Friday, September 18, 2009

Step 1: Omen. Step 2: ??? Step 3: Prophet!

Originally I was going to write something about the Great Darkness Saga. But you know what? These days everybody's writing something about the Great Darkness Saga. So I'll save it for some other time.

Instead I'll talk about the Great Darkness Saga's redheaded stepcousin, Levitz and Giffen's “Omen and the Prophet” arc (hereafter OatP). It's often mentioned as one of the low points of Levitz's great run of the '80s, but I thought maybe I could go through it and pick out any points of interest.

First let's look at just what we're talking about. OatP ran from LSHv2 #307-310. A four-issue story was big news then, so this was obviously supposed to be a major storyline for the Legion. But then it wasn't really four issues: the OatP action in #308 was only 14 pages long, as the rest of the issue was a Colossal Boy and Yera story, while #309 had only 13 pages for this story, as the other half was a Karate Kid and Projectra story. So really it's a three-issue arc, which wasn't too unusual for the time. (Plus, some of those three issues dealt with other ongoing subplots, because this is after all a Paul Levitz production.)

This storyline is most notable because of Keith Giffen's art. It was at this point in his Legion run that his style began to drift towards that of Argentinean artist Jose Munoz. Most people liked his earlier stuff better. I do too, but I don't mind his art here; mostly I wonder why Giffen likes it better this way. Anyway, he hasn't completely abandoned his earlier style in this story and some of it looks really good; check out the first page of #307. Then there are some panels where you can definitely see his later style, like the loopy shapes of Phantom Girl's costume on panel 1 of page 18 of #307, or the row of eyes on page 10 of #308.

The story starts promisingly. Phantom Girl, Shadow Lass, Timber Wolf and Invisible Kid are on planet Trewsk investigating just what happened to a research station there. I liked that: a small mission, featuring four modestly powered Legionnaires. Exactly the kind of thing that's more interesting than a big cosmic event. It doesn't last, though; the Legionnaires really are up against a cosmic menace, Mon-El and Ultra Boy show up before #307 is up, and by the end of the story the six of them have joined up with six more Legionnaires who were on a diplomatic mission to Khundia.

Perhaps the largest problem with this story is the obscure nature of the villains and the conflict. Omen is a cipher with, essentially, no motives, and the Prophet is trying to drum up a posse to defeat him; #308 and #309 are taken up with a fight against the Prophet which is basically a big misunderstanding. It took the Khunds and their aggression to provide enough conflict to actually make a story out of all this. Omen and the Prophet never showed up again after this story and nobody missed them.

OatP does have at least one advantage over the Great Darkness Saga (which it references on the very third page of the story). Dream Girl's defeat of Omen is much better than the Legion's defeat of Darkseid, because Dreamy had to make a tough call to do it. She knew exactly what she was doing and how dangerous it was, while in the Great Darkness Saga, the Legion never fully understood just what Darkseid was up to, why it didn't work, and how they defeated him.

If you wanted to, you could look at this as a political story. From this point of view, Omen and the Prophet are just a couple of intruders who provide the catalyst for the discovery of Khundish treachery and for its defeat at the hands of the Legionnaires. It would work. But I think there's a religious story hidden in here somewhere, and I'd like your help digging it out.

The Prophet is a guy from the research station on Trewsk; his son, Pierre, also there on Trewsk, was an old friend of Invisible Kid. Some kind of solar event roasted the whole station (with Omen there as a dispassionate observer) and Pierre's dad was the only survivor. Pierre's dad, griefstricken, tried to kill himself, but Omen stopped him, gave him some of his power, and turned him into the Prophet. During the OatP story, the Prophet's main goal is to warn the galaxy that Omen is coming and to get them to prepare for him.

So my first thought is that we've got a trinity situation here: the Prophet is the Father, Pierre is the Son, and Omen is the Holy Ghost. Okay? It's not like Levitz and Giffen are averse to giving us Christian imagery in their Legion comics; we had the two-page Michelangelo allusion in Great Darkness, and the Last Supper panel in the LSV arc in the Baxter series. Now, the interesting thing here is that this story pits the Father against the Holy Ghost because the Holy Ghost let the Son die. Which I'm sure we would all agree is an interesting idea. Imagine if that was the reason why the New Testament God is so different from the Old Testament God—because the Father had unseated the old, mean Holy Ghost in a coup!

In this scheme, Invisible Kid is a Christian. He has, after all, a personal relationship with the Son. (He's also just about the only Legionnaire on the scene who's from Earth.) And then he's key to defeating the Prophet in #309 when he realizes that the Prophet gets his power from the sun (and I think we can say that there's a sun = Son association here too. I'd like to bring Sun Boy into this, not only because of the sun/Son thing but also because he's the other Earthling and therefore probably Christian present, but really Sun Boy doesn't do much interesting in this story). It'd be nice if that was the climax of the story, but it's not; it takes Dream Girl and a Khundish bomb to polish off Omen, which wraps up the political stuff nicely but has nothing to do with our religious angle. Ideally those two things would be working together but they seem independent to me.

