Comics produced through an assembly-line division of labor require a strange alchemy if they’re going to be anything more than generic product. For a few years in the early 1980s, The Legion of Super-Heroes had it.
Where writer Paul Levitz was a master of DC lore, skillfully weaving the Legion’s rich past and boundless settings into a coherent narrative (and more or less single-handedly resuscitating Jack Kirby’s Darkseid), artist Keith Giffen finally took the Legionnaires into the future they had claimed to inhabit all along. He brought clean linework, visionary architecture, innovative uses of color, tons of futuristic chicken fat, the Interlac alphabet, and costumes that (80s color schemes notwithstanding) seemed to combine the best features of the Legion’s childish past and its bold new future.
And then, after building the Legion into a franchise that could support a deluxe-format book, Giffen changed his style just in time for the relaunch. Now working under the controversial (and unacknowledged) influence of Argentinian artist José Antonio Muñoz, Giffen was suddenly interested in shadows, inks, caricatured figures, and fragmented images that sometimes occluded the human figure entirely.
And then he was gone after two issues, the first of his many abrupt departures from the franchise. In this case the loss was probably a fortunate one, because editor Karen Berger (yes, the Karen Berger) replaced him with Steve Lightle. A perfect successor, Lightle’s fine linework, detailed backgrounds, and obvious affection for the characters harkened back to Giffen in his prime (especially when inked by Giffen’s collaborator Larry Mahlstedt). Unfortunately, he couldn’t maintain the regular monthly schedule – a punishing grind that wasn’t helped by issues that ran to 27 pages each. Lightle barely lasted a year, with a couple of fill-ins along the way.
He was replaced by Greg LaRocque. I enjoyed LaRocque’s work on The Flash with Mark Waid, where he had the good fortune to illustrate the greatest Flash story ever told, “The Return of Barry Allen.” On the Legion… well, he enjoys drawing the ladies, but it’s all fairly standard 1980s superhero comic art. Still, he could handle the huge cast and hit his deadlines, no small feats; the Legion has ground up many a fancier artist.
LaRocque lasts about two and a half years, and then he’s replaced by Keith Giffen. (For the final part of a long-developing storyline – reading these comics in hindsight, the utter indifference to any sort of collected edition is amazing.) Giffen returns with yet another new style: clean, crisp lines reminiscent of (but not identical to) his classic look, expressive faces that owe much to his former Justice League collaborator Kevin Maguire, and wide-open layouts that are well-suited for the Legion’s grand superheroic action. There’s a moment in issue 58 where Colossal Boy, returning to duty after a long absence, expands to fill the panels and it’s absolutely perfect –as if that’s what they were designed for all along. Giffen has once again found a style you could build a book around.
It lasts for nine issues. Two of them are fill-ins. Of all the things about Giffen that are maddening – and they too are legion – one of the worst is his inevitable tendency to change gears just when he’s starting to build some momentum. “The Magic Wars,” the final story of this volume, sees Giffen auditioning his new new look, a nine-panel grid that would define his work on the next volume of Legion of Super-Heroes. That tight focus meshed well with volume 4’s focus on conversation, character interaction, and highly mediated media images, but it’s spectacularly ill-suited to the cosmos-shaking super-action that Levitz chooses to end his long tenure on the Legion. Battle scenes and magical spectacles are cropped so closely they become almost illegible, while the quieter moments are presented with a kind of laconic abstraction that neutralizes any intended emotional effect. As he did at the beginning of volume 3, Giffen sometimes threatens to abandon the human figure, a stunningly bad decision for a genre that is, at its heart, all about the dynamism of the human body in motion.
No Keith Giffen run on the Legion, however brief, would be complete without at least one pointless Legionnaire death. (There may be other artists as eager to bite the hand that feeds them, but few have been given so many opportunities to bite the same one over and over again.) Levitz and Giffen actually manage to pack three in, claiming the last of Triplicate Girl Duo Damsel Luornu Durgo’s cannon-fodder bodies and inflicting fatal injuries on Mon-El that kill him after a long, joyless year. The last one is the worst of all, a death so forced that it doesn’t even bother to conceal its essential arbitrariness: Magnetic Kid basically dies because The Rules say somebody has to. Otherwise, how would you know it’s a big important story?
Despite all the doom and gloom, Levitz does his best to end the story, and his seven years on the title, with an upbeat note about the Legion’s enduring service – a note that would be undercut by the very premise of the volume that follows, which opens with the Legion disbanded and the United Planets fragmented in their absence. But the truth is, Levitz and Giffen had already done so much damage to both institutions on the way out that v4 feels like a logical extension of what came before it. Legion of Super-Heroes volume 3 ends with a writer who’s run out of stories to tell and an artist who holds the characters, setting, and genre in more or less open contempt.
The Legion would suffer many indignities over the next couple of decades: editorial interference, countless retcons and reboots, nonstop regime changes that repeatedly cut out its heart. More than anything else, that indecisiveness is the source of the Legion’s current troubles and its absence from the comics shelves. But when the title’s two greatest creators give it a send-off like this, it’s hard to make the case that anybody else should care about protecting what they built.