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Now in Paperback: DC Universe Legacies

DC Universe: Legacies

Len Wein (script)

Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Joe Kubert, George Perez, et al (art)

DC Comics, 2012

Fan favorite comics writer Kurt Busiek came up with this idea in 1994′s Marvels mini-series: since the ‘real-time’ history of Marvel super-heroes begins in 1939 with the introduction of the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner, what if the entire story of Marvel’s (then) 60-year superhero mythos were witnessed by one ordinary individual who could tell that story from the ‘man-on-the-street’ perspective? Busiek came up with an ordinary-joe newspaper man whose job naturally put in him the front row for most super-antics in Manhattan, and the four-issue mini-series (beautifully painted by Alex Ross) became a hit and is now revered as a high point in superhero comics.

It’s a very good gimmick, and it was only a matter of time until DC Comics – older than Marvel by one year – tried it themselves (actually, DC writers had tried similar gimmicks twenty and thirty years earlier, but only in fragments centering around single characters). In 2010 and early 2011, the company published a ten-issue mini-series called DC: Legacies, now in a paperback reprint. DC Legacies had three main differences from Marvels: first, it was written by Len Wein, who grabs less headlines than Busiek but is a better writer; second, it featured no single artist but rather a very impressive stable of industry greats and newer names; and third, its focal character wasn’t a newspaper man but rather the only other profession that could work as everyman narrator: a cop in Metropolis, Paul Lincoln.

When the story begins, a very old Lincoln is reminiscing over his extensive collection of vintage newspapers and magazines (a canny nod to Marvels)(and also to diehard comics fans, since Lincoln keeps his treasures carefully bagged-and-boarded – although since Lincoln is portrayed as athletic, courteous, and married to a non-inflatable woman, the comparison isn’t exact), remembering when he was just a small boy in Suicide Slum during the Depression, collecting protection money for the mob alongside his ne’er-do-well friend Jimmy Maloney. The boys are in the wrong place at a couple of different wrong times, caught in the crossfire between their corrupt bosses and the new breed of masked ‘mystery men’ beginning to appear, including the Crimson Avenger, the Atom, and the Sandman.

These early heroes present the boys with a choice – the right or the wrong path in life, that sort of thing – and Lincoln chooses the light, and Maloney chooses the dark. Legacies has a great deal of super-heroics to dramatize, but in anchoring so much of his narrative in the far more prosaic story of these two men – Lincoln’s career as a police officer and happy marriage to Maloney’s sister Peggy, and Maloney’s early years of petty crime and slow, heartfelt path to redemption – Wein gives the whole mini-series a beating heart.

Those early mystery men band together to form the Justice Society, and Lincoln recalls the simple adulation everybody felt while listening to the group’s various adventures on the radio:

Families would gather round at night to listen to the adventures of some of the greatest heroes the world has ever known. And, every so often, the JSA would take the airwaves to talk about the things that concerned us at the time … patriotism, juvenile deliquency, poverty … you name it, they discussed it, and it comforted us, just to know they were there, watching over us.

Eventually, however, this innocent time becomes clouded by politics. Wein makes almost no mention of World War II (a wise move, considering the work Wein’s equally-talented counterpart at Marvel, Roy Thomas, had done identifying Marvel’s ‘big three’ – the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, of most of all Captain America – with their WWII exploits), so the first major obstacles his heroes face is home-grown: a U.S. Senate made jumpy by ‘red scares’ calls the Justice Society in for questioning, causing the group to disband. At the same time, Lincoln decides to become a policeman, to fight the good fight in a world suddenly lacking in heroes. Wein fills out this chapter with countless allusions to the non-superhero characters who’ve made up such a large part of DC history, ordinary human adventurers like the Sea Devils or the Challengers of the Unknown.

Even non-comics fans will know what’s coming, and Legacies‘ third chapter delivers (with typically wonderful artwork by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez): the debut of the stable of iconic characters with which DC and the word ‘superhero’ were for decades synonymous – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and new, updated incarnations of such 1940s figures as Green Lantern and the Flash. Over the decades, DC writers have come up with a handful of ways to accommodate the existence of both the Justice Society and the later Justice League, but the best, simplest way is the one Wein chooses here: the simple march of time. The Justice Society stalwarts retired from crime-fighting and world-saving, until the exploits of a new wave of superheroes brought them out of retirement. Once Wein has put this basic framework in place, he’s free to fill it with all the major milestone events in the last thirty years of DC comics continuity: the death and resurrection of Superman, the breaking and return of Batman, the reality-streamlining mini-series “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” the transformation of Green Lantern into the super-villain Parallax, and so on. It’s all done with consummate confidence and a thousand little insider details only long-time comics fans will spot, and Wein never allows the pyrotechnics to crowd out the simple human story of Paul Lincoln, who loses his wife to cancer and watches his childhood friend Jimmy Maloney redeem himself at last.

The main chapters of Legacies are rounded out with a string of epilogues dealing with some of the side-stories of DC continuity: characters like Captain Marvel or Adam Strange, and the company’s fan-favorite future super-team, the Legion of Super-Heroes. The central story leaves Paul Lincoln right where it found him, an old man in a nursing home, looking back on a lifetime of memories. The superheroes he’s watched his whole life haven’t aged the way he has, of course, but Wein has accomplished the incredible feat of presenting 70 years of their wildly complicated history as one smooth narrative, an epic back-story for future adventures.

This is the signal irony of Legacies, of course: even while the final issues of the mini-series were still coming out, DC Comics was embarking on an unprecedented revamping of the very continuity Legacies had cleaned up and spotlighted so energetically. Len Wein’s work here is superb – and now utterly redundant, as DC editors and writers have now produced an entirely new fictional history for their superhero mythos, a history in which 95 % of what’s presented to readers in Legacies no longer applies. The move has been a sales bonanza and is therefore likely to be the law of the land for many years – perhaps even for long enough so that new comics fans will one day consider these current issues ‘the good old days.’

Meanwhile, long-time comics readers owe debt of gratitude to Len Wein and his teams of legendary artists, for this one last tour of the old neighborhood.

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