Let’s start this off with a controversial note: The Legion has only ever largely mattered once, and that was in a time frame that was just before I started reading comics. You see, before and after this one point, the Legion of Super-Heroes was a fringe concern. It still is, really. Just take one visit to any Legion related Facebook group, where the amount of complaints about the latest evolution of the team is only barely outweighed by people photoshopping classic-era outfits onto model photographs. For a team where the great thrill is the promise of the future, an era of acceptance, sadly so many of my fellow fans of the property are deeply focused on the past. An ongoing issue in comics fandom regardless, but all the more pronounced here.
Which of course highlights what a shadow its absolute commercial peak casts on everything else.
A little bit of background:
Paul Levitz is a pretty fascinating figure, best known for his innovations as an executive in the industry moreso than his actual contributions as a creator. Just as his responsibilities behind the scenes at DC continued to grow, he began writing the Legion of Super-Heroes in his off-hours in 1981 (really, a second trip to the team for him, after an entertaining run that he dropped off of just as it was really getting going). After a few issues of getting his feet wet again, he was teamed with Keith Giffen, a then Jack Kirby clone and a fascinating bit of alchemy was struck. You see, Levitz was arguably the first writer to truly understand how to balance that giant cast down to an actual and effective narrative formula (Google: The Levitz Paradigm) while applying a world building sense directly inherited from Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle. Meanwhile, Giffen was a BIG IDEAS guy in many of the same exciting ways his initial artistic influence was. You needed cool tech? Impressive space ships? Neat looking aliens? Giffen was (and still is) your guy. And fans were receptive to it, so much so that The Legion of Super-Heroes became one of DC’s top selling titles and the closest thing they had to a Claremont & Byrne style team (apologies to Marv and George).
One prestige relaunch later, and Giffen left for a time, off to spread his wings on titles like Amethyst, Ambush Bug, Hex, Doctor Fate, and of course the big one, JLI. A few of those titles, Ambush Bug and JLI specifically, provided a bit of prelude for how much of the rest of his career would take shape. While Giffen was always a prolific penciller during this time, he also expanded his collaborative efforts into the writing side. But funny thing about him, he never really got comfortable as the actual scriptwriter for a given comic with only a few notable exceptions, opting instead to plot (and in JLI’s case, layout) said stories and work with a trusted collaborator to help hone the narrative and fill in the actual word balloons. Given his interest in art, this isn’t a huge surprise, it’s much easier to work out a very fertile imagination and do all the things you want to do if you don’t have to fiddle with the specifics of the scripts themselves. The results speak for themselves…who doesn’t love the “bwa-ha-ha” era Justice League?
Giffen in this period was a bit of an artistic chameleon. Just before stepping away from the Legion, his work became heavily influenced by the comics of Argentinian cartoonist Jose Muñoz, something that was reflected in just about all of his linework during this period. Fascinatingly, when he returned to the Legion at the tail-end of Levitz’s tenure, he style shifted again towards something more indebted to his JLI collaborator Kevin Maguire (and as Marc Singer argues, it looks spectacular). Then the Muñoz influence started to come back. And then the series was over. The Magic Wars were won. And Levitz stepped away. He wanted to spend more time with his kids, who can blame him?
Giffen inherited the book after that, with DC once again relaunching the title with a brand spanking new #1 and on its first page, a glorious starfield splash page with an ominous lede…
“Five Years Later…”
And that leads us to where we are right now, with a fat tome of an omnibus available for all to peruse. That was a ton of preamble, but I think it’s important to understand the lofty perch the title held at one point, and how everything since has been oft-rejected by some segment of the fandom or another. For my part, it was the era in which I was inducted as a reader; a poor little guy growing up for a time in rural Georgia, who moved a lot (including overseas to Germany) thanks to being the eldest child in a military family. It was my first and deepest comics love, that I came to it when the team was made up of members who either have ponytails, five o’clock shadows, frilly shirts and jackets, or thonged asses really added to the alien and even adult mystique of this book as it absolutely blew my 8 year old mind away. I couldn’t get enough, and at the time I never even connected that it was the same guy who did the Ambush Bug comics I was obsessed with picking up out of the quarter bins. It was a comic that despite its vision of a ruinous utopia, highlighted to me there was indeed a future to look forward to, one where very different kinds of people could work together and love one another. For a little kid who had a hard time making and keeping friends, it meant everything to me.
