Tuesday, September 12, 2006

I Have Cracked the Freaking Code

I am so proud of coming up with the idea for this article that I could jump up and down. I really think I'm on to something here.

First I want to go back to something Mark Waid said about the Legion of Super-Heroes in an interview:

A lot of these kids have some commonality, but others--despite their humanoid appearances, we're trying to always bear in mind that having, say, Brainiac 5, Element Lad and Chameleon together is like trying to build an effective fighting force out of a magnolia tree, a sugar cube and a cumulus cloud.

Not only a sensible thing to say, but, if true, important. I've had it in mind the whole time I've been reading this series, and I think I've finally sussed out how it applies.

The way I see it, the Legion has gone through three phases of characterization.

1. In the Silver Age, characterization was a pretty rudimentary thing. It's not like nobody had a personality, but what individuality the characters did have was usually pretty simple, broadly drawn, and strictly optional.
2. Eventually the writers started to give some real personalities to their characters, and to explore their relationships more carefully. I guess Marvel led the way in this effort. It started slowly and clunkily, but once we were into the '70s and '80s there was some real good stuff going on. I'm not sure when the Legion entered this stage, but they were pretty obviously in it by the time Wildfire joined the team. And, for my purposes, this stage continued right up until the Titans/Legion Special.
3. The current stage.

The current stage is a whole new thing for characterization. I don't want to call it revolutionary, because I don't know if it has wider applications than this one title, but it's new. What Waid has done is to take the characters' powers into account when deciding what their personalities had to be like. It wasn't enough to take a stage-2 approach and say, "this is a group of teenagers. They have unusual powers and responsibilities, but basically they're normal people and our stories will be about these normal people and their relationships and adventures in exotic situations." Stage 3 brings with it the approach of, "this is a group of different creatures from all over the galaxy. Some of them were born with superhuman abilities in unimaginable environments. Their resemblance to what we think of as 'normal people' is only superficial. In fact, Legionnaires are different, and even more importantly, they're different from each other. Our stories will be about how these superhuman powers and bizarre backgrounds lead to mind-manglingly different perspectives, and how a shared commitment to superheroism can lead this adolescent intergalactic zoo to work together despite these different perspectives."

I have two separate things that I want to talk about that come out of this. One's Legion-related and I'll get to it first; the other is about the DC Universe as a whole and I'll save it for after.

Anyway. Waid redesigned these characters so that their personalities and their powers are integrated. I don't want to overstate the case here; these Legionnaires aren't mere caricatures of their own powers. That would not be cool at all. No, they're people all right. But if you had some kind of superpower, some inhuman ability that informed every part of your life, it would affect you. You would think differently than you do now. Your actual brain might be different. So with the Legion.

In many cases this is more of a thematic choice than it is a conceptual necessity. It's one thing to say that Brainiac 5's superbrain leads him to look at the world differently from how Karate Kid does. It's quite another to look at characters like Lightning Lad, Light Lass, Invisible Kid, Ultra Boy and others who weren't born with their powers, but acquired them later, and say that their minds must be different. And yet we can still see connections between their personalities and their powers. Waid didn't have to make it work like that, but there's no reason why he shouldn't.

Let's go through this with some examples. I must admit that I haven't yet figured out how all the Legionnaires fit into this idea yet. I imagine it'll come.

Cosmic Boy: He has magnetic powers. He's the leader of the group, because he has the charisma to hold everyone together. Another phrase that means 'charisma' is 'animal magnetism'.

Lightning Lad: Thinks and acts quickly, like a lightning strike. Sometimes too quickly. I don't mean to say that he's one of these impulsive hothead types, like Wildfire was; just that Garth processes things without a lot of turnaround time.

Dream Girl: "Didn't we already beat this guy? Sorry. You know how I get." That, at the time, was great characterization: her knowledge of what was going to happen caused Nura to interact with the world far differently than would those of us who have to wait on the event. And now (this is being written after issue #21), she may have actually become a dream, which (potentially) integrates her even more deeply with her powers.

Phantom Girl: I thought for quite a while that I just wasn't getting Phantom Girl. But now, looking back at her little spotlight feature in issue #4... maybe there's nothing there to get. Maybe she's just a phantom, and whatever part of her is knowable is also inaccessible to us. Enh, I dunno. That one might be a bit of a stretch.

Supergirl: I group her here with Dream Girl and Phantom Girl because, to me, they're characterized similarly. All three routinely receive sensory input that the rest of the world isn't privy to. This a) distracts them and b) causes them to do things that other people don't understand at the time. Which in turn makes them seem kind of spacey, even though they're not.

