Sunday, December 15, 2013

I Think It's So Groovy Now That People Are Finally Getting Together

One of the articles I've had in mind for a long time is a look at "The Quiet Darkness", a story from LSHv4 #21-24 (in the Five Years Later era of the Legion). This is that article.

The plot, first: two young girls, Lori and Aria, are on the run on Zuun; a lot of dangerous people are chasing them, including (it seems) Lobo. They want to turn Aria over to Darkseid, who is working with Aria's father, Dr. Francis Campbell, on something called the Gemini Matrix. The Gemini Matrix has something to do with Aria and her twin brother Coda, who's in a tank in Aria's father's lab. Furball, which is what the unrecognizably mutated form of Timber Wolf was known as at the time, help the girls run away from their pursuers, and other Legionnaires get mixed up in the story too: Brainiac 5, who was on Zuun with Furball, and Ultra Boy, Celeste, and Kent Shakespeare, who get called in by Brainy.

In the end, all the characters arrive at Francis's lab, where Aria and Coda combine to form the Gemini Matrix, with mysterious results: Coda and Darkseid disappear, and Aria is transformed into a cosmic being called Gemini.

It's unusually enigmatic for a Legion story, and more so because it's illustrated by Keith Giffen in his 5YL style, and because there was some other stuff going on with the plot in the back pages of the comic. (Al Gordon, the regular inker of this title, wrote this story; regular writers Giffen and Tom and Mary Bierbaum took a back seat but wrote some other short backup-story-sized material that shared these four issues; more on that later.)

So first let's try my favourite trick when figuring out what a story is about: look at the title. Sounds trite, but I'm serious; the title of a story will often tell you a lot about what the thing's about. In this case, "the quiet darkness" is a phrase that seems, like Raymond Chandler's "the big sleep" and "the long goodbye", to refer to death. And there is support for this; at the end of the story, when Darkseid is fading into what seems like nonexistence, he says, "I welcome this darkness--this [em]quiet[/em] darkness." Throughout the story, Darkseid has seemed weary of the 30th century; he hasn't been able to get angry or worked up about anything. It's by far the most civilized Darkseid has ever appeared (right down to his wardrobe), and it seems due to his anachronistic nature.

(Even Darkseid's speech balloons are different. In the famous Great Darkness Saga, Darkseid's word balloons were blocky and blue-coloured. Here, his word balloons are just the same as everyone else's, except that when he says Francis's name, it's sometimes rendered in a different font, the same font that Francis's dead wife Carole speaks in in a dream sequence. Look at it carefully, though; it's not at all clear to me that whether this effect was intentional or just a copy-and-paste artifact. It works if it's intentional, though, because Darkseid's treatment of Francis was the most villainous thing about his appearance in this story. No, I'm wrong; it must be an artifact: his name looks the same when Brainy says it.)

There was a trend with the 5YL Legion for the Legionnaires to be on friendly terms, often, with their former enemies. Some examples are Cosmic Boy's dinner with Mordru, Spider Girl joining the Legion, and Element Lad and Roxxas working out their differences. Their civil interaction with Darkseid in this story is another one.

Darkseid is further softened by the object of his quest: the Gemini Matrix, which is also called the Life Equation Matrix. The suggestion here is that the Anti-Life Equation that Darkseid's been searching for throughout his history is just a smaller part of a comprehensive Life Equation.

During this story, the characters are often juxtaposed with each other in pairs. Aria and Lori are a pair, as are Aria and Coda. Brainiac 5 and Francis are both scientists who were recognized as Brainiac-level on Colu. Francis and Carole are a pair. Lobo and Furball are both wolf-themed hunters who aren't what they appear (Furball is secretly Timber Wolf; Lobo is actually a clone of the original, created by Darkseid for this mission.) This duality is of course symbolized by the name, the Gemini Matrix.

Here's what I think: I think the real "quiet darkness" is loneliness. The characters in this story are often lonely for the counterparts in their identified pairs (even Lobo tries to hold a conversation with a severed head that he comes across). Yet all the characters are also able to resist that loneliness through whatever companions they have; Aria has Lori, and the Legionnaires have each other, for instance. Only Darkseid has no counterpart, and no way of defending against his loneliness, which, given his situation, must be profound.

Throughout the story, Darkseid considers himself above all the mortal characters, who are all stumbling around in the dark, bumping their heads and thinking that everything they hear is a rat. (Count up all those examples.) All the characters are united in this ignorance, guard and child and Legionnaire alike. Darkseid, though, with his godlike knowledge and perspective, is above all that, but this also separates him from everyone else.

This is where the Gemini Matrix comes in: it combines Aria and Coda into some kind of cosmic superhuman, "the step between man and god", but one that's manifested as a grown-up Aria, while Coda is only sort of there but is also sort of dead: in the last panels of the story we see Coda and Darkseid meeting in some cloudy pink realm, walking and chatting together very cordially. I'm aware that this contradicts me a bit: Darkseid's embrace of "the quiet darkness" has solved his loneliness, not exacerbated it. Still, it's clear that what Darkseid has found is not oblivion but companionship.

