On Free Comic Book Day, the local comic store was selling a bunch of dollar comics, including some back issues of Legion of Super-Heroes volume 3. So I bought a few. A steal!
The next day I hit eBay and bought some more. Well played, "Free" Comic Book Day. Well played.
I spent the rest of the month rereading volume 3 (not the whole thing, just the issues I have, which is the bulk of it now). I had never exactly been a fan of this run. I read the Legion in the early 80s before DC split the book in two, resulting in a book printed on high-quality Baxter paper and sold in the direct market and a cheaper newsstand version that mostly told fill-in tales before switching over to reprints. That split basically marked the end of my ability to read the Legion stories that mattered. I had never been in a comic book store when volume 3 debuted in 1984. (My first visit would be about a year later, to pick up Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 and 8.) Most of volume 3 was inaccessible to me, and the few issues I did manage to track down – most notably the death of Superboy – didn’t convince me I was missing much.
Reading the full span of the series now both confirms my initial impressions and softens them a little. It helps that I finally read two of the best storylines from those years. The recruitment drive and all the stories that spring from it – the betrayal of Mentalla and the ongoing mystery over Sensor Girl’s identity – read like classic Mort Weisinger Legion tales blown up to modern length and given modern characterizations. The later Legion Conspiracy story that springs out of Superboy’s death is much better than I would have expected (the Starfinger subplot that runs alongside it is about as good as I would have expected), but it probably did lasting damage to the book's tone, cast, and cohesion. After that the book seems to lose all sense of direction, meandering around for a year before it finally sputters to an undignified end.
Part of the problem is that longtime Legion writer Paul Levitz was much, much better at working with existing characters and histories than he was at creating new ones. This is no knock against him; working with an expansive, unwieldy cast and a rich but frequently inconsistent history and pulling them together into something that resembles a cohesive whole is an important, undervalued skill in corporate-owned superhero comics, and Levitz at his peak did it better than just about anybody else. But you can tell by the end of the volume he’s running on empty. (The fact that he spent the first year trying to juggle two Legion books every month clearly did not help.) He runs out of things to do with most of that expansive cast and just starts bumping them off one after another – a trait that his final collaborator could only have encouraged.
If the first couple of years, culminating in the end of the Sensor Girl subplot, see an influx of new members in an attempt to give the book some vitality, the last couple of years reverse course drastically. Levitz kicks a half-dozen Legionnaires out of the book, kills some of their most enduring villains, and writes fairly conclusive endings for several others. Oh, and he kills off Superboy, the reason the team was founded and its biggest commercial draw for most of its history. That one probably isn’t his fault – no other book was hit so hard by the one-two punch of Crisis on Infinite Earths and John Byrne – but it certainly didn’t work to the Legion’s long-term benefit. By the end of the series even the Legionnaires are complaining about their empty roster and Levitz has moved on to cannibalizing his own creations, few though they were.
Which brings me to Quislet. Brought into the team to satisfy a pointless and ultimately misguided outcry for more alien members – the membership drive inducted three white superheroes, one mopey fishface, one disembodied entity with a “quirky” shtick, and zero minorities – Quislet is one of my least favorite characters in Legion history. Tellus is another; I’m tempted to blame it on their lack of expressive faces and body language, but the dialogue and actions as written are pretty thin, too. They’re proof that not only can’t Levitz write new characters but he shouldn’t really try.
Quislet is defined by annoying tics and forced fun right up until LSH #58, the final battle with the Emerald Empress. She’s taken down all of his teammates. He’s the only one left. And little Quislet takes her on anyway, fighting alone and scoring some solid hits until she casually destroys his containment vessel, forcing him to return to his homeland. (Where, we are told, he might be executed in some sort of Plato’s cave scenario. The eighties, everybody!) It’s a frustrating scene, because that character… the plucky little guy who fights on against overwhelming odds, who refuses to drop his positive attitude even in the face of personal loss… that guy is one of the all-time classic superhero character types. It’s a shame Levitz couldn’t figure out how to bring him out until his final scene. But given how miserable the next (and last) storyline would be, perhaps Quislet had to go.
Speaking of the eighties. These issues came out at a time of creative upheaval at DC Comics, when the company took a chance on projects that still define the company thirty years later. The books are filled with house ads for Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Justice League, Suicide Squad, V for Vendetta, Animal Man – high points of my comics reading. Those years, as much as anything, are probably responsible for why I’m still reading them today.
But this was also the time when DC learned all the wrong lessons from those groundbreaking comics (lessons they continue to mangle thirty years later). Here are the in-house solicitations for some contemporary Batman issues written by Jim Starlin.
- “Batman 421: Batman knows the identity of the person murdering women in Gotham—and there’s nothing he can do about it.” Holy misogyny!
- “Batman 422: Batman stalks the vicious Dumpster Slayer while Robin succumbs to the darker side of his nature.” What, you don’t remember the Dumpster Slayer from the TV show? I think Joey Bishop played him.
- “Batman 424: A beautiful woman dies, but the killer has diplomatic immunity. Robin can do something about it, but is he willing to pay the price?” You know, I’m beginning to sense a trend here...
The same tendencies are becoming part of the Legion at this time – not the overt misogyny, thankfully (although there’s a Dream Girl subplot that rivals the worst of the eighties for its casual recourse to sexual coercion and abuse), but all the gratuitous death, angst, and infighting. Levitz is trying to produce stories that have some of the impact, the finality of Watchmen or DKR or The Killing Joke, but most of those projects were located safely outside of a continuity they couldn’t destroy. Levitz is enmeshed in that continuity (even as it’s collapsing around him) and his many successive changes to the status quo result in a book that’s been stripped of all the things that made it popular in the first place.
The least sensationalistic but most destructive change was the gradual abandonment of the premises that made the Legion the Legion. Prohibitions against killing are routinely discarded, but so is the core assumption, ridiculous and essential, that a bunch of teenagers can band together and use their abilities to make the universe a better place. Without that, what’s left? Maybe the Legion of Superheroes hadn’t been completely exhausted yet, but their greatest writer certainly was.
Tomorrow: the art paragraph post.