Thursday, September 11, 2014

Strange Visitors from Another Millennium

In his blog, Slay, Monstrobot of the Deep!, snell takes on the subject of the Legion's upcoming appearance in Justice League United. Go read it and come back here.

He's right, of course.

But, you know... Well, for one thing, it's nothing we haven't seen before. The Geoff-Johns-written Legion episode of Smallville had much the same premise. And that turned out to be not so bad. So I don't like it much either, but it's not necessarily a dealbreaker. Let's see how Lemire handles it.

However, it does bring up a point that I don't think we've addressed before--it only just occurred to me!--and I think it's worth keeping in mind whenever we think about the Legion and their comics. It's this: the Legion comes from the future, and that makes them different from us in some ways.

We can break Legion stories down into two categories. The largest category, and the one we're used to, is the one where we are meant to identify with the Legionnaires. They are our protagonists and POV characters, and we have empathy for whatever they're feeling. Jim Shooter and Paul Levitz were the big pioneers in establishing and perfecting this kind of Legion story; they made the Legionnaires more relatable to us.

The other kind of Legion story is the ones where we aren't meant to identify with the Legion. They're strangers! From the future! Who knows what they're up to? What secrets are they hiding, and why are they doing all these weird things? The very first Legion stories were of this kind: Superboy or Supergirl or Lois or Jimmy meets some exotic costumed teenagers who lead them through a bizarre adventure without telling them the whole story (at least until later). The aforementioned Smallville episode was of this kind. The "Lightning Saga", which returned the originalish Legion to DC continuity, was of this kind. And it looks like this upcoming Justice League United story will be of this kind.

(I wonder if we've struck one of the reasons why the threeboot Legion had a hard time connecting with some fans: Waid's characterizations of them made many of the Legionnaires strikingly different from regular modern humans, and also his superheroism-as-a-political/social-movement premise isn't anything we're used to. So this takes us away from the Shooter-Levitz model of getting us to identify with the Legionnaires.)

So I'm with snell: the Legion is miscast as supervillains. But I would also say that they're well-cast as antagonists, even if that's not the kind of Legion story I prefer or you prefer, because it's so easy for them to play the part of "the other".

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While we're on the subject, what about this week's Justice League United Annual in which Dawnstar seems to be a future member of the League? Goes along with that straight-to-video thing where Karate Kid and Dawnstar... what do they, become junior Leaguers or something? I don't know.

Anyway, I don't really care for it. And it has nothing to do with the choice of Dawnstar as the character to do this with; if you have to pick a Legionnaire to steal for use in a more popular team, Dawny's probably an excellent choice. I just don't want the Legion stripped down for parts, that's all. I didn't like Star Boy showing up in JSA either.

(Obviously Superman, Superboy, Supergirl, and Mon-El, as present-day characters, are exceptions to this.)

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Monday, August 18, 2014

The Legionnaires: Colossal Boy

 We're tackling a big topic today.

Colossal Boy, aka Gim Allon of Earth (Mars in the reboot era), aka Leviathan, Micro Lad. Created by Jerry Siegel and Jim Mooney.

Colossal Boy has been a Legionnaire since way back when. He's usually represented as a Science Police recruit who got superpowers from a strange meteor and became a Legionnaire instead of an SP. He's one of the only longtime Legionnaires who didn't quit on the team during the Five Year Gap; he's unfailingly loyal and well-intentioned. He and Chameleon Boy have long been close friends.

Problem is he's also pretty incompetent. He's famous for crashing starships, his brief leadership stint during the reboot era was a disaster, and he married a woman who turned out to be an impostor. Worse than that, he's the Legion's tomato can: any time the writer needs to show how tough a villain is, he has him or her beat up Colossal Boy. Gim has been killed twice: in the reboot, and in the Superboy's Legion Elseworlds series.

Part of the reason for this is the nature of Gim's powers: he grows really big. This means that he gets correspondingly stronger. This is the kind of superpower that sounds good but the more you think about it the more you realize that it's not that great a deal. It makes you really noticeable, it's hard to use indoors, and it doesn't come with extra toughness to match the strength. He's perfect for the bad guys to demonstrate their powers on.

