Feb 2, 2015

Legion of Super-Heroes: Forgotten Juggernauts, Part 1

Legion of Super-Heroes – Forgotten Juggernauts
Part 1 – Part, the First
Ben Smith

Though I am generally predisposed toward the Marvel universe and its characters, there is at least one DC property that I am almost as passionate about. I absolutely love the Legion of Super-Heroes. I love the Legion almost as much as I hate Superman, which is weird, since their mythology is so tied in with his. I love the Legion so much that I can actually enjoy their stories in which Superman (or Superboy) appears. Unlike, say, anywhere that Cable appears.

Legion of Super-Heroes seems to be one of the franchises that scares off even the most diehard of comics fans. I don’t know if it’s because of the continuity changes, or the fact that the team consists of 30 characters, all with relative backstories and planets of their own. If its continuity that scares thee, I’m here to tell you it’s really not all that difficult, especially if you’re a seasoned comic book fan. At this point, Superman himself has probably experienced as many reboots as the Legion has. Basically, you have your original continuity, dating back to their first appearance, up until the Zero Hour reboot, which was pretty much the same characters made younger and more contemporary, with some codename changes. There was the 5 Years Later series, which was the original version, just 5 years into the future. Then you had Mark Waid’s “Threeboot” in the early ‘00s, which was a complete reboot, using the same characters as the original version. Eventually, that gave way to the original continuity coming back, which was in place up until now. Not even the New 52 seemingly changed anything.

All of which probably sounds more complicated to read in that paragraph, than it is to read the comics themselves. Like I said, if you’re a seasoned comics reader, you should have zero problems understanding the mostly superficial changes that happen from version to version. If it’s the large cast and unfamiliar environment that scares you off, there’s not really much I can say to alieviate that. You’re either intrigued by that as a reader, or you’re not. (I’ve always liked big casts. It was one of the most appealing things about Transformers and G.I. Joe to me as a kid. Which is why I find it confusing in almost every attempt to reinvent those franchises for a new generation, they keep it to a small core group of characters. Is it really that much harder for kids to keep track of characters these days?)

All that being said, I received divine inspiration from the great unknown to turn my unimitable methods of enthusiastic sharing of comic books I love, toward the Legion of Super-Heroes. I am going to start, exactly where I first fell in love with them as a reader, with Waid’s reboot. (Somewhat topical, since at the time of writing this, it was just announced that he will be rebooting Archie.) Waid seems to be pretty good at finding what’s great about certain characters, and utilizing those elements along with doing the necessary updating that a reboot requires. Whether it be full reboots like Legion, or origins like Superman: Birthright, or soft reboots like Daredevil.

All that took really long to write (and I’m sure to read) let’s just get started.

Teen Titans/Legion Special #1
Writer: Mark Waid; Artist: Barry Kitson; Editor: Stephen Wacker

A fairly straightforward short introduction into this new world, using a new iteration of Invisible Kid as the conduit for the reader. In this update, adults seem to be pretty oppressively controlling of their children, and the Legion are controversial in their perceived negative influence on youth throughout the universe. Invisible Kid, having had enough of his parents suffocating behavior, runs off to join the Legion.

The Legion was one of the rare franchises in comics where characters grew up, got older, retired from superheroics. Died and stayed dead. I can imagine that was an appealing concept for a lot of fans, so when it was rebooted yet again, I can understand that may have turned some of those same fans off. Another thing that was probably appealing about those original stories, was that these were teenage characters as the heroes. Waid very clearly wanted to embrace that aspect of the team with this reboot, taking it even further by making it a revolutionary movement. I think it works pretty well, and is one of the things that was lost when the team got older. It’s one of the hardest parts of comics, deciding what that core iconic status quo should be, and might be one of the reasons that the Legion has fallen in popularity over the years. The choice between characters progressing, or keeping that teenage revolution concept – I like them both, DC should do both simultaneously, why choose?

