Posts from August 2013

August 22nd, 2013

Comics: The End of the Legion

 

legion 79 - victoryDC Comics is currently in the middle of a big readership-grabbing multi-issue crossover event called “Trinity War,” and that big event is going to blend into the next, something called “Forever Evil” that will feature another mini-series and some collectible, gimmicky covers. The company’s successful reboot of its entire line of comics, its “New 52″ lineup, continues to barrel along, apparently pleasing current fans and making new ones.

Old DC readers might notice a much less noisy event that also took place this week, and to some of us, that event will seem much more stark and important than any publicity hooplas the company’s corporate owners could dream up.

This is the week The Legion ended.

That’s The Legion of Super-Heroes, one of DC’s longest-running franchises, which has taken various titles and formats over the last five decades in order to chronicle the adventures of a sprawling team of teenage superheroes a thousand years in the future. The rampant continuity-altering festival of “The New 52” left the Legion and its extensive background relatively untouched, even while it was dramatically revamping just about every other well-known DC character, turning Superman into an emotionless a-hole visiting alien, turning Wonder Woman into a banal and bloodthirsty demi-goddess, and changing the alternate-reality of “Earth 2,” where the superheroes of the World War II era grew old and mentored a new generation of heroes, into a realm where a new crop of heroes had to take over, because a super-villain succeeded in killing Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman.

In this “New 52,” the Legion was still the Legion: a big, idealistic team of friends spread too thin in a galaxy teeming with chaos and villainy. At the legion lastoutset of the new continuity, the team had undergone a tragedy: a small squad of its members had disappeared and were feared dead – unbeknownst to their 31st century teammates, they were actually stranded in the 21st century, dealing with the likes of Superman and Batman and trying to figure out how to get back home. For a great moment there, fans were getting two Legion titles every month, and best of all, they were being written by Paul Levitz, one of the greatest Legion-creators of all time.

It was an uneven run, and right at its end, Levitz began orchestrating one of his signature enormous, epic storylines – this one involving the villainous Fatal Five, who figure out a way to disrupt the basic power source of all 31st century technology, effectively bringing galactic civilization to its knees and throwing the Legion into scrambling chaos. It becomes of their most desperate and bloody battles, and although they emerged – last month – victorious, they did so in the rubble of Earth, with several of their members dead or maimed.

This current issue, #23, is the last of the series. For the first time in a long time, there’ll now be no Legion comic coming out from DC every month. This issue’s cover, showing the team’s resident super-genius Brainiac-5 sitting slumped, holding his head in his hands, could easily function as a visual shorthand for Levitz himself, sitting in the disheveled chaos of his creations. That chaos is also reflected in the fact that the book has had four or five different artists in four or five different issues – concluding here with some of the best work the usually-irritating artist Kevin Maguire.

legion disbandedIn the issue, as the Legion is picking up the pieces and Brainiac-5 is trying frantically to come up with a ‘master plan’ to put the galaxy (and the team itself) back on its feet when they get a rude awakening: the government of Earth has decided to disband the Legion immediately.

It doesn’t make any sense, but it happens anyway, and Levitz winds up the issue with a series of epilogues showing various team members coming to terms with the fact that the Legion has ended with a whimper and not a bang. And in almost all of those epilogues, the characters allude to other realities, alternate realities where perhaps the team still flourishes. And in one of those epilogues, Levitz goes a bit further: he has a character allude to the fact that … a super-villain a long time ago killed Superman!

So: this entire version of the Legion was the Earth-2 version all along? Despite the fact that its lost splinter-team was clearly on Earth-1? So long-time fans are left with an empty bag, naturally wondering what about the Legion of Earth-1? This wasn’t actually just the last issue of the Legion – it was a colossal imposture of the whole concept. It’s bizarrely disappointing that such a gesture would come from someone as central to Legion lore as Paul Levitz, but at least long-time fans have his earlier masterpieces to console them.

 

 

 

July 21st, 2012

Comics: Flagship Teams!

Among this week’s new four-color superhero comics are two flagship team-books, one that I’ve liked intermittently over the decades, and one that I rather inordinately love. The first, Justice League, is set in the present-day and features – in this latest incarnation – a core roster of some of the most famous super-heroes ever created, including Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. The second, Legion of Super-Heroes, is set a thousand years in the future and features an almost hilariously enormous roster of super-heroes nobody but a comics nerd could recognize or name. Both teams were re-launched almost a year ago as part of DC Comics’ “New 52″ company-wide revamp, and that thought ought to give you chills right there. The “New 52″ has been a big commercial success for DC, and it appears to be connecting the company’s line of super-hero comics with a new generation of readers who might have been put off by the sixty years of continuity being carried around by the earlier incarnations of all these titles. But the revamping shows every sign of having been conceived and written in something of a hurry, and the intervening months haven’t done much to change that impression.

