Grumpy Old Fan | Foundational features and DC’s details

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Foundational features and DC’s details

Although I’m looking forward to Justice League 3000, I still can’t quite get over the Legion-sized hole in DC’s roster. The Legion of Super-Heroes turned 55 earlier this year (on Feb. 27, according to Mike’s Amazing World of Comics), which makes it some 18 months older than Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps, and almost two years older than the Justice League. Indeed, the Legion’s enduring popularity has made it one of the“foundational” features that DC will probably publish until its doors finally close, along with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, the League and Green Lantern. However, today I want to talk about the Legion in terms of a different kind of landmark.

By definition, a shared universe is composed of the combined details of its constituent features. We tend to think of this in terms of geography, cosmology and the space-time continuum. Accordingly, DC-Earth has various additional “fictionopolises” (including Metropolis, Gotham City, Central City and Coast City) and nations (like Atlantis and Themyscira); and it shares a universe with planets not found so far in ours (Oa, Tamaran, etc.). There are also other planes of existence to be explored (Gemworld, Earth-2, the Fourth World and the Fifth Dimension); as well as series set in the Dark Ages, the Old West and of course the 31st century.

However, sometimes the details that distinguish the DC Universe can be effective on a more personal level. The Superman titles of the ‘90s were thick with such things — not just the ubiquity of the Daily Planet and superstation WGBS, but fast food like Soder Cola and Big Belly Burger, media personalities like Whitty Banter and Dirk Armstrong, and even the price of cab fare ($6.50 would get you just about anywhere in Metropolis, although it went up to $7 around the time Action Comics hit the big 7-0-0). It’s not just the Super-titles, though: Odds are the average DCU household owns, or wants, something touched by Wayne Enterprises, LexCorp or (in the New 52) Q-Core. Conversely, odds are they’d want nothing to do with what might escape from Project Cadmus, N.O.W.H.E.R.E. or S.T.A.R. Labs, to say nothing of Arkham Asylum or Iron Heights. They’d probably rather spend a relaxing day at the Flash Museum, Metropolis’ Centennial Park or Challenger Mountain.

Still, those ‘90s Superman books had the space to do some serious world-building, and the 2006-07 weekly series 52 grounded itself similarly in order to convey the full sweep of the DC Universe — from Metropolis and Gotham to the magical retreat of Nanda Parbat, the isolated Oolong Island, and the far-flung star system of Vega. If the average crossover was “you’ve got chocolate in my peanut butter,” 52’s setting was a whole shelf of candy.

How, then, should the professionals who make DC’s comics manage all these details? Well, I’m not calling for every title to have mandatory references to other series in every issue. A story needs only the details that it needs. (As it happens, both The Green Team: Teen Trillionaires #2 and All-Star Western #21 make good use of DCU lore.)  What I do think is valuable, however, is the occasional general sense of something beyond the boundaries of the particular story. DC’s superhero line maintains a shared universe mostly for practical financial reasons, but the ancillary narrative benefits shouldn’t be overlooked. Sure, there’s always the “why couldn’t [the other character] help fix this?” question, but the flip side of that is the chance to show why the other character couldn’t, in fact, help very much.

In any event, the real opportunities of a shared universe come from the interaction between the “local rules” of a series and the rules of whatever lies beyond. The most recent Brave and the Bold series kicked off with a fun set of interlocking team-ups, including odd pairings like Supergirl and Lobo, the Flash and the Doom Patrol, and Batman and the Legion.

And that’s why I’m sorry to see the Legion’s place in the larger DC Universe diminished, even if it’s only temporary, and even if Justice League 3000 just steps into the same 31st-century setting. The Legion has its own set of details, like Interlac, the Science Police and the McCauley Omnicoms; and for anyone else, even a Justice League, to occupy that space would feel weird. It’d be like one of those early-fall football games played in a dual-purpose stadium that still has its baseball diamond. (Either that or the Thunderbolts moving into Four Freedoms Plaza. Whichever works for you.) One of the challenges JL3K faces is to convince its readers that it belongs in the Legion’s old digs, without seeming to co-opt the Legion’s details for some cheap affection by association.

