Sunday, June 01, 2014

And If You Tie the Bottom of the Bootstrap to the Top, You Don't Even Have to Pull

It's time we got back to my personal favourite topic: Legion reboots. Try not to disturb the neighbours with your cheers.

As always, I'm against reboots, but I'm often in favour of the comic books that are produced by reboots. Certainly such has been the case with Legion comics over the years. But there's another thing besides good comics that came out of the Legion reboots of 1994 and 2004 and, if you like, 1990. And that other thing is that it made the Legion inevitable.

Do you see what I mean? Rebooting the Legion isn't like rebooting, oh, Wonder Woman, for instance. Rebooting Wonder Woman means you're changing what happened before and what's happening now. Rebooting the Legion means you're changing what's going to happen. Before your reboot, when the future finally got here it would be like this and there would be a Legion of Super-Heroes. But after the reboot, the future would actually be like that and... there would be a Legion of Super-Heroes. One that was different in details from the previous one, sure, but clearly the same kind of thing. In other words, it doesn't matter what you do, in a thousand years the Legion is still going to show up and save us all.

And that's great! I need you to understand how great that is. First, it implies that the things the Legion stands for simply cannot be defeated. We'd all like to believe that, right? That's our optimistic future; without that, we have nothing. Second, it sets up an excellent adversarial relationship with the Time Trapper. The Time Trapper must be sitting there on his rock going, "Christ, what do I have to do to get rid of these kids? I've tried everything and they keep coming back!" It makes him frantic and desperate and gives him the motivation that otherwise he really wouldn't have.

That situation really doesn't apply any more. The idea that the future could hold a number of different possible Legions that were all nevertheless valid has been largely rejected by DC Comics and its readers in favour of the current status, which is that there's only one real Legion and it needs to be preserved against change.

This weekend I reread a comic book that occupies a strange place in this discussion: Superboy's Legion, the two-issue Elseworlds story by Mark Farmer and Alan Davis from 2001.

The premise of Superboy's Legion is that Kal-El's rocket didn't make it to Earth in the 20th century, but floated around in space for a thousand years before R.J. Brande found it. He hatched Kal-El out of it and adopted him, and he grew up to be a good-hearted but spoiled young superhuman who eventually founded a team of young superheroes, the Legion of Super-Heroes. Kal-El, Superboy, does some growing up and leads the team to costly victory against the Fatal Five and the forces of 20th-century villain Lex Luthor. The story is told well and excitingly, and, most noticeably of all, it's gorgeous to look at, because a) Alan Davis is great, and b) Davis's style is perfect for portraying the Legion's youthful exuberance. And the format has the glossy paper with the bright colours and all.*

As an Elseworlds story, and a superhero story, it's perfectly good, but if we think about the implications of the premise for a couple of minutes (something I'm sure Farmer and Davis do not particularly recommend to us) it starts to look a little strange.

We learn in Superboy's Legion that there was, despite the lack of Superman, a great superheroic age of the 20th century, and that it ended badly. Also, the 30th century is a pretty nice place, a future utopia if you will, albeit one with a dark secret or two.

We're familiar with the original-Legion story in which the Legion is founded on the inspiration of Superman. This situation is obviously not exactly like that, but it's comparable. But there's one scene in the second part where Superboy is losing his heart for the fight and Star Boy has to give him a pep talk. And there are references to the Legion being the heirs of the ideals of the great superheroes of the 20th century. Also, humanity managed to make it to the 30th century intact and prosperous without needing Superman to save the world all those times; the only one of his great enemies taken into account is Luthor.

It seems to be an attempt to have the results of Superman's inspiration, all the superheroes present and future, without having had Superman in the first place. Effect without cause. I'm not criticizing Farmer and Davis for this, not at all; I wouldn't expect them to write a story to stand up to the kind of scrutiny I'm giving it. They're playing with what-if and I'm just following threads.

In one sense Superboy's Legion is an example of the reboot spirit: the Legion will come into existence even if there were no historical Superman to inspire them. In another, it reflects the nostalgist urge: Superboy's Legion resembles the Adventure-era Legion in many many ways. The reboot Legion was going strong at the time but the only acknowledgements of its existence are Projectra's race, Chameleon Boy's characterization, and a few figures on the last page.

So that's Superboy's Legion: a good story, and I recommend it, but out of step with the times as Legion stories go. Not because it's too much the same to be different, but because it's too different to be the same.


* Note: I've got the original printing of this, with the square binding. If you want that, expect to pay a lot of money for it. It's since been reprinted in a single volume, which I assume still looks good enough to do the story justice.

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Blogger Jim Purcell said...

Something to keep in mind about Superboy's Legion (and something I find interesting) is that it actually stars the Reboot 'Archie' Legion, and is closer to a 'What if' then your typical 'Elseworld'.

You can sort of tell this is the case because of a few things. The big one, Sensor is revealed to be a Snake. The other, Cosmic Boy loses his arm, where of course in Reboot continuity it's Livewire. Echos of the 'actual' reality in the alternate one. A classic way to tell you're in the reality nextdoor.

