Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Legion of Super-Heroes: Millennium #2 - Setting Expectations

Still not really a review. When we get to Legion of Super-Heroes v8 #1, that'll be a review.

Can I start with the art? I was really impressed by the art in this comic book. Scott and Sook do what they do, and Cheung is on-model for the OMAC stuff, but it was Jeff Dekal's cosmic sequence that knocked me over.

When I wrote a thing about the previous issue I was really optimistic about how this was going to turn out, that it could end up being a really great story. And it isn't that, because it isn't really complete in itself. It's a setup for the LSH series. Which, I mean, we knew it was that, but now we know that it really is that. I guess Rose kinda gets a complete story for herself when she has her epiphany out by the Source Wall or wherever she is, but since we don't know what the nature of it is, there really isn't any closure for us in it.

But I stick with the other stuff I said about LSH:M #1. Rose/Thorn continues to form her impressions about superheroes and human society and youth, through encountering DC's various futuristic characters, and at the end she's ready to deliver her findings to the Legion. As a way of introducing the Legion, it's certainly one of them, and it's stylishly done, but I'm not sure I can see why this was Bendis's approach.

The advantages of it certainly appeal to me. First, it provides context and perspective. Previous versions of the Legion were separated from Kal-El and the present by a thousand-year barrier that seemed about an inch thick. A thousand years, or only a hundred? Whatever; it's practically right next door by time bubble. But this comic book shows us that, no, it's a huge distance, it's a vast amount of time. We might have known that before, but now we've seen it.

Second, and as I pointed out last time, it positions the Legion as the ultimate inheritors and redeemers of the superheroic tradition. Rose's story is honest with us about the failings of superheroes. Superman, Supergirl, Kamandi, Batman Beyond, OMAC... everything they wanted to protect has been swept away. They preach hope, but the hope always ends with another fall of civilization. They fight for what's right, but not in a way that addresses the problems that need addressing. True to her own alter-egoed nature, Rose is drawn to superheroes even as she disdains them. But then, an epiphany leads her to give it one more try. Maybe, a thousand years away from when she started, there's one last band of superheroes who can get it right this time, who can succeed where everyone else failed. I love it, and I think it's a wonderful point to make about the Legion.

Here's a disadvantage. The Legion is a challenge for new readers. Not a serious one. It's a superhero comic, not Infinite Jest. If you want to read it, pick it up and read it; you'll be fine. But, still: science fiction setting with several dozen main characters... it's a lot of detail to take in. So Bendis is going to introduce them by first showing us a cascade of a dozen more science fiction characters that we might not be familiar with either? I think Neal Stephenson said it best when he wrote, "Well, there's something to be said for cheekiness, I suppose."

Let's consider something else that's good. In interviews, Bendis has mentioned his admiration for various earlier versions of the Legion, including, interestingly, the 5YL and reboot and threeboot Legions. Which I appreciate, as I haven't seen that stuff appreciated in Legion comics for quite a while. But this isn't just talk by Bendis; you can see it all through the fourboot's introduction. The Legion are again the champions of diversity; that's from the reboot Legion. New Earth looks a lot like it did in the SW6 Legion's Legionnaires title. You can hear the ideas of the threeboot Legion in young Michael Carter's monologue to Rose in the Space Museum. And if they're going to be teaching Jon the ropes of how to be a superhero, that's an echo of the animated Legion.

Bendis hasn't proven anything to me yet. But what he has done, in interviews and in the comics he's written about the fourboot Legion, is show me that he has a deep and ambitious understanding of the Legion's meaning and role, in comics and in the real world, as the last heirs of the legacy of superheroes, as windows into the future of our imaginations, and as symbols of hope. I don't know if he can pay that off. I don't know if he's the right writer to do that. But I'm very pleased that that's what he's trying, and I hope he succeeds.

