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GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE
PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


The Legion of Super-Heroes ~ Page 3

The Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga (first edition)  1989 (TPB) 192 pages

coverWritten by Paul Levitz (co-plotter Keith Giffen). Pencils by Keith Giffen, Curt Swan, with Pat Broderick. Inks by Larry Mahlstedt, Romeo Tanghal.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: The Legion of Super-Heroes (1st series) #290-294, Annual #3, plus a short story from Legion of Super-Heroes #287 (1982-1984)

Additional notes: intro by Paul Levitz; covers

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Apr. 2015

This was re-released some years later as an expanded volume, now reprinting #284-296, and Annual #1, rather than #3 -- presumably as part of the trend toward chronological "omnibus" collections.

The Great Darkness Saga has long been considered one of the greatest Legion epics -- admittedly, that's partly because there weren't that many "epics" anyway (especially from the Silver/Bronze Age). Certainly for a long time it was pretty much the only LSH TPB around, despite the team itself being popular -- though other TPBs have been released in later years.

The plot involves a great menace that arises in the team's 30th Century intergalactic future -- a villain so powerful, so unstoppable, and so mysterious, the team spends the first few issues counting it a "victory" if they don't lose too badly. Of course it's unclear what the readers' were supposed to guess about the villain's identity. Anyone reading it now knows who it is -- he's featured on the cover! So yes -- it's Darkseid, DC's all-purpose uber-villain. But even though he's not technically revealed until the end of the penultimate chapter, one suspects astute readers picked up on the clues earlier.

And to its credit, it's probably an interesting use of a recurring foe -- by having it not be the Legion's foe. So the story can mix the idea of laying clues that build to a revelation that will have resonance for many comics fans -- even as it can be a genuine surprise to the heroes, and really can represent a menace greater than any they've fought before (as opposed to being someone they've defeated in the past).

At the same time, it does means it's an epic saga that, especially as you get to the climax, kind of weakens its own story simply because it becomes increasingly rooted in the reader bringing in knowledge from other comics. And not even other Legion comics!

But before we get to that, I'll say The Great Darkness Saga does genuinely live up to some of its hype. It really is an exciting, suspenseful, and engrossing read. I had been getting a bit frustrated recently (as I do) not really finding a comic saga that truly gripped me. Oh, I was certainly reading stories I enjoyed, that held my attention -- but not one that actually struck me as a really great read. But this one -- this over three decade old story -- did.

Partly, of course, I just have a general affection for the Legion and their milieu. Oh, I'm not a major fan, but I do have an affection for them. And here long time writer Paul Levitz does do a particularly good job with the personalities. The Legion has always had the largest team membership of any super hero group, but the team members themselves don't necessarily have the most vivid or distinctive personalities. It can result in a lot of fairly anonymous heroes running about. But the flip side to that lack of "extreme" personality traits is the characters can also come across as more real, more believable than a lot of super heroes, their interaction more like actual people rather than cartoony archetypes. And here Levitz does do a good job of tinging this character with a certain brashness, this character with a certain gentleness, etc. In other words, enough of them have some character nuance.

Giffen's art is solid and effective -- particularly atmospheric in terms of creating this striking, hi-tech future of gleaming space ships and spotless corridors. His faces and figures are a bit on the stiff side -- not exactly given to dynamic poses or nuanced expressions (within a few years of this his style would evolve into a more stylish, if cartoony, style). But his composition and story-boarding is quite good, the scenes generally a mix of clear, well-told sequences with some interesting breakdowns and stylish quirks. A few years later he would often focus more on just story-boarding and lay-outs for other artists to pencil over. (A side point: in one splash page, Giffen draws the characters to resemble the Sistine Chapel painting of God and Adam touching fingers. It reminded me of how in the subsequent Eye for an Eye collection he did a panel to resemble DaVinci's The Last Supper. But in both cases I fail to grasp any subtext).

The other major artist here is Curt Swan, who draws the 40 page annual (Pat Broderick draws the opening short prologue). Swan has an unsplashy style that, nonetheless, is striking for that, for his clean, realist, faces and figures. And like Giffen, he's considered a seminal LSH artist (having drawn some of their adventures in the 1960s). I am, I'll admit, a big Curt Swan fan.

