Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Legionnaires: Element Lad

Element Lad aka Jan Arrah of Trom, aka Alchemist, the Progenitor. Created by Edmond Hamilton and John Forte.

I became a regular Legion reader at around the same time Paul Levitz's second run started. Element Lad quickly became one of my favourites. He had an interesting, versatile superpower (the power to change any chemical element into any other chemical element, if you're new here), and he was a quiet, intelligent guy who seemed underappreciated by those around him. Anyway, that's why I liked him, so far as I can reproduce my thinking.

Legion writers have tended to follow Paul Levitz's lead and portray Jan as the spiritual Legionnaire. Only one problem with that: it doesn't work. Levitz (and, later, Giffen and the Bierbaums) made it work because the character had already been around for a while and had been established as being a thoughtful kind of guy, and it made sense to give him a dash of spirituality. Reboot and threeboot Jan, though, had SPIRITUAL stamped on their foreheads right from day one, and were therefore kind of caricatures.

My signature moment for Jan is in LSHv4 #34, the famous ProFem issue, but for a reason that's probably not obvious to most. But let me take the long way around.

LSHv4 #34 is the issue in which we learn that Element Lad's former girlfriend, Science Police officer Shvaughn Erin, is actually Sean Erin, who took a drug called ProFem to become the woman he thought Element Lad wanted. Element Lad responds by telling Sean that he hadn't had to do that; Jan would have felt the same way about him anyway. And there's a whole lot of stuff that lies behind that.

For quite a while, the Legion has had a lot of gay fans. Quite understandably, many of them (and many straight fans, too) have, over the years, mused about the possibility of this Legionnaire or that one being gay. And Element Lad was one guy who came in for a lot of speculation. Part of that (not all of it) comes from the Silver Age issue where the girl Legionnaires turn evil and Light Lass seduces Element Lad, and he says that he's "out of his element" when it comes to girls. Now, obviously, one can (now!) read that and wonder if Jan said that because he's into guys instead. But things weren't quite so simple back in the Silver Age.

You used to get characters who weren't interested in sex and love. Not so much anymore. Who's a famous one... Jughead Jones, in the Archie comics. Jug was interested in hamburgers first and second and girls were not on the board at all. (I understand they've changed that about him in recent years. But this is all in the news now anyway, because the Archie comics are introducing an actual gay guy and people are coming out of the woodwork saying, not entirely as a joke, that Jughead was gay long before this new guy.) Here's what I think happened, and I must first state that I'm coming up with all of this out of my own head and I've done no research at all; if I'm talking through my hat please let me know: I think that all these characters, these contented bachelors and spinsters, appeared in stories because there were real-life bachelors and spinsters who said that they were happier that way because secretly they were gay, but couldn't say so in the repressive society of the time.

But now we've had the sexual revolution, and gay people can get openly married in many places, and what have you, and people don't need to live like that anymore. Quite so much. And, accordingly, we don't need characters like that anymore. Except here's the thing: fiction is not real life, and just because a guy in real life says he's not interested in women because he's really interested in men, a guy in a book can still be not interested in women because he isn't. Jughead isn't necessarily gay, is what I'm saying. But his act doesn't play anymore. If you ran into someone, in a book or in real life, who claimed that he or she had no interest in having a love life of any kind, ever, would you believe him or her? Or would you suspect he or she was covering something up?

I miss those characters, a little bit. I think it's great that gay people can see themselves reflected in characters in popular culture, and I think DC has been dragging its feet for too long about having one or more openly gay Legionnaires. But isn't there also some room for fictional characters who don't get involved in romance because they're too weird to want that kind of human connection? Even if (or, in the case of the Legion, especially since) there are no people like that in real life?

Or are there?

We tend to assume that romantic love and sex are basic motivators for everyone. I don't know of a reason why there couldn't be a few people for whom that's not true, though. I don't mean people who've been traumatized in some way, or people who (like, say, Catholic priests) deliberately put that aspect of themselves aside in order to concentrate on something else. I mean people who just aren't interested in the whole deal, with anybody. Is that possible? I don't see why not. (And if there are people like that in real life, and if any of them read this, I don't think they're weird, despite what I wrote two paragraphs up, and they have my sympathy for having to put up with what must be considerable societal pressure to be something they're not.)

Anyway, Element Lad. Nobody is saying Element Lad is such a character; he's into it when Light Lass kisses him, and he gets involved with Shvaughn later on. All his "out of my element" statement really meant is that he was shy around girls. (None of which invalidates Jan's later statement that he would have loved Sean just as much, if not more, than Shvaughn. You could publish stuff in '90s comics you wouldn't even consider in the '60s.) This didn't used to be such a rare thing, but maybe it's becoming so, now.

