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Grumpy Old Fan | Selling Complicated Boy and Look-It-Up Lass

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Selling Complicated Boy and Look-It-Up Lass

It won’t be long before the Legion of Super-Heroes reappears in the New 52. This week’s two-page editorial spread (written by editor Brian Cunningham) teases next month’s “The Infinitus Saga,” a Justice League United arc pitting the newest batch of Leaguers against the future’s greatest super-team.

Providentially, rumors have begun circulating about the Legion’s possible jump to the big screen, as Warner Bros.’ answer to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Among the reactions to these rumors were Eric Diaz’s suggestions (at Nerdist) and The Beat’s conclusion that “I never got the Legion [but] this could be a charming and exciting film.”

To be sure, it’s way too early to evaluate the merits of a Legion film. Heck, there may not even be a Legion movie, if Batman v Superman underperforms. However, two things jump out at me from this coverage: First, the blockbuster Guardians has opened the door for adapting all sorts of superhero obscurities. Second, any adaptation must deal with — and most likely overcome — the Legion’s history (and history of reboots).

With regard to the latter, The Beat calls the feature “classic DC — a continuity-heavy series that has a smallish but rabid following, and a huge cast of characters who are sometimes oddballs”; and Nerdist notes that “DC has struggled to keep the book relevant” for most of the past 30 years.

Mind you, I’m not arguing with either observation. Taken together, however, they bring to mind a couple of recurring knocks on the Legion, and on DC generally: The books are too complicated, and they’re rebooted (often in the name of simplification) too frequently. It strikes me as the super-comics version of “the food is terrible and the portions are too small,” so that’s what I want to talk about today.

* * *

Really, when you get down to it, reboots are the least of the worries for the hypothetical Legion movie. Just about every DC character except Batman comes pre-loaded with negatives. Wonder Woman and Green Lantern each have their own set of complications; plus, GL is already a box-office cautionary tale, and Wondy’s “too hard” and/or must be “done just right.” Before Man of Steel, Superman was too goody-goody; and now he’s too dark. Robin screws up Batman’s gravitas. Aquaman still hasn’t gotten over Super Friends, let alone Entourage. In this respect it’s nothing short of amazing that Arrow has become such a strong TV series and the new Flash pilot episode is getting a pretty positive reception.

Accordingly, when I think of dozens of Legionnaires flitting around the big screen it reminds me of the super-schools of Sky High, Harry Potter, and the X-Men movies, with a dash of G.I. Joe’s specialized soldiers. Batman v Superman is also set to introduce a number of super-characters, although whether they’re substantial roles or glorified cameos remains to be seen. Still, there are cinematic precedents for a good-sized Legion.

Indeed, on a practical level, the Legion’s big cast provides a range of options for the movie’s point-of-view character. Hopefuls like XS, Kinetix, Bouncing Boy, or Ferro Lad could offer a “regular person’s” perspective on the 31st century, just as Rogue, Wolverine and Harry guided moviegoers into the X-Mansion and Hogwarts. Throw in Arm-Fall-Off Boy and the audience is yours.

Speaking of Ferro Lad, the Sun-Eater story from Adventure Comics #352 (January 1967) would make a heck of a movie: The Legion must work with the galaxy’s worst super-criminals, and end up paying a terrible cost, to stop a doomsday machine. (The irony for DC vs. Marvel partisans is that it was a Jim Shooter story …)  Actually, that would probably work best for a sequel, as you don’t want to introduce too many characters. The Legion can be complex without being impenetrable, but the general public may see it as more of the latter. In a weird way, the Legion’s own exposure — sparse though it’s been — may work against it. Starting in the mid-‘90s, the team has appeared in one form or another on the Superman and Justice League Unlimited cartoons, on Smallville, and in its own animated series, not connected to the JLU continuity. I’m not a Guardians of the Galaxy expert, but I’m guessing that’s a lot more multimedia exposure than the pre-movie Guardians ever received. Even so, the image that pops to mind of the Legion is a collection of super-characters gathered around a futuristic headquarters, with a handful talking and the rest in the background for the die-hard fans to freeze-frame.

