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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Comics thoughts for the week of 2/20/13

This was one of the most jam-packed weeks ever for me on the reading-side of things. As noted earlier today, I purchased fourteen titles, including two Image titles, one Dark Horse, three Marvel, and a whopping eight DC books. Insane, I know! This week, I'm going to focus on a title that's incredibly exciting for me personally and probably about twenty other people; but why it also hold tremendous significance for perhaps the most popular super-hero team on the market today. As always, spoilers are a go!

This week's spotlight comic:

Legion of Superheroes #17
w - Paul Levitz, Keith Giffen, a - Keith Giffen, Scott Koblish

I can't possibly express how good that above credit line was to type out. This week's article is going to be a slight cheat as I'll actually focus on three issues that were released this week with a specific slant on the above.

The year was 1992, my family had just moved to Germany due to my father's orders he had received from the Army, and I was perusing a local Stars and Stripes bookstore comic stand. My eyes beheld the following:

I knew I was in love instantly. I knew very little about any of the characters within, but just based upon their costumes I could tell they had very specific power sets (lightning, fire, shrinking, growth, etc), there was even a guy with a tooth on his outfit! I had to buy it, or rather my mother had to get it for me, but my newest superhero obsession had begun. Far be it from me to try and understand the utter scope of what I had dug into (those pictured above were the cloned younger versions of characters that were about 15 years older than the heroes attached to this series), but it didn't matter, teenaged superheroes from a multitude of planets in the far future? I was all over it, especially as someone who had a passing interest in the X-men but preferred to pseudo-utopianism displayed in Legionnaires. 

How little I knew, the history of the Legion of Superheroes was such an incredibly deep one. First appearing in 1958 in Adventure Comics, they were basically a gimmick to get Superboy out of Smallville in a semi-realistic fashion, by acting a superhero club from the future that was inspired by his exploits. The Legion wanted him to join, and join he did. The team basically bounced around as a back-up story for Superboy in a myriad of titles in some of the most horrible stories you could imagine. Things were so dire from a scripting standpoint that they even went out and hired a 13 year old Jim Shooter to become the regular writer...the sixties, folks! With characters like Cosmic Boy (magnetic manipulation), Ferro Lad (can turn to iron), Saturn Girl (telepathy), and Star Boy (can increase an object's gravity) amongst tons of others (including my all time favorite Brainiac 5), the Legion was quickly becoming a cult hit. The other beautiful aspect of the title is that unlike Superman, Batman, Iron Man and the more iconic characters of the big two comic companies, the Legion membership was allowed to age. From their beginnings as 13 and 14 year olds, they grew into ages where they could marry, have children, and because they were set off so far into the future from the rest of the DC Universe (1000 years), characters also died and stayed dead. There was a sense of evolution and permanence that would eventually lead to its greatest flowering as a title unfortunately it would also lead to severe corporate meddling eventually.

In the early 80's, DC finally got their heads together and assigned a now struggling Legion of Super-heroes title to the capable hands of long-time fan and writer Paul Levitz and eventually a very interesting young artist named Keith Giffen. Immediately, once combined together, the two crafted what is known to most comics fans as the defining Legion story, The Great Darkness Saga, basically the Legion's equivalent of The Dark Phoenix Saga or The Judas Contract or any other major superhero team arc. It was the Legion vs. this guy....

I realize the imagery is a little tacky today, but 30 years ago, this story was as big as it came, and not only put the Legion on the map as one of DC's biggest selling titles but also made Darkseid DC's most foreboding threat in terms of villains. The Legion finally had its signature team akin to Wolfman/Perez and Clairemont/Byrne The title was becoming such a big hit, that DC opted to to relaunch the book using more prestigious than newsprint "Baxter" paper, and began to only sell it comic stores vs. the typical newstand sales that were commonplace at the time. All of this of course came at a slightly higher price. The idea had merit, but it ultimately killed the growing momentum of a title that was arguably headed toward X-men like popularity. Levitz continued to write the title and produced the second great arc of his run when the Legion of Superheroes battled the Legion of Supervillains (yes, they were a thing), leading to the eventual death of Karate Kid, a character predating the Ralph Macchio film. Giffen stepped off the title for a short while and then returned with an art style less inspired by George Perez and more in line with Jose Munoz. As Levitz finally decided to let go of the reins of the title, Giffen took over writing and art duties (with scripting help from Tom and Mary Bierbaum), and jumped the Legion timeline even further by five years and created perhaps the most accomplished set of stories Legion fans had ever seen.