I mentioned a minute ago the Legion's role as champions of diversity. It's been a thing in comics for decades now, and the composition of the team itself has kind of lagged behind it. Remember when the threeboot Legion started and bigots were jumping up and down complaining about Star Boy being Black? And that was one character. There are, I am pleased to report, several more characters who've been changed in that way this time around. I'm going to count the Legionnaires (using the double-page spread from this issue for reference) so we can see what we're talking about here. Not because the specific numbers are important, but I do want to see what the numbers show us about the overall trend of the LSH roster:

Regular Human-Looking Legionnaires (white): (7) Mon-El, Saturn Girl, Superboy, Triplicate Girl, Bouncing Boy, Colossal Boy, Timber Wolf
Regular Human-Looking Legionnaires (people of colour): (9) Cosmic Boy, Light Lass, Ultra Boy, Matter-Eater Lad, Dawnstar, Lightning Lad, Shrinking Violet, Gold Lantern, Karate Kid
Presumably Regular Human-Looking Legionnaires That We Can't Tell What They'd Normally Look Like: (5) Wildfire, Invisible Kid, Dr. Fate, Chemical King (I'm assuming that the skeleton in the green containment suit is Chemical King), Sun Boy
Humanoid Legionnaires Who Look Different Enough To Be Alien: (11) Element Lad, Star Boy, Dream Girl, Brainiac 5, Shadow Lass, White Witch, Princess Projectra, Chameleon Boy, Phantom Girl, Monster Boy, Blok
Nonhumanoid Legionnaires: (0)

Did I miss anybody? I don't think so. If we did this same exercise for any other version of the Legion, we'd get very different results; the first group would be a lot bigger and the next three would be smaller. And it wouldn't be as good. I mean, what do we think the future's going to be like, anyway?

Obviously there's more to diversity than that, but we're going to have to spend some time with the characters before we can comment on it.

But there's one thing we can see. These are all characters updated from the original Legion of Super-Heroes roster, plus some new ones, but no Legionnaires updated from later versions of the Legion. No Kid Quantum, no Quislet, no Gates, no Dragonwing, no Kono. And, I don't really like that. One, I'd like to see those characters. Two, I don't subscribe to the idea that the original Legion is the real version and everything else is just ringing the changes off of that. Maybe some of 'em will show up later.

One thing I kinda want to mention. The scene at the end where Rose meets the Legion? It's the official founding of the Legion. And they're all there, twenty or thirty of them, including Superboy. So they went back in time to get Superboy before they were the Legion yet? I mean, I'm sure Bendis has thought out this detail; after all, he anticipated my objection about the Legion potentially disrupting the founding of the United Planets in Superman. It's probably something like, they've been a team for a while but haven't had the official founding yet. Like a restaurant can be open for weeks before the grand opening.

I'm going to be curious to see what Rose's role is with this team, if any. Before reading this comic I didn't know if she was going to inspire the team or organize it or what. But, no, nothing like that; she's found them fully formed. So how did they get together? I'm gonna go out on a limb and say it wasn't R.J. Brande this time.

So. #1 next month. Let's be patient with it, but let's also remember this: it's relatively easy to make a first issue or a first arc go well. The real test of serialized entertainment is the second story, when you can't rely on the energy of introductions anymore, when all the things you've put in your world to shape the first story don't apply anymore. We are in for, I hope, the long haul.

Did the Space Museum always look like the Hall of Justice?

Monster Boy's costume looks a lot like Mano's, doesn't it?

They faked us out in the group shot with Invisible Kid. We thought he was going to be between Element Lad and Light Lass, but no.

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Friday, September 06, 2019

Legion of Super-Heroes: Millennium #1 Not Exactly a Review

I'm not going to format this like a review because it isn't exactly one. It talks about two comics, not one, and I'm not as concerned as usual with how good the comics are as comics.

I'll start by talking about the movie Black Panther. (Stay with me.)

There were a lot of things that made Black Panther a good movie. Good story, good casting, good performances by the cast, good special effects... and so on. But there were also some things that made Black Panther an important movie, one that people cared about beyond its quality: the amount of prominence that its main character, a Black superhero, had, both in the movie and in real life; the Afrofuturistic setting, the Black supporting cast... and so on. Those two lists don't overlap; just because a movie is good doesn't mean it's important, and just because it's important doesn't mean it's good. Black Panther was both, and as such its quality and its importance reinforced each other, but did not stop being separate things.

On a less-important scale, Legion of Super-Heroes: Millennium has the same kind of thing going on.

I'm not convinced yet about its quality as a comic book, although I'll have more to say about that, but in the context of someone who's interested in DC superheroes in general and the Legion of Super-Heroes in particular, it looks like it is a very important comic book.

The plot of the comic, basically, is that Rose Forrest, as in "Rose & Thorn", has discovered that she's immortal and is living her way through DC Comics's various futures and trying to cope with the characters she meets as well as her own alter ego.

