legion but with the numerous tweaks Farmer seems to love (Lightning Lad and Light Lass being effete aristocrats, for instance, or Brainiac 5 being from the 'near-mythical' race of Coluans). Davis' artwork is vivid and kinetic (he's responsible for the second-best Legion cover of all time, after all), and because this whole thing was an "Elseworlds" title, he was able to draw things the DC brass would never allow in normal continuity. One of the many guilty pleasures of "Elseworlds" stories was writers indulging in the freedom to kill, cross-breed, or maim any of the main characters without fear of fan uproar. As a result, when this story features the team's first confrontation with the Fatal Five, Farmer is able to generate not only extra tension but an actual body-count.

The whole story works to give readers an imaginary reworking of one of DC's most obsessively beloved (and oft-reworked) creations - a graphic novel that offers a fun, thought-provoking revamp of a classic, a revamp no more yielding but a dream. No company fortunes are hanging on the proceedings, and we're all better off because of it.


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