While the plot itself does genuinely create a sense of a building, unstoppable menace the likes of which the Legion has never faced before. I say "building" yet equally the action starts pretty quick and doesn't really let up, even as there's enough time spent on the characters standing around and strategizing that it's not just mindless fisticuffs. There are also sub-plots, from character-relationship threads to a vote for a new Legion leader that is teased through a few issues.

The story sets the stage with an ominous prologue (a short back up tale from LSH #287) of Mon-El and Shadow Lass discovering a seeming dead world that proves not so dead. Part of the mystery for the characters as the story progresses is that the Legion has never even heard of Darkseid. By the time of The Legion's 30th Century he's little more than a half-forgotten myth.

Maybe it's because I was enjoying the saga more than I anticipated that when it moves into the climax it gets a bit disappointing. An issue ends promising the next issue would be the "conclusion" -- when I had assumed we were still in the middle of the story! Because, after all is said and done, the plot never quite becomes more than a collection of battles against a mysterious menace who's just interested in, well, destruction or, at best, conquering the galaxy. I was sort of anticipating a few more plot twists and turns, a few extra story threads to weave around each other. In other words, it doesn't quite fulfil the promise of a "saga" -- at least as I would use the term.

It also draws upon -- and relies upon -- a lot of outside information. Admittedly, I had that info, so it didn't affect me. But as I've said before, I often review these TPBs from the point of view of asking: how well does it read, just picked up and read for itself?

There's some on-going Legion stuff that is referenced, hinting at some recent events (Chameleon Boy is charged with treason over a previous botched mission) -- but that's to be expected in an on going series. But when we get into the climax of the Darkseid stuff suddenly the story is drawing upon a lot of Darkseid/New Gods lore (at one point a footnote even says if you aren't familiar with the New Gods it's "too complicated to explain here.") It isn't that the story is incoherent or can't be followed -- it just kind of lacks resonance as suddenly the story is being shaped (and Darkseid's ultimate defeat precipitated) by things that aren't really foreshadowed in these issues.

I suppose that's a quibble. If you are familiar with the New Gods, does it matter? But I just have fondness for stories -- particularly when collected in a TPB -- that feel like a self-contained story. But this is a not uncommon situation in comics, where a climactic issue might invoke some surprise guest star, or a revelation that harkens back to some long ago adventure. It's fine if you're into continuity -- more frustrating if you yearn for a well-plotted story told within the pages presented.

Funnily, part way through this story Levitz starts sharing co-plotting credit with artist Keith Giffen. One wonders if that was simply an official acknowledgement of their existing partnership, or whether Giffen started contributing more in that department (the two would co-plot most of the remainder of their Legion run for the next few dozen issues). The reason I ask is because one might almost wonder if it was a sign that Levitz was having trouble figuring out how to resolve it. Because I'm just not sure long form stories were his forte (his previous "great" Legion epic, the as-yet uncollected Earth-War Saga, I felt started great but fizzled -- and in that case, supposedly even the artist bowed out midway through, feeling it wasn't really living up to its potential).

This collection wraps up with The Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #3, with Giffen & Levitz still driving the story, but classic Legion artist Curt Swan on pencils (inked by Romeo Tanghal). It's sort of an odd inclusion, since it both is, and isn't, related to the main story (perhaps explaining why, when DC re-released The Great Darkness Saga as a later TPB, now with more of the surrounding comics -- it actually dropped this from that collection). The main story collected here ended with Darkseid vowing the Legionnaires would suffer his curse, and the Annual (published two years later) makes good on that, and also involves a lot of darkness -- this time, a literal pall of blackness. But Darkseid himself isn't directly involved. The plot involves minions of the Legion's foe, Mordru, trying to revive him after his powers were drained by Darkseid. So, as I say, it does connect to the main story, but is ultimately a separate plot. And despite it being great to see Swan back drawing the team, it has trouble generating true excitement or gravitas, never successfully feeling like a double-sized annual in terms of plot.

But for all my criticism, this TPB is still a thoroughly enjoyable read. It's just it started seeming as though it truly was going to be "great," but by the end kind of went the way of too many comic book sagas. More emphasis on fighting than plotting; a story that relies too much upon previous lore; and, in the case of the Legion, a desire to work in so many extraneous Legionnaires by the end, it kind of loses the character focus.