Justice League is one of the worst offenders. This is the ultimate super-team book, and to be fair, with this roster – Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg – even a writer as talented as current scripter Geoff Johns might be a bit stymied. There’s virtually no physical opposition possible, so any writer has to shift the dramatic emphasis to the psychological – and that’s pretty tough to do, when most of the “New 52″ versions of our old heroes are petty, bickering jerks. That’s certainly the case here, with Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman all being portrayed as graceless, rampaging morons, Superman and Batman being portrayed as aloof, clueless stooges, and Flash and Cyborg being portrayed as naive, toothless nice guys. All the complexity that was built up in the various Justice League runs in the ten years prior to this rewriting is gone, and even after eleven issues, there’s virtually nothing in sight to take its place. These teammates don’t like each other; they don’t trust each other; hell, they barely even know each other’s fighting capabilities – amply demonstrated in this latest issue in a way, admittedly, much to my liking: when the League tries to stop this new, revamped Wonder Woman from going after the bad guy (an effective re-imagining of Dr. Destiny), she retaliates by flooring first Green Lantern and then Superman himself. I’d been worried that Wonder Woman fared as badly as she always does after any re-imagining … in other words, that in “the New 52″ she was a loud-mouthed weakling. So these particular brainless fight-sequences were a welcome sight – although they were annoying in their own right, since they underscore one of the biggest shortcomings of this new Justice League: there’s just not enough of it. Fully one-half of the issue is given over to a backup story introducing the new version of Captain Marvel. That leaves 20 pages for the main Justice League story, and of those 20 pages, one is a splash page and six are two-page spreads. Jim Lee’s artwork continues to please me very much, but even so: this kind of per-issue commitment sure as hell doesn’t break his back.

Which makes the sigh of relief I heave when I turn to Paul Levitz’ ongoing run on the “New 52″ Legion of Super-Heroes feel all the more cowardly. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the only silver linings for me among the serial desecrations I’ve found in this company-wide revamp has been the fact that the Legion has been unaltered by the ruckus hitting every other title. In fact, things might have been ever so slightly improved: right before the launch of the “New 52,” the Legion was being cast as an older, more bitter group than the idealistic future-teens long-time fans had grown up loving. But one of the strongest tenets of the relaunch is youth: all our characters are visibly younger than their pre-reboot counterparts. Since the very idea of an embittered, adult Legion is anathema, the subtle youthening of its many members is a nice little bonus. And of course Levitz – a Legion legend – can do no wrong when it comes to writing this title. In this latest great storyline, a handful of team members are lost in Dominator space, at the mercy of long-time Legion enemies – with the bulk of the team unable to aid them, for political reasons. This is just the kind of storyline Levitz handles superbly (even though he’s most famous for entirely more epic, less nuanced proceedings), right down to the great Legion moments, like the one in this latest issue where a nicely-revitalized Triplicate Girl grimly adheres to the Legion’s bedrock tendency to look after its own:

But this all works so well precisely because it was largely ignored by the sweeping changes of the “New 52″ – it being the one title DC executives could be sure would sell well regardless. I’ll just have to hope it stays that way, since it’s currently the only DC title I actually enjoy every month.

 

 

March 28th, 2012

Comics: Legion Secret Origin!

It’s been a very good winter season (calendar-wise, of course – actual winter didn’t happen in Boston this year) for Legion of Super-Heroes fans: not only did the two Legion ‘New 52′ relaunch titles (‘Legion of Super-Heroes’ and ‘Legion Lost’) manage to escape the ravages of crapitude that swamped almost all of DC’s company-wide reboot, but fans have also been treated to a six-part mini-series written by Legion legend Paul Levitz and drawn by the fantastic Chris Batista. The series is called “Legion: Secret Origin,” and from its first issue to this week’s conclusion, it’s been great. More than any other comic book concept, the Legion has been prone to cataclysmic revamps of its own over the last thirty years, almost always to the detriment of the title – which made this mini-series, which tells a straightforward and thrilling version of the Legion’s origins, all the more of a gift. Who knows how long it’ll be until some hot-shot ‘creator’ decides to make his bones by sprokking up the franchise? If Superman isn’t safe from such idiotic tinkering, surely nobody is.

The tried-and-true Levitz scripting magic is on full display in this concluding issue. This writer loves forward momentum above all things – his scenes are quick cutaway things, almost always ending with a word that then becomes the first word of the following scene, to further enhance the headlong effect. In this issue we find the fledgling Legion repulsing not only an interdimensional alien invasion but also an attempt on the life of billionaire R J Brande, the team’s founder. And in addition to both of those threats, there’s also the spectre of the Time-Trapper, one of the team’s most durable foes, here kept mysterious enough to play into the plans of any number of future interpreters. And at the end of the day, these valorous teen heroes from half a dozen worlds prove victorious – all done up splendidly in Batista’s clean pencils (his teens are all strangely elongated, but they’re also all easy on the eyes) and the cheerful coloring of Wes Hartman. By the time readers are reaching the end of the issue, they’re no doubt sensing Levitz has a rousing parting shot in mind, and they’re right – we see our new team, flush from their first trial, standing proudly outside the dorky clubhouse they’ve built for themselves:

And best of all? Levitz – the ultimate Legion of Super-Heroes true believer – can’t resist ending with that geekiest of all rallying-cries:

Hee. Perfect. I just hope he’s right.

December 2nd, 2011

Comics! Star Trek and the Legion!

When I think about the current state of four-color superhero comics as 2011 winds to a close, it’s easy to become a bit depressed. DC Comics’ massive re-launch of its entire superhero line is pretty much a take-it-or-leave-it proposition: either you’re able to enjoy their radical revision of characters like Superman and Wonder Woman (not so much Batman or Green Lantern, both of whom they left pretty much alone), in which case you can keep reading their comics, or you really, really don’t like those revisions, in which case there’s no point in your picking up each subsequent issue. Certainly I’m in the latter category: for the first time in many, many decades, there’s virtually no monthly DC comic I like well enough to buy.

Which leaves Marvel Comics, except that Marvel’s perennial head-up-its-own-ass disposition gets a little wearying for those of us who very much prefer the ‘grander’ note DC used to strike. True, the various Spider-Man titles are at a pretty strong point in terms of both writing and artwork, and the new relaunch of Daredevil is fairly happy stuff. But the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men (whose books and various spin-off titles account for about ten ongoing series) are all in states of hopeless muddle, and Thor is temporarily weird (again), so that’s no help.

