Saturday, September 19, 2015

To Pay Peter

When DC decides to use the Legion of Super-Heroes for something or other these days, they tend to default to the 1980s-era Legion as written by Paul Levitz in his second run on the title. This makes a certain amount of sense, as Legion comics from that era are both critically respected and commercially successful. Another factor, probably, is that this was the last run of Legion comics before DC started tampering with continuity, which certainly put a lot of fans off.

How many such quasi-Levitz2 Legions have there been recently? Let's list them just for fun. There's
- the retroboot Legion, first introduced by Geoff Johns and Brad Meltzer in "The Lightning Saga" and appearing in many DC comics leading up to the new52
- the version of the Legion who appeared in the Star Trek/Legion of Super-Heroes crossover
- the new52 Legion
- the version of the Legion who appeared in "The Infinitus Saga" in Justice League United
- the version of the Legion who appeared in Convergence: Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes

Now you can argue that some of these are the same. I dunno. It's all very vague. They're all sorta similar, and there are reasons to think they're the same, and there are things you can point at that suggest that maybe they're not... Anyway. The point is, DC tends to look at the Levitz2 Legion as, how shall I put it... as what the Legion should be like.*

That's not an inevitable stance to take, but the part I want to focus on here is how these creators want to use Levitz's Legion but they don't seem to want to live with the things Levitz actually did with that Legion. See, one of the things that's not often appreciated about Levitz is that he liked shaking things up. He did so in a relatively understated way, but he made some big changes. And those changes have largely not been adopted by those who came after him. Let's list some of the ones that haven't caught on.

- the introduction of Jacques Foccart, Invisible Kid II. This change has been used by most (all?) writers who reset to the second Levitz run, but the reboot and threeboot writers both opted for Lyle Norg instead. Why? No, seriously, why? (Interestingly, the animated Legion did give Jacques a quick cameo, but not Lyle.)
- the restoration of Timber Wolf's human face. I mention this because Paul Levitz was the last Legion writer who agreed with me that Timber Wolf was a regular human guy with, like, super-acrobatics powers, and not a werewolf or whatever.
- the retirement of Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and Cosmic Boy from the Legion. Didn't take!
- the transformation of Princess Projectra into Sensor Girl. Actually everybody seemed to like this one; it caught on all over the place.
- the breaking up of Timber Wolf and Light Lass as a couple, and the subsequent relationship between Lightning Lass and Shrinking Violet. Like a lot of these changes, this was preserved into the 5YL era by Levitz's protege Keith Giffen, but Johns tried to walk it back in Action Comics and Stuart Moore did the same in his Convergence series.
- the revelation that Validus is the transformed, time-displaced son of Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad, and his subsequent restoration as Garridan Ranzz. You all noticed Validus there in Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds, right?
- the introduction of nonhuman Legionnaires Tellus and Quislet, plus Polar Boy and Magnetic Kid. This one's mixed: Tellus did get some screen time recently (looking more humanoid than Steve Lightle ever drew him), but Levitz himself has gotten rid of Quislet twice now. Polar Boy is a Legionnaire in good standing, but when's the last time we saw Magnetic Kid?
- the breaking up of Star Boy and Dream Girl as a couple, and Star Boy's resignation from the Legion.
- the disbanding of the Legion of Substitute Heroes, and its eventual replacement by a new group of Subs led by Cosmic Boy.
- the death of Mon-El directly after his marriage to Shadow Lass.

Now, having said all that. It is certainly true that the comic book writers of today must be allowed to write comics their own way without being constrained by what Paul Levitz did thirty years ago. One hundred percent. BUT (1) that implies that the comic book writers of today also should not be constrained by what Paul Levitz's predecessors did more than thirty years ago. Don't kid me.

There's a BUT (2), which is that DC has historically underrepresented nonwhite characters, LGBTQ characters, and (important not from an audience-effect standpoint, but only from a science fiction standpoint) nonhuman characters in the Legion, and if a Legion writer does something to improve that situation, subsequent Legion writers should not roll back that change.

This is a consideration for all comics, but it's particularly important for the Legion of Super-Heroes, because the Legion is all about diversity, and has a cast of characters large enough to be able to accommodate such diversity with ease.

