Friday, February 09, 2007

The Legion Manifesto, Part 2: Cheaper Than Therapy

For decades now I’ve been a huge fan of two things (in addition to all the things I’ve been a regular-sized fan of): the Legion of Super-Heroes and the Toronto Blue Jays. And when I say I’m a huge fan I mean it. I take the Legion and the Jays seriously. I spend a lot of time thinking about them, trying to figure stuff out about them. I spend money on comic books and baseball tickets, books about the Jays and books about the Legion, TV channels to bring in Jays-related and Legion-related programming. I write long articles on the internet about them, for free.

The obvious question is, then, why would I choose to spend my time and attention and money in such a silly way? And that’s not a rhetorical question. I’ve been wondering what the answer is for a long time, and I don’t know it now, although I hope to ask the question a little more precisely down below.

I might as well start off by noticing some rough parallels between the Jays and the Legion.

1977: The Blue Jays play their first season in the American League. The Legion expands to Giant-Size format.

1982: The Jays have their first respectable season. Paul Levitz starts his long run as Legion writer.

1984-85: The Jays win their first division title. The Legion Baxter series begins.

1989: The Jays enter a new era by moving to SkyDome and winning another division title. The Legion enters a new era with the Five Year Gap.

1992-93: The Jays win two World Series titles: first time that a non-U.S.-based team has won the Series. The Giffen/Bierbaums run of Legion climaxes with the destruction of Earth.

1994-95: Gord Ash takes over as Jays general manager. (His tenure will have some high points but overall be disappointing.) A baseball work stoppage causes the cancellation of the ’94 World Series. Zero Hour ends original Legion continuity; the new Legion series will have some high points but will not replace the original Legion in the hearts of longtime fans.

2000-02: Rogers Communications buys the Jays and hires J.P. Ricciardi as general manager. Ricciardi has strong ideas about how the team should be run, and, while he has his detractors, he has managed to improve on the performance of his predecessor. Abnett and Lanning become the new Legion creators and, with Legion Lost, Legion Worlds and The Legion, revitalize Legion storytelling.

2004: The Jays suffer every kind of injury, bad luck and tragic death imaginable and finish last in their division. The Legion is cancelled and continuity is rebooted.

2005-2006: The Jays rebound and finish second in their division in ’06, their best since the World Series. The Waid-Kitson threebooted Legion is a reasonable success both aesthetically and commercially.

I just thought that was interesting. It’s not significant of anything by itself, of course, but there may be some kind of indication that my attachment to these things is affected by them offering me similar things at the same points in my life. (Which would be a better theory if my fandom of the two things was continuously parallel. It wasn’t. I didn’t become a Jays fan until ’86, and while I started reading the Legion in about ’81, I was completely away from comics from about ’93 through ’02, when the Legion jones arose within me again.)

One thing that does lead me to associate the Jays and the Legion is the behaviour that they inspire within me. I feel like I have to defend both of them against their detractors. You guys should have seen it when the Jays first hired Ricciardi, and he started trading players all over the place. The Toronto fans and media were all up in arms like the world was coming to an end. Some of the fans, like me, thought that what he was doing made sense and could marshal facts and ideas to support our side, and some savage arguments ensued. I may at times have been a little over-vehement in my defense of Waid and Kitson’s Legion—I mean, I try to be civil and reasonable, but I don’t imagine I’ve always completely succeeded—but the Legion Problem is a tea party compared to the fights between the Ricciardistas and the Quantras. I’m not saying I take these things too seriously, but I know I often take them more seriously than the people I’m discussing them with.

Which is one reason why these Legion Manifesto posts exist. They’re a way I can explore my ideas about Legion fandom, about the Legion Problem, and about the basically ludicrous practice of caring one way or another about superheroes. And if it helps me figure out better just what it is that’s going on in my mind, so much the better. As Arlo Guthrie said, “I’m not proud, or tired”, and this is cheaper than therapy.

Another parallel between the Jays and the Legion, and one reason why I defend them, is that there’s a certain issue with dwindling fanbases. Both baseball and comics claim to be reasonably healthy industries these days, and this may actually be the case. But Jays attendance numbers and Legion sales figures show that they could both use a little help. There’s no current cause for worry, in either case, but if I can help persuade anybody that the Jays aren’t doomed to finish third forever, that Supergirl and the Legion is a good comic, then the worst-case scenarios become a little less likely than they were. (The worst-case scenarios being that a) Rogers gives up on the Jays and either sells them to someone who wants to move them out of Toronto, or agrees to have them contracted, and b) DC cancels the Legion and either reboots it again, which yuck, or just stops publishing it altogether. If either of these things ever happens, it’s not going to be because I didn’t get the word out.)

Besides. I want people to like what I like. Am I the only guy who thinks this way? How wonderful the world would be if only everybody liked the things I like. It’d be great for me, because it would mean that the things I like would get a lot of support, and it’d be great for everyone else, because they’d get the same pleasure I do out of baseball and comics and Warren Zevon and P.G. Wodehouse and what have you. It is a beautiful dream.

Anyway, when you’re talking about all this stuff, there’s a key concept that helps make sense out of it all. I clued into it in this thread, in which I think I got a little more obnoxious than I usually like to. That key concept is emotional investment.

When we read something, and really get into it, we invest our emotional attention in it. The more of it we read, through the ups and downs of the story, the more we invest. The longer the story goes on, the more we invest. And then, when there’s a particularly good or moving or climactic part of the story, the investment pays off: we enjoy it more than we would if we were just reading it cold.

All stories play on emotional investment, of course, but current-day serial superhero comics rely on it especially. What else keeps us coming back, month after month, to plank down a few simoleons in return for a thin comic book in which (and I’m definitely thinking of the threeboot Legion when I say this) maybe something exciting happens and maybe it doesn’t? It’s because of how much we’ve invested in the characters and the storyline.