Cover price: __


The Legion of Super-Heroes: The Life and Death of Ferro Lad  2009 (HC) __ pages
(DC Comics Classics Library)

coverWritten by Jim Shooter. Pencils by Curt Swan, with Sheldon Moltoff. Inks by George Klein.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: Adventure Comics #346, 347, 352-355, 357 (1966-1967)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Some ads for this collection list #324-325 (the classic "adult legion" story) as being included, other ads, though, don't -- and as I'm reviewing this based on the original comics, I can't be sure which is the true contents.

With the proliferation of collections these days, it's often a question as to why certain comics have been collected in certain formats. Particularly with DC now starting a whole new series of hardcover compilations -- the grandiously named "DC Classics Library". In this case, the second volume in the "classics library" series focuses on the Legion of Super-Heroes, and by selecting issues around a long ago, fairly obscure Legion character it might lead one to assume this is some classic saga of rich emotion and poignant, nuanced character development.

It isn't.

When Ferro Lad is introduced to the team, he joins with a bunch of other new members, including far more significant Karate Kid and Princess Projectra. And though Ferro Lad is certainly a pleasant enough lad...he hardly stands out as a personality (Karate Kid gets more page time). And, when a few issues later he is killed off...it seems perfunctory and could've been any one of the team. Though I suspect it was a relatively novel idea to kill off a regular character (even if the fact that he's killed off a few issues after his introduction leads one to suspect he was introduced...simply in order to kill off a "regular"). And of course, these issues are also available in DC's Legion "Archive" collections (vol. 5 and 6), and in the economical, black & white "Showcase presents the Legion of Super-Heroes" (vol. 3).

One suspects the real impetus for this collection was to throw together a book of Jim Shooter-Curt Swan issues, a duo that has come to be viewed as the first truly "classic" Legion creative team, and discovering these issues also included some particularly seminal additions to the Legion mythos, the editors decided to wrap the collection around the theme of Ferro Lad. In fact, I believe #346 was Shooter's first Legion script (written when he was still a teenager!) and, as mentioned, not only does this collection include the introduction of Karate Kid and Princess Projectra, but we also get the first references to the Khund (an adversarial alien race that continue to pop up in DC comics to this day), the Controllers, the introduction of the villainous Fatal Five, and the galaxy destroying menace of the Sun-Eater -- all within these few issues!

So the opening two-parter has a quartet of new members joining the team (including Ferro Lad) just as the alien Khund make threats to invade earth. While attempting to protect earth's defense system, sabotage results, leading the team to suspect they have a traitor among them. The first issue is drawn by Sheldon Moltoff serviceably enough for the era, but it's Swan on the second half (and all the subsequent issues) that's the real treat, with his clean, realist art, he set an artistic bench mark for the series. The writing is, of course, corny, full of goofy exclamations and paper-thin motivation (the comics back then unapologetically written for kids) -- yet Shooter does manage to generate a fair amount a suspense and excitement, of the Legion genuinely having to struggle for victory as sabotage erodes earth's defences and the invasion fleet approaches. There's a nice bit of suspicion among the team (even if it's not hard too guess the traitor if you know your Legion membership), and even a bit of surprisingly modern wit as Karate Kid leaps toward a space craft, facing a kilometres high death plunge if he misses, and thinking wryly to himself: "If I miss, I promise not to try this again!" It's an enjoyable adventure.

The next two parter is crammed full of ideas, from the apocalyptic Sun Eater, a menace that consumes whole suns, to the introduction of the Fatal Five -- a colourful group -- and the off beat idea that the heroes and villains must ally themselves against the greater threat. But despite all this, it didn't strike me as quite as effective as the earlier traitor story. Despite the machinations and scheming of the villains, the plot itself can get a bit repetitive. And Ferro Lad's noble sacrifice just seems thrown in at the last minute and over with in a few panels.

In fact, the Ferro Lad stuff only really lives up to the potential after he's dead! Because the final tale here, "The Ghost of Ferro Lad", is really a stand out story, perhaps showing young Shooter evolving as a storyteller. It more effectively plays out the emotional repercussions of Ferro Lad's sacrifice for the team, their sense of guilt, as well as being a decent spooker as the Legion members find themselves being haunted by his angry ghost -- a fact made more effective by the fact that Legionnaires not involved in his death aren't being haunted and so disbelieve the members who are.