(Not that the bomb was an arbitrary choice. Go back to #307: a Khundish gladiator challenges Blok, and loses, when he sets off a bomb that doesn't even scratch Blok's patina. This gets us used to the idea that the Legion can achieve victory by surviving Khundish explosives.)

Really we should be ready for the religious stuff right from the start. First issue, first page, the only line of dialogue is Invisible Kid (of course!) saying (in reaction to the destruction on Trewsk), “Dieu de bon Dieu!” Do French-speaking people really say that? “God of good God?” Doesn't make any sense. But that's French swears for you. Nom d'une pipe! Mille tonnerres! Ils sont fous ces Romains! Anyway, in this case it kinda works: “God of good God” suggests a kind of layering of different levels of God, which is also what you get with the Trinity. Amazing what you can find if you dig for it.

Is any of this making sense? See, I'm not a Christian, although I have a friend who's a minister, and from what I get from him, the Trinity is some pretty tricky stuff. Counterintuitive, anyway. So I don't know if I'm talking through my hat with all this or not. Plus, you know, I was not an English major. If any of you can squeeze better insight out of all this than I did, I'd welcome it.

Anyway, that's “Omen and the Prophet” for you. Not a great story, not as bad as its reputation, some obvious flaws, some points of interest. Give it another look.

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10 Comments:

Blogger Murray said...

Fascinating analysis, Matthew. I'm going to have to go back and reread the story with an eye to the religious possibilities. I think you've probably hit the highlights, though.

I'd agree that it isn't a bad story. It's not the best that Levitz has done, but it's got its moments for sure.
I really like Giffen's artwork in these comics. I probably prefer his earlier artwork as well... but I really like the experimentation on display here.

I think it's been mentioned somewhere in interviews, that his experimenting doesn't start until midway though the first issue. So the introduction with Shady, Jacques, Brin and Tinya is traditional Giffen, whereas the stuff after that is new Giffen. I love the thicker lines and the swirliness of it. I'd have to double check but I think that the types of panels used and the way that they are placed also starts to change midway through the issue.

I'd like to know what was going through Giffen's mind as well when he was doing this experimenting, and what led him to adopting the style that he's been using since the five year gap with the blockier figures. It's like what we're seeing here is the transition between old Giffen and new Giffen and I would have been happy enough if he had explored the transitional art style a little longer.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks.

I wonder what the worst... well, least best... Levitz story was. Probably something from late in his run.

Actually, that gives me an idea...

8:37 PM  
Blogger Murray said...

For me, I'd say that there are two places that jump out at me... places where Levitz seemed to be spinning his wheels while he was waiting for the next inspiration to hit him.

Somewhere around the end of the first year of the Baxter run (maybe issues 8-14). Most of the loose ends from the Villain War had been tied up and his long running threads that had been put into place during his run with Giffen had seen fruit.

It seemed like he was spinning his wheels until the introduction of the new Legionnaires brought forth a renewed sense of purpose and energy into the book.

The other set of issues that I remember as being his least best are just after issue #50. Once again, he's just come off of a huge storyline and didn't seem to be sure about where he wanted to take the team. Giffen was back (which should have injected some energy to the book) but there was a string of guest artists and meandering stories that kinda went nowhere.

Around about the time of the new costumes we started to see the hints of another new direction, and got some great stories (the last Empress story sticks out in my memory) and some OK stories (the Magic Wars), but by that point, Levitz had decided to move on.

I kinda wish that he had found a way to stick around just a little longer. He had set up some interesting story points (Jeckie and Brin as leaders... the UP struggling to deal with the fall of technology and the rise of magic) and I would have loved to see him explore those ideas for another year... but you can't blame the guy for feeling tired and wanting a break.

Neither of those chunks of issues can be bundled together into a story collection with a catchy title, but those would be the low points of the high points for me.

10:50 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I don't have time to write much today, and I'll need to re-look at a couple of points, too, about OatP, but here's my first reaction. Your religious analysis is interesting, Matthew (and I'm a Christian minister, so I'm intrigued by your thoughts), and there's at least a couple of other points that support the idea that religion enters into the story. I don't buy the Trinity stuff - partially because my vague memories of the story don't match your analysis of who the Prophet was.

My memory is not that that the Prophet was Pierre's dad, but that he was a "Father"...that is, a priest. (There's plenty of evidence that Invisible Kid was not only French, but French Catholic. He often swore "Sacre mere", i.e. "Holy mother", i.e. Mary.) Iirc, he was a priest who left Trewsk for a bit...my impression is that he was speaking at some kind of conference, and that this had him absent when disaster struck. So there's all the stuff he says about having been absent because of his vanity and pride. Lots of good semi-religious guilt stuff, followed by his self-flagellating decision to commit suicide - a mortal sin from a Catholic perspective. And so, of course he gets punished...by being bound to Omen, a demon/god/enigma.

So anyway, my take on who the Prophet is differs from yours considerably, so I'll have to re-read to see if I've made all that up somehow.

The other reason I doubt the Trinity angle is because it's, well, too well-thought out. Levitz said in letter columns about this story that he was aiming to write about mystery - to have a foe who was a complete enigma. That well fits with the idea of religion being part of the story, but I don't think he'd have wanted it to fit too closely into a pre-existing framework like the Trinity.