This is where the Legion runs into trouble. Because reboots deactivate the reader’s emotional investment. It’s like an emotional version of Enron: you thought you had a lot saved up, but… not anymore. All that time we spent learning to care about (let’s say) XS and Kinetix and Kid Quantum and Shikari and Gates and M’Onel and Live Wire and Umbra and Brainiac 5.1? Wasted, because there won’t be a payoff. There’s no way to recoup that emotional investment, as long as the reboot Legion stands outside of continuity.

Which is why comic book fans care about continuity so much. It’s not so much that we’re obsessed with details (although we are); it’s that if we can see where our favourite characters fit into continuity we can verify that our emotional investment is still active.

So, the Legion fans who aren’t into the threeboot, the ones who say about it that ‘that’s not the Legion’… what they’re really saying isn’t that the threeboot Legion doesn’t have the qualities that the Legion of Super-Heroes should have (although they may be saying that too). They’re saying that they cannot even partially transfer their emotional investment over to this new version. Some people can. Some can’t.

(While we’re at this… I’ve heard or read things said by people like Dan DiDio and James Tucker that… I don’t want to misinterpret, or to put words in people’s mouths. So let’s just say that I thought I detected a hidden assumption that it was a strength of the Legion that DC could reboot it so easily. Like that’s an essential feature of the Legion’s appeal: it gets rebooted a lot.

Well, just in case there is anyone who thinks that, let me disabuse them of the notion right now. Legion fans don’t like all the reboots. We don’t. Knock it off with the reboots. They’re just annoying. They hurt the Legion franchise.)

When I say I’m against rebooting comic books… I understand the reasons why the reboots were done. The Legion was a freaking mess, just before Zero Hour; I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to try to sort it out. Then, at the end of The Legion, I guess there were a couple of factors that led to the next reboot: low sales, and the fact that you couldn’t portray the Legion Waid intended to portray without such a reboot. Plus, you know, once you’ve done it once, it gets easier… So I understand it. And I like the Legions that have resulted from the reboots. But the price DC paid for creating those new Legions was that they alienated fans of the old.

In my opinion, reboots are never worth it. If something from an old story is problematic, you can always just ignore it (like the early Legion story where Supergirl meets a Legion who claim to be the children of the original Legion). But to come out and deactivate a whole swath of comic book history? It’s just wasteful. It’s always better to look at the stories and say, okay, all this happened, and we can’t take it back, so what can we do to move on from here? Always.

I believe that the Legion Manifesto helps DC. There’s a lot of emotional investment lying fallow out there, just waiting to be rekindled. All those people out there on the message boards and blogs who are calling for the return of the original Legion… they irritate me sometimes when they show disregard for current Legion fans, but their complaints are legitimate and their motives sound. There’s a devoted market out there for comics DC isn’t printing. Is the market large enough to make it worth their while to print such comics? I don’t know, but it’s large enough for them to do something.

One caveat, though: it’s not enough to give us a version of the Legion that’s just a lot like the original (or reboot) Legion. That won’t do it. It has to be the original Legion, with the original continuity and setting. (Obviously, there’s a bit of cleaning up to be done, but that’s okay, as long as it’s clear that it’s the same Legion.) If it’s changed too much, or ‘reinterpreted to conform to New Earth in the wake of Superboy-Prime punching stuff, and Infinite Crisis’, or whatever, then it’s just another reboot and nobody will care, except for the people who will be disturbed at the sight of me chewing my own hand off.

This brings me to an idea we hear sometimes. It’s usually stated something like this: “Well, if you want the old Legion, just go read the old comics. Nobody’s taken the old comics away from you. You’ve always got those. And the old Legion will always exist in your imagination.”

To which I would like to answer, “You know what the problem is with the old comics? I’ve already read them. I want to read about my favourite characters in some new comics.” Is there any reason I shouldn’t want that? (And if my imagination was enough, I wouldn’t need to read comics, or, for that matter, anything, in the first place.)

You may have noticed I have strong opinions about all this.

But I’m not really angry. And I don’t want to imply that DC Comics is the bad guy here. They are, after all, publishing a) a good comic book in Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes, b) introducing a second Legion title in The Legion of Super-Heroes in the 31st Century and c) teasing us with the return of (if nothing else) selected members of the original Legion. And that’s not even counting all the rumours about an All-Star Legion title. That’s a lot of Legion content, and I’m grateful for it. It’s a pretty good time to be a Legion fan, as long as you can accept that this is the Legion.

I think that one of the reasons why I can accept different versions of the Legion so easily, why I can transfer over a small part of my original emotional investment, is that I’m a baseball fan. (Remember all the stuff about me being a baseball fan? This is the payoff for the investment you put in, reading that part.) The Blue Jays aren’t the team they were in the early ‘90s, but you don’t hear people saying, “This isn’t the Blue Jays. I know the Blue Jays. They had Alomar at second, Devo leading off and playing centerfield, and Duane Ward in the bullpen. Those guys aren’t around anymore. Therefore this isn’t the real Blue Jays.” They might say that the team isn’t as good anymore, but that’s a different thing. See, in baseball, there’s always turnover. The team trades players, brings up rookies, fires the manager, moves to a new stadium, changes the uniform. It’s expected. But the emotional investment remains attached to the abstract idea of the team itself. (Usually.) It’s like Seinfeld says: we’re rooting for laundry. My hypothesis is that Legion fans who are sports fans have an easier time accepting the rebooted versions than do non-sports-fans. Just an idea; obviously it’s not the only factor.

So. After all that. Why do we get emotionally invested in things like superhero comics and sports teams?

See also The Legion Manifesto, Part 1

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