Monday, November 5, 2012

LSH Reread, part four

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 2, Annual # 2 and 304-309, 1983-84)

Major developments:

*Projectra and Karate Kid get hitched. They're the third pair of Legionnaires to marry, we're told, and they formally resign from the team to rule the planet Orando as Queen and Prince Consort.
*Shvaughn Erin and Element Lad have deduced that the Shrinking Violet we've been watching for months is an impostor. The real Salu Digby has been abducted by terrorists from her home planet of Imsk. The "Vi" who has - in an almost big a surprise as the abduction - married Colossal Boy is a Durlan actress named Yera. The biggest surprise comes with the revelation that Colossal Boy intends to stay married to her, and, sorry, Queen Projectra, but it turns out y'all're the fourth Legionnaire wedding after all.
*Dawnstar breaks things off with Wildfire and takes a leave of absence from the team.
*Element Lad is elected team leader.
*Garth and Imra announce that they're going to have a baby.
*Two ultra-powerful beings, The Prophet and Omen, show up and start yelling at everybody.
*Keith Giffen buys a bunch of José Muñoz comics and studies them very, very closely.

This run of LSH is one that I'll always remember, because it goes from a huge high, and the peak of my teenage fandom, to the first of the three really big stumbling blocks that had me walking away from the comic. It's amazing, in retrospect, how quickly this happened, but that's teenagers for you. Within ten months of deciding I would be a fan for life, the quality of the book fell off a cliff between issues # 306 and # 307. It would recover, but only after I abandoned it.

But first up, there's Dave Gibbons. He illustrated the second annual, which is really a silly story in which five Legionnaires get lost in time and get into a scrap with Durlans posing as Greek gods, and I had not loved artwork so much since the passing of Dick Dillin, who had illustrated all those wonderful Justice League of America comics that I enjoyed as a child. Soon, I would find Gibbons' artwork in Marvel's American-sized reprints of the very fun Doctor Who comic, and then Watchmen, and then all of the stories that he'd done for 2000 AD. This was my introduction to his work, and I was amazed by it.

But the big deal here is the story about Vi. In the three previous chapters of this reread, I've made sure not to refer to Violet as Salu Digby, because she was abducted by terrorists from her home planet of Imsk, and a Durlan actress named Yera was sent to impersonate her in the Legion. She fell in love with Colossal Boy, which was a dream come true for him, as he'd been crushing on Salu for a few years and was pleased that she finally reciprocated. Now, it must be said that Yera agreeing to marry Gim in the first place is just about the height of thoughtlessness and crappy behavior, but I think it's really interesting that creators Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen decided to keep them together. Gim, heart-on-his-sleeve sensitive guy that he is, forgives Yera for the deception, accepting that she personally had nothing to do with Salu's kidnapping and was oblivious to her incarceration. Yera offers to annul the marriage since she came into it with false pretenses, but he accepts her as she is.

As tough as some of that is to swallow, I'm glad that Levitz and Giffen stuck with it, because it allowed them to explore some new character quirks. He therefore becomes half of the third Legionnaire marriage, and the only one to a spouse who isn't also a superhero. Also, since his mother is Earth's president, and since there are considerable biases among humanity against Durlans, that opens some interesting political avenues. There will also be the business of how Salu, once she recovers and rejoins the team, feels about Yera and her old buddy Colossal Boy.

Issue # 306 is a flashback-filled story looking at Star Boy's history. The flashbacks are drawn, with reliable energy, by old hand Curt Swan, while the framing is drawn by Giffen and Mahlstedt in what would be the last example of the style for which Giffen was known. It's a great story, too. Basically, it's Star Boy kicking back with Wildfire to watch the election returns come in, and hoping that Dream Girl will lose so that she'll have time to pay attention to him again. (This issue was mentioned by comedian John Hodgman in a USA Today interview just last week. Thanks to Matt for the heads-up!)

Everything changed, and, to my mind, in a terrible way, with # 307. Thirteen year-olds aren't known for being able to express much in the way of art criticism - in fact, forty year-olds are pretty often awful with it, too - but all I knew then was that, suddenly, Giffen's art looked like it fell off a cliff. There are, certainly, interesting panel layouts, but faces became elongated and sloppy, anatomy was all over the map, the camera angles were utterly bizarre, and there's a sense of energy and movement that, combined with how weird everybody looks and how incredibly thick the inking is - surely Mahlstedt wasn't responsible for these figures?! - gives the whole comic a sense of being rushed, wildly.

It doesn't help that the four-part story, "Omen and the Prophet," suffers for two big reasons. First, episodes two and three are shorter than usual. Part two is 14 pages, with George Tuska doing a much more competent job with a nine-page story in which Gim and Yera meet his mother, and part three is 13 pages, with Pat Broderick again turning in a much more professional looking job with ten pages about Projectra and Karate Kid. It really, really feels like Giffen was falling over deadlines and not leaving Mahlstedt time to ink anything. To be fair, Giffen had been extraordinarily busy, what with his LSH commitments and also launching another DC title, The Omega Men, and his son being born, which can be a huge crunch. But this is nevertheless really slapdash work, and the story is a complete bore as well, with a barely-coherent plot about overpowered loudmouths yelling a lot.

As if Giffen's work was not aggravating enough on its own, it soon transpired that the artist had been appropriating and swiping the comics of an Argentinian cartoonist named José Muñoz. The Comics Journal, in its February 1986 issue, called Giffen out on how flagrantly he was pilfering from Muñoz, doing much to derail his previously fan-favorite career, and giving his reputation a black eye that took decades to recover.

By that time, I'd already dropped LSH. I remember looking over some recent back issues in 1986 and a friend told me about the swiping. I shrugged it off, but was a little pleased to understand just why the artwork in my previously-favorite comic had turned so awful. More on the story behind that in our next installment.

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