But what the comics-gods take away, they also sometimes give back, and so it is these days with two titles regularly appearing in comics shops. One is blissfully free of both muddle and remake: IDW’s new ongoing “Star Trek” series. I briefly discussed the first issue here; the series is now up to issue #3, which begins a two-part adaptation of the great original TV series episode “The Galileo Seven.” In that episode, written by Oliver Crawford and Shimon Wincelberg, Mr. Spock, Doctor McCoy, Mr. Scott, and four crewmen find themselves marooned on a nameless planet when their shuttlecraft crashes. They’re beset by the savage, enormous inhabitants of the planet, who have a nasty tendency to throw phone-pole-sized spears, and Mr. Spock’s logical leadership is put under an enormous amount of stress before they’re finally rescued. It’s a classic episode, full of great moments, and writer Mike Johnson has chosen to adapt it to the cast and continuity of the new “Star Trek” movie, as he did with his first two issues (half this present issue is drawn serviceably by Stephen Molnar, and the other half is drawn less-than-serviceably by Joe Phillips). This is a tricky choice, as I’ve mentioned before, in part because those early TV episodes, lacking any kind of special effects budget, relied heavily on interpersonal drama – which doesn’t always translate well into the comics medium. You can see it in this issue: yes, there’s the requisite crewman-skewering moment, but most of the pages are taken up with fairly static scenes of people talking to each other. That can be wonderful if both the artwork and the dialogue is very peppy (the ongoing “Buffy the Vampire-Slayer” comic is a consistently excellent example, but even the hyper-talky new incarnations of the Avengers will suffice), but that’s not the case here – the artwork is stiff, and most of the dialogue is awkwardly lifted from that original episode (with quick alternations to reflect the fact that Kirk hasn’t been in Star Fleet very long and that Spock still doesn’t know him very well and maybe wants his job). The basic material of “The Galileo Seven” can’t help but work (although I remain curious why Johnson and IDW would think it’s a good idea to give this new crew the same adventures the old crew had 50 years ago), so of course I’ll read the concluding issue – here’s hoping Phillips was just helping out, however, and not taking over.

The second bit of comics relief I got last week came, oddly enough, from DC. As I’ve mentioned, my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes was largely spared the ravages of the idiotic revamp that’s swept through the rest of the company’s flagship titles: the valiant super-team of the future is mostly the same such team I’ve always loved. And if this is true for the two new Legion monthly titles, how much more true of the current “Legion: Secret Origin” mini-series written by the great Paul Levitz and drawn by Chris Batista? This mini-series, the first issue of which I mentioned here, is Levitz’ leisurely re-telling of the Legion’s origin and early years, and although it so far features every bit as many tweaks and changes as any of the “New 52″ revamps, it matters less – the origin of the Legion has been revamped countless times over the last fifty years. Indeed, it’s kind of a rite of passage for every Legion writer to tell a slight variation of the basic superpowered-teens-save-industrial-trillionaire-from-assassination template.

Levitz’ current re-telling started out really, really good and is quickly becoming flat-out excellent. This is already one of those mini-series I can’t wait to own as a hardcover collected volume. I’m a big fan of Batista’s artwork – it’s every bit as stiff as the stuff I was deploring in “Star Trek,” but there’s a clean-lined beauty to it that rescues it from being static. Our cast is slowly filling out – this issue delves more deeply into new potential Legionaires Brainiac 5, Phantom Girl, and Triplicate Girl, and we get a glimpse of Gim Allon flashing his poster-boy pearly whites and clearly getting ready to come on board as Colossal Boy. Levitz continues to give us far more context for the Legion than we’ve ever had before – unlike previous incarnations of the title, here we have an actual fully-detailed future world that exists before the Legion is assembled by the aforementioned trillionaire R. J. Brande (in this mini-series, he inexplicably talks like Boris of Boris & Natasha), a future world with politicians and armed services and complicated problems of its own, into which this weird new phenomenon, this unaccountable super-group the likes of which hasn’t been seen in a thousand years, introduces as many problems as solutions. Levitz’ narrative chorus – three shadowy Earth government figures monitoring everything – works to keep the big picture in focus, and if some of his future plot-twists might be a bit obvious (Brande is, after all, the very dictionary definition of “the 1 percent”), the main currents of his storytelling are wonderfully strong – this is the best Legion-origin retelling I’ve ever read, and I’ve read them all.

So there’s consolation even from such major depressions as a Superman who’s an emotionless prick ala Doctor Manhattan or a Wonder Woman who turns out to be just another bastard of Zeus! Two of my favorite pop-sci-fi creations of the 20th century – The Legion of Super-Heroes and Star Trek – have series in the comics shops now (specifically Comicopia in Boston, the only place any civilized sentient would buy their funny books).

(and for those of you who’ve written asking me if I’m aware that IDW is also currently running a mini-series in which The Legion meets the crew of the Enterprise … why yes, I am)

October 29th, 2011

Comics! Legion Secret Origin #1!

I know I mentioned concentrating on Marvel comics for a while in the deeply depressing aftermath of DC’s “new 52″ offensive (out of which I declare “Batman” and “Aquaman” the winners – which leaves 50 losers), but then last week DC came out with the first issue of a new 6-issue mini-series that either doesn’t conform to its new continuity or does without caring – and either way, I’m fine with the results. It’s “Legion of Super-Heroes: Secret Origin,” and it’s written by one of the two greatest living Legion writers, Paul Levitz (hint as to the other one: he’s really tall), and drawn by another Legion vet in good standing, Chris Batista, and it offers a long, leisurely look at “the real beginnings” of the Legion.

