Sunday, February 07, 2016

The Legionnaires: Dragonwing

Here's one who seemed to fall off the table.

Dragonwing, aka Marya Pai of Earth. Created by Paul Levitz and Phil Jimenez.

Dragonwing was one of the Academy graduates who joined the Legion as the New52 started. The new Legionnaires of this period seemed to be part of an effort to bring in more female and nonwhite Legionnaires, which was entirely appropriate.

Dragonwing herself was not super interesting. Her powers included flight, fire breath, and acid breath, which is workable. They gave her a little storyline where they had to go back and deal with some part of her backstory; her brother was in trouble or something. Then in the final storyline of LSHv7, with the Fatal Five, she disappeared. Like, she just stopped appearing in the story. I think Levitz and Giffen forgot about her.

There's nothing wrong with her as a character; she'd be a perfectly good Legionnaire if she appeared in any good Legion comics. (If and when they ever bring the Legion back, I'd like to see her era represented in the cast of characters just as much as all the other eras.) The one thing I found most notable about her was her costume. Look:

You see her cloak there? Transparent, with a dragon design on it? It's cool: futuristic, and unlike any other superhero costume I've ever seen. I must imagine that Phil Jimenez gets the credit for this; go ahead, Phil.

But here's the thing. Wouldn't it be a pain to draw?

If I was running a Legion comic, with the huge cast of characters, cosmic storylines, and futuristic setting, I wouldn't go out of my way to make the artists' jobs any harder than necessary. If you're a longtime Legion reader, you know how tough it is for artists to stay on schedule with this comic. Why don't they make the costumes as simple and distinctive as possible? Cripes, make something easy. So, Dragonwing: cool costume, no question, but I wouldn't sign off on it.

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Saturday, January 02, 2016

The Legionnaires: Dream Girl

Let's see if we can get back into the swing of these articles.

Dream Girl, aka Nura Nal of Naltor, aka Dreamer, Nura Schnappin. Created by Edmond Hamilton and John Forte.

Dream Girl has the power of precognition. She originally joined the Legion in a story where she had foreseen a bunch of Legionnaires dying, and made herself obnoxious through some guardhouse-lawyering and had them all removed from duty. When that all got resolved, she resigned from the Legion, saying she had only become a Legionnaire as part of a trick so she had to go. But I never really got why. She had the powers, didn't she? She saved them all, sorta, didn't she? It's not like she was evil. She totally could have stayed on.

Anyway she rejoined later. For most of the '60s and '70s Dreamy was a pretty useless Legionnaire and got put into the fainting-damsel role a whole lot of times. This was a mistake, of course; subsequent Legion writers found lots of ways for her to be an awesome character. The first of these was Paul Levitz, who put her in a backup story in LSHv2 #285 in which she had to go back to her home planet of Naltor to solve a problem there. (This was her signature moment. I'd totally post a scan from that story except my scanner has decided not to cooperate with me in any way. Sorry.) She displayed some impressive fighting skills, strong willpower, and a talent for improvisation, and not coincidentally was voted in by the readers as Legion leader months later. She turned out to be one of the best leaders the Legion ever had.

Dreamy's personality is extremely flirtatious and sexy. She is exaggeratedly beautiful in appearance and plays that up as much as she can. This is probably one reason why the early Legion writers failed to take full advantage of her character; they figured she already had a role in the story and that role was "hot girl". But she's actually pretty great in a lot of ways more interesting than that.

It's really unfair how many advantages the Legion has, as a superhero group. They've got a rich and devoted sponsor in R.J. Brande, and they've got powerful characters like Saturn Girl and Brainiac 5 who handle a lot of inconvenient details for them. Dream Girl is another such unfair advantage: she gives the Legion a lot of important and timely information that makes them even more effective than they otherwise would be. This often goes unrecognized.

