Saturday, October 6, 2012

LSH Reread, part one

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 2, # 284-289 and Annual No. 1, 1982)

So I told myself that as soon as I finished rereading Rex Stout, I would reread Paul Levitz's seminal 1980s run on Legion of Super-Heroes. I also told myself that I wasn't going to blog about them, and I also told myself that I wasn't going to give DC Comics any more entries here, after they decided to publish that unbelievably shitty Before Watchmen series. I contradict myself sometimes.

A little background information to explain what came before: Legion of Super-Heroes is a long-running concept at DC which, in the hands of deeply inept editorial policies, has become, over time, the poster child for All That's Wrong With Comics Today. Over the last twenty years, the storyline has been abruptly halted and restarted from scratch at least four times, abandoning all that came before and trying to get it right, and then allowing continuity porn czar Geoff Johns to rewrite all of these disparate stories into one crossover narrative. And long before that, it was the poster child for All That Was Wrong With Comics in the Early 1960s. But between these two bookends of shame, this really did feel like something special and memorable.

Here's how things started: Back in the late 1950s, when children's comics were actually suitable for children and weren't filled with images like (as Matthew Brady described it recently) something out of a Herschel Gordon Lewis film, DC was publishing a title called Superboy. This explained that Young Clark Kent, after diligently filling his role as the class nerd, finishing his homework, and doing all his chores like a good teenage boy should, would have fun adventures. Often, he'd fly a thousand years in the future and hang out with some other superpowered kids his age. These were teens who had been reminded by a kindly benefactor that, once upon a time, the young Superboy did his civic duty and rescued cats from trees and saved Smallville from bank robbers. The Legion of Super-Heroes (LSH) - and there really was a Legion of them, to the point that even comic book fans would sometimes shy away from reading it, fearing the rumors that there were too many characters - was a zero-imagination superhero "club," with a clubhouse and byzantine rules and bylaws.

The stories and the artwork were perfunctory and mundane, even by the low standards of the period. I'd say that they have aged terribly, but that's being unduly generous to suggest that they were any good in the first place. DC Comics were drafted by unimaginative old men with no vision and no wish to consider what the world of the 2960s might actually be like. You know what the LSH did? They saved Spaceville from space bank robbers, basically. Management remained baffled that, across town at Marvel Comics, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the original Bullpen were creating comic books that anybody over the age of seven might want to read.

Mercifully, a teenager named Jim Shooter, who would become one of the most important figures in the industry and medium in the late 1970s and 1980s, figured that the way into the business was to break in via the DC Comic that needed the most help. Catching a DC editor on a rare occasion where that man gave a flip about new talent, Shooter sold the company on some of his (comparatively) much more complex and intricate stories, and soon, this high schooler from Pittsburgh was dragging Legion of Super-Heroes kicking and screaming into the mid-1960s. Shooter drew actual relationships and individual characterization into this enormous cast of characters while at the same time crafting more complicated science fiction storylines that suggested the writer had actually read a book more recent than Rocket Man Sam. These are still clunky and not always satisfying, but a huge leap forward.

By the late 1960s, Legion of Super-Heroes was the regular feature in DC's long-running anthology Adventure Comics, and had one of comics' most vocal and organized fan bases. The combination of inter-character drama and unpredictable SF melodrama had hundreds of fans interacting via amateur, mimeograph fanzines and some of the earliest examples of comic book fanfic. LSH fans were predominantly female, reflecting the fact that the cast was about 50% female, far more than any other superhero group. The writers often didn't know what to do with the girls, and, especially in the mid-1970s when artist Dave Cockrum redesigned the costumes to give everybody a glam rock/disco makeover, the boobalicious, plunging necklines and bikinis didn't initially look like this was a female-friendly comic, until you saw all the bare male skin on display as well. Colossal Boy, Tyroc and Star Boy were showing off as much skin as the ladies, and that's before Cosmic Boy started strutting around in some barely-there black leather thing that left most readers wondering where his friend, probably on all fours with a ball gag, had got to. The difference is that embarrassed artists and readers got the fellows covered up in time. It's only girls in comic books who need to wear bathing suits and boots, you know.

There are still flaws, considering the standards and expectations of the time. Sexuality is always straight - you had to leave it to the fanficcers to insist that the tragic, girlfriend-free Element Lad was gay, and fans had decided that Ayla and Vi would eventually ditch their boyfriends and hook up decades before the official book allowed hints of it. (That's an early example of what we'd now term fanon, actually.) The future's also overwhelmingly white. Well, blue, green, and orange, too, because humanoid aliens in the 30th Century come in all sorts of primary colors, but certainly not very black. When the team finally got, briefly, a black member, it was the astonishingly racist Tyroc, who was everything that a separatist afraid of Black Panthers could dream of. He wasn't around for very long.

