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Comics: Legion of Super-Heroes – Hostile World

Legion of Super-Heroes: Hostile World

Paul Levitz (script)

Francis Portela (art)

DC Comics, 2012

The company-wide “New 52″ reboot that DC Comics has used to re-envision (and, they hope, revitalize) their comic book line is nearly a year old. The graphic novel collections of its first story-arcs are starting to appear, offering die-hard and fair-weather fans alike an opportunity to take stock. The “New 52″ restart worked well financially for DC – it imparted a jolt of enthusiasm to their line, increased sales dramatically, and may have netted them some new readers (in a sure sign that money talks, DC’s rival in the super-hero game, Marvel Comics, will be trying something vaguely similar this fall). But was it a success from a purely comics point of view?

The answer (despite some notable exceptions) is clearly ‘no.’ Fringe characters like Animal Man or Swamp Thing might be temporarily benefiting from the attention of some top-notch writers and artists, but in the main crowd of DC’s marquee-name super-characters, it’s telling to realize that virtually all the successes are titles where the least changes were made. In the “Superman” titles, the incredibly rich history built up since John Byrne was allowed to go berserk on the character back in the 1980s was wiped out at a stroke, and in its place, we have an aloof and clueless super-being from another world, a character inconceivable to picture as a hero to anybody except a nerdy comic book fan. And this is gentle compared to the desecration wrought on one of the company’s other well-known properties: Wonder Woman has gone from a principled and extremely powerful Amazon ambassador (forged in clay by her mother and endowed with the powers of the gods) – a character who in recent years was finally being done right after decades of being done wrong – to a sword-wielding dime-a-dozen demi-god by-blow of an Olympian god, a derivative and forgettable generic warrior-woman.

Likewise Green Arrow (the utterly delightful recent depiction of the character as a slightly older and highly imperfect hero, lover, and father – wiped away), the venerable Justice Society (the highly respected multi-generational super-team that featured some of DC’s very first heroes – wiped away), and worst of all Batgirl (for years, the identity retired by a crippled Barbara Gordon, who learned instead to make a new life for herself in a wheelchair that didn’t in any way limit her potential and thus made her an inspiration to crippled young readers all over the world – now miraculously given back the use of her legs so she can leap around roof-tops at night) … all revamped into thinner, more brittle, entirely less imaginative versions of their earlier incarnations.

One of the few positive side-effects of the “New 52,” however, is that it managed to un-do some of the last lingering pre-reboot nonsense-changes made to another long-standing DC property, The Legion of Super-Heroes. For the last twenty years, roughly a dozen creators have done smaller but equally inane drive-by mini-overhauls of this title, which features the 31st Century adventures of the enormous titular team of super-powered teens from many different worlds, banded together to serve and protect the United Planets. DC gave each of those dozen or so creators license to warp and twist the Legion to suit their fancies, and the results were seldom good. One of the last such twistings was one of the biggest: to move the entire time-frame of the Legion stories forward a bit, so we were no longer talking about a team of teenagers. Instead, in several recent Legion story-lines, we’ve been presented with our familiar characters as bitter and grizzled adults. As odd as it must sound to the uninitiated, this last change felt particularly defeating – like a second end to childhood.

But one of the corporate mandates for the “New 52″ is that all the heroes be just a bit younger, and this has worked in the Legion’s favor: by some unintended miracle of uncoordinated hedge-clipping, the team has been brought squarely back to the conceptual ingredients of its greatest days: a sprawling, stalwart band of heroic young people banding together, squabbling amongst themselves, and fighting the good fight against both over-nice intergalactic diplomacy and overwhelming intergalactic super-threats.

A big part of what makes this new-old formula work is that it employs a writer who was actually responsible for many of those greatest days: veteran Legion-scripter Paul Levitz writes the seven issues now collected inLegion of Super-Heroes: Hostile World, and virtually every page shows his easy mastery of these characters and their complex sci-fi setting. His signature – multiple story-lines unfolding mostly parallel (one of the only effective ways to handle a team this big) and then converging to periodic little semi-conclusions – still works perfectly with this concept, and his characterizations of all the various team-members is pitch-perfect, as it’s been for a quarter of a century.

The main story-line inHostile World involves a renegade inhabitant of the quarantined planet Daxam, whose inhabitants are prevented from leaving their world by a crippling species vulnerability to heavy metals like lead (a vulnerability which causes some relief to the rest of the United Planets, since when Daxamites leave their homeworld, they gain all the unbeatable super-powers of Superman himself, Daxam and Krypton being similar kinds of places, you see). The renegade – a big jar-headed bruiser – has been supplied with a dangerously unstable antidote by long-term Legion enemies the Dominators, and the team eventually dispatches its own (heroic) Daxamite, Mon-el, to deal with the renegade (and the Dominator fleet that shows up to support him). The Legion’s resident super-genius, Brainiac 5, long ago developed a serum to cure Mon-el, although he’s unable to mass-produce it – so the action of that plot-line centers on the uber-geeky question of just how many Legion-members are capable of defeating a Daxamite one-on-one, or even holding their own. It’s good fun stuff, with hardly a stupid “New 52″ revamp in sight.

Levitz is aided in this fun by his regular artist Francis Portela, whose crisp work has an odd, off-kilter charm to it (and who rather unabashedly portrays all these adult Legion people as rather gorgeously statuesque at all times). And one of the issues reprinted here is drawn by industry legend Walt Simonson, an added bonus.

Which is good, since the graphic novel has virtually noother added bonuses. A few pages of rough-sketches are included at the back, but what readers really need – a simple one-page introductory summary of the last few big stories (the ones with direct effects on the events of this issue) – isn’t here, nor is it sufficiently alluded to in the body of the issues themselves. This cover of this volume runs a rather tepid blurb from IGN: “Most approachable jumping-on point for the Legion of Super-Heroes that you’ll get” – but that’s only true by default. It could have been a lot more approachable. That was supposed to be the whole point of the “New 52,” after all.

Nevertheless, this is sleekly done, wonderfully energetic treatment of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Considering how much worse things could have gone this year for this title, long-time fans should rejoice.

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