Monday, April 17, 2017

Broken Ladder

There's a pattern I noticed recently that I've never seen any comment on. This pattern is for Legion of Super-Heroes comics (and related materials) to increase in quality as time goes on.

Let's break it down by decade. Obviously the '50s were better than the '40s, since the Legion didn't exist at all in the '40s. Just as obviously, the '60s were better than the '50s, since there were only two short Legion stories in the '50s. Meanwhile, the '60s had the famous Adventure Comics run, in which most of the key concepts and characters of the Legion franchise were created. Jim Shooter took over as the primary writer in 1966 and helped modernize DC Comics's storytelling as he did so.

But the 1970s was even better! There was a little publishing hiccup at the start, sure, but young up-and-coming creators like Shooter, Cary Bates, Paul Levitz, Dave Cockrum, Mike Grell, and Jim Sherman brought more sophisticated stories to the Legion than we had ever seen before. Plus, Karate Kid got his own title for a while there; the Legion's first spinoff. And the Legion got to share the title of the comic book with Superboy; they hadn't had that in the '60s.

But the 1980s was even better! The Legion got the title all to themselves, and Paul Levitz returned as writer. Paul Levitz's second run as Legion writer is one of the most highly-regarded in comics' history, and justly so. The '80s brought us the Great Darkness Saga, the deluxe Baxter format, and more spinoffs: Cosmic Boy, Secrets of the Legion of Super-Heroes, Legionnaires 3, and Who's Who in the Legion of Super-Heroes.

But the 1990s was even better! The Five Years Later era had the most powerful stories the Legion has ever seen, before or since. That was brought to an end by a reboot, unfortunately, but the new reboot Legion neatly sidestepped some of the common dysfunctions of the era and gave us years of bright, fun comics that updated many of the characters and stories of the Silver Age. Plus: Valor! L.E.G.I.O.N.! Timber Wolf! Legends of the Legion! Legion: Science Police! Superboy's Legion! Not only that, but the Legion made their first TV appearance on an episode of Superman: The Animated Series.

But the 2000s was even better! Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning took over and gave us five years of some of the best Legion comics ever created, perhaps as good as the Five Years Later era. When a reboot shut that down, Mark Waid picked up the baton for thirty issues of the best-conceived version of the Legion we had seen; finally, the team made sense in a way they never really had before. Meanwhile, the Legion got their own cartoon for two seasons, and the cartoon had its own spinoff comic; both were good with occasional gusts to great. Meanwhile meanwhile, DC introduced yet another version of the Legion, the retroboot Legion, to appeal to those fans who missed the original Legion and had never warmed to the reboot or threeboot. This had its problems but was very well-received, and it culminated in the magnificent crowdpleaser Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds limited series. In addition to all of this, the '00s also brought us Titans/Legion: Universe Ablaze, appearances on Smallville and Justice League Unlimited, and any number of Legion-related toys. We blogged! We podcasted!

But the 2010s was... pretty poor, actually. DC didn't seem to know what to do with the Legion after FC:L3W, and futzed around with it in this title and that one before bringing back Paul Levitz for another kick at the can. Levitz was unable to summon the old magic, and after a while the comic book was cancelled, and it remains cancelled years later. We've had insufficiently-interesting limited series like Legion: Secret Origin and a crossover with Star Trek, and DC occasionally gives the LSH a guest appearance here or there, or hints that they're going to have a big appearance in this title or that TV show but then doesn't follow through on it. Even worse, there was Legion Lost v2.

I write this in the spring of 2017. It's not too late for DC to make the 2010s a better decade for Legion fans than the 2000s were... but they'd better hurry, and they'd better come up with something pretty damn awesome, if that's their intention. Unfortunately, I don't think that's their intention, and I don't think they could accomplish it if it was. But, hey: crossover issues with Bugs Bunny and Batman '66! That's what we've wanted all along, right?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, your post made me unexpectedly sad; so many good memories with the Legion, and I'm even a relative newcomer. My dream right now is for some sort of Legion anthology which would include stories from the different eras/versions of the team (or even new ones), but I know that's not gonna happen. Since DC continues to be an absolute mess, the most optimistic thought I can come up with is that hopefully the next decade will be better. Dan DiDio can't stay around forever, right?

5:16 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I don't feel confident in any predictions. Noplace to go but out on a limb.

8:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would love to hear your thoughts on the impact of the Legion Outpost and all of the work that those people did during that period, in regards to this pattern.

I read TwoMorrows' Best of the Legion Outpost in the last couple years and it seems to want to make the case that a central group of dedicated fans were instrumental in reviving the Legion and moving the team into its own book.

If so, could dedicated fans rally and do something like that again? What would it look like nowadays? And is it even possible in this day and age?

7:09 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I don't really know a lot about it, tell you the truth. The conventional wisdom is that the APAs and other fan organizations were key to bringing the LSH back in the 1970s, and I don't know anything to the contrary.

It's different now, though. There are a couple of differences I'd cite.

First, the internet makes it easier for fans to organize in such a way as you describe, which is good... but also, comic book companies have the notion that organized fans on the internet are a different species from the majority of their readers, so there's no point in listening to us.

Second, comics now are much more tightly controlled by editorial, and so are less likely to be affected by fan opinion; they've got to stick to the plan.

That's what I think, anyway.

Also that it's probably better for them to wait until they've actually got an idea of how they'll make an LSH comic good before publishing one, as opposed to just cranking out product to meet demand.

7:48 PM  
Blogger Kaitland Helton said...

Comics cost enough now, and unfortunately they're not made for kids. 50 years ago (1967) a full color comic-book was a treat. Heck, most homes that had a TV didn't quite have a color TV... yet. A comic was 12 - 15 cents. Most magazines still sported Black and white photography (inside) even if the cover was in color.

Yessir A comic book was a color-ridden treat on the cheap! Today it's hard to get a kid to read. TV and video-games require little imagination and less attention. So the question is - Why don't grown-ups buy comics.

I'll tell ya WHY... ... ... too busy buying expensive video-games for the kids - that's Why!

6:45 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Distribution is certainly a problem. I wonder how hard they've tried to solve it.

7:04 PM  
Blogger Dylan said...

I disagree with a couple of your premises (I generally consider the Five Years Later Legion to be one of their nadirs and the threeboot "Up yours, Grandpa" Legion to have been a less than stellar idea--other than the time it gave us the three Brainys arguing), but I agree that, in general, we've had a LOT of quality over the years and a lot of great ideas and hands passing through the Legion.

Even the post Legion of Three Worlds era wasn't completely terrible; some of the Legion Academy stuff was enjoyable enough, as was the Emerald Empress annual with Ayla and Vi. But the nu52 Reboot just completely sucked whatever momentum (what little there was) that was building right out of it.

The Legion is one of the best concepts in comics. I'm hopeful that the more optimistic bent of a post-Rebirth DCU can do something with it beyond using Saturn Girl for vague hints about Doctor Manhattan.

8:39 PM  

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