These days it’s very easy not only to discover some venerable bit of pop culture, but to bone up on its history almost as thoroughly as if you’d experienced it in real time. Although it’s some thirty-odd years old, only fairly recently have I become acquainted with the excellent Dire Straits song “Romeo And Juliet.”
The song doesn’t quite track the play, instead choosing a different take on the tragedy of true love. Juliet, not death, separates the star-crossed pair; and the refrain has Romeo pour his broken heart out to her:
Juliet! When we made love you used to cry/You said “I love you like the stars above, I’ll love you ‘til I die”/There’s a place for us (you know, the movie song)/When you gonna realize, it was just that the time was wrong?
The song is almost triumphal in its melancholia, running the emotional spectrum from highest high to deepest low. In one of those low points, Romeo moans,
You promised me everything, you promised me thick and thin, yeah/Now you just say, “Oh Romeo? Yeah, you know I used to have a scene with him.”
It’s about incredible passion, and the desperate need such passion creates ... but it’s also about the reality that sometimes passion fades, or at least stops being returned in kind. “Romeo And Juliet” creates the sort of longing that can make you hug your significant other that much tighter; and if that’s not your current circumstance, it can bring you to the brink of tears remembering your own long-lost Juliet.
And -- of course, right? -- it now reminds me of my own relationship with the Legion of Super-Heroes.
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Perhaps more than any of DC’s other major features, the Legion’s history has become bound up with that of its fans. Before we get too much further, let’s be clear: I am not really a Legion scholar, which I imagine makes me a fairly casual fan. The two terms are likewise bound up with each other, it seems; because Legion fandom apparently inspires a certain degree of scholarship.
Anyway, I read the various Legion titles faithfully for the better part of twenty years, from 1989's “Five Years Later” relaunch (Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 3 #1, cover-dated November 1989) until Mark Waid’s last issue on the “threeboot” (Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes #30, July 2007). After that (and/or along the way) I read the “Lightning Saga” in Justice League and Justice Society, the “retroboot” Legion’s return in Action Comics, and Legion of Three Worlds, and I’ve been reading the retro-styled stories currently running in Adventure Comics. You might well ask how eighteen years’ worth of the Legion still doesn’t amount to being a “fan”; and I think the missing ingredient is passion.
Basically, I think I missed something critical all those years ago. Either I was indifferent to the Legion at just the wrong time, or I’m just one of those superhero fans who will never “get” the group the way I got the Avengers, the Teen Titans or the Justice League. See, I read Superboy and the Legion off and on in the ‘70s, back when the Dark Circle threatened Earth, Brainiac 5 cracked up, and Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl were still newlyweds. My first proper issue was probably May 1978's #239, where Ultra Boy was framed for murder, but I’d probably been introduced to the Legion in June-July 1977's DC Special #28, where writer Paul Levitz and penciller Arvell Jones had the team deal with a blackout in 30th-Century Metropolis. After that, in fact, was probably the Legion’s guest-shot in JLA #s 147-48 (October-November 1977), and then SLOSH #239.
In fact, once I got going, I thought I knew the Legionnaires well enough -- but apparently I managed to avoid most of the good stuff, like Earthwar and the Great Darkness Saga. When I saw the Legionnaires in Crisis On Infinite Earths, I recognized most of them, but had to put together developments like Timber Wolf’s new costume and the return of Lightning Lass’s original powers.
Now, that wasn’t as off-putting as you might think. After all, if I was willing to become a full-time Legion reader after the infamous Five-Year Gap, surely I could stand a few minor updates. Regardless, the river of Legion continuity seems to move faster and more forcefully than many of its fellows, and I think it took a significant relaunch to get me to jump in. I liked the book well enough, but before long I was tracking down the seven issues of Who’s Who In The Legion.
Similarly, today I am reading the Showcase Presents reprints, trying at least to get caught up. The new Volume 4 finishes out both the Adventure Comics run and the “Weisinger Legion” (which ended with backup stories from Action Comics) and sees the group into its longtime home in Superboy. Clearly it’s a significant period of transition, but even after four phone books I still haven’t had any kind of revelatory experience. I mean, I’ve heard fans swear by the Adventure period and the role of editor Mort Weisinger, and I don’t discount their views -- it’s just that I don’t love the Legion like I thought I would.
Probably part of it is a certain impatience. I do have a few favorite Legion stories, including the Great Darkness Saga, the racist-Daxamite arc from the post-Zero Hour reboot, and the Ra’s al Ghul arc from the The Legion series. I also liked what Mark Waid and Barry Kitson were trying to do with the “threeboot” Legion; and I thought Legion of Three Worlds worked pretty well despite all its various goals. However, in terms of the Legion itself being enough to sustain my interest, well ... that eighteen-year streak started with a relaunch and included two square-one reboots (and a couple of softer ones). Now that the Legion has settled into its “retroboot” phase, going back for the most part to an older version of the Silver Age team, more research is necessary before I’ll want to sample the regular series.
In fact, I am really looking forward to Showcase Presents Volume 5, which should cover at least the Dave Cockrum early ‘70s, and maybe the beginnings of what would become the “Levitz Legion.” I suspect it’s more the style of comics to which I’m accustomed, emphasizing continuing subplots and distinct (if broad) character development. Filling in the gaps of my knowledge is always fun.
It can be risky, though, too. Undoubtedly, many longtime Legion fans remember the Adventure issues and/or the Weisinger years because to them that’s the team at its height. The farther DC goes with these reprints (and the farther I choose to go with them), the more I may find myself agreeing that the Legion’s best days are behind it.
Of course, that’s the danger of any long-term relationship. That’s the chance we take, investing our intellect in service of our emotions. For years and years DC tried to reinvent the Legion for new audiences while honoring the fidelity of the lifers; and finally it has settled on updating the originals. On one level I understand DC’s decision, even though it looked at first like the most naked form of fannish pandering. Having tried twice to cultivate two new generations of Legion fans, why not go back to the (surely smaller) group which has stuck around for so long? DC has become Mark Knopfler’s Romeo, singing
... all I do is miss you and the way we used to be/All I do is keep the beat -- and bad company/Now all I do is kiss you through the bars of a rhyme/Juliet, I’d do the stars with you any time!
Now, I wouldn’t make such a borderline-ridiculous comparison for just any title and any other target readership -- and I certainly don’t want to downplay the feelings of the Reboot’s and Threeboot’s fans -- but again, the original Legion and its fans apparently have a unique relationship. Although scholarship and research might get me close one day, I’m not there yet.
Besides, who am I to stand in the way of true love? If that kind of passion is truly required to sustain a relationship with the Legion, why not seek out the fans who might still be that passionate? The romantic in me says let these groups try once more to find each other, and hope they reconnect. How ‘bout it...?