Jun 20, 2013

Gateway Comics: Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes

So, you've seen Man of Steel, and you want to give some Superman comics to a friend — presumably because that friend liked the movie, or because that friend hated the movie and you want to "save" Superman in his eyes — or you want them for yourself, because you've never read Superman comics and have somehow found your way to the Cube (and if so, welcome!). What comic should you get? Well, there are a lot of possibilities, but I wanted to really pick something that showed, pretty clearly, what Superman is all about, while at the same time being action-packed and exciting. I set two ground rules for myself:

(1) No comics before the turn of the millennium. The reason is, I'd think, obvious: new readers have a hard time getting into old comics (heck, old readers have a hard time getting into old comics). That gives me a nice out when it comes to talking about Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? because then I'd just repost this. (If we go prior to that, the comics might be considered too goofy by a new fan. I love goofy, but you gotta wean people onto goofy.)

(2) No origins. Just sick of them, I am. And I think it's better to show new readers Superman when he's already Superman. I don't think we need more stories of how he got there. Really.

(3) Nothing that has never worked for me as a gateway. A lot of Superman fans will argue that Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman is the perfect Superman story, and the perfect gateway comic. It's still my favorite Superman story, but as a gateway comic, I've found that it doesn't work. It is almost universally loved by Superman fans, but most people I know who are not Superman fans find it boring. It very much is a love letter to Superman, and it doesn't work as well if you don't know what it's paying tribute to. No, it's got to be something I know works, at least on the people I've given it to.

The Superman comic I've found that works? Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes, by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank.

Okay, already it seems like a strange choice, because how could this be accessible, right? Who are all those guys? Well, I think people are smarter than we usually give them credit for. We don't always need to start at the beginning, and in fact, for serials, we very rarely need to start from the beginning. (Travis explains that here, better than I can.) How many of us got into a TV show at the very beginning? I got into Buffy in the middle of Season 4; my wife got into Avatar: The Last Airbender near the end of Season 1. I'd wager we've all at least feverishly watched one sitcom. Did you start at the beginning? I'm betting before the DVD age, these cases were very rare. So there. Not all comics present things in an accessible manner, but most do, if you're willing to put in a tiny bit of effort. In Superman and the Legion's case, all it takes is a willingness to jump into the middle of the action. And why not, I say! I'm a big proponent of starting off in the middle and filling in blanks from there, and if something's important, it'll fill you right in. Just like life, really, or starting work in a new place, or moving somewhere new. You get the point.

So Superman and the Legion starts off in the future, in the 31st century, where it's revealed that the Earth hates all aliens and demands that all aliens leave Earth or be executed. It starts with a parallel to Superman's own origin, where an alien baby is sent to Earth. Except this time, the "kindly couple" take a different approach to it.

It then goes back to the present day and establishes Clark Kent in the Daily Planet, and I believe this was actually a new direction for that aspect of the character (I hadn't read a Superman comic for a while before getting this, so I don't know for sure), so it's a pretty fresh slate. There's no Lois Lane, but we meet Perry White and Jimmy Olsen and we see how Clark acts in the workplace just enough before a robot sent by Brainiac 5 attacks the city to draw out Superman, talking to him and refreshing his memory. See, when Clark Kent was a kid, he used to hang out in the far future with a bunch of superkids. They called themselves the Legion of Super-Heroes.

So already, that's reason #1 for why this is a good gateway comic: it introduces you right from the get-go to a concept that is full of wonder and fantasy, and since everyone has some working knowledge of who Superman is and what he can do, it's not even far-fetched for a new reader.

Brainiac 5 says they need help in the future, and of course Superman, being Superman, is only too happy to oblige. He travels with the robot and gets to the future, where he quickly meets up with Colossal Boy, Dawnstar, and Wildfire. Each time a Legionnaire shows up, you get a little text box giving you a quick introduction, stating their name, powers, and home planet.

So there's reason #2: the introductions are quick, complete, and efficient. A new reader will not waste time going "Who is this and what can she do?" unless he really, really wants to. Everything you need to know about Dawnstar, for example, to get into the story is right there.

