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GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE
PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


The Legion of Super-Heroes ~ Page 4

The Legion of Super-Heroes: Teenage Revolution  2005 (TPB) 180 pgs.

coverWritten by Mark Waid (co-plotter Barry Kitson). Pencils by Barry Kitson, with Leonard Kirk and Dave Gibbons, Scott Iwahashi. Inks by Art Thibert, Barry Kitson, Mick Gray, Drew Geraci.
Colours: Chris Blythe, with Dave McCaig, Paul Mounts. Letters: Phil Balsman, with Jared K. Fletcher, Pat Brosseau. Editors: Stephen Wacker, Harvey Richards.

Reprinting: The Legion of Super-Heroes #1-6 (2005- series)

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

Number of readings: 2

As I've begun many-a review, I'll just point out that back in the mid-1980s, DC's editorial regime became convinced their "universe" had become too confusing. So they restarted the DC Universe into a cleaner, simpler narrative for the fans to follow. And we've been paying for it ever since. You see, once one editorial regime says, "Hmmm, I don't like what was done by a previous regime, I think I'll simply wipe it out of existence and start from scratch", it means the next editorial regime, and the next, and the next, can do the same. And the result is it's really hard to know what is, and isn't, continuity any more.

Which brings us to the latest incarnation of the venerable Legion of Super-Heroes. The concept was first introduced in Superboy stories in the 1960s (back when Superboy was Superman as a youth), and the LSH was a club of teenage super heroes from the 31st Century. They became increasingly popular (eventually taking over Superboy's own comic). But the LSH has undergone quite of a number of overhauls, reboots, and reimaginings.

Mark Waid and Barry Kitson once more start from scratch, reviving the characters...while seeming ignoring previous series. So the familiar characters are here, but altered; some cosmetically (Star Boy is now black), some in their nature (Triplicate Girl is given a different origin), some in personality (Brainiac 5 was often a little arrogant...here, he's insufferably -- and comedically -- arrogant). The downside to all this revamping and revising is it makes it hard to know how much we're supposed to bring to the table in our understanding of the characters. But, in theory, it should make it easier for a novice reader to jump into the story.

The 31st Century is still a hi-tech reality with a federation of planets, but whereas originally the Legion was a semi-official branch of law enforcement, here, the creators borrow the idea of the 1960s hippy-era by having it be that the Legion is actually a social movement of rebellious teenagers, with an entire commune of teens camped outside their HQ like a future day Woodstock. As such, there is friction between the LSH and the authorities...friction that occasionally spills over into conflict.

Although one might quibble a bit (surely the fun of the LSH was the idea of a pleasant, optimistic, Star Trek-like future), it serves to play up an angle that previous versions hadn't -- a generation gap. As well, the LSH had the largest active membership of any super hero team in the history of comics. So Waid and Kitson extrapolate that to the point where the Legionnaires number in the thousands...symbolically. The actual "team" is limited in number, but any teen can wear the emblem and call himself a legionnaire.

On the strong side, the comic is full of amusing quips and witty lines, as well as some heartfelt characterization. Waid and Kitson are clearly having a lot of fun taking traditional ideas of the Legion and seeing what they can come up with that would be a little different and playing around with the personalities -- the fractious relationship between Brainiac 5 and team leader Cosmic Boy seems modelled on the Avon-Blake rivalry of the old British sci-fi series, Blake's 7. The new take on the Invisible Kid is perhaps the most interesting -- the youngest of the team, his power seems a reflection of a shy personality, yet with a genius level intelligence even Brainiac 5 respects.

The first few issues mix relatively stand alone tales -- more focused on character than action-aadventure -- while also threading hints of a looming galactic threat (that becomes front and centre in the last two issues...but doesn't resolve, as it carries us into the next TPB collection). But if Waid's focus on the characters and the milieu sometimes seems like a man losing interest in the action-adventure of a traditional comic, he nonetheless can step up to the plate there as well. The fifth issue is a pretty effective, darkly tense tale where members of the team have their first direct encounter with the coming evil.

Waid hints at machinations both within, and without, the team, as we realize that, as with any "movement", different members envision different goals and agendas -- though Waid's depiction of the "adults" tends to be one note and simplistic..

If I were to have a criticism of Waid, it might be that he tries too hard -- that he can be almost too transparently clever. Sometime after Waid, comics veteran Jim Shooter began a run on the new series, and though both mix comedy and drama, Shooter let the characters be people...whereas with Waid there can almost be a little too much of a sense of the writer looming over the actions, tugging the strings, admiring his own cleverness.