LSHv4 #34 became quite notorious and ticked off a lot of people, including Element Lad fans who didn't want their favourite character to be gay, Shvaughn fans who liked him/her better as a woman, Legion fans who didn't like radical changes, socially conservative comic-book fans who didn't like the thought of anybody being gay, and gay and trans fans who thought that #34 was a weak and/or ham-fisted treatment of issues that were important to them. (Me? As with many other wild events to happen in the 5YL era, the revelation that Shvaughn was Sean elicited a reaction of, basically, "Oh no! This is great!" from me. You have to give the 5YL creators credit for one thing at least: they left everything on the field.)

Here's my favourite part of the issue. With all the turmoil on Earth, Shvaughn is cut off from her ProFem supply, and has asked Jan to go raid a pharmacy for some other drugs that'll do something nonspecifically helpful. Jan is thinking about the situation.



That's what I like to see. Expertise. "I could probably do that." Jan understands chemistry well enough that he can afford to be casual about his capabilities. Chemistry is cool*, and Jan's ability to manipulate it is even cooler. He can look at something printed on the side of a pill bottle that I can't pronounce, and say, "I could probably do that." Element Lad is great.

* No, it is. Haven't you ever spent about a half hour just checking out the periodic table, with all the different symbols and relationships and stuff? You should.

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45 Comments:

Blogger taichara said...

Asexuals do exist.

We just keep a low(er) profile in a society so heavily slanted toward sex and sexual identity.

4:06 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks. I am glad to know this.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Brainy Pirate said...

Studies also show that many adult men remain virgins into their 30s -- so it's still possible that there are a lot of younger straight guys who simply don't know how to interact romantically with women.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Right, right, but for the most part those guys are represented by different kinds of characters in popular culture.

1:51 PM  
Anonymous Mela said...

And if there are people like that in real life, and if any of them read this, I don't think they're weird, despite what I wrote two paragraphs up, and they have my sympathy for having to put up with what must be considerable societal pressure to be something they're not.

Well, I don't know about others, but I for one appreciate your understanding. Like taichara said, it's better to keep a low profile.

You're right about the 5YL era - there was NOTHING they weren't afraid to try, so you have to give them that much. You're also right about Jan's spirituality, although I find it refreshing to see someone with a strong spirituality of any sort NOT portrayed as a loopy zealot; most of the time, it either is a sketchy footnote or deteriorates into zealotry. Still, it's been a part of Jan for so long that losing it would seem odd, at least to me.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I wouldn't want to lose it either, but in this area I prefer understatement. Reboot Jan was kind of an airhead in some ways (not that airheads were thin on the ground in the reboot) and threeboot Jan was something of a parody. Part of the reason why original Jan worked better is because he had a whole other aspect to his personality: the frustrated deputy.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks very much for considering the whole "there are people who aren't interested in dating/love at all". People tend to look at me weird when I say I've never had any interest in dating any guy I've met. Their first thought is to assume that I'm a lesbian. Then I have to explain "No, I'm just not interested at all".

I wish people got that. Very glad you considered it.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Il n'y a pas de quoi.

7:24 PM  
Blogger revelshade said...

Great, thoughtful post. I think the sex drive varies a lot more than is usually acknowledged, in men and women both.

I miss those characters, too. Zonker Harris of Doonesbury is still hanging in there. Since Trudeau decided (discovered?) that Mark Slackmeyer is gay, Zonker will probably remain a poster child for those with better things to do.

1:18 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Oh, yeah. Zonker. Good call.

10:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Airheads were thin on the ground in the reboot"? Well,meow. I don't argue your choice for El Lad's defining moment,but when has he not been competent? A truly incompetent superhero wouldn't last long,even in the Subs.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

It's true, though. Sure, Element Lad was competent, but how about the time he set Monstress's skin color to change at random? There were a lot of spacey characters in the (pre-DnA) reboot. Element Lad, Dreamer, XS at times, Kinetix... most of them, really. It was how they were telling the stories.

Similarly the threeboot. The threeboot Legionnaires were perfectly competent superheroes (and got no credit for it), including Element Lad, but you can't tell me he wasn't portrayed as kind of goofy.

3:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still think that it's possible that 5YG Jan was bi. It's always nice to see bi characters who aren't whacked-out psycho killers, at least. Just for the novelty of it. :p

--cleome45

7:50 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

My interpretation is that that would be the best description of him, but that he thinks about it differently from how we'd think about it, so it probably wouldn't occur to him to describe himself that way.