Now, there's one aspect of this that has been much commented on, which is that this comic seems to have the purpose of tying all of these future stories together into one continuity, and the Legion with them. This is true, and it's not something that I'm particularly enthusiastic about. To me, it's always been one of the strengths of the Legion as a concept that it wasn't tied strongly to the rest of DC continuity. But I think that this is one of the things that reasonable people can disagree on. Certainly I can see the point of those in the DC offices who think that the Legion would be better served by tighter bonds with the other DC titles, in the sense that it might draw in more readers. So I don't really have a big problem with this. But, more importantly, I think it serves an actual purpose in this story!

The key thing here for me is the second section of the book, in which Rose has a confrontation with Terry McGinnis. Terry doesn't really understand what conversation they're having, but Rose is accusing him of... I'm not sure it has a name. You know that idea that the superhero genre is just about the heroes and villains fighting each other endlessly, and the two sides are the same, and it never ends, and the heroes make the villains necessary? That.

It's not a frivolous charge. I mean, I don't like it or put a lot of stock in the idea, but Rose lives in a world in which not all the comics have been masterpieces, and so some of her history is stories just like that. A good superhero story will be grounded in real-world reality, or maybe in a good science-fiction or fantasy idea, and use the particular style of superheroes to tell an engaging adventure story in that reality. An inferior superhero story will take place in a bubble in which all the characters with speaking parts wear spandex and it will have no logic or consequence that extends outside of the superhero genre at all.

Now, you can have perfectly charming stories that happen entirely inside that superhero bubble. We've probably all enjoyed them. And, maybe, all superhero stories need to be like that a little bit. But if you indulge in it too much, it leads to the kind of thing Rose is talking about. The hero fights the villain for no other reason than that you bought the comic, and wins, and a couple of months later the villain is out of jail again and we do it all over again, and nothing changes. So Rose tells Terry, quite sensibly from her point of view, that superheroism doesn't work and nothing changes; you can even have reboots and rebirths and nothing will still change. And, in fact, she witnesses just this over the course of this comic! She goes from the present day to a near future with Supergirl, to Terry McGinnis's 'Batman Beyond' era, to Kamandi's time, to Tommy Tomorrow's time, and runs into the same kind of thing in each era. (Next issue will have more of the same, with Booster Gold and OMAC and the Legion itself.)

So Terry tries to tell her that she's wrong, that things do change and heroes do make things better, which has the advantage of being the correct answer and also true, but she's far from convinced. See, Rose's problem is, and this is what I consider to be a really neat maneuver by Brian Michael Bendis, she's trying to solve the eternal war of hero and villain, not only as it plays out across thousands of years of DC history, but also within herself. And that's why she's the main character of this little two-issue series.

And, of course, the trajectory of it is obvious, not only because we know that these comics are about introducing the fourboot* Legion, but also because we've read all the stuff Bendis has been saying about how great the Legion is and why we should all like it: Rose will resolve this conflict, at least as far as this story is concerned, when she meets the Legion.

That's what I mean when I say this is an important comic. A two-issue story that grapples with the hero-villain dichotomy and sets up the LSH as the ultimate justification to the entire superhero genre? Inject it directly into my veins.

There's more to it than that, too. The characters Rose runs into on her trip through the future are all either teenagers (Terry, Kamandi, Tommy Tomorrow) or are famous for being heroes as teenagers (Supergirl). And she says to Terry herself that the rise of heroes in every era is a cycle, and comments on how they're all young (although I can't find a part where she puts that together). Like, of course, the Legion. Which...

I mean, I'm not picky. If our civilization is not to succumb to the one-two punch of fascism and environmental catastrophe, I don't really care who gets the credit. I hope I do my part. But really it's young people who have been doing a lot of the conspicuous heavy lifting. And if it turns out that young people who have been specifically inspired by the Legion of Super-Heroes have some kind of notable positive effect? I'll be quite gratified. I hope Legion comics catch on huge, not just because I'm a fan, but because where the flip else are we going to find hope for the future?** Anyway, tl;dr, it's a timely theme for a superhero comic.

That's most of the important part of what I have to say. But there are some other points I want to raise.

In the Kamandi section, Rose steals Superman's costume. I wonder what's going to happen to it; I assume she'll give it to Jon when she meets the Legion. But it's interesting that Rose keeps trying to somehow engage with heroism throughout this comic.

