Each weekday, Tim will take a look at what we know about each of the upcoming 52 new comics from the September DC relaunch, one series at a time. Today: LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES!
The Concept and Characters: The Legion of Super-Heroes has been around for over 50 years, and the accepted wisdom, for at least half of their existence, has been that the series is intimidating to new readers. Maybe even impenetrable, what with the enormous cast of characters, the strange alien races, the intergalactic intrigue, and a half dozen relaunches and reboots. Plus there’s the innocence and insanity of the Mort Weisinger-era Superman comics, which the Legion sprung out of, stories filled with Super-Pets, Bizarro Computos, and wannabe Legionnaires whose only power is to make plants grow faster than normal.
All that, and the corny names like “Cosmic Boy” and “Lightning Lass,” have given the Legion a reputation for a kind of naïve complexity. Stories at once too juvenile and yet with too much accumulated narrative baggage for anyone new to enjoy. That’s why the Legion has been rebooted and rebranded so many times, with the most recent reboot helmed by Geoff Johns in his Action Comics run, which was, in effect, a de-boot. A return to the Paul Levitz status quo of the late 1980s.
I’ve long taken the position that the supposed impenetrability of the Legion is a bunch of baloney, and that was even before the streamlined de-boot that led into Paul Levitz’s return the series he so famously shepherded throughout the late Bronze Age and into the Modern Age. The characters have code names that tell you what their powers are. The future of the DCU isn’t all that different from any standard utopian distant future scenario – this one just happens to be populated by superheroes.
The relaunch in September seems not to even nod in the direction of another reboot, which should keep long-time Legion fans happy, but it will still be a fresh start for the series, with new costumed designs promised, some new members joining the team (fresh out of the Legion Academy), and the repercussions of whatever caused the seven Legionnaires to be lost in time (in the Legion Lost spin-off series).
Basically, this will be the classic Legion in new stories. Superpowered kids from the future. All grown up, dealing with galaxy-wide threats in the 31st century.
The Creative Team: Former DC Comics President Paul Levitz is widely considered to be the greatest Legion writer of all time. His original run on the series was a milestone for superhero comics, and there was a time when it was one of the two most popular books out of the entire DC stable. (The other was the Marv Wolfman and George Perez New Teen Titans.) I once spoke to Levitz about his approach to the series, a couple of years before he would leave his administrative job to return to comics writing.
His approach to the series hasn’t changed much in all the years since he last wrote the characters. He still layers in multiple subplots and juggles an impressively large cast of characters. He still provides some kind of physical conflict in every issue. He still loves these characters and it shines through in every story.
What has changed is his pacing. In the 1980s, when the Legion was at its peak, he would provide extensive romantic subplots and several-page sequences of soap opera melodrama, to contrast with the normal superhero fisticuffs. In his return to the series over the past year and a half, he has accelerated his pacing, providing more punches-per-issue than normal. More extreme emotional responses. Less subtle character relationships. That may be his attempt to appeal to an audience that expects different things than it did 20 years ago. Or it may be his preferred way to tell the kinds of stories he now wants to tell. Or it may be his way to wrap up some plot threads, knowing the relaunch was imminent. Unfortunately, it’s been noisier, less effective, creating less engaging comics, than we saw from Levitz during his Legion heyday.
Levitz is joined on this relaunch by artist Francis Portela, a clean-line artist who has done excellent work on previous Levitz-written issues. He is a much better artist than Yildray Cinar, the original artist on the most recent Levitz run, and with Portela providing the pencils, the relaunched series will look great. He does strong character work and he’s able to draw panels filled with a dozen characters without making the page feel cramped.
Recommendation: Even with the recent-than-stellar recent Legion run fresh in mind, I still say Buy it. Levitz has had a year or two to get back into the writerly zone and with Portella on art, this series looks poised to be the best version of the Legion since 1989. Other writers and artists have done fine work in the years between, but they tended to be hampered by editorial mandates or in-the-midst-of-storyline reboots. In his first 100+ issues on the Legion of Super-Heroes, Levitz created a grand tapestry of love and death, of heroism and tragedy. His story continues here, with the door wide open to invite new readers to enjoy the show. This series isn’t likely to wow you with any single issue, but its serialized storytelling will immerse you in the world of the future, and the cumulative effect will be a powerful one.
Tim Callahan writes about comics for Tor.com, Comic Book Resources, Back Issue magazine, and his own Geniusboy Firemelon blog.