8:37 PM  
Blogger Greybird said...

My own reaction to the ProFem thang was always this, in essence: Shvaughn Erin was treated worse than any other character, among the host that Giffen and the Bierbaums treated abominably.

(Yes, even more than Dawnstar having her wings torn off and her mind being possessed by a rogue spirit.)

Shvaughn got the shaft in how TMK retconned her into a lifelong pathological liar. Relationships, career, identity were all trashed. Not just in the story at the time, but in the story of the past.

That destroyed any value to LSH storytelling of one of the best of the Legion's supporting players. It also, to relate to Matthew's (cogent, as usual) column, made Element Lad into someone insipid. He neither noticed the transsexual discrepancies nor particularly cared. I'd say that the first aspect made him stupid, and the second made him callous.

... For the time being. Not much was done to make use of this mess later. Jan got past it. Fortunately, and even before the next reboot, so did the Legion storylines.

If not some of the Legion fans, who had yet another reason to despise TMK. As I still do. And as one of the few people I've personally introduced at close range to the Legion still does. She, you see, was once male.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Well, you can read it that way if you want to, and the hard-line approach to comic-book continuity would suggest that you do so. The way I look at it, you can't hold Paul Levitz's characters responsible for something Giffen and the Bierbaums write later; the portrayals of Levitz-era Jan and Shvaughn can be read in their own context, and so can those of TMK.

There's a convenient out, if you want one; the Mordruverse/Glorithverse semiboot. Easy to say that it was only Glorithverse Shvaughn who used to be Sean, and original/postCrisis Shvaughn was always Shvaughn.

Anyway, I would never tell anyone that they should like this story. Lots of people who have good reason to take it personally have no time for it at all, and far be it from me to argue with them.

But I don't share your evaluation of 5YL Jan and Shvaughn. Necessarily. Sean/Shvaughn had some problems, and this is how he/she dealt with them; Jan had a Trommite perspective on things, which doesn't match an Earthling perspective (which is why Sean/Shvaughn misread him for years), and he stood by Sean before, during, and after his crisis.

It's got some problems. But it's like the rest of the 5YL run in that: disorderly, unusual, and upsetting, but also very powerful.

9:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Spacey" can have several meanings.
It can stand for naviete (XS) or narcoleptic visionary (Dreamer)or bewitchment(Kinetix,that one time) With Jan,spacey usually meant seeing things from a Trommite perspective. For him,changing one's skin color is the equivalent to those Earthlings who are always hugging you.No sense of personal space.We should be grateful Jan is competent,else he would've given Monstress skin cancer;ironic, given their fates in the reboot.
One of the underexplored aspects of the Legion is that of culture-clashing among the Legionnaires.
Waid vowed to do more of that in the threeboot,but it became another unkept promise.I'd call myself a disapointed threeboot fan,but there is no other kind.

9:13 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

All true. Don't get me wrong; I like the reboot Legion, I think it's great.

9:40 PM  
Blogger Chris Cottingham said...

Great post as always Matthew. Like you, I started with the LSH near the beginning of Levitz' 2nd run. My first LSH was #282 (which fixed Ultra Boy as my favorite LSHer), my 2nd was 288, and with the annual and the Great Darkness Saga I was a regular reader (in 2nd grade, no less - which is why I don't buy arguments about the Legion being confusing!).

Anyway, Jan's a definite favorite. I was surprised by your pick of a defining moment, when more obviously super-heroic ones come to mind. Like taking out the Superman-clone Servant with gold kryptonite, or *all* the possessed Daxamites, or figuring out how to stop Tyrrazz w/o breaking the Legion code (presuming to lecture an immortal Controller on control - that was cool!). Not to mention figuring out that Yera/Violet was an imposter.

However, your moment is perfect in a quiet way, as Jan was often quiet. As my examples also show, he was quite expert, and he respected principles and free will.

I have to say I was really annoyed by that issue though, even though I generally really enjoyed the TMK era. To a lesser extent than Greybird, I also think it did violence to Shvaughn's character. And as a 36 year old single male who's "out of his element", too, the assumption of gayness has always bothered me.

Understand, it's not the possibility of a Legionnaire or Legionnaires being other than straight that bugs me (Vi/Ayla seemed to work, f'r example); it's the assumption that *Jan* must be, b/c he wore pink and was uncomfortable purusing women. Esp. when, as you pointed out, it ignores that he was very responsive physically to Light Lass, and to Shvaughn once she broke through his reserve.

