Friday, November 23, 2012

LSH Reread, part six

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 3 # 1-5, vol. 2 Annual # 3 and # 316, 1984)

Major developments:

*A very large group of the Legion's enemies forms. They call themselves the Legion of Super-Villains and each must swear a blood oath to kill one of the heroes or die themselves.
*While that calamity is getting started, some sorcerers decide to resurrect Mordru, but are stopped in time.
*Garth and Imra's baby is born. They are surprised that the boy is an only child, as Winathian men almost always father twins, and Imra swore that she felt the thoughts of a second child. Unbeknownst to them, Darkseid had used the universe-wide darkness of Mordru's attempted resurrection to steal the baby. He sends it back in time where the baby will grow into the powerful monster Validus, the member of the Fatal Five who had slain Lyle Norg.
*The villains teleport the planet Orando into a between-universes limbo.
*Karate Kid dies in combat with his old foe Nemesis Kid who is, in turn, executed by Projectra. The villains scattered, she decrees that it was wrong to try and modernize Orando, and leaves her friends to return to our universe, while they travel on, planning to never be seen again.
*Element Lad, Cham, Ultra Boy, Phantom Girl and Violet are trapped in limbo, trying to get home.
*Ayla Ranzz loses her gravity-nullifying powers and regains her lightning powers.
*Speaking of Lyle Norg, he's alive again and wants to return to the weird world where he had briefly been seen in # 299. Jacques Foccart agrees to take him.

This is a much better group of comics than LSH had seen for several months. It handles the split between the new volume and the old really gracelessly and awkwardly, and making room for a new annual certainly doesn't help, but these seven issues just about pull off the transition and tell a really epic adventure pretty well.

In their favor, Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen have clearly been reading Marvel's Uncanny X-Men and learned, from Chris Claremont, how to write villains. The clumsy moniker "Legion of Super-Villains" makes more sense to the readers than to many of these characters. Some of these old faces have only survived, awkwardly, into the 1980s because of the old fan demand to see recurring baddies. Radiation Roy, the most obvious example, is lost among them. He's a relic of the silly 1960s, when the Legion was called in by the police to stop space bank robberies, basically. This sort of "crooks do rotten things, by golly" perspective was long buried, and it looks like Levitz just doesn't want to use old characters like Roy, or Saturn Queen, or Cosmic King, all of whom have little to do in this adventure.

Now, Levitz and Giffen had already, in issue # 301, rehabilitated Lightning Lord from a bank robber who fires zap blasts, into something much more chilling and forceful. Here, he resembles Marvel's Magneto more than anybody else. He's lost in his rhetoric, brutal and hateful toward his sister Ayla, and believes that nature itself is speaking to him, reassuring him, via communication only he can hear. He's insane, but he's believably and coldly insane. Unfortunately, the LSV is so large, and features so many promising, newer characters like Zymyr, that the same rehabilitation can't be undertaken for all of the oldies with the space available. Hence, Roy doesn't get a personality upgrade; he's just the butt of a couple of jokes. Zymyr, incidentally, is a big purple tapeworm in a floating bubble. He's from a race with the quite ridiculous name of the Gil'Dishpan.

Structurally, though, this story barely hangs together. Because DC Comics, experimenting with this new shipping cycle of a direct market volume 3 and a newsstand market volume 2, can't be assured that everybody will be able to read all seven parts of this story, the annual and # 316 have to reference the big action in # 1-5 without relying upon them. These are side stories to the main action, and don't slot in as, say, "episode four of seven" like they might. There was one fumble that showed that I did not read them in the correct order. # 4 opens with a reference to Wildfire vanishing, which I thought the story would explain in a few pages. No, it happened toward the end of # 316, which I read after # 5. Not that it mattered much.

Okay, so it's not so much a seven-episode story as it is a five-episode story with two awkward additions bolted on. Even accepting that, it's still weird, because the villains' plot abruptly changes after issue # 2. It begins all dark and ominous about every member swearing a blood oath to kill a Legionnaire. This is mostly abandoned. Their real plot turns out to be to teleport the pain in the ass backwards planet Orando through limbo and to another universe, so all the baddies can be space bank robbers again, basically.

But I think that "Once a Villain..." - to give this story a name - has so many key moments of greatness that it's really easy to overlook the patchy overall plot. First up just has to be the arrival of Steve Lightle on art duties. Holy anna, is this guy ever a find. He takes over from Giffen after # 2 and the book instantly looks so much better. Giffen hit his absolute nadir in my book - even worse than the awful job on "Omen and the Prophet" - with the cover of # 2. This awkwardly-posed cover shows several of the villains attempting to look menacing, but since Giffen drew them with floppy circles on their shoulders instead of skulls with facial musculature, they look like a bunch of balloons on scarecrow bodies. The interior work is not much better. Lightle kicks things back the way LSH should look. He's a terrific artist who's never received his credit from fandom, frankly one of the best artists to ever work in the superhero genre. There are still some production problems, however. Colorist Carl Gafford's effects and things certainly look better on the whiter Baxter paper than on newsprint, but the downside is that the process shows off the flaws whenever a colored element is placed over otherwise black on the page. It's sort of like watching a super-hi-def digital remaster of Thunderbirds and wondering when they replaced those thin silver strings that hold up the puppets with big black cords.

And then things go completely wild when we get to Orando - poor, stupid, King Arthur Orando - and Nemesis Kid lays down the smack. Comics foretell heroes' deaths all the time, but what happens really is stunning. Back in the late 1960s, writer Jim Shooter had introduced four new Legionnaires in a very celebrated series of stories. Nemesis Kid, with his adaptation power to defeat any single opponent, was almost immediately outed as a traitor, and Ferro Lad died after seven issues. Karate Kid and Princess Projectra remained close while their fellow newcomers were lost. Karate Kid left the team for a solo series, set in the weird wild world of contemporary Earth during the days when Bruce Lee kung fu movies were all the rage, and Projectra, even when most of the guys and ladies in the team were showing off all that skin, was prancing around in a Frederick's of Hollywood outfit. Frankly, both characters were due for retirement. They didn't feel natural; they felt dated and ridiculous, so their happy ending and royal wedding should have been a sweet finale for them.

One year later, the planet is devastated by the villains and millions killed, and Karate Kid, beaten to the last inch of his life by Nemesis Kid, turns and dies heroically shutting down one of the engines that is driving Orando through limbo in a huge explosion. Projectra kills Nemesis Kid by breaking his neck. The villain's corpse is unburied and left to be kicked around by soldiers. What's left of Karate Kid's body is ceremoniously burnt on a funeral pyre, and Projectra gives a final farewell to her friends; Orando will remain in limbo or beyond. She had failed her people, and they want nothing to do with the United Planets or any outside world. Well, to put it mildly, holy shit.

This is so epic, and so amazing, that the dismissive problem of Lyle Norg still hanging around being ignored by everybody for seven months seems extremely weird. That, at least, will get addressed in the next batch of issues. Otherwise, "Once a Villain..." is certainly flawed but still really memorable, a powerful and gut-punching story full of excellent character moments and unexpected, jawdropping results. Most of the baddies get away, and five of our heroes look to be lost forever between dimensions. Especially with Lightle at work, it leaves me really anxious for what comes next.

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