KC Column: LLL!

Adventure Comics #4

Adventure Comics #4

by KC Carlson

This originally was going to be a much different column. Then all hell broke lose in the comics world in the last week or two.

First off, The Walt Disney Company bought Marvel Comics. Which I guess is a pretty big deal, but I don’t see much of a huge change coming in the way comic books are done at the company – at least initially. Disney would have to be crazy to change what is effectively the biggest and most profitable comic company in America – at least in terms of Direct Market sales. No, I think that this is one of those “let’s toss a lot of money around because we might get a movie or two out of it down the road” Hollywood-type deals. I definitely fall into the “Disney bought Marvel before somebody else did” camp of thinking on this. And Disney will get some characters that they can market to boys and young men to counter all the Princesses and Fairies that Disney is best known for.

Then, in reaction, Warner Bros. Entertainment announced the reorganization of DC Comics, making it part of the newly christened DC Entertainment. There’s roughly about 4,865,296 other people talking about this on the internet – probably all right this second. But although I have a lot of thoughts about this one, I ultimately think at this point, it’s all just “loose talk” and idle speculation and there will be much more to talk about in the future, when things settle down. I believe that this particular move is also mostly about movie money. I also think that it will have much bigger implications on DC Comics than the Disney move on Marvel will have, but probably not much change in the short turn. The reasons I think this all fall to one man, Paul Levitz, who is stepping down from his roles as President and Publisher of DC Comics (but will remain with the company as a consultant for a time).

I can’t say with any certainty whether Paul’s departure will be a good or bad thing for DC (again, too soon to tell), but I can say that DC Comics will be a much different place without him. Hopefully, the new caretakers of the place will know enough to keep his number handy in recognition of his long-standing place not just in DC’s history, but in his often unheralded (and occasionally behind-the-scenes) efforts for creators’ rights and his place in the origins and care and feeding of the Direct Market Distribution system. This is perhaps a controversial statement these days, but the Direct Market would and could have been a lot worse off without him.

I also think – after the initial shock wears off – that Paul will be a much happier person after all the dust settles. Especially since the flurry of announcements this week also indicate that Paul will now be able to make his long-awaited (and anticipated!) transition back to another early love, writing comic books, and his first new writing assignment will be The Legion of Super-Heroes. And while the other DC news is potentially scary, the Levitz/Legion revival is the best news I’ve heard in a long time!

This will be Paul’s third go-round as Legion scribe (not counting a stray short story here and there, including one nervously edited by me!). His last stint on the Legion was especially noteworthy for propelling the Legion to the top of the DC sales charts, cementing the Legion’s status as one of its best franchises, and creating one of the all-time (not just Legion) DC classics in The Great Darkness Saga with his long-time fan-favorite artistic collaborator, Keith Giffen.

(If DC were smart, they’d quickly find a place for Paul to tell JSA stories again, especially since the new writers there seemingly don’t quite “get” what makes the JSA work. (Hint: It’s all about family and tradition.) Heck, DC should invent a special “Earth-2” book just for Paul, so he could write “his” JSA, including his much-loved versions of Power Girl and the Huntress, who just both still happen to exist there.

Paul, welcome home!

But Wait…

I’ve been remiss in not talking much about the Legion here, both about what’s been going on in the current books lately or about my role as former Legion editor. Let’s try to rectify some of that.

Legion of Three Worlds

Legion of Three Worlds

I stopped reading Legion of Three Worlds after the second issue. Not because I wasn’t enjoying it (I was!), but because I had learned of the upcoming delay in the production of the book – mostly since artist George Pérez wanted to take his time and do a great job! I normally hate when artists pull that stunt, but here I was okay with it because 1) Pérez was drawing about 30 pages per issue. 2) Pérez was drawing three different versions of the Legion, plus about 50 villains, various Green Lanterns, Guardians, and other characters – easily about 100 characters per issue (and more in issue 5!). Characters were spilling out of the panel borders! 3) The story was just complicated enough that I knew I’d forget what was going on from issue to issue – mostly because I’d probably read about a hundred or more comics in between each issue of the series, not to mention the dozens of TV series I follow. Plus the 7-12 different prose books I’ve got going at any given time. Plus, movies – most of which are serialized as well these days. That’s a lot of stories to follow! My poor tired brain can’t always keep them straight.

