Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Underrated/Overlooked: Legion of Super-Heroes "Year One"

I was, once upon a time, one of those great unwashed who found the Legion of Super-Heroes too intimidating and complicated.

To be fair, my primary exposure to the Legion growing up was through house ads for the “Five Years Later” incarnation in the DC books I did read, so to me it was a book about sad-looking middle-aged people dressing in shabby rags, sitting around looking forlorn (I’ve since come to appreciate that era of the mythos, but with no sense of context or what came before, it did not look terribly appealing, particularly to a kid who liked shiny super heroes). I picked up a couple issues of Legionnaires, but could not make heads or tails of where it fit with the other book or reconcile why there were all these characters with the same names and powers.

The first Legion book I vividly remember buying and reading was one of the middle chapters of the “End of an Era” crossover running through all three of the group’s titles (including Valor) prior to Zero Hour. It involved trying to collapse pretty much all of Legion history up to that point, attempting to sort out decades of inconsistencies in six issues and wrap up the group’s story once and for all to clear the decks for a full reboot.

In short: It doesn’t seem like there could be a worse issue for a Legion neophyte already wary of the towering continuity to try out.

And yet, it worked.

Or rather it worked in concert with something that struck me in the base framework of Legionnaires as well as the fact that both books were starting from scratch to tell a new version of the old story after Zero Hour wiped out all that had come before. The Zero issues of Legion of Super-Heroes and Legionnaires were great, and before I knew it, I became a full-fledged Legion junkie, with the franchise becoming probably the first DC one I really latched onto in the way I did Marvel books.

It’s interesting to me that when the publication history of the Legion gets summed up, generally it tends to jump straight from the Paul Levitz glory days of the 70’s and 80’s straight to when Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning came onboard in the late 90’s. If you go looking for the great Legion stories, you’re going to get directed to stuff like The Great Darkness Saga and Legion Lost, perhaps with a recommendation to check out Jim Shooter’s Silver Age stuff or Mark Waid’s “Threeboot” if you really want to look. And I love all of that stuff; Great Darkness is one of my favorite stories ever, the DnA run was some fantastic sci-fi that put my boys on the map, and I championed the Threeboot long and hard at Wizard. Yet it always confounds me that the post-Zero Hour re-launch gets more or less swept under the rug. Not only did it start off really strong, I do remember it being fairly successful commercially for a bit there, with lots of internal press for the books and the Final Night event more or less spinning out of Legion (before becoming a Green Lantern story in the end).

And as much as I’ve grown to love the Levitz Legion, DnA’s Legion, the Threeboot Legion and so on, that post-Zero Hour group remains the Legion I truly think of as mine.

I think the first year following Zero Hour is the strongest case for the “forgotten” Legion. After that, there were peaks and valleys and somewhere along the way when half the team was stranded in the present for what felt like forever I jumped off, but those first 12 months from the Zero issues to the Year One-themed annuals were rock solid, building a new mythology while also constructing a focused super story that paid off in spades. Mark Waid and Tom McGraw (I believe with the assistance of Roger Stern, though I’m having trouble confirming it, and later Tom Peyer) seemed to have a really clear idea of how they were going to prove to folks like me who had been so terrified of the Legion that here was a great concept when you stripped it down and focused on the basics of what made it cool.

Rather than being introduced as a sprawling and established organization coming back in time to recruit Superboy to their cause, this Legion started from the start, with three super-powered teens unexpectedly joining forces to save the life of a rich old man and giving him the idea that the future needed heroes. From there, Waid and McGraw did the slow rollout, introducing a couple new members each month, quickly enough so that they could fill out a clubhouse within a few issues and the requisite friendships and romances began to form, but with sufficient deliberation that we actually got to know the characters as individuals and not just names and powers in a virtual army.

Cosmic Boy was the natural leader. Live Wire was the dreamer with the wandering eye. Saturn Girl was the ice queen. Apparition was too perfect. Triad was conflicted. Leviathan had an inferiority complex he tried to mask with a false superiority complex. Invisible Kid was the guy you wanted to be friends with. XS was the schoolgirl in over her head. Chameleon was the foreign exchange student. Brainiac 5 was the arrogant jerk.

Each character was somebody you knew or could at least relate to, and as they interacted, you saw your own youth played out on a level you could only imagine. Because as I always say when it comes to the Legion, there is nothing better than the high concept of teenagers with super powers getting to live alone with other kids their own age in an awesome headquarters with no parents in sight and seemingly unlimited resources. Plus they got to save the universe every month. As somebody who loved summer camp, I think the Legion tapped into that part of me that thrived on escaping society a couple of months every year and getting to have responsibilities beyond my age thrust at me while also getting to act way younger—it still does.

Anyways, rambling aside, when you forget about the continuity crap, Legion is just a cool as it gets idea that should always be a lot of fun and wish fulfillment to the highest power. Waid and McGraw’s Legion was the embodiment of cutting through the smog of comic book complications and making the books a place you really wanted to spend time every month. It also helped that they had great artists in Stuart Immonen and Jeff Moy, each of whom brought something different to the table. Immonen in that early stage had a neat sort of gritty realism that he could pull off without making the stories seem dark. On the other end of the spectrum, Moy’s art was buoyant and full of life, but he could bring it for the emotionally heavy stuff as well. They complemented each other and what the writers were trying to do perfectly.