Just based on that cover, who wouldn't want to read that book? Giffen forgoed the old code names and instead these now 30ish heroes were trying to reunite post-unseen galactic disaster. It was a hell of a gamble by DC, but it paid off critically if less so commercially. Many would argue, myself included, that the Five Year Later run on the book was the equivalent of such hallowed works as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. The stories were literate, thoughtful, and eventually spun off into the very first Legion book I ever read up above. Heck, Giffen even destroyed Earth! Unfortunately, DC brass, seeing low sales and wanting to create a more accessible title decided to discard all the hard work done by Giffen and those who came before through rebooting the title back to its teenage days, using the Legionnaire designs as the template. This ironically, was the Legion I followed for years on end, to mostly quite solid enjoyment though only the first 20 or so issues written by Mark Waid were of long-term worth from a reading perspective now that I look back upon it. 

Without fail, dubbed the "Archie Legion", due to their focus on relationship building and the Saturday morning cartoon style of artist Jeffrey Moy, I picked up these books month after month. Eventually, after an interesting run by Danny Abnett and Andy Lanning that attempted to "X-men-ize" the Legion and go in a much more action-oriented direction, where the threats (including a retread Darkseid storyline) kept getting bigger and bigger; DC once again decided to reboot the title, this time with a complete overhaul by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson.

Recasting the Legion as teenage revolutionaries led to some of the most inspired story-telling I had ever seen from the title and, in a sense, perfectly complemented what a reader who enjoyed the Giffen-written Legion would look for in the book while combining the more youthful and reader friendly elements that DC itself wanted. The problem being that Legion fandom is the most fickle fandom one can generally imagine, and after 40 some odd years of the original Legion continuity and 9 years of the first rebooted Legion, Waid and Kitson's "Threeboot" was simply more than they could bear. The title was quickly swept under the rug and Waid left DC as a result, eventually creating the Daredevil revival that is currently winning Eisner Awards today, and is a huge hit. This is why we can't have nice things.

Leave it to DC wunderkind Geoff Johns to have the bright idea to bring back the original Legion, more or less where Paul Levitz left it (ignoring Keith Giffen's Blade Runner-esque contributions). The storyline, Superman and the Legion of Super-heroes, reconnected the Legion with its original inspiration, both in and out of story, and was a big enough hit that DC opted to bring back the Legion in another title. Though right before, all three versions of the Legion met in a good but fairly contrived storyline called Legion of 3 Worlds, where the other two groups basically played a backing role to the "real" Legion. The new title began with Paul Levitz back on the title after years of running DC comics as its President. It was a pretty decent read overall, and it had a few nice twists but in the convening years, and since the New 52, the title has sputtered a bit. Not necessarily telling bad stories per se, but generally uninteresting ones where the pace itself just feels stale.

A few months ago, it was announced that Giffen, crawling out of wherever he'd been the past few years doing only the occasional guest work on various DC titles, and a short stint as a writer for Superman would be returning to pencil and co-write with Levitz. I couldn't have been more elated, perhaps this would be the kick in the pants Levitz needed to get the title back up and running. Sadly, last month it was reported that Giffen walked off the title with only two issues drawn. It created a bit of an uproar that even current Avengers writer Jonathan Hickman tweeted about in dismay. But in this case, something is better than nothing...so just what do we get?