In between is the fondly remembered "adult legion" two-part story, which may have been a last minute inclusion -- assuming it is in this book: some ads for this collection don't list these issues...but DC's official website does. Re-reading it, I realize it does make references to Ferro Lad's death, making it a legitimate part of the eponymous "theme". It's been reprinted a number of times over the years -- most recently in the 2007 TPB collection, The Legion of Super-Heroes: 1, 050 Years of the Future. In it the adult Superman decides to see what his old Legion colleagues are up to as adults, and finds the team being plagued by a mysterious foe who seems to know their H.Q.s secrets...which then segues into the peripherally connected tale of them battling the Legion of (Adult) Super-Villains. For the time it was a neat idea, showing the possible future of the team and characters (and, instead of being ignored, some of the projections were incorporated into later stories). Admittedly, it doesn't maybe offer much emotional drama the way such "future" stories can -- there's very little in the plot that couldn't have been a regular Legion story. But it's enjoyable (particularly the first part) and, again, is a reflection of just how creative the Shooter-Swan period was, how influential it was on the series, and why fans regard it as a seminal era.

I question whether these issues really warrant such a hardcover, prestigious -- expensive -- collection. After all, if one wants that format, DC already has its prestigious, expensive Archive editions. Obviously, these issues reflect their time -- the dialogue can be corny, the emotion/characterization thin, the plotting a bit silly. But there is a fast paced, entertainment value. Swan's art is clean and attractive, beautifully realizing this Gernsbackian future of intergalactic travel and tidy cities. And Shooter's stories are full of imaginative ideas. As dramas, the first story arc, involving the possible traitor in their ranks, and especially the superb Ghost of Ferro Lad story, are the best.

So as a sample of this "classic" era, given a unifying theme by the presence of Ferro Lad, it hits the spot.

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

Cover price: __


The Legion of Super-Heroes: 1050 Years in the Future  2008 (TPB) 218 pages

coverWritten & illustrated by various.

Reprinting: stories from Adventure Comics #247, 304, 312, 354-355, Superboy (and the Legion of Super-Heroes) #212, Legion of Super-Heroes (1st series) #300, Legion of Super-Heroes #0, Legends of the DC Universe 80-Page Giant #2, The Legion #3 (1958-2002)

Additional notes: intro/commentaries by Paul Levitz, Jim Shooter; various character profiles, pin-ups, and HQ blue-prints reprinted from various issues and specials.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Oct 2016

This basically falls into the "best of..."/"Greatest Stories Ever Told" category of TPB collection, assembling sample stories from throughout the Legion's history.

I tend to have affection for the Legion, even if I was never a rigorous collector, in part because the property maintains a fairly unique place in comics with its mix of super-heroes and a slightly Utopic sci-fi. Plus throw in the "teen" angle of young heroes (underplayed or overplayed as the stories require) and it has a unique flavour.

All of which may go some way to explain why even vintage, juvenile Legion tales can still be fun for a jaded older reader like me in ways that old Batman stories, for instance, might not be as much.

The collection begins, appropriately, with the very first Legion appearance when they are introduced in a Superboy adventure ("when Superman was a boy!") as a "club" from the far future. This is followed by "The Stolen Super Powers!", which according to some reports is widely regard as the first "great" Legion tale, mixing the to-be-expected corny simplicity of its era (a certain repetition and loose logic) while, nonetheless, generating some mystery-suspense and poignancy. Next up is "The Super-Sacrifice of the Legionnaires!" wherein the Legionnaires try to find a way to revive Lightning Lad (who had died a few issues before). It's best not to question the Legionnaires deciding that the only way to revive Lightning Lad is by sacrificing one of themselves (a "twist" revealed on the story's cover so I'm not giving it away, though it is a bit of a spoiler) but with no one pointing out the illogic of reviving one Legionnaire by sacrificing another!

