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GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE
PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


The Legion of Super-Heroes ~ Page 2

Legion of Super-Heroes: Enemy Manifest 2008 (HC & SC TPB) 134 pages

coverWritten by Jim Shooter, with "Justin Thyme". Pencils by Francis Manapul, with Rick Leonardi, Ramon Bachs. Inks by John Livesay, with Dan Green.
Colours: JD Smith. Letters: Steve Wands. Editor: Mike Marts, Janelle Siegel.

Reprinting: Legion of Super-Heroes (2000 series) #45-50 (2008-2009)

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

Number of readings: 2

Reviewed July 22, 2009

Jim Shooter's return to the Legion of Super-Heroes (or, a version of them) -- the team on which he launched his comics career some 40 years ago -- produced one of the most entertaining comics around, funny, intriguing, fast-paced, clever. So why does this second collection not warrant a higher rating?

There's the rub.

Shooter's modern run began in issues collected as Enemy Rising (reviewed below). Though coming on board the on going series, Shooter provided a decent jumping on point, as he established the characters and situations well enough, and launched a series of new plot threads. The most significant was the introduction of mysterious alien marauders that were attacking UFP planets willy-nilly. This collection picks up that thread as a mysterious planet suddenly appears in earth's solar system, its gravitational field threatening to tear the planets apart. The Legion manages to save the day, but quickly conclude the mysterious planet is connected to the previous invaders.

What makes Shooter's run interesting (in this day and age of "decompressed" storytelling where simple stories are stretched out over multiple issues) is how he presents a multi-issue arc, where each issue is a "chapter" in the overall story -- yet still wraps most of the issues around some core plot or idea. Each issue has a story to tell...even as it's part of the greater whole. I said in my review of the previous TPB that Shooter crams more into a single issue than a lot of modern comics writers dole out in an entire arc!

That's because the Legion has one of the largest memberships of any super group, and Shooter seems to like juggling them all, so there are lots of character bits, from on going sub-plots to minor throw aways (there's a sequence where there's a try out for Legion membership and you really believe thought was put into how each character would vote, and why). There's lots of witty quips and banter, evoking the sense of teen heroes who are relaxed around each other. The humour can be quite funny...even as Shooter can also be serious and dramatic. And even when the characters are at odds, it's less about "right" and "wrong", and more about people with different, equally legitimate points of view. Along the way Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl have some pretty drastic relationship troubles, and Invisible Kid has a crush on another girl. Etc. Most significantly, Princess Projectra is obsessed with the destruction of her homeworld (depicted back near the beginning of the new series -- in the TPB Teenage Revolution) and seems headed on a dark and dangerous path. Yet even as she is seeming being set up as a "villain"...you can still understand her motivation, her pain.

There's a "smartness" to a lot of Shooter's writing here, from the handling of the characters/dialogue, to the way he takes the self-reflective idea introduced by earlier writers -- that the Legionnaires were inspired by 20th Century comic books -- and makes it a legitimate plot element (as Projectra becomes obsessed with an old Superman comic that resonates with her situation). Shooter may also be one of the most scientifically literate writers to tackle this science fiction series. I mean, how many comics refer to the Lyapunov Terminus? Or given that invasions are a staple of LSH epics, Shooter provides a truly off-beat adversary.

Shooter seems to be dragging out plot threads left over from issues prior to his run, and you wonder why it took so long for someone to deal with them. In addition to the Projectra ideas, Shooter throws in scenes involving Brainiac 5 and the ghost of Dream Girl. It's a bit abrupt, given that other Legionnaires make jokes about there being rumours of Brainy having dreams about Dream Girl...yet this is the first time in Shooter's run it's mentioned (and Dream Girl herself was killed back in the collection Death of a Dream)! These story threads become more dominant as these issues go along, with the Projectra stuff even seeming as though it's threatening to become more important than the alien invasion plot!

The chief artist on these issues is Francis Manapul whose style well suits Shooter's shifting tones, as it's just real enough to be dramatic, just cartoony enough to milk the humour, clean enough to depict the action, but detailed enough to evoke the sense of this future, hi-tech reality. Unfortunately, Manapul may have a bit of trouble meeting deadlines. So after putting his own mark on the team, creating a distinctive visual style...a couple of replacement artists have to fill in. And neither are as effective. Rick Leonardi pinch hits in the middle, with a rather rough, deliberately sketchy style that is a stark contrast to Manapul's tight, detailed lines. And the final issue has Ramon Bachs substituting, and looks sloppy and rushed -- contrast this with Bachs' detailed, realist art in Batman: City of Crime.