Naturally, when I read that, I clenched up a little. No comic book franchise in history has been ret-conned and re-imagined more often – and often more disastrously – than my beloved Legion, and to make matters worse, I’ve been fond of their ‘traditional’ origin story for a long, long time.

That origin story has been re-worked many times over the decades, but its core narrative always goes something like this: some time in the 30th century, RJ Brande, the galaxy’s richest man, is a passenger on a spaceship. One of the other passengers, a teenage girl named Irma Ardeen from Saturn’s moon Titan, is a highly proficient telepath, and she suddenly blurts out that two of the other passengers are intending to kill Brande. In immediate response, two other teenagers on the flight spring into action to defend the old man: Rokk Krinn from the planet Braal uses his race’s magnetic abilities to seize the would-be assassins’ weapons, and Garth Ranzz of the planet Winath uses his electrical powers (acquired in a freak accident) to blast the assassins themselves. Brande is saved, and in that moment he sees something the galaxy needs: a new band of young heroes to inspire people, much like the legendary Justice League did a thousand years before. With his financial backing, the Legion of Super-Heroes is born and quickly begins recruiting super-powered teens from every planet in the United Federation and beyond. It’s a goofy origin story, but as origin stories go, it’s got a certain charming mixture of fate and serendipity.

The fate part comes from the underlying idea that the world – the galaxy – has waited a long time to get this kind of unselfish heroism back. And the serendipity comes from the fact that all three of those heroic teens were on that spaceship for refreshingly utilitarian reasons: Irma Ardeen – now code-named Saturn Girl – to take up a Police posting, Rokk Krinn – now code-named Cosmic Boy – to escape the planetary depression afflicting his homeworld and find a job, and Garth Ranzz – now codenamed Lightning Lad – to find his long-lost brother. None of them is even dreaming of becoming any kind of superhero.

In this new mini-series, Levitz obviously intends to beef up that origin story and perhaps some of its many unanswered questions, like why the galaxy’s richest man wouldn’t have bodyguards (or for that matter a spaceship) of his own, or how the new Legion could suddenly acquire the approval of the United Federation to act in a peremptorily law-enforcement role, etc. In the course of just this single issue, we get a great many new and much-needed layers to the old Legion mythos – we meet captains and admirals of the UFP’s star-fleets, we need the three members of Earth’s shadowy security directorate, and we get glimpses of an RJ Brande who very much has a private agenda of his own. I was entertained and intrigued throughout, except for the very first instant,, since the issue sports the ugliest cover of any mainstream comic in the year 2011: in the background, Phantom Girl is for some reason falling down through a whole in the air, and in the foreground, there’s a picture of a pouty Justin Bieber dressed like Cosmic Boy.

But one really, really bad cover can’t spoil rich pickings like this – especially when the issue came with the single greatest promotional gimmick of all time: a Legion flight-ring! Now that I finally have one, my only remaining task is to pick a Legion code-name. Some of you may know the, er, code-name I’ve had for most of my life (it even already ends in ‘boy’), but now that I actually have a flight-ring, I’m hoping to upscale to something snazzier. Perhaps Super-Buff Enormous Brain Lad? I’ll keep you posted.

September 21st, 2011

Comics! New 52 – Week 3!

This was the first week I actually found myself enjoying “the New 52,” DC Comics’ month-long barrage of first issues designed to relaunch its entire line of comics and re-invent its 80-year-old continuity for the 21st century. And I can’t be precisely sure of the reason why this week sat so much better with me than the previous two did, although I can hazard a few guesses.

Guess number one would be personal investment – as in ‘lack of.’ Virtually all the titles re-launching this week (with one enormous exception we’ll get to shortly) star characters who’ve never really triggered that much interest for me – standard, sometimes iconic DC characters, yes, but still: nothing I really care about, and so nothing whose desecration would bother me all that much. There have always been such characters for me at DC – one-note superheroes like the Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom, etc – and one of those characters has always been (and this amazes me too) Batman. Don’t get me wrong: I love it when the character is done right and hate it when the character is done wrong – but neither the central guy nor any of his multitude of spin-off characters has ever really spoken to me on the particular carrier-hum accessible only to true fans. I realize this puts me in a tiny minority, since the entire breadth of the known universe considers Batman to be the coolest super-hero of them all. But there it is.

This week’s re-launches feature a large swath of the Bat-line of comics – there’s the first issue of “Batman” itself, the first issue of “Nightwing” (about Dick Grayson, Batman’s first Robin, all grown up and fighting crime on his own), and the first issue of “Catwoman” (this week DC launched its three marquee-recognition female characters – Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Catwoman, and good for them – marquee-recognition female characters are mighty rare in the comics world, and all three of these characters deserve their own titles). This is comforting: DC’s out-of-control slapdash creators could do pretty much anything to these characters and I wouldn’t have that lump in my throat of caring too much. Which brings me to:

Guess #2 why this week pleased me so much revolves around the aforementioned new continuity – probably one of the reasons I found this week so enjoyable was because it was also recognizable: as far as I can tell, DC has tinkered almost not at all with the general currents of Batman continuity from pre-52. Bruce Wayne is still Batman. Dick Grayson was still his first Robin, Tim Drake his second, and Damian his third and current. Batman still has an quasi-amorous danger-fascination with Catwoman. Dick Grayson still spent a year filling Batman’s cape and cowl while Bruce Wayne was otherwise occupied. These three titles (and “Detective” and “Batman and Robin” before them) read like nothing so much as high-octane straight-up continuations of the storylines that were percolating all summer long in the Bat-books. And that ‘high-octane’ brings me to:

