Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Showcase Presents: Legion of Super-Heroes Vol. 4

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Showcase Presents: Legion of Super-Heroes Volume 4 (DC, 2011).

Every so often, reading Legion of Super-Heroes in this period (1968-1972), you get some real gems, but they sure can be ugly. This latest edition in the Showcase Presents series collects another 500 pages of LSH action and futuristic melodrama, and most of it's pretty entertaining, but it's not very easy on the eyes. I was reminded of a 1993 newspaper review of a twenty year-old Doctor Who serial, dusted off and run in prime time on BBC1, which summed up just how dated the garish, glam rock production was by noting "Sometimes, Doctor Who doesn't time travel well at all."

That's certainly true about the late '60s Legion. DC Comics, in the period, was confused and frustrated and throwing everything at the wall, desperate for something to stick. Sometimes they found something that really worked well; giving teenage writer Jim Shooter a crack at humanizing the characters and bringing a vital, modern energy to the old-fashioned plotting was among the best things that corporation did that whole decade. But then they shot themselves in the foot by letting some guy with the awesomely rock-n-roll name of J. Winslow Mortimer illustrate some of them. Eventually, Jack Abel is brought in to ink this artist's work and made it look competent, but until Abel arrived, DC was publishing some of the ugliest, blockiest, dullest, sloppiest artwork imaginable. Here's a rare example of me speaking against the Showcase series' black-and-white reproduction: My own collection of old comics where these originally appeared had long told me that these were ugly comics. Stripped of color, they are revealed as flat, unimaginative and hurried as a Whitman coloring book.

In this period, the Legion is still hamstrung simply by virtue of DC being DC. There's a good two-part story about several Legionnaires learning that they have been fatally poisoned, and you can really feel that unreal, Silver Age attempt at pathos. Characters want to tell their parents farewell, but they end up standing around stoically, weeping a silent tear and not saying anything, but thinking a gigantic thought balloon choked full of long sentences of what they wished they could say. On the other hand, Shooter does make progress in giving characters more human motives. Duo Damsel's unrequited love for Superboy is never really heart-wrenching, but it means well and feels real. Karate Kid's decision to spend his dying days tracking down the Fatal Five and bringing them to justice is the sort of thing that DC Comics just never did before Shooter. It was too aggressive, too proactive a tactic for such a reactionary publisher.

The whole book is like this, taking baby steps towards becoming energetic and lively and slipping away from the (sorry) Silver Age shackles. E. Nelson Bridwell contributes some pretty good scripts before Cary Bates drags the property kicking and screaming into the 1970s with some really fun stories and great characterization, and the drab Mortimer / Abel team eventually gives way to Dave Cockrum, who, finally, seems to have a desire to make the 30th Century look futuristic. The last 60-odd pages of this book are really fun, and I'm left feeling quite hungry for the fifth volume, which should be full of the stories that I grew up reading and loving. Recommended with reservations.

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