Comic Fodder

Deconstruction/Reconstructing the Legion

You know those sports teams that used to be so great, and the following teams with the same name try hard, but they can just never seem to capture the magic of the original? It doesn't matter if it's football, basketball, or hockey, it just appears that lightning struck once, and every succeeding generation falls short. DC has a team like that, and it's called the Legion of Super Heroes. This is the first in a series that examines what made the original Legion so special, and why fans keep coming back to it. The intent of this first article is to cover the history of the different series, and where we stand today. Future articles will discuss different aspects that made the original Legion unique and noteworthy.

The event that really made me wake up was my own reading pattern. Back when I had a lot of spare income, I hunted down every Legion story ever told. At first I just wanted to collect all of original the Legion stories, but I found I could pick up the other series cheaply on Ebay at the time, so that included L.E.G.I.O.N. and R.E.B.E.L. Life being what it was, I actually ended up with hundreds of old comics that I couldn't get around to reading. I blame society. (Actually, I spent some spare time dating women and playing computer games, so I suppose I have to admit some culpability there.)

But I had a plan! I was going to start with my earliest comics and read as many complete collections as I could in chronological order. The plan was imperfect, because there are so few series I of which I have a complete run, but I was in good shape for the Legion. So rather than start with Action Comics, I dragged out the Legion of Super Heroes, started with their first appearance in Adventure Comics, followed them into Action Comics, and so on, reading only the parts of the comic that featured the Legion.

Reading this way got me through the entire series in a few weeks. When I put down the last issue, I realized how few stories there really were, considering the large cast of the Legion. It wasn't enough! I had even picked up their appearances in DC Comics Presents, the Elseworld's Superboy's Legion, and the Legion of Substitute Heroes Special! It wasn't enough!!!!

So after moving to my new house, I picked up Giffen's volume of the Legion, and found he was having events in there go in parallel with events in the L.E.G.I.O.N., what with switching out Brande with Phantom Girl. I had put Giffen's series down once before, unable to get into it. More determined this time, I put it down to go look at the L.E.G.I.O.N., just to see what overlap there was. I found myself sticking with the rest of the L.E.G.I.O.N. series, and it was fairly good. Too much Lobo, and not enough of the Legion, but good for a "precursor" group.

But something funny happened along the way. The series had a crossover with Green Lantern and Darkstars, and I was missing that 1993 limited series, called Trinity. I wanted to wait until I had it to continue, which was right about the time I went back to the original Legion of Super Heroes series. I wanted to pull out the last four or five issues, just to remind myself of how the first series ended. I went back ten issues instead. After reading one, I pulled out the next ten older issues. I read another one, and then pulled out about the last 50 issues of the first series, a point where I recognized things too much. See, I have read and re-read the Legion many, many times. The final few years' worth, I have only read two or three times in my life, so unlike the stories with Grimbor and Reflecto, or Earthwar, those last 50 I can't actually quote every single line.

I would read my new comics every week; then I went straight to these Legion books. Whenever I had a spare minute before bedtime, I would have one in my hands. I read the series to the end again, and by that time I had bought the handful of crossover issues I had been missing, and went back to finish up L.E.G.I.O.N. Once that was finished, I then went to pick back up on what I keep calling the Giffen version, although perhaps I should call it the Bierbaum version. Giffen's work reminded me too much of a particular way to swipe the technique of Watchmen with the nine-panel-per-page mechanism, but as the Bierbaums took over, the series got a little better. For getting all of these for only two or three bucks apiece, I thought they were worth reading, if not my favorites.

Here's the key, though: I had no hesitation about putting them down to read some original Legion stories. I still had to start Legionnaires, and go through the Zero Hour reboot, and I hadn't even gotten around to buying the DnA stuff yet, so I kept trying to suspend my judgment. But no matter how many issues I read in a row, no matter how fast or slow, no matter which series it was... my mind kept going back to the original series, like it was calling out to me.

