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The Legion of Super-Heroes ~ Page 1

From many worlds they come, each with his own super-power and a burning desire for adventure. Together they are the 30th Century's greatest legend...

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The Legion of Super-Heroes published by DC Comics

Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds 2009 (HC & SC TPB) 160 pgs.

cover by PerezWritten by Geoff Johns. Pencils by George Perez. Inks by Scott Kolish.
Colours: Hi-Fi. Letters: Nick Napolitano. Editor: Eddie Berganza.

Reprinting: Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds #1-5 (2009)

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Reviewed Feb. 1, 2010 (slightly modified June, 2010)

Pretty much every year (and sometimes every few months!) Marvel and DC both come out with "mega event" story arcs that crossover into all their titles and are supposedly "not to be missed" spectacles that will have far reaching implications for their entire fictional universe (at least until the next mega event). Initially such "events" usually involved a central mini-series that would overlap into the existing monthly comics. More recently, the central mini-series often begets a bunch of ancillary mini-series (the idea being that just as such crossovers can lose readers who can't be bothered, those who are hooked will have to buy all the extraneous tie-ins and crossovers -- ka-ching!).

Which sort of brings us to Legion of 3 Worlds. I say "sort of" because, as others pointed out at the time, although it was marketed to tie in with the main "Final Crisis" event...it's actually fairly isolated from it and so doesn't really require much familiarity with that epic. At the same time, it is tied up in lots of continuity -- lots of wide ranging and potentially confusing continuity. I say potentially -- but not necessarily in actuality. More on that in a moment.

The story is that Superboy-Prime -- essentially a once benign but now homicidally psychotic Superman from another dimension (that was destroyed years ago in Crisis on Infinite Earths) -- has teamed up with the Legion of Super Villains, the evil sorcerer Mordru, and others in the far future 31st Century. Superboy-Prime has a hate on for all things Superman...including the Legion of Super Heroes which, after, all was inspired by Superman's millennium old legend. Allied against the villains is Superman and the Legion of Super Heroes...ad infinitum. Because this isn't just one version of the Legion...but three separate versions from different parallel universes. You see, years ago, DC had the concept of parallel universes, peopled by different super heroes. Then the Crisis on Infinite Earths eliminated that, presaging a long period of frequent reboots and reimaginings as various editorial regimes tried to decide what was, and wasn't, "in continuity". Then DC finally gave up and decided to reintroduce the idea of parallel universes, making it so all those reboots could equally claim to exist.

So the Legion here is represented -- first and foremost -- by the main Legion, which writer Geofff Johns previously used in the story arc Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes, and which seems to be an older, more jaded version of the "classic", pre-Crisis Legion. As well there's a Legion (from I think comics published in the 1990s) that's a bunch of space lost teens. And the version of the team then featured in the monthly comic (but which by the end of this story has basically been shunted off as inhabitants of a parallel universe and with their monthly comic cancelled).

And much too my surprise...it's entertaining.

I'll add the caveat that I'm not saying this is particularly smart, or nuanced, or even epic. It's literally scores of heroes and villains hitting and fighting each other for most of its 160 pages. There is plotting, after a fashion, and some character moments, but its basic raison d'etre is just to be a big, colourful spectacle. It's not even that original -- not only has Johns wrapped a number of recent mega-events around the villainy of Superboy-Prime (a character so one-note he makes the Joker look like a well-rounded personality) but there's dialogue indicating this isn't even the first time these Legions from different universes have teamed up!

Yet give the Devil his due -- on the level of a big, colourful spectacle, it works pretty well. This could very easily become numbing or tedious. But instead, it clips along and keeps the pages turning.

Before I go any further, one has to lay a significant amount of the success for the project at the feet of artist George Perez. Perez who is a master of these kind of over-the-top exercises in visual excess -- Perez who drew the Crisis on Infinite Earths all those years ago. Perez is a master of cramming his pages full of panels and his panels full of details, characters, backgrounds, that would make a lesser artist's hand fall off. Admittedly, I can be mixed on Perez. I loved him as a kid, but have found sometimes his figures can be a bit stiff, or in his zeal to show how much detail he can cram into a single frame, his imagery can be cluttered. That's when he's not at his best. But here...here he's very near the top of his game. What's further funny is how Perez's stuff has just become more and more intricate and detailed over the years, so that his 1970s and 1980s stuff -- the work that first made him a legend -- seems positively banal by comparison. While most artists tend to cultivate a looser, more relaxed style as they age, Perez has gone the opposite route. Yet for all the kudos rightly owed to Perez, I think some credit must also go to inker Scott Koblish who brings out the best of Perez' work, maybe adding that extra level of shadowing and contour to the figures and environment, and to the colourist who not only has to colour in the multitude of different costumes, but maybe does his/her part to help keep the images clear, picking the right hues and shades to make sure the details stand out, and the imagery doesn't just degenerate into a mass of busy line work. The sum total is visuals that are rich, and detailed, and captivating, and clear.