* * *

That’s where I think the Legion comics get into trouble. All those characters personify all that history — not just who had a crush on whom, but who’s from what planet, and what do I have to remember about Mordru or the Time Trapper, etc. The Legion was one of DC’s first real superhero serials, adding new characters and introducing subplots even in the Silver Age, when that wasn’t really the publisher’s style. Accordingly, by the mid-‘70s, the group was appreciably bigger and older than when it started, with an attendant amount of backstory. In the mid-‘80s, not only did most of the Legionnaires (and their villains) have their own pages in Who’s Who in the DC Universe, a separate seven-issue Who’s Who in the Legion went even more in-depth.

The reboots and relaunches of the ‘80s and ‘90s didn’t help. The 1986 Superman reboot took Superboy and Supergirl out of the Legion’s history. The 1987 arc that “reinstated” them was then superseded by a 1990 story that substituted Lar Gand and Laurel Gand for the Kryptonian cousins. A whole new crop of young Legionnaires popped up in 1993, but in summer 1994 the Legion got its first top-to-bottom reboot — bringing with it the natural expectation that the old stories would be retold anew. That didn’t quite happen (the Sun-Eater story in particular got a couple of new twists), but for a while the reboot proved pretty popular. Yadda yadda yadda, it didn’t last; and at the end of 2003 Mark Waid and Barry Kitson ushered in the “threeboot.” For whatever reason — certainly not as simple as “because Geoff Johns and Brad Meltzer demanded it” — that version eventually gave way to the return of the “original” Legion and the cosmic hullabaloo called Legion of Three Worlds. George Pérez is one of my all-time favorite artists and, I’ve enjoyed all of his big superhero work, but honestly, if you have so many characters you need a Pérez to choreograph them, maybe you’re getting a little too complex.

Does this mean the Legion needs to simplify, simplify, simplify? Not necessarily. The Marvel movies have been phenomenally successful at distilling characters and stories into easily digestible forms. At the same time, though, the Marvel comics — at least the ones I read — have been more than willing to relaunch and/or embrace continuity in order to tell their stories. Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four and Avengers work has been incredibly dense, but apparently rewarding for those willing to stick with him. (I bailed on Avengers after Infinity, but I might catch up later.) Aside from having to deal with the “One More Day” mini-reboot, Dan Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man has juggled a pretty big cast (all those Goblins!) for a while now, even integrating Spidey’s roles on the Avengers and the Future Foundation. One of the goals of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Daredevil hasn’t been to ignore Matt’s history, but to build on it. Moreover, each of those series has relaunched — sometimes more than once — to emphasize its new start(s).

The difference with the Legion, I think, is that all of its history implies a bigger commitment. Most super-comics setups are pretty simple, so it’s relatively easy to jump in. You already know the basics of Superman or Spider-Man, so you’re just learning the supporting characters. With the Legion, however, everybody looks like a supporting character from the outside. Is Cosmic Boy the star or just a bland Cyclops-type? For whose romances should I be rooting? How familiar does the writer think I am with someone like Sun Boy or Gates? These are questions not just for the hypothetical Legion screenwriters, but for the creative team of the next Legion comic.

My answer to both is that there’s no reason to ignore the Legion’s rich history. The feature is a prime example of a series — not unlike Star Trek or Doctor Who, come to think of it — where a new story’s judicious use of continuity can inspire new fans to take deeper dives into the old stuff. This doesn’t mean overwhelming potential new readers with arcane references and opaque storytelling, as co-writer/artist Keith Giffen and co-writers Tom and Mary Bierbaum did in the 1989 “Five Years Later” relaunch. That’s where I started following Legion of Super-Heroes in earnest, and it made me appreciate every page of those Legion Who’s Whos. (For similar reasons, I’ve also enjoyed the Showcase Presents reprints.) Instead, don’t be worried about building on the old stories, just give the new readers enough grounding to know what’s going on. “Five Years Later” was about rebuilding the utopian ideal that the Legion represented. The 1994 reboot wiped away all the accumulated angst in order to put the focus back on fun (at least at first); and the 2004 reboot sought to reframe the Legion’s ideals in the context of a new century.

