Legion of Super-Heroes is my favorite comic that I don't read anymore. After the Darkseid discussion last week I glutted myself on Legions past--the Great Darkness Saga, the Jim Shooter/Cary Bates/Mike Grell run in the 70s, and the Giffen/Bierbaum "Five Years Later" Legion--to figure out why that was the case.
Of course I read the Legion off and on in the early 80s, when Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen were both at their creative peaks. Unfortunately I came along at just the wrong time to become a regular follower. DC split the Legion into two comics, adding an expensive Baxter format book (which I couldn't always find--I still did a lot of my comics buying off the newsstand spinner rack back then) while maintaining the newsstand title. The strain on the creators was immediately apparent: the newsstand Legion book, which I could follow more easily, shifted to a series of largely inconsequential short stories, losing the sense of an overriding plot that's so important to serial fiction. (The few hints of an ongoing storyline, something about missing Legionnaires, referred to events in the Baxter title.) And Keith Giffen left the book, although that loss wasn't as devastating as it would have been a few months earlier, before he changed the crisp, futuristic design sense that had reinvigorated the Legion into something blotchy, ink-saturated, and inscrutable.
Someone should write an article about how the Baxter switch destroyed DC's two most popular franchises--the effects on the Teen Titans were not as immediate, but ultimately just as ruinous--but that's for another time.
I didn't become a diehard Legion fan until about five years later (appropriately enough), when I casually picked up a new Legion comic (#7) off a spinner rack in a record store. Giffen was back with yet another art style, his figures sporting a renewed clarity and heroism. Once again he brought a cohesive vision of the future, albeit a future whose fashions had changed in the intervening five years--now everybody dressed like an extra in Purple Rain. But the most striking visual element was Giffen's unyielding use of a nine-panel grid lifted from the pages of Watchmen. In fact, the entire comic presented a Watchmenification of the Legion, from the text pages in the back to the generally bleak portrayal of a 30th century wracked by war, corruption, and economic collapse. Best of all, the comic demanded close reader attention, rewarding intense scrutiny with revelations about the plot, characters, and events of the previous five years.
I was the perfect age for it. I'd read Watchmen two years earlier and was fully prepared to associate its stylistic experiments with artistic maturity, just as Giffen and writing partners Tom and Mary Bierbaum wanted me to, just as they probably did themselves.
Reading the early issues again, I can see Giffen and the Bierbaums didn't rise to their inspiration nearly as often as I thought they did. The elliptical narrative style made no distinctions between the important and the irrelevant, and the comics were cluttered with unnecessary complications and superfluous characters (I guess Mr. Weisen is still orbiting Trom to this day). The incremental storytelling meant some plotlines lingered forever with no appreciable advancement. Even worse, for all that the comic reveled in its baroque stylings it was just as likely to oversimplify the truly important things. The series' major plot hook--that Earth's government had secretly been taken over by the Dominators--was revealed entirely too early, the secret conspiracy exposed by a newspaper article that appeared off-panel between issues. (This would be the first suggestion of another weakness that would ultimately cripple the series: the Legionnaires were too often spectators in their own title.)
But the comic hit its stride right around the time I began reading. Two months earlier, Giffen and the Bierbaums produced their single greatest work, an issue that alone almost justifies the entire run. Legion of Super-Heroes #5 is set in the "Mordruverse," an alternate history created when the disappearance of one super-villain allows the dominance of another. In the span of twenty-three pages the comic establishes the alternate timeline, sets up the usual ragtag band of rebels who fight against Mordru's rule, shows the ragtag band of rebels discovering they are living in an alternate timeline, and dramatizes their plan to restore time to its proper course; I haven't even gotten into the subplots involving the ambitious wife or the dutiful secret policeman. With so little space for exposition the issue moves with an astonishing narrative economy, yet somehow it manages to preserve a moody atmosphere that combines Orwellian oppression with Philip K. Dick metaphysics.
This comic is all the more remarkable when you realize that it was written to satisfy an editorial mandate that the Legion completely disconnect itself from former members Superboy and Supergirl, who had been written out of DC continuity in an ill-conceived revamp. Most continuity-patch stories are a shambles, as dramatically unsatisfying as they are ultimately ineffective at fixing whatever continuity errors they address, but this one worked: an in-story excuse to rebuild the missing pieces of the Legion's past, it was still an entertaining story.
After that the new series was on a roll, for a few months anyway, reassembling the disbanded Legion while introducing elegant substitutions for the forbidden characters. The best of these was Laurel Gand, still the only Supergirl substitute who comes close to reproducing the original (although subsequent writers would do their damnedest to undo her, writing her first as a xenophobic chauvinist and then as a space nun). By issue #12 the Legion had reformed and it seemed like the grim tide of events in the 30th century was beginning to turn; issues 12 and 13 featured a fight between a never-before-seen Legionnaire named Kent Shakespeare (his name and eyeglasses promising some connection to Superman, the ultimate optimistic superhero and the Legion's original inspiration) and a classic villain called the Persuader which dramatized the selflessness and sacrifice at the heart of the Legion's ideals. The Mordruverse was the series' finest moment, but that throwaway fight may have been its most Legion-like.
And then the directive came from on high: enough with these confusing stories. Combined with Giffen's ever-increasing absences, the newer, simpler tales were a crushing disappointment. It turned out Giffen and the Bierbaums were much better at implying stories, or advancing them in short snapshot-like installments, than they were at telling them. Forced to dramatize their fairly thin plots from start to finish, the Bierbaums relied on moth-eaten cliches and dei ex machina that revealed a paucity of imagination. The series went more or less downhill from there.
But the point of this post isn't to talk about where Legion of Super-Heroes went wrong, a topic that's been belabored in any number of frothy Usenet discussions. The point is to talk about what it did right, and if Giffen and the Bierbaums could hold onto me through neverending Terra Mosaics and bad fanfic theories stamped with the holy writ of continuity--if they could hold onto me even after their continuity was erased and the Legion settled into half a decade of teenagers sticking their tongues out at each other, and then hold onto me after that continuity was erased and replaced by a whining, sniping Legion whose inspirational slogan was "Eat it, grandpa"--then they must have done something very right indeed.
Tomorrow: something very right.