Saturday, February 16, 2013

LSH Reread, part fifteen

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 3 # 48-53 and Annual # 4, 1988)

Major developments:

*The four conspirator Legionnaires - Brainy, Saturn Girl, Duo Damsel and Mon-El - have to move more quickly as they are being suspected. Mon-El, implausibly but hey! comics, brings a dwarf star to Earth to power a device of Brainy's. This goes disastrously wrong and nearly kills millions. Tellus, Magnetic Kid, and Sensor Girl have figured out they're up to something. Magnetic Kid confronts Brainy but is rebuffed.
*Starfinger plans to send a pulse wave through space attuned to the Legionnaires' flight rings. He receives a sample ring from a mysterious "Doctor Hazeg," whom the in-disguise Cham recognizes as actually Colossal Boy. Starfinger later sees through the deception when he realizes Hazeg's identity.
*The conspirators fess up in part: they're attempting to break the time barrier and avenge Superboy's death by destroying the Time Trapper. The rest of the team agrees that's a good idea, but they don't know that the four have sworn to kill the entity or die trying, and that they firmly intend to do it alone. Brainy begins to despair that the time barrier cannot be broken, but he's encouraged by the strange reappearance of their presumed-dead friend Rond Vidar. They use the Infinite Man's power over time to burst the barrier and attack the Trapper.
*So things go straight to hell: Everybody's ready to leave and kick some entropic ass at the end of time, but Brainy has powered the device to only take the four of them. Somehow Rond Vidar comes along as well, revealing his secret when they reach Time's End to battle the Trapper: he's got a Green Lantern ring. The battle is still pathetically one-sided: the Trapper injures Saturn Girl after her attempt to attack his mind, he kills Luorno's second body, and even after Mon-El punches the Trapper through a dying star and smashes a planet (!) into him, the Trapper shrugs off the attacks and wounds Mon-El so grievously that, even when this series ends the following year, he still has not recovered. Brainy's secret weapon is to reincarnate the Infinite Man: the personification of constant, ceaseless rebirth goes to war with the personification of entropy and death, and the two vanish back to the very beginning of time, where the Trapper's very existence creates a paradox. Both beings may be destroyed, but the costs are pretty high.
*Using the Infinite Man in this fashion means the death of its human host, Jaxon Rugarth. Polar Boy charges Brainiac 5 with violating the Legion constitution's guideline against taking life. The trial splits the team, some of whom agree that Rugarth's mind had been destroyed years before when he became the Infinite Man in the first place. The final vote is 11-7 in favor of acquittal with several abstains. Brainy bequeaths Luorno his force field belt before resigning, Shady takes an extended leave of absence looking for medical help for Mon-El, his invunerable body shredded by the Trapper, and the White Witch was so infuriated by Brainiac 5 that she abruptly left without discussion or explanation. The team, to put it simply, is in shambles.
*While her lover is unconscious, Shady prays to her gods and ancestors for his life, and "binds" herself to him in devotion, a ritual similar to marriage, which involves her cutting off part of one of her fingers.
*Ayla, Pol, and Tellus take a mission to Pol's home planet of Braal, which has been beset by earthquakes. These are caused by a Gil'dishpan called Hywyndr. Ayla flirts pretty heavily with Pol, who I believe is about ten or eleven years younger than she.
*Starfinger reveals himself to his prisoner Colossal Boy as Char Burrane, the first criminal who Gim apprehended after getting his super powers. The Espionage Squad, Dawnstar, and the Science Police raid his headquarters and capture him.
*Dream Girl finally has that fling with Atmos in a short backup story. Garry Leach draws it. That man never got enough work.
*Greg LaRocque leaves the book after a run that started a little dry but improved so much over time. He's replaced by returning artist, and co-plotter, Keith Giffen with issue # 50.

Oh, sweet merciful heavens, Giffen's back and he's remembered how to draw.

There has been speculation over the years about sales figures for the book. The numbers that are posted monthly - to some controversy - at sites like The Beat don't stretch back as far as the late eighties, so it's anecdotal research. Still, the smart money's on LSH losing at least a third of its audience when it moved off the newsstands and into comic shops only as a Baxter-only title, and rising only briefly with 1987's "Death of Superboy" four-part crossover. This allegedly didn't hold, and sales continued deteriorating.