Why is shyness so hard to believe?

Anyway, great article, and great discussion in the comments. Thanks all.

Oh...about not holding Levitz' characters 'responsible' for efforts of later creators. This makes good sense, especially now that we've been through several *different* continuities. I have to say, though, that it's part of how the retcons have hurt the Legion, and one of the things that made it possible for me to drop the Legion at times in the late 90s and 2000s. Simply put - the discontinuity between Levitz's Legion and later Legions hurt the versimilitude that I rely on for suspension of disbelief. I grew up reading the LSH, they were "friends"; and as long as I thought of them that way, I would follow their story no matter who was writing it, because I cared about them. Once a few retcons rubbed in my face that these were not going to be treated as (fictional) people but were instead to be treated as characters on a page that could be overwritten...well, that meant if I didn't like what was being written I could drop it.

More mature, and certainly more realistic, but I do miss the childhood naivete!

5:10 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

as a 36 year old single male who's "out of his element", too, the assumption of gayness has always bothered me.

Understand, it's not the possibility of a Legionnaire or Legionnaires being other than straight that bugs me (Vi/Ayla seemed to work, f'r example); it's the assumption that *Jan* must be, b/c he wore pink and was uncomfortable purusing women.


I know exactly what you mean. I once read an article where the writer listed all the closeted gay characters on TV, and the ones she mentioned were people like Frasier Crane and Chandler Bing. My reaction was, you know, it is possible on occasion for a guy to be intelligent or sarcastic and not be gay.

7:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As usual, an excellent analysis. I always liked the original Jan and enjoyed his quiet spirituality. I don't know about the later incarnations, since I dropped the various retcons shortly after they came out because they played fast and loose with the Legion personalities.

The problem with Element Lad is that he is just so powerful. He could stop anyone anytime by simply, say, changing their carbon to oxygen. So, for this reason, he's not really used to his fullest effect.

Keep up the good work!

11:32 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks. Jan's power potential is something that the later versions definitely picked up on; reboot Jan became an insane god, and threeboot Jan had a limitation to his power imposed (his changes would all be temporary... was it 30 seconds? A minute?). I wonder if Levitz is going to do anything with this.

8:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for understanding that there are asexual people. We don't have anything wrong with us; and we are just as capable of having loving relationships and interactions with other people. We just are not sexual beings.

4:59 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

You're welcome.

I'm a bit curious, I admit... are all those of you who've posted comments like this among the regular readers of this blog, or did you find your way here some other way?

6:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Long time lurker,first time poster.
On the matter of Levitz having to link up to prior versions...this attitude kills me.This genre is filled with characters who defy the laws of biology and physics. They fight each other dressed in clothes more suitable to a Las Vegas chorus line.Yet if something doesn't dovetail precisely with something from years,even decades,before,that's the dealbreaker that renders everything unbelieveable?Talk about selective suspension of disbelief.
I'm waiting for Levitz's take on the Legion.It shouldn't be his job to tie up loose ends from prior writers.

12:34 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I'm hoping that he's just taking off on things that are interesting to him.

It'd be one thing if Legion continuity had been pure and scatheless and perfectly interlocking up to now. Then it'd be a shame for Levitz not to keep the ball from touching the ground. Like the way you bitterly resent the first scratch on your new car. But this car already has a bunch of scratches, not to mention dents, axe wounds, bullet holes, Bondo, duct tape on the upholstery, missing taillights, and an embarrassing vanity plate. So Levitz might as well drive it however he wants. Good thing it still runs okay.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Chris Cottingham said...

I believe Anonymous mis-understood what I was saying about tying continuities together with suspension of disbelief.

What I'm saying is that, as a kid, the Legion wasn't a comicbook, it was people that I liked. I wanted to know what was happening to them, and if I didn't like a plot or a story, I didn't think "oh, I wish the writer hadn't done that," I thought, "Oh, I wish that hadn't happened."

I was immersed in the characters as much as the story. So, while I didn't love everything about v4 (I did love some things, hated some, ambivalent about some), even though the timeline had been changed, in my mind I was still reading about the same *people*.

The Zero Hour reboot made it clear that these weren't the same people though. And I guess I was growing up, too. Anyway, I liked the first few years of the reboot, but when the art went downhill and that stupid anomaly storyline started bugging me...well, not having the same emotional attachment to the characters that Levitz created for me, I was able to drop the books. IOW, to stop giving my money to writers and artists producing a product I wasn't enjoying.