Light Lass: Can be frivolous.

Micro Lad: He's not just a normal guy who can grow anymore; he is big, and thinks that way.

Invisible Kid: This one's tricky. I'll have much more to say about Lyle in a future post, but for now let me just point out that nobody trusts him. Part of that is because of his actions. But it's also, I think, because of his powers. You can't see him. He's there, but you can't see him. How do you trust a guy like that? I expect Invisible Kid to be pretty much an outsider for as long as he's on the team because of this. When he took that serum, something fundamental happened to him that keeps people away.

Brainiac 5: Well, nothing new here; Brainy's intelligence has been setting him apart from the other Legionnaires for decades.

Atom Girl: All I can figure out so far is that she's got the 'Napoleon complex' - she gets pushy and outspoken with people to compensate for being so little. Although her status as a manumitted slave of the Coluans, and therefore also a dedicated Brainy supporter, qualifies for mention here.

Element Lad: Has the power to change the elements; is fascinated by change.

Shadow Lass: She's kind of got a dark personality, doesn't she?

Triplicate Girl: One of the best examples of how Waid has reengineered characters so that their personalities and powers intersect. Not only is she alienated from the Legion because there are three of her; she's alienated from her home because there are only three of her.

Now, I know, some of the examples I’ve been giving here are superficial, and we’re going to want to spend a lot more time with the characters to see if there’s anything deeper going on. But check out…

Chameleon: Ah, Chameleon. He's the reason I'm writing this. I finally figured him out. You know the time I posted about how I really didn't have a good handle on his personality yet? Now I do. Or I think I do.

Consider the real-life animal, the chameleon. Its colour changes to match its surroundings. If we extend that to the comic-book character Chameleon, we get someone whose personality changes to match the people surrounding him.

Which means we have to reevaluate everything we think we know about him. Him/her. Whatever.

Remember when Cosmic Boy called him 'poisonously bitter'? Rokk was the bitter one, because of how his leadership was being undercut at a very difficult time.

Remember when Triplicate Girl described him as a prankster? Issue #3 showed us all that she's a prankster herself.

Remember in issue #3 where he and Sun Boy and Triplicate Girl are trying to play some kind of superhero game, but he can't fit into it right? Sun Boy quit the Legion because he felt he didn't really belong there, and Luornu has issues about fitting in herself.

His spotlight issue, #19? He disguises himself as a Science Police officer... and ends up solving a mysterious crime.

What is Chameleon, and what is just the reflection of the people around him? He must have something within him that's his own. He did take the initiative to join the Legion, in a world where it must be much easier not to do that. It'll be hard to pick out, though. If this is really what Waid is doing with the character, and not just me wanking*, it's a very tricky and ambitious thing for him to try to write, and I'm looking forward to picking out more nuggets of information about Chameleon and the other Legionnaires.

Such as. Remember the great Cos/Brainy schism, where Chameleon tried to mend fences by disguising himself as Ultra Boy? Ultra Boy got really mad and called him a freak. If Jo perceives Cham as a freak, then, maybe, that's what he thinks of himself deep down. It's certainly something I'm going to be watching for in Ultra Boy's future appearances in this title.

The other thing I wanted to say about characterization was this. Legion of Super-Heroes looks like DC's trial balloon for a couple of big things they had in mind. If you go back and read the Titans/Legion Special, there's a part at the end where the Legion is trying to go home to their 31st century, but some kind of disturbance in the continuum wrecks everything and they get cast into the void. At the time, we didn't know what the disturbance was. Now, after Infinite Crisis, it's easy to identify it as Superboy-Prime beating the snot out of reality in search of a way out of that little pocket dimension. This was about a year, year and a half before Infinite Crisis, you understand.

But LSH was also DC's vanguard in the area of diversity. I don't know where I heard it, some panel discussion or interview or other, but one of the things DC wanted to do coming out of Infinite Crisis was to promote diversity among their characters. I don't mean racial or sexual diversity (although they've been doing that too), but diversity in the points of view of the characters. DC has some great characters, but, according to whoever said this, maybe DiDio, one thing that needed to be done was to differentiate the way all these characters thought about the world, thought about being a superhero, thought about justice. The Outsiders used to be a more standard superhero team; now they're kind of a black-ops team. Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters used to be a more standard superhero team; now their miniseries is tackling issues of personal liberty and sacrificing freedom for security and tyranny and all kinds of political stuff like that. The new Blue Beetle and Atom aren't behaving hardly at all like their predecessors, and don't really resemble standard superheroes in their outlook. But the first place where DC readers saw this rainbow of competing superhero perspectives start to open up was in Legion of Super-Heroes, months before anybody had any idea what was coming in Infinite Crisis.