How about the death of Sun Boy to start? Not only does he die by page 2 and completely unceremoniously, but he also gets eaten by the natives on the planet in which he and Phantom Girl, Polar Boy, and Invisible Kid all crash upon. In about 3-4 pages, we get more intrigue and action than we've had in the entire series. It turns out the planet they're on is actually formed of living creatures called the Promethean Giants. At the same time Glorith, the Legion's big magic user in this incarnation is on the planet Rimbor with Ultra Boy and Chameleon Boy searching for Legion arch-enemy Tharok who is on the verge reuniting his bad-guy squad the Fatal Five, where hell begins to break loose due to Tharok's manipulations. There isn't actually alot of plot to this book, basically what I described is more or less all that happens. On the other hand, it's all done with such interesting panache via Giffen's newly developed Jack Kirby-esque art stylings that it just feels like the title has been injected with a new sense of energy. This shouldn't be considered all that surprising really, Giffen, when plotting is generally a very good storyteller; from his work on Justice League International, Ambush Bug, any run on the Legion in which he worked, and his Marvel cosmic stuff, once he's connected with a fairly talented scripter like Levitz here, the results are very strong. Levitz's, for his part, best work on the book was always when Giffen was on the other side of the equation.

It's a shame that Giffen will only last another issue here, and is moving onto more writing full time for the company, as I still maintain that his best work writing is accompanied by his very unique pencilling style. What I'd give for another nine-panel grid comic from him! For what it's worth, DC is moving him onto a Larfleeze ongoing title in the Green Lantern universe, where he will continue the back-ups that have been the most successful part of his Threshold title so far. I'm even more dismayed by the idea that Francis Portella will be the penciller that resumes duties after Giffen steps off. Portella is not a bad artist by any means, but he's a particularly uninspired one given the scope of the material. His works ends up feeling like very static, ordinary superhero stuff. I'm hoping that whatever plot ideas Giffen may have helped inspire at least produce some good quality comics for the next few months, and maybe even kickstart another creative renaissance for the writer. The beginning of Levitz's run prior to the New 52 relaunch was slow but did build to a very well crafted-story, it's just been lately where his struggles to build significant intrigue in the title has set in. I wouldn't be surprised if this was the beginning of the death throes of the series honestly, which is a shame it's a great concept and with the right writers, it could really take off again. 

For example in both Action Comics 17 (w- Grant Morrison, a- Brad Walker and Rags Morales), the Legion's three now-adult founders, Cosmic Man, Saturn Woman, and Lightning Man travel back into the past to prevent the (second and permanent) death of Superman which eventually leads to their future becoming a totalitarian dictatorship via their enemy Universo rather than the one produced in the current Legion comic. These three Legionnaires have appeared sporadically and puzzlingly, but only within the past two months have their appearances been explained within the context of the series. It's an interesting way to use the Legion, within their original intent as Superman back-up characters and it works very well. I'll have more to say about Morrison's run on both Superman and Batman in the coming weeks, maybe as soon as next week. But his approach to the Legion is one way to utilize its themes in a effective way, though were it to become the regular approach many Legion fans would likely cry foul. 

On the other hand in Avengers #6 (w- Jonathan Hickman, a- Adam Kubert and Frank Martin), Hickman takes the same general concepts of the Legion, heroes of varying powersets with stories focusing on individual members and their interpersonal interactions. I realize that sounds like probably every single team-up book imaginable, but there are little bits and pieces sprinkled throughout that are taken directly from Legion lore. For example, the opening Avengers title page always open like the below, with the individual heroes being highlighted if they are featured in the story to follow. 

Compare if you will...

The comparison isn't exactly uncanny, but the influence is clearly there. Additionally at the back of the current Avengers title, there is a translation sheet for a particular character who was given a name this week called Nightmask who speaks Builder Machine Code, and an intrepid reader could use this translation sheet to match the symbols with letters of the English alphabet. Guess what else used to do this? Why the Legion of course, with it's own Interlac translation pages, the common language of the universe in the book. Again, there are other influences at play as well, including Justice League, Grant Morrison's New X-Men run, and the Green Lantern Corps amongst others. Yet, I've seen it posited that Avengers is the Legion book we wish we were getting. With Hickman avowed Legion fanboy-ism, I'm starting to see where people get that idea. It also helps that the title is fantastic, with it's focus on building each unknown hero for the audience who is coming in cold with a bigger story percolating underneath. 