I was still a fan of the Legion, but not buying the book. Earlier in my life, that would've been a distinction I couldn't make.

Anyway, I'm not saying Levitz should conform to other version *nowadays*. I'm saying the stories will have to be good, and I'll have to enjoy them, to keep buying them. Otherwise, just as I dropped 'em after the reboot, just as I tried out the Threeboot and eventually drifted away again, I expect that I'll do the same here.

But since Levitz was far and away my favorite Legion writer, I'm very hopeful.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

What you're talking about is a concept I've talked about on this blog several times: emotional investment. You got emotionally invested in the Legion, as many do, through the characters. When a reboot came along, you found that you couldn't transfer your investment over to the new version. Some people can; most can't. (This is why reboots are a bad idea.) For some people, the basic physical resemblance of the retroboot Legion was enough for them to be able to reactivate the emotional investment they already had to the original Legion. Others may require the Levitz touch before they get the same effect. I guess your reaction will depend on just how you've got your emotional portfolio set up.

(I found, for myself, that while I was definitely invested in the original characters, I was able to recast my investment in the overall concept and premise of the Legion, as expressed through any reasonably decent version. So I'm well hedged against future reboots. I don't intend to imply that my way is right and anyone else's is wrong, except insofar as to say that anyone who's a jerk about it is wrong.)

2:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It might help us long-suffering fans to take a more holistic view of the Legion.Think of all the previous versions as different parts of a Platonic whole,if you wanna be pretentious.These flame wars about which Legion is "real" are the equivalent of those endless Kirk vs Picard debates,and just as pointless.All Legions are real.How good or bad they are depends on the folks making the comics,rather than any innate lack of Legion-ness.

12:39 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Exactly. (Or, rather, none of them are "real".)

1:51 PM  
Blogger Chris Cottingham said...

Matthew said: "What you're talking about is a concept I've talked about on this blog several times: emotional investment."

Yes, exactly.

"When a reboot came along, you found that you couldn't transfer your investment over to the new version."

I guess so. The first reboot, really, was the Pocket U thing - I got over that one and continued. The party line, after all, was that these were still the same characters and they still remembered the events that I remembered. The subsequent TMK reboots were the same. Like I've indicated, I really disliked the Sean/Shvaughn thing, both philosophically and b/c of what it indicated to me about Shvaughn's past behavior. (And Jan's, too; b/c this was the same character as in the Levitz version, interpreted through different authors, and in an altered timeline, but still the same fictional person - who'd still met Shvaughn during the Earthwar, bonded in Legion Annual 1 (which was about my 3rd LSH issue), overcome their shyness, shared deep spiritual moments on Trom, etc. The new interpretation - that their relationship was immature and full of hidden bombs - bugged me. But they were still supposed to be the same people and I was still invested.)

"Some people can; most can't. (This is why reboots are a bad idea.)"

That's exactly what I was trying to say.

Which is not even to say that they're necessarily a bad idea, but they're risky. They break the illusion of being real people. Which of course they're not, but to some degree serial fiction rests on getting people to emotionally invest in your characters *as if* they're real.

Of course, modern day, comics aren't as much serial fiction as they were. They're much more about story arcs, TPB sized stories that will have an impact of some kind. In some ways that allows for stories of greater depth, artistic merit, and emotional impact. In some ways, it makes it more about the story and less about the characters. (Which is a weird thing to say, because modern stories have much more emphasis on characterization than they used too...but the characterizations are allowed to change wildly with time, author, or timeline. Reboots have to affect characterization, since history is what shapes character.)

And please note two things. One, I am invested in the overall concept and premise of the Legion; it's part of what I love about the setting and part of why I check in on the Legion long after I've given up all other comics. But emotional investment in an abstract concept (which itself changes from author to author and timeline to timeline - is the Legion concept part of the golden age of optimistic sci-fi, or part of a generational struggle in a dystopian future, or what?) is rarely as powerful as investment in "people".

2nd, I'm not one of those that goes after versions of the Legion that are or aren't real. But because it's become emotionally clear to the 8 yr old inside me that they're not real, I give each reboot a couple of years (I'm not hasty) to grab me and make me want to invest in what I'm reading. And if they don't then I bail out.




For some people, the basic physical resemblance of the retroboot Legion was enough for them to be able to reactivate the emotional investment they already had to the original Legion. Others may require the Levitz touch before they get the same effect. I guess your reaction will depend on just how you've got your emotional portfolio set up.