In each case the emphasis was on the characters, which is where I’d expect any Legion story to start — and making those characters appealing is the key. To borrow again from those other venerable programs, continuity goes down a lot easier if a Patrick Stewart or a Matt Smith is talking about it.

We’ll see the next Legion iteration soon enough in Justice League United. From there it’s only a matter of time before a new Legion series makes the future safe for truth and justice. I suppose now DC has more of an incentive to promote that series. After all, if Rocket Raccoon can be a chart-topper, why not the Legionnaires? Their success could mean a new generation of readers delving into all those back issues, which clearly would please DC’s reprint department. However, that means managing the Legion’s presentation carefully. These concerns may not be germane to “The Infinitus Saga,” but they’re increasingly more essential to ensuring the Legion’s longevity.

++++++++++++++++++

And here is the Futures Index for last week’s Issue 18 and this week’s Issue 19.

  • Story pages in Issue 18: 20
  • Constantine/Kal-El pages: 4
  • Lois/Billy/Stormguard pages: 5
  • Team Arrow pages: 3
  • Cadmus Island pages: 7 (including a double-page spread)
  • Team Terrifitech pages: 1
  • Story pages in Issue 19: 20
  • Team Terrifitech pages: 7
  • Lois/Superman pages: 4
  • Ray Palmer pages: 3
  • Cadmus Island pages: 5
  • Tim Drake pages: 1

NOTES: September is a significant month for Futures End. Not only does it begin the story’s second part (if you’re going by collections), it also has to support the various FE one-shots. Accordingly, I’m not sure how much it can advance the overall story, because I don’t think DC wants to confuse those potential new readers too much. Take Power Girl: last week in Issue 17, she was hovering over Cadmus Island in full costume and with glowy red eyes. Neither of these are unusual by themselves. However, in this week’s Worlds’ Finest special, we learn she burned her old costume in order to sneak into Cadmus wearing a generic jumpsuit. Obviously that story (which ends with her capture by Fifty Sue) takes place prior to Issue 17 (where she’s broken out), but only in this week’s Issue 18 is it revealed that she’s been taken over by Brother Eye (who apparently gave her a new costume).

That’s a long way of saying this month appears to be dwelling on a few subplots: Lois’ discovery about the Masked Superman, the Terrifitech burglary, and the Cadmus Island breakout. Other revelations, like the fates of Kal-El and Green Arrow and the future of Ray Palmer, seem to be setups for further down the road.

Speaking of Ray, in Issue 19 he refers to an Atom career that, as far as I know, has yet to materialize in the New 52. I don’t think it ever came up during his stint as a supporting cast member in Frankenstein. Perhaps it’s part of the five-years-from-now backstory?

In other five-year-backstory suppositions, a while back I figured that Lois had learned Superman’s secret identity. Based on her dialogue in these two issues, I’m not sure she has. Besides, if she had, you’d think that her not being sure who the new Superman was — or where the old one had gone — would have indicated a big split between her and Clark.

On the whole these were decent installments. I thought the revelations about Ollie and the Supermen were done well, and I get a nice sense of creeping dread from the Cadmus/Brother Eye material. I do wish there was some more optimism, or at least some gauge about how close the Five Years From Now world is getting to the zero-issue’s hellscape; but why would DC want to do that?

NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Cadmus pacified! Hawkgirl on patrol! Obligatory Clockwork Orange homages! And (because he’s falling, see) … Tim-ber!!

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