Anyway, this brings us back to Timber Wolf, Lightning Lass, and Shrinking Violet. It is a fact that Levitz and later Giffen and the Bierbaums and much later Levitz again showed Ayla and Vi as lovers in Legion comics. It is also a fact that this was done implicitly and with plausible deniability, out of what I can only call cowardice on the part of someone I don't know enough to identify. But it was done nevertheless, and it is wrong to undo it. Geoff Johns was wrong, and Stuart Moore was wrong, and the reboot, threeboot, and animated writers didn't exactly cover themselves with glory either. Paul Levitz may not have done a whole lot to make the Legion more diverse**, but what he did do shouldn't be rolled back.

--

* To be sure, there are exceptions. Grant Morrison has used a reboot-like Legion in his Action Comics run, and Convergence: Blue Beetle used a Legion which was more like the SW6 batch than anything else.

** Although in his third run on the book he did quite a bit more: introduced nonwhite human Legionnaires (and supporting characters) in Chemical Kid, Dragonwing, Glorith, Harmonia, Otaki, and Mwindaji and introduced a same-sex relationship between minor characters Jed Rikane and Gravity Kid. If only he had brought in more nonhumanoid Legionnaires, and kept XS around! Oh well; it's all ashes in the wind now.

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24 Comments:

Blogger KMD said...

Great post and glad to have you back.

Hate saying this since I preferred Jacques in the Invisible Kid role but I get why they went with Lyle in the threeboot. Lyle had a strange position in the threeboot. He was the viewpoint character in the first issues but also came off as a dishonest sneak who got caught up in the struggles between Cosmic Boy and Brainy, lying about Shrinking Violent and the strange courtship of Gazelle at the end of the series where he was less than honest with her (and would have been even stranger had Shooter gone through with his ideas for a sex change to Lyle). Lyle was something of a blank slate since he had not been in the comics for more than 30 years. Whatever Jacques was, his integrity was never called into question. Had Jacques been in that spot, I think a lot of the nostalgia crowd would have freaked out.

8:25 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks.

Originally I was going to respond with "but Jacques hadn't been in comics for about ten years, which is also a long time", but then I realized I had fallen into the same trap you did. Lyle appeared in comics all throughout the reboot era!* And he was great! And threeboot Lyle is one of my favourites (and what he is is more complicated than a "dishonest sneak"). But all that isn't the point. The point is, they had a choice between a newer, Black Invisible Kid or a white Invisible Kid like in the Silver Age, and they went Silver Age. Like they do too many times.

--

* and of course there was that one reboot issue with that timeline's version of Jacques.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Meerkatdon said...

Lots to think about here, Matthew. And I love your title! Robbing Paul indeed.

The question of why reboot and threeboot versions opted for Lyle over Jacques: Both versions had a "starting over from the beginning" vibe. The reboot was more explicit about this; early on they were very conscious of the canonical history of the Legion and made a lot of their choices in response to that history (they even went so far as to legitimize James Cullen/Kid Quantum, a retcon from the 5YL Legion). In the first few years, it seemed like the writers started out by saying "what was happening in the original Legion at this point, and how can we put our own spin on that?"

The threeboot didn't actually "start from the beginning" but there was still a sense of the Legion being young and "starting over with the new version"...complicated by the fact that now there were two previous versions that they were putting their own spin on.

If you asked the creators of both versions, I'll bet they'd tell you that they figured they would introduce Jacques at some point in the future.

As for the retirement of the three founding members not sticking -- to be fair, Levitz tried to retire them a couple of times and it didn't stick for him, either.

Valiudus? I'm guessing that most recent writers aren't even aware that he was Garridan. You're a current writer with a Legion assignment, you want to use the Fatal Five...you look online and find out that they were the Emerald Empress, Mano, the Persuader, Tharok, and Validus. How closely are you going to look into Validus's past and background?

Which raises another question: What do new Legion writers use for reference? If they don't have their own Legion collections, they probably turn to the internet and to Who's Who and Who's Who in the LSH, which means they get the Levitz version circa 1986(?).

