Monday, June 04, 2007

Continuity Notes: The Lightning Saga

Breaking my silence on the JLA/JSA crossover…

In the new Justice Society of America series, Geoff Johns introduced a new Starman, and quickly revealed him to be Thom Kallor of the 30th/31st century. He’s a white guy with a beard and a starfield costume, he spent some time in the Kingdom Come universe, and he’s kind of nuts. So right away we’ve got some continuity questions: is this the original Star Boy? If so, how could he exist when current Legion continuity has Star Boy as a black kid who can’t process complex sugars, and is currently safe and sound in the 31st century?

These questions have come to a head in the current JLA/JSA crossover. A quick synopsis of the plot: Starman is revealed to be one of seven Legionnaires to be stashed here in the present for a mysterious purpose. The other six are Dream Girl, Dawnstar, Sensor Girl, Karate Kid, Wildfire and Timber Wolf. The JLA and JSA reunite these six, who then fly off without them in pursuit of their mysterious mission. We also learn that Superman had some adventures with this Legion in his youth, but hasn’t seen them since ‘the first Crisis’.

As far as I can see, there are two issues here. One, how can there be two Legions at once, and two, which Legion are we dealing with here.

I’m not really worried about the two-Legions-at-once thing. We’ve got a multiverse now, and there’s room for all the Legions we could ever need. Obviously DC has to resolve just how Supergirl can go and visit one Legion while Superman went and visited another in his youth, but clearly this is not an impossible situation; it’s just a bit unclear. (This week, the two-Legions problem was acknowledged by a DC character for the first time in Action Comics #850.) It’ll all get figured out; it’s fine.

(Although I do want to say one thing. DC might not show us the solution to the two-Legions problem for quite a while yet. Know why? Because we may or may not keep buying comics to find out how the good guys beat the bad guys… but we’ll probably keep buying them to find out just how continuity is arranged these days. It is in DC’s financial interest to hold continuity resolutions over our heads. We won’t always pay for action, for fun, for good writing, for good art, for good characterization… but we’re suckers for continuity mechanics.)

The question of which Legion we’re dealing with here bugs me quite a bit more. Not that it’s hard to figure out. The Legionnaires we’ve seen, including the statues of them in the Fortress of Solitude, all have original-Legion costumes on. The bits of their history that they allude to are all from original-Legion stories. The Legionnaires themselves include people like Dawnstar, Polar Boy, Matter-Eater Lad and Invisible Kid II, who were never Legionnaires in subsequent versions. In other words, if this is any Legion we’ve seen before, it’s the original Legion, probably from sometime shortly after Crisis on Infinite Earths.

However, the comic books of this crossover also make it clear that this isn’t the original Legion. Remember, we’re only talking about eight comic books here: the first four issues of JSA plus the first four issues (so far) of the crossover. (Plus some minor Karate Kid appearances in JLA.) And in that time they establish in several ways that we’ve got a different Legion here. Some of these details can be explained away as being too minor to dwell on or for some other reason, but others are more problematic; sort them into those categories yourself:

- the Legion flight rings don’t look like they did back in the ‘80s
- Polar Boy and Sensor Girl didn’t wear those costumes until after Crisis on Infinite Earths, and therefore Superman shouldn’t have statues wearing them. For that matter, Polar Boy didn’t become a Legionnaire until after Crisis, although Superman certainly knew him before that
- Dawnstar is suggested to be in a romantic relationship with a Thanagarian woman in Justice League of America #9; nothing in her history suggests that this is characteristic behaviour for her
- Dream Girl describes her superpower as having to do with ‘the Dreaming’, just like in the Sandman comic, but nobody’s ever described her power like that before
- Original-version Legionnaires Chemical King and Tyroc aren’t among the statues in the Fortress
- It’s implied that Wildfire is currently inhabiting a Red Tornado body, which doesn’t fit anything I’ve ever heard about Red Tornado or Wildfire
- Superman tells the story of Star Boy getting turfed out of the Legion for killing Kenz Nuhor, but implies by his wording that Star Boy was never readmitted. But in the original Legion stories, Star Boy was readmitted after a relatively short time
- In JSA #6, Starman seems to suggest that Night Girl joined the Legion at one point, but Night Girl has never been a Legionnaire
- This Legion seems to come from a point in time after their fight against Darkseid. But Karate Kid died in the comic books soon after that point, so if he’s appearing in this story, the timing of this Legion mission is pretty tight
- In the history of the original Legion, Projectra adopts the costume and identity of Sensor Girl after, and because of, Karate Kid’s death. So if we’ve got Sensor Girl and Karate Kid on the team at the same time, something different must be going on here