And it's the visuals that mean if Legion of 3 Worlds is little more than garish eye candy...there's a little bit of protein and vitamins mixed with the sugar.

As for the story, Johns deserves his own nods. Legion of 3 Worlds is a hopelessly incoherent effort that, on one hand, is fairly simple, plot-wise. When you actually think about what happens, it maybe doesn't really justify the length. Like with similar, mass team up projects, half the page count is needed just to cram everyone in, not to unfold the story. And on the other hand, though not connected that much to the "Final Crisis" of the title, it is very much tangled up in various back stories and mythologies. Despite the prominence -- and essentially re-instatement -- of the "classic" Legion whose fans wouuld, presumably, be older readers, there's also the two other Legions to contend with, as well Johns draws even more heavily on more current events completely removed from any Legion connection and that would resonate with younger readers. And there are no footnotes to guide you to back issues where such-and-such an incident occurred -- given the "main" Legion hasn't had their own series for years, it's not simply a matter of picking up old Legion back issues, but in presumably tracking down any guest appearances in other series. You'd have to be such an obsessive comics fan that you barely left your comic boxes to eat and relieve yourself to really know who all these characters are and their connections and relevant history. Along the way, Johns resurrects two dead heroes -- heroes with little connection to the Legion but who will no doubt have great meaning for their fans, bringing a cheer to their throats and a tear to their eyes...and will equally leave other readers going: "huh? who's he?" (and "why, if Superboy-Prime can take on Superman and three freaking Legions, is character __ and __ such a worry to him?")

Yet the reason I say Johns deserves credit (and why earlier I distinguished between "potentially" confusing and "actually" confusing) is because Johns tells the tale well enough that you can still enjoy it for what it is...even if you don't really know what's going on half the time. You can pick up on the gist (okay, these two hate each other, these two love each other) even if you're not sure of the details. And maybe in comic book worlds of never ending continuity, that's as good as anything. The ideal comic is one where the background is seamlessly explained for the new reader. The second best is one where you don't know all the hows and whys, but you can still enjoy it as a breezy romp.

Johns also belongs to the school of comic book writer who clearly loves the idea of continuity -- not just building on it, but rewriting it, and retconning it. So just as with Green Lantern: Rebirth, where he provided an explanation for events that were never intended to have that explanation, likewise, here he gleefully shows an obsessive fixation for the continuity he wants to honour (much of it his own, drawn from previous stories he's written)...and a disregard for that which he doesn't. He reveals the identity of long time Legion foe, the perpetually hooded Time Trapper...and some readers scoffed at the revelation, since he is outted as a character that hadn't even been created when the Time Trapper first started plaguing the Legion decades ago. Yet then Johns shamelessly acknowledges the inconstancy of comic book mythology by having a character come out and say that, given the nature of time paradoxes and multiple universes, the Time Trapper revealed here...might only be a temporary identity.

As well, for a story that tries to milk BIG moments from unveiling characters that might leave a casual reader scratching their heads, at least the Time Trapper revelation resonates with the events depicted in this story -- as opposed to it being, I dunno, Proty or someone (I'm remembering Batman: Hush where a crucial revelation involved a character that even a lot of Batman readers didn't remember!) Likewise, there is recapping of some of Superboy-Prime's previous battles at the beginning so, again, when certain characters recurr, at least we were aware within the context of this saga that they had a past history.

Of course, because Johns is cavalierly resurrecting characters who were dead, and self-reflectively having the heroes themselves remark on the impermanence of events, it also tends to further emphasize the superficiality of it all. Despite what purport to be emotional scenes and dramatic character moments, Johns is also quick with a quip or flippant aside, rendering it all a tad light and superficial. Which, strangely, is maybe what adds to the enjoyment. For a story that could potentially be grim and dark, where heroes die...you can enjoy it as just a romp. I mean, Superboy-Prime is responsible for some appalling mayhem...yet is also supposed to be slightly comical in his ludicrously juvenile -- and old fashioned -- taunts.