Levitz also is on record in lettercols about not wanting to delve too deeply into the subject of religion. (He may have said the same about politics, actually, re: reader comments about the pseudo-fascist nature of Earthgov and the UP. That is, there's no need for search warrants, tapping someone's thoughts is perfectly legal, etc.) That of course, doesn't mean the imagery isn't there sometime. In addition to the spots you notice, I recall that Graym Ranzz had a christening service, and that a cross was visible in that scene. (Interestingly, during the post-Five Year Gap storyline, Dacey and Dorritt Ranzz were christened in a completely different fashion...Garth and Imra officiated, rather than having a priest as did Graym's, and they call on a Mother and Father God, iirc.)

Last thing I'll mention is that issue #307 has one of my all-time favorite scenes, which is maybe a weird choice for a favorite scene. But it's a great character bit. Phantom Girl (one of my two favorite Legionnaires, along with Ultra Boy) is talking with Invisible Kid, with the veteran LSHer being asked by the rookie how it feels having weaker, defensive powers around Legionnaires who are so much more powerful. PG comments that all the Legionnaires contribute by doing what they can, and that she doesn't think "mightier" powers ever made anyone a better Legionnaire.

As I said, it's a great character bit.

It's also interesting, because the Prophet is defeated (after taking down or holding off the likes of Mon-El, Ultra Boy, Blok, Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad, Sun Boy, Timber Wolf) when Invisible Kid notes his power source and has Shadow Lass block it. Likewise, Dream Girl takes down Omen. Three "lesser" powered Legionnaires save the day.

So I guess my reaction is that Levitz wasn't trying to write a political story *or* a religious story, though threads of both are there. Instead, he was trying to write a *Legion* story...where the heroes win not because of their power but because of their brains (and heart and, ideally, teamwork, though Dream Girl mostly goes solo).

10:38 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Ok, so I wrote a lot. The post evolved as it went. :)

10:40 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

My memory is not that that the Prophet was Pierre's dad, but that he was a "Father"...that is, a priest.

Could be. I totally could have read it wrong.

And I can go along with you on the rest of your comment--the Jacques/Tinya conversation, the role of the lesser-powered Legionnaires.

1:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating discussion about OatP.

I just re-read the story and I agree with Christopher: OatP has nothing to do with the Trinity (though it’s a nice idea). In fact, the religious aspects are based entirely on the Prophet’s subjective interpretation of events: A being of incredible power kills the clergyman’s flock, and the clergyman (now the Prophet) relies on some good old-fashioned guilt to ascribe cause and effect: Because the Prophet was (in his eyes) guilty of pride, the monstrous Omen has been unleashed.

I can almost feel sorry for the Prophet—he seems to be acting as much out of grief as out of demagoguery. And, truly, he does want to warn Khundia and other worlds about Omen’s coming. This actually places the Legionnaires in the bad guy position, as they see the Prophet as a nothing more than a threat and ignore his hysterical warnings. (To be fair, the Prophet causes damage to the Khundian fleet and doesn’t give the Legionnaires much reason to listen to him.)

But take out the Prophet’s entirely subjective interpretation of events and there is no real religious context or subtext. The Prophet might just as well be a madman.

As for Omen, his design is rather interesting: A human face sans eyes, bald, and wearing a robe decorated with flowers. Clearly, we’re meant to think (as does the Prophet) that there is something godlike about him. Yet although his motives remain unknown, he does communicate briefly with the Legionnaires after absorbing the Prophet’s mind into his own. In one telling word balloon, he asks the Legionnaires if they are “intent of interfering with [his] experiment.” This suggests that he is not so much a god but just another alien bent on using “lesser” beings for some experiment. Star Trek and the Legion, for that matter, are full of ‘em.

Thanks for giving me a chance to re-read this story. It’s not as bad as I remembered. Aside from the unncessary interruptions of the Gim/Yera and KK/Jeckie stories and the pointless “return” of Lyle Norg, it holds up rather well. Even Giffen’s experimental artwork (perhaps Keith is the true Omen!), which doesn’t start to change until # 310, isn’t as distracting as it later became.--HWW

6:49 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I wasn't fond of the Lyle Norg thing either.

I suppose one could argue that there's a religious aspect to the thing just because the guy's named "Omen".

8:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts.Giving this story another look brought to my mind another threesome;not the Holy Trinity, but the Galactus Trilogy.Read that way,the Prophet stands for the Silver Surfer,heralding the arrival of Omen,standing in for Galactus. Unfortunately,no interpretation of this story makes the story itself any better.The whole shebang just falls flat at the end.They shouldn't have tried another "big" story so soon after the last big story.
This story has been reprinted in "The Curse" tpb,a thick,mostly prime slice of the Levitz/Giffen team's work.Comparing these LSH comics with the ones in recent years...it is to weep.

4:45 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

If you think about it, the Great Darkness Saga didn't have such a hot ending itself.

But, yeah, this story stands head and shoulders over most of the retroboot.

4:59 PM  

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