Guess #3: These as fantastic productions. Judd Winick writes “Catwoman” with a novelist’s assurance, and Guillem March’s artwork is unabashedly sensuous (the, er, climax of this first issue made me hope there was one specific item in Batman’s utility belt that I’ve never before actually hoped was there). Kyle Higgins’ main character in “Nightwing” is a perfect combination of boyish and battle-hardened, and Eddy Barrows’ artwork (and great cover) is absorbing. And what to say about “Batman”? The superb writing is by Scott Snyder, and the incredible artwork is by Greg Capullo, here excelling even his customary high standards. The Bat-titles have always attracted top-notch talent, but these three issues stand out even by those measurements. I was hugely entertained, even while I was acknowledging that it didn’t make a whole lot of difference – these titles, these characters, have just never moved me, no matter how well-done they are. As marvellous as these issues are, the real acid-test is always how you feel about that particular character or title that feels personal to you. Which brings me to:

Guess #4 why this week’s “new 52″ crop pleased me: this is the week “The Legion of Super-Heroes” debuts at #1, and I read it, and it was sigh-of-relief good. I ordinarily wouldn’t have doubted that, since writer Paul Levitz is a Legion legend in his own right and can be counted upon to do everything right (and artist Francis Portela is no slouch himself – this is some fine pencilling on a pretty tough book to draw) – but how was I to know what kinds of pressures had been brought to bear on him by the DC Powers that Be? How was I to know he hadn’t been ordered to create another Juvenile Delinquent Legion? (Legion fans will catch the reference to the team’s darkest, dumbest hour, now hopefully comprising the only fragment of Legion history we’ve all agreed to forget)

Fortunately, such is not the case – like the Bat-titles, this issue makes several references to the summer’s story-lines and shows a clear line of development from them – the footprint of the “new 52″ reboot (hee – pun only belatedly discovered) is soft here, this is more or less the huge, noble, squabbling Legion I know and love, with classic Levitz moments of perfectly in-character barbs and reflections. This week, at least, I can breathe a huge sigh of relief: one of my favorite comics was left virtually unchanged by this company-wide revamp.

The relief can’t last, however. “Superman” #1 comes out next week.

July 25th, 2011

Comics! Smiling while Armageddon approaches!

I was minding my own business in the comics world this week, I swear, and the week’s haul should have made me happy enough: not only was there a new issue of my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes, written with headlong enthusiasm by the legendary Paul Levitz and drawn by High Elf Yildiray Cinar with a skill and narrative power that, I swear, seems to grow greater with every single issue. This issue features a grand old donnybrook of a type no team does quite as well (or as rarely) as the Legion – and a type virtually none of today’s younger writers can choreograph well at all – so not only was there that, but there was also first issue relaunch of Marvel’s venerable “Daredevil” – complete with an absolutely stunning cover by Javier Rodgriguez (one of four variants, including one by Neal Adams and … to my utter, amazed happiness, John Romita), a cover so inspired in its conception that it gives repeated pleasure just to stare at it: Daredevil’s billy-club covers his eyes, and the whole of his surroundings – pigeons in flight, building edges, everything – are invisible except for the sounds they make: the sound-effects are actually formed into the shapes of the objects they represent. Even the magnificent two-page interior spread by the great Marcos Martin (of Matt Murdoch and Foggy Nelson navigating New York streets) pales by comparison with this one simple, perfect evocation of Marvel’s blind superhero.

Those two issues should have made me happy and kept me happy, but NOOOO! DC Comics just had to cast a deathly pall over the proceedings, by releasing a free 35-page preview of its upcoming apocalypse, the “new 52″ reboot about which I’ve already done some preliminary whining here.  The preview has summaries of all the upcoming new titles, plus artwork – some of it new to readers (this reader, anyway). And on the back of the issue there’s a checklist of the entire roster.

Every time I’m reminded of this “new 52″ autumn coming up, I always have to take a minute to remember that it’s not the launch of some “Ultimates” style alternate line of comics within the main-frame of the normal DC world: this will BE the DC world. Not a dream, not a hoax, not an imaginary story – once this new “Justice League” starts, this new “Batman,” this new “Superman,” that’s all we’ll have of those characters in a comic book medium. I keep reflexively thinking this isn’t the case, keep reflexively thinking that even while I give a fair and open-minded try to this new line of interpretations, I’ll still be able to buy the latest “Action Comics” and watch Superman beat the crap out of the Parasite. Part of the comfort of the Ultimates line over at Marvel has always been the fact that I could ignore it – and conversely, a huge part of what annoyed the hell of me about Marvel’s disastrous proto-Ultimates “Heroes Reborn” launch years before was the fact that Marvel then – like DC now – was trumpeting it as the definitive real versions of characters like Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the Avengers. If you wanted to read the latest adventures of those characters, you had to read the garbage being pumped out every month by the gallery of coked-up fan-favorite writer-artists whose brainchild the whole project was in the first place.

There’s that same trapped feeling about “the new 52,” only it’s more intense, since this reboot is company-wide. During the whole “Heroes Reborn” debacle, Marvel fans could always still follow the adventures of the super-popular X-Men (in fact, that was kind of the whole point of the thing), whose continuity had been unaffected by the changeover. In this “new 52,” everybody’s affected – even Superman is having his costume and origins radically changed. If you’re a long-time fan of DC Comics (and, to put it mildly, I am), you either read these totally revamped interpretations of all your favorite characters, or you don’t read DC Comics at all.

