Saturday, September 22, 2012

Platypus Reviews: Legionnaires

I maintained that two things that destroyed Legion continuity are Crisis on Infinite Earths and the fans at the beginning of my previous post. In my haste I forgot to clarify is it not so much the fans’ fault for the title’s often-confusing continuity but how fan appreciation for the Legion’s rich history turned into continuity porn. The Terra Mosaic is probably the most egregious example where the Bierbaums revealed that longtime supporting character, Shvaughn Erin, was actually a man who used 30th century drugs to turn himself into a woman to get Element Lad to love him. Addressing the issues of transgenderism was very progressive and admirable in 1992, but I believe that they wrote the story to service longtime fans’ suspicion that Element Lad was gay. It becomes all the more glaring when you consider Tom and Mary Bierbaum were members of the fan club, the Legion Outpost, and the Interlac amateur press association (a precursor to contemporary message boards/forums online.) It simply made an otherwise good story look like an amateurish piece of fanfiction.

However, while I did not care for Terra Mosaic, at least it introduced the Batch SW6. “The who?” you may ask. The SW6 Legion were teenaged “clones” of the then-adult Legion that woke up from stasis during the Dominator occupation on Earth. While the Adult Legion believed them to be clones created by the Dominators, new (but inconclusive) evidence suggested that the Adult Legion were, in fact, the clones, which led to the cloning blues between the two teams. Only a couple years before Spider-Man made the word “clone” a dirty word for most comic book fans. Thankfully, Legionnaires sidestepped the prickly issue and focused on good, old-fashioned superheroics.

Where the fourth volume of Legion of Superheroes dispensed with the codenames, Legionnaires embraced them but with “radical” nineties sensibilities. Lightning Lad became “Live Wire”, Phantom Girl became “Apparition,” and Chameleon Boy shortened his name to “Chameleon” but more than a few kept the old names. I read that many longtime Legion fans hate, hate, HATE the new codenames but in the context the 30th century with an early-nineties cultural zeitgeist, would a teenaged superhero from 1993 call themselves Lightning Lad? While I admit some of the names like Alchemist, Gossamer, and Leviathan are just plain silly, some like Live Wire actually complimented the personality of the character. Moreover, it always bugged me the Bierbaums could conceive of a replacement for Supergirl with Laurel Gand, they never bothered to give her a codename until the SW6 Laurel called herself “Andromeda.” The name not only evokes a sense of majesty because of her namesake from ancient Greek mythology but also power because Andromeda is also the name of the galaxy next door. Laurel Gand is the name of that attractive blonde in accounting, not a girl who can shoot lasers from her eyes and juggle boulders.

(Interesting how little fashion changed between the 1990s and the 2990s in the DC Universe.)

With that said, character and pacing make Legionnaires work especially well for me. As much as I loved reading the Silver Age Adventure Comics from my mother’s collection as a child, the characters were relatively flat. Though storytelling grew more sophisticated through the Bronze Age, Lightning Lad never grew to be more than the devoted, but incredibly bland, father and husband whereas his SW6 counterpart lived up to his chosen codename. Moreover, the founders (Live Wire, Saturn Girl, and Cosmic Boy) very much resemble a Freudian power trio with the impulsive Live Wire as the id, the stoic Saturn Girl the superego, and the straight-laced Cosmic Boy the ego. Plus, Cosmic Boy’s seemingly reciprocated affections for Saturn Girl brings a conflict that was not present in the old Adventure Comics stories because of her long-running relationship with Live Wire.

The Bierbaums go even further by dividing the Legion into separate cliques, notable Live Wire’s friendship with the former Sun Boy, Inferno. Both characters are womanizing jerks in their own right, but together their general jerk-ishness is off the charts. Particularly in Legionnaires #2 where both characters berate and insult the applicant, Cera Kesh, after her telekinetic demonstration goes awry. While I will not spoil details, Inferno’s spurning of her affection is an important story pivot for the next four issues. I also appreciate what the Bierbaums did for Ferro, now without the “boy.” Since Ferro Boy was only a member for six issues before his death in Adventure Comics #352, he never got much character development other than exuding a reckless confidence from his Legion audition. His SW6 counterpart is not much different as one of my favorite scenes in the first issue of Legionnaires is when he takes of his Legion flight ring to literally get the “drop” on a band of fleeing miscreants and turns to his iron form moments before crashing into him.

(So that's where the "Ya Tuh Duh" from Legion of Three Worlds comes from.)

There are so many of these little character moments, I could write a three thousand word essay, but will probably not because of time constraints. Outside of the varying and charming personalities, I appreciate how the Bierbaums make the first six issues interconnected. Each issue reads like it is self-contained but it clearly builds up to the show down with a reformed Fatal Five, who are the seminal Legion villains, and ties up almost every dangling plot thread at the arc’s conclusion. While the build-up and final execution are formulaic in most respects, Legionnaires is still highly enjoyable in its simplicity. Plus, the story does not take itself too seriously. Case in point, the odd life of Tenzil Kem AKA Matter-Eater Lad.

I always had a fascination with the less powerful members of the Legion of Super-Heroes like the first Invisible Kid (Lyle Norg), Bouncing Boy, and Brainiac 5 but something about Matter-Eater Lad that fascinated me. Maybe it was the sheer ridiculousness of his power and why him, out of all Legion applicants got to bump elbows with powerhouses like Ultra Boy or Mon-El. Granted, M-E Lad did not come into his own as a character until Keith Giffen and the Bierbaums re-envisioned the character, his absurdist sense of humor livened things up. Especially when he takes on the Persuader in Legionnaires #6. You have a guy built like an entire armored brigade who swings an axe sharp enough to slice through gravity’s pull, and M-E Lad gnaws the handle.

Add it a peppering of wisecracks and non-sequitirs, I almost think M-E Lad could carry this book himself. Though my only complaint is that the Bierbaums did not give me enough of Plaid Lad.

 (Mutant ability? Careful Plaid Lad, or else Marvel will send Litigation Lass after you for copyright infringement.)

As for art, I am not much of a critic in that regard. You will probably enjoy it if you are a fan of Chris Sprouse’s work on Tom Strong. It looks more manga-esque than his later work but compared to the grittiness of Keith Giffen, and others’, work on Terra Mosaic the characters appear more animated. The backgrounds are detailed but not overly ornate and the new uniforms bright and more reflective of comics’ emergence from the “grim n’ gritty” era of comics. Unfortunately, this series was never collected into trade paperback format to my knowledge and is unlikely that it will ever be collected at this point. I would highly recommend hunting down the first arc (Legion of Super-Heroes [vol. 4] #41, Legionnaires #1-6) online or at conventions. While it may not be Watchmen, Legionnaires is what I wanted the Legion of Super-Heroes to be.

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