I’m now almost 40, a tad older than the former and once-again Legion members were on the page, and it’s really quite jarring to come to these comics with a more analytical mind and wear and tear of years on my own body. Suddenly I relate to Rokk Krinn more than I ever have, while Reep Daggle comes across more as that pushy friend that wants you to relive your youth with him, regardless of how tired you are. Beyond how the lifting of the veneer of youth has recontextualized these stories a bit, it’s exciting to pick apart this run and determine what works and what doesn’t and why. Let’s do that for a bit…
When Giffen came aboard in 1989, which was basically the equivalent of John Byrne taking over the Uncanny X-Men after Claremont left, he brought on-board a full team with him to help reshape his vision of the future. For the usual scripting role, he brought on Tom and Mary Bierbaum, long-time hardcore Legion fans who had worked with Giffen previously on some non-DC material and had a knack for breezy naturalized dialogue, as well as his JLI inker extraordinaire Al Gordon. This four person nucleus basically turned into the equivalent of a writers’ room, something that was pretty much unheard of in the industry outside of the collaborative nature of the “triangle era” Superman comics. Giffen has always been known as a very generous collaborator (and a fiercely loyal one to boot), and he worked with the Bierbaums and Gordon to create new characters for the team, as well as fielding their ideas for his plots, which they all worked together to bring to fruition with Giffen resuming pencilling duties.
That plot? For the uninitiated: it’s five years after the end of the Magic Wars, and during that unseen time, an event called “Black Dawn” has occurred. In its wake, Earth has exited the United Planets and has become a much less friendly place for non-humans to reside (and not so wonderful for humans either; think “Blade Runner with bluer androids”). As for the Legion, they’ve broken up. Some have joined their home world’s armies in war against each other, others are in jail, some live in solitude, while others prosper in domestic bliss. One even is a spokesperson for the new EarthGov (the reigning decision-making body on the planet). But one former Legionnaire, Reep, once known as Chameleon, has a notion that the time may be right to reunite his teammates – and given the widescale planetary conspiracy that will reveal itself, he couldn’t be more right.
When you read the first few issues, it’s difficult to get away from the outsized influence Watchmen surely had on this book. From the nine-panel grid, to the burned out former heroes approach, to the post-issue text that appeared in almost every issue that Giffen was involved in. From the art standpoint, it actually creates a bit of a neat hybrid, as Watchmen has been noted elsewhere, rather appropriately, as one of the few “Post-Ditko” comics. At the same time, despite Giffen’s clear indebtedness to Muñoz in his approach, he still works off of a very apparent Kirby base. So when you combine all of these differing influences into a mixture it creates something that is both immediately sort of repellent to the more sensitive fan palette, but also immediately distinctive and absorbing in a way that approaches pure pop art.
Imagine if you will, someone took Kirby’s Fourth World, cut down its four-panel spreads into thinner nine-panel pages and then just picked random angles to represent its action. You can almost feel the artist’s maniacal glee as he makes you stare into someone’s eye each issue, or a random rock in others, or makes you parse just what the heck is going on when someone punches someone else. It’s glorious and it’s Giffen at his absolute artistic peak, enabled by one of the finest inkers the business has ever seen. That this era of the Legion has completely different aims than Watchmen (a self contained deconstructive novel vs. an expansive long-form saga) really brings to the fore that the Five Years Later run is one of the few post-Watchmen efforts that actually utilized the language and tools of that heralded work in a way that went beyond simply aping it wholesale, making those tools an even more vital part of the narrative, even to the degree that it’s essential to read them just to have better contextual understanding of what’s happening and why. Given where the series eventually goes, one could argue it’s actually an early example of reconstruction in superhero comics. Utilizing the grim and gritty veneer of its predecessor as a jumping off point, this creative nucleus rebuilt the Legion from the ground up.
At least, that was definitely the plan for the first 12 issues. What happens after is the product of inter company jockeying and editorial interference, for better AND worse.
