Review: Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes: The Early Years trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Former DC Comics president Paul Levitz's Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes: The Early Years is a weird little book. It is at times too juvenile, a throwback perhaps to the Silver Age era of comics in which most of the stories are set, and then at other times inappropriately adult. From story to art to vague ties to Legion of Super-Heroes continuity, this book suffers numerous difficulties; just a few months from now, DC means to relaunch all of their titles in a way to appeal to new readers, but it's hard to believe the same creators who released the insular Superboy and the Legion will be able to polish their stories for new readers as easily as saying so.

[Contains spoilers]

Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes tries to be both an authentic re-telling and also an updating of some classic early Legion moments, but the two goals are quickly contradictory. The most startling example is in the third chapter, where Saturn Girl -- historically Lightning Lad's romantic foil -- has a drunken one-night stand with Cosmic Boy after a mission-gone-wrong, and then erases his memory of the liaison. This is just after a sequence in the first chapter where Phantom Girl chastely offers Superboy a peck in exchange for winning a baseball game, and Saturn Girl and Triplicate Girl pout in the background that they couldn't deliver the kiss themselves. The book doesn't seem to know what it wants its baseline tone to be -- are these a collection of Silver Age throwback stories where the punchline is Phantom Girl giving an embarrassed Superboy a kiss, or a (perhaps unnecessary) modernization of the Legion where the characters act in modern fashion and casual sex abounds?

Further, the third issue sequence is veritable gauntlet-throwing by classic Legion-writer Levitz, altering fifty years of Legion history in "revealing" that Saturn Girl slept with Cosmic Boy long before she ever cast an eye toward Lightning Lad. Used as part of a greater storyline, this might be startling or engaging, but instead it's puerile; first, that Saturn Girl had sex with her future-husband's best friend, made him forget it, and then kept the secret for all these years, and second, that Levitz's "secret origin" of the Legion must involve the sole female founding member's sexual congress, instead of some Legion-related secret or pact that Saturn Girl and Cosmic Boy might've kept. Levitz declares the "new hipness" of the resurrected classic Legion a bit too loudly, with a story that acts out like a child trying to pretend they're an adult now.

This confusion of intent and presentation extends throughout the book. Ostensibly Superboy intends to update Legion of Super-Heroes stories from the early 1960s Adventure Comics #247 to #304 -- from the team's formation through to the "Death of Lightning Lad" story (later resurrected). Exactly what and how it updates wasn't clear to me, only a casual Legion reader, and I imagine won't be clear to most readers. Saturn Girl gains a long-standing rivalry with Zaryan the Conqueror, earlier than when Zaryan killed Lightning Lad ... but why is that change necessary or important, and what should the reader take from it? Levitz also plays up the roles of Mon-El and Dream Girl in these early stories (not sure if this is "historically" accurate or another change), but again the relevance isn't quite clear. While the chapters are a good example of individual issues that together tell a larger tale, the pieces never feel entirely connected -- it's only in retrospect that we learn Mon-El was haunting Superboy or Dream Girl sent a message to Saturn Girl, without sufficient context for the revelations.

I also bristled at one other revelation, in the only story here set during the "present" Legion continuity instead of in the past (where, incongruously, the adult Legion is still spending time with the young Superboy). In a holographic message, the recently-assassinated Legion founder RJ Brande reveals that -- previous continuity to the contrary -- he specifically created the Legion for the purpose of getting to meet Superboy. Again, I'm not sure what positive purpose this revelation serves, though it undercuts the idea of the Legion as an example of inter-culture unity, a kind of space-faring Peace Corp; rather Brande's express purpose was more personal and seemingly selfish. Levitz writes Brande with a halting speech pattern that I'm guessing is true to character, but was jarring to me since I'm more familiar with Mark Waid's mid-1990s Legion "Threeboot" where Brande spoke normally.

That particular story ends with the adult Brainiac 5 tearfully realizing Brande actually did like him all along -- something I didn't realize was in question, and given fifty years of Legion history, also seems a kind of easy and inconsequential revelation. I made the mistake, perhaps, of re-reading Geoff Johns's Superman and the Legion and Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds prior to this book, and so the differences between the two writers' approaches is all the more apparent. In not many more pages, Johns makes the Legion dynamic and real (see when Brainiac finally cracks a smile on Colu in Three Worlds), whereas Levitz's feels flat and melodramatic; that's a disappointment after such a great lead-in.

And, while I hate to find fault with a book across the board, the art too seems to me insufficient for the level DC claims to want for their relaunched titles. Main book artist Kevin Sharpe's work is fine here for the most part, at times resembling the chiseled detail of Shane Davis; Eduardo Pansica's fill-in on one issue set mostly in Smallville is cute, but perhaps too cutesy, and in the Legion Espionage Squad's action sequences the faces become distorted. Both artists are suited to the (mostly) "kiddie" tone of these stories, but neither art style is spectacular enough to grip a reader off the street presented with a comic. I don't expect every artist to look like the work of Jim Lee (or Frank Quitely, Dan Jurgens, Nicola Scott, Pete Woods, JH Williams, Francis Manapul, or others), but overall this book didn't seem up to mainstream standards.

For the relaunch to work, DC can't afford any false starts, and that's essentially what Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes is. This was headed somewhere, but didn't quite get there, and is more likely in my opinion to discourage a potential reader than to make them want to read more. Paul Levitz's new Legion run seems to be popular overall, so my hope is that his first volume of the ongoing series, Legion of Super-Heroes: The Choice, is back up to the bar that Geoff Johns set. If not, I can't imagine how DC will rectify it all before the relaunch comes.

[Contains original covers. Printed on glossy paper.]

That said -- coming up next, our review of Legion of Super-Heroes: The Choice.
Collected Editions 2014 Comic Book Gift Guide
Get the Collected Editions scoop before anyone else -- on Facebook!

4 comments:

  1. I was on the fence about this title; I really enjoyed Johns' work of the Legion as well as Waid's.

    I though Great Darkness Saga was very boring and I didn't get into it at all; I sold my copy. That's why I'm hesistant to try Levitz' current Legion run.

    I'm hesitant to try a lot of title with the relaunch coming in a few months. Batman I'll stick with as he's my fav character. I'm looking forward to Batgirl and Nightwing. I'm more looking forward to older collections being reprinted in omnibus form: Teen Titans, Hawkman, Marshall Rogers, and reprints of Absolutes like Hush, Watchmen and Kingdom Come.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It turns out I actually liked Levitz's Legion: The Choice a lot better than this. It's definitely not traditional superheroics, more a political drama.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Has DC ever collected the Legion backups from Adventures Comics #1-4, by Geoff Johns, Michael Shoemaker and Clayton Henry? Levitz picked up some of their plot threads when he launched the current Legion of Super-Heroes series.

    ReplyDelete
  4. No, they haven't, and as you'll see in my Legion: Choice review, this does cause a little bit of confusion, though it's not insurmountable.

    ReplyDelete