I can understand not using Magnetic Kid, especially if you're including Cosmic Boy -- as a current Legion writer, especially with only a few issues to tell my story, I don't think I'd want to spend time explaining why there are two characters with the same powers, that they're brothers, that the younger one was actually hired to replace the older one, who then came back...

I think your point about diversity is very important. Especially with LGBTQ characters...there's been a long history of LGBTQ Legion fans, and IMHO it's vital that the Legion include some obviously LGBTQ characters.

While you're right that the reboot dropped the ball on Ayla and Vi (although they did Ayla and Cham, which was at least a nod to diversity), at least they did strongly imply that Lyle was gay (they even had him kiss Brainy). So let's give them some points for that.

As a longtime Levitz fan, and someone who really enjoyed his third run (up until Giffen appeared to ruin it again), I agree wholeheartedly with your footnote about all the diverse human characters he introduced. Legion fandom gave him nothing but grief all during that run, so it's great to hear someone saying nice things about what he did.

1:49 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

You're sort of making my point for me: again and again, Legion creators have found it more important to "start over from the beginning" than to make a few changes so that their characters better reflect their readership. There's nothing sacred about the 1960s Legion stories in Adventure Comics. We can do things better now than they did then.

(Levitz's retirement of the three founders did, sort of, stick: Saturn Girl returned to active service during his second run, but Lightning Lad and Cosmic Boy didn't. And while Cosmic Boy came out of retirement for LSHv4, the other two didn't.)

Anyway, I'm not really trying to argue that Legion writers should have used all the stuff Levitz did (except where it touches character diversity issues) so much as I'm pointing out that they don't.

And I guess what I'm implying is, much as I dislike sounding like a broken record, that many people want the Legion to be a static entity circa 1985, but that Paul Levitz is not the guy who will treat the Legion that way, and nobody else should either.

(Oh, and I suppose I should say that the reboot, threeboot, animated, and retroboot creators did all make various contributions toward character diversity in the Legion, and should get credit for that... but, overall, the team still looks about as straight and white as it ever did, so there's obviously been some spinning of wheels going on here.)

2:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent food for thought Matthew, as per usual. Clever title.

I think you make a strong case that DC's last known preference in terms of previous versions of the Legion to employ is Levitz'. You also cogently lay out why this is a logical calculation to make on DC's part.

Working from the premise that the Levitz version is what DC will continue on with, your call for confidence to use Levitz' next steps is welcome. Your itemization with specifics seems like an interesting status quo to launch a new book. Part of the DNA of a Legion book seems like its capacity for unfettered advancement and youthful ambition.

I also think your points about diversity couldn't be more correct. It seems equally as logical a calculation that the Legion is a concept uniquely poised to tap into the zeitgeist in this way. By employing the inherent leitmotifs like diversity and acceptance and the remove of "the future", this is a book that seems like it could organically be a kind of trial balloon book for DC.

And for all the belief I have in proof of concept, I question whether DC is even the kind of publisher that can properly realize the potential of the Legion at this time. It escapes me who would be pitching or who DC would reach out to or even assign to a Legion ongoing title...or even what would make the Legion a sustainable/profitable book in today's market for that matter. Yeesh, glad that's not my job.

Always hopeful though. Long Live the Legion, even in absentia.

2:53 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks.

I'm not really calling on DC to continue on where Levitz2 left off, though. Really what I'd like to see is some talented writer come up with his/her own idea of how best to present the Legion, and to do that, drawing explicitly on the past no more than is appropriate for that particular vision.

For better or for worse, though, it has to be DC who publishes the Legion, not only because DC owns them, but also because DC is where Superman lives. I don't want the Legion to be nothing more than a Superman satellite, but I do think you need that connection intact.

3:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with all points there. It would be nice if a showrunner of sorts took on the Legion with an eye toward progress but with familiarity enough to avoid duplication of the more popular tropes or a complete lack of familiarity that creates an innovative new look at the Legion.