(I found, for myself, that while I was definitely invested in the original characters, I was able to recast my investment in the overall concept and premise of the Legion, as expressed through any reasonably decent version. So I'm well hedged against future reboots. I don't intend to imply that my way is right and anyone else's is wrong, except insofar as to say that anyone who's a jerk about it is wrong.)

9:41 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I am invested in the overall concept and premise of the Legion; it's part of what I love about the setting and part of why I check in on the Legion long after I've given up all other comics. But emotional investment in an abstract concept is rarely as powerful as investment in "people".

Speaking only for myself, one of the attractions of the Legion is that the characters belong to an elite organization larger than themselves. They're all different, and yet, through this group, they're all the same. I get the same thing from Round Table stories, if that gives you any idea.

11:11 AM  
Blogger Chris Cottingham said...

Matthew said: "...one of the attractions of the Legion is that the characters belong to an elite organization larger than themselves...[all different, yet the same]....I get the same thing from Round Table stories, if that gives you any idea."

Oh, absolutely.

But again, some of it goes back to the difference between serial fiction and novels (or series) with a beginning, middle, and end. I love Arthurian fiction, but definitely I love some visions more than others. And if you take one of the visions I love less, and want me to buy it every month...well, it gets problematic.

And again, I'm not saying I only love one version of the LSH. To be specific: while I "grieved" the loss of the LSH I grew up with, I thought the reboot was great. I liked the art and the stuck out tongues and bright'n'shiny Archieness that some critique. And I really enjoyed the characterizations, including some of the new folks like XS (a great favorite, and I'm glad she'll apparently be in the new book even if I find her leaving her friends implausible) and Kinetix. (A great character whose subsequent evolutions and transformations left me cold.) I even really enjoyed Sensor, especially in her early Snake form. (And I loved Jeckie/Sensor Girl!) I was able to adjust.

And a lot of the threeboot stuff was really good as well. None of the characters grabbed me quite as much, but Cosmic Boy was good and Brainy's snarky fun was at its height. And I enjoyed little touches like Saturn Girl being mute or Phantom Girl being seemingly spacey b/c she's sometimes watching Bgztl. I don't know that those things are sustainable long-term, but I did enjoy them.

I've also really enjoyed a lot of Legion Elseworlds, whether unofficial ones like the Mordruverse in LSH v. 4 #4, or the "Superboy's Legion" 2-parter that came out years ago.

So, I guess my final clarification is this. It's not that I don't enjoy other versions of the Legion. But if you take the Threeboot Legion, give 'em a bad artist, and put 'em through the "Legion on the run" storyline that ran in LSH v. 4 prior to Zero Hour...well, I'm not gonna be as interested and am gonna be less likely to buy.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

No, I know. And theoretically I'm with you. I wouldn't recommend anybody supporting any version of the Legion they think is done badly (or, really, for any other reason they don't want to). I do make a distinction for myself, though; I'm not just a Legion fan anymore. I'm a guy whose hobby is the Legion. That's what this blog has done for/to me. As such, the quality of the comics is of limited relevance because I've taken on the job of reviewing it for Legion Abstract anyway. And I'm glad to! But to a certain extent I'm led into detachment.

Bringing it back around... as much as I regretted the loss of Shvaughn-as-I-remembered-her-from-before, I was also aware of how great it was that I could be made to care this much about a comic book. It's not a trick that DC has managed to work on me many times since then.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Chris Cottingham said...

Agreed on all counts! Thanks for an interesting discussion! Look forward to future posts! LLL.

6:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are reboots so bad? The ZHboot was where the Legion bug bit me,so it did its job of getting at least one new reader to this title.Even 5YL fans have to admit things had gotten messy towards the end,what with 2 different Legions running around(dual Legions also helped doom the 3boot)In a perfect world, reboots wouldn't be necessary,but since fans insist on citing precedent in order to load down the Legion with rules about what it can't do,there's little room left for it to do anything.In such a state,a reboot is the only option available.

3:09 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I believe that they are that bad, yes. They are alienating events. (To be sure, I have liked many comics that came out of reboots. I'm not saying that they can't ever lead to good comics.)

It is true that 5YL was getting pretty messy. I still believe, though, that this was fixable from an artistic point of view. (Whether it was fixable from a commercial point of view is unknown, and, really, is still unknown.)

As for this:

since fans insist on citing precedent in order to load down the Legion with rules about what it can't do,there's little room left for it to do anything.In such a state,a reboot is the only option available.

...no, there's one more option, and that's to ignore the whining and create the comics that you know the fans need rather than the comics they think they want.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Chris Cottingham said...