Kitson is a well regarded artist, with his straightforward, realist faces and figures. His art brings a definite sureness and confidence to the story -- though I would argue he doesn't maybe make the characters look like teens as oppossed to adults. And as much as I like Kitson, there can be a bit of a stiffness to his figures, a sameness to his faces. Leonard Kirk pinch hits an issue...and in some ways it was more dynamically illustrated.

Anyway, Waid and Kitson have worked together before, and are seen as a hit combo.

But ironically, it's in their past work that some of the problems here are echoed. The two worked on JLA: Year One, a mini-series meant to re-tell the early days of the Justice League for the post-Crisis reality...and where Waid indulged in a kind of short hand storytelling, skipping over scenes, referring to them having occurred, but not depicting them (unlike a conventional, monthly comic where you kind of expect all relevant scenes to be depicted). Not only does Waid apply some of that style here, with references hinting at scenes -- whole adventures -- unchronicledd...but it's even applied to the characterization and overall premise.

As mentioned, I believe this is meant to be starting from scratch. Yet the first issue begins with the Legion already established as if we've jumped into an on going series. At one point a character remarks on how Sun Boy is thinking of leaving the team...yet nowhere in the previous scenes with Sun Boy did we get any hint of that (or how that character would infer it anyway). Or one issue has Ultra Boy hitting on Triplicate Girl...an issue or two later it's implied he and Shadow Lass are an item. It reminds me a bit of series like Robert Kirkman's Invincible and Kurt Busiek's Astro City. Some modern comics writers seem less interested in building their realities, nuance by nuance, than in just leaping into a pre-fabricated reality where they don't have to worry about building a foundation.

It can feel a bit like you're missing a few issues! When Timber Wolf shows up part way through, clearly with a history with the team, it seems natural to old time readers...unless you think about the fact that he hadn't even been referenced previously in this series!

It does feel a bit half developed at times.

In a way, the whole exercise seems almost more like one of DC's Elseworlds projects -- meant to be a "new" take, but where resonance occurs only because we are expected to be familiar with the original version.

And the basic concept of the Legion as a social movement, though intriguing, is also a bit awkward. Though meant to have hippy-era resonance, there's not too much of a hippy vibe in their Hawkish philosophy. The series begins waxing nostalgic about the days when "history was made on the battlefield" and Waid tends to characterize a lot of the team as basically the same A-type, relishing-a-brawl sort of personality. There's a feeling Waid wants to borrow the iconography of the hippy movement...but utilizing it in service of a more neo-conservative agenda.

And for a series about rebelling against conformity, there's a certain conformity to it all, as Waid and Kitson reshape the Legion to suit the cliches of our time...such as by giving Cosmic Boy a dark-hue uniform instead of his traditional pink one (I mean, come on: how more radical can you get than an action hero dressed in pink?) And outfitting a number of characters in "cool" long coats and speaking in decidedly modern colloquialisms ("Dude!")

Overall, I enjoyed this. The art is solid and attractive, the writing witty and trying to be thoughtful. And as the sub-plot of the coming danger builds, it does succeed in generating effective tension and suspense. At the same time, that can be a downside to this collection, reviewed just as a collection in and of itself, as it leaves the greater story unfinished (until the collection Death of a Dream). And Waid's deliberately choppy storytelling (skipping scenes) hurts the flow of the narrative and our ability to become involved with the characters.

And maybe that's the biggest problem -- despite the wit and cleverness, there's an aspect that keeps the reader at arms length.

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

Cover price: __


Superboy #147 - Replica Edition 2003 (SC GN) 80 pages

cover by Curt Swan and Neal AdamsWritten by Jerry Siegel, and Robert Bernstein, E. Nelson Bridwell. Pencils by Curt Swan, Pete Constanza, Jim Mooney, George Papp. Inks by various.
Colours: unbilled. Letters: Milt Snappin.