So in 1974, Legion of Super-Heroes got co-billing with Superboy in his own book, starting with # 197. After # 258 (1979), Superboy went off to his own, Smallville-set comic book, and Legion of Super-Heroes kept the numbering. The Legion of the 1970s was uneven but always entertaining. It was also dangerous: back in the days when a death in a funnybook actually meant something and stuck, three members of the cast were killed in action, their sacrifices always remembered by all the surviving heroes. Paul Levitz had been one of several rotating writers who came to the title during this period, most memorably during a lengthy storyline (by the standards of the day, a positive epic at five whole issues) in the #240s called "Earthwar."

Levitz was succeeded by other old hands, with veterans like Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway taking turns as scripter before Levitz returned for the February 1982 issue, # 284. Conway had overseen a long storyline that involved a mysterious hero called Reflecto, an old villain called Grimbor, and some really silly space pirates and wrapped all these up for Levitz to start reasonably fresh.

And now that I've said all that, I am certain that none of these entries will end up as long as the introduction. I decided, at whim, to read the book in batches of seven issues, not realizing that this would mean that part one of the reread would bring us right up to the debut of "The Great Darkness Saga," a celebrated story that starts in issue # 290, for part two. The initial creative team is Levitz with art by Pat Broderick and Bruce Patterson, but it's short-lived. The house ads in the book inform me that Broderick left to draw Firestorm later in 1982. Levitz uses the old DC standard of a "backup story" to help advance his subplots. # 285 sees Keith Giffen and Larry Mahlstedt teamed up on art duties for the first time in an 8-page backup story that focuses on Nura Nal (Dream Girl); they would become the main artists very shortly. Giffen inked by Patterson is very good; Giffen inked by Mahlstedt is sublime - one of my favorites penciller/inker combos in American comics.

I like the way that Levitz starts things off by acknowledging that this is a title where the cast is always in transition. His run begins with Chuck Taine (Bouncing Boy) in quiet contemplation in the headquarters room called the Hall of Heroes, where the three dead Legionnaires are remembered. He and his wife Luorno had married in a 1974 story, setting up one of those silly old bylaws, that you can't be married and remain a Legionnaire. So they became "reservists" to be called upon in emergencies. This amuses me because it reflects that old ethos that you can stay in a kid club until you're an adult, and that's just how people wanted the world to work in the kids' comics of the 1950s. The latest emergency passed, they return to retirement, where they're training kids in a Legion Academy. Comic book time doesn't equal real world time - especially when you're writing a comic set in the 30th Century - but it always seemed to me like the kids in that Academy stayed "enrolled" there for a really long time.

The second married couple were Garth and Imra, but they revised that dumb ol' rule so they - two of the three founding members - could still play with the rest of the kids. By this time, most of the Legionnaires are in their early twenties. There's no reason to hamstring themselves with dumb ol' rules they insisted upon when they were fifteen. One of those dumb ol' rules, though, was that there would be an annual selection for team leader. Here's where Levitz does fumble the comic book time / real world divide. Tradition had held that the creative team polled the readers for their choice for leader and wrote accordingly. The fans really loved this and played along, but with the characters squabbling and campaigning for about three issues a year, it does get old fast, and since there is virtually no break in the ongoing subplots, it always feels like there have only been maybe ten or eleven weeks in the narrative since the last election.

Another very dumb ol' rule that comes back to haunt the characters is that Cham is the leader of a team of "plumbers" called the Legion Espionage Squad, and he's answerable to nobody when he's on a mission. This has big ramifications in the last half of these stories, as one of his hotheaded missions ends with five of the characters stranded on a frozen asteroid waiting for help. Now, relationships between the characters are critically important, and here's where Levitz really transitions this book away from traditional superhero stuff in space into a proper SF soap opera. Colossal Boy, who gave up his '70s skintastic costume for something with sleeves and pants, and Violet, who's still stuck in her cleavagetastic green thing and is supposed to be dating a minor character we almost never see, start getting close while stuck out here. And Imra has the very bad luck to give a familial embrace to her sister-in-law's boyfriend just as the sister-in-law shows up to rescue them. OOPS.

At least Imra retires her lavender bathing suit while stuck on the frozen planet, finding one of her more sensible, warmer, old costumes in a trunk of their crashed spaceship.

The sci-fi stuff works very well even if the dialogue never does. To Levitz's considerable credit, only the willfully stubborn could possibly be confused by any of this or who the characters are, because they refer to each other by name constantly, and address their feelings to the reader by way of lengthy thought balloon monologues. Whenever they use a super power for the first time in an issue, they announce what they're doing, and if their power has a limitation, a narration box explains it. So yes, these are dense and wordy comics, and that's what makes the genuine dialogue stumbles really stand out. That is, once you accept that this is going to be a clunky and graceless pile of talky stories, the worst of it stands out like a sore thumb. At one point, an alien Khund actually says: "Did not your squad leader drill you in the importance of disabling Nullport?" The team's wealthy benefactor, who had been revealed shortly before this run to be Cham's father (soap opera!) has a favorite expression, "By Ymir!" and, in issue # 286, he uses it about seventeen times. Characters always refer to their sweetie as "my love." The standard "I have been knocked unconscious" shout is "AYEEEIIII" - never an exclamation point, strangely - and green-skinned Brainy is always in a bad mood.

