Review: Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga deluxe hardcover (DC Comics)

Monday, March 12, 2012

I've finally read Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga, probably much later than I should have. I've read most of DC Comic's other legendary greats, like Sandman or New Teen Titans: The Judas Contract, but I'm a late-blooming Legion fan and never felt the urgency to pick it up.

It's probably good, as a matter of fact, that I waited this long, until DC released the recent deluxe edition of Great Darkness Saga. The deluxe edition includes Legion issues #284-296 and the annual, while previous editions collected mainly just #290-294. Those issues do present the "Great Darkness" story, but I imagine to read those alone I would have had a lot to look up afterward. What this deluxe edition adds to "Great Darkness" doesn't greatly enrich the main story, but it at least sets the scene for the Legion before the main event.

[Contains spoilers]

Given that the deluxe Great Darkness Saga collects fourteen issues, it should come as no surprise that this is a dense collection -- dare I say even "slow," though that's not necessarily a bad thing. Paul Levitz's writing style has changed since the early 1980s (far less narration nowadays), but his approach to the Legion hasn't. I called Levitz's recent Legion: The Choice "an expansive space epic with more talking and back-room double dealing than fighting," and the same to an extent holds true for Great Darkness Saga (though here, at the end, there's probably more "fighting" even than in The Choice).

The newly collected issues in this book account for 200 pages -- half the volume -- and involve an excruciatingly slow-building story in which the Khunds attack a shipyard, and Chameleon Boy leads an unauthorized mission to the Khund homeworld that leaves the Legionnaires marooned and Cham in prison for treason. The story takes so long because Levitz teases it out piece-by-piece (the Khund attack is an issue; Cham's anger at his father is another; the secret mission another, and so on) and also because Levitz shifts focus with abandon. We're quickly shunted from Cham to an adventure with Dream Girl, the travails of Princess Projectra and Karate Kid on her home planet, Lighting Lad's depression, even an extra-sized annual where almost every page presents a new scene.

But to be clear, I'm not complaining. Levitz is writing a space-bound soap opera here, no doubt about it. There's a fight in every issue, but the villains are very often forgettable or besides-the-point; rather Levitz spends pages on the Legionnaires' concern over their missing allies, struggles for leadership, and sticky love triangles. There's no question why these issues were omitted from a Great Darkness collection once upon a time -- if you're looking for the main story, these only slow down your getting there -- but if like me you're enjoying the Legion now and you're curious to read more about the Legion back then, these issues are a dream.

The selection of the extra issues isn't random, by the way. Issue #284 presents the start of one of Levitz's runs on Legion, this time with Keith Giffen; the next deluxe volume, The Curse, collects through the end of this particular volume of the Legion title. DC has lately been releasing artist-centric trades -- like Batman volumes spotlighting Gene Colan, Don Newton, and Marshall Rogers -- which are controversial because they sometimes collect disparate parts of stories. I'd love to see more of these writer-centric trades, even if the subject matter isn't as weighty as "Great Darkness Saga," kind of like the forthcoming Len Wein/Dave Gibbons Green Lantern trades -- like William Messner-Loebs's Wonder Woman, Mike Baron's Flash, Gerard Jones's Green Lantern, and so on.

I dare say I actually found the "Great Darkness Saga" section of this book to be less interesting, blasphemy as that may be. Much of the soap operatics die down when mystery villain Darkseid begins making his presence known, and Levitz instead pits various Legionnaires again and again (and again) against Darkseid's shadow demons. This must have all been very exciting, no doubt, when Darkseid's involvement was still a mystery, but a hundred pages of the Legion getting trounced over and over by shadow demons while wondering what's behind it all ("It's Darkseid!" the audience wants to shout) will try any reader. If this volume collected "Great Darkness" alone, even given the benefit of history, this review might be significantly different.