So they’re a whole new Legion. I’m going to call them the 2x+unboot Legion (pronounced ‘double-plus-unboot’).

But I’m still cool with the crossover. Taken as what it is, looked at for its own sake. It’s good. Johns and Meltzer got together to do this collaborative story, wanted to use the Legion, agreed on which Legion they wanted to use, wrote the story and now we’re reading about it. On this level, I’m okay with everything I’m seeing. Not the original Legion? Star Boy never readmitted? It’s all fine. Because they’re changes made for storytelling purposes. Johns and Meltzer set it all up so that they could tell the story they wanted to tell, and continuity can take a running jump. That’s fine; that’s what they should be doing. I’m enjoying this crossover and, within its context, everything Johns and Meltzer want to do is fine.

What worries me is what this Legion is going to be used for after the crossover. Johns and Meltzer making creative decisions for one story is one thing. DC Editorial making editorial decisions for the long term is quite another. And we know that they’re going to be used for something; Karate Kid is already appearing in Countdown, and Superman alluded to a Legion adventure called ‘Legion of Three Worlds’ in JSA #6 that sure sounds like a setup for something.

And then there’s what Grant Morrison said in his Newsarama interview about what the multiverse would be used for now that 52 is over: “the parallel Earths you see in issue #52 are not the familiar pre-Crisis versions. If you think you recognize and know any of these worlds from before, you'd be wrong. We all wanted to do something new with the multiple Earths so what you've already seen in 52 is simply the tip of the iceberg - each parallel world now has its own huge new backstory and characters”.

To translate: DC has no interest in using its new multiverse to provide a home for older stories. They want to use the multiverse as a tool for telling new stories.

And that’s good!

But if the original Legion and the 2x+unboot Legion are so much the same, why are they so different, and if they’re so different, why are they so much the same?

Or, to put that a bit more explicitly:
1. If Johns and Meltzer like the original Legion so much that they want to use the original Legion in a story, then why didn’t they use the original Legion?
2. If DC wants to tell all-new stories so much, then why are they giving such a prominent role to a Legion that so strongly resembles the original one when they already have another version of the Legion, currently appearing in the monthly DC comic book Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes, that’s much better suited to the purpose? (Oh yes it is.)

To which I can supply the following answers:

1. As stated above, for storytelling reasons. (And for reasons like, DC can’t use Superboy anymore, Johns wants to be able to keep Starman in the JSA, et cetera.)
2. Because they think that the original Legion will sell better than the threeboot Legion.

And there’s something about that second answer that bugs me.

Obviously, DC is in the business of selling comics, so their decisions are not going to be purely artistic ones. They have to think both artistically and commercially. And what they seem to have come up with is that they can make some money on a Legion that superficially resembles the Levitz-and-Giffen-era Legion, but is different enough from that Legion that they can tell new stories with them. And from what I can see on different blogs and message boards, Legion fandom is overjoyed to see these characters. So why aren’t I happy?