So I waited until they were all published before I read them, all in one sitting. Unfortunately, I learned about some of the “surprises” that happened in the series because they had repercussions in some of the other more current comics I read – one thing I hate about the “they all gotta be connected” way of storytelling these days. (Something I probably share with a lot of fellow Westfield subscribers, who only get their comics once or twice a month.) Is it weird to not read all the comics the same week they were published?

Anyway, Legion of Three Worlds was one of the best Legion stories in years, maybe decades. It was super-compressed, so that big things were happening every few pages – or there was a big, giant Pérez double-page spread to drool over! There wasn’t much room for characterization (always a problem in LSH stories) but writer Geoff Johns excelled in expressing character in what the character had to say – and it never hurts to have a pro like Pérez on board to show character in the artwork. Also, not much room for characters  to shine (My god, there were three versions each of most of the prominent characters!), but Johns did a good job in spreading around the “star moments” to the appropriate characters. If I had the space here I could easily rattle off dozens of “perfect” moments in the series.

I had a lot to be worried about, especially after my normally loving wife had cynically put it into my head early in the series that “you know, a lot of the characters are just gonna be cannon fodder. They’re probably going to kill off ‘your’ Legion to make room for a new one.” Thankfully, a chance meeting with Geoff Johns at last year’s Wizard Chicago Con gave Geoff the opportunity to say “I hope you’ll be pleased with what happens with ‘your’ Legion – especially with XS and Gates, who I loved writing!” Thankfully, I was very pleased at how the whole thing turned out, especially since most of the characters did survive, although it was often a brutal and bloody fight.

In fact, I enjoyed the first two issues so much, I pre-ordered the hardcover collection before the series was even completed. It’s scheduled to ship in late October, so there’s still a chance to order it before it’s available.

The Return of a Classic Title

Adventure Comics #3

Adventure Comics #3

I was very pleased to hear the announcement that the Legion was to be revived post-Final Crisis, especially since it was announced that it was to be placed in the also revived Adventure Comics, the title comic of the Legion’s first series home. That was a nice bit of nostalgia, as well as the resurrection of a great DC trademark. I was also pleased to hear that Geoff Johns would be writing it, especially since I thought he did such a great job on not only Legion of Three Worlds, but also the Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes story in Action Comics as well as The Lightning Saga, which co-starred the Legion in that year’s JLA/JSA crossover.

To say that I was shocked when Adventure Comics #1 (actually #504) showed up and I discovered that the Legion was just the back-up feature behind the Superboy lead would be downplaying my actual reaction, especially since I had never warmed up to this particular version of the Superboy character (excepting the early Karl Kesel-scripted stories) and I kinda wished he was still dead. In fact, my early title for this review was “Holy Murray Boltinoff!”, a tip of the hat to the DC editor who originally dumped the Legion out of it’s already sad – but at least regular – berth as the back-up in Action Comics into the quasi-limbo of occasional Superboy back-up. (Something which took the Legion several years to claw its way back out of, inadvertently creating organized Legion fandom in the process.)

And then I read the issue. And had to choke back my initial knee-jerk reaction after reading the incredibly poignant Superboy story written by Johns and beautifully illustrated by Francis Manapul. They had me at Page 2, with that incredible Kansas sunset and Superboy confessing to Ma Kent “I can’t believe I ever hated Smallville.”

Also very interesting are Superboy’s diary entries about “What does Superman do?” and “What does Lex Luthor do?” considering that it was revealed that the character shares genetic material with both those individuals, shortly before Superboy’s “death” in Infinite Crisis.

Issue 2/505 was even better, with Superboy’s first “real” conversation with Wonder Girl since his death and return. And both Ma Kent and Krypto playing a big part. Perfect. Adventure Comics is now my favorite superhero comic book.