Oh yeah. I suppose I should say something about Superman #14. I haven't been following this title, so I can't speak to a lot of what was going on in the issue, but.
- the touch of having Jon invent the United Planets was a nice one. Very Valor-esque
- but is DC really prepared to have the United Planets exist in their present day? Really?
- similarly, I'm not sure it was such a hot idea to have the Legion show up right there on the spot as the U.P. is being negotiated for the first time. How did they know they weren't going to disrupt things and prevent the U.P. from happening?
- unless they knew they wouldn't, because history says that they were there, in which case... they knew they were going to be the Legion before they were the Legion? It's a mess. It is ill-advised

This is maybe my first experience with Bendis's writing. (Did he do the Who Killed Retro Girl thing? I read that, quite a while ago.) And, now that I've read this... he's certainly got that Aaron Sorkin chattiness going. Which I don't object to in principle. Done well, and in small enough doses, it's fine or even good. But I think it's not a good fit for comics, I think it's even less of a good fit for superhero comics, and I think it's even less of a less of a good fit for Legion comics. So, as I keep saying: we'll see.

The art was good too. If this was a regular review I'd make sure I had more to say about it. But I didn't want to say nothing about it.

Anyway! Really looking forward to the next issue. If Bendis and his art collective manage to stick the landing, this could be one of the ones we keep coming back to.

* Fourboot. That's what we're calling it. Done deal.
** Maybe also Star Trek.

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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Gotta Get Home before the Morning Comes

As you all know and as fate would have it, we're going to be getting a new Legion of Super-Heroes comic this year. If you need to brush up on the details, this link is where you want to go, for an interview with Brian Michael Bendis about what his plans are for the Legion.

I'm very glad about this. I'm glad whether it turns out to be a good comic or a bad one. Obviously I'd rather it be a good one. But I like thinking about the Legion of Super-Heroes, and I like thinking about them as an active entity, not a static one that only exists in back issues. I don't want to just look back on Legion comics; I want to look forward to them! We can always use stories of heroism, and, these days, we can especially use stories of heroism in which people work together and give us hope for the future.

I don't want to spend too much time discussing what's going to be happening; there'll be a lot of that all over the place. I'm more interested in what we can make of the things we have learned.

So let me go through this interview with Bendis to see what jumps out.

First thing I notice is that Bendis really seems to like the Legion. Which is a good sign. There's no substitute for affection for your material. I've never read much of his stuff, but his reputation is not such that I would have pegged him as a likely Legion writer... Still, he's been around long enough to know his stuff, and if he's really into it, then, hey, let's give it a chance.

Bendis seems to be leaning into the large cast. I've seen any number of people spitballing that if they wrote the Legion, they'd pick out seven or eight characters to focus on and have everyone else present but in the background. And I'm sure it must be tempting to handle it just like that.

When citing Legion runs from the past that might be inspirational for this version of the team, Bendis mentions Mike Grell and Keith Giffen... but also Mark Waid. He uses the phrases "from a modern setting" and "from this standpoint of a modern comic reader" and "brand new kinds of sci-fi" and "No homage to Kirby, Moebius, or John Berkey." This reassures me a lot: it suggests that the comic book will not just be about nostalgia.

But then there's this one. "[T]he point of the Legion of Super-Heroes is how it reflects back on the era of the Age of Heroes, right?"

Hmm. Hmmm.

I don't know if it is.

I don't know if it isn't! I'm dubious but not necessarily opposed.

For the longest time, the Legion was mostly isolated from the rest of DC continuity. This had its good and bad aspects. For better or worse, that time seems to be over; it looks like we're getting a Legion that's more tightly bound up with, I don't know, Booster Gold and Terry McGinnis and stuff like that. And I just don't know. I mean, if they do it well, then that's fine, but I can't claim to actually care about Kamandi and Tommy Tomorrow and that.

Bendis also seems to be looking at this as a long-term project. I think this is the correct approach; the Legion famously lends itself to long-form storytelling. I still like done-in-one stories and am frustrated by sixteen-issue mega-arcs, but Legion comics are a ponderous beast and need long runways.

But here he says, "this isn't a criticism of other creators, but over the years, Legion doesn't have the consistency that other books have had." Except if you look at the history, it has had consistency. It's had a lot of long runs, some very long, that were quite consistent in themselves! So I'm really not sure what he's getting at. Does he mean the reboots and relaunches?