Then comes the two-part "classic" Legion tale wherein an adult Superman visits with grown up Legionnaires. It's partly remembered for the pairing of what is widely seen as the first great LSH creative team -- writer Jim Shooter and artist Curt Swan -- and for the nifty idea of seeing the teen heroes as adults at a time when DC often did "imaginary stories." Though this isn't treated as imaginary and, indeed, Shooter (and others) went to the effort of incorporating things predicted in this tale into later stories (certain Legionnaires are shown here who wouldn't be introduced into the regular team until later). Admittedly, there isn't too much here that couldn't have been told in a regular LSH story -- the main thing you notice about the adult Legionnaires is the alarming number of receding hairlines! But it's an enjoyable romp involving both a mysterious saboteur from within and a battle with the Legion of Super-Villains!

(Part of the fun of these collections is the continuity evolution, like in the very first tale having Cosmic Boy's power manifest as beams from his eyes!)

The 1970s is represented by a Jim Shooter/Mike Grell tale of the Legion battling would be usurpers with similar powers ("Last Fight for a Legionnaire"). I wouldn't say there's anything special about it (I could name more memorable tales from that era) but it's interesting as a reflection of how sci-fi tales reflect their eras as much as any prediction of the future. So the conservative, clean-cut look of the 1960s LSH has now been replaced by bellbottom trousers, bare mid-rifts, and guys with longish hair and sideburns. A reason it might have been chosen is just to give a glimpse of evolving continuity. The early LSH was never perhaps that concerned with on going story threads, but these early tales do make a few references to each other, so that it creates a certain sense of a continuum. (Perhaps the oddest thing about this tale is the decision to include a single page that was clearly done later -- either for this TPB or a previous reprint as a "director's cut" of the story).

Then we come to the semi-classic epic tale from LSH #300 ("The Future is Forever!") which is broken into various small chapters, drawn by a variety of popular Legion artists, in a tale that incorporates almost any one who was a Legionnaire and gives glimpses of alternate timelines of the team (some happy, some poignant). I can't fault it as a genuinely memorable tale nor as an ideal choice for a collection like this -- but I do sometimes quibble about TPBs reprinting long single-issue tales. It wouldn't be that hard to pick it up on its own from a back issues dealer. Better to focus on shorter tales (so even if you have it in your collection it only represents a portion of this book) or multi-issue tales (which might be harder to collect years later).

Things become a little more problematic once we get into the re-booted tales (following the Crisis on Infinite Earths wherein DC re-started it's entire line).

The first tale is still good, a retelling of the Legion's origin from the #0 issue (which otherwise hasn't been told in any of the stories reprinted here) by Mark Waid & Tom McCraw and Stuart Immonen. They stick mostly with the established origin (in a later re-boot Waid re-imagined it entirely) while stretching it out, making it more sophisticated for modern readers -- there's still some action, but it's more focused on the characters as a light drama.

Unfortunately the next tale, though beautifully illustrated by Immonen inked by George Freeman (two Canadians!) seems to be struggling to justify its concept. The idea is to show how different people (and races) from the future have remembered (or mis-remembered) Superman's origin. The problem is: writer Paul Levitz hasn't really come up with anything that interesting with the idea (other than, say, the inhabitants of a planet where people are generally born as twins assuming two Kryptonian babies were sent to earth).

And then we come to the final story, "Legion World." Clearly the Legion is pulling itself back together after some recent traumatic adventures. The result just feels like a place holder, referencing events that went before and setting things up for subsequent adventure. The dialogue's fine, it's well illustrated -- but it feels kind of pointless in isolation.

As with any "best of" collection, one can point to "great" stories that should have been included. Indeed, I might have made a case for including the mid-1970s treasury-sized Legion adventure -- despite my objection to long-form tales. But I don't think the treasury tale has ever been reprinted and would be hard to trackdown at comics shops. And it's a pretty decent example of an "epic" tale, with Superboy discovering someone has messed with the timeline and the Legion's future isn't what it should be. (Actually, despite my issue with reprinting long stories, a number of my favourite Legion tales are over-sized efforts, including the LSH #300 reprinted here, plus a few of the 1980s annuals. Maybe DC should put out a TPB titled "Legion Giants" reprinting nothing but long tales. Equally, the Legion was a series often given to short back up tales focusing on one or two Legionnaires and a collection of Legion shorts throughout the years might be neat).

But ultimately this is a nice Legion aggregation to have on the shelf.

Cover price: __



Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes
is reviewed here in my Superman section.

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