Although I haven't read much of it, I have great respect for how the Legion demonstrated during the Post-COIE period a precedent that they can exist without the Superman linkage but it does seem like the Legion could use all of the help it can get and a connection to Superman could arguably add a bump. The only thing better for sales would be if the Legion had a connection to Batman...oh I wish I never would have typed that into existence. Heh.

That does segue into DC's current creative climate though...assuming the ends of the editorial spectrum are these rumored poles of the DC You's more indie, boutique style approach or the bankable, meat&potatoes approach of the old ways, where would the Legion benefit from landing do you think?

3:45 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Definitely the first of those. I don't think there is an existing big Legion audience anymore to justify the second.

3:48 PM  
Blogger KMD said...

Points taken Matthew. I had forgotten Lyle in the reboot which is the dark ages of my life when I was without the Legion. I read your take on the threeboot version and agreed with the provoke and slapped down thesis but, to be candid, I found the child abuse angle utterly gratuitous and at odds with much of the rest of the characterization. There were moments when I enjoyed the threeboot version--including in the Brave and the Bold scene with Batman--but I never quite got over the unnecessary child abuse scene which, frankly, did not advance the plot or even impact the victim's essential character. All it did was make Lyle's father out to be more of a villain. I hated a child abuse scene being so trivial. It is one of the greatest of evils and should always be treated as such. Will get off the high horse. Insightful as always, thanks. Hope you post more.

8:23 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

That's very fair and I think you're probably right.

8:27 PM  
Blogger sabaku_lotus said...

This is going to be a long post and I hope it isn't too bad.

1) Invisible Kid
The issue with him is that IK didn't really have a personality in the original Legion. He was just a guy who can go invisible from Earth. He had brains and worked with Brainiac 5 but compared to the other versions (Threeboot and Reboot) he didn't shine. There was nothing 'impressive' about him. If you ask most Legion fans about IK from that era they will mention IK II over IK Lyle Norg because he was that forgettable. Some people don't even remember his thing with Condo either or the fact that he was gay. When he was killed off I think some fans even wanted it. That's the problem with that era Legion. Many of the characters were either forgettable or misunderstood (such as the thing with Element Lad being gay instead of being a guy who just likes a person for who they are because he told a Legionnaire that he couldn't understand the element of girls.)

Then you have IK II who lasted a lot longer than Lyle Norg, had a better personality to boot along with a touching back story with his sister. His character as a whole during that era flourished and made him memorable. Plus he was hot. So that's why fans like him more.

Reboot (and maybe SW6) started the trend to make Lyle have a personality. Like an actual personality. He cracked jokes. He hung around Brainiac 5 a lot (either in friendship or because he liked him back then it's unknown even though they kissed later on,) he ran leadership just like the previous run and he did a lot more than just some Earth guy who was a backup for Brainy. He flourished in a similar fashion like Foccart. The problem is Foccart was suppose to show up in Reboot but didn't due to change of writers and probably executive meddling.

Threeboot is similar. Lyle is a major character at the start and using Reboot made him a character. Of course that boot only ran 50 issues and changed writers so we have no idea what they would do, (or if they wanted to make him into a girl just to par him up with Brainiac 5 or another male.)

Retroboot is a combination of Reboot Lyle if you go by the origins as well as the old Lyle (black outfit and similar personality.) Except he died again.

So in Lyle Norg's case it's a combination of people trying to keep Levitz's run and keeping Lyle dead (with no personality) or ignoring such a fact and giving him a personality that he didn't have in the first place. I don't know why they can't just have both IK members them together and give one or the other the same powers as Foccart's sister in SW6 codename COMPUTO.

Personally I like Reboot the most because at least they tried and that version of Sensor was the best compared to Threeboot's version.

2)Magnetic Kid
Legion of Superheroes rules state that two people can't have the same powers even though in many runs Lighting Lad and Lighting Lass were in the Legion together with the same powers. Not sure if Reboot wanted to introduce Pol but that's why Magnetic Kid never showed up again. That and all of the Legion runs after 5YL were teenagers (Reboot they were 14-17 or 19 and Threeboot were 15-19.) The only exception was Retroboot which goes back to the Pre/Post Silver age run but Retroboot was sadly cancelled.