Legion of Super-Heroes #1
Writer: Mark Waid; Penciler: Barry Kitson; Inkers: Mick Gray, Barry Kitson; Editor: Stephen Wacker

As introduced in a series of pages in the front of the book, this version of the Legion of Super-Heroes consists of the following members: Cosmic Boy – magnetic powers. Invisible Kid – self-explanatory. Chameleon – shapechanging. Saturn Girl – telepath. Ultra Boy – various Superman type powers, utilized one at a time. Lightning Lad – electrical powers. Dream Girl – precognitive visions. Sun Boy – heat generation. Brainiac 5 – unparalleled intelligence. Phantom Girl – phasing ability. Element Lad – molecular transmutation. Colossal Boy – size changing powers. Karate Kid – martial artist. Star Boy – increases localized gravity. Light Lass – decreases gravity. Triplicate Girl – splits into three. Shadow Lass – creates darkness.

(Waid, for the most part, stuck with a Silver Age membership for the team. Leaving out two of my favorite Legionnaires, Dawnstar and Wildfire. For those interested in what my 8-member Legion team would be: Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, Brainiac 5, Ultra Boy, Dawnstar, Wildfire, Phantom Girl. It would be really hard to leave Dream Girl and Shadow Lass off, which goes to show how underrated the Legion seems to be in terms of strong female characters.)

An entire planetary history of conflict has led to an Earth of peace, stability, and order in the 31st century. An order that the Legion is rebelling against. The Legion is comprised of teenagers enamored with the past, an age likely because the team routinely handles extraordinary situations and random threats, with great success.

The science police interfere with the tail end of one of their latest missions, before they return to their headquarters in Metropolis. Outside the headquarters, is a throng of loyal teenage fans and hopefuls. The Legion mostly comprises aliens from other planets, with unique power sets specific to their alien species. No power sets can be duplicated by another member of the team. Code names are assigned according to their perceived pattern of naming conventions for the heroes of the past. Adjective and then gender. (One of the, I assume, goals of the Zero Hour reboot of the team was to jettison the what they considered goofy code names of the characters. Cosmic Boy. Saturn Girl. Shadow Lass. Waid came up with a clever way to keep the names, and provide an in-story reason for them intentionally being “corny.” To them, that’s what heroes of the past named themselves.)

Cosmic Boy, as leader of the team, regularly communicates with the United Planets, as part of their deal to continue operating as an entity. He’s being told by the U.P. to keep the team from intervening with a situation on the planet Lallor, involving adults taking armed action against their youth. Because of the planet’s delicate political situation, and the chance of their actions leading to a larger intergalactic war, the team is being urged to fall back. Sun Boy appeals to Cosmic Boy to let them help, that he promised them they wouldn’t be the lapdogs of the system. Sun Boy wins out, and Cosmic Boy gives them the order to engage.

“Eat it grandpa. Hey, Sun Boy, go kick some ass.”

The next day, the conflict seemingly resolved, Invisible Kid asks Star Boy, as they overlook the crowd of followers outside the headquarters, why they aren’t allowed inside. Star Boy tells him about how six months ago, the Science Police had had enough, and decided they were going to penetrate the team’s headquarters and stop them from operating. The crowd outside formed a human shield around the building, preventing the police from entering. The crowd is allowed inside whenever they want, they just choose to remain outside.

Waid has introduced an interesting take on the Legion, where they’re much less accepted, more renegade, than they’ve been portrayed in the past, to my knowledge. I don’t claim to be a full-fledged expert on all of Legion history. The political aspects add a level of sophistication to the stories that will continue to build and then pay off going forward. Kitson has an appealing superhero art style that complements the book very well. A great core creative team for the series.

Legion of Super-Heroes #2
Writer: Mark Waid; Penciler: Barry Kitson; Inkers: Mick Gray, Barry Kitson, Jim Pascoe; Editor: Stephen Wacker

As longtime readers might know, I enjoy occasionally trying to decipher the history of my fandom from time to time. I’m almost fully certain I know what my first comic was, I don’t remember how old I was, or when I started collecting with dedication. Point being, I can say with certainty that this issue was the precise comic where I fell in love with the Legion of Super-Heroes, and Brainiac 5 in particular.