Superman: Secret Origin #2

Superman: Secret Origin #2

Yeah, I’m still a little bent about the Legion just being the back-up, although I hear from “knowledgeable insiders” that this is more of a placeholder as DC’s PTB work out the details of just what the Legion’s place in the new DCU will exactly be. And it looks like with the recent announcements, Paul Levitz may now be more of a part of those discussions. Sounds good to me, although I will be a little sad if Geoff Johns isn’t a part of the LSH’s future. (Although it looks like they’ll be a part of the Johns-written Superman: Secret Origin. So at least that’s something.)

I’m very much enjoying the slow way that the current Legion is being (re-)introduced, with most of the team operating fairly normally in the 31st Century, but still with a few members mysteriously operating in the present-day DCU, and others MIA. It hasn’t totally escaped me that the new status quo for the current Legion could very possibly be where the continuity of Levitz’ last Legion run ended (with somewhat of a gap of time between the two) with all the other alternate Legions being placed in other DC alternate universes. Such as the “Threeboot” Legion being “assigned” to Earth Prime and the “reboot” Legionnaires wandering the Multiverse as the “new” Wanderers, as per Legion of Three Worlds #5.

Interesting times are ahead for the Legion of Super-Heroes. I’ll be one of the first in line to watch what happens.

So. What?

So what is it about the Legion? I get asked this a lot by folks in the “real world” (that strange neither-world where people don’t know anything about comics beyond Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, or Superman) and even a lot of younger comics fans who just don’t get the Legion’s appeal. In some ways, at its essence, the Legion of Super-Heroes was originally to comics what the X-Men have now become. In its simplest terms, both groups are a huge collection of heroic characters, mostly young and idealistic, with very specific super-powers or amazing abilities who band together to help other people. Some key details vary: The X-Men are (usually) set in the present day, are usually multiethnic (with the occasional alien tossed in), and have a lot of stories which deal with them being persecuted by a world that largely fears them. The Legion is (usually) set 1,000 years in the future, consists of mostly all aliens (generally one from each planet), and has a lot of stories about their organization itself (the Legion is all about rules and rosters) or about the political system in which they work. Unfortunately, despite being all “aliens”, the Legion mostly looks like a bunch of white American kids (especially in their early years) playing at galactic paramilitary war games, which is probably why the X-Men passed them in popularity a few decades ago. Despite living in the future, The Legion has always had a tough time keeping up with the times.

The real key to both series’ popularity is what I call the identifability factor. Both series have a huge cast of characters that are somewhat underdeveloped personality-wise because each character has so much competition for “screen time”. Many of the characters were basically blank slates.  (At least initially. With both franchises now decades old, most of the key characters are well-defined, although there are still countless minor or incidental characters mostly defined by their powers.) Because many of the characters were tabula rasa, young readers could project themselves into these characters, based on the slightest of reasons. (“Wow, Element Lad seems really shy – just like me!” or “Phantom Girl is really cute! I wish I could be Ultra Boy so I could be her boyfriend!” Or any of dozens of other scenarios not made explicit by the comics themselves – most notably the long-standing early fan-based speculation of which Legionnaires might be gay, based mostly on their not having specific boy- or girl-friends.)

In a sense, the early Legion could be seen as one of the first role-playing scenarios based on comics. Indeed, two different role-playing games were ultimately based on the Legion, with their Sourcebooks being highly collectible. Quite notably, Legion writers got very involved with these games as both Paul Levitz and Tom and Mary Bierbaum wrote extensively for these sourcebooks, with the latter including information about then-current storylines which unfortunately never made it into the comics themselves. A similar, although slightly more sophisticated, thing happened with the X-Men, especially with the second-generation team introduced in 1975. Even in the 90s, when I was editing the Legion’s exploits for DC Comics, Legion fans made a very big deal of telling me how much they identified with this character or wished that character wasn’t so dense or butt-headed, both in their letters and when I met them at conventions. It’s been said many times before, but Legion fans are really something! (Just what that something is, exactly, is occasionally debated.)