The other questions I can't/don't have an answer for like Star boy/Dreamy (Star boy was black in Threeboot but did not end up with Dreamy,) Vi/Ayla (Vi was probably bisexual in reboot but it's unknown what Atom girl is/what she would end up doing,) or the none human Legion members.

If I did the Legion I would honestly put Lyle and Foccart in the same run. Give Foccart invisibility and have Lyle with the ability to communicate, control and sync to machines. Have him work with Brainiac 5. Keep Dawnstar and have non humanoid Legion members. Make the members more alien. Make Star boy black again. Things like that.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Yeah, all those things. And more!

I don't have much to add to all you've said. One point I thought I'd touch on: your comment about how original-version Lyle Norg and Condo Arlik were gay, and hardly anybody remembers it. I don't blame them for not remembering it, because it was entirely based on that one issue of Secret Origins, and was left ambiguous anyway. By which I don't mean that I reject it; just that it was clearly retconned in later.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Axel said...

Wow. A place to talk about the Legion of Superheroes, my favorite characters in comics ever, and possibly fiction. I know I'm late to the party but, can I join?

My purpose in this post isn't to agree or disagree with Mathew(?), but just to express the view that there's a very good reason why subsequent versions of the legion continue to mine Levitz's work. It's because his second run in the 80s is the strongest creatively; the ideas resonate. No writer since has matched Levitz's strong characterization, his skill for world building and the complex nature of his plotting. Those things define
The Legion. They're the bedrock of a good Legion run. Multiple subplots, sprawling worlds and characters, memorable characters and the sense of a fully realized reality. All of the runs following have failed at doing all of those things, even though they may have succeeded at some of them. It's why that period (80s) remains a creative high water mark for the Legion, and I would argue that any writer who wants to succeed with the Legion, has to figure out what worked then, and then logically extrapolate those characters and events into new and exciting situations and challenges.

If I can use one further point to make my case - the Transformers have had several iterations. But for me, the strongest, purest creative period will always be the generation 1 cartoon. If I were writing anything Transformers related today, I would go back to the concept when it was creatively at its strongest.

On another note, I just so profoundly disagree about the need for the Legion to have "non-human" diversity. My bias is that the Legion should fundamentally, always be about human or human like characters - as what's attractive about the concept is similar to what's attractive about Star Trek - it's a bright, optimistic take on where humanity will end up in the future. You can't make a series be about that and then have it be made up of non human characters. But to be honest, that's only a secondary reason - as far as I'm concerned, humanity is diverse enough. The Legion would be quite an interesting book if it reflected true human diversity in a real way. But even here, my preference is for the creation of new characters; not "ret-conning" existing characters to new roles. So, create new black, Asian, Scottish, gay characters, whatever, I'm fine. I'm not keen on suddenly learning Tim Wolf and Mon-el have been lovers all along.

Oh, and didn't Levitz's release an annual during his last run where he confirmed that Vi and Ayla were lovers? I thought that was pretty clear.

11:28 PM  
Blogger Axel said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:31 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Of course, welcome.

I happen to think that some subsequent runs matched Levitz's aesthetically even if they didn't do so commercially, but of course the fact that they didn't match Levitz's run commercially means that I am outnumbered in this opinion.

On your preference for human characters: that is certainly a valid position, and I think I agree that that's where the emphasis should be, but I do think there's room for nonhuman characters too.

As for creating new characters rather than retconning new details into preexisting characters: did you object when you found out Colossal Boy had been Jewish all along?

(To the best of my ability to discern, DC has never unambiguously confirmed that Vi and Ayla were a couple. They've always kept deniability.)

12:02 AM  
Blogger Axel said...

Ah, but see for me, I never knew Colossal Boy as being anything other than Jewish. And I never knew Light Lass as being anything other than a GF and then ex GF of Timber Wolf. But even then I'd argue that making Colossal Boy Jewish wasn't necessarily a big deal. What I hate is when a character with an established past gets changed into something else entirely so as to "tick" audience representation. Why do that? Why not create new characters altogether? It's the difference between making Alan Scott gay when established continuity has him heterosexual and fathering two children and creating Miles Morales instead of making Peter Parker black. The second approach is smart. It respects the audience. It adds something new to our experience. It's interesting and makes for better comics. The first approach is pandering. The Legion should be full of LGBT, Asian, Latino, and black characters, among others. But they should be new characters created for the purpose of telling new stories. Not old characters changed to suit the whims of a writer in order to pander to an audience.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Axel said...