I may be wrong, and perhaps Paul Levitz's "second act" will begin to build and produce stronger dividends than we've received thus far. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, but if not, the legacy of his work continues to live on in the writing of others who either directly or indirectly utilize his influential style and concepts in some of the better written comics today. Until then, I'll enjoy Legion of Superheroes #18 as a fond remembrance of what could have been.

Legion of Superheroes #17 - B+
Action Comics #17 - A-
Avengers #6 - A

One sentence reviews:

Daredevil #23 - Waid continues his stellar work here on the title, with one of the saddest endings I can remember in a mainstream comic, poor Foggy. A

Thor #5 - This issue really fleshed out alot of gaps I had about Gorr and what his overall purpose is, I'm very happy his story is continuing on here beyond this initial arc as the concepts presented were what pulled me onto the book in the first place. B+

Green Lantern #17 - Johns seriously can't get off this book fast enough, we get off one big crossover only to jump into the next one, at least the time travel element is interesting. C

Vibe #1 - Not the fiasco I expected, but still fairly rote overall, only the last page reveal even remotely tempts me to get issue two. C+

Justice League of America #1 - I found this surprisingly effective, it has a predictable structure, but at least its momentum is going somewhere that could lead to good storytelling possibilities. B

Justice League #17 - A decent enough wrap-up of the Throne of Atlantis crossover that gives some build to wherever the forthcoming Trinity War is leading to; I'll stick with it since JLA worked well for me, it's a fun read if not much else. B-

Batwoman #17 - Excellent conclusion to the Wonder Woman team-up with gorgeous art and one hell of a cliffhanger. A and my book of the week!

Wonder Woman #17 - Azzarello's work remains strong here and I think the story was an improvement somewhat on last month, the only negative being the subtle art shifts in the middle that somewhat make character models look different, especially for The First Born. B+

Mind MGMT #8 - Another great issue where Kindt utterly stuns, this second arc is where his concepts are truly beginning to shine, still a bit of an exhausting read with the extra material in the spine this go-round. A-

Happy #4 - To be honest, Happy kind of ends terribly, with Garth Ennis-isms that simply don't suit Morrison and one of the worst closing pages I've seen in a comic in some time. D and I hope this isn't the future of Grant Morrison comics in his post-superhero writing

Saga Chapter Ten - I mean, it's good I guess; I want to like it but I find it a fairly overrated bit of storytelling from an audience that so desperately wants the next Firefly that they can latch onto. C+ as the Whedon type dialogue is just killing me

That wraps up this week's reviews! See you next time, and hopefully a bit less later!

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  1. Saga got a C?! It depressed the hell out of me, but was still my favorite book of the week. Batwoman was definitely a close second - I can't believe the marriage proposal didn't get any mainstream press, but I'm also glad I wasn't spoiled on it.

    Thanks for loaning out Mind MGMT. I probably won't pick it up myself, but I'll gladly mooch off you. :)

    1. Yeah, there's just something about Saga that doesn't do it for me...it's hard to put my finger on it. I just get frustrated when I read it. Tempted to drop it, but hanging on for a few more chapters.

      More than welcome! Let me know what you think once you've read it, I loooovvveee that book.

  2. I was never familiar with the Legion other than that one episode of Superman TAS where they guested, so thanks for your thoughtful summary of their legacy.

    1. It's a personal one for me :-) it was my real gateway drug into hardcore comics reading, thanks for letting me share it with you!

  3. It figures they would put something at the end of Vibe to make me come back for more. I'd been waiting for this plot point to get picked back up somewhere, but I had been expecting it to be in Earth 2.


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