The backup features parallel this story to a certain extent; Bounty and Laurel Gand end up working with Circe, who was an enemy, just as the Legionnaires in the main story were more or less cooperating with Darkseid. Also, the Gemini Matrix experiment that Francis and Darkseid were pursuing was hinted at in issues #21-23 and revealed in #24, as were the Dominators' twin experiments of B.I.O.N. and the SW6 batch of youthful Legion clones. Plus, the story's theme of loneliness between sundered siblings (Coda and Aria) was echoed in the frantic letters Dream Girl sent to try to reconcile with the White Witch.

There's a lot about "The Quiet Darkness" that suggests it to be a very profound story: the title, the ambiguous ending, and the cast of characters, for instance. I'm not sure it achieved that profundity, but it was an ambitious and interesting attempt. I'd like to think that most Legion stories fit this description.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always been of a split mind on "The Quiet Darkness" -- whether it a story too "adult" (philosophical, etc.) for a superhero comic series which was already pushing that envelope, and failed to achieve what it was trying for, or whether it just wasn't very good and masked that with false "these are deeply important things" signifiers.

The fact that it makes you wonder and ponder it makes the story special on some level. And even if some of that pondering is just "Was that any good?", that's more thought than we give to most stories.

Compare to Marvel's "Infiinty" -- was that any good? Well, the art was nice and scope was broad, but no, really it wasn't. It was two stories mushed together into the space for one, so each only got half told.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

There have been three long Legion stories with Darkseid as the antagonist (Great Darkness, Quiet Darkness, and Foundations), and this was the most ambitious of them. As with so much of 5YL, I'm glad they tried it even if it didn't work as planned.

4:36 PM  
Anonymous Jim Davis said...

Interesting as always, Matthew.

Maybe you can help with something that has puzzled me since I read LSH 21. Is the leader of the first team that Darkseid sends after the girls supposed to be Pol Krinn aka Magnetic Kid? On page 6 you have the "Sniff? Sniff?" sound effects from Furball suggesting some sort of recognition. On page 15 Darkseid "returns" him to the afterlife for his failure implying that he was once dead as was Magnetic Kid after the Magic Wars. In addition, he resembles a more physically mature Pol Krinn but Giffen's art at this juncture makes it hard to be sure of any visual identification.

Am I imagining things? If this was Giffen's intention it was never followed up on but that would be par for the course with V4. What do you (or anyone else) think?

1:09 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Oh. Hm. I have no idea; nothing like that ever occurred to me. Let me go look at the comic again.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Okay, I went and looked back at it, and I see what you mean. There is a resemblance.

But I would say, no, this isn't Pol.

First, we don't get any real hints that it is him: no names, no magnetic powers, nothing like that.

Second, Lobo's duplicate basically had Lobo's personality; this guy was nothing like Pol: Pol was nice and this guy threatened to rape Aria.

It's possible that the guy is some DC character from the past, but based on the available evidence I have no idea who it is.

1:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In future,writers should just keep Darkseid away from our superteam of the future.The Great Darkness Saga has become so enshrined in fandom's memory that no rematch could equal GDS,let alone top it.Even Levitz couldn't do it with his recent Darkseid-story-that-wasn't.

As for Quiet Darkness,I'm more in the pretentious piffle camp.Lobo alone is enough to put me off the story.It was an odd quirk of the FYL era,having former adversaries making nice.The most extreme one was Element Lad achiving a rapprochement with Roxxas,murderer of his people.Even for funnybooks,that's a lot to swallow.

1:50 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I wouldn't want Legion creators to be prisoners of the past. I don't think they should feel like they have to do a Darkseid story just because the Legion has had a great Darkseid story before. And I don't think they should avoid doing a Darkseid story just because they're afraid of measuring up to a great Darkseid story from before.

Or, to put it another way, if DC does another Legion/Darkseid story, if it's good it won't matter that there's already been the Great Darkness Saga, and if it isn't good it won't matter that there's already been the Great Darkness Saga.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Arion said...

Sounds like "The Quiet Darkness" is the kind of story I might enjoy.

By the way, I've been reading your blog for a while and I loved your post about Legion Lost. I would love it if you could visit my blog, I've been writing about the Legion lately.


10:35 PM  
Blogger Arion said...

Oh, and my blog:

10:36 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Are you at all familiar with the 5YL stuff? Erratic but brilliant; frustrating but powerful. I recommend it strongly but it is not for the faint of heart.

Blog visited; thanks for pointing it out to me.

11:22 PM  
Anonymous Jim Davis said...

I hope all is well with you, Matthew.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Yes, thanks; I keep intending to post something and just haven't gotten around to it. Watch this space!

2:47 PM  
Blogger Axel said...

I can never forgive Giffen and the Bierbaums's for turning my favorite legionnaire into a cartoonish Tasmanian devil, or in other words, Timber Wolf to Furball. If there was any proof that that entire run was nothing more than a sad experiment gone awry, that fact alone was enough. It's a horrible set of stories. It's a horrible time for the Legion. Keith Giffen should never have been allowed to do it and shouldn't have been allowed to get back on the book after he did it in the first place. It was such a rude, unfortunate, unnecessary departure from what the Legion was and where it had come from, (for me anyway) that I could just never get into those stories and that world. It's also one of those things just proves DC Comics has occasionally been run by mad men and maniacs - who would turn one of their best selling books into an unrecognizable experiment like that? Certainly, Marvel never would.

9:25 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I certainly do not defend everything Giffen and the Bierbaums did in LSHv4, but overall I found it to be incredibly powerful storytelling and I don't think there's ever been a comic book that I cared about more.

11:57 PM  

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