*Always a possibility.

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17 Comments:

Anonymous Lauren said...

You pegged Chameleon Boy perfectly. As for the rest of the cast I went back and reread some of what you mentioned and for the most part I agree.
However, the Phantom Girl explanation isn't solid enough for me yet. We will have to wait and see. (-;

Great Article!

(please delete my previous comment, I was all thumbs.)
LLL

*pun intended*

4:23 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks. Duplicate post deleted as requested.

I'm not real happy with my understanding of Phantom Girl either. She's historically been one of my favourites, too. We have pieces of her personality--she's a history buff, she's split between two worlds, she seems more athletic than she did in previous versions--but it hasn't really come together for me yet.

4:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Um, but weren't most of those personalities created a version or two ago? Cos = leader, Lightning = impulsive, etc. have been their personalities for many years (and retcons) now. If anything, I have a much harder time finding those personalities in this version.

Chameleon Boy is the only I can see changing to closer fit his powers. Which I kinda see as a shame, because the old version had grown up so well over the years. I miss him.

That said, I love your concept, and would love to see a Legion writer really run with it. Many of these planet are strange and different than ours, and would create different worldviews. Triplicate is a nice step in this direction.

11:23 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

To some extent that's true. I'm not sure I remember Garth as being that quick off the mark in earlier versions; brash and with a temper, to be sure, but I don't know if that's the same thing.

11:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you pick up the Legion tpb of the first 6 issues, you can see Waid doing just what you said. The sketches (especially Chemeleon) include little notes about thier personalities.

1:36 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Really? And here I've been getting the individual comic books like a sucker.

Can you (or someone) fill the rest of us in on what kinds of stuff it says in the TPB?

9:35 AM  
Blogger Amy Reads said...

Hi Matt,
You said, If we extend that to the comic-book character Chameleon, we get someone whose personality changes to match the people surrounding him.

Well done, Sir. That's just Smart.
Again, I haven't done much with The Legion, and I'm not quite sure how I feel about the recent run with Supergirl. Mr. Reads swears to me that if I like Runaways, I will like Legion, but I feel a bit lost in the shuffle of all of the characters. Do you recommend a place to begin back in the history to get me familiar with the characters?
Ciao,
Amy

6:19 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Well, the current series is only, what, 21 issues old? And there was a hard reboot just before it started. So none of the current characters have been around any longer than that, and that's certainly a manageable amount to catch up on. Honestly, you don't need to know anything from before the current series to enjoy the current series. So there's that.

But obviously the Legion made its reputation on previous versions. And, for that, there's no perfect way to learn it all, if that's what you want to do. The Legion accumulated a lot of history over a long period of time, and there's no real shortcut to summing it all up.

My advice is to jump in anywhere and don't sweat anything that you don't know the backstory to; you'll pick it up as you go along. There's a belief out there that Legion history is impenetrable to the outsider, but it isn't. They're superhero comics, for God's sake; it's not like coming in halfway through the second season of Lost.

A quick roadmap for you, though, so you'll know where you are if you pick up a random back issue. The Legion has had several series over the years.

Legion of Super-Heroes v1: short little series of reprints of older stories, circa 1970. Don't worry about this one.

Legion of Super-Heroes v2: originally 'Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes'; changed title around #260 or something in the late '70s, ran until about #330, changing its title to Tales of the Legion of Super-Heroes

Legion of Super-Heroes v3: the Baxter series, named after its printing technique. From the early '80s to... late '80s? Early '90s? Ended when Paul Levitz left as writer.

Legion of Super-Heroes v4: Starts off five years after the end of the Levitz era (the famous Five Year Gap). A controversial run of the book; darker and more mature. V4 was great for about the first 40 issues and then kind of sucked for about 20 more, and then Zero Hour happened and the Legion was rebooted. The numbering continued, though, and v4 was also one of the titles of the rebooted, or Archie, Legion.

Legionnaires: companion title featuring an alternate, younger and more innocent bunch of Legionnaires who showed up partway through the Five Years Later story. Then, eighteen issues into the run, Zero Hour happened and the Legion was rebooted. So LSH v4 and Legionnaires shared the adventures of the reboot Legion, until they both came to an end when Abnett and Lanning took over as writers.

Legion Lost and Legion Worlds: two miniseries, generally well-regarded, that marked the transition to the next series. Not a reboot; still the Archie Legion characters, but the stories were more serious now.