What the Legion Was to Me

The Legion (in Adventure Comics) was the first comic book series I seriously collected. To get many of the back issues I needed, I traded in all of my old Disney comic books (mostly Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories and Uncle Scrooge) at the very first comic shop I ever saw, a small store that I don’t recall the name of, that suddenly popped up one day in downtown Janesville, Wisconsin, in the early 1970s. (And was gone a short time later – less than a year, I think.) As a nostalgic adult, I now sort of regret the trade. At the time, I thought I outgrew the “kiddie” Disney books and was transitioning into (I thought) the more sophisticated world of superhero comics. Obviously, I know better now, so there are those little pangs of regret. But I don’t regret getting the Legion books, or my choice of that being the first series to seriously collect.

I also think I glommed onto the Legion because it featured a large group of characters, and I was an only child, with parents largely distracted by other things. I often spent big chunks of my childhood without anybody to talk to or play with, so I had to find things to do to entertain myself (like reading comic books), and the Legionnaires were pretty good substitutes when real friends weren’t available. Even today, I still prefer group books over single character series.

Part of the reason I got into the Legion was a particularly geeky one – I liked to make lists. The Legion was a listmaker’s dream! I had lists of the Legion members, their real names (odd, but memorable, names like Rokk, Tenzil, Salu, and Tinya), the planets they came from (Braal, Bismol, Ismk, Bgtzl), their super powers, and which ones were boyfriend and girlfriends. Plus, there were the Substitutes, the Super-Pets, the honorary members, the Legion of Super-Villains (and all the villains, for that matter). Later on, there were the Legion Reserves and the Legion Academy members and the Science Police members. And the Wanderers and the Heroes of Lallor. So many characters!

Who's Who in the Legion of Super-Heroes #7. And this is only the front cover!

And this is only the front cover!

Don’t believe me? Check out the wraparound cover to Who’s Who in the Legion of Super-Heroes #7. It features 271 different head shots of Legion characters. And that wasn’t even all of them. And this was in 1988. There’s probably at least a hundred more by now…

And, sadly, there were the lists of dead characters. There were a lot of dead characters in the Legion over the years. The death of Lightning Lad in 1963 (later resurrected by the sacrifice of Proty I) (or was he?…) was often cited as the first superhero death. It was almost like they were cannon fodder or something…

On Editing the Legion

When Mark Waid, Tom McCraw, and I spent several months determining how to streamline the Legion and all its various far-flung stoylines and situations prior to the big Zero Hour event – now known as the Legion Reboot – I kept trying to break down what the Legion was in its most basic form. I kept coming back to this phrase: “Kids in the future in space.” That was the Legion that I grew up reading, and I felt that’s what made the series so special.

First, it was about kids, or teenagers to be more precise. Anybody who has seen a John Hughes movie knows how difficult it is to be a teen. Between confusing thoughts, raging hormones, alienation from your parents (real or not), and just plain trying to figure out how the world works and how you fit into it, being a teenager is rife with great conflict and storytelling possibilities. Everybody lives through it somehow and can easily relate to it. It’s rite of passage writ large.

Secondly, “in the future” implies change, hopefully of the optimistic kind. Or at least it was that way in the days when the Legion was first conceived, including the earliest days of the Space Race, and the flood of technology that came from it. The Legion was also forged in the early days of the struggle for Equal Rights for all. And the Legion had its heart in the right place, as it was initially an interstellar teen version of the United Nations, although almost all of the characters were initially depicted as white teenage kids, with the occasional “token” alien. Not very forward-thinking, in retrospect.

Finally, “in space” has always fueled the thoughts of adventure – from the earliest myths of the gods’ adventures in the night sky (as depicted by the stars) and including the entire body of science fiction and epic space battle, in its long history of depiction in prose, film, radio drama, TV, and comic books. Space also implies technology, much of it the quantum kind, either to keep our frail bodies alive in the void or to cover vast distances in less than a lifetime.

And then you can add in all the crazy personalities, interpersonal relationships, procedurals, interplanetary politics, super-pets, ineffective super-powers (and characters), Miracle Machines, and so much ephemera that today you need multiple server farms to contain it all.