While the Legion grappled with an assortment of threats, Waid and McGraw also continued to add members like Shrinking Violet, Kinetix and the xenophobic Andromeda while also casting pre-Zero Hour Legionnaires like Ultra Boy in new roles—he was on a rival team but had a Romeo and Juliet love story going with Apparition in a nod to their classic romance—and throwing in curveballs like Live Wire being kicked off the team and replaced by his twin sister Spark. While I didn’t know everything about the Legion as it was before Zero Hour, I at least recognized many familiar characters or relationships, and enjoyed the wink by the creators as they found new ways to use old favorites like Matter-Eater Lad as the Legion’s chef or Bouncing Boy being a non-powered sort of intern (and having a crush of pre-Zero Hour wife Triad).

And the whole time, beginning right from Legion of Super-Heroes #0, something larger was going on off to the side. The people that tried to assassinate R.J. Brande were tied to a larger group called the White Triangle, a cabal of Daxamites founded on considering all other races inferior. Andromeda had ties to the White Triangle but hid them early on and also seemed to be slowly coming around. Members of the group beat one of Triad’s selves nearly to death. The plotline was very heavy stuff, dealing with tough issues like intolerance and hate crimes and doing it with maturity and weight in a fantastical setting like that of the Legion’s supposedly idyllic future. It hung around the fringes of the first year’s worth of stories, but with mastery, Waid and McGraw (at this point I believe with Peyer) brought it closer to the forefront until it reached a boiling point.

The Legionnaires Annual that wrapped the White Triangle story and carried the Year One banner which most books used to tell origin stories but here marked the conclusion of the new Legion’s first year of existence, felt very much like a season finale. The White Triangle finally found a way to get their Superman-level powers working on Earth and launched a full scale out in the open invasion. After months of working behind the scenes, the bad guys were here and they were terrifying.

It was all hands on deck as anybody who had left the team came back and every guest star available showed up to pitch in. Live Wire’s hero arc reached a dramatic crescendo as he returned to the team that had spurned him to help save the day. Andromeda was forced to finally pick a side. R.J. Brande showed up at the very last minute with a secret weapon that would make old school fans smile. Everybody got their big moments—and there were casualties. The deaths were not at all tossed off and had extreme gravitas to them; I remember getting quite emotional watching a couple of these new friends I’d gotten to know over the previous year get snuffed out.

That story still stands out to me well over a decade later as one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of how you build expectations and tension over the long haul and then end it right. It was just great storytelling.

So if the current Legion seems appealing to you but you’d a bit put off by the sheer number of characters or amount of continuity changes, let me make the suggestion that you try and track down the Legion of Super-Heroes: Beginning of Tomorrow trade and then scrounge up all the back issues you can. The post-Zero Hour Legion really is the ideal gateway to the concept working without any baggage, and if you’re like me, you’ll then be ready to take the training wheels off and start exploring forwards and backwards in the franchise. It’s a truly wonderful world to explore, you just need the right entry point, and I’m telling you, it’s the one even most hardcore fans forget ever existed.


Bill Walko said...

Nice article. And I agree with most everything you say... except the Threeboot, which I tried but didn't like. Who wants dour Legion? Not me. Legion should be bright and shiny, mixed with drama and soap opera.

And, as you say, the Post-Zero Hour gave that in spades. I remember being shocked that they started over completely, but it was really necessary when you look back.

I love your description of the 5-year gap ads."sad-looking middle-aged people dressing in shabby rags, sitting around looking forlorn " Yup. And sadly, when you do the math, those characters were no older than 28! It was only "5 years later", not "20 years later." Yet they all acted middle-aged. The 5-year gap was exciting for the first year, under Giffen's pen, but then it quickly became a muddled mess.

The Post-Zero Hour era had all those wonderful Legion tropes we love, with new spins and twists. And as you mentioned, it actually made the members distinctive by PERSONALITY, not just powers. A lot of the members really "popped" in that way (and many of those personality traits have carried over into the subsequent reboots).

It really lost steam when they got stranded in the present for over 2 years.

Also, the Post-Zero Hour era had some really spiffy art. The future looked bright and shiny and the Legionaires looked like young people.

Like you, it's one of my favorite Legion eras. And something to pint to when people moan about "muddled, dark 90s comics." The Post Zero Hour Legion certainly wasn't THAT!

Ben Morse said...

Always a pleasure to hear from you, Bill, and a great point there at the end about how Legion stood out from the grim and gritty pack in the mid-90's. It was one of the first examples I can think of showing the sort of "Silver Age done modern" style that would become all the rage a couple years later.

Zach said...

Stuart Immonnen didn't draw much (if any) of that era, it was Jeff Moy and Lee Moder.

Ben Morse said...

Immonen did kick it off, but you're right that I neglected to mention Moder, who took over earlier on than I realized. My bad.

Bill Walko said...

Ben, LEGION wasn't the only DC titles to stand aside from the grim and gritty craze.... LEGION, FLASH, IMPULSE, JUSTICE LEAGUE, SUPERBOY and YOUNG JUSTICE were all spirited, hopeful, heroic books. I miss that DC era terribly.

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