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Comics: The Legion Archive, Vol. 13

The Legion of Super-Heroes, Archives Vol. 13

DC Comics, 2012

After an enormous wait, the new Archive Edition of DC Comics’ long-running fan-favorite Legion of Super-Heroes has finally arrived in bookstores. It’s been nearly a decade since Volume 12 – a long enough interval, you’d think, for DC to make Volume 13 extra-satisfying, but alas, that doesn’t happen. It’s not just that the reprinted material is weak, it’s that the volume itself is as close to shoddy as anything in the solid “Archives” line has yet been. The paper quality is noticeably inferior to the earlier volumes, the color reproduction is bland and too often off, the Introduction by legendary Legion writer Paul Levitz (whose inaugural run on the book is reprinted in this volume) is game and hopeful but covers the actual fairy rancorous behind-the-scenes history of the period with gentlemanly euphemisms, and what about the volume’s cover? Legion Archive hardcovers used to be a big deal in the comics world, didn’t they? A big enough deal to warrant newly-commissioned covers? Or at least a reprint of something that was meant to be a cover? What we get here is a chaotic and unfocused reprint of one fight-panel from one of the interior issues, for all the world as though there was no half-way competent current DC artist available to whip up a new cover. Fans have the right to expect better for their $60, especially after a nine-year wait.

Even so, those fans have made sure this volume is lodged already on the New York Times graphic novel bestseller list, scrappily contending with super-hero names non-fans actually recognize. The Legion – a heroic band of teenage super-heroes fighting crime and alien invasion a thousand years in Earth’s future – has never been for non-fans and never will be: the franchise is encrusted with arcana spanning its fifty-plus years of existence, and by the late 1970s, that process was well under way. As with earlier volumes in this series, there’s no attempt here to give newcomers even the most basic context of what they’re seeing (a roll call of characters and their various super-powers and relationships to one another, for instance, or a quick sketch of what this future world is like) – instead, after Levitz’ opening remarks about joining the book as a teenager, we’re thrown headlong into the team’s frenzied adventures fighting the likes of Pulsar Stargrave (complete with bell-bottom disco pants), the Fatal Five, and the Infinite Man.

The issues reprinted here represent the changing of the guard: ground-breaking Legion writer Jim Shooter leaves, and ground-breaking newcomer Paul Levitz arrives. The epic Legion story-arcs for which Levitz is now so beloved lie all in his future during the stint reprinted here; there are no grand runs in this volume and only a few grand moments. Part of the problem is that the Legion itself was undergoing a jerky, awkward metamorphosis during these issues that mirrored the changing of its creative team – and the gradual building of its popularity. At this point in the team’s history, the executives at DC Comics were still under the impression that the presence of Superboy (the teenage version of the company’s marquee icon) was the thing selling the book every issue. Legion fans knew otherwise, but even so, these reprinted issues have a great deal of the Boy of Steel saving the day.

Other Legion characters fare less grandly. The winged space-tracker Dawnstar gets her introduction here – and when she’s offered a place on the team, she promptly bursts into tears (not exactly a common reaction among the male members). And underused Legionaire Chemical King actually dies in an issue reprinted here. Poor Condo Arlik! He was a mutant from the planet Phlon, gifted with the ability to slow down or speed up all chemical processes, and yet first Shooter then Levitz failed to see that this ability, if utilized with any degree of imagination, would have made him easily the most powerful member of the team. Instead, both writers made him a whining bungler, and Levitz, in a spasm of impatience, kills him in a wholly perfunctory plot (older Legion fans will remember reading the issue for the first time and grimacing when plodding fill-in artist James Sherman simply has him keel over dead – complete with the parting humiliation of a “Thump!” sound-effect).

These issues still sported some nifty Mike Grell covers, but for the most part the internal artwork chores are handled by in-house journeymen with no feel for the visual milieu the title had been slowly building to this point. In fairness, most of the visual concepts floated here by Shooter and Levitz would have defied the efforts of Michelangelo; far too many climactic panels are every bit as inadvertently funny as this one:

A team in transition, then, and an Archive volume stumblingly reflecting that. With any luck (with any respect for the thousands of die-hard Legion fans whose enthusiasm has been an industry by-word for decades), future volumes in this series will appear less rarely and be better-produced. Certainly the material improves from here on out – the rest is up to DC.