I've mostly been talking about original-Legion Dreamy here. Her alternate-universe variants are also interesting without being radically different. In the reboot universe, Dreamer started out as something of an airhead before becoming hardened by the pressures of war. Threeboot Dream Girl was more down-to-earth than original Dreamy, but often distracted by her nonstandard perception of the flow of time. And animated Dreamy was, as I recall, some kind of ex-charlatan whom the rest of the Legion didn't entirely trust. But, you know, it always worked. This is the beauty of the Legion: you can have characters like this who don't have enough to them to sustain their own comic book, but in the context of the Legion they can be developed enough over the years that they're more interesting than a lot of characters who do have their own titles. 31st-century hothouse.

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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Strength of Superboy, Wisdom of Harmonia, Uh...

According to the @thisdayincomics Twitter account, the Justice Society first appeared in comics seventy-five years ago today. So that's something: seventy-five years of superhero teams.

I've touched on the history of superhero teams before, but I want to touch on something else here. The point of the Justice Society was to take existing characters and have them all appear in the same comic book. This is also how we got the Justice League, the Avengers, the Defenders, and the Teen Titans. More or less. The identities of the characters came before the identity of the team.

But that wasn't really what happened with the Legion of Super-Heroes. The origins and identities of the individual characters are not identical, but they all (with, I know, a couple of exceptions) share the common feature of featuring interplanetary stuff in the future. And certainly no Legionnaire has been able to establish much of an identity outside of the context of the Legion. The identity of the team comes before the identities of the characters.

So that's not like the Justice Society. There are other teams for whom the same is true, though, like the Fantastic Four and the Zoo Crew. The Metal Men, there's another one. But this model of superteam has its origins in another group that began in the early 1940s: the Marvel Family. They aren't a perfect example of the type, in that the individual Marvels appeared in comics solo with regularity. But they had so much in common with each other that their group identity was basically inseparable from their superheroic identity. Similar costumes, similar names, same powers, related origins...

That's all. Just something I happened to think of.

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Saturday, September 19, 2015

To Pay Peter

When DC decides to use the Legion of Super-Heroes for something or other these days, they tend to default to the 1980s-era Legion as written by Paul Levitz in his second run on the title. This makes a certain amount of sense, as Legion comics from that era are both critically respected and commercially successful. Another factor, probably, is that this was the last run of Legion comics before DC started tampering with continuity, which certainly put a lot of fans off.

How many such quasi-Levitz2 Legions have there been recently? Let's list them just for fun. There's
- the retroboot Legion, first introduced by Geoff Johns and Brad Meltzer in "The Lightning Saga" and appearing in many DC comics leading up to the new52
- the version of the Legion who appeared in the Star Trek/Legion of Super-Heroes crossover
- the new52 Legion
- the version of the Legion who appeared in "The Infinitus Saga" in Justice League United
- the version of the Legion who appeared in Convergence: Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes

Now you can argue that some of these are the same. I dunno. It's all very vague. They're all sorta similar, and there are reasons to think they're the same, and there are things you can point at that suggest that maybe they're not... Anyway. The point is, DC tends to look at the Levitz2 Legion as, how shall I put it... as what the Legion should be like.*

That's not an inevitable stance to take, but the part I want to focus on here is how these creators want to use Levitz's Legion but they don't seem to want to live with the things Levitz actually did with that Legion. See, one of the things that's not often appreciated about Levitz is that he liked shaking things up. He did so in a relatively understated way, but he made some big changes. And those changes have largely not been adopted by those who came after him. Let's list some of the ones that haven't caught on.