Which is just as well, because Johns' penchant for brutal excesses (a trait he shares with many modern comics writers) could actually be off-putting. Although not as extreme as some of his work, nonetheless Johns' love of violence and brutality is on display periodically with lines like "He shattered Sun-Boy's head!" (not a line you'd expect to read in a Legion comic from a few decades ago). Perez's visuals keep the more extreme bits on this side of too gory, and the inherent superficiality of Johns' writing, the multitudity of characters (where it's hard to even keep track of which version of a character from what universe might've been killed) and the very obviousness -- even ho hum predictability -- of the carnage means it tends not to be upsetting. Because you don't really care. It's a popcorn spectacle...not an involving human drama. I find I don't even have much enthusiasm for criticizing the undercurrents, like when Johns rewrites the Green Lantern oath to say: "Let those who try to stop what's right...burn like my power, Green Lantern's right!" and instead of seeing that as a creepy, disturbing rewriting of a noble pledge, he clearly means it to be way cool. I've said before I tend to find Johns (and a lot of his peers) kind of creepy...like guys who not only used to burn insects with magnifying glasses when they were kids...but probably still do when the whim strikes. The way he has characters harp on the Legion code against killing seems kind of insincere, frankly.

But, to be fair, such moments are actually not that common in the comic...considering it really is just scores of pages of fisticuffs.

I had waffled for a while about picking this up, having read both gushing and scathing reviews of it in equal measure, and with my mixed feelings about Johns, sometimes liking his stuff, sometimes hating it, and my (less) mixed feelings about Perez. But I did actually enjoy it as just a big, splashy, super hero spectacle. Is it really a great Legion epic? -- not really. I mean, there are just too many characters for any of them to get enough scene time to really shine, or for us to identify with them (though Johns does better than other epics have, as many get some bits and character moments). It didn't quite trigger any nostalgic warmth for me the way even Johns' earlier, Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes, had.

But it's stunningly illustrated -- and, for what it is, trundles along briskly, with just enough questions to keep you turning the pages, just enough twists to keep it interesting, and just enough glib banter to keep it fun.

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in the monthly comics.

Cover price: ___

The Legion of Super-Heroes: Death of a Dream 2006 (SC TPB) 210 pgs.

cover by KitsonWritten by Mark Waid (co-plotter Barry Kitson), with Stuart Moore. Pencils by Barry Kitson, with Kevin Sharpe, Georges Jeanty, with Dale Eaglesham, Ken Lashley. Inks by Art Thibert, Prentis Rollins, Mick Gray, Drew Geraci, others.
Colours: Sno Cone. Letters: Phil Balsman, various. Editors: Stephen Wacker, Harvey Richards.

Reprinting: The Legion of Super-Heroes #7-13 (2005- series)

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

This is the second volume collecting Mark Waid and Barry Kitson's re-imagining of the venerable franchise about 30th Century teenage super heroes. The first volume was essentially establishing this new take on the characters (the Legion now being a kind of teenage movement rebelling against the sterile conformity of their parents' worlds), while beginning to introduce a greater story arc involving a looming galactic conflict.

With this second volume, the greater threat is now front and centre, as the Legion work to prevent an invasion of the United Federation of Planets, while also weathering a split in their own ranks as the rivalry between leader Cosmic Boy and resident genius, Brainiac 5, forces other members to choose sides.

Whereas the first collection featured a number of tales that were more character-based, this collection, by focusing on the bigger menace, is much more squarely in the adventure-suspense category. And because it is the resolution of the conflict (as opposed to the beginning) should be more satisfying as an exciting page turner. Sometimes an ending without a build up can be as unsatisfying as a build up without an ending (remember, I like to try and review these TPBs on their own -- trying to consider them from the point of view of someone just picking it up, randomly, in a store). With that being said, I think enough of what went before is recapped that it shouldn't be too hard to pick up on the story.

But I find myself waffling back and forth.

As much as I enjoyed aspects of these issues...there were equal aspects that didn't quite work for me.

For one thing, though it does a nice job of generating a sense of grand, apocalyptic suspense at first...as we move toward the climax, it seems a bit anti-climactic. For what ends up being a 13 issue arc...not as much happens as you might expect. The great strategies and brilliant deductions characters make are really kind of tepid and simple (the Legionnaires figure out that the invaders need only strike a few specific targets to bring the Federation down...but when it's explained, you're kind of left going: well, duh. Waid has set up a pretty simplistic infrastructure where certain planets monopolize key industries). And there's just a sense that the mind boggling overwhelming threat...ends up seeming pretty minor when only a handful of Legionnaires can battle its army of thousands to a standstill!

