The Power and the Glory of Comics: A Review of Legion of Super-Heroes #6

Above: Cover by Ryan Sook
©2020 DC Comics (used for review purposes only)

A Comics Column

by Patrick R. Burger

The first thing that should be said in a review of The Legion of Super-Heroes #6 by DC Comics is that the concept of the Legion of Super-Heroes should be as popular as Harry Potter, the X-Men or the Guardians of the Galaxy. How could the idea of a team of teen-aged super-heroes recruited from across the galaxy a thousand years from now even miss? It has the school-like cameraderie and rivalry of Hogwarts, it has the super-team-as-substitute-family theme of the X-Men, and its cosmic scope is easily a match for the rag-tag space opera of the Guardians of the Galaxy. But somehow pop culture super-stardom has evaded the Legion. That may be about to change with the re-boot of
the concept headed by highly-acclaimed writer Brian Michael Bendis (think Jessica Jones) and stunning art talent Ryan Sook.

It’s not like the Legion doesn’t have that special something that Harry Potter, the X-Men and Guardians of the Galaxy all have. When the Legion originally debuted in an issue of Superboy in 1958 the concept generated enough momentum that, according to the opening editorial in the 1978 All-New Collectors’ Edition vol. 7 #C55 — a 64 page Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes mega-spectacular which represented a highpoint in Legion popularity — by 1962 it had attracted millions of fans and “the star went nova — the Legion exploded into their own monthly series”. The Legion set itself up to survive the campiness of late 50s and early 60s comics and transition into the more sophisticated comics market that Marvel was pioneering when 13-year-old Jim Shooter was hired by DC in 1966 to expand the Legion concept with a focus on characterization. Shooter’s time at the helm of the Legion was crowned with his introduction of the Legion’s arch-enemies, the Fatal Five, and Shooter’s tenure in the late 60s and early 70s segued into another highpoint for the Legion in the mid-seventies, with the advent of popular artist, Mike Grell.

That time has especially fond memories for me, because, when we were 10-, 11- and 12-year-old kids in the mid-seventies, my friends and I would read Legion comics on the front steps. While we read all kinds of comics, the Legion were our favourites. We would play Legion play-fights (which often turned into real fights!); everybody would try to call dibs on Mon-El, Super-Boy’s cousin, because he was the most powerful Legionnaire after Super-Boy, but one of our rules was that it was off-limits to choose Super-Boy himself. If you weren’t fast enough to get Mon-El you might have to settle for Ultra Boy, Sun Boy, Lightning Lad or Wildfire. Of course, when the play-fighting got more physical and more intense, the rules of who was supposed to beat who kind of went out the window — not that there weren’t heated arguments with references to Legion stories to keep it ‘realistic’; sometimes we’d stop the play-fight and run back to our front steps to check out a particular issue to prove a point. And sometimes, when we were just reading and not fighting, we’d talk about the Fatal Five. I remember being genuinely afraid of the Fatal Five and there were moments of
trepidation before picking up an issue of Legion that featured the Fatal Five with one of us saying, “I dare you to read that comic!”

A concept that can generate that kind of passion in kids — and I’m sure our little Legion club on a dead-end street in suburban Montreal was only one of many across North America — can’t be allowed to slip away; there must be a way to bring that passion across to the current generation. Clearly, Brian Michael Bendis feels the same way…and The Legion of Super-Heroes #6 is evidence of that. This is a great marriage of writing and art, like comics should be. Here Bendis has re-vamped a concept that should have been doomed to pop culture mega-stardom yet somehow, until today has not attained that status. Ryan Sook — and his able inker Wade von Grawbadger — is doing beautiful things with comic art that looks like a cross between a Madman underground aesthetic and Jim Steranko boldness.

Rose, Monster Boy, White Witch and Element Lad by Ryan Sook
©2020 DC Comics (used for review purposes only)

The Legion concept this time around is anchored in the time period between that late 20th century and early 21st century — which might seem odd for a series set 1000 years from now in the 31st century. While the Legion had hit highpoints and milestones in the past, in the most recent years the Legion had seemed to finally succumb to its isolation from the rest of the DC universe. While time travel was firmly tied to the Legion from the first moment that Superboy encountered them in 1958, it became a necessary aspect of the series as Superboy carried the title Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes. The Legion’s outgrowing of Superboy in the 80s and getting their own title was, on the one hand, inevitable, and on the other also a long slide into isolation from the bulk of the DC universe. While time travel stories were certainly not in short supply, the constant revisiting of the late 20th century and-or its characters just stretched the line of plausibility that a Legion fan could still believe. And in doing so, the Legion was doomed to asphyxiation.

