Review: Legion: Secret Origin trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Paul Levitz's Legion: Secret Origin has an interesting premise, that of examining how the civilizations of the future reacted to the founding of the Legion of Super-Heroes, kind of like a DC Universe: Legacies or Marvels for the Legion. Unfortunately, what inroads Levitz makes are terribly surface, far from the depth of a book like Marvels. Secret Origin is also repetitious and decompressed, only really getting to the meat of the story in the last two issues, and even then not in an especially engaging manner.

Legion: Secret Origin takes a long time to tell a story not all that "secret," most of which the dedicated Legion reader already knows or could guess anyway. Those less familiar with the Legion will find this book dry; if Secret Origin was part of DC Comics's attempt to make Legion of Super-Heroes succeed in the New 52, it's not a surprise that title was recently cancelled.

[Review contains spoilers]

Legion: Secret Origin begins with the future military recruiting the young Brainiac 5 to help solve an entire civilization's murder, while on Earth Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad, and Cosmic Boy save RJ Brande from assassination, forming the Legion of Super-Heroes. The Legion, I have felt, is about as close to Star Trek as DC Comics can get, and there's a good Star Trek vibe to the story's opening -- a murdered planet, mysterious technology, and so on.

But unfortunately, almost right from the beginning, Secret Origin spins its wheels. Brainiac 5 meets Phantom Girl, arrived from another dimension with a warning of danger; through to the second issue, the two essentially remain in one place, talking over the obvious clues of the case. Levitz intersperses this with various scenes of attempts of RJ Brande's life, all of which the new Legion disperse handily. Artist Chris Batista tends toward large (perhaps overlarge) panels, so by the end of the second issue not much more has happened than repetitive conversations and repetitive fight scenes.

As more threatening aliens emerge from the wormhole above the murdered planet, Brainic 5 takes control of the military in an attack on the alien ships. With a minimum of fuss, Brainic is successful, and it all takes place so easily that I thought something more must be going on, that the ships that Brainic shoots down must actually turn out to be peaceful. Alas, there's no such irony here; Brainiac, the military, and eventually the entire Legion fight the aliens with nary a defeat nor injury. It's so on-the-nose Levitz never even shows the actual attacking aliens -- they're attacking, the reader understands, so therefore they must be bad.

Indeed there's an odd distance in the narrative of Secret Origin. Most of the book's major events happen virtually -- the ruling Security Directorate sees the Legion gain new members through their video screens, or Legionnaires join between panels. This contributes to the book's sense of watching the Legion's early days "from the crowd," as it were, but at the same time the audience has to accept a lot of what's established in the book, like the malevolence of the invading aliens, because a character says it to be true, not through firsthand experience. The perspective Levitz offers is interesting, but it doesn't make for a very exciting story.

Levitz also fails to use this second-hand perspective in any ground-breaking way. The United Planets government, the Security Directorate, and the military all debate who should take ownership of the Legion and at the same time worry over endangering children and how the Legion is changing the universe's youth culture. This is heady stuff, handled right, and actually does offer an opportunity to study the concept of the Legion more fully; these conversations simply drop-off toward the end of the book, however, with everyone just accepting the Legion after their final victory. Here again, Levitz takes the most obvious route in the story, telling just a one-dimensional story.

Secret Origin only picks up in the fifth issue, when the Legion's various troubles are revealed to be caused by their long-time enemy (relatively) the Time Trapper. But aside from the Trapper coming to the "past" to try to retroactively stop the Legion's creation, there's not much time-related in the book (the Trapper here uses a lot of mind-control, for some reason). Levitz glosses over other aspects too quickly, too, including that Phantom Girl seems to willingly cut off her only route home without any misgivings; maybe this blitheness is meant to echo similar Silver Age leaps of logic, but it doesn't work in a modern comic.

All in all, a reader expecting to pick up Legion: Secret Origin and find a relevant re-imagining of the Legion a la Geoff Johns's Green Lantern: Secret Origin will be sorely disappointed. Legion: Secret Origin is a rather basic story, one that doesn't even represent the Legion very well; this storied franchise deserves better.

[Includes original covers, Chris Batista sketchbook (including unused Legionnaires like Ferro, which might've been interesting)]

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2 comments:

  1. This sounds like it falls into two traps. One is the endless need for reboots and origin retellings, which I demand a moratorium on. This goes for both Marvel and DC; the newly-announced "Thor: Season One" is just a redo of "Ages of Thunder". If you can do a new story set in the early days, that's great; for instance, Peter David's "Avengers: Season One" actually does something with the Avengers' first days instead of just retell the origin. The same goes for "Green Lantern: Secret Origin" and my favorite retelling, "JLA Year One".

    The other trap is the paradox of comic book reboots. If you change too much, you lose what made the original work. If you change too little, then why reboot it in the first place? That was the question I used to judge the New 52 titles and I found that they simultaneously changed too much and too little to really make it work. Why completely revamp Superman but leave Batman's almost entire history in place?

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    1. Yes. This is why I'm not getting my hopes up about Man of Steel. It's good that there's a new Superman movie, but I'm not sure I want to sit through another "modern retelling" of Superman's origins, after Smallville, Earth One, the New 52, etc. Enough with the origins -- I want to see the characters *do* something.

      (Legion: Secret Origin's problem, in addition to everything you said, is that just nothing happens in the story. Legion meets a bad guy? Defeated. The story has little suspense, but then also the politics aren't that detailed either.)

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