As far as team transitions go, this run sees Karate Kid and Projectra, two of Jim Shooter's sillier ideas, retiring from active duty. Karate Kid's power was, apparently, super-karate, and Projectra, recipient of another of the '70s most ridiculously silly skintastic costumes, could make people see illusions. This always struck me as not very effective and relied on writers to force it to work via contrivance. Once the bad guys knew that Projectra was among the Legionnaires that they were fighting, then any dragons or weird monsters that showed up were probably not going to be real. She never did proper fight-ending illusions like making the bad guys think that their arm had been severed at the elbow, did she? Anyway, Projectra was the princess and heir to the throne of Orando, a gimmicky medieval planet a whole lot like Peladon in Doctor Who, and dozens of others, and when her father dies, there's the expected power struggle because Jeckie isn't traditional enough and has allied herself with progressive aliens who don't act like King Arthur. So they stay behind and, in the extra-length Annual # 1, an expansive 41-page story, we're introduced to the team's first non-embarrassing, non-racist black member, Jacques Foccart, who takes the mantle of the second Invisible Kid in honor of the first, who had died.

The Annual also introduces a major supporting member, a redhaired Science Police officer named Shvaughn Erin, liaison between the team and the government/military, who will end up dating Element Lad. There would be an active voice within fandom who really hated this woman, because they'd decided that Element Lad was gay. Some years after Levitz left LSH, and, with the exception of his decades-later coda that would be published around 2009, the story concluded as far as I was concerned, some fans got to become writers and retconned Shvaughn as a guy who took female hormones. Not in my reading, guys.

Another new supporting player who shows up in this first batch of Levitz's run is a cranky alien doctor with the suitably alien name of "Dr. Gym'll." This guy confused the dickens out of me when I was in middle school and first reading these stories, because I thought that his name was "Dr. Gym," and characters were referring to him with grammatically incorrect contractions. "Dr. Gym'll says that you should..." read to me like "Dr. Gym will says that you should..." and I wondered why the editor didn't fix mistakes like that.

These were genuinely good fun, and I'm looking forward to the next batch of seven in a couple of weeks. Probably won't write quite this much though. I don't plan to, anyway.


Jim Purcell (The Adventurer) said...

Ah Legion. Currently my favorite mainstream super-team. Which came as a shock to me last summer when I really discovered them. I'd flirted with the Legion before. I read some of the tail end of the Dan Abnett/Andy Lanning Legion in the early 2000s, and tried out Mark Waid's 'Threeboot' that followed. But I never could really get any momentum behind any kind of 'fandom' for the team.

Then last summer I decided to really put some effort in, made easier by the super awesome Great Darkness Saga Deluxe HC (that covers everything you're covering in this blog). It was dated, but that good kind of dated you can look past and really appreciate from a historical perspective. But more important it introduced me to this great cast of characters in their prime, when they were the hottest commodity this side of New Teen Titans and Uncanny X-Men.

From there I would send out feelers to the various other eras/incarantions of the team. I would reread the 'Threeboot' (The first 14 issues are SUBLIME. Then it all falls apart. Jim Shooter returns and almost rescues it, but then its cancelled out right for Geoff John's resurrection of the 'original' Legion) Then I checked out Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning's run on the 'reboot' Legion (also known as 'Archie Legion). They worked some serious magic there. Legion Lost is one of the best cosmic Maxi-series of all time. And its follow ups Legion Worlds and The Legion helped cement their vision of the 31st Century as one of my favorites. Alas, it was not to last.

But the big discovery, was Keith Giffen's Five-Years-Latter Legion that was not a reboot, but a whole new chapter in the lives of the Legion. Its... unique. And I can totally understand why its not everyone's favorite. But its such a unique experience, I wouldn't trade it for anything.

What I'm trying to get at is. The Legion of Super-Heroes is awesome. And personally I love their various incarnations and relaunches to varying degrees. And I find it gives the franchise its own unique charm. It is unfortunate that the current Legion of Super-Heroes series is... not very good. Its time for Levitz to back off the title and give it some fresh blood, as its really spinning its wheels.
Long Live the Legion.

PS: Ultra Boy is the greatest super-hero EVER.

Grant, the Hipster Dad said...

If you have read all that in a year, I'm not sure how you've kept from frying your brain! That's a lotta comics!

There are bad LSHs after Levitz, and there are good LSHs, and I'd rather not get into which I perceive as which - even though some of my biases will be crystal-clear - but honestly, to me, even the best post-Magic Wars comics are just traveling roadshow versions of Levitz. I certainly enjoyed some of these later incarnations, both in story and in artwork, but they're different titles entirely to me, and I'm not presently interested in them.

Jim Purcell (The Adventurer) said...

"If you have read all that in a year, I'm not sure how you've kept from frying your brain! That's a lotta comics!"

Let it not be said that when I want to get into something, I don't do it in half measures. It happened with Crossgen (RIP), it happened with Savage Dragon, it happened with 2000 AD, and now The Legion is just one more in long line of insta-fandoms of mine.