Still, despite the visual inconsistency, why if I was so loving Shooter's run haven't I ranked it higher?

'Cause DC Comics pulled the plug.

I said at the end of my previous review that the problem with setting up a story arc, is what happens if it doesn't get finished? In this case, DC didn't just fire Shooter -- they cancelled the entire comic. Explanations (or rumours) range from poor sales, to the fact that DC was gearing up to replace this version of the LSH with another one, to bad blood between the notoriously opinionated Shooter and the equally bullish DC brass. But it was announced enough in advance that Shooter claimed in interviews he would still tie it up -- albeit more abruptly than he had intended. But when the final issue hit the stands -- Shooter appeared to be gone (the script credited to the pseudonymous Justin Thyme!). Nor did the regular-sized issue contain most of what DC promos had said it would (including being announced as double-sized!)

The final issue does wrap up the intruder planet story, and even provides some closure to some of the relationship threads like the Brainiac 5/Dream Girl plot. So, in that sense, I'm being too harsh and have to give DC props for at least trying to offer an "end". But by this point, the Princess Projectra plot was threatening to become the more dramatic one...and that's ignored entirely.

It makes you wonder if modern comics' brass are following antiquated business models.

If the plot threads were just on going then, sure, DC might as well pull the plug now as later. But Shooter had indicated he had a definite, finite story arc in mind. So even if sales were weak, it would make sense to let him bring them to fruition -- even if they had to negotiate a compromise (ie: Shooter wants six issues to wrap it up, the brass gives him three). In the old days, if comic book sales were poor, sales were poor. But today, the monthly comic is only part of the product...with the eventual TPB collection meant to stay on sale for years. So by cancelling the comic abruptly, they affect the marketability, not just of this TPB, but of the previous TPB (since it's part of the same story arc).

I mean, I can say this was a great run, and I'll probably re-read it over the years, even with the imperfect ending. But that's 'cause I was already reading it, committed to it. But what about a customer a year or two down the line who sees the TPB, wonders if it would be worth buying, looks up reviews on the internet...and is told, yeah, it's a great run, unfortunately, it ends awkwardly? Does he go back to the store and buy it anyway...or does he decide, nyah, might as well buy something else, instead? And DC loses money in the long run, by trying to save money in the short term!

And so I remain mixed. Shooter's run is a lot of fun, partly because of its sheer scope in juggling all these characters and plot elements. And Manapul -- when he does draw an issue -- provides strong, attractive visuals. And, at least there is an attempt to resolve some of the plot lines in the final issue. But it's a series that was engrossing partly because you were waiting to see where it all ended up. And in that sense, the imperfect ending has negative reverberations throughout the previous collection, too.

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

Cover price: ___


Legion of Super-Heroes: Enemy Rising 2008 (HC & SC TPB) 176 pages

coverWritten by Jim Shooter. Pencils by Francis Manapul, and Aaron Lopresti, Sanford Greene. Inks by Livesay and Matt Ryan, Nathan Massengill.
Colour: JD Smith, and Nathan Eyring. Letters: Steve Wands. Editor: Mike Marts, Jeannie Schaefer.

Reprinting: The Legion of Super-Heroes #37-44 (2008)

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

Number of readings: 2

Jim Shooter began his comics career in the 1960s writing for The Legion of Super-Heroes (a child prodigy -- he was only thirteen!) where his stories became the creative bench mark for the team. He returned to writing the team in the mid-1970s...then went onto a long, tumultuous career in comics, becoming Editor-in-Chief at Marvel for a long, seminal period, then founding the initial (well regarded) Valiant line, and a few other less-successful comics' companies, all the while gaining a controversial reputation before leaving comics entirely.

And now he's back writing the Legion! And as an indication of the bridges Shooter had burned over the years, it apparently took a while for DC president Paul Levitz -- and one-time Legion scribe himself -- to convince other DC brass to okay it.. But in Legion-fan circles it couldn't help but be viewed with a certain nervous-but-giddy expectation.

The result...is really pretty exceptional. And unlike so many modern writers, Shooter isn't trying to dazzle us with flash and sizzle (in these first eight issues of his run, he doesn't kill off a regular, rape them, or reveal a hitherto untold secret that changes "everything we thought we knew" about them...or any other of the cliches new creators employ to show how "creative" they are). He's just trying to tell stories and characters.