Then he talks about the Legion's motivation. "Our Legion is coming together out of what they think is dire necessity. Things are starting to crumble, and they're crumbling fast, and it really feels like it's time for a new Age of Heroes for the first time in a millennium." On the one hand, this doesn't really reflect the Legion's traditional 'optimistic future' setting. On the other, a couple of things: first, in an adventure story, you need to give your heroes something to do. Second, there's still room for optimism here. Third, just the idea that there are still going to be human beings in a thousand years is something that I would call wildly optimistic all by itself. So.

"You're coming into a universe of ideas about self and all the kinds of things that "self" means as far as anywhere on the spectrum. You can think of about religion, or sexuality, or anything that makes a person individual, and apply all these intergalactic ideas to it..." Now that I think is a very threeboot kind of thing to say. And I mean that entirely as a compliment.

Check out Ryan Sook's character designs. The first one I saw was the Saturn Girl one, and I only caught a glimpse of it. My reaction to it was, good, it's very simple; they finally smartened up. Because the Legion takes forever to draw; the artist might as well save himself the trouble of drawing complicated costumes. Runes on the edge of Element Lad's cape? That cool transparent thing Dragonwing wore? An expensive luxury. But then I looked at all the rest of them and they really aren't that simple. They're not too bad, but some of that detail, like all Lightning Lad's strappy things? He's just creating more work for himself. Anyway. I'm not totally sold on the new look. But I said the same thing about the Legion cartoon and ended up really liking how that looked.

My point is this: break's over.

Notes:

- TIL who John Berkey is
- Ryan Sook seems to know his business
- 34. Literally 34, or did he just pick a number out of the air?

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Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Legionnaires: Chameleon Girl

Chameleon Girl, aka Yera Allon of Durla. Created by Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen.

Yera--I'm going to call her Yera--spent most of her history not as a Legionnaire but as a supporting character. She was a spy who infiltrated the Legion of Super-Heroes in disguise as Shrinking Violet. In this capacity she fell in love with, and married, Colossal Boy, and they remained married even after Yera had been revealed as a spy and the real Violet rescued.

Yera was an actress of some renown; she used her Durlan shapeshifting abilities as part of her acting career. It was strongly implied that she wasn't as adept a combat shapeshifter as Chameleon Boy, but it's possible that her skill at imitating specific individuals was greater.

Original Legion continuity ended with Yera and Colossal Boy still married and Yera not a superhero, but in the retroboot she volunteered to become Chameleon Girl, Legionnaire, for a dangerous mission when Chameleon Boy was unavailable. Later, she and Colossal Boy's marriage broke up, and Yera was stranded in the 21st century as part of the Legion Lost series.

I liked Yera best as a supporting character. She was great: a Durlan actress who had priorities of her own that had nothing to do with the Legion, but who was married to a Legionnaire? It was good stuff. Just the sort of supporting cast that any superhero title needs. As such I think it was short-sighted for Geoff Johns to turn her into just another superhero in the retroboot; exactly the kind of unsubtle pandering retcons that characterized Johns's contributions to the retroboot. If and when the Legion returns to comics, I certainly would like to see Yera come back with them... but I hope she gets to be herself.

Let's use this as Yera's big moment: she defeats one of Darkseid's Servants of Darkness more or less all by herself! And we didn't even know it was her!

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Monday, September 17, 2018

The Legionnaires: Dream Boy






Dream Boy, aka Rol Purtha of Naltor, created by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson.

Dream Boy was one of the few Legionnaires introduced in the threeboot era. He was a Naltorean precognitive who joined the Legion as a sort of replacement for Dream Girl, who had been killed shortly previous. The Legion didn't entirely trust him not to be a spy, and, in fact, he may have been, although he actually did keep faith with the Legion during his entire tenure with the team. Like Dream Girl, he could see the future, although he wasn't as good at it as she was, and he also didn't seem to have her combat training.

I don't tend to identify with characters much, but something about Dream Boy did connect with me. I think it was how he was part of the team... but he wasn't really part of the team, and they moved on without him pretty much as soon as they could. (After Mark Waid left the title, subsequent threeboot writers Bedard, Shooter, and Thyme didn't feel the need to keep the character around, and discarded him with no ceremony at all.) But he was an interesting guy who had some appeal during his short time on the page (although not to the point of preferring him over any version of Dream Girl), and I'd like to read more comics about him someday.

(How long has it been since I reread the threeboot? I should go back to it one of these days...)