Saturday, December 10, 2022

A Farm in the Country Where He Can Run and Play

I've pointed out before how, for a while, the Legion of Super-Heroes was the franchise that DC Comics used for a lot of their experiments with long-form storytelling. The story of Lightning Lad's death and resurrection, for example, took place over nine months, which was rare in the 1960s. Earthwar, Secrets of the Legion of Super-Heroes, the Great Darkness Saga... they were all unusually long stories for their time. Even the Five Years Later series was very experimental, very un-episodic, and very long.

That's not really what it's for anymore.

The Legion has been rebooted enough times that DC must have had to think, many times, about just what you can do, narratively, with this group of superheroes. One thing they've settled on, many times, is that the Legion is not, basically, a concept of a team of futuristic teenagers who were inspired by the legend of Superman. The Legion is the set of characters created in the 1950s through 1980s who live in the future and belong to a team that was inspired by the legend of Superman.

This is where DC and I don't exactly see eye-to-eye, because I think they might have been better served to be true to the concept, at times, even at the expense of familiar characters. If each reboot had introduced a whole new roster of Legionnaires, designed for the times in which they were published and brought into the comic book gradually. They didn't do that. Every time the Legion has been founded, it's been founded by Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and Cosmic Boy. They've had to go back to the late '50s, early '60s, for their starting point.

This often works against efforts to make the Legion a team that's diverse enough to be 31st-century-realistic. That's not my point, but I did want to mention it.

My point is, it's hard for this not to lead to nostalgia. It's hard for writers to have to go back to the comics of their youth for characters and not get the message that the point of it all is the going back.

Let's look at the last few times a new writer started on the Legion, long-term.

2003: Mark Waid, a veteran comic-book writer who had written the Legion in the past, rebooted the team to a lineup of characters that matched the Silver Age team

2005: Geoff Johns, a veteran comic-book writer, brought back a lightly edited 1980s Legion for use in his comic books, and used them as supporting characters for Superman

2006: Jim Shooter, a veteran comic-book writer who had written the Legion in the past, took over Waid's team and did some stories where he worked out some old grudges and gratitudes from earlier in his career

2009: Geoff Johns, whose retroboot Legion is the only one left standing, puts the Legion in some extremely nostalgic stories in Adventure Comics. But he quickly loses interest

2010: Paul Levitz, a veteran comic-book writer who had written the Legion in the past, takes over Johns's Legion for a few years. Toward the end, he brings in Keith Giffen as artist and co-writer, a veteran comic-book creator who had written and drawn the Legion in the past

2019: Brian Michael Bendis, a veteran comic-book writer, starts a new series with a Legion lineup that draws heavily from '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s characters, but not '90s, '00s, or '10s

Here's what I think DC's idea of the Legion is now. I think their idea is that it's where veteran writers can take their nostalgia out for a walk.

That's certainly what Geoff Johns was doing. I wouldn't dare to imagine what Shooter thought he was doing. Waid and Levitz and Bendis, on the other hand... I think all of them were actually trying to do good stuff, to bring some vision to the title. (Some with more success than others.) But I don't think that's why DC gave them the job. I think DC gave them the job because they were proven veterans who loved the Legion from long ago. And I don't think that bodes well for who gets to write the Legion next.

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Blogger Scipio said...

"I think their idea is that it's where veteran writers can take their nostalgia out for a walk."

Well, that hit me in the face like a pie with a brick in it.

There is a lot to think about in this post. The Legion's history as the incubator of long-form super-hero story-telling (before Marvel started doing it) and the devotion it can generate, something I have often discussed. The history of the reboot authors and their takes, something which I'd not really thought about in detail. The concept of stripping the Legion down to its original core concept, the one they made up the characters FOR, instead of just reiterating the characters (a bracing idea that never even occurred to me and probably never would have).

But that final point. I guess I'd sensed that DC didn't know what to do with the Legion, yet I never asked, "So how are they deciding what to do with it?" It never occurred to me that they might be using LSH to appease writers, rather than using writers to fix the LSH. And it saddens me that Legion, which has also shone as the inedible proof that the DCU thinks that future will be bright, and that current-day heroism makes that possible--

has become simply nostalgia.

12:04 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

The good news is, it doesn’t take much to fix it! One person in the right place with a different idea. I hoped Bendis was going to be that person, but the resulting comics just weren’t good enough.

12:32 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

To me, the failure with the Bendis run is that he started in the middle *and* said "Everything you thought you knew was wrong. Mostly."