Reprinting: the complete original version of Superboy #147 (1st series) -- which included an original tale, The Origin of the Legion, plus selected stories from Superboy #98 -- The Boy With the Ultra Powers -- Adventure Comics #293, 290 -- Thhe Legion of Super-Traitors, The Secret of the Seventh Super-Hero -- Action Comics #276 - Supergirl's Three Super-Girl Friends - Superman #197 - The Legion of Super-Villains -- 1961, 1962, 1968 (most of those comics also featured other, back up stories)

Additional notes: afterward detailing some of the Legion's (pre-Crisis) history.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Over the last few years, DC comics has printed occasional one-shots -- somewhere inbetween trade paperbacks and regular comics, format-wise -- reprinting collections of older storiess. Often they're labelled as "lost" annuals, harkening back to the days when DC's annuals tended to be collections of reprints. Other times they're literally just reprints of older comics that were such collections -- a reprint of reprints. Falling into the latter category is this replica reprint of Superboy #147, 1968, which featured stories from the early 1960s involving Superboy and the far future Legion of Super-Heroes. Although, I'm not sure if "replica" is entirely the correct word -- the story contents are reproduced directly from the original Superboy 80-page giant, it's true, but the ads are new.

Of course for modern readers, this harkening back to Silver Age lore -- and pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity -- might be a tad perplexing, as the characters and situations don't quite match DC's current reality. This Superboy, after all, is Superman as a teenager, and Supergirl is his biological cousin.

The result is highly enjoyable. Since these stories, I'm assuming, stem from a period before the Legion had their own series, and were perennial guest stars, the focus is more on Superboy (and Supergirl, in one story), often in their regular, small town earth milieus. Although there isn't as much far future space action as one might like -- save one story, written especially for this collection (in 1968, that is), that focuses entirely on the Legion in their future world -- it's compensated for by allowing a modern reader a glimpse into long ago Superboy continuity, with appearances by the supporting cast of his parents, buddy Pete Ross, and perpetually suspicious Lana Lang. Best of all, three of the six stories are drawn by the peerless Curt Swan. The low-key realism of Swan's work, the simple humanity of his faces, the clear story-telling, is all very much a plus. The other artists -- Pete Constanza, George Papp, and Jim Mooney -- do perfectly respectable work, but it's Swan who really makes it sing (particularly when inked by the tight, sympathetic lines of George Klein, as he is on two of the stories). Swan is one of those artists who I probably didn't give much thought to as a kid, but I find I've become a real fan of as an adult. Curiously, though, Swan's young Clark Kent, when out-fitted in his trademark red sweater, puts me in mind of Rupert Bear!

The stories are, of course, a mix of elements. Some modern readers will see them as corny, as childish, as silly -- which they are. Sometimes quite intentionally. But there's also an eye to plotting that, frankly, is sorely missed in modern comics. In one story a juvenile delinquent stumbles upon Smallville -- a delinquent who looks exactly like Clark Kent! Meanwhile, Legionnaire Sun-Boy has arrived in the 20th Century to recruit Superboy's help in a mysterious scheme...and with decidedly nefarious motives. The plot threads (plus a few others) don't tie together as satisfying as one might hope, but it's still an interesting read, played out in fourteen pages. Cynic that I am, I can't help thinking a similar story today would be a twelve issue crossover epic, written by a half-dozen different writers...and it wouldn't actually be any better, or more sophisticated.

Sure, there's a goofiness at work, with cape-wearing super animals (that think!)...but there's also a charm to stories played out against a more gentle, four colour world that barely knows what serial killers or international terrorists are, let alone as something teenage superheroes have to deal with. These stories can get an entire tale out of a mysterious arrival trying to ferret out Superboy's secret identity -- with nary a blood stain or body blow inn sight -- and still be interesting (of course, there are plenty of action-fight stories too!) There's a kind of innocence, yet Rockwellian plausibility, to the portrayal of Superboy and his friends. Ironically, Superboy is better portrayed -- better realized as a person -- than is Superman, who appears in the final story. And for all the goofiness, there's an inherent inner logic that makes thinking animals, time travel and the like almost reasonable...at least within this reality. Modern writers have tried to tackle the notion of superhero "reality", either through gritty revisionism, or by gently mocking old conventions, but, in a sense, these early writers had already created their own, self-consistent reality -- a reality where super heroes form clubs, rather than teams, and where a (Super)man's word is never broken once given, even when given to a villain. And there's nary a shred of irony in sight.

For pre-Crisis continuity buffs, the stories collected here feature a number of first appearances, of everyone from Brainiac 5 to Comet, the super horse, who in a bit of brain twisting continuity, appears in a story before he had actually been introduced into Supergirl stories! (an editor's note advises the reader he will soon be appearing later). And Ultra-Boy's abilities, here, seem limited only to his vision. There are other, interesting ideas, like that Superboy's heat vision was, at the time, treated as an extension of his x-ray vision...and he couldn't use it on lead. There are also technical gaffs, like in one story referring to the Legion's future reality as being the 21st Century...rather than the 30th!

