Tuesday, September 12, 2006

I Have Cracked the Freaking Code

I am so proud of coming up with the idea for this article that I could jump up and down. I really think I'm on to something here.

First I want to go back to something Mark Waid said about the Legion of Super-Heroes in an interview:

A lot of these kids have some commonality, but others--despite their humanoid appearances, we're trying to always bear in mind that having, say, Brainiac 5, Element Lad and Chameleon together is like trying to build an effective fighting force out of a magnolia tree, a sugar cube and a cumulus cloud.

Not only a sensible thing to say, but, if true, important. I've had it in mind the whole time I've been reading this series, and I think I've finally sussed out how it applies.

The way I see it, the Legion has gone through three phases of characterization.

1. In the Silver Age, characterization was a pretty rudimentary thing. It's not like nobody had a personality, but what individuality the characters did have was usually pretty simple, broadly drawn, and strictly optional.
2. Eventually the writers started to give some real personalities to their characters, and to explore their relationships more carefully. I guess Marvel led the way in this effort. It started slowly and clunkily, but once we were into the '70s and '80s there was some real good stuff going on. I'm not sure when the Legion entered this stage, but they were pretty obviously in it by the time Wildfire joined the team. And, for my purposes, this stage continued right up until the Titans/Legion Special.
3. The current stage.

The current stage is a whole new thing for characterization. I don't want to call it revolutionary, because I don't know if it has wider applications than this one title, but it's new. What Waid has done is to take the characters' powers into account when deciding what their personalities had to be like. It wasn't enough to take a stage-2 approach and say, "this is a group of teenagers. They have unusual powers and responsibilities, but basically they're normal people and our stories will be about these normal people and their relationships and adventures in exotic situations." Stage 3 brings with it the approach of, "this is a group of different creatures from all over the galaxy. Some of them were born with superhuman abilities in unimaginable environments. Their resemblance to what we think of as 'normal people' is only superficial. In fact, Legionnaires are different, and even more importantly, they're different from each other. Our stories will be about how these superhuman powers and bizarre backgrounds lead to mind-manglingly different perspectives, and how a shared commitment to superheroism can lead this adolescent intergalactic zoo to work together despite these different perspectives."

I have two separate things that I want to talk about that come out of this. One's Legion-related and I'll get to it first; the other is about the DC Universe as a whole and I'll save it for after.

Anyway. Waid redesigned these characters so that their personalities and their powers are integrated. I don't want to overstate the case here; these Legionnaires aren't mere caricatures of their own powers. That would not be cool at all. No, they're people all right. But if you had some kind of superpower, some inhuman ability that informed every part of your life, it would affect you. You would think differently than you do now. Your actual brain might be different. So with the Legion.

In many cases this is more of a thematic choice than it is a conceptual necessity. It's one thing to say that Brainiac 5's superbrain leads him to look at the world differently from how Karate Kid does. It's quite another to look at characters like Lightning Lad, Light Lass, Invisible Kid, Ultra Boy and others who weren't born with their powers, but acquired them later, and say that their minds must be different. And yet we can still see connections between their personalities and their powers. Waid didn't have to make it work like that, but there's no reason why he shouldn't.

Let's go through this with some examples. I must admit that I haven't yet figured out how all the Legionnaires fit into this idea yet. I imagine it'll come.

Cosmic Boy: He has magnetic powers. He's the leader of the group, because he has the charisma to hold everyone together. Another phrase that means 'charisma' is 'animal magnetism'.

Lightning Lad: Thinks and acts quickly, like a lightning strike. Sometimes too quickly. I don't mean to say that he's one of these impulsive hothead types, like Wildfire was; just that Garth processes things without a lot of turnaround time.

Dream Girl: "Didn't we already beat this guy? Sorry. You know how I get." That, at the time, was great characterization: her knowledge of what was going to happen caused Nura to interact with the world far differently than would those of us who have to wait on the event. And now (this is being written after issue #21), she may have actually become a dream, which (potentially) integrates her even more deeply with her powers.

Phantom Girl: I thought for quite a while that I just wasn't getting Phantom Girl. But now, looking back at her little spotlight feature in issue #4... maybe there's nothing there to get. Maybe she's just a phantom, and whatever part of her is knowable is also inaccessible to us. Enh, I dunno. That one might be a bit of a stretch.

Supergirl: I group her here with Dream Girl and Phantom Girl because, to me, they're characterized similarly. All three routinely receive sensory input that the rest of the world isn't privy to. This a) distracts them and b) causes them to do things that other people don't understand at the time. Which in turn makes them seem kind of spacey, even though they're not.

Light Lass: Can be frivolous.