The Legionnaires fight the local authorities and Superman tries to break it up, only for a bullet to go right through his hand. It turns out in the future, the Earth's sun is red, so Superman's powers are completely negated.

Despite this, though, Superman doesn't hesitate in trying to figure out what's going on. Turns out that a group of Legion-wannabe rejects, all from Earth, grew bitter and banded together, and have successfully convinced the population of the Earth that Superman was a human who in fact hated all aliens. As such, it's a story about xenophobia, and not a particularly subtle one, but extrapolated enough into a larger scale (all humans vs. aliens, instead of your real-life humans vs. humans) that I wouldn't say it was a sledgehammer. It was pretty balanced, though your mileage may vary. These villains, led by Earth-Man, who has the power to absorb any set of superpowers and has been collecting Legionnaires as prisoners so he can be a one-man Legion, have called themselves the Justice League. Superman is unfazed by this, and still manages to fight despite having no powers. The aliens he's trying to help refuse to believe it is him, because "Superman doesn't bleed." But you can tell — they want it to really be him; and it would help a whole lot if it really was him.

There's reason #3: it shows why Superman is awesome, by omitting what we think makes Superman awesome. "Awesomeness by omission" is what I call it. By removing some elements, you can highlight what's left. In this case, by removing Superman's powers, it shows you that he's really a hero at the core and not just a guy coasting by on the fact that he's the most powerful person on the planet. It's a reversal of what they used in Captain America: The First Avenger, which showed that Cap was a hero before he even got the Super-Soldier Serum. And it's important. And it works. Even what happens to Earth once the legend of Superman is corrupted is awesomeness by omission — 1000 years later, Superman matters so much that changing his basic message throws the universe into a tailspin. Johns shows what he means to history in a counterintuitive fashion, and it works.

The rest of the story is Superman and the Legion mounting a comeback against Earth-Man and the Justice League, trying to free all their friends, and looking for a way to give Superman his powers back. When he finally does, in what I can only really describe as an awesome moment, he makes it very clear who he is.

Look at him saving people. What an alien concept.

And then he proceeds to kick ass.

Look at him showing concern for the citizens! How dare he.
There's reason #4: it shows why Superman is awesome, by showing Superman being awesome. There are few comics that top this one in the "So Perfectly Action-Packed and Paced Just Right that It's Like Taking a Shot of Adrenaline" scale. Your new reader will root for Superman, will cheer against Earth-Man, will go "Yes!" when the Legion is freed. It will make you feel the ride you're on. Because Superman is awesome.

And that's not even talking about the technical aspects of the story that's just going to hook your new reader. Gary Frank's art is really pretty, really evoking a "classic" feel for Superman and still making him (and the Legion) look modern. He has been praised and criticized in equal measure for drawing Superman look just like Christopher Reeve, so take that for what you will. For me, it wasn't a problem — Frank's Superman is the way I want Superman to look: lean but muscular (I use "lean" loosely; he'd been depicted as really really huge for a while before this), confident, and able to go from smiling to serious in a half second. Geoff Johns' story is structured in a blockbuster fashion; every entrance is grand; every hit is felt; and there are a bunch of quotable quotes once you're done with it.

And wait till your new reader sees the Legion of Substitute Heroes, one of whom can "breathe fire with moderate control at best" and another who is "able to transform his body to stone, albeit forced to remain inanimate." Right when things get serious, this story introduces a comedic element without sacrificing the gravity of the situation. And your new reader will most likely appreciate that, especially if they found Man of Steel humorless and dour.

I've given this story to several people who don't normally read comics, and they've all loved it. With the right mix of excitement, humor, and intensity, this story manages to successfully introduce the Legion of Super-Heroes to a new audience in an efficient and effective manner. More, by placing Superman in the middle of it and stripping him of his powers, it highlights Superman's character, and what he is without them. And once he gets it back, it highlights just how much he's capable of. Superman is awesome. And he has the best friends. They're awesome too. Long live the Legion!

Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes can be bought here:

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