Part of this was only natural. The original stories formed a great foundation, and plenty of source material for the following writers to draw upon, so any aspect that someone happened to bring into a newer series would immediately trigger memories of the way it had happened the "first time." The real deal is that the original stories had a spark to them that later re-envisionings could never duplicate. It was like holding up a copy of something, and realizing that you had the original, pristine copy in your closet, so why were you wasting your time looking at this imitation?

I held my tongue. I was not going to come to a premature conclusion. I fought my urge to go back to my Legion Archives and start all over from day one. Thus far, I have bought the crossover titles and am about to read them, then finish the Bierbaum version, finish Legionnaires, then go through the post-Zero Hour versions of both of those titles, and wrap up with Legion Lost and Legion Worlds, and lastly, the DnA series, The Legion. Phew! I don't need to bother with the more recent Waid reboot that he tried to hype, but that eventually ended up being butchered by Jim Shooter. It was relatively fresh, and increasingly painful, anyway. Now you know what my 2008 was like, and what will take up the rest of 2009.

Although I have seen a lot of these comics, this is the first time I am reading them all in chronological order. My verdict has remained unchanged so far, that truth I had tried to bury back during my LE.G.I.O.N. read: the original was still the best, and no matter how readable, to average, to good any particular issue or series might have been, none of the successors came close. Should I be mad? All that time, all that reading, all for less than great? I couldn't be mad, it was still fun to go through, and I did enjoy much of it. But at the end of the day, my heart was clamoring for more stories of the originals, which would never happen, because we can't turn back the clock.

But then, something cool happened. Against all expectations, the original Legion showed up in JLA, JSA, and Action Comics! No way! Against all odds, could the magic be back? Perhaps this was unintentional, but their appearance duplicated their first appearance decades ago: they were guest-stars in someone else's title. We were given a small glimpse of a cool group of brightly-colored heroes with individual personalities. They gave us a small taste of something good, and left room open so we knew we would be seeing more of them in the future.

Much has been made of the repeated phrase in politics lately, "never let a good crisis go to waste." Well, that's actually code for implementing your own agenda, using the cover of an emergency to implement it, trying to meld it with said emergency, and hope no one notices or complains too much. It smells of impropriety in politics, because implementing your agenda might not actually be in the best interests of fixing the actual emergency problem, and may have harmful effects in real life.

At DC Comics, a Crisis was a good thing. Geoff Johns used Final Crisis to work his legendary ret-con magic and resolve the different incarnations of the Legion, allowing for their existence, while at the same time (!) re-establishing the original team as the primary source of interest. Since it was a five-issue limited series, we again received a small dose of a cool thing, made extra special for the fact that George Perez finally got to do a project drawing the Legion.

The major work has now been done for a new foundation, based on the old. The newer incarnations have been neatly categorized and shoved into their "proper" place on the DC bookshelves, and Johns has expressed a desire to do something with the team. The sales of the individual issues that had Legion tie-ins sold well, and have already been compiled into trade paperback form. All we need is for a good writer to start the originals up.

That's where we stand today. If DC hasn't realized it by now, someone needs to put this in front of Paul Levitz's eyeballs and stress that a different incarnation/reboot has been tried to death. The original magic stays with the original cast, and those are the characters we want to see.

In the coming weeks, I will discuss some of the things that made that version of the Legion great, and why modern comics can stand to learn a thing or two from those elements.

Note: I originally wrote this two months ago, but with Legion of Three Worlds running so horribly late, I didn�t want to spoil the return of Conner Kent. As of this writing, Dan Didio has officially announced in the DC Nation column that Adventure Comics will indeed split-feature Superboy and Legion of Super-Heroes, but with Geoff Johns only writing the Superboy potion for now.

Tpull is Travis Pullen. He started reading comics at 5 years old, and he can't seem to stop.

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-- Posted by: hiveBeefPreft at June 18, 2009 8:48 PM