When looking at this run (which I’ll now call 5YL for shorthand), it’s important to look at it as a collection of three distinct arcs of 12-14 issues a piece:
- Five Years Later
- “The Legion of Super-Heroes”
- The Terra Mosaic
Just to avoid giving too much away, I’ll try to steer away from anything but the most basic of basic plot descriptors here. These omnibi are expensive collections, and it wouldn’t do for me to give the whole game away here, at least for those who have never had the pleasure of taking this journey.
One of the most fair criticisms that has been lobbied at this run is that it’s aggressively new reader unfriendly. And I do think that’s very true to an extent. While I would counter by saying that just about every bit of information you need is available within the text itself, that still doesn’t make it an easy bit of escapism to just hop into cold. For my part, I tend to liken the learning curve as something on par with a really dense sci-fi epic like Dune. You’re not going to know everything going in, and Giffen’s storytelling style is very elliptical and even truncated at times, which adds to that confusion. But with no waiting period between issues and everything in front of you in two covers as is available in this collection, you shouldn’t have any problems (also you can rely on Wikipedia if you absolutely need to).
I think the bigger concern with the comic, and something I never really recognized back when it was being initially released, was its occasional rough patches. Generally speaking, the first 13 issues are largely considered the high point of the run, though even those are constrained a bit by outside factors, some better navigated than others. Early on, the creative team, having established the background of the dissolution of the Legion, Earth’s aforementioned exit from the UP, and the current status quo of most of the team members, hit a bit of a problem that really only exists in the world of shared superhero comics. The creative teams and editorial of the Superman comics requested that any and all references to Superboy (the Legion’s key inspiration and their biggest star member) had to be completely eliminated. Giffen, the Bierbaums and Gordon devised an ingenious solution that involved a final battle between the Legion’s biggest powerhouse (Mon-El) and perhaps their greatest enemy (The Time Trapper). The issue itself, the fourth, is probably the most bewildering comic of the entire series. But once accepted on face value, it gives way to perhaps the book’s finest single issue (#5); a parallel universe adventure that, once resolved, establishes a Superman-less status quo and provides an extra treat for the old-timers who get another chance to spend time with a Legionnaire long-dead. And that chapter is followed by a great two-parter that features a powerless Rokk squaring off in a meeting of the minds with one of the biggest heavy-hitters in the DC pantheon in Mordru.
These first 7 issues could very well comprise what I believe to be some of the best storytelling that the title has ever seen. Between Giffen’s fearless vision for where the title could go and how those concepts could be relayed into a narrative, the Bierbaums providing some of the most authentic sounding voices per character that they had seen up to that point, and Gordon’s knack for rather impressive character creation, on top of the magical embellishment he provided on Giffen’s line, it was a wonderfully honed machine – One that not even incredible editorial interference could get in the way of. As it turns out, when its actual short-comings rear their head they have their basis in something far more ordinary: its chief architect falling behind.
Fill-ins, Fill-ins, Fill-ins!
Giffen at this time was a pretty busy guy, still hands-deep into the immensely popular Justice League America and spinoff Justice League Europe (as well as its Quarterly installments), taking over work on the Green Lantern: Emerald Dawn revision of Hal Jordan’s origin, as well as the then upcoming Lobo miniseries, a character he co-created a number of years earlier. So something clearly had to give. Unfortunately because of that, a lot of the great momentum that had built up in the completely Giffen-drawn series had to be put on pause, with fill-ins (from perfectly capable artists like Chris Sprouse and Paris Cullins) taking over for a pair of months with editorially directed origin stories being provided strictly by the Bierbaums. The thing about Tom and Mary is that they, at this period in their careers, still hadn’t quite found their voice as solo storytellers, and these fill-ins stick out rather sorely by comparison to the cool and moody stuff that preceded it and what comes immediately after.
Unfortunately it also gives you a taste of what’s to come in the next arc.
The initial storyline reaches a really neat crescendo as the fractured but slowly reuniting team squares off with the insane Roxxas and there’s a beautifully satisfying moment when the team is firmly re-established. One theoretically could stop right there, but why would you when there’s an entire planetary conspiracy at foot?
