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Comics: Legion – Secret Origin

Legion: Secret Origin

Paul Levitz (script)

Chris Batista (art)

DC Comics, 2012

DC Comics, the home of such venerable superheroes as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman, launched a company-wide re-invention of its comics properties in 2011, designed to streamline tangled back-stories and give a broad invitation to new readers. Such a move was bound to be decried by old readers who’d invested time and affection in the now-defunct incarnations of all their favorite characters, especially since some of those old fans were very old indeed, Superman having premiered in 1938 and Batman in 1939.

But perhaps the most, um, dedicated group of DC readers, the toughest ones to please, came together in 1958 to follow, enthuse over, and obsess about a super-team called the Legion of Super-Heroes. This was – or will be – a group of teenagers a thousand years in the future (monorails, jet-cars, unchecked urban sprawl, space-travel, interplanetary civilizations, etc.) who band together to combat evil and help the Earth-based Science Police keep innocents from harm. The team’s founding trio – Saturn Girl (she can read minds), Cosmic Boy (he can control magnetism), and Lightning Lad (just what you’d expect) were originally introduced in a Superboy adventure, visiting teenage Clark Kent in Smallville by means of time-travel, and fan response was unexpectedly enormous (those readers who in 1958 were just embarking on the weird futuristic adventure of becoming teenagers themselves were perhaps worst infected). More Legion appearances, and more Legionaires (each with distinctive super-powers), and eventually regular Legion comics followed.

Soon, a fiercely intricate and supremely nerdy mythology had developed. Long before Star Trek made such behavior more common if no less odd, Legion fans began spinning elaborate biographical back-stories for characters who appeared in only one issue. They drew technical specs for the Legion space-cruisers. They worked with an ever-changing roster of Legion creators to construct the grammar and typography of Interlac, the language of the future. They happily developed what any other group of people might justifiably call a strange enthusiasm for the source material.

The problem: that source material was frequently changed right under the collective noses of its adoring fans. Different writers came up with different spins on the origin and nature of the super-group and re-wrote the comic’s history accordingly. Superboy himself was written out and then back in half a dozen times (he’s currently out), and the team was re-envisioned as everything from a gang of anti-authority delinquents to an embittered group of grizzled adults to a bunch of clones.

Then DC launched its “New 52″ company-reboot, giving a core group of writers and artists nearly free rein to re-invent the entire line of super-characters from scratch. Legion fans trembled at the idea of yet another retroactive savaging of their beloved fictional universe.

It turns out they needn’t have worried. The two “new 52″ Legion titles, The Legion of Super-Heroes and Legion Lost, are easily among the most traditional of all the revamps. But as if more reassurance were needed, DC authorized legendary Legion writer Paul Levitz (responsible for some of the fan-favorite highlights from the title’s last thirty years) to write a limited-run mini-series retelling the team’s origin story. And he was allowed – or perhaps he insisted on it – to make that origin so comfortably familiar in its broad outlines that only the most rabidly rancorous fan could object.

That outline starts with an unscripted act of altruism. R. J. Brande, billionaire intergalactic industrialist, is boarding a commuter-ship to Earth just like plain folks. Among his fellow passengers are teen Science Police cadet Irma Ardeen, a mind-reader from Saturn’s moon Titan, Rokk Krinn, a native of the planet Braal (all of whom have magnetic powers), coming to Earth in search of work, and Garth Ranzz of the planet Winath (who recently underwent a bizarre accident that left him with the ability to hurl lightning bolts). Suddenly, Irma Ardeen’s keen telepathic abilities detect assassins waiting to kill Brande. The boys spring into action, using their magnetic and lightning abilities to disarm the would-be assailants. Brande is grateful, of course, but he also senses a PR opportunity: what if he financed these three – and many new recruits – and shaped them into a super-team like those Earth saw a thousand years ago? And so the Legion of Super-Heroes is born.

In “Secret Origin,” Levitz keeps all this basically intact, adding mainly some elements of perhaps nefarious mystery to the personality of R. J. Brande. His founding trio of heroes are still as stalwart as they ever were, and the later recruits – including Phantom Girl, Colossal Boy, and the super-genius Brainiac 5 – are all written here in careful accordance with ‘archetypal’ characters … many of which Levitz himself developed decades ago. Artist Chris Batista’s style can be curiously static and lateral at times, but he has a fine eye for detail, and his teenagers look like teenagers (not as common as you’d think, in the world of comics art). “Secret Origin” actually has a specific plot – involving interdimensional aliens and a scheming, traitorous Earth official – but Legion fans, the only conceivable audience for this new one-volume collection of the series (no knock to Levitz and company, but this is one comic book that’s quite possibly incapable of crossover appeal to newcomers), will find such goings-on of decidedly less interest than the return to the old conceptual framework they’ve loved for so many years. They’ll no doubt hope this Legion is here to stay – but there’s no predicting that future.