The 90s reboot started at the beginning. It hewed closely enough to established characterizations to give enough familiarity while it added some new characters and revamped others and other scenarios. Despite some fans' dislike of restarting the characters as kids, and art styles that worked okay for that, it holds together pretty well.

The Waid/Kitson reboot tried to upset the setting applecart, but kept a lot of the basic characters the same. By starting in the middle, everyone was on the same foot, but no one had that foot very solid. I know I never had a feeling for why that Legion really existed and persisted.

Bendis started with a fully-established Legion, one with as many characters as the 1980-era Legion, but with no substance behind them. The impact was that 25 kids were suddenly dumped together and declared they were a superhero team, but with no infrastructure, no training, no history. Sure, you want to get to where all your fave characters are there quickly, but still organically. We never saw enough of stalwarts like Dream Girl, Star Boy, Sun Boy, Princess Projectra, and Matter-Eater Lad to know why these versions looked different or what powers they even had. Recognizing the cacophony of lots of teens working to create a team is a great idea, but not if it's the only idea. In part, DC didn't give him enough time to tell the back stories and flesh things out, but I don't think he wanted to or tried to. He wanted to create a skeleton that stories could eventually hang on, but likely now never will.

6:52 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I certainly haven't been shy on here about saying what I thought was wrong with the fourboot. I think Bendis did a lot of things right, but hamstrung himself by always insisting on the whole team always being involved all the time, so we could never spend enough time with the individual characters. And then when you factor in that he's not as good at characterization as, say, Mark Waid...

It also would have helped if there had been stories in which more things happened.

7:55 PM  
Blogger Douglas K. said...

I've been thinking lately that the world doesn't really need yet another superhero soap opera. The Legion used to stand out that way a long time ago, but everyone is doing serialization now. When thinking about the Legion comic I'd like to read these days (and yeah, there's a heavy dose of nostalgia here), I'm interested in something very episodic: stories that can be told in a single issue, focusing on a handful of Legionnaires each month. You can do a LOT in 22 pages if the storytelling is dense enough. Maybe even a main story plus a backup sometimes; I loved that sort of thing back in the 70s.

I was also thinking something like a superhero anthology book, kind of along the line of Kurt Busiek's Astro City. The Legion has a HUGE cast, especially when you bring all the supporting characters into account, plus the ability to flash back to earlier years. There's a staggering array of stories that could be told, and not necessarily about just the active membership and the adventure of the month.

Really, though, I just want good Legion stories. We haven't seen those in a very long time.

3:09 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Sounds good to me. Really, I think all superhero comics should be episodic most of the time.

7:21 AM  
Blogger Hal Shipman said...

I like Douglas' suggestion as well.

I actually did like Levitz's recent run, though the absolute darkness of that last arc (which I think was mostly Giffen) was really depressing. To be fair, the deaths were what you would actually see in such an unmitigated disaster, but...

Apropos of nothing, I really would like to see DC continue the run of Legionnaires trades. Vol 2 gave me hope, but instead we got the 5YL Omnibuses. That was, as you say, a sold run.

7:06 PM  
Anonymous Ian said...

Fun title. Is this a specific reference or flight of fancy?

As always, excellent analysis.

In the spirit of the Legion, my mind advances ever forward. Once upon a time, my wish would've been getting a few years of something like a Matt Fraction "Adult Legion" series or Jonathan Hickman doing an immortal Legion. However, as evidenced in this post, the Legion have existed for the last 20 years (and sadly going forward) as the province of nostalgic veteran creators.

With Johns poised to be the next best choice for a Legion shaper/writer, how could the Legion imaginatively be portrayed as something new? Is Johns the best choice for freighting a utopic vision? If not, then who?

I might submit Phillip Kennedy Johnson, current writer of Action Comics, only because he has done yeoman's work there and might have a keen understanding of the Legion's place.

Joshua Williamson, maybe?

Waid? again?


11:34 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

There are infinite ways of portraying the Legion that could be good. Waid's ideas in the threeboot were great. I thought Bendis's vision was wonderful; he just couldn't write good enough comics to achieve it. Basically: ideas are cheap.

The questions of who could write the Legion and who I'd like to write the Legion are different ones. There are all kinds of established writers who I would trust to do an excellent job on a Legion comic: Waid, Giffen, Simone, Busiek... I'd happily read any of those, but I don't really want it to happen. (For one thing, some of them have already had their chance.) I'd like to see someone young and hungry get a shot. Someone who isn't another straight white male, ideally.

1:50 PM  

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