The second arc (unofficially titled “The Legion of Super-Heroes”) is where the then current working limitations of the series are probably at their most apparent, along with high likelihood that editorial may have felt fairly non-plussed about complexities and long-running nature of the initial year of the title. After a very strong thirteenth issue, that packs in more story than just about any modern comic on the stands right now, and a fourteenth issue that sees the team going full “Ambush Bug” with Matter Eater Lad in a solo spotlight, comes a four issue stretch that focuses on the Khund warrior race and and the growing influence of the Dark Circle, two long-time Legion adversaries.
Again, despite some bookended material drawn by Giffen at the beginning and end, his larger presence is sorely missed, and it’s really this segment of the series that typically earns most readers ire and gives fuel to the argument that 5YL falls apart after its first 12 months. While I don’t think that’s true at all, especially as the series begins its slow rebound thereafter, it’s a slog. Interestingly, it’s followed, after another bit of interference from the Superman side of things, by Gordon’s lone solo scripting venture in the series (not counting the Timber Wolf spin-off, also collected in the omnibus), “The Quiet Darkness”, which actually got one of the bigger advertising pushes of the era as it served as a “thematic sequel” to pretty much everyone’s go-to Legion story; you know the one.
It’s a solid little story that, while not amounting to a whole lot in the larger scheme of things, mostly just serves as an excuse to look at Giffen’s incredible Darkseid in one of those aforementioned frilly shirt and jacket combos. To its credit, these issues also provide some much needed character breathing space for a couple of the newer recruits in Celeste Rockfish and Kent Shakespeare (sensibly, two characters that Gordon created, so a perfect opportunity). The Bierbaums and new incoming artist Jason Pearson, who presents a really nice bridge between Giffen and eventual Legion artist Stuart Immonen (who pops up in Issue #39), provide quick check-ins into the main story arc with each issue and it finally gives way to where the third arc of the series is headed, in much improved fashion.
Closing out strong
The Terra Mosaic marks a strong finish to Giffen’s tenure on the book. At some point, the realization must have hit everyone that there was no way Giffen was going to be able to keep the pace of the early issues and still be able to remain as involved as he’d like with the shape of the most pivotal arc of the book. So instead, he takes a role much more in line with his work on JLI, plotting and providing layouts for Pearson to follow, and it works like a charm. In this final stretch of 14 issues, the creative team threads all of the bubbling up subplots together into a rousing and rising climax: from the Legion of Substitute Heroes going full resistance against the Dominators, to the sad final fate of a long-time Legionnaire, to the emergence of the SW6 team, a debut that eventually will have massive ramifications for the Legion long past what’s in this omnibus. Even the few fill-in issues hit the mark far better as the Bierbaums, after a few years under their belt, become much stronger storytellers and drop a share of issues that pave the way to their eventual solo tenure on the title, which the omnibus offers a brief preview of here in issue #39.
That’s not to say this final stretch isn’t without its flaws. Pearson is quite good, but what the book gains with him in efficiency is lost somewhat in atmosphere. Additionally Issue #31 contains a big retcon for a particular character that’s one of the earliest instances of Trans representation in comics, which is notable for its historical value but in retrospect looks pretty clumsy in its actual understanding of gender. Of course, perhaps the biggest element is how the The Terra Mosaic comes to a close in a firmly definitive way, one that Giffen wanted to execute because he knew no one at DC was actually paying attention (or so he told me at a convention a few years ago) to what was going on in the book anymore. It’s a daring end, one of the most surprising I can recall in my comics reading history, but it also was a point of no return and sadly set the course for the first of many reboots (we’re now on the fourth reboot, I think?) that have made the Legion increasingly irrelevant and a headache to navigate.
But none of that really matters for a reader of this lone omnibus. Instead, you get a chance to dive deep into the work of one of comics’ most unheralded masters at perhaps his most ambitious, and a lot of the thrilling work that his collaborators produced alongside him as part of one of the more unique creative partnerships in the industry. It’s very much a “warts and all” collection, but it’s impossible to not recommend DC finally archiving this slice of time when the Legion of Super-Heroes became perhaps the most daring, challenging, and polarizing title in their entire lineup. Let me put this way: it’s the favorite Legion run of a growing contingent of indie comics folks. Come join the cool club with us! And then read Tom Bierbaum’s recollections of each issue while you’re at it.
* For this review I did not re-read the Timber Wolf miniseries, there’s only so much time in the day after all…