From my own experience buying these as back issues, pretty much everything between issues 20 and 50, along with the overprinted # 2 through 6 and excepting # 37 and # 38, came from quarter bins. There was next to no back issue market for LSH in the 1990s. That said, the final thirteen issues were much more difficult to source. They didn't cost me any more than cover price, but the price tags of several different comic shops around Atlanta and Athens on my issues confirm that I had to look around quite a lot for them. The conclusion that I draw is that, after the Time Trapper story, comic shops found reason to cut their orders, massively. This probably came around the same time as a notable atrophy in the collectibles hobby, along with DC flooding the market with short-lived and forgotten miniseries. The ad pages of LSH during this period are like a roll of dishonor, with title after title that nobody bought. We remember the standouts and forget all the failures. In 1988, DC seemed to have a pile of them, and it probably made sense for retailers to try three copies of something new and cut three copies of the slumping Legion.

That's entirely speculative, but I think that's what sets the stage for Giffen's return and his unbelievably fantastic new style. It won't last very long, and, within years, it'll be buried by the "Five Years Later" run with its nine-panel grid and focus on random background objects, but for a few months in 1988, Giffen is absolutely masterful. He's again visually defining characters by their hair, something that both Steve Lightle and Greg LaRocque had let slip, and not their costumes. In fact, it's here that many of the Legionnaires quit dressing in costumes entirely. One of his first moves is to retire both Phantom Girl's and Dawnstar's Cockrum- or Grell- designed 1970s peek-a-boo suits, which I think are the last of the sexy-ladies Frederick's of Hollywood-by-way-of Logan's Run costumes from that period to stick around. Now, not only is her hair graying - perhaps a fashion choice - but she's wearing a red jacket. I really like this idea; it breaks the characters further away from defined "superhero" image and costume and allows them to dress like actual people.

But before we get to Giffen, there are two long-running plots that need to be resolved. The Starfinger story is by far the less satisfying of the two. He's just a laughably shallow and unbelievable villain, and his gigantic, super-powerful criminal empire just does not make any sense. Worse, it turns out that he just happened upon the source of his power, the mindless genies Starlight and Starbright. There's a brief moment of interest in watching the lesser-powered members of the Espionage Squad finally defeat him, but it's all an unsatisfying bore.

On the other hand, there's the Time Trapper story. Holy moly.

There's a great suggestion in the letters page that this whole "conspiracy" thing is really just gearing up to an elaborate surprise birthday party. If only. Levitz, LaRocque and guest artist Pat Broderick really sold the heck out of this ongoing story, and once Giffen returns, it's work by people at the top of their game. It's the nature of superhero fiction to sell the idea of heroes battling against insurmountable odds, but this story pulls it off like very, very few others. The most remarkable moment is the brave idea of sidelining Saturn Girl almost immediately. Over the previous few years, she had been spotlighted as the most strong-willed and surprisingly powerful of all the Legionnaires, particularly when she defeated Universo, and so watching her fall here is an incredible shock.

The death of Duo Damsel's second body is, similarly, driven home by the emphasis placed shortly before on what death means to her species. She explains that she effectively "died" several years previously when one of her three selves had been killed by Computo and has been either living on borrowed time or living a lie, which is hardly the sort of thing that you'd think her husband would wish to know.

Issue 50, and the amazing trial coda that follows it in # 51, is arguably the pinnacle of the book. I might be proven wrong over the next two reread chapters, and I'm really looking forward to revisiting Giffen's artwork again, but the impression that I have always felt was that this masterpiece simply wasn't going to be topped. "Life and Death at the End of Time" is absolutely one of the best single issues of any superhero comic, especially in the way that it upends the status quo and leaves the last year of the book with the team in shambles, trying to come to grips with what the hell just happened.

For those who enjoy the lighter side of the 30th Century, however, there is the amusement of watching Ayla make what's apparently one last attempt at heterosexuality with her fumbling flirting with the oblivious Pol. The fans in the letters pages have suggested that the founding trio are pushing thirty and Pol is at most maybe seventeen. That's okay, kid. If my older brother's best friend's twin sister had started coming onto me when I was seventeen, I'd probably have been clueless myself.

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