The Super-Boy vs. Mon-El Rivalry by James Sherman ©1977 DC Comics (used for review purposes only)

One of the first decisions Bendis made had to do with Superboy. Despite the stigma of the Legion leaning crutch-like on Superboy, the truth is, there is no Legion without Superboy. It was with Superboy that the Legion started and it is only right that Superboy be here in this re-boot. While Bendis does employ Superboy, it is not the original Clark Kent as a teenager, but in this re-booted context Superboy is Jonathan Kent, son of Clark and Lois Lane. As with the early Legions, Bendis focusses the narrative around Superboy and we are introduced to the new Legion through his eyes. Bendis nicely captures the almost child-like wonder of a being as powerful as Superboy discovering life a thousand years in the future. Bendis perfectly portrays that combination of innocence and excitement throughout the 6 issues of the Legion that have appeared so far (and the two-issue introduction in the Millenium mini-series); that is particularly evident in issue #3 when an exuberant Superboy goes back to his time to bring his pal Robin (Damian Wayne, son of Bruce Wayne) back into the future with him. The logic, and youthful camaraderie of that move shows Bendis really capturing the personality of the series lead, Superboy. This is further in evidenced when Bendis makes sure to bring back the Mon-El – Superboy rivalry, and uses it to dramatic effect in issue #6’s dramatic climax.

Rose and Mike and the Environmental Theme by Nicola Scott ©2019 DC Comics (used for review purposes

Further, Bendis makes the cosmic happenings on New Earth of the United Planets of the 31st century contingent on the turn of the 21st century — which provides a logical and consitent link to the rest of DC continuity. Into this cosmic axis scenario Bendis adds a further link to current DC continuity by making Aquaman’s trident a key factor in the plotline — a factor that comes to fruition in issue #6 in a scenario that keys in to two other current concerns — civil war and environmental catastrophe.

Famed literary critic Fredric Jameson would look at Bendis’ choice to make Ultra Boy the carrier of the major plotline as a reflection of, and commentary on, the current violent political divide in the U.S. — which, in many real ways, threatens civil war. As the native of a planet in a perpetual state of civil war, Jo Nah of Rimbor (Ultra Boy) attempts to secure Aquaman’s trident and keep it out of his father’s (Krav the General Nah) hands. We see this conflict take centre-stage in the series so far: Ultra Boy’s perspective is to be ashamed of his heritage and his father, for Ultra Boy is a proponent of unity on Rimbor and not his father’s faction. With Ultra Boy’s arrest of his father in Legion #5 (with Legionnaire Mon-El unexpectedly made ruler of Rimbor for having delivered the blow that finally felled Krah the General Nah) the reader may have felt that that conflict had ended, but Ultra Boy’s father’s final words in the last panel of this
issue promise even more war.

This civil war theme is twinned with the environmental catastrophe theme in that our setting in the 31st century is New Earth — a destroyed planet, above whose barren surface are suspended the rescued remaining chunks of the Earth in domes. This jarring visual representation of the destruction of our world ensures that our current environmental crisis remains a constant sub-text of the series, and Bendis directs our attention to this theme with his unique use of the character, Rose (of Rose and Thorn). For readers who jumped on this bandwagon at the beginning, we have followed Rose and her Mr. Hyde-esque alter ego Thorn through a variety of adventures, starting with the mini-series that kicked off this Legion re-boot, Millenium #1 and #2. Throughout these early issues and on into this issue itself, the reader has seen Rose make her way into the future and become the Legion’s liaison to the President of the United Planets —
witnessing along the way the dramatic highpoint of her confrontation with the President of the United Planets in The Legion of Super-heroes #2. However, a key scene of her entire narrative journey is when she arrived in the 31st century and went through a museum exhibit about the super-hero culture of the late 20th and early 21st century; in a vignette that Bendis clearly had fun writing, the security guard and 20th century buff Mike (Michael John Carter) talks about how idiotic we were (that is, are right now) in knowing that the planet was being destroyed but doing nothing about it. Bendis, after employing satire to establish his environmental theme with this scene, in issue #6 he uses an heroic approach when the Legion’s showdown with Krav the General Nah’s hired Horraz mercenaries for control of Aquaman’s trident ends with a dramatic climax. Against Brainiac-5’s shouted warning, Mon-El grabs the trident from the Horraz leader as Superboy clobbers him — and unwittingly unleashes the oceans from the dimension where they had been exiled to when Atlantis vanished from the dying Earth. The issue ends with a Legion celebration around a monument to the trident, ecstatic at the no-longer barren Earth’s newly-restored oceans.