Why DC has remained rooted in the 1960s (and earlier) with these reprints is a matter for debate. Is it just because they are so genuinely trying to evoke the annuals and 80-page giants of long ago? Or, more cynically, are they being released as promos for DC's much, much more pricey hardcover Archive Editions which reprint 1960s material (ads for which occupy most of the free space in this comic). Or, as I've often suspected, is there an editorial regime at DC that is hostile to promoting Bronze Age stories? Whatever the reason, some collections from later, like the 1970s, might be nice.

Maybe you have to be really young (taking everything at face value) or much older (to appreciate the low-key charm) than the average comic reader, but this collection is quite an enjoyable read, featuring a better-than-average selection of stories. Though if DC keeps doing straight facsimile reprints, they might alienate a few comic shop owners -- after all, having this version on the shelf will probably diminish the collectible value of the real Superboy #147.

Cover price: $11.50 CDN./ $6.95 USA.
 

Pocket Book Reprint
Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes
Published in 1977 by Tempo Books - Black & White

Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes - cover by Mike GrellReprinting: Superboy (1st series) #158, and one story each from Adventure Comics #355, Action Comics #392, and ??? 

Written by Frank Robbins, Cary Bates, and others. Art by Bob Brown, Curt Swan, Dave Cockrum, and one other. Inks by Wally Wood, George Klein, Murphy Anderson, and other.
Letters: various. Editor: Julius Schwartz.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Reprinting stories from a time when Superboy was a young Superman, and would sometimes travel to the 30th Century to team up with a group of teenage superheroes, this black and white collection reprints one feature-length story, and three (slightly) shorter pieces. 

The first story, "Superboy's Darkest Secret" (Superboy #158 - 1969), is the strongest by far. It's also the longest, and a story not involving the Legion (though it does have plenty of space action). Superboy receives an interstellar transmission...from Jor-El and Lara, his Kryptonian parents. They're apparently still alive in a space capsule, but in suspended animation. And the capsule has become irradiated by Kryptonite, making it impossible for Superboy to approach. Things get complicated by the arrival of a couple of other survivors of Krypton, each with his own agenda. The story, by Frank Robbins (probably better known as an artist), is nicely told with twists and turns, but more significantly, it's emotionally charged in spots. Some later revamps of Superman had, at best, no more than an academic interest in Krypton and his biological parents. Not so this version of the character, which makes the dilemmas he faces all the more demanding on him emotionally. The story seems also to be tackling a socio-political issue that makes it a little bit risky, as well. The art by Bob Brown and Wally Wood is strikingly effective and beautiful to look at. 

The other stories, while not bad, are comparatively inconsequential. 

"The Six-Legged Legionnaire" (Adventure Comics #355 - 1966) has Superboy flying Lana Lang to the 30th Century where she tries to join the Legion in her alter ego of the shape-changing Insect Queen (yup, even Lana had an occasional costumed I.D. back then). She's rejected, but ends up working with Superboy and the team against a megalomaniac threatening an Antarctic city. It's fun, in its way, though the main selling point is the beautiful Curt Swan art (inked, I'd guess, by George Klein). It's anyone's guess who the script is by, but I'll suggest Edmond Hamilton.

The final two stories are: "The Curse of the Blood Crystals" (by Bates/Cockrum/Anderson, originally published in 1972 -- I don't know where) in which Chameleon Boy becomes affected by cursed crystals created by villain Mordru to induce hatred of Superboy, and travels to 20th Century Smallville to try and kill Superboy; and "The Legionnaires Who Never Were" (from Action Comics #392, 1970, with inks by, it's safe to guess, Jack Abel, but the pencil work I'm a bit more unsure of...maybe John Rosenberger?) which has no Superboy, but features Saturn Girl and Princess Projectra returning from a botched assignment, only to find no one recognizes them in a Legion featuring members Saturn Boy and Prince Projectra. Both stories are O.K. and nicely drawn, but nothing more. 

Other than the first story, it's not entirely clear why the other stories were chosen above all other tales, but this collection is nonetheless a reasonably enjoyable read, particularly recommended for "Superboy's Darkest Secret".

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

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