Thursday, July 9, 2009

My codename would be Redundant Lad

The future is scary. It will be full of technology that our 21st century brains can’t eve comprehend and a society completely different from our own. There is a good chance it will all be sticky and a bit gross.

We probably won’t have flight rings and trans-suits and buildings shaped like upside down rocketships.

But what if we did?

* * *

The Legion of Superheroes freaked me out when I was a kid. It was all that gooey slickness of Mike Grell and Dave Cockrum. Any time I picked up an issue, I didn’t know what was going on or who these people were and I usually retreated to the safety of a Superman or a Wizard and Chips.

This was partly due to the massive cast. Not just the Legion, but all the secondary characters that filled the stories. It was also thanks largely to Grell and Cockrum's interpretations of the team, which felt futuristic, but wrong, like a birthday cake made of marble.

And then, like every good young teenage dork, I fell hard for the Legion at 14. All those characters, all those weird worlds, and science cops and giant talking snakes and wizards in green and purple with wings on his helmet and space travel and the cutest girls in comics. Especially that Shrinking Violet.

This is just after the first Giffen period, when it all split up and one comic was reprinting another comic from a year ago, except when it wasn’t, and I couldn’t find any of the fucking things anywhere and it all got so confusing.

And I loved the confusion. I loved filling in the story. Still do. When a comic saga has been going on since 20 years before I was born, there is no linear clearance here. It’s all picking up bits here and there. There are still elements of the vast backstory of the Legion’s universe that are unknown to me even now, parts I look forward to filling in, at sometime in the future.

* * *

The future is unwritten, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a crack at it.

* * *

I kept an eye on the Legion over the next couple of years, and those fucking awesome DC digest books in the eighties helped fill in a lot of the backstory. I still managed to miss the last two-thirds of the Baxter run, onto new obsessions by then. I was entirely oblivious to the five year jump and didn’t care.

And then I read v4 #20, and that love started up all over again.

You couldn’t ask for a more confusing comic. Bought from Christchurch Airport for $2 in 1992, and I had no fucking idea what was going on.

No internet, no references, no nothing. It took months before I realized who Salu Digby was and that the bloke blubbing over the horror of war was Cosmic Boy, and the full implications of the events of Venado Bay would not become clear for years. It was just a huge mess of strange characters, some pretty familiar and comfortable, some completely unrecognisable and weird.

I didn’t understand any of it. But I had to know more.

* * *

It doesn’t help when time is rewritten every couple of years and the Legion invariably took the fallout. The series was a mess enough without the entire timeline throwing a fit every few years. The funny thing about all these editorially-driven status quo fuckups was that they helped with the whole fluid nature of the overall narrative.

Everything was up for grabs, everything was flexible, anything could happen.

* * *

They reckon that the only way to get new readers into comics is a bunch of jumping-on points. Every month, the solicitations fall over themselves to offer interested readers an ideal place to start.

But I love jumping cold into a complicated narrative. Piecing it all together, filling in the gaps as best as possible, putting a bit of bloody thought into it. I did the same thing with Love and Rockets, coming in at v1 #28, and got the same rewards.

There was just something about that one particular issue of the Legion of Superheroes that was interesting enough to merit following up on, and I picked up more issues here and there. It was an achingly slow process, and it would literally be 10 years before I found each one, but I eventually got hold of every single issue in that Giffen/Bierbaum run.

And I loved every single one of them. They fucked with continuity and made fun of legends, they changed for change’s sake and were occasionally wilfully obtuse.

And yet, some characters actually had a personality for the first time in 30 years and the hopelessness was never enough to extinguish that spark of youthful optimism that the Legion had been founded on.

As each new piece of the jigsaw slowly slotted into place as I found more odd issues in extremely odd places, the emotional resonance of the series grew with each piece. The characters were sometimes painfully obnoxious, but I still cared about them. When things got their darkest, I feared for the worst.

There were some fantastic action scenes in the Terra Mosaic storyline, and after so much horror and pain and degradation, to see symbols of an innocence past come back and save the world, just like they were born to do, was fucking shattering. The one page at the end of this storyline, where you see the people of Earth celebrate their victory, full of pure joy and relief and complete exhaustion, remains one of my favourite panels of all time.

And then it went from euphoria back to despair with the destruction of the entire planet. After everything they’ve gone through, after a joyous victory in the wake of horrific war, the world suffered. And even then, humanity survived and moved on, in despair, in the bleakest of futures, there was still some hope.

* * *

Once they realised the powers weren’t an excuse for a personality, things got much better. Phantom Girl wasn’t a girl who was a phantom, she was somebody who lived in two worlds at once. Shrinking Violet wasn’t just a violet who shrunk, she was somebody who had a level of assertiveness that was a direct opposite to her size.