Indeed, while these probably aren’t the kinds of things that can be required, “no gratuitous references” is probably a good rule for the superhero line generally. The New 52 creative teams have enough on their plates without having to worry about the implications of randomly mentioning Ferris Aircraft. The shared superhero universe may be the preferred business model, but calling attention to those shared details probably comes more from wanting to have fun with them — and it is fun to think about Lois Lane writing an in-depth profile of Wonder Woman, or LexCorp attempting a hostile takeover of S.T.A.R. Labs.  The Green Lantern Corps even got a significant mention (although not an actual appearance) in your favorite late-‘70s Superman novel and mine, Elliott S! Maggin’s Last Son of Krypton (and it was in the vein of “this is why the GLC can’t help Superman here,” to boot).

Nevertheless, it’s worth pointing out that each of DC’s foundational features has been taken off the playing field at some point in the past 20-odd years. It started with the Death of Superman and “Knightfall” and expanded into the utter destruction of the Green Lantern Corps, Wonder Woman’s ascension to Olympus as Goddess of Truth, various Justice League disbandings, Gotham’s year-long “No Man’s Land” status and the mystery of Wally West’s post-Infinite Crisis fate. The very reason for 52 was “a year without Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman,” and that developed further into a year without either the Justice League or a Flash who wasn’t Jay Garrick.

Granted, these were in the days when DC traded more heavily on its details. Hal Jordan has been absent from Justice League for several months (in part because he’d been replaced and/or dead in his own title), and Wonder Woman is barely a presence in the larger DC Universe outside of Justice League and the occasional Superman guest-appearance; but the larger universe seems not to have noticed. The New 52 clearly aims for consistency and cohesion, but often its various series feel somewhat disconnected, even within franchises like the Bat-books and the Superman titles. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, insofar as it encourages individual voices to develop; but personally, I always like being reminded that those individual voices are each commenting on the same character, setting and/or event.

Along those lines, I got the feeling practically from the start of the relaunch that Legion of Super-Heroes was being left to fend for itself. Even its companion title, Legion Lost, would be focusing primarily on its characters’ 21st-century adventures. Accordingly, it was relatively easy for me, and perhaps for others too, to lose track of the Legion; and I wonder if JL3K is really just a blatant attempt just to remind the bulk of DC’s readers about the continued viability of the 31st century. It is, after all, a whole other region, perhaps well-traveled but always ready for a new group to discover.

Again I’m reminded of the 10 years DC’s superhero line spent without a Green Lantern Corps. While I can see the appeal of having only one Green Lantern (Alan Scott did pretty well by himself on the old Earth-Two, and the latest version of Alan similarly seems content), I always thought DC foreclosed a lot of storytelling possibilities unnecessarily. By definition, Green Lanterns share some personality traits, but once you get past those, you can plop a GL into any number of settings. You don’t have to know all the backstory of the Manhunters and the Emotional Spectrum, just that this particular being is a space cop with a magic wishing ring. Regardless, DC decided it didn’t want to be in the Corps business anymore, and it took 10 years to change its corporate mind. In the meantime, it tried to replace the Corps with L.E.G.I.O.N. and the Darkstars, neither of whom especially caught on, perhaps because everyone seemed to remember the Green Lanterns (including the ex-Lanterns who’d show up from time to time).

The GL Corps, the Legion, the Justice League, the Trinitarians and the Flash are each “foundational” because they and their attendant details have come to define DC’s superhero line. Maybe not all of it, but enough of it collectively to make the DCU books distinct. DC has gotten along without them at various points, but never for too long; and even then, not to the point of forgetting them completely. There will always be a Metropolis, and it will continue to inspire creative teams to flesh it out, just as other teams flesh out their particular corners of the superhero line. The more DC can do to make its fictional settings function cohesively, the better I think it will be at cultivating an environment for new characters to thrive. Historically, DC’s superhero line has benefited from the clash of different storytelling styles, and that goes for the clash of settings as well. It could be as intricate as the Seven Soldiers miniseries or as mundane as someone who lived in Metropolis but owed his career to the distant future’s Space Museum and had a connection to the Legion as well.

That said, it’ll probably still feel weird to watch a Justice League running around in the Legion’s old haunts. Some settings are just synonymous with their regular inhabitants, and some storytelling setups work too well to abandon forever. At the same time, though, it might be nice to look at those places with fresh eyes.