Those expecting a repeat of Shooter's 1960s heyday will, of course, be disappointed. Comics styles have changed, Shooter's style has changed and this is the current interpretation which reinvented the Legion and recast the characters. And Shooter effortlessly slips into the new milieu and characterizations. And he easily orients the novice reader so you can pick up a lot as you go.

Of course, another -- less fortunate -- way Shooter follows the modern style is in the way the story can be kind of gritty and violent, with an alien menace that seems to be an ill-defined hybrid of living and unliving organisms, but which the Legionnaires have no compunction about using lethal force on (this from a team that in the 1960s were careful not even to hurt insects with their powers!) and the visuals can, likewise, be a bit bloody in spots. And Shooter even gives Legionnaires with "passive" powers (ie: Saturn Girl) guns!

These eight issues form an odd narrative arc. There's a mysterious menace threatening the United Planets that goes unresolved as it's clearly a bigger story arc (hence the title: Enemy Rising). Yet there are other arcs that climax in the final issue here, allowing this to satisfy as a story arc. It's an odd conclusion in that it smacks a bit of a Deus ex machina solution, even as Shooter lays the groundwork for it early. There's plenty of character bits, plenty of action, lots of witty quips and humour, yet also human drama. And within the greater arc, there are adventures and stories that are resolved in an issue or two...even as each issue has the feel of a being a chapter in a longer work.

The comic is very, very funny...yet the humour usually manages to stem from the characters, rather than seeing too obviously imposed by the writer (ie: having the characters say things too obviously self-reflective).

The LSH has the largest membership of any comic book "team"...and Shooter revels in juggling all these characters, making sure everyone has a moment, a point of view, sometimes cramming a scene with a bunch of them, but never losing sight of their individuality. There's more going on in a single issue than a lot of contemporary comics will have in an entire TPB collection!

A scene in issue #40 is a beautiful example of Shooter's handling of characters, as a dilemma arises that has them arguing. The dialogue is "real", but as well, why each character takes their position is unique to them (some personalize it -- "if it was me..." -- some considered it as an abstract moral question, others regard it academically as a legal question). It's also not cut-and-dried, so its not a matter of a "right" and a "wrong" side. I'd argue a lot of writers working with ensemble casts -- whether they be comics scribes or TV wwriters -- could learn a lot from that one scene...and mayhap Shooter's entire run.

Admittedly, a lot of the adventure-"plots" lean toward just big fights. The new menace the LSH faces is mysterious marauders who land out of the sky, killing and destroying everything in their path -- and self-destructing before their bodies can be examined. (But Shooter does succeed in making us curious about what will be behind it all as Brainiac 5 notes various incongruities about the invaders). At the same time, Shooter shows more cleverness with the fights than a lot of comics writers. The invaders have the ability to adapt and mutate to any threat, meaning the heroes have to constantly come up with fresh and novel ways to fight them.

The strength of this run is Shooter's ability to juggle a panorama of characters and plot-lines (okay, I don't suppose you can juggle a panorama...but you know what I mean). The characters come alive, in all their vices and virtues, so that we empathize with them all (even when they're at odds with each other). Lightning Lad is the new team leader, and is woefully out of his depth, bordering on incompetent; but we remain sympathetic to his vulnerability. And there's a lot going on, both with the characters, and the various plot threads, so that sometimes little, throwaway scenes will turn out to have greater relevance a few issues later. I commented in my review of the earlier Waid-scripted stories that Waid wrote cleverly concocted characters...Shooter writes people.

In fact a criticism I had of Shooter's late '80s/early '90s work was that it could be a little cerebral. As if he was over-thinking the characters. But here the humanity of the characters is beautifully evoked. Shooter also effectively creates a sense of the LSH being teenagers, full of the insecurity and missteps of teens.

The art is mainly by Francis Manapul -- a relatively new talent (I believe). Manapul is a confident, detailed artist who quickly makes the team his own. Initially I wasn't entirely sure if I'd like it, his style having hints of a kind of Jim Lee-esque, vaguely Manga influenced style. But quickly he won me over. He's also well paired with Shooter, his style able to shift to suit the comedic and the serious that is inherent in the scripts, and clear enough to realize the action scenes which, as mentioned, are more than just anonymous scenes of people hitting each other. He also has a nice compositional eye for scenes of people just standing around talking...and there's a lot of that in Shooter's dialogue heavy script. And he too evokes the youth of the characters in little visual extras -- like having posters on their bedroom walls.