Of course I’ll give it the old college try. I looked at that checklist, of course, and I picked out the first issues I myself will be buying:

Justice League

Action Comics

Detective Comics

Stormwatch

Batman and Robin

Legion Lost

Superboy

Batman

Legion of Super-Heroes

Nightwing

Supergirl

Wonder Woman

Aquaman

Superman

Teen Titans

…. that’s 15 out of a possible 52, indicating that perhaps I’m not DC’s ideal target customer (I wonder how many comics fans will buy every single one of those 52 first issues? I wonder how many comics blogs and industry sites will analyze every single one of them?). Nevertheless, since I’m having all my comics fun these days overshadowed by this coming apocalypse, I figure the least I can do is pay some attention when it happens – so I’ll very likely be reporting back on at least those 15 issues. If even one or two of them make me as happy as that “Daredevil” #1, that’ll ease my dismay just a bit.

 

July 1st, 2011

Comics! The Future of the Future!

Several of the comic-book geeks among you (you – and the staff at Gamers Anonymous – know who you are) have responded to my recent post on the gigantic continuity-wide changes coming for DC Comics by asking how my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes will fare. I’ve so far been able to face what seem like radical changes coming to the Superman franchise with a reasonable amount of calm, for two reasons: 1) I’ve weathered similar changes to that character many times in the past (including two different weakenings, spaced forty years apart, a bout of long hair, and a stint as Reddy Kilowatt), and 2) to an undeniable extent, Superman belongs to the collective American mythology rather than to the specific, needy, persnickety, largely virginal world of comic books, so a certain vulnerability to ideological tampering comes as part of the package. When it comes to Superman, I expect periodic re-imaginings; I expect every detail of the character to be revamped by sacrilegious swine who’ve never read a single issue of any of the character’s various comic books.

Not so the Legion, which is and always has been quintessentially comic-booky, the treasure and preserve of the very nuttiest of comics-nuts. So when I heard that DC was revamping its entire line of comics, I had the first thought that many of you did: oh no – yet another Legion relaunch.

Those relaunches have almost always been gruesome experiences. First there’s a Superboy, then there’s no Superboy, then there’s a Superboy again. Then the team is five years older. Then the team is five years younger but clones of the originals – or is it the originals who are the clones? Then Princess Projectra is a great big snake, for sprock’s sake. Then the Legion is a well-funded group of parent-hating teen deliquents. And Colossal Boy’s comes from a race of giants, and his super-power is to shrink to normal size. And other cocaine-induced ‘improvements.’

Just when I’ve made my peace with the latest of these revisions – that the Legion is now a group of wizened adults who creepily retain their Boy-this and Girl-that code names – DC hints that I might have to chuck it all and start from zero again.

Fortunately, the hints we’ve had so far don’t look so bad – the Legion looks to be as little affected by the coming changes as, say, Batman is (and since he’s traditionally the one DC character least altered by any ‘retcons,’ that’s definitely good news). In September there will be two Legion titles starting with their respective first issues. There’s the good-old “Legion of Super-Heroes,” written by Legion vet Paul Levitz (who’d certainly walk out if his beloved team were facing a rotten revamp?) and being advertised like this:

The Legion of Super-Heroes has been decimated by the worst disaster in its history. Now, the students of the Legion Academy must rise to the challenge of helping the team rebuild – but a threat of almost unstoppable power is rising at the edge of Dominator space, and if the new recruits fail, the Legion Espionage Squad may be the first casualties in a war that could split worlds in half!

Even allowing for that ‘worst disaster’ business, that doesn’t sound so bad. Or rather, it sounds very bad for our stalwart heroes, but merciful for us fans. What the Legion is, the very concept of it, appears to be a given in the background of these coming changes … which is a lot better than Superman or the Justice League can say.

In addition to “The Legion of Super-Heroes,” there’ll be a second monthly title, “Legion Lost,” which is being described like this:

Seven heroes from the 31st century have traveled back to the present day. Their mission: Save their future from annihilation. But when the future tech they brought with them fails, they find themselves trapped in a nightmarish world that, for them, is the ultimate struggle to survive!

That also doesn’t sound so bad as far as it goes; story-lines where splinters of the Legion roster are lost/trapped/hiding somewhere in the past are a staple of Legion lore. This particular time-lost team features an interesting line-up: Wildfire, Dawnstar, Timber Wolf, Tyroc (I think – he looks too young to be the second Invisible Kid), Gates, Tellus, and Chameleon Girl – a line-up in which there are no Earthlings except Wildfire, who hardly looks the part. I can predict already that the promo-teaser bit about ‘future tech’ failing will be fudged from the start – how could it not be? If the standard-issue Legion translator-earplugs stopped working, none of these particular team-members would be able to understand each other was saying, and if the standard-issue Legion environmental trans-suits stopped working, Tellus and Gates (and for all we know, all the others) would promptly die upon exposure to Earth’s gravity and atmosphere. No, clearly the ‘future tech’ that will fail will be the very time-travel tech necessary for our team to get back home – and that in itself will almost certainly make for some entertaining issues.

No, it’s probably foolish of me, but I’m cautiously optimistic about this latest Legion relaunch. The fundamental underpinnings of the team seem to have escaped Jim Lee’s chopping block. But check back with me in September to see just how badly I come to rue this optimism.

