Monday, May 18, 2009

Wizard Features That Never Were: Ultimate Legion

I've been a big fan of the Legion of Super-Heroes since I started following the post-Zero Hour incarnation initially helmed by Mark Waid, Tom Peyer and company back when I was a kid. When I was in my college "buy as many trades as I can" phase, I picked up The Great Darkness Saga and was floored by the writing and the art, both of which seemed ahead of their time. I gobbled up the rest of the Paul Levitz run with an insatiable hunger to see what happened next greater than just about any other I've had in my tenure as a comic book fan.

Legion is a pretty slam dunk concept: teenagers who get to live in a big clubhouse together using their awesome powers to fight crime in a rare non-dystopian future world full of exotic goodness. And oh yeah--no adults. But besides being the ultimate wish fulfillment strip for kids and kids at heart, Legion also distinguishes itself by being about a group of good guys who are good at their job and work well together, but don't all get along. Yeah, the Fantastic Four, Avengers etc. would go on to mine the whole tension between teammates rap, but guys like Levitz, Jim Shooter and others trailblazed a different take on that trope where it wasn't a group of adults bickering, but kids who would be in high school acting like, well, high school students. They had cliques, they had romances and they had rivalries you could relate to.

It's a bit of a cliche for a franchise set in the future, but again, Legion has always been ahead of its time.

At Wizard, I got to learn at the feet of two far bigger Legion fans than I in former Editor-in-Chief Brian Cunningham (today an editor at DC Comics) and managing editor Andy Serwin (who is still rocking that job). Their knowledge of all things Legion, the hallmark Levitz/Keith Giffen run in particular, put mine to shame. Needless to say, the three of us were always looking for ways to sneak Legion coverage into the magazine, which wasn't always so easy.

I believe the first Book of the Month column I ever did was on Mark Waid and Barry Kitson's "Threeboot" Legion, which launched around the same time I started at Wizard in 2004. Early on, that book was solid gold in my eyes, and for a good year or so was unquestionably my favorite ongoing monthly comic.

Nearly three years later, it was announced that some form of the Legion would be appearing in the Lightning Saga crossover between Brad Meltzer's Justice League of America and Geoff Johns' Justice Society of America. Around the same time, the Waid/Kitson Legion was experiencing a bit of a renaissance after falling off a bit due to scheduling problems and fill-ins. Andy and I came to Brian with an idea to do an in-depth history of the Legion talking to various creators who had worked on the book and focus in large part on the challenges of managing its dense continuity and how to overcome fan stigmas that it was too complicated. Despite Brian sharing our enthusiasm for the Legion, it was a hard sell.

Firstly, while the stories were getting good again in the Legion ongoing, sales weren't great, so devoting page space to them was a risk. Second, JLA and JSA were both hot, so we weren't sure a story on their big crossover not focusing on them was the way we wanted to go. Thirdly, there was obviously some concern over how DC would receive an article keying in on perceived weaknesses in a team they were trying to reinvigorate. All of these were and remain fair concerns, but, to his credit, BC gave the article a cautious green light.

I started conducting interviews with Giffen, Waid, Meltzer and Johns, all of which were fascinating to varying degrees (Giffen in particular is always a good interview and had some really insightful stuff to say about the Legion--I'll try and dig that up at some point to post here). I had a little trouble putting together a framework for the article because I only had, I believe, two pages, and there was a lot of ground to cover.

While the main feature was proving a bit difficult to pull together, Andy and I came up with a killer sidebar we were having a lot of fun with: we'd pick the best members from all the various Legion incarnations and put together our own Ultimate Legion. We had a blast talking that out and would schedule meetings "officially" to talk about the news section or whatever and then have hour-long closed door sessions on who was the best Ultra Boy--awesome.

It didn't take Brian and I long to figure out that the main Legion feature was simply not going to work; it was too much to cram in two pages, but because of the concerns I outlined earlier, we couldn't give it more. Sometimes you need to accept that even though a concept for a feature is sound, realistic publishing constraints make it impossible to pull off, and you gotta kill your darling--this was one of those times.

However, Andy and I were not so willing to let Ultimate Legion go into that good night. We figured we could still use it either as a sidebar to a Lightning Saga feature or, worst case scenario, do it as a graphic in the news section.

Space again started becoming an issue as Andy and I realized we wanted to include so many characters that our team was going to be huge even by Legion standards. We did not have much trouble mixing it up as far as having a diverse selection of creative eras represented as, while I can't recall our full team, but I believe we had Element Lad and Saturn Girl from the early days, Dawnstar and Wildfire from the Levitz/Giffen run, Gates and Live Wire from the reboot/Legion Lost era, and the Brainiac 5 and Triplicate Girl of Waid and Kitson's team; heck, I think we even threw "Five Years Later" Cosmic Boy/Rokk Krinn and Inferno from Legionnaires in for good measure.

And of course we made sure our shared favorite Legionnaire and the most badass of them all, the pre-Crisis version of Val Armorr, aka Karate Kid, had a spot on the roster.

Interestingly, I remember us both feeling a big problem with our first draft was an absence of black characters. This wasn't because we felt affirmative action was necessary or anything, but more because Legion was such a forward-thinking book with a wealth of great characters of all races (I recall Andy saying "we have more green-skinned characters on the list than blacks") that we were frustrated none came to mind. We were going to plug in Tyroc or the Waid/Kitson Star Boy, but felt the former had no business being on a dream roster and the latter was not the strongest incarnation of the character. Ironically, by the time we came up with a second draft, we realized we had forgotten about pre-Crisis Invisible Kid II, XS and Legion Lost Kid Quantum, all of whom we ended up putting on the team not because they're black, but because they're awesome.

At this point you may be wondering why you never saw this feature in Wizard, and truth be told, I am too. I can't really remember what happened to it. I'm guessing we waited too long trying to get it in a feature and failed to do so, then didn't have a decent hook for using it as news because Lightning Saga was over and Waid and Kitson left the book not long after.

It's too bad, because Andy and I had a lot of fun putting the list together, but that was kind of a reward in and of itself. Besides, Geoff Johns and George Perez are essentially doing their own rad five-issue version of what we were trying in Legion of 3 Worlds and I'm loving every panel.


Jim Gibbons said...

Oh man, I am pretty sure I transcribed one or two of those interviews (methinks Giffen and Johns) as an intern! And it was all for nought! Blast you, Morse! BLAST YOU!

Ben Morse said...

It's actually spelled "naught"

Jesse T. said...

So who made the final cut, in your opinion?

Ben Morse said...

I'd have to sit down and think about it.

In other words, expect a follow up post.

How 'bout you, JT?

Jesse T. said...

I've been criminally negligent in my Legion reading ... I picked up a 20-25 issue run of Levitz/Giffen stuff on the cheap at a con many moons ago, based on Andy's recommendation. I really liked 'em, but haven't dug them out since 2003.
To the longboxes, compadres!
Fun fact: Watching Andy giggle with glee when discussing the awesomeness of Nemesis Kid is one of the greatest things ever.

Ben Morse said...

Oh god, you are so right! If anybody reading this blog ever has the opportunity to meet Andy Serwin in person (I'm looking at you, Jim Gibbons), ask him to summarize for you why Princess Projectra vs Nemesis Kid is the best fight ever.

Jim Gibbons said...

I fully plan on "naught" asking Andy anything of the sort.

Ben Morse said...

It's actually spelled "not"