Legion of Super-Heroes: Teenage Revolution review

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Over at postmodernbarney.com, Dorian uses the phrase "fetishization of nostalgia" to describe, among other things, Alex Ross's super-serious revamp of what is essentially the Super-Friends. I'm likely using the phrase incorrectly (more than likely, actually), but I would argue that it applies too to Legion of Super-Heroes, which is perhaps the ultimate byproduct of what's been called the Geoff Johns-ification of comic books. Beginning with The Flash and moving very quickly to JSA, Johns presented a philosophy that "everything old is cool again"--that a villain named the Weather Wizard can actually be formidable, that a hero named Mr. Terrific can be cooler than cool, that Guy Gardner can wear his big green jacket and not look laughable, that all the hokey things--all the nostalgia--that we love about comics can be redeemed, if only they're played straight and given some modern sensibilities. It worked, and it worked when Johns went on to Teen Titans, Hawkman, and Green Lantern, and it worked for Jeph Loeb on Superman/Batman, and it worked for Judd Winick on Outsiders; as Judd wrote in his introduction to Outsiders: Looking for Trouble, "We wanted to create 'old school' super-hero comics ... guys in costumes, unapologetically, fighting evil." But nowhere, I think, have we seen the culmination of this more, for better or worse, than in Mark Waid's Legion of Super-Heroes.

The Legion of Super-Heroes are an intergalactic group of kids who have banded together in the future to promote activism and fight for moral issues in a universe grown stagnant by overall peace. In deference to the twenty-first century super-hero culture that they worship, they've chosen to name themselves a la Superman and Batman: Invisible Kid, Light Lass, and the like. Investigating uprisings and revolutions, however, soon gives way to rumors of universal war, and an investigation into the brewing conspiracy that will spark it. Much of this trade works to introduce (or, perhaps, reintroduce) the Legionnaires and their varied powers, setting up subplots that will follow into the war itself in the second volume. Most of the Legionnaires will be familiar to those with a passing knowledge of Legion lore--Cosmic Boy remains the leader, while Brainiac 5 is the know-it-all. Waid stated in an interview (I think) that he made the laudable choice to hold Legion stalwarts like Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl until later in the trade in order to give lesser-known Legionnaires a chance to shine; thus we spend much of our time with Karate Kid, Shadow Lass, Ultra Boy, Invisible Kid, and Dream Girl. It's a fun mix, and I enjoyed some of Waid's updated origins--Triplicate Girl and Phantom Girl especially.

Mark Waid's Legion appears to be answering to two masters. The first is the nostalgia vote--of which I think Waid is a part--which has largely been what's been keeping Legion alive all these years anyway--those people who yearn for the days of Lightning Lad, and were appeased but never too happy with Live Wire. That's Legion's core audience; I feel like the modern crowd, for the most part, could've taken Legion or left it with no big fuss. And it's the modern audience that makes up the second, those new readers that some Legion series is going to have to attract, some time, if it's ever going to make financial sense for DC to continue publishing a title set directly in the DC Universe, with often little or no tie to the DCU as a whole. And this is the fence that the new Legion of Super-Heroes straddles, a series that, while oftentimes charming, has built into it's story-core a love for its own nostalgia--perhaps, the author shining through--that is at times both fascinating and a little disturbing.

On one hand, we have those wonderful Legion code-names, the very Legion code-names that we phased out after Zero Hour because they were, obviously, relics of the past. On the other hand, we have the characters themselves acknowledging their code-names' own silliness--a bit of comics meta-interpretation--and using them verily because they're throwbacks. Essentially, they're saying--with Waid's voice strongly right behind them--"we're so cool, we can be unhip and still be cool" (in an interesting bit of slight-of-hand, too, Waid explains away the modern slang in the book, saying the future kids use it for its retro feel). This is a comic where the characters are in love with everything silly and fantastic about comic books, and that's great, though one might worry about the potential for the pendulum to swing too far to the nostalgia side, too.

The great difficulty with this set-up, however, is that in re-shaping the Legion so that they're not crime-fighters primarily, it can often feel like nothing's happening in this book. For the most part, there's no bad guy to fight, just politics, and while I like politics and super-heroics in Greg Rucka's Wonder Woman, it doesn't always work here. The Science Police doesn't like the Legion--check. A Legionnaire tells their origin--check. Hints at the conspiracy--check. Like a futuristic wash cycle, those three elements lather, rinse, and repeat a number of times throughout the trade, so that in the end, the story seems to be spinning its wheels. Add to that the Legion back-up stories that appeared in the monthly issues--placed such with the trade that sometimes they forward the plot, sometimes not--and the flow of the story becomes disjointed by the end. Despite all this, the trade does have a definite and suspenseful end--but whether to praise this from a trade reader's perspective, or decry it for decompressed storytelling, I'm not sure.

It's no secret, I think [SPOILERS AHEAD!] that after Infinite Crisis, Supergirl joins the Legion of Super-Heroes. I think this is a great idea, and I hope Waid uses it to the fullest potential. When the Teen Titans' Superboy joined the last Legion, the writers finessed continuity by making Superboy "time lost." Here, I think the best thing Waid can do is to tie Legion so firmly to Supergirl that Legion is required reading. Let Supergirl come and go in Legion with abandon, the timeline be damned. Reflect ongoing Supergirl storylines in Legion, such that Legion gets firmly entrenched in the DCU. What Legion always missed before was relevance, and it shouldn't be difficult to give it some. Maybe, if this Legion strengthens its DCU ties, it'll stick around a while, too.

[Contains full covers, sketch-book.]

Back to the Bat-verse for me, with Robin/Batgirl: Fresh Blood, then some Outsiders, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Two weeks until Infinite Crisis #4!
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