It is interesting to read, however, that some of this repetitiveness may stem from how Levitz and Giffen worked together; Levitz's scripts at the end are quite illuminating. He calls one of the fights "obligatory violence," and indeed there's more detail in the script in terms of the character beats than in the fights, which Levitz leaves open-ended; he describes one fight simply as "Legion takes battle to Darkseid." it may be a reflection of Levitz's interests that the fight scenes seem to be just that -- simply Giffen stretching his pen with no other real purpose than to move to Levitz's next character moment.

Where "Darkness" really kicks into gear is once Levitz has revealed Darkseid, and the Legion and the New God are face-to-face. The deluxe format does wonders for the story's climactic battle, from Darkseid and Shadow Lass's approximation of the Sistine Chapel (by way of Giffen), to Superboy and Supergirl saving the day, Darkseid's rather brutal attack on Supergirl, and the trippy image of billions of Daxamites chasing Darkseid in silhouette. That's where "Great Darkness" really gets pulse-pounding; I also enjoyed the two "quieter" issues that followed, both a string of epilogues and a second look at an early Legion adventure.

I'm going straight from Great Darkness Saga to The Curse and I'm curious about any number of things -- whether Shrinking Violet's hesitation with new beau Colossal Boy is just because she's kind of weird or if there's more to the story; if Brainiac 5 can cure Matter Eating Lad's insanity; what'll happen with Saturn Girl, Lighting Lad, and Timber Wolf; and what happens when Cosmic Boy learns his family's been injured. Reading Great Darkness has definitely informed my understanding of the current Legion -- I know who the White Witch is now, finally -- and I'm equally curious to see what I understand better in re-reading The Choice now that I've read one of the main stories that leads in to it.

[Includes original covers, scripts, additional art and Keith Giffen's sketchbook pages]

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6 comments:

  1. I don't know why, but "just because she's kind of weird" is now my new favorite character analysis.

    As for the collection itself, I've tried picking this up several times and just can't get through it. I think you've hit it here - I'm more interested in the Darkseid story than the soap opera. But having already bought the hardcover, I feel conflicted about skipping 200 pages...

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  2. Maybe I'll spark a meme. "I liked Wuthering Heights, but I didn't know if Heathcliff acted that way just because he's kind of weird ..."

    Part of what I was referring to with Violet (perhaps not so adroitly) had to do with the asteroid scene, where Colossal Boy declares his love and Violet just turns around and starts crying, and it's not addressed again and the reader has no idea what's going on. There's a similar scene where Violent wants to ditch the Legion and go dance in a club that's also left unexplained in Great Darkness.

    We don't get much insight into Violet's personality in the book before she starts dating Colossal Boy (letting alone that the reader only understands in retrospect that Violet *already has* a boyfriend!) and so I think I was basing my take on Violet on previous incarnations, where she was shy or even (in Mark Waid's latest take) invisible for much of the book. I thought perhaps Levitz meant us to understand that Violent was "kind of weird" -- that is, emotionally withdrawn, shy to the point of being unable to have normal relationships, etc. The difficulty is that the reader gets no baseline for Violet's character to compare to Levitz's portrayal.

    That's not Levitz's fault necessarily, but it is a handicap of this "in the middle of things" collection that Violet isn't fleshed out to the point where a casual reader understands that the way Violet is acting is indeed out of character. All of it, it turns out, becomes clearer in the next volume, The Curse.

    Thanks for pointing that out so I could clarify a bit.

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  3. Although I'm a long-time DC reader, it's only very recently that I've begaun to take more than a cursory interest in the Legion - generally, they've only registered on my radar when turning up in other books. I'm curious as to your opinion on how approachable this might be to an 'entry-level' Legion fan. My first guess would be 'not very', perhaps.

    As an aside, do you have any recommendations for good Legion of Super-Heroes starting points?

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  4. Admittedly I was already somewhat familiar with the Legion, but I actually do think Great Darkness is a good place to start. Come back next week -- I'll have some more Legion material and also a post that will probably more than answer your question.

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  5. There is more to the violet torment. all is not what is seems. You should read what's nxt and be in for a BIG surprise. 'nuff said.

    JC

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  6. Exactly right; Legion: The Curse (DC's second deluxe Legion volume) clears up a lot about Shrinking Violet's behavior in this book.

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