What's more, there are shades of grey (something I learned from comics like the LSH and X-Men!). One cannot like reboots, and still not be one who is citing precedent in order to load down the Legion with rules about what it can't do. I've mentioned that I don't like reboots, and I've said why. I've *also* said that I read and enjoyed the Levitz Legion and the 5YL Legion faithfully, which contained at least 2-3 "soft" or partial retcons/reboots. I also read and enjoyed the ZH Legion for 3-4 yrs. It was the change in quality of the art and the storylines surrounding the "Anomaly" that I didn't like and that had me stop buying...not a reboot.

And I checked out the threeboot, and read it, not enthusiastically, but ok...finally dropping it a few months into Jim Shooter's version because a) I don't like his take on LSHers' sexual behavior - very much a personal preference, b) I didn't like Manapul's art, and c) because these characters were rebooted, I didn't have the emotional attachment to them that I had to previous versions, so I wasn't determined to follow their adventures re: of whether or not I was enjoying them.

But I never stopped buying LSH directly b/c of a reboot. And I've never been a fan who said something could or couldn't happen in the Legion. I have been a fan who asks for the characters to be treated as if they were real, and to have real motivations and behaviors. If a writer wants to do something new with the character, do something new *through stories* - not through a reboot. Levitz's Legion was anything but stagnant - he broke up characters that had been together for decades, gave some babies, had old members (even the founders!) quit and new ones join, changed people's powers, gave Shrinking Violet and Jeckie entirely new powers...but he did it through stories. One might like or dislike the changes, but the way they were done rang true, and reinforced the desire to come back month to month to see what would happen next.

In an industry where reboots are common, it doesn't make sense to invest in coming back each month to see what happens in the lifeof your favorite character, b/c it can be rebooted away at any time. Anything can change w/o notice, rhyme, or reason, so the changes are less powerful. You might come back for a story *if* you like it; if you don't, you can drop it.

That's not all bad! I still think it ultimately hurts serialized fiction, though.

And I apologize for another wall of text and will now drop it. :)

4:51 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Wait, what new powers did Violet get in the Levitz run?

5:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alienation can strike without benefit of reboot.The first 5YL issue I read was #3,and that was off-putting in so many ways,not least in its back-load of backstory.Too much continuity can be just as alienating as a clean sweep.
Comic books could always make an arbitrary change long before the days of reboot.Take R.J. Brande:used to be human,then suddenly he was Durlan,and Cham's father to boot.And then there's Superboy-that one's still being argued all over the internet.
Besides,things often change back in comics.Like Projectra:from woman to snake to snake-woman back to woman.The circle closes.You can't even kill a comic book character to make a change stick. Continuity is writ on water;we should always keep that in mind.
As for ignoring whiny fans,well,from your lips to DC's ears.Wouldn't hold your breath.

9:02 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Well, in general it's a mistake when continuity is in the spotlight over the story or characters in any way. Continuity is a spice, not an entree. And nowhere is continuity in the spotlight more than in the instant of a reboot.

You say, "things often change back in comics.[...]Continuity is writ on water." Very true. Isn't that an argument that reboots aren't necessary?

9:43 PM  
Blogger Chris Cottingham said...

Violet and new powers...er...sorry. Peril of posting and running w/o adequate proof-reading.

I *probably* meant to say Lightning Lass - though even there "entirely" new powers would be, to put it mildly, a big overstatement.

What I was thinking about with Violet, though, is that Levitz gave her an entire personality transplant - changed appearance, modus operandi (from wallflower to butt-kicker), attitude toward teammates, and (subtly but definitely) her sexuality.

But he didn't reboot her - he put her through storylines that moved her from the old place to the new place. So you were able to transition with her, you got the benefit of the new stories with the new Vi, *and* you got some great stories during the transition. And though the author had totally transformed the character, he did it the way people change in real life, through events and experiences. The new Violet had little in common with the old besides name and power - but was still a continuation of the old rather than a rebooting of the old.

That Violet is not the same character/person as the reboot Violet. I also really like the reboot Violet, by the way...but emotionally, as a reader, I react to her as a different person, because she has different history and went through different events. Atom Girl is, again, a different person.

As a reader, they're all interesting and valid takes. But they resonate differently emotionally. They have too, that's why they reboot in the first place, right? They're hoping we'll like the new stuff better?

10:19 PM  
Blogger Chris Cottingham said...

