Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Legion of Super-Heroes #1 Review

Back to the old salt mine.

What Happened That You Have to Know About:

Some nasties called the Horraz are, for some reason, delivering Aquaman's legendary trident to Mordru, who is in this reality a "demon gangster" on Planet Gotham. Ultra Boy and some other Legionnaires intercept it. Meanwhile, Superboy officially joins the Legion just in time for the Horraz to attack in large numbers, presumably to get the trident back. The president of the United Planets is updated on all of this and is not pleased. Oh, and Rose shows up, but nobody's paying any attention to her.

Review:

Okay, so the first thing about this is, I would not call this a complete comic-book story. It's a chapter one, is what it is. I prefer complete stories in my comics. Now, I understand this is a bar that very few current comics can clear. But I think it's worth mentioning every now and then.

Second thing. I like the way we're starting small. A few Legionnaires fighting some random dudes over an artifact. That's a very manageable scale for a story, and I applaud this approach. (Back in the days of the reboot Legion, this was my complaint about DnA's run on the comic: freaking world was almost getting destroyed every issue.) It's not no-stakes, of course; the trident could maybe restore the oceans to whatever it is that's left of the Earth, and Mordru and the Horraz could be major players. But that's fine. Start small, build up from there.

Let's get into what I think is the most important point, which is just what Brian Michael Bendis's approach to the comic seems like it's going to be. I'll start with an observation I've made before.

The original Legion, in the early '60s, did not have a lot of characterization. The Legionnaires were close to interchangeable as far as their personalities were concerned. Eventually, writers like Jim Shooter and Cary Bates started bringing whatcha might call a more Marvelistic style of characterization to the team, which improved things somewhat, and then Paul Levitz completed the process by settling the Legionnaires into vital, understandable personalities that, decades later, still seem to us like who the characters really are. Then we had the reboot Legion, which built on that by giving the Legionnaires somewhat broader personalities, often ones that may have been less naturalistic but better suited to superheroic characters. After that, Mark Waid's threeboot Legion had bizarre alien personalities that were integrated into the natures of their superpowers and home planets, in ways both obvious and subtle.

(I know, I'm leaving stuff out. I'm just talking about the undisputedly distinct versions of the Legion.)

Well, there's no way to continue that pattern. You can't find a way to develop the Legionnaires' personalities that's more sophisticated than what Waid did in the threeboot. And it doesn't look like Bendis is trying to do that. Bendis has the reputation that his characters do a lot of Sorkinesque back-and-forth banter, and all sound kind of like each other, and that's certainly true here.

I mean, it's not like the Legionnaires are all identical robots; we get hints of what Ultra Boy and Karate Kid and Saturn Girl are like. I'd like a little more than that, but, fine, it's a first issue, there's a lot of ground to cover.

So, yeah, Bendis isn't trying to out-characterize previous Legion writers. I'm going to say something that a lot of people will disagree with, and that's this: it's okay to deemphasize character. There's a lot of different stuff going on in fiction, and you don't have to do it all. You can pick the parts you think are important for the kind of story you want to tell. And plenty of writers don't have character as their top priority, including some of my favourites. I'm thinking of P.G. Wodehouse, who wrote a lot of funny stuff with intricate plots, in which some of his characters were broadly memorable and some were kind of just anybody. Perfectly acceptable approach.

If Bendis isn't emphasizing character, what is he emphasizing? Just from this one issue, I'd have to say that he's emphasizing setting. There's all kinds of crazy stuff in this Legion's universe. Apparently teleportation's easy. It's not clear at all just what Metropolis is, or what it's in. And what's the deal with Gotham? The United Planets homeworld... is that a planet, or a... building...? Previous Legion writers have tended to let the science-fictional details of the universe accrete gradually and in kind of an ad-hoc way. But I get the impression that this is where a lot of Bendis's and Sook's creativity has been invested.

And if that's the recipe for this series, then, yeah, okay. Dozens of chatty superpowered teens exploring a bonkers galaxy? I can work with that.

(It also seems to be part of the recipe that we get elements of the contemporary DCU added strongly to the mix. I don't like that; I prefer as few current-day elements as possible in my Legion comics. But that's just my personal preference and I don't think it ruins the comic.)

I'm going to be interested in seeing how Bendis handles the large cast. If every Legionnaire is going to appear in every issue, it's just not going to work. Few at a time, few at a time. Look at the fight against Mordru in this issue: what was Star Boy there for? He didn't *do* anything; Ultra Boy had to double back and help out.

One last thing about this issue... it wasn't just a guest appearance where the Legionnaires just had to show up and pose. It wasn't a generic emergency like a galactic rift that had to be sealed. It wasn't a high-concept crossover. It was just a regular Legion comic, where something shady is going on and the golden lads and lasses must get their hands dusty investigating it. It's been so long since there's been one of those, and I have missed it like stink.

Bottom line: this was an okay comic book with good ingredients. It's a good introduction and an enjoyable read. I continue to be cautiously optimistic about this title and am looking forward to #2. While I disagree with some of what Bendis wants to do here, I do like the fact that he seems to have some kind of strong vision that he's chasing. It can make up for a lot.

Notes:

- hey, Phantom Girl has a little halo over her head. Didn't notice that before. What's it do?
- I actually want to see the PowerPoint slides the Legionnaires prepared for Superboy
- the Horraz lettering on pages 1-3! That's some Bob Lappan action right there. Nice job by Dave Sharpe
- remember I said the skeletal Legionnaire in the green containment suit was Chemical King? Pipe page 23; more likely Chemical Queen
- I hope the Horraz are more interesting than just being, you know, orcs or whatever
- this may be a plot point: on page 1, what caused the Horraz ship to go out of control?
- I didn't really get some of Mordru's dialogue. Face of madness? You will not shame me? Huh?