May 21st, 2011

Comics! Superboy and the Legion – the Early Years!

It’s such an unassuming little thing, a slim new graphic novel collection of five individual comic books, published by DC Comics this week with no fanfare whatsoever. It’s an entirely no-frills production: no new Introduction, no new cover-art, no “P.S.” from one of the creators involved, revealing some behind-the-scenes secret, no page of rough pencil-sketch outlines from the artist. Instead, it’s just titled “Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes: The Early Years,” and prospective readers are given no more help than that. Of course, 99 percent of those prospective readers will be that particularly obsessive subspecies of comic book reader known as ‘Legion Fans,’ so they’ll hardly need any help. And to Legion fans such as myself, this unassuming little volume is a cause for almost unmitigated joy. Not just because the whole thing is written by Paul Levitz, one of the three greatest Legion authors in the entire history of this extremely venerable comic book franchise – although Levitz’ presence here is certainly a wonderful thing; he has a feel for the interpersonal dynamics of the Legion’s many characters, and although his forte is the grand epic storyline (which he doesn’t do here), he’s almost equally fine with smaller tales like these.

No, the real cause for celebrating this volume is its mere existence. What a long and torturous road those poor Legion fans had to travel, to get to the simple beauty of this issue’s sex-bomb cover (Scott Clark and David Beaty team up to produce a lean and supple roster of original Legion characters who virtually drip with a sullen sensuality we haven’t seen since the infamous Dave Cockrum costume-redesigns of forty years ago)(and dead center is that most natural of all paradoxes: a super-sexy Superboy – not the non-threatening Walter Cronkite the adult Superman has become over the course of nearly a century, but just exactly what a corn-fed farmboy teen from Kansas might be if he were also the most powerful being on Earth … gone is the baby-fat of the Curt Swan/Kurt Schaffenberger Superboy from decades past – this Teen of Steel sports a coral-sharp eight-pack and an inscrutably hungry dead-eyed stare. No comics writer has ever written that Superboy, and that certainly includes Levitz in this collection!).

Long-time comics readers (or, for that matter, long-time Stevereads readers) will recall the source of the problem: “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” the mega-event to start all mega-events, the continuity-reboot DC did some thirty years ago in which the entire fictional reality of all its characters was reset in an attempt to dump lots of cumbersome back-story and lure new readers. As a result of that reboot, Superman never adopted a “Superboy” identity as a teenager – as with the character’s earliest appearances in Action Comics, he took on the identity of Superman as an adult.

Legion fans felt like they’d been kicked in the knee. If Superman was never Superboy, where did that leave the Legion of Super-Heroes, that super-team of 30th century teens who looked to the historical legend of Superman as their inspiration and used their time-travel machine to enlist Superboy as one of their members? Legion fans had been reading “Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes” stories for decades, and now, with a mere mini-series, DC was saying none of those stories ‘really’ happened.

Years passed, and other writers stepped in and monkeyed around with that clean new continuity. The Legion returned – a Legion without Superboy, or with substitute Superboys of one kind or another. Legion fans adapted as best they could, but it wasn’t easy: nothing was really the same as Superboy, the adventures of Superman when he was a boy. Gradually, very gradually, that “Crisis” revamp was inched back and back and back, until finally, at the end of some damn mega-event or other, the door was left open to the possibility that Superman HAD had adventures – in costume – when he was a teenager … and that maybe he’d been mind-blocked from remembering it, or some such thing. Legion fans forced themselves not to be picky: any way back to the glory days was fine by them.

2010 saw the final fulfilment of that dream – with a bittersweet twist. The “Legion of Three Worlds” mini-series established two things: first, that Superman had indeed donned the familiar costume as a teenager and had many adventures as Superboy with the Legion of Super-Heroes, and second, that the Legion then did the unthinkable: it grew up. The new ongoing Legion comic-book would feature that adult Legion, not the kids whose adventures fans had been following for decades.

But there was a silver lining: for a while, DC also resurrected “Adventure Comics” and used it to feature ‘lost’ tales of that younger, teen Legion. It’s five of those issues that are reprinted here: five stories featuring the original teen Legion in their original dorky costumes – with a teenage Clark Kent plucked from the 20th century and adventuring right alongside them as Superboy. The original formula, restored almost 100% complete, after an ill-advised series of detours now best forgotten (although true to Legion form, every one of those ill-advised detours spawned its own sub-cadre of fanatically devoted fans).

These new stories are fairly tame. There’s the obligatory retelling of the Legion’s origin, how the three founding members – Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, and Lightning Lad – spontaneously team up to save the life of galactic squillionaire R. J. Brande, who rewards them with a nifty clubhouse and a hefty bankroll as the brand-new Legion of Super-Heroes. There are well-done battle-issues featuring some solid artwork by Kevin Sharpe (whose Superboy is more the beefy-sexy high school football star than the slinky sex-droid of those covers) – and featuring a small portion of the Legion’s overwhelmingly gigantic cast of characters (including the usual scenes with Ultra Boy punching through the metal hulls of spaceships, even though such a thing should be impossible – Ultra Boy possesses an array of super-powers: super-speed, super-strength, super-invulnerability, etc. … but he can only use one power at a time. So if he were strong enough to rip apart metal, the very act of doing so would shred his hands … and if his hands were tough enough to withstand the force, his muscles wouldn’t be strong enough to exert it, and so on). To a Legion fan of long standing, the sight of these old familiar characters romping around in new, non-retooled stories is mighty damn pleasant.