* * *

I managed to get the last few issues of this last Giffen run as they came out and by then, I was shamelessly hooked on the Legion, driving hundreds of kilometres to ensure I didn't miss one single issue. I picked up every issue of Legionnaries, following it through to the reboot, after shedding a few manly tears over the last oath at the end of everything in Zero Hour.

I was still keeping track of it through those interminable Moy issues, which contrasted with the deliciously malleable Moder art, but it was all a bit too nice, and a little too focused on retelling 40-year-old stories, (how many times did poor Triad have to almost die?) I was forced to give up the habit shortly before the Legion got Lost, and every time I checked in I was less and less interested.

By the time Waid and Kitson came calling with their teenage rebellion, there was nothing there for me anymore, and the latest reboot felt curiously bloodless. There was a good 10 seconds where the Legion of Three Worlds tie-in to Final Crisis looked promising, but I really don't care any more. If Giffen ever comes back with a whole bunch of creative control, I'll be up for that. Otherwise....

Recently, I managed to pick up the last couple of years of stories published on the post-Zero Hour crew, with Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning raising the stakes a bit. Their attempts to take the Legion somewhere new were laudable, but I honestly can’t tell if it didn’t work for me because of my inexplicable apathy towards Abnett, or because I was just over the Legion.

I don’t believe it’s just one of those concepts you grow out of. I still love those v4 comics just as much as ever. The love for the characters and the worlds they live in may have faded over the years like my cover to #288, but I still feel that same enjoyment reading little bits and pieces from over the years.

From seeing Karate Kid die a hero to Ultra Boy and Phantom Girl getting married when they were trapped in the 20th century. (After the shit that couple went through in the preceding 15 years, it was nice to have some kind of a happy ending.) That one issue of The Great Darkness Saga that I owned for years and the mass of Grell and late Curt Swan stories collected in big Australian reprints. I loved it all.

* * *

Everybody has their favourites. Mine are Ultra Boy, because he was a bad boy who wanted so hard to do the right thing; and Brainiac 5, because he was smart enough to acknowledge his own emotional limitations; and Timber Wolf, because he was a total badass. And Triplicate Girl, because I’m a dirty old bastard and she talked to me when I was high on mushrooms once.

* * *

Whenever anybody starts writing something about any version of the Legion of Super-Heroes, there is apparently an unwritten law that stipulates that they either say:

”I love the Legion, have always loved the Legion and will always love the Legion. Long live the Legion!” Or it’s “I don't get the Legion.”

At various times, I have sat on both sides of this fence. Sometimes I’ve been more than a little obsessed, other times I haven’t even thought about the comic for months at a time. I haven’t been a skody little teenager for a long, long time, but God help me, I still give a damn about the Legion.

These wonderful and obnoxious little shits, racing off and saving the universe of the 30th century, all bright colours and stupid codenames. The creator’s ability to make a character named Matter Eater Lad interesting in any way is an achievement in itself, to make me genuinely care about this vast cast of aliens and teenagers is just remarkable.

It’s highly unlikely I’ll ever love the Legion as much as I did, but I’m quite happy staying friends and keeping in touch, seeing how they are doing every now and then. Even if I stray away for too long, it doesn’t take much work to catch up.

* * *

The future will be strange and unusual and mess with our heads. But the teenage condition is eternal. They’ll always be annoying and eager and ready to change the world. There will always be this awkward idealism and sometimes they even make a bit of difference. There will always be innocent people to protect, even if those people have sixteen eyes and purple skin.

There will always be a Legion of Super Heroes.


Nik said...

The Legion was one of those comics I never read growing up, I just found it so impenetrable, but just in the last year or two I bought several of the "SHOWCASE PRESENTS" Legion volumes and they are quite good fun, a nice introduction to the series. I'm still too daunted to read current-day Legion comics though, although I might get that George Perez recent series whenever it's out in trade.

Jan Arrah said...

I've read the Legion since I was a kid and loved them so much that I've gone back and collect ALL of their past appearances. I have original copies of everything except Adventure 247, the Holy Grail....but an over-priced Holy Grail, that is thankfully frequently reprinted!
I've never found the Legion difficult since you can judge each story individually. Trying to make a coherent timeline for the group is impossible since time travel and parallel earth modifications have made things a mess. Luckily, DC is once again trying to bring the whole multiverse into a state of some-order again and the Legion seems to be at the center of much of that universe.
Now if only Johns stays around long enough to write the Legion in it's own series again...a back-up feature just doesn't cut it. LLL!