Thursday, August 03, 2006

Something Missing

I have no reason to believe Mark Waid or Barry Kitson has ever seen this blog. They might have; stranger things have happened. Of all the things I’ve posted on here, though, this is probably the one I most hope they ever read.

There’s something missing from this version of the Legion of Super-Heroes. And I think we’re going to have to put up with it for a while.

In some ways, it goes back to something I saw in an interview with Waid around the time of the most recent reboot:

“[W]ho in their right mind would entrust the security of the Earth and United Planets to teenagers?

“That’s the first question we asked when we put every single element of the Legion under the microscope--and […] we realized that the inevitable answer, no matter how hard we tried to make it otherwise, was ‘No one,’””

When I read that for the first time, I said to myself, “That makes a lot of sense.” Because it’s true. Nobody would nominate, as the last line of defense between civilization and monstrously destructive evil, a bunch of teenyboppers. Never happen.

The two previous versions of the Legion were that last line of defense, though. Whether it’s realistic or not that they should have been in that position, it’s indisputable that they were, and that they proved they deserved it. Whether it was against Mordru or the Khunds or the Time Trapper or the Dark Circle or the Dominion or Ra’s al Ghul or Robotica or freaking Darkseid, the Legion came through again and again.

And, in doing so, they achieved legendary status in their society. Think about Cosmic Boy’s method of crowd control here:

First of all, it worked. (The magnetism helped too, yes, but I hold that it was the flight ring thing that sealed the deal.)

Second of all, he knew it would work.

Can you imagine? A teenager shows off some jewelry and everybody goes home.

This kind of thing happened on an individual level, too. How many stories have we read in which the stalwart Example Boy is in a tight spot, and the caption says something like, “But Example Boy is still a Legionnaire. And, even now, that still means something.”

Do you get that? The proposition is this: if you’re a Legionnaire, that automatically puts you one up on anyone who isn’t. The kicker is this: everyone believes that. Everyone in the 30th/31st century, Legionnaire and non-Legionnaire alike, believes that. That’s Timber Wolf’s assumption here:

The current version of the Legion doesn’t have that status, and I miss it. It’s wonderful to read about. But their society doesn’t look at them the same way. Oh, sure, they came through against Lemnos, and that was impressive. They have some support. Their new official alliance with Earthgov and the addition of Supergirl gives them a little extra credibility. But really they’re still considered just a pack of kids.

If this Legion is ever going to be thought of in the same way as their predecessors, they’ll have to earn it, by defeating not just one menace, but all the menaces. (And by acting like superheroes as they do it.) It’ll take a few years. But I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to the characters being proud of being Legionnaires. Right now they’re not. Oh, they like the Legion, and they believe in it, in their own ways, but the group is still new and young. The Legion is still being defined by its membership and their actions; the Legionnaires are contributing their values and courage and identities to the team. At some point, these contributions will start paying off. It’ll start going the other way. The team will be, as the expression goes, greater than any one of them, and Legionnaires will be able to draw identity and values and courage from their Legion membership.

I am assuming that this is the way Waid and Kitson are going with this title. In all their years associated with these characters, and the years of reading about them before that, they must have noticed this special aspect of the Legion. And nobody fond of these characters could be aware of this particular brand of esprit de corps and decide not to use it. Right?

A while ago, my wife asked me what she probably thought was a very simple question: who’s your favourite superhero? Now, I’ve got an inexplicable affection for the superhero genre, whether it be in comic books or movies or TV or prose fiction… but I didn’t have the first idea how to answer her. I do now, though, after writing this. My favourite character is the Legion itself, the team, and how it can make all the individual characters stronger for participating in it. That Legion doesn’t exist yet, in this version, and it’ll take a while to coalesce. I can wait… but no more reboots, please?

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Blogger Marc D. said...

Great post! I have been a fan of the Legion in the past (Giffen 5yrs later, T&M) but do not read the comic right now. What you describe is a Legion that has lost its most valuable commodity - its reputation. I don't know if I want to read about a Legion like that. It would be like reading a JLA without Martian Manhunter...oops.

9:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog you have here.These columns are very interesting and thought-provoking.Wish I'd run across them earlier.
Don't disagree with anything you've put forth in your essay,but it could be argued that it's the early days of a superhero career that are the most interesting ones.The first time they don their uniforms,their first encounters with their friends and foes,these have an inherent drama subsequent encounters can't have.Fans always flash back to Superman's early days in Metropolis or Batman's first battle with the Joker,which is why those tales keep getting retold.
Pointless to point this out now since the current Legion already seems to be well established in their society,and the Adventure book seems more concerned with continuity implants than retelling old tales(which is not quite the same thing).But it's no less interesting to see a legend establishing itself than seeing that legend already established.Just thought I'd throw that out at this late date.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks very much. I agree about the early days being (potentially) more interesting, but it's not a well you want to go to too often. And I've seen that stuff before anyway. More and more I find myself wanting superhero stories I haven't seen before.

4:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone who says that no one would entrust the security of their homeland and people to teenagers knows almost nothing about world history or even current global events.

In real life, the majority of soldiers around the world are teenagers even now, in the beginnings of the 21st century.

In World War II, the majority of Americans who risked their lives were in their teens-and-twenties.

Throughout history, most of the soldiers and warriors have been teenagers. Alexander the Great became king when he was 19 or 20 years old. Genghis Khan was already involved in military exploits by the age of 16. George Washington was a major in the military by the time he was 21 years old.

To state that no one in the 30th century would trust teenagers as their warriors and soldiers is to state that the American habit of treating teenagers as children rather than adults (begun in the 1950s) will have overwhelmed the vision of teenagers as young adults which is common in most other parts of the world in the 21st century -- which smacks of national hubris, don't you think?

1:31 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Fair point, but in most of your examples, the teenagers weren't acting autonomously; they were part of a larger organization. The Legion is answerable only to itself, without even Alexander's justification of inherited kingship to fall back on.

2:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

" Fair point, but in most of your examples, the teenagers weren't acting autonomously; they were part of a larger organization. The Legion is answerable only to itself "

I was wondering if you were going to respond to my comment with that. I thought about that myself, but I see two problems with it.

First is that it seems highly unlikely that Mark Waid was taking that into account (based on other interviews he has given over the years). If pressed about it, he would probably dodge behind the assertion that most American comic book readers never think about teen soldiers across the world and throughout history -- a fair point, just not one that legitimates his making so universal a claim.

The second is that, in much of the Legion of Superheroes history, there HAS been adult supervision: Marla Latham was fairly strict and ruffled feathers on more than one occasion, as was R. J. Brande when he was the team adult adviser (depending upon continuity), and the United Planets government itself has shown considerable control over the Legion in some of its continuities. It's easy to overlook the Latham and Brande eras because, for much of its early continuity, the teens were so well-behaved that adult supervision was clearly superfluous, but that doesn't mean there wasn't any on hand for when it was needed.

The anti-adult continuity (advertising tagline "this aint yer grandpa's Legion" or something like that?) is about the only one I can think of to which Waid's criticism might apply. But that does not justify making such a statement about the entire Legion of Superheroes in all its incarnations.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

No, I still think it's true. Brande and Marla were pretty hands-off. I don't see any signs that they were doing much more than signing cheques and, oh, chaperoning?

10:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The implication in the Legion comics prior to the mid-1980s was that Latham and later Brande were fairly hands off specifically because the Legionnaires were so admirably mature and sensible and such good judges of character and situations that very little guidance or discipline was needed. You find the same thing in the way the adults in charge treat the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, for example.

However, I recall a number of occasions when Latham (or Brande) scolded one of the Legionnaires, usually a male, and he would hang his head down in shame and sorrow just like Bud would in Father Knows Best or Andy Hardy of the movies would when scolded by his Pa. I also remember Ultra-Boy being "sent to his room" or "grounded" by Latham and Mon-El having a temper tantrum when ordered to stay home from a mission by either Latham or Brande.

Later on, people decided that teens who did their best to cope with adult responsibilities (i.e. acted the way teens did during the years before the end of World War II) and who could be controlled with a single shaming word were unrealistic, and Brande became more of an avuncular sugar daddy leaving everything in the hands of the kids.

But there was still that 25 to 30 years when the teens were obedient to one or two adults who, in response, trusted them to make the right decisions.

1:06 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

But that's not evident in the stories. I mean, occasionally it is. But in practice, the Legionnaires were the sole arbiters of superheroism in the 30th/31st century. A couple of counterexamples don't negate the basic premise in all the other comics.

And that's normal for superheroes. How many superheroes are there who accept any authority above their own judgment? Few. But it becomes odd in the Legion's case, where a) there basically are no other superheroes, b) there are such strong societal institutions around, c) the Legion plays such a prominent role in securing their society, and d) superheroism is explicitly age-linked the way it was for the Legion.

9:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A, B, and C would apply regardless of age.

So whether you are correct or in error, your argument does not support the idea that TEENS being in charge would be unbelievable, only that ANYONE being in charge with no other superheroes, strong institutions, and a prominent role might be unbelievable.

I'm not arguing against superhero tradition (and I'm not really arguing against anything else you've posted). I'm arguing against Waid's nonsensical assumption that it is unrealistic to believe that anyone would allow teens to hold authority with only a few adults (in this case Latham and Brande) to mediate their autonomy.

As for the teens in the Legion having autonomy so frequently, my response is this: if you met people of such wisdom, trustworthiness, and power they could save your universe repeatedly so long as you listened to them, would you really say "no" for absolutely no other reason than age prejudice?

Waid claims that, realistically, people would say "no". I argue that Waid is unrealistic -- that realistically, globally and historically, when someone has the "right stuff" and is clearly trustworthy, the only realistic response would be to listen to them and allow them whatever autonomy they need.

We find this in business even now. Mark Zuckerberg was 20 when he first launched Facebook. Bill Gates was 20 when he first formed Microsoft. Steve Jobs was 21 when he first formed Apple.

But by Waid's words, it would be "unrealistic" to have Zuckerberg, Gates, and Jobs succeed because no one would believe anyone so young.

THAT is what annoys me. It's an absurd bias against the young, a hubris of assuming all cultures will mimic the U.S. disrespect for young, and most damning of all, it is NOT "realistic" regardless of what Waid might say.

8:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


you wrote "The current version of the Legion doesn’t have that status, and I miss it" -- and I've agreed with you about this all along.

All we disagree about is whether Mark Waid was mistaken in claiming that this status is "unrealistic" because no one could "realistically" trust teens -- and all the examples in the world, whether Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan or Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, must by his words be "unrealistic" since they present young people whom the world DID trust after all.

9:13 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Well, I don't know what to tell you. But I'm still with Waid on this, and I don't think "age prejudice" is a good description of why. I mean, there are real differences between teenagers and adults. And that's not to say that teenagers can't do anything, because of course they can.

Let me turn it around on you: if you were setting up Planet Anonymous, and you were worried about things like monsters escaping from space zoos, invading aliens, and space rifts opening up all over the place, what would you do? Would you say, "how 'bout we find some likely-looking teenagers and turn the problem over to them?" I am guessing that you would not.

And, if you think about it, Waid's point was obviously not that a bunch of teenagers couldn't do that job. That couldn't be his point, because he was writing a comic where they could do the job. Waid's point was that nobody in a position of authority would bet the house that they could do it. And I agree with that.

Your examples of Gates and Jobs, et al, aren't quite the same thing, because the stakes were so different. Can gifted young people start their own businesses? Sure, why not? Worst thing that can happen is that they fall on their faces and a couple of investors lose some money. A lot different from fighting the Khunds.

9:34 PM  

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