Art:

81 panels/24 pages = 3.4 panels/page. 3 double-paged spreads. But note that there are six separate pairs of facing pages where the art spills from one over to the next. That's a lot. What other comics have that? That Nextwave issue?

Panel count is a little light. I had high hopes at the start of the story but Ryan Sook got pretty splashpagey toward the end. I hope it was just first-issue syndrome; I don't want puffy Legion comics. Had enough of that with Johns and Frank.

But the actual art looks good. Sook shows off a couple of times, like with the first Saturn Girl page. (Or on the cover where he does size/perspective tricks with Shrinking Violet and Superboy's arm.) He doesn't stint on the backgrounds. Distinguishes faces well. Really it's a nice-looking comic book. I hope he can keep this pace up.

Membership Notes:

I ain't puttin' it all here; I'll update the Legion Roster/The Legionnaires page, like, this weekend or something. It's due for a renovation anyway.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Nate said...

I really enjoyed this issue. I agree it's emphasizing setting, and so far the setting seems pretty cool (I loved New Earth from the early Legionnaires issues too). The conflict between how Jon Kent initially views "New Earth," as needing to be saved, and how the Legion views it, as having been saved, seems like it will be an interesting vein for Bendis to mine. I'm curious how Aquaman's trident fits into that dichotomy -- maybe it is more accurate to say the Legion views Earth as in the process of being saved.

(It is nice to read your reviews again after the long gap in Legion publication).

9:42 AM  
Anonymous Ian said...

First, it is a source of joy to me that there is new Legion material and thusly getting to read your ruminations. Thank you.

"Okay, so the first thing about this is, I would not call this a complete comic-book story. It's a chapter one, is what it is. I prefer complete stories in my comics."

"But note that there are six separate pairs of facing pages where the art spills from one over to the next. That's a lot. What other comics have that?"

Beside being known for Sorkinesque dialogue, I would say another defining quality of his work is a pride of place for the collection format. In short we are likely in for 1-2, what could be argued as, "complete" stories in the next year's worth of published material. I'm not referring to this quality as a pejorative personally, even though I understand why it is typically employed in that way. As someone who's been reading Bendis' work, with varying levels of enthusiasm, for over 20 years (and as a Superman fan having read most of his DC work of late) this characteristic shows no sign of ceasing. If anything (in the Superman books) it feels more pronounced: The Superman title used the first 12 issues to complete a self-described arc. Also those 2-pages-spanning-a-single-page is a Bendis thing. Not to be a downer, just, hopefully, more data to inform expectations.

Ryan Sook is slow too. His work is lushly gorgeous but is likely very time consuming. I've been following his work for decades as well (ah, Hal Jordan: Spectre). He's gotten better over the years but he's not a reliably steady feature artist. He's a great designer with an amazing aesthetic so it's really great to have him for this launch but I would not expect that Sook will be here after the first year. Perhaps this will be managed competently by Brian Cunningham but Bendis is prolific and tends to have long tenures and Sook hasn't typically had that kind of stamina. Again, not displeased and will enjoy for as long as it lasts but expectations should be honored.

"It also seems to be part of the recipe that we get elements of the contemporary DCU added strongly to the mix."

The final comment on production...there are signs that an effort is afoot to streamline what critics might refer to as DC's unwieldy continuity, by DC's editorial. This, coupled with Bendis' history at Marvel as being a brand-builder, might give some rationale for the decision to make the Legion more connected to modern day DC heroes than less so. Millenium all but disappears if you remove the undertaking of knitting together previously disparate future histories of the DCU. Perhaps another rationale for the emphasis on setting or put another way, the future of the DC Universe. If continuity is king, which is an approach I'm not particularly beholden to personally, then the DCU is the feature character here. Legacy characters as new members, like Dr. Fate and a Lantern, as well as Damien/Robin showing up soon might be more fodder in acknowledging the possibility of a trend.

With all of that said, I enjoyed the issue. It wasn't overly self-conscious and when it was (the classic Legion character caption) it was clever enough. And then the captions weren't even entirely visible! Which gave the feeling of restraint and anticipation (we'll get to know everybody here in good time) as well as trusting that the audience can appreciate the tradition of exhaustive captioning without actually getting it.

Sorry for being so verbose. Sorry for commenting so heavily on what isn't the content.

2:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fantastic review! I appreciated that it wasn't just a recap.

3:13 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Nate: well, it's not like the other Legionnaires don't know what a planet is supposed to look like.

Ian: thanks for the insights, and, yeah, I should have mentioned the captions; they were a neat idea. Feel free to go on for as long as you like.

Anon: yeah, I can't be having with reviews that are just recaps. If you want to know what happened, read the comic! It'll be a lot better than my summary of it!

And thanks to all of you for the kind words; it's good to be back on the horse.

5:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another thing I notices is Bendis has chosen not to take the 'starting over' approach and describe every little Legion detail to the reader. You are expected to have some background in the Legion world or be willing to wait 'til later. For example, he seems to expect you to understand how Ultra Boy's powers work and which ones he has. No exposition is wasted with someone 'saying' what he is doing. Bouncing Boy had a lot of face time but never introduced.

Now, I didn't follow where the Legion cameoed in the other titles over the last few months. Maybe that's where I missed all of this taking place. Still, it is interesting that we have a relaunch of a comic after this many years and we hit the ground running this way.

5:50 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Yeah. Well, it's a lot to cover and you don't want to get bogged down.

When the reboot Legion was introduced, they gave us the origin and founding in the first issue and went from there. But that's literally the only time they did that; every other time we've had to catch up in the middle to one extent or the other. So this isn't really that different.

5:57 PM  

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