- the introduction of Jacques Foccart, Invisible Kid II. This change has been used by most (all?) writers who reset to the second Levitz run, but the reboot and threeboot writers both opted for Lyle Norg instead. Why? No, seriously, why? (Interestingly, the animated Legion did give Jacques a quick cameo, but not Lyle.)
- the restoration of Timber Wolf's human face. I mention this because Paul Levitz was the last Legion writer who agreed with me that Timber Wolf was a regular human guy with, like, super-acrobatics powers, and not a werewolf or whatever.
- the retirement of Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and Cosmic Boy from the Legion. Didn't take!
- the transformation of Princess Projectra into Sensor Girl. Actually everybody seemed to like this one; it caught on all over the place.
- the breaking up of Timber Wolf and Light Lass as a couple, and the subsequent relationship between Lightning Lass and Shrinking Violet. Like a lot of these changes, this was preserved into the 5YL era by Levitz's protege Keith Giffen, but Johns tried to walk it back in Action Comics and Stuart Moore did the same in his Convergence series.
- the revelation that Validus is the transformed, time-displaced son of Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad, and his subsequent restoration as Garridan Ranzz. You all noticed Validus there in Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds, right?
- the introduction of nonhuman Legionnaires Tellus and Quislet, plus Polar Boy and Magnetic Kid. This one's mixed: Tellus did get some screen time recently (looking more humanoid than Steve Lightle ever drew him), but Levitz himself has gotten rid of Quislet twice now. Polar Boy is a Legionnaire in good standing, but when's the last time we saw Magnetic Kid?
- the breaking up of Star Boy and Dream Girl as a couple, and Star Boy's resignation from the Legion.
- the disbanding of the Legion of Substitute Heroes, and its eventual replacement by a new group of Subs led by Cosmic Boy.
- the death of Mon-El directly after his marriage to Shadow Lass.

Now, having said all that. It is certainly true that the comic book writers of today must be allowed to write comics their own way without being constrained by what Paul Levitz did thirty years ago. One hundred percent. BUT (1) that implies that the comic book writers of today also should not be constrained by what Paul Levitz's predecessors did more than thirty years ago. Don't kid me.

There's a BUT (2), which is that DC has historically underrepresented nonwhite characters, LGBTQ characters, and (important not from an audience-effect standpoint, but only from a science fiction standpoint) nonhuman characters in the Legion, and if a Legion writer does something to improve that situation, subsequent Legion writers should not roll back that change.

This is a consideration for all comics, but it's particularly important for the Legion of Super-Heroes, because the Legion is all about diversity, and has a cast of characters large enough to be able to accommodate such diversity with ease.

Anyway, this brings us back to Timber Wolf, Lightning Lass, and Shrinking Violet. It is a fact that Levitz and later Giffen and the Bierbaums and much later Levitz again showed Ayla and Vi as lovers in Legion comics. It is also a fact that this was done implicitly and with plausible deniability, out of what I can only call cowardice on the part of someone I don't know enough to identify. But it was done nevertheless, and it is wrong to undo it. Geoff Johns was wrong, and Stuart Moore was wrong, and the reboot, threeboot, and animated writers didn't exactly cover themselves with glory either. Paul Levitz may not have done a whole lot to make the Legion more diverse**, but what he did do shouldn't be rolled back.


* To be sure, there are exceptions. Grant Morrison has used a reboot-like Legion in his Action Comics run, and Convergence: Blue Beetle used a Legion which was more like the SW6 batch than anything else.

** Although in his third run on the book he did quite a bit more: introduced nonwhite human Legionnaires (and supporting characters) in Chemical Kid, Dragonwing, Glorith, Harmonia, Otaki, and Mwindaji and introduced a same-sex relationship between minor characters Jed Rikane and Gravity Kid. If only he had brought in more nonhumanoid Legionnaires, and kept XS around! Oh well; it's all ashes in the wind now.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Days of Past Future

It recently occurred to me to ask the question, "What is the Legion of Super-Heroes for?"

As in, what purpose does the Legion serve from the perspective of DC Comics?

Stipulated that this question, applied to any comic-book character or characters, can be truthfully answered with, "They serve the purpose of appearing in comic-book stories that people will buy because they enjoy reading about those characters' adventures." Further stipulated that any superhero characters have the purpose of, "They exist to be the protagonists of the story and to fight supervillains." What I'm looking for is, what is the purpose of the Legion beyond all that stuff.

Here are some examples of what I mean. The purpose of Superman is to be the preeminent superhero of the DCU. The purpose of the Justice League is to organize the DCU's top superheroes for easy collective use. The purpose of the Outsiders is to give Batman an outlet for some of his worst tendencies. And so on.