Bendis has constructed a great introduction to the new Legion through Superboy’s eyes, with a plotline that resonates with our current realities and that successfully integrates all the tropes we expect with the Legion — the naming of characters, the mass battle scenes, and the focus on core groups of the team, especially on the trio of Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad and Cosmic Boy, the original members of the Legion in that fateful 1958 Superboy tale.

A major challenge of writing the Legion is that it has the biggest cast of characters of any super-hero book. Added to that, a comic writer always has to think that a reader can pick up the book at any time during its run and the necessary start-up exposition that was a formal staple of the Bronze Age of comics (done creatively so many times with on-the-run mental flashbacks during action as in Spider-Man) was simply prohibitive with the Legion. And so gimmicks of characters always naming each other, or the use of name logos in the lettering or other ways of quickly identifying the legion of Legionnaires exploding off the pages under Sook’s pencils is absolutely necessary. It is pulled off nicely, with unabashed naming and use of logos, and the nifty detail of the Frichtman Tags which are holographic ID cards that follow the characters around. So nicely done, and the kind of detail that shows that this revamp is a labour of love.

The attention to detail in the seris is an expression of that labour of love, and it is evident in the over-all design concept. After the original dowdy costumes from the late ‘50s were re-designed in the early ‘70s by Mike Grell to reflect those heady days — we see our current times reflected in the visual conception of this revamped Legion. The sexual revolution of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was reflected in Grell’s designs: they were definitely cool, even if some didn’t seem like they would work anatomically on the girls. Similarly to how Grell expressed the sexual liberation of his time, Sook has emphasized the sexual diversity of our current day, and its positive valuing of all body images, by putting his Saturn Girl back into a full body costume reminiscent of her original one from the late ‘50s and making a point of having her be less buxom than her ‘70s version. Saturn Girl’s costume is just one example from a legion of costumes redesigned by Ryan Sook, there are other examples in the over-all design concept that reveal the labour of love behind this new Legion. For example, the running alien script we see when a Legionnaire interacts with their living computer, Computo, is visually striking and mysterious. No translations are given and the effect of that is to give the setting added depth.

Legion Mass Battle Scene by Mike Grell ©1978 DC Comics (used for review purposes only)

Mass battle scenes are a must of the Legion and they are the challenge and glory of every great Legion artist. Grell’s cover for the afore-mentioned 1978 Legion spectacular set the bar high, and Sook has reached it, if not surpassed it. In this issue, the culminating space battle against the Horraz hordes over the broken New Earth allows Sook to glory in the human form and to demonstrate dramatic, Steranko-esque control of panel layouts. The double-page splash featuring three rectangular panels over a back scene of the alien hordes is a work of art. The first is a dynamic tableau of Wildfire and Ultra Boy, with Wildfire reaching up and Ultra Boy bending down; the second is a drop-dead full body portrait of Shadow Lass doing a back-dive in space with the six-armed Dr. Fate in the background, and the third a tableau of motion featuring Cosmic Boy and Bouncing Boy crowned by Dawn Star. Gorgeous work — but Sook out-does himself on the very next page with a double-page splash featuring the original four Legionnaires (counting Superboy) but particularly Saturn Girl. Her pose is like a dance move: the over-the-head confident motion of her arms give the effect of Sook adding a triumphant climax after so many scintillating pages in a row.

The Original Four Legionnaires
by Ryan Sook
©2020 DC Comics (used for review purposes only)

On a final note, #6 features some fascinating addtions to the Legion. A lot of the hype around this issue of the Legion has focussed on these new members. We have the visually impressive debut of the 31st cntury’s Gold Lantern, and the introduction of Monster Boy was played for a nice comic moment. Finally, much is made of the 31st century’s Dr. Fate on the cover, but the many-armed alien Dr. Fate who appears in only one panel promises to provide an interesting story in up-coming issues.

To conclude, the new Legion is on the way to that superstardom that awaits it. Bendis has the pieces in place and has run the series launch successfully with the first completed story arc. All that is left to say now is: Long live the Legion!

 

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