Aaron Lopresti pinch hits an issue and does a perfectly acceptable job. However, the final issue also has a guest artist -- Sanford Greene -- and I'll admit the work there was less successful for me. Greene has a much rawer, cartoonier style that seems more appropriate for a comedy comic, or one aimed at younger readers (in fact, apparently Greene has illustrated issues of The Legion of Super-Heroes in the 31st Century, the non-continuity Legion comic based on the animated TV series). Aesthetically it's less attractive, and stylistically it jars uncomfortably with the grittier material (such as a villain threatening to rape Light Lass!).

I've often commented that my reviews are based -- somewhat -- on the idea of how well do these TPBs read on their own. And in an industry seeming overwhelmingly obsessed with never ending story arcs and on going continuity, it might seem like an impossible criteria to impose. But here Shooter shows how it can be done. Yes, plot threads are left dangling -- the mysterious invaders remain a threat and their agenda yet to be revealed. Nonetheless, we do get a climax to a secondary story arc. As well, Shooter makes us interested and involved with the characters so that we can enjoy what's depicted, even if it doesn't lead to any specific conclusions.

In short, Enemy Rising is entertaining as a run of issues read on their own...and entertaining enough that you want to keep following the story, not because you need to know how it ends, but simply because you're enjoying the ride.

Of course the problem with lengthy arcs is whether the creators will stick around to see it to fruition. Shooter has, apparently, already had clashes with DC brass and walked away from the series once (only to return without missing an issue) -- so will he actually stick it out to bring his ideas to their intended climax?

Only time will tell...but based on these issues: here's hoping. (See my review of the next TPB, Enemy Manifest -- reviewed above -- to see the irony of that statement!)

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

Cover price: ___


Legion of Super-Heroes: An Eye for an Eye 2007 (SC TPB) 160 pages

coverWritten by Paul Levitz (co-plotter Keith Giffen). Pencils by Keith Giffen, Steve Lightle, with Joe Orlando. Inks by Larry Mahlstedt.
Colours: Carl Gafford. Letters: John Costanza. Editot: Karen Berger.

Reprinting: The Legion of Super-Heroes (1984 series) #1-6, with covers

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

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: June, 2010

Additional notes: intro by Paul Levitz; character profiles of Karate Kid, and the LSH and the LSV; covers -- including covers from the issues when they were reprinted as Tales of the Legion of Super-Heroes #326-331

The Legion of Super-Heroes started out long ago as just a one-time gimmick -- teen super-heroes from the 30th Century who came back in time to visit Superboy (back when he was Superman-as-a-youngster). A few more guest appearances led to a regular feature, eventually taking over Superboy's own comic and developing a significant fandom, even by the standards of comicdom. In 1984, DC was experimenting with transferring a few on-going series to a direct-to-the-comic-shops format (at a time when most comics were still available at the local corner store). And the Legion was one of those selected, re-starting the series now with an official "first issue" #1. And to kick it off, the Legion's long time creative force, Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen, presented a multi-arc saga in which the team's sporadically recurring nemeses, the Legion of Super-Villains, mounts a major attack on the team.

And at the point I'm writing this review, it remains only the second Legion collection to reprint material from the Bronze Age of comics (ie: 1970s-1980s) -- at least, other than an Archive, or other omnibus-style collection.

Must be pretty special, huh?

If only.

The saga starts out well enough. By this point Keith Giffen's art has become stylish in his use of angles and shadows, making for some intriguing, striking panels. Granted, between the hyper-close ups, and the weird far future technology, it can often be a wee bit hard to quite be sure what you're looking at -- but it nicely evokes a futuristic environment. And his actual faces and figures have taken on a slightly cartoony vibe. While at one point he draws a panel of the Villains gathered at a table to evoke DaVinci's painting of the Last Supper. But if there's a subtext, I missed it. Still, it's attractive visuals. Steve Lightle takes over part way through -- possibly still working from Giffen's layouts -- and he brings a more realist, super heroic pencil work that is appealing. And Larry Mahlstedt's inking adds a unifying consistency. Joe Orlando pencils the final chapter, but to lesser effect, and with some confused storytelling.