So the argument that one shouldn't criticize reboots (which I don't necessarily hear anyone here saying) doesn't hold for me. I suppose, now I'm pushed to thinking about it, that I don't really like reboots for two reasons. One, as I keep saying, they wipe out the character and replace it with a new, similar but different, character. Two, it writes you into a corner. If you make a change to a character in a normal story and it doesn't work out, you can always write new stuff and change things again - either back to the old status quo or to something new again. If you reboot the character to make them different, and it doesn't work, you're kinda stuck - you can't go back to the old w/o rebooting again. Jeckie/Sensor's a good example. Yes, Jeckie went full-circle, kinda, but only through more rebooting.

As for too much continuity being confusing, I cry foul. Slavish fannish obsessiveness with continuity that won't allow an author to ever miss a fact or reinterpret something old or reveal something unsuspected...that's harmful to stories. But too much continuity isn't more confusing than rebooting. If there'd been no reboots, we wouldn't have to clarify whether we mean the originals, or the Zero Hour kids, or the Threeboot ones, or the new ones who are similar to but not identical to the originals. Clarity, this is not.

I don't advocate for slavish, fannish continuity. I do advocate for some kind of consistency. And I agree with Matthew that stories that focus on continuity instead of plot or character are bad news. (Reboot stories are inherently stories that focus on continuity, of course.)

But I came to the Legion as a 2nd grader, 3 issues before the Great Darkness Saga...wherein practically every Legionnaire appeared, plus the Subs, plus Dev-Em, plus the Wanderers, plus the Heroes of Lallor, plus clones of Superman and a Guardian of the Universe and these New Gods (whom I'd never heard of)...and I didn't know who anybody was or their history, but I was enthralled. There was a vast world full of heroes from all these different planets with all these different powers, all working together and some of 'em getting clobbered, but not giving up and finally winning.

I was enthralled - with the Legion concept ! I had years ahead to gradually learn the continuity, to find DC Blue Ribbon digests in the supermarket and later to discover comic shops and back issue bins...to slowly immerse in that universe and those people.

Wiping all that emotional resonance out and starting over did make for some cool stories and intersting discoveries. But it *didn't* simplify the Legion.

For what it's worth, bringing back parallel earths and giving each of the Legions a home is a solution I'm pretty happy with. (Though I wish the reboot Legion had a home to go back to, and I'm skeptical about the idea that Jenni and Gates would just leave their friends after everything they've been though.)

Finally...the Superboy thing was a partial reboot, so I don't know where you're going with that. The Brande thing is in a whole different class, though. The character was vastly changed, but not scrapped and started over - we just learned new stuff we hadn't known before. A retcon that doesn't wipe out history but brings something new to the table can be a lot of fun.

Of course, one could argue Shvaughn/Sean's in that class, too. And I would, actually. I think it was a valid storyline, and a clear case of a retcon that doesn't reboot history. I didn't like what it said about Shvaughn's personal demons, but I kept reading the 5yl Legion just the same.

10:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not arguing for reboots;I'm arguing against the conditions that cause reboots to come about in the first place.I miss the days when Barry Allen could be installed as the Flash with no preamble.Nowadays,you can't get Barry without a Flash:Rebirth story explaining-in torturous detail-where Barry has been and why he's coming back.I don't enjoy the reboot itself,but I can appreciate the result.A clean slate is always appealing to me.
I'm also against a certain type of hardcore fan(not to be found on this blog,thankfully)who demand more and more backstory on even the most insignificant detail.Unfortunately,they are the only fans DC listens to.More unfortunately,these fans seem to be the ones making the comics.There's a vicious cycle.
How much continuity can a comic book sustain? Continuity is much like cholesterol;the right amount promotes good health and well-being.Too much causes illness,even death.For the hardcore fans,too much continuity is never enough.Even when a superhero series is on its deathbed,the hardcore types are still demanding more continuity.Cue the reboot...
A scriptwriter for a soap opera once said that anything that happened past a certain point was considered ancient history and never referred to again.Good rule of thumb for comics to adopt.Instead of wasting paper answering questions that didn't need to be asked,DC should publish a new edition of Who's Who In the Legion,giving continuity fans all the backstory they crave,and leaving the field clear for DC to give the rest of us Legion fans what we want:good stories well told.

4:07 PM  
Blogger Chris Cottingham said...

I agree with pretty much all of this. The only caveat that I'd add is that *some* reboots seem to come b/c of a vocal group of fans complaining about continuity, with publishers tiring of the complaints and reacting by burning down the house. But it's often been publishers (or editors on various titles) themselves pushing back too far by arguing that continuity didn't matter at all and using that to excuse sloppy editing.

Anyway, your analogy of cholesterol and the soap opera example both seem perfect to me.

12:27 PM  

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