Sunday, April 06, 2008

Shooter's Legion vs. Johns's Legion: A Few Thoughts

After reading my reviews for the newest issues of Action Comics and Legion of Super-Heroes over at CBR, Legion book contributor and Estoreal blogger Richard Bensam made the following comment:
I just wonder what you got from that Action Comics storyline that I didn't. For me, Shooter has me reading and enjoying a Legion book for the first time in nearly twenty years; meanwhile, what Johns was doing just felt hollow. It was "let's hit this plot point...and here's a moment that's meant to be evocative...and here on the diagram we insert a scene that touches on the stated thematic goal...and here, one more moment where we stop and commemorate the meaningfulness of it all." I get the impression your response was the reverse of this, and it vexes me.

I wouldn't say my response is the "reverse" of Bensam's, but I did give Action Comics a favorable review and Legion a relatively negative review (with the qualifier that I think the Shooter-penned series has great potential). So let me explain a bit more about how I feel about Johns's recent version of the Legion and Shooter's interpretation.

First of all, my CBR review wasn't evaluating Action Comics as a Legion book, but as a Superman book. So in many ways, Bensam's criticism of Johns's by-the-numbers Legion moments misses the point a bit. The Legion moments were clearly designed to illuminate Superman, to provide a dramatic context in which aspects of Superman's character can be emphasized, not to add depth to fifty years of Legion characterization. As a Legion story, Johns's tale was nothing extraordinary, but it did a more than admirable job of re-engaging the Legion with the Superman mythos. The Legion has been cast aside for too long, in my mind, and even the Abnett and Lanning attempts to connect the characters with Superboy felt like a second-rate patch job. So there's that.

Also, I have absolutely no problem with conventional storytelling as long as its done well, and Johns is one of the best at well-structured superhero narratives. You may be able to see all the beats in advance, but damn it if he doesn't hit them emphatically. There's a reason we, as a species, keep telling the same basic stories again and again. We like to see slight variations, but we like the what we like. Over and over. If you listen to a song you like, even a new version of it, you don't judge it based on what's going to surprise you, but on how well the artist performs the required moments. That's what John does, and he does it well.

I'm still not sure what to think about Shooter's Legion, though. He didn't want to reboot the series, even though he claims DiDio offered him the chance to do so, yet he isn't keeping the tone or characterizations of the Waid Threeboot, so he has basically just adopted the costumes (which he will also change in the near future, as seen on the first cover of his run--a strange image, to be sure, since we're several issues in and those costumes still haven't appeared), and the main cast of characters. But since the characters don't act like they have in the recent past, it's basically a relaunch anyway. Which is fine, I guess, since he did instill some much-needed energy into the series. Even though I liked Waid and Bedard's Legion when I reread the entire series last year, it was a bit too self-serious for me. It felt like it was trying to say something important and show the weight of the universe on the shoulders of these young men and women in the Legion, but it didn't have much life to it. Shooter has brought in some life, which is why I believe the series has potential under him.

But I do actively dislike plenty of his dialogue, much of which relies on "futuristic" slang that sounds like a 65-year-old trying to be hip. And his attempts to add conflict within the Legion is reminiscent of every team comic book since Claremont's X-Men. Or, perhaps I should say every team comic since Shooter's original Legion, which was inspired by Marvel's troubled heroes. Either way, there's certainly nothing new here, and Shooter isn't as good at hitting the marks as Johns is, but I think he might surprise me before his run on the series is over. I'm optimistic about the new direction, but I don't think the comic