Using information from different sources and streams, and compiled and analyzed over the course of three days, Brainiac 5 has predicted the time and place of an assassination attempt upon the United Planets council. Karate Kid, Element Lad, and Dream Girl are deployed to prevent the attack, with Dream Girl’s precog powers saving the squad from one final surprise that Brainy’s information gathering couldn’t have predicted.

I love that this Dream Girl is sometimes confused on what has already happened or not.

A week later, Cosmic Boy talks to Brainiac 5, who has been noticeably upset about the incident. It’s not so much the specific situation that angers him, but the larger conflict between his confidence in the certainty of science, in his ability to extrapolate and interpret information, and Dream Girl’s ability to naturally intuit the same results out of thin air. It’s an ideological difference (an analog for science versus faith at its core) that drives him crazy.

Brainy’s extreme anger here, and Dream Girl’s lack of acknowledgement of that anger, makes me smile.

The team then makes a trip to Dream Girl’s home planet of Naltor, where the youth of the planet have mysteriously been afflicted with the lack of ability to sleep. The inability to sleep is essentially like removing one of their senses, such as sight, because their precognitive abilities are strongest when they sleep. Brainy quickly deduces that the source of the problem is the “Public Service” network, which is used to monitor all minors, and flies off, seemingly unconcerned.

Karate Kid, Shadow Lass, and Dream Girl are attacked by Naltor lawmen, who prove especially difficult since they can predict their fighting moves before they make them. After Dream Girl uses her considerably more significant abilities to defeat them, she decides that the High Seer must be deliberately preventing the youth from seeing a significant future event. She has Karate Kid knock her out to see what it might be.

He does, she sees what she needs to, and they head to the broadcast service tower, which Brainy is already in the process of fixing to nullify the signal. Dream Girl’s vision was of a coming massive conflict, and that the Naltorian Army will be the first to die. Since the first to get drafted in any conflict are the youth, the High Seer considered it a mercy to steal their abilities to see their own doomed futures.

Karate Kid calls bullshit, and thinks their real worry is that the Naltorian kids will put the word out, and warn other youth from other worlds, and they should continue dismantling the signal. He puts the final decision in Dream Girl’s hands, and she decides they should know the truth, and dismantles the signal.

Back at headquarters, Brainy debates with Dream Girl, suggesting that the knowledge the Naltor youth now have could possibly change the future she is so certain will still come to pass. “Your predictions don’t have to be infallible,” he says. Her reply, “you’ll feel different when we’re married.”

Brainiac 5 will be one of the central characters of the book, and quickly became not only my favorite Legionnaire because of this series, but my favorite DC character overall. From what I’ve read of the original continuity comics, Brainy was prominent, but rarely ever a central character for storylines. Beyond his accidental creating of the artificial intelligence Computo, which never seemed to haunt him as much as Marvel’s Ultron haunted Hank Pym and the Avengers. Again, I’m far from comprehensive in my Legion history. Despite his status in the comics, he always was a central character in the Legion’s animated appearances, like in the classic Justice League Unlimited episode “Far From Home,” which was my true introduction to the characters, and made me want to read the comics. I suspect his connections to the previously established villain Brainiac made him more fertile ground for stories, like in the subsequent Legion of Super-Heroes animated series, which was tragically cancelled way too soon. Anyway, Brainiac 5 had previously been portrayed as a nice guy, almost to the point of blandness. It was Waid, as far as I know, that made him the constantly annoyed, borderline asshole that he is here. Which makes sense, for someone of that advanced intellect, that he would be annoyed by what are basically substantially inferior beings surrounding him. It’s a take I enjoyed immediately, as I’m the type that is frequently annoyed by other human beings, without the advantage of super-intellect, unfortunately. It’s an approach to the character that was maintained by Paul Levitz, when he returned to the team and the series, post the reestablishment of the original continuity, and the Superman story that Duy covered here. Hopefully I’ll have the stamina to make it to that series as well, as I cannot recommend it enough. But yes, Brainiac 5. Love him.

That’s long enough for this week, and I only got two issues in. Come back next week, and hopefully I can be more brief and concise with my overflowing adoration for the Legion, or else this is going to take me a very long time.

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