That’s quite a lot for a crazy little cult comic book, huh?

I’m really looking forward to the next chapter. Hope you are too!

___________________________

So anyway, that’s what the Legion is all about.

This is just scratching the surface about Legion Lore. In upcoming columns, I’ll talk about my time editing the Legion, including all the controversial stuff that I did while I was there – like the Reboot – and some of the fun stuff as well – like working with new talent and their crazy ideas – on the page and off – and other secrets. And if you’re really good, I’ll tell you about some of the really dumb things we did (or almost did). Maybe I can even talk some of my old cronies into joining me.

So, feel free to drop me a note (or leave a comment) if you have any questions about the Legion – especially about the Reboot Legion era. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find somebody who does!

Long Live the Legion!

—————————–

KC CARLSON still often wonders about the revelation that the resurrected Lightning Lad was actually taken over by the mind of Proty I. And was married to Saturn Girl. And had children with her. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) And that one of those children grew up to be one of the Fatal Five. Yeah, I don’t really miss some of the old Legion continuity….

Purchase

Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds HC

Adventure Comics #3

Adventure Comics #4

Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes SC

Justice League of America: The Lightning Saga SC

Superman: Secret Origins #2

(The cover for Who’s Who in the Legion of Super-Heroes #7 came from the Grand Comic Book Database.)

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  1. KC Likes the Legion » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] his latest column at the Westfield blog, KC discusses the big comics news of last week, including Paul Levitz’s departure from DC […]

  2. Scott Says:

    Thanks for shedding some light on the appeal of the Legion.

    Since I have never seen the appeal of the X-Men, I don’t feel too badly about not “getting” the Legion.

    Still, it is always interesting to read about someone else’s passions.

  3. James Schee Says:

    Weird that you expressed such acclaim for the L3W miniseries. I had such high hopes for it, after enjoying Johns Superman & the LSH storyline, but it turned out to revolve around the biggest element that I always had a problem with. When the LSH stories revolve around our era, and the current status quo of other books.

    I always wondered when the Legion went from club for friends with powers to sort of a United Nations like peace keeping force.

    Also I was reading the V4 issues recently, and in the letter column there were talks of a LSH series that would have been stories set in the new characters and time line. That could have been interesting, but I wonder how close it got to being a reality.

    Was the character Kent Shakespeare ever supposed to have a back story? I liked him, but it seemed like we never got much beyond “hes a playful nod at a Superman like character.”

    How do you pronounce Tinya? Tin-yah Teen-yah Teen-yuh?

    I miss Jeff Moy, Tom Mccraw, Lee Moder and co. They were always very talented, but also very good people as well from the time spent in the old AOL Legion chats. What are they up to these days? (saw Moder was drawing Dragon Prince CO project with Ron Marz)

    Curious to see how Levitz does, and would love to hear how he’s just approaching things these days. Comics have changed so much since he was last a regular writer, heck how often has the LSH themselves changed?

    I’d be curious to know what he’s doing to deliver the kind of stories people are hoping he’ll bring back with him. Yet keep things.. modern.

  4. James Schee Says:

    “Also I was reading the V4 issues recently, and in the letter column there were talks of a LSH series that would have been stories set in the new characters and time line. That could have been interesting, but I wonder how close it got to being a reality.”

    That should have been a series set in the past exploring the new characters (Laurel Gand, Kent Shakespeare, etc.) and the new time line where Valor was the inspiration for the team instead of Superboy.

  5. Tim O'Shea Says:

    I learn something every time I read a KC post. Thanks, sir.

  6. rdb Says:

    Great post! I really identify with your reasons for loving the Legion at an early age. I too was an only child, and an outsider child of northerners living in the South. The Legionnaires were my friends and role models. I agree with you that the appeal of the Legion taps into young boys’ propensity for recording and organizing trivial information. Paul Levitz has commented on that, too, and how things like Pokemon, which have the same appeal, have supplanted our beloved Legion.