The saga is enjoyable...but somehow doesn't quite live up to its own promise. In fact there's an intriguing idea that the villain's motive for the invasion is, essentially, to kick the UFP out of its socio-political stupor. In other words, his motives are the same as the Legion's, a fact that is alluded to a few times -- but it never really seems to take us anywhere.

In my review of the first volume, I suggest that Waid can almost be too clever. Which seems like an odd criticism. But in writing his witty lines and presenting his thoughtful, imaginative concepts...he can kind of sacrifice the reality of the characters. For instance there's a scene where Brainiac 5 goes into a long explanation about the forces that bind the universe...all as a way of explaining how Light Lass and Star Boy, with their ability to manipulate the forces of gravity, are essentially manipulating the very building blocks of the universe. It's an interesting (and amusing) sequence, well told, presumably something Waid had been brooding about for years and was just waiting for an opportunity to articulate.

But it was an awkward digression in the context of the scene itself.

It was clever for Waid to write...dumb for Brainiac 5 to say when he said it.

And for a series so focused on the characters and the personalities, Waid sometimes relies on just telling us things he should be showing us. At one point Cosmic Boy refers to Sun Boy as being his right hand man...um, but where in any of the scenes did we get that impression? In fact, Cosmic Boy and Sun Boy barely had any scenes together!

Another plot thread has a schism threaten to split the team apart, and everyone blames Invisible Kid (for snitching on one side to the other). But Invisible Kid denies it and it just seems awkward the way his protestations are ignored by all and sundry (this too is an example, maybe, of Waid putting his ideas ahead of his characters, as it leads into an 11th hour surprise revelation).

The series can be thoughtfully written and cleverly told, with witty quips and some surprise revelations and twists (Dream Girl's lack of prophetic vision). There are some nice character bits, even if Waid seems too aware of them being nice, belabouring an emotional scene by dragging it out over multiple pages

But it can also be astonishing poorly and lazily written. Characters can seem to act according to the needs of the scene, rather than according to the nature of their personality (or, at least, it's not articulated why they are doing what they do). For instance, why does Invisible Kid side with Cosmic Boy's team...when Brainiac 5 was the one who recruited him, and Cosmic Boy had, previously, been rather hostile toward him? There's a whole lot of things that seem as though Waid had concepts, but no idea how to develop them logically...so he went ahead and threw them in anyway. Even the whole schism in the group seems kind of unsubstantiated, as it's not really clear what Brainiac 5 (or Cosmic Boy) were really doing to warrant such violent antipathy toward each other.

Even the very philosophy of the group (and the comic) seems unfocused, as if Waid liked the idea of a rebellious movement...but wasn't sure what to have them rebel against (or was told by his editor to keep it largely abstract and apolitical). So there's talk of rebelling against conformity, and how the UPF needs a kick in the pants...but, um, why? How is the "system" not working: is their rampant poverty? Racism? And the LSH is supposed to be leading the fight in the name of freedom and individuality...but Waid makes the group an oddly paramilitary organization, with a rigidly enforced chain-of-command. And when the crisis looms, the heroes insist "individual differences...are an unaffordable luxury."

It all smacks a little of Waid and Kitson not really having worked out the nitty gritty of their premise.

I'll admit, I quibble about the violence in the series. I know "heroes don't kill" and "minimum force" are ideas seen as passe and childish by modern comic readers raised on Quake II video games and George W. Bush's world view -- but I personally liked the idea of heroes who had ideals and scruples. It's particularly glaring since Waid clearly modelled his Legion movement on the 1960s hippy movement...but then has contempt for the "peace and love" aspect of the hippy philosophy. And there's one panel in issue #13 that I would argue threatens to push the comic into "mature readers" territory because of its graphic gore.

The art is mainly by Barry Kitson (with a few other artists pinch hitting here or there, or drawing short back up tales) and Kitson is a sturdy, realist artist that gives the whole a solid visual foundation. But Waid tends to draw faces rather similar, so I frequently found myself getting confused about some of the characters. And maybe a problem is that as Kitson draws the characters -- and maybe as Waid writes them a bit -- they don't entirely come across as teenagers. Which wouldn't be as much of an issue except that, as noted, this version of the team wants to really play up the teen/generation gap angle of the series.

Ultimately, I did like Death of a Dream -- and it's a more sustained, consistent tale than were the issues collected in volume 1 which were deliberately more episodic. But, I'll admit, reflecting back on it, my enjoyment falls short of enthusiastic.

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in the monthly comics.

Cover price: ___

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