Which makes him not that great as a solo hero, but it's still a good enough superpower for the Legion as is. He definitely has his uses. And there are plenty of times, not enough of them but some, where you can see Gim acting with some professionalism and savvy. There was one such case in the threeboot, for instance, where Jim Shooter had him and Ultra Boy down in the sewers chasing stink rats, or whatever it was, and they got mixed up in some kind of domestic. He did some neat size tricks. Certainly he's no dummy; he's just kind of a schmendrick.

And now a slight digression about Blue Beetle #19.

In this issue, Jaime Reyes ends up fighting Giganta, and the Peacemaker instructs him in the arts of fighting giant people. See, giant people are not like giant robots. Giant robots are engineered to be that big; they work fine. People are not engineered to be that size, and in fact they shouldn't be that size. The square-cube law messes them up with body heat and bone cross-section and what have you. To make them that size generally requires magic.

Which works fine for most of DC's giant-person characters... but not for Gim. I don't recall any suggestions that his "strange meteor" was magical. (Although, of course, there's no reason why it couldn't be.) So let's say it's some kind of non-magical cosmic effect that gave him his powers. What does that imply?

It implies several things. First, if Gim grows 100 times taller, he also grows 100 times wider and 100 times deeper. So the cross-section of his bones grows 100x100 times... but his mass grows 100x100x100 times. In other words, the job of his bones in supporting his body has become 100 times tougher. And the bigger he gets the worse the problem is; instead of a factor of 100 it might be a factor of 200 or whatever. And yet: does Gim have any trouble moving around? Does he break an ankle every time he takes a step? He does not. So maybe he does get tougher as he gets bigger. Maybe his powers do give him some invulnerability, plus more strength than we previously thought, and more the bigger he gets.

Second, if he grows 100 times taller, the surface area of his skin increases by a factor of about 100x100... but, again, his mass increases by a factor of 100x100x100. So his skin has to work 100 times harder to disperse his body heat. Where does all that energy go all of a sudden? If we're designing a superhero, this is a great problem to have. Is his body coated in flame? Does he get heat vision? Does the energy go to power the invulnerability we talked about before? Does it make him faster?* Does he get some kind of compensatory cooling power like Polar Boy? Colossal Boy ought to be way more powerful than he's ever been shown to be. Future** Legion writers take note.

Here he is in his origin story, starting as he means to go on: he doesn't see what's coming, and he crashes his vehicle. Get used to it, big guy.



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* You know all those huge characters where the hero fights them and says, "So big! And yet... so fast!" We could make Colossal Boy one of those guys.

** You know what I mean.

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Though They May Not Be Johann Sebastian Bach

I've got a post brewing on a very large topic of huge interest to Legion fans, but while I put that together, I'd like to direct your attention to a new(ish) site, The Legion of Super-Bloggers. Their efforts strike me as quite ambitious and are therefore all the more admirable, and I suggest you go check 'em out and give 'em a spin. They're in summarize mode at the moment, so we'll see what kind of game they've got once that's behind them.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Thousand Miles Single Step Et Cetera Et Cetera

So yeah.

The Legion is set to return in this fall's Justice League United annual, which kicks off the six-issue Infinitus Saga (Jeff Lemire/Neil Edwards/Jay Leisten).

My optimism about this development is limited.

Sure, Lemire's great and all, and apparently is a Legion fan, so we should be well set up to get a story that's better than the Lightning Saga was. But if Lemire has a proper understanding of his job, and why on earth would I think he didn't, then the Infinitus Saga, be it never so awesome, is still going to be a Justice League story. Which, again, is as it should be. But what I want is some Legion of Super-Heroes stories, and so far there aren't any of those on the horizon.

Could the Infinitus Saga lead to a return of the Legion to regular comics? Of course. But it has not done that yet. The goal here is to have a regular Legion comic by a creative team who has an interesting vision for the LSH and the creative chops to put that vision over. And I'm not going to count that chicken until it's out of the shell entirely.

The Infinitus Saga is a guest appearance. That's welcome. It ought to be a good one; that's welcome too. Now what else have you got for us.

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Sunday, June 01, 2014

And If You Tie the Bottom of the Bootstrap to the Top, You Don't Even Have to Pull

It's time we got back to my personal favourite topic: Legion reboots. Try not to disturb the neighbours with your cheers.