The Legion: Abnett and Lanning's series following Legion Worlds; started off great but lost its way a little. Ended after 36 issues, after which the Legion was rebooted again.

Legion of Super-Heroes v5: the current series, by Waid and Kitson. All-new.

Many would tell you that the best place to start is the old Silver Age Adventure Comics stories, such as are collected in the Archives editions. And that's a way to go. That stuff isn't my favourite, though.

If it was me, I'd start by tracking down the first Legion of Super-Heroes (v2) Annual, which is where Paul Levitz takes over. It's a very good introduction to the characters who were there at the time (most of whom are also in the current version, although somewhat different now). Then read the Great Darkness Saga. Then you can move on to LSH v3, the Five Years Later stuff, and the beginnings of the Archie Legion. Then skip to the end of the LSH v4/Legionnaires run for the Legion of the Damned story, and so into Legion Lost, Legion Worlds, and The Legion. And that brings you right up to the start of LSH v5.

But that's me getting overthinky about it. If you just read whatever's handy and have confidence that you'll pick it up as you go along, you'll be fine.

(There are some eras of Legion storytelling that aren't as good as others. LSH v2 just before Levitz took over for good is kind of silly. LSH v4 from about #50 to Zero Hour is a garbage dump. Much of LSH v4 and Legionnaires after the first year or so of the reboot, and before Abnett and Lanning, is kind of aimless, although not really bad.)

I hope this helps.

10:10 PM  
Blogger Amy Reads said...

Hi Matt,
You said many fabulous things, then, I hope this helps.

Indeed it does! I've saved your reply, and will hit my local library/comic book store asap. Thank you very much for your generous and detailed help!
And I will certainly keep you apprised of the results!
Ciao,
Amy

10:30 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

The pleasure's entirely mine; hope you find stuff you like.

10:37 PM  
Blogger Bully said...

Matthew, your summary a couple comments above on the various volumes of LSH are the cleanest and most concise and to-the-point I've read yet--thanks.

I am a big LSH fan right up until The Legion, and I jumped off when the new LSH series started. Looks like I may have been missing a fun series; I'll have to give the trade a look-see. (That's the best kind of blog post or comment: one that spurs you to pick up a book you haven't been looking at!) Well done.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks, that's very gratifying. If this comic book fails, it won't be because I didn't get the word out, dammit! I hope you like it.

4:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very late post in the conversation, I know, but I felt like posting it anyway.

What about Phantom Girl (a.k.a. Apparition a.k.a. Phase)?

In almost all continuities, she has always been the one who could go past someone's psychological shell or protective psychological walls to get to know the real person -- just as she can bypass physical barriers.

She has done this with Ultra-Boy in most continuities, getting past his Rimborian tough guy act before anyone else could, and she seemed to be doing this with Princess Projectra back in the plotline that had Projectra a turncoat. Her Phase self in L.E.G.I.O.N. was able to do this with most of the other characters as well.

In most continuities, the one person whose psychological barriers still excluded her has been her mother, who happens to have the same powers she has.

1:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think what you write may have been occuring on a subconscious level with even the earliest writers, however.

In the earliest renditions of the Legion of Superheroes, the three characters with the deepest characterization tended to be the founding three.

Even then, Cosmic Boy tended to be the "magnetic" or glue that held together the group, and Saturn Girl tended to be the one who knew what the others were thinking not by telepathy but by a discerning personal nature independent of her powers. Lightning Lad had the quick insight and clarity of a lightning strike -- and lightning has often been used to represent the inspiration of the muses or an epiphany / enlightenment. Also, just as lightning represented (among other things) fertility among the ancients, so too Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl were the first Legionnaires to have children.

(To be candid, I've always preferred the enlightened lightning elementality of Lightning Lad to the "sparks fly" impatience electricity elementality of Livewire. The poor character and characterization have gone from the natural beauty of storm and season to the artificial zap of a car battery and power line -- bah!)

1:13 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

At the time I didn't have a good handle on threeboot Phantom Girl, but you could be right.

And I'm okay with your positions on Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad but, to me, Cosmic Boy was a vastly unused character for much of early Legion history. He seemed like just a guy that they'd use every now and then, like Chemical King.

2:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, by the way, although I have posted critical comments on both this topic and your clever post that worked well despite its beginning with something silly Mark Waid had said, I had only recently found your blog and have read a large number of your posts since finding it. Impressive! I just haven't commented on most of them -- and for some reason, the site will only acknowledge my post if it is "anonymous" right now.

10:39 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks very much. Not sure what the deal is with the commenting; is it the same across all browsers?

10:50 PM  

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