I've gone on at length before about the essential qualities of the Legion, but that's more a description of what the Legion is. Not quite the same question. For instance, the Legion is traditionally composed of young superheroes, but the Legion is not the DCU's go-to team for teenagers. The Teen Titans is. The Legion isn't around to be young; they just are young.

As far as I can tell the Legion has two purposes in DC's ecosystem. (Let me know if you can think of any I missed.)

The first one is that they are there to reflect glory on Superman, by which I also mean Superboy. They represent the ultimate triumph of his ideals, on the one hand, and on the other hand they're really cool friends for him to have. Does Batman hang out with dozens of 31st-century aliens with their own spaceships and stuff? No, that he does not. DC needs Superman to be the greatest superhero ever, and the Legion is highly useful in justifying that status in his portrayal. For this purpose alone, DC will probably never completely discard the Legion.

The Legion's second purpose is that they represent the distant future of the DCU, and that's where we run into some problems.

(At one point the Legion had a third purpose, which DC has since outgrown: Legion comics were DC's laboratory for experimenting with various kinds of long-form storytelling. Stories like the death and resurrection of Lightning Lad, Earthwar, and the Great Darkness Saga were notably longer stories than DC usually told during their respective eras. The Legion still gets mixed up in its share of long stories, but it's not unusual anymore and anyway DC feels free to do this kind of experimenting with any or all of its titles these days.)

First, what comic book writer wants to have the future already decided? It's actually kind of a stupid idea if you think about it. What the flip is the point of a comic book where Superman has to save the world in the 21st century when DC's got over fifty years of comics showing Earth existing in the 31st century?

I'm not saying there aren't ways around that. I'm just saying that having the Legion around is not necessarily a welcome thing for all of DC's creators. Which brings us to the second problem.

Second, the Legion's future is an optimistic one. Which is great! I like it. You like it. But DC must hate it at times. After all, not only does it take some suspense away, but it's not what Marvel does. Marvel's future is always really unpleasant, something that's to be dreaded and changed. There's no room for a Legion of Super-Heroes in Marvel Comics.* And DC does so like to take its lead from Marvel.

This is probably the reason Geoff Johns grabbed onto the future-xenophobia idea so enthusiastically. Splits the difference: 31st-century Earth can still be, overall, a prosperous and amazing place, while also having a problem that makes it seem dystopian from our point of view. An optimistic and terrible future.

The third problem is not a drawback so much as it is something to be managed, and that is that the future is always changing.

(By this, I don't mean that details of DC continuity are always changing and the Legion's future must always change to reflect what's going on in the present. This happens, of course, but it's stupid and DC would do much better to just let all that stuff slide.)

No, what I mean is that our ideas of what the future is going to be like are always changing. Look at the difference between the future as drawn by Al Plastino and John Forte, and the future as drawn by Dave Cockrum and Mike Grell. It's like night and day.

For the first few decades of the Legion's existence, the various writers and artists managed to update their views of the future without actually saying that that's what they were doing. Then the reboots started, and while they were unwelcome in many ways they did have the effect of making it easier to reflect contemporary ideas of what the future was going to be like. Because the creators didn't have to change the existing settings and characters, see? They could just make new versions.

And I think that's why I have so much of a problem with the retroboot.

To go from publishing the threeboot Legion to the retroboot Legion is to abandon the idea of showing the future. Because you're not; you're showing somebody else's vision of the future from a quarter century ago. I mean, I don't say that the retroboot writers and artists were doing nothing more than echoing Levitz's second run; that's certainly not true. But the retroboot future is clearly a variation on the pre-Crisis future, and Crisis was thirty years ago. It's a 1980s future.

So how sad is that? We need an inspiring vision of the future as much today as we ever have. We could be getting it from Legion comics. But even when there are Legion comics, they aren't really about the future anymore.**


* Yes, yes; Shi'ar Imperial Guard; not what I'm talking about.
** To be fair, DC is also showing us some kind of future in Justice League 3001. But I'm not reading that. Is it any good?

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