Friday, September 06, 2019

Legion of Super-Heroes: Millennium #1 Not Exactly a Review

I'm not going to format this like a review because it isn't exactly one. It talks about two comics, not one, and I'm not as concerned as usual with how good the comics are as comics.

I'll start by talking about the movie Black Panther. (Stay with me.)

There were a lot of things that made Black Panther a good movie. Good story, good casting, good performances by the cast, good special effects... and so on. But there were also some things that made Black Panther an important movie, one that people cared about beyond its quality: the amount of prominence that its main character, a Black superhero, had, both in the movie and in real life; the Afrofuturistic setting, the Black supporting cast... and so on. Those two lists don't overlap; just because a movie is good doesn't mean it's important, and just because it's important doesn't mean it's good. Black Panther was both, and as such its quality and its importance reinforced each other, but did not stop being separate things.

On a less-important scale, Legion of Super-Heroes: Millennium has the same kind of thing going on.

I'm not convinced yet about its quality as a comic book, although I'll have more to say about that, but in the context of someone who's interested in DC superheroes in general and the Legion of Super-Heroes in particular, it looks like it is a very important comic book.

The plot of the comic, basically, is that Rose Forrest, as in "Rose & Thorn", has discovered that she's immortal and is living her way through DC Comics's various futures and trying to cope with the characters she meets as well as her own alter ego.

Now, there's one aspect of this that has been much commented on, which is that this comic seems to have the purpose of tying all of these future stories together into one continuity, and the Legion with them. This is true, and it's not something that I'm particularly enthusiastic about. To me, it's always been one of the strengths of the Legion as a concept that it wasn't tied strongly to the rest of DC continuity. But I think that this is one of the things that reasonable people can disagree on. Certainly I can see the point of those in the DC offices who think that the Legion would be better served by tighter bonds with the other DC titles, in the sense that it might draw in more readers. So I don't really have a big problem with this. But, more importantly, I think it serves an actual purpose in this story!

The key thing here for me is the second section of the book, in which Rose has a confrontation with Terry McGinnis. Terry doesn't really understand what conversation they're having, but Rose is accusing him of... I'm not sure it has a name. You know that idea that the superhero genre is just about the heroes and villains fighting each other endlessly, and the two sides are the same, and it never ends, and the heroes make the villains necessary? That.

It's not a frivolous charge. I mean, I don't like it or put a lot of stock in the idea, but Rose lives in a world in which not all the comics have been masterpieces, and so some of her history is stories just like that. A good superhero story will be grounded in real-world reality, or maybe in a good science-fiction or fantasy idea, and use the particular style of superheroes to tell an engaging adventure story in that reality. An inferior superhero story will take place in a bubble in which all the characters with speaking parts wear spandex and it will have no logic or consequence that extends outside of the superhero genre at all.

Now, you can have perfectly charming stories that happen entirely inside that superhero bubble. We've probably all enjoyed them. And, maybe, all superhero stories need to be like that a little bit. But if you indulge in it too much, it leads to the kind of thing Rose is talking about. The hero fights the villain for no other reason than that you bought the comic, and wins, and a couple of months later the villain is out of jail again and we do it all over again, and nothing changes. So Rose tells Terry, quite sensibly from her point of view, that superheroism doesn't work and nothing changes; you can even have reboots and rebirths and nothing will still change. And, in fact, she witnesses just this over the course of this comic! She goes from the present day to a near future with Supergirl, to Terry McGinnis's 'Batman Beyond' era, to Kamandi's time, to Tommy Tomorrow's time, and runs into the same kind of thing in each era. (Next issue will have more of the same, with Booster Gold and OMAC and the Legion itself.)

So Terry tries to tell her that she's wrong, that things do change and heroes do make things better, which has the advantage of being the correct answer and also true, but she's far from convinced. See, Rose's problem is, and this is what I consider to be a really neat maneuver by Brian Michael Bendis, she's trying to solve the eternal war of hero and villain, not only as it plays out across thousands of years of DC history, but also within herself. And that's why she's the main character of this little two-issue series.

And, of course, the trajectory of it is obvious, not only because we know that these comics are about introducing the fourboot* Legion, but also because we've read all the stuff Bendis has been saying about how great the Legion is and why we should all like it: Rose will resolve this conflict, at least as far as this story is concerned, when she meets the Legion.

That's what I mean when I say this is an important comic. A two-issue story that grapples with the hero-villain dichotomy and sets up the LSH as the ultimate justification to the entire superhero genre? Inject it directly into my veins.

There's more to it than that, too. The characters Rose runs into on her trip through the future are all either teenagers (Terry, Kamandi, Tommy Tomorrow) or are famous for being heroes as teenagers (Supergirl). And she says to Terry herself that the rise of heroes in every era is a cycle, and comments on how they're all young (although I can't find a part where she puts that together). Like, of course, the Legion. Which...

I mean, I'm not picky. If our civilization is not to succumb to the one-two punch of fascism and environmental catastrophe, I don't really care who gets the credit. I hope I do my part. But really it's young people who have been doing a lot of the conspicuous heavy lifting. And if it turns out that young people who have been specifically inspired by the Legion of Super-Heroes have some kind of notable positive effect? I'll be quite gratified. I hope Legion comics catch on huge, not just because I'm a fan, but because where the flip else are we going to find hope for the future?** Anyway, tl;dr, it's a timely theme for a superhero comic.

That's most of the important part of what I have to say. But there are some other points I want to raise.

In the Kamandi section, Rose steals Superman's costume. I wonder what's going to happen to it; I assume she'll give it to Jon when she meets the Legion. But it's interesting that Rose keeps trying to somehow engage with heroism throughout this comic.

Oh yeah. I suppose I should say something about Superman #14. I haven't been following this title, so I can't speak to a lot of what was going on in the issue, but.
- the touch of having Jon invent the United Planets was a nice one. Very Valor-esque
- but is DC really prepared to have the United Planets exist in their present day? Really?
- similarly, I'm not sure it was such a hot idea to have the Legion show up right there on the spot as the U.P. is being negotiated for the first time. How did they know they weren't going to disrupt things and prevent the U.P. from happening?
- unless they knew they wouldn't, because history says that they were there, in which case... they knew they were going to be the Legion before they were the Legion? It's a mess. It is ill-advised

This is maybe my first experience with Bendis's writing. (Did he do the Who Killed Retro Girl thing? I read that, quite a while ago.) And, now that I've read this... he's certainly got that Aaron Sorkin chattiness going. Which I don't object to in principle. Done well, and in small enough doses, it's fine or even good. But I think it's not a good fit for comics, I think it's even less of a good fit for superhero comics, and I think it's even less of a less of a good fit for Legion comics. So, as I keep saying: we'll see.

The art was good too. If this was a regular review I'd make sure I had more to say about it. But I didn't want to say nothing about it.

Anyway! Really looking forward to the next issue. If Bendis and his art collective manage to stick the landing, this could be one of the ones we keep coming back to.

* Fourboot. That's what we're calling it. Done deal.
** Maybe also Star Trek.

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