So, hey, remember when DC did that whole New 52 thing back in September 2011 so they could reboot the DC universe and introduce new readers to their books by resetting everything to chapter one? Well, apparently no one told Paul Levitz! Legion of Super-Heroes picks up more or less where Levitz’s prior run left off, continuing the adventures of a Tolstoyian cast of characters, all of whom introduce themselves in the very first issue. And I do mean all of them.
But unlike Batman or Green Lantern, Legion of Super-Heroes makes no attempts whatsoever to ease you into the groove of things. No, it just tosses you right into the melee armed with nothing but your wits and dedication to slog through this dense pile of narrative buildup.
This is a complicated book to describe because, honestly, it’s nearly impossible to follow unless you’ve read any previous Legion books. And even then, it descends into a slog regardless. Levitz does make an attempt to reintroduce these character but in the most atrocious way possible. Rather than a series of interpersonal scenes establishing each character and their relationships — you know, the typical training or boot camp sequence a la Full Metal Jacket or briefing scene a la Aliens, or, hell, the scene between Hal Jordan and Carol Ferris from Green Lantern or Bruce Wayne’s speech from Batman – we get text boxes, friggin’ text boxes! Text boxes featuring a character’s name, homeworld, and abilities with arrows leadings to the appropriate character, the most horribly intrusive way to introduce characters because it neglects that one thing that makes them compelling and worth following: their character. We know next to nothing about their personal interests, foibles, and backstories, only that they are members of the Legion and each have their own unique power — the things which, while essential for a team book, often end up the least interesting things about a team book. Moreover, these boxes break up nearly every scene in the first issue as your eye can’t help but be drawn to a distractingly yellow box, three or four of which pop up across a single page. And by the time you return to the dialogue, you’ve lost track of the conversation and now it’s time for backtracking. Worse, in the original issues, these were present in every issue. But God knows anyone following this book month-to-month is going to need reminders. And God forbid any character be memorable enough that we’d just remember who they are without the hints.
What I would have given for just a single scene of two characters talking to each other about something that wasn’t plot related. Something that gave me just the slightest insight into who they are, why they’re a hero, and why I should care for them.
A large cast need not be a burden but here every page bears the weight as action gets shoved aside and each new digression pushes out the memory of the last until A, B, and C plots become jumbled and confused beyond repair. The first four issue story arc could have easily been expanded to fill this entire seven issue trade and been all the better for it given additional space to develop characters and introduce new ones at a reasonable pace. As is, the thing is condensed as hell and any narrative investment is lost along with the characters. Even with prior knowledge, I find it hard to believe anyone could read the first half of this book and be satisfied as the pacing is just so erratic and the tone shifts wildly with each scene.
The action begins in media res but it took me several repeat readings to figure out what exactly was going on, who people were, and why the hell they were doing any of the things they were doing. The only characters I recognized were those I vaguely recalled from the original Legion Lost and, even then, these are vastly different versions of those characters. I have no idea who they are in the context of this group nor, indeed, context for the group itself. Sure, they’re heroes — it’s in the name — but for whom? Who composes the United Planets? Why are they in conflict with the Dominion? To what extent are the Legion’s actions sanctioned? Are they an official/unofficial quasi-military organization? I know the answers to these questions only because I researched them; the book itself offers little in the way of setup and basic establishment of good guys and bad guys. And this is supposed to be our introduction to this series!? Christ!
A squad of legionnaires from the Legion of Super-Heroes, a formalized, almost militaristic league of metahumans and super-powered aliens, arrive on a foreign planet to infiltrate a shady military installation, fearing invasion from the Dominion, a race of rather nasty looking bug alien people (the good looking races never go evil). Meanwhile, fellow legionnaires are reconnoitering at Legion headquarters on earth following an event that apparently cost the lives of many legionnaires and cut the Legion’s time travel abilities off from the 21st century (the event in question being Flashpoint and the lost legionnaires the current cast of the revamped Legion Lost, presumably). All-in-all, not that complicated a set up. In execution, however, utterly fumbled.
As I understand it, Paul Levitz was forced to cut short his run on Legion prior to the reboot, ending storylines before they had properly developed, so the book could start anew. An unfortunate fate for several books, in fact, including the lauded Secret Six. So I can’t help but feel sorry for Levitz, a writer forced to kill his baby for the sake of a marketing gambit. But I do blame him for this awful beginning to what otherwise looks like an intriguing book, regardless. After four issues the book finally begins to breathe a bit and the last story arc actually builds some interest, divulging itself of tangents and distractions, focusing on a limited set of characters to tell a simple story about two sisters and their diverging paths in life which ultimately lead them to conflict. The whole thing wraps itself up in futuristic cultural politics, combining high concept storytelling with character drama, the essential goal of any piece of science fiction. And despite my bitching, we get inklings of that in the preceding issues (provided you were willing to suss them out from the milieu), just not nearly enough of it in a cogent fashion.
The artwork serves the book far better than it deserves. Futuristic cities look intimidatingly futuristic, costumes are suitably ridiculous (especially those of any female character which will almost always feature an ass shot at some point), and the action scenes sparkle despite the muddled writing. The art design has a Flash Gordon-ish charm, as if all outfits and locales are purposefully ludicrous as an homage to the book’s Silver Age roots — all bubbles, glowing tubes, capacitors, and outsized pieces of technology despite its continued miniaturization in real life (I’m just waiting for someone to bust out the food pills at dinner) — though I can’t decide if this works in the book’s favor or not. Any time the reader is expected to take a scene seriously, their investment is blunted by the outlandish. Take action girl Dragonwing’s diaphanous transparent coat, for example, which she sports in battle while wielding flame breath powers. I suppose future-silk is both fire- and laser-proof. Oh, what’s that? Space politics? I couldn’t hear you over your giant neon yellow lapels!
As a fan of high concept science fiction and space opera, I want to give this book another chance to hook me (and no doubt I will), but, as a reviewer, I can’t honestly recommend it to new readers nor, really, to old ones either. It’s a bad start, pure and simple, but a book not without potential. Although, rather than hyping me for new ongoing adventures, I’d rather delve into Levitz’s older books and discover the quality stories only hinted at here before DC forced him to butcher it all.
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