And the last annual by Levitz and drawn by Giffen in the final run by Levitz after the new 52 confirmed that Vi and Ayla were lovers.

6:13 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

- The reason, of course, for changing established characters instead of creating new characters is that it's hard to get new characters to click with readers. If you actually want gay characters with any staying power in the comics, you pretty much have to change established characters. Maybe it shouldn't be like that, but it's like that.
- Why is being gay a bigger deal than being Jewish?
- I'd have to go back and examine that Annual, but my memory is that DC left themselves with plausible deniability with regards to Ayla and Vi's relationship. I may be wrong, of course.

12:07 AM  
Blogger Axel said...

You've misunderstood me. Please don't. Nothing I've said suggested that "being gay is a bigger deal than being Jewish." Stop there. What I've said is, from my introduction to Colossal Boy, he was always Jewish. In reading letters pages from the period, I didn't get a sense that this was a major deal for fans or that they felt particularly like Levitz was contradicting some established element of Colossal Boy's cannon that they felt was annoying. It made no difference to me as I never read any comics where he was not Jewish.

My problem is with taking established characters and changing them into something else. For example, I'm black, but I wouldn't like it if they made Clark Kent black cos that was the hip thing to do. I'm ok with Clark Kent being white, from Kansas, etc. I'm also ok with a straight Batman. I would have no problems whatsoever however, if someone creates a Batman of the future who was gay, or lesbian, or if, as Grant Morrison has done, someone created a black Superman who was also president of the US or just a black Superman who was a completely different dude than Clark Kent. I would be equally cool with lots of gay and lesbian and transgender legionnaires, plus also some Muslim ones, and Catholic ones, etc, provided the writer creating them knew something about the cultures and religions etc of the characters.

And, yes, it's harder to create something new. But then I would argue that if you can't do that as a writer, you've no business being given the job in the first place.

So please please, let's not misunderstand each other so quickly.

That annual read to me like an unequivocal declaration that Vi and Ayla were in love and very much a couple. I haven't read it for a couple of years but that was my strong impression. Despite my earlier comments, I didn't think it was such a big deal either.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Okay.

I'm not saying that today's writers can't create new characters well. They can. In fact, they may be better at it than yesteryear's writers. But today's audiences are simply not willing to take new characters to their hearts the way they have the older characters. And it's a problem because the older characters tend to be straight white guys, and if they're the only ones with staying power, where does that leave us? Something's got to give.

Maybe I'll look up that Annual today and see.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Axel said...

I think it's a function of how well the characters are written. For instances, people seem to love Invincible. That character is only 13 years old. As I said, it's all about he quality of the writer. Back when Chris Claremont was in his heyday on X-Men, he created new characters all the time. Those became pretty popular too.

12:18 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Invincible is a big fishin a small pond; Image has to publish _somebody_. Claremont's characters are a better comparison, but who was his last character to hit it big? I bet it was quite a while ago.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Axel said...

No. Invincible is a small fish in a big pond. It's an Image comic that competes on quality and often surpasses that of Marvel or DC. It's a new character created 13 or 14 years ago which is still being published and which is fairly popular. The point is - new characters can be created who have legs and can find an audience. The only determinant is the quality of the writer.

You are correct. It was a while ago for Claremont. But 20 or 30 years ago is not that long ago as things go. Even then, the point I'm making is that new characters can be strong and can find an audience. It all depends on whether the writer is any good.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Yeah, it can be done, but the chances are not good, and the quality of the writing is no guarantee. I'm not saying don't do it; I'm saying a combination of the two approaches is probably the best way to go. Introduce XS and Gear and Kid Quantum and Harmonia _and_ make Star Boy black. Introduce Gravity Kid _and_ make Jed Rikane gay.

3:15 PM  

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