The “New 52″ company-wide conceptual reboot that DC Comics pulled off recently has been such a success (both financially and, I grudgingly admit, increasingly creatively as well)(some of the new titles launched back in 2011 are really starting to find their footing, much though I’ll always miss the old standbys they replaced) that transformed the superhero-comics industry – so it’s naturally got me thinking about the last time DC tried something on this kind of scale. Back in the halcyon days of the 1980s, the company ran the mini-series “Crisis on Infinite Earths” in a drastic attempt to clean up and simplify 50 years of tangled backstory continuity, so that – just as with the “New 52″ – new fans would feel invited rather than intimidated. The purpose of “Crisis” was the clear the slate and bring the company’s comics back to their basic world-famous elements, most of which had become hopelessly muddled – and considerably weakened – during the ’70s.
Like the “New 52,” “Crisis” was a huge success – and demanded a follow-up. After all, what’s the use of clearing the shrubbery if not to make room for new landscaping? What the DC powers-that-be wanted was simple: a return to iconic greatness. That meant revamped and simplified versions of such marquee characters as Superman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, the Flash, etc. (as usual, the near-perfect working simplicity of Batman was left largely untouched), and that called for some sort of launching event-series. Call it “New 52″ 1.5.
This was “Legends,” written by comics vet Lein Wein, drawn by fan favorite John Byrne, and featuring a dastardly plot by the granite-faced DC bad guy Darkseid to destroy mankind’s faith in its superheroes (a neat gesture on plotter John Ostrander’s part, meant to indicate fan frustration with the previous state of affairs at DC). He sends a crowd-manipulator to masquerade as an anti-superhero demagogue, and he sends a gigantic monster named Brimstone to wreak havoc while our heroes are fumbling in the wake of a cease-and-desist order (issued by none other than President Reagan!).
Brimstone is fought for about ten seconds by Cosmic Boy, one of the founders of the 31st-century super-team the Legion of Super-Heroes (he and his girlfriend are vacationing in the 20th Century), who then gets rescued by the current incarnation of the Justice League, a epic line-up of losers whose quick demise and wholesale replacement was one of the foremost series marching-orders to come down from DC corporate. Long-time fans were calling this Justice League the worst-ever iteration of the team right from the start, and not even Byrne’s signature dramatic splash-pages can salvage them (their general lameness even extends to how Wein has them introduce themselves to poor Cosmic Boy – “Name’s Vibe” “They call me Elongated Man” “I’m Vixen” “I answer to Gypsy” “My code-name is Steel” – and it’s lucky there aren’t more of these losers, or even Wein would have run out of stupid variations on “I’m”). They save Cosmic Boy from getting trashed by Brimstone and then – in absolute record time – they get trashed by Brimstone themselves. Thus clearing the ground for a new Justice League.
When Darkseid gets impatient with the whole turn-people-against-their-heroes business, he reverts to type and just unleashes his standard-variety Earth invasion – loads of flying para-demons, plenty of enormous mechanized Warhounds – and that’s when the mystic sorceror Doctor Fate decides it’s time to assemble a new Justice League. Why he doesn’t decide this earlier is never explained – but then, one of the main challenges of any mini-series like this one is how to believably sideline all the characters who are so powerful that their presence would otherwise make the plot impossible: Captain Marvel spends the whole story as his powerless alter ego Billy Batson, traumatized by doubt, and Superman spends the whole series doing just what Frank Miller would have you believe he always did: obeying the wishes of the Gipper. And as for Wonder Woman – “Legends,” just like the “New 52″ “Justice League” title twenty years later, takes the formation of the team as an opportunity to introduce the revamped version of the character to the rest of her future teammates (and it’s not just the moments that are identical – it’s the threat: it’s Darkseid and his marauding minions yet again).
Once it’s accomplished this essential grouping, the story wraps up fairly quickly, with a new Justice League being sworn in by Doctor Fate. Changes were made to that team’s line-up before it launched as an irritating comic-relief title in the late ’80s – so, maddeningly, the team Ostrander and Wein went to all the bother of assembling here, a team largely composed of, as it were, legends – the core membership of which will always be some variation of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman – doesn’t get its day in the sun for a few more years.
That basic team – with all its unlimited dramatic potential – is now the cornerstone of DC’s latest exercise in re-invention: the “New 52″ “Justice League” is consistently one of the company’s best titles every month despite being only 10 pages long each issue. “Legends” was collected for the first (and last? Can that be?) time in 1993 – who knows what new world order we’ll be seeing in 2033?