Levitz's script is tightly paced, cutting between various characters and scenes. Granted, the "super villains lead a major strike against super heroes" is almost as old as the genre, but maybe the very familiarity of it all gives it a certain comfortable cosiness.

The Legion is a kind of odd series, in that it literally has the largest active membership of any super hero comic -- and yet the characters aren't really all that distinct from each other. Put a bunch of them into a panel, and you could mix up the dialogue with very little effect. But, in a sense, that's the appeal. These aren't a bunch of contrivedly eccentric personalities, but really can seem like, well, like real people -- a likeable enough bunch of fairly level headed, but flawed, folks. And with that being said, there are some variations -- some are a bit hot headed, others are more reserved.

It's the very size of the team that maybe allows the scenes to flip by, as Levitz has a lot to squeeze in -- and the far future, intergalactic environment lends it a flavour distinctive from all other super hero teams. So even if the basic plot is trite, the backdrop against which it takes place lends it some freshness. And maybe the "super villain's revenge" is novel for a LSH epic, as many of their multi-issue arcs tend to involve invasions and alien armadas. Levitz also piques our interest because the Villains have a secondary scheme at play.

It's fine for the first few issues, and you wait for it develop upon that basic core plot.

Unfortunately, it doesn't really. The Villains strike at various members, kidnapping a few, then the Legion fights back. Levitz and Giffen haven't really bothered to structure the thing into much of a plot. Indeed -- it's actually astonishingly lazy writing at times. The Villains win when the story needs them to win, and the Legionnaires win when the story needs them to win. There are no tricks, no strategies, no explanation for why if A could beat B in this scene, B defeats A in this later scene. When we find out what the villain's other plan is -- it doesn't really surprise us with any unexpected motivation, or hitherto unknown objectives.

The story even includes the killing of a Legionnaire -- something which has happened before. Still, you kind of wished they'd save such "shock" events for stories that justify them (or at least that give his death meaning).

Like with other stories that come to mine, it feels like they're just skimming over a story that should've been developed more. The Villains take over the planet Orando -- home of Legionnaire Princess Projectra -- and that leads to lamentations about how the populace "suffered". Except we didn't get any sense of the impact on the civilian population (honestly, I wasn't sure if the people were even supposed to know the villains had taken over!).

To be fair, Levitz and Giffen had no reason to expect that, almost 25 years later, DC would collect these issues in a TPB. They were just working to a deadline, trying to keep the action moving fast enough, and throwing in appropriate cliff hanger endings, to get the reader to buy the next issue. They weren't thinking in terms of a "graphic novel".

Levitz himself in his introduction acknowledges the story "presupposes" the reader's familiarity with the Legion. On one hand, the not-quite-blandness of the personalities and the fairly stock conflict means you can follow the story fairly well. But you aren't always sure if there's sub-text to the dialogue you're missing. And given many of the villains are literal counterparts of the heroes (same powers and planets of origin) the fights can actually get a bit confusing as to who's who. And characters can seem to come out of nowhere, not properly introduced in this story arc.

Meanwhile, there are so many Legionnaires employed, few have much impact on the direction of the story. Legion founders Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl and especially Cosmic Boy do little. Brainiac 5 appears part way through -- but never makes much use of his super intellect. Given a certain character gets killed, you might expect him to be better featured, but he's not -- at least until his climactic fight scene.

Light Lass emerges as a focal character (the final chapter is even mainly devoted to recapping her history). But Levitz never really makes it feel like she's the star -- nor makes her that interesting. Ironically, the story is partly about beefing up Light Lass, and returning her more aggressive lightning abilities. But maybe what gave Light Lass her character was that she seemed more passive than some of the others -- by making her tougher, Levitz actually diminishes her individuality.

The story even seems to crossover with comics not included here. Saturn Girl is pregnant in one scene...then later has had her baby and references are made to a "bizarre darkness" -- all allusions to Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #3 (1st series). Granted, that's not important to this story. More curious, Wildfire disappears mysteriously...then an issue later we see him again, hearty and hale, and cryptic references are made to how Invisible Kid was responsible -- with no explanation for why or how or what.

By the end of these issues, the Villains are soundly defeated, but a group of Legionnaires remain lost in a dimensional limbo. Sure, it's not a big deal -- the main plot has been resolved. But it does mean you have a six issue arc that, though it starts out well, never really evolves into anything particularly clever or imaginative, and then ends rather unsatisfyingly.

Cover price: $17.99 USA


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