Superboy's Legion entire purpose is to essentially 'classicize'(?) the existing (at the time) 'modern' Legion. Put the Archie gang into their silver age costumes and interact with Kal-El (who, remember was NOT involved directly with the Reboot Legion like he was in the pre-Zero Hour Silver Age).

Overall I liked Supeboy's Legion a lot, and you make a good point about a Present without a Superman raising a few questions about how things would have shaken out (I wonder if it would have be like JLA: The Nail. Only... instead of Superman showing up to save the day at the end of a 'what if there was no Superman?' story. God... I hate The Nail for that. Way to negate your core premise [/rant])

So anyway, I'm rambling now. Superboy's Legion. Pretty good Legion story.

2:50 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I have to disagree with you; I think Superboy's Legion resembled the original Legion much more than it did the reboot Legion. Yes, Sensor was a snake, but that's almost all you can say. The losing-the-arm thing applies equally to both Legion versions. The last page shows Monstress and Lori Morning and Thunder, but also Blok and Tyroc and Tellus. But the actual characters in the story don't include XS and Kinetix; they include Sun Boy and Bouncing Boy.

7:57 AM  
Blogger Meerkatdon said...

I think there's a semantic issue here: the distinction between an "alternate" and a "reboot."

IMHO, an alternate is a different version of the team, be it the Bizarro Legion, the Wizard of Oz Elseworlds Legion, or Sueprboy's Legion.

Originally, a reboot was an alternate the was supposed to replace the existing team. The Glorithverse Legion, the Earth-247 ("Archie") Legion, and the Earth-Prime ("Teenage Revolution") Legion were all reboots in this sense.

But L3W changed all that, as it revealed that reboots are just alternates. Never again will we speak in terms of one singular version of the Legion -- all the alternates are out there somewhere, and all equally valid.

If "reboot" means anything now, I suggest that it's an alternate Legion that appears in a regular ongoing series (i.e. not a limited miniseries) and has significant differences from any other alternate. (It doesn't sound right to call the original Legion a "reboot" -- but let me suggest that it WAS actually a reboot of the concept from the first Legion story in Adventure 247, which is the one and only ur-Legion.)

So Superboy's Legion is simply an alternate with elements from both previous reboots.

2:11 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

We can certainly draw that distinction.

However, I would argue that FC:L3W made all the other Legion alternates not equally valid but equally invalid. I think that series was a manifestation of DC's decision that, from now on, there was only going to be one Legion, and it was the one that Johns and Meltzer distilled out of what we've come to call the original Legion. Any other version may be technically valid but in practice it was going to have to stay out of the way. FC:L3W was not a way of accommodating the other Legion versions, but of disposing of them.

None of which is any kind of criticism of Superboy's Legion, which, however we want to classify it, was a good yarn.

2:35 PM  
Blogger Meerkatdon said...

Yeah, DC has tried to establish "only one Legion" several times, and it's never worked. I feel confident in predicting that it never will, at least not in the long run.

Sooner or later, some big-name flavor of the month will decide to create their own version of the Legion, based on whatever their favorite version is (or based on something else entirely, like the Avengers). And DC will try to pretend that's the one-and-only Legion.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

The only thing that might work is some uberLegion that includes all the other versions in it. And even that might not take. At the moment we seem to be stuck with an unpleasantly bland take on the '80s-era Legion, and I think DC may resist moving away from it, just because they're sick of hearing about how the Legion always reboots, so it's kind of the worst of all possible worlds.

12:26 PM  
Blogger Meerkatdon said...

I dunno. The current Legion of New-52 Earth-1 seems to be the one that appeared in Action Comics recently, in which Tasmia was called Umbra and Sensor was a snake (but Gim was called Colossal Boy and was still alive in the teen version)...which sounds majorly influenced by the Earth-247 ("Archie") Legion.

Remember that Levitz's version of Johns's Legion was retconned into Earth-2 in the final issue.

I expect this is the version of the Legion that will appear in the upcoming Futures End (or whatever it's called) crossover.

12:23 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Yeah, I don't know what to make of that, except that Grant Morrison will do whatever he wants. Really I'm not hoping for much out of whatever DC does with the Legion this year; nothing I've seen has suggested to me that they've put more than a minute's thought into it.

12:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Off-topic,but DC has released the DVD "JLA Adventures:Trapped In Time".Done much in the style of the old "Super Friends" show,it features Dawnstar,Karate Kid,and the Time Trapper. At least someone at DC hasn't forgotten the LSH.

Back on-topic,what makes the Legion real are really good writers and artists.Where to find them? Not on Earth-2.

12:42 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I noticed that, and was wondering if I should try to score myself a copy, but a) it wasn't (isn't?) available in Canada, and b) I heard it wasn't that great in the first place.

Certainly there are good writers and artists out there, but how many of them actually want to work on the Legion? It's a notoriously tough assignment and traditionally the best results have come from those creators who were young and hungry enough to put up with that. Are there good writers and artists out there who are also young and hungry? Of course! But: a) how do you know which ones they are? and b) is DC willing to turn one of their monthly titles over to someone who hasn't already proven that they can deliver quality goods like clockwork every month?

So it's tricky.

9:07 AM  

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