As always, I'm against reboots, but I'm often in favour of the comic books that are produced by reboots. Certainly such has been the case with Legion comics over the years. But there's another thing besides good comics that came out of the Legion reboots of 1994 and 2004 and, if you like, 1990. And that other thing is that it made the Legion inevitable.

Do you see what I mean? Rebooting the Legion isn't like rebooting, oh, Wonder Woman, for instance. Rebooting Wonder Woman means you're changing what happened before and what's happening now. Rebooting the Legion means you're changing what's going to happen. Before your reboot, when the future finally got here it would be like this and there would be a Legion of Super-Heroes. But after the reboot, the future would actually be like that and... there would be a Legion of Super-Heroes. One that was different in details from the previous one, sure, but clearly the same kind of thing. In other words, it doesn't matter what you do, in a thousand years the Legion is still going to show up and save us all.

And that's great! I need you to understand how great that is. First, it implies that the things the Legion stands for simply cannot be defeated. We'd all like to believe that, right? That's our optimistic future; without that, we have nothing. Second, it sets up an excellent adversarial relationship with the Time Trapper. The Time Trapper must be sitting there on his rock going, "Christ, what do I have to do to get rid of these kids? I've tried everything and they keep coming back!" It makes him frantic and desperate and gives him the motivation that otherwise he really wouldn't have.

That situation really doesn't apply any more. The idea that the future could hold a number of different possible Legions that were all nevertheless valid has been largely rejected by DC Comics and its readers in favour of the current status, which is that there's only one real Legion and it needs to be preserved against change.

This weekend I reread a comic book that occupies a strange place in this discussion: Superboy's Legion, the two-issue Elseworlds story by Mark Farmer and Alan Davis from 2001.

The premise of Superboy's Legion is that Kal-El's rocket didn't make it to Earth in the 20th century, but floated around in space for a thousand years before R.J. Brande found it. He hatched Kal-El out of it and adopted him, and he grew up to be a good-hearted but spoiled young superhuman who eventually founded a team of young superheroes, the Legion of Super-Heroes. Kal-El, Superboy, does some growing up and leads the team to costly victory against the Fatal Five and the forces of 20th-century villain Lex Luthor. The story is told well and excitingly, and, most noticeably of all, it's gorgeous to look at, because a) Alan Davis is great, and b) Davis's style is perfect for portraying the Legion's youthful exuberance. And the format has the glossy paper with the bright colours and all.*

As an Elseworlds story, and a superhero story, it's perfectly good, but if we think about the implications of the premise for a couple of minutes (something I'm sure Farmer and Davis do not particularly recommend to us) it starts to look a little strange.

We learn in Superboy's Legion that there was, despite the lack of Superman, a great superheroic age of the 20th century, and that it ended badly. Also, the 30th century is a pretty nice place, a future utopia if you will, albeit one with a dark secret or two.

We're familiar with the original-Legion story in which the Legion is founded on the inspiration of Superman. This situation is obviously not exactly like that, but it's comparable. But there's one scene in the second part where Superboy is losing his heart for the fight and Star Boy has to give him a pep talk. And there are references to the Legion being the heirs of the ideals of the great superheroes of the 20th century. Also, humanity managed to make it to the 30th century intact and prosperous without needing Superman to save the world all those times; the only one of his great enemies taken into account is Luthor.

It seems to be an attempt to have the results of Superman's inspiration, all the superheroes present and future, without having had Superman in the first place. Effect without cause. I'm not criticizing Farmer and Davis for this, not at all; I wouldn't expect them to write a story to stand up to the kind of scrutiny I'm giving it. They're playing with what-if and I'm just following threads.

In one sense Superboy's Legion is an example of the reboot spirit: the Legion will come into existence even if there were no historical Superman to inspire them. In another, it reflects the nostalgist urge: Superboy's Legion resembles the Adventure-era Legion in many many ways. The reboot Legion was going strong at the time but the only acknowledgements of its existence are Projectra's race, Chameleon Boy's characterization, and a few figures on the last page.

So that's Superboy's Legion: a good story, and I recommend it, but out of step with the times as Legion stories go. Not because it's too much the same to be different, but because it's too different to be the same.

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* Note: I've got the original printing of this, with the square binding. If you want that, expect to pay a lot of money for it. It's since been reprinted in a single volume, which I assume still looks good enough to do the story justice.

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