I’m not sure. I just know I’m in a small group. Look:

Johns, Meltzer, possibly other DC creative types: happy that they can tell stories about the Legion they want to tell stories about
DC financial types: happy that they seem to have a version of the Legion here that can make some money
Many Legion fans: happy to see Legionnaires wearing old costumes
Matthew: not happy, possibly out of pure contrariness

What’s my problem? Am I a purist? Cripes, I hope not. I like this crossover. I’m ready to welcome this new version of the Legion to DC comics, whatever DiDio and the gang want to do with them. I would even be happy if this Legion took over the title from the threeboot Legion, assuming the story was done well and the threebooters weren’t just chucked in the garbage. Give me good Legion comics and I’m happy, regardless of whatever else. That’s my philosophy.

I’ve engaged in lots of debates about the relative merits of the different Legion eras. I think that almost all periods of Legion comics have something to recommend them; there are only a few that really don’t do anything for me. I don’t mind disagreeing with people about this stuff; that’s why they make chocolate and vanilla. But I have no patience with people who point to whichever version of the Legion existed when they were eleven and call it ‘the one TRUE Legion’. I have no patience with people who say offhand that it’s been all crap since Levitz stopped writing the book. I have no patience with people who hate it that their favourite Legion version has been rebooted but would be happy rebooting someone else’s favourite. If I’ve just described you, I don’t want to know you. There’s been a lot of this attitude on display recently; maybe that’s what’s bugging me. Or maybe what’s bugging me is that DC seems to be pandering to these people with this Legion.

Or maybe it’s my suspicion that the late-Levitz era and Five-Years-Later and SW6 Legions are going to remain excommunicate. There were some real good Legion stories in there, very powerful stuff, and as I keep saying, it’s not right to keep them out of play.

Or maybe it’s seeing just how low some people’s critical standards are. The 2x+unboot Legion has made sporadic appearances in about a dozen comic books now. We’ve only seen seven Legionnaires, and they haven’t told us a whole lot about what’s going on. And it’s clear to everyone that this Legion isn’t exactly the original Legion. But fans are willing to accept them as the Real Legion anyway? Why? On what basis? It’s not anything they’ve said. It’s not anything they’ve done. It can’t be for any reason other than that they superficially resemble the Legion of twenty-some years ago.

It’s hard to believe. Since Zero Hour, DC has given us two perfectly fine Legions, with strong strengths and some weaknesses, and while many fans have embraced one or both of them, others have turned their noses up at both of them, demanding the original Legion back. Does DC give them the original Legion back? They do not. They give those fans yet another new Legion. It’s not as brilliantly conceived as the last new Legion DC came up with, but it does look like the original Legion. And the One! True! Legion! fans are all over it! They eat it up like it’s ice cream. Was it that simple all along? Man. I would have liked to believe that people were thinking a little more deeply about this.

(You people should have seen the first drafts of this post. Vitriolic. I think that if we get any subsequent good comics out of the 2x+unboot Legion, it’ll be despite the efforts of DC Comics, who I suspect are acting somewhat cynically here, and despite the efforts of the One! True! Legion! fans, who I suspect would rather buy a bad comic about people wearing the costumes of the original Legion than a good comic about the reboot or threeboot Legions. (Note: if I’m not describing you, then I’m not describing you.))

(I agree that there have been a couple of very powerful moments when Superman reminisced about his friendship with the Legion. That was great stuff, and obviously written by someone who really gets what the Legion is about. But the comics could have been written so that he was saying those things about any version of the Legion Meltzer and Johns chose to use. It’s not an argument in favour of this new Legion specifically.)

Summing up the main points:

1. the Legion appearing in the JLA/JSA crossover ‘The Lightning Saga’ is not the original pre-Crisis Legion. It just resembles that Legion more than any other, and shares some but not all of their history.
2. the Legion appearing in ‘The Lightning Saga’ is, in effect, a new version of the Legion, and I’m going to call them the 2x+unboot Legion for my own reasons.
3. I like them but I don’t like all the reasons why they exist.
4. Superman remembers the 2x+unboot Legion from his youth; Supergirl is currently visiting the threeboot Legion; no explanation yet as to how two characters from the same world can go to the future and encounter two different Legions.

I’ll post more about this crossover if we get any new developments in JLA #10.

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