These are fairly simple stories – no doubt intentionally kept that way by Levitz, who only drops small hints here and there of what he might do if the DC powers that be weren’t watching. For instance, in these five issues it’s pretty clear that the women of the Legion (and perhaps one or two of the men? Statistics suggest it, but so far no Legion boy has come out of the 31st century closet)(should that day ever come, the smart money would be on Element Lad)(although there was one wowser of a panel once, involving Brainiac 5) all view Superboy’s presence among them as a major historical turn-on … they’re forever hanging all over his broad shoulders and mussing his inky black hair. Levitz never delves into the extent to which Superboy’s Legion teammates might be simply using him – or the extent to which he knows it and maybe resents it. Those would make excellent ‘the early years’ stories to tell, but we may never see them, and with good reason: DC has made this mistake a couple of times before. There is no good way to have two ongoing Legion titles set in different time-periods of the Legion itself. ‘Lost’ stories of the early Legion never work – for the simple reason that they lack any kind of dramatic tension … we know the characters all live, we know the older Legion happens.

Instead, the approach DC should take is obvious, and for once they seem to be taking it: now that they’ve established the older, adult Legion as the ‘real’ or ‘definitive’ one, that Legion can be slowly, gradually ‘de-aged’ until it’s in roughly the same semi-eternal late-20s age-bracket as Superman and Batman, that wonderful limbo in which the characters have loads and loads of back-story (or, in Batman’s case, generations and generations of Robin) but never get any older themselves. A monthly Legion of Super-Heroes comic done right would be yet another dream come true, even though it wouldn’t feature Superboy.

Of course, in any graphic novel collection, you take the bad with the good. In order to re-live these delightful issues, I had to re-live the terrifying Eduardo Pansica panel in which a disguised Brainiac 5 not only is suddenly about eight years old but is also being creepily fondled by a sharkishly leering Ma Kent, causing the boy-Brainiac to have an obvious sexual reaction even his level-12 intellect can’t understand. Needless to say, such a travesty-panel hardly deserves the second shot at life it’s getting by being reprinted in this collection – but the rest of it compensates.

March 24th, 2011

Comics! Timber Wolf in the Legion!

In yesterday’s stack of comics was “Legion of Super-Heroes” #11, written by the legendary Paul Levitz and drawn by someone (something?) called Daniel HDR. It’s called “False Start,” and it’s one of the early chapters in what’s promising to be an epic return of the Legion of Super-Villains (only a promise, at this point – DC could always decide to fire Levitz precipitously in mid-story, or else he himself could decide to get himself fired in mid-story), and as you can tell from the cover, the centerpiece of the issue is a fight between the solar-powered Sun Emperor and the super-feral Legionnaire Timber Wolf.

So: the sort of thing that’ll be incomprehensible to outsiders and catnip to Legion fans, who’ve loved Timber Wolf since his original appearance forty years ago (he was doing the whole savage-good-guy-with-claws-who-heals-real-fast a long time before Wolverine showed up over at Marvel). The match is also drastically uneven on its face: Sun Emperor is a ‘big’ villain, and typically in Legion history ‘big’ villains are fought by many team mates acting in concert. When that doesn’t happen – when a writer intentionally sends out a hero alone against a villain who outclasses him – it tends to bode ill for the hero (one thinks of Chemical King, the original Invisible Kid, the original Karate Kid), so when I saw that wonderful cover, I wondered if Levitz was going to start off this big Legion of Super-Villains story with first blood going to the bad guys.

The mis-match comes from the fact that Timber Wolf isn’t a ‘big’ Legionnaire. He’s one of those above-the-middle superheroes without whom no team can function and be interesting (over at Marvel, think of how the Vision held the Avengers together for so many issues), but he’s never been a Legion heavy-hitter on the level of Mon-el or Ultra Boy or Element Lad. Timber Wolf his mid-range super strength and agility, and he’s got a bad temper. None of that should prevent a villain like Sun Emperor from melting his eyes and ending the fight in about five seconds.

But Levitz is a canny writer (and here he’s very ably assisted by the pencils of this mysterious Daniel HDR-bot – this is some very good artwork, and it shows every sign of becoming fan-favorite classic stuff in about five more years of steady pencilling), and Timber Wolf is too popular with Legion fanatics to simply kill – this issue has something else in mind: reclaiming the character a bit. Timber Wolf faces off against Sun Emperor in Japan and simply refuses to let the fact that he’s getting char-broiled stop him from beating the stuffing out of his foe (who has, I belatedly realized as I was reading, only normal human strength underneath all those flames). Levitz’ scripting always has a curiously enjoyable bare-bones quality about it – in his “Legion,” the universe is a tough place where bad things happen, and the good guys are always understaffed and overcommitted – and he enjoys a little poking around inside his readers’ preconceptions, as when he has a defiant Timber Wolf object when Sun Emperor calls him an “animal” (always a touchy spot with this particular Legionnaire). “I’m not an animal,” he says, “I’m human” – but he says it while he’s charging, fangs bared, wild-eyed, whole head on fire, playfully subverting the moment.

This issue isn’t meant to be big shakes – we’re still in classic Levitz-style ‘prelude’ issues as his big storyline gears up – but even so it has half a dozen sub-plots percolating along, so there’s something for virtually every picky Legion fan, and a real treat at the center for Timber Wolf fans. And the rest of us (what can I say? It’s tough to get excited about ‘feral’ characters when you were one for the first third of your life) can take pleasure in the feel of a big story playing out so confidently – and in the HDR-bot’s really good artwork (especially the fun background characters, in time-honored Steve Rude fasion).