Micro Lad: He's not just a normal guy who can grow anymore; he is big, and thinks that way.

Invisible Kid: This one's tricky. I'll have much more to say about Lyle in a future post, but for now let me just point out that nobody trusts him. Part of that is because of his actions. But it's also, I think, because of his powers. You can't see him. He's there, but you can't see him. How do you trust a guy like that? I expect Invisible Kid to be pretty much an outsider for as long as he's on the team because of this. When he took that serum, something fundamental happened to him that keeps people away.

Brainiac 5: Well, nothing new here; Brainy's intelligence has been setting him apart from the other Legionnaires for decades.

Atom Girl: All I can figure out so far is that she's got the 'Napoleon complex' - she gets pushy and outspoken with people to compensate for being so little. Although her status as a manumitted slave of the Coluans, and therefore also a dedicated Brainy supporter, qualifies for mention here.

Element Lad: Has the power to change the elements; is fascinated by change.

Shadow Lass: She's kind of got a dark personality, doesn't she?

Triplicate Girl: One of the best examples of how Waid has reengineered characters so that their personalities and powers intersect. Not only is she alienated from the Legion because there are three of her; she's alienated from her home because there are only three of her.

Now, I know, some of the examples I’ve been giving here are superficial, and we’re going to want to spend a lot more time with the characters to see if there’s anything deeper going on. But check out…

Chameleon: Ah, Chameleon. He's the reason I'm writing this. I finally figured him out. You know the time I posted about how I really didn't have a good handle on his personality yet? Now I do. Or I think I do.

Consider the real-life animal, the chameleon. Its colour changes to match its surroundings. If we extend that to the comic-book character Chameleon, we get someone whose personality changes to match the people surrounding him.

Which means we have to reevaluate everything we think we know about him. Him/her. Whatever.

Remember when Cosmic Boy called him 'poisonously bitter'? Rokk was the bitter one, because of how his leadership was being undercut at a very difficult time.

Remember when Triplicate Girl described him as a prankster? Issue #3 showed us all that she's a prankster herself.

Remember in issue #3 where he and Sun Boy and Triplicate Girl are trying to play some kind of superhero game, but he can't fit into it right? Sun Boy quit the Legion because he felt he didn't really belong there, and Luornu has issues about fitting in herself.

His spotlight issue, #19? He disguises himself as a Science Police officer... and ends up solving a mysterious crime.

What is Chameleon, and what is just the reflection of the people around him? He must have something within him that's his own. He did take the initiative to join the Legion, in a world where it must be much easier not to do that. It'll be hard to pick out, though. If this is really what Waid is doing with the character, and not just me wanking*, it's a very tricky and ambitious thing for him to try to write, and I'm looking forward to picking out more nuggets of information about Chameleon and the other Legionnaires.

Such as. Remember the great Cos/Brainy schism, where Chameleon tried to mend fences by disguising himself as Ultra Boy? Ultra Boy got really mad and called him a freak. If Jo perceives Cham as a freak, then, maybe, that's what he thinks of himself deep down. It's certainly something I'm going to be watching for in Ultra Boy's future appearances in this title.

The other thing I wanted to say about characterization was this. Legion of Super-Heroes looks like DC's trial balloon for a couple of big things they had in mind. If you go back and read the Titans/Legion Special, there's a part at the end where the Legion is trying to go home to their 31st century, but some kind of disturbance in the continuum wrecks everything and they get cast into the void. At the time, we didn't know what the disturbance was. Now, after Infinite Crisis, it's easy to identify it as Superboy-Prime beating the snot out of reality in search of a way out of that little pocket dimension. This was about a year, year and a half before Infinite Crisis, you understand.

But LSH was also DC's vanguard in the area of diversity. I don't know where I heard it, some panel discussion or interview or other, but one of the things DC wanted to do coming out of Infinite Crisis was to promote diversity among their characters. I don't mean racial or sexual diversity (although they've been doing that too), but diversity in the points of view of the characters. DC has some great characters, but, according to whoever said this, maybe DiDio, one thing that needed to be done was to differentiate the way all these characters thought about the world, thought about being a superhero, thought about justice. The Outsiders used to be a more standard superhero team; now they're kind of a black-ops team. Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters used to be a more standard superhero team; now their miniseries is tackling issues of personal liberty and sacrificing freedom for security and tyranny and all kinds of political stuff like that. The new Blue Beetle and Atom aren't behaving hardly at all like their predecessors, and don't really resemble standard superheroes in their outlook. But the first place where DC readers saw this rainbow of competing superhero perspectives start to open up was in Legion of Super-Heroes, months before anybody had any idea what was coming in Infinite Crisis.

*Always a possibility.

Labels: ,