Wednesday, October 17, 2012

LSH Reread, part two

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 2, # 290-296, 1982-83)

Major developments:

* "The Great Darkness Saga." The classic 20th Century villain Darkseid emerges after hundreds of years away from galactic events. He pulls the information about the planet Daxam from Mon-El's mind and gets himself a super-powered army, three billion strong.
* Supergirl makes her first return visit to the 30th Century after more than a decade.
* Dream Girl is elected team leader.
* Dream Girl's sister Mysa, the White Witch, joins the team. Blok starts macking on her almost immediately.
* Ayla (as Light Lass) leaves the team.
* Colossal Boy and Vi begin dating.
* Cosmic Boy's younger brother Pol is seriously injured.

Naturally, "The Great Darkness Saga" dominates this run of seven issues. It's a five-part story - at the time of publication an unusually long one - with two issues that deal with aftermaths. Paul Levitz is the writer throughout, with the art team of Keith Giffen and Larry Mahlstedt providing most of the artwork. Episode five of "The Great Darkness Saga" is an extra-length 41 pages, rather than the usual 25. Episode two, however, is only 18 pages. There is a separate seven-page backup story, illustrated by Howard Bender and Rodin Rodriquez, set during the adventure and focusing on the three founding members. Similarly, Bender assists with issue # 295; Giffen and Mahlstedt illustrate seven pages of framework around a flashback story set during the team's early days that is drawn by Bender.

I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the flashback, "The Origin of the Universe File," more than I did the epic. I guess it's because, despite its scale and scope, "The Great Darkness Saga" is simply a standard superhero adventure with the team all getting together to overcome the gigantic threat of the day. It's not at all bad for its genre, and occasionally wonderful - especially when Supergirl punches Darkseid into orbit, only to have him instantly "Boom Tube" his way back to the planet to clobber her from behind - but it really does feel like a story that's been copied and duplicated by so many similar superhero epics over the last thirty years that its oomph has been lost. There's also, however, a ridiculously fun double-page splash where Giffen, with a wink and a grin, poses his characters like Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam."

No, the "Universe File" story appeals to me a little more for its very strange and welcome take on the old DC continuity of the Green Lanterns. It shows 'em up to be a bunch of thugs operating on the behalf of galactic tyrants, basically. The Legion is summoned to the Time Institute, where scientists have been injured by a weird bolt-from-the-beginning-of-time. It's DC lore that anybody who attempts to view the creation of the universe briefly sees a huge hand holding a galaxy, and then weird lightning blasts them. The Guardians of the Universe - those blue-skinned short fellows in red robes who control the Green Lanterns - have decreed that nobody, anywhere, has the right to attempt to use time travel to look back at creation, and want to punish anybody who tries. Some cheek!

The frame story around this flashback sees Ayla leaving the team, and is an example of the occasionally troubling way that Levitz writes some of these relationships. I believe that he gets some of them very right and very honest - Thom clearly loves Nura more than she does him, and theirs isn't a relationship that's going to last for many years - but there are ugly and one-dimensional examples of the girls being demanding harpies and the boys being overprotective control freaks. There's no two beans about it; Ayla straight up tells Brin that she's quitting the team and going home to Winath, and he's got a day to decide whether he's coming with her. Then she catches him kicking back in a rec room with Blok and watching the flashback adventure on television and yells at him for not taking her demands seriously. Yikes. Good riddance, Ayla.

But it's not just the young ladies who are acting like jerks. You know how Duplicate Boy catches his girlfriend lounging around naked with Gim? He's actually several planetary systems away and spying on her with telescopic super-vision. One of his teammates tells him to pay attention; they're supposed to be rebuilding some broken cities or something. Evidently there is not a 30th Century equivalent of Facebook. That assumes that Vi is able to use the correct password to change her relationship status to "It's complicated." More on that soon, of course.

I like the way Giffen and Mahlstedt use establishing shots, and design a strange, weird and consistent architecture for future Earth. I think that their intentions are often ruined by the reality of the production. These comics, with their limited coloring options and register-printing, often see the details painted over by the color. Carl Gafford, the colorist, certainly tries amazing things, and occasionally succeeds, but he's hampered by the technology available to him. Should this material ever be printed in DC's black-and-white Showcase line, much of what Gafford does with video images and special effects will be lost completely, because he's working outside of any solid linework by Giffen and Mahlstedt.

I also really like how Giffen wants to get away from basic humanoid design. Toward the end of this run, Mon-El and Shady take a few weeks' leave after he had been so seriously injured by Darkseid, and decide to hang out on a place called The Science Asteroid. Its caretaker is this ugly turtle-slug thing, who leaves a trail of slime behind him as he shuffles along. Following him around is a tiny little robot that sucks up the slime. What a great little concept!

Now, many years before this run of stories, there had been a celebrated flash-forward look at what the Legionnaires would be doing as adults. In retrospect, this story is probably best remembered for the very awkward way that the adult Legionnaires decided they were grown-ups by changing their "teen hero" names from Lad, Boy, or Kid into "Man," making their already clunky monikers sound almost lovably boring and dull. I also recall Garth and Ayla's brother Mekt adopting a Snidely Whiplash mustache. Why this story was celebrated by anybody is a mystery, but one of its revelations was that Shadow Lass didn't make it very far into her career. Her statue is in the Hall of Heroes with the inscription "Died saving the Science Asteroid," leading many fans reading these stories in 1983 to suffer cardiac arrest. Nobody paid any attention to turtle-slug slime guy; Levitz was setting up Shady's death! Or not, as it would turn out.

Shady and Mon-El's relationship, incidentally, was one of those that doesn't feature one of the two acting like a demented hothead all the time. I like the way that they, and Jo and Tinya, have a more mature focus. Even Jo can be mature, when Tinya tells him to, anyway.

More in a couple of weeks!

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