Saturday, March 9, 2013

LSH Reread, part seventeen

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 3 # 60-63, 1989)

Major developments:

*After ten months of beautiful artwork, Keith Giffen begins the experimentation that would typify the next volume of LSH comics. These final four issues of volume three are mostly divided into nine-panel grids, with the "camera" often giving us extreme close-ups of faces or random background objects. More on this below.
*Jeckie and Timber Wolf are elected leader and deputy leader. Polar Boy takes this as a vote of no confidence in his abilities and is pretty upset about it.
*A hydra attacks the Aegean Sea, the weather goes completely wild, fire and water elementals are seen everywhere, and the laws of physics keep changing.
*An emissary from the Sorceror's World warns Projectra: "After millennia of trusting science, it may turn on you. Magic's day of return may not be far off... if come, all laws of your science failing shall be."
*For several panicked hours, Earth is in pretty bad shape as technology fails a populace that cannot survive without it. Jeckie uses her skills, and the visitors from the Sorceror's World, to pull information about the laws of physics from Sun Boy's mind and restore power to the planet.
*As Earth recovers, the disintegration of science spreads into space. Shady and Mon-El's ship loses power, and with it goes the life support that is keeping him alive...
*Some big angry bruiser, revealed as The Archmage, who's been chained up for centuries underground is freed from bondage. He seals the Sorceror's World behind a spellbound barrier that requires a life to open. It cannot be unlocked without a willing sacrifice. Magnetic Kid gives his life to unlock the planet and start the final battle.
*Dream Girl and Brainiac 5 join their friends while the galaxy's other heroes try and save their planets from destruction as technology continues failing. The only heroes whose powers have much effect on the Archmage are Sun Boy and Wildfire.
*The White Witch - who has not forgiven Brainy for taking Jaxon Rugarth's life - tries to stand ground and defend the Sorceror's World from the Archmage while her colleagues in magic escape to another plane of existence. All of this has been building to the Archmage getting enough power and energy to destroy the planet, eon-old punishment for imprisoning him millenniums before. The White Witch resists until a spirit - possibly Amethyst of Gemworld? - convinces her to stand down. The heroes escape and the Sorceror's World is blasted into dust, and the Archmage realizes, too late, that he was bound to this world as well and fades from existence.
*Mon-El's fate is left unrevealed.

Before I get too backhanded about Keith Giffen's artwork, let me praise him, however faintly this sounds, for his willingness to experiment and mix up his style. As far as I'm concerned, he's right up there with Carlos Ezquerra, Colin MacNeil, and Kev Walker for simply being unpredictable and regularly, radically, confounding our expectations. Plus, when Giffen's on fire, as he especially was when inked by Mahlstedt around the time of "The Great Darkness Saga," and with his latest look over the course of issues # 50 -59, he's just about the best artist working in American comics in the 1980s.

But then there's this shit.

The nine-panel grid, as inked by Al Gordon, is ugly and confining, and I cannot stand to look at it. Things improve massively when Mike DeCarlo takes over finishing work in the final two issues, as DeCarlo has a much looser hand. That said, he still can't salvage the layouts. For example, Rokk's reaction, in the final issue, to hearing of his brother's death just flops on the page, although the space considerations - far too much happens in these last 27 pages, especially on Xanthu - and Paul Levitz's leaden dialogue in this critical scene doesn't help it.

For what it's worth, Gordon is more in sync with Giffen's sensibilities, and, to be fair, Giffen had been leaning toward angular and blocky for some months anyway. The Emerald Empress, for example, was downright criminally sexy apart from these strange, gigantic, tire-like lips that have been showing up on everybody's faces lately, while their chins begin to firm and calcify. Gordon's incredibly rigid line, when compared to DeCarlo's, is a better match for this, but I simply can't stand the result. Everybody is ugly, and there are at least three panels per issue where I simply have no idea what I'm supposed to be looking at.

At this stage, the nine-panel grid, which would dominate the look of the book in volume four, is still in its infancy. In principle, at least, I kind of like how it's used here. The scenes with our heroes (the world of science) are shown with nine-panel grids and white borders, and the cutaway scenes with the Archmage nearing his breakout (the world of magic) are shown in six-panel grids with black borders. It's very clever despite being ugly, and as the scale and the scope of the story grows - billions are trying to evacuate stricken worlds - the tiny little panel isn't enough, and the merciless, immovable, impassionate grid hems in the scale to the point that we're left with passing dialogue to tell us how bad things are, because there is no room in the artwork to show us.

I hate this art so much.

And speaking of no room, Dream Girl suddenly realizes, at the bottom of page six of issue # 63, that she's been living on Xanthu and sleeping with Atmos because he's been using a will-controlling power that we did not know of before this to dominate her own will. She correctly recognizes, in thought, "He raped my mind" (for starters), but there's just no space in the story to consider the ramifications of this. It's settled at the bottom of page seven with a sock to the jaw. And now, that's enough of the subplots, back to the action!

In other words, none of this is the epic that it should have been. It just needs a little more room to breathe - a double-sized final issue might possibly have done it - and to consider what it presents. So many vital subplots are briefly acknowledged, and old faces like a couple of the Subs and the Heroes of Lallor get a little more screen time, but it feels like lip service. Mon-El's injury is left completely unresolved, Dreamy and Thom don't share a word, the White Witch and Brainy don't actually discuss the decision that destroyed their friendship, and so on. All of these lingering plotlines are left to Giffen and his new collaborators to handle. And how they did those is another story, and one that I'll only briefly acknowledge in the next installment.

As for the glory days of Levitz's work in the 1980s, this is where it ends. It was worse than I remembered it in places, and a good deal better than I remembered it in others, which was always a pleasant surprise. It didn't end well, but it was a magnificent ride getting there. I don't have any hesitation in calling it one of the very best superhero comics of its decade. Long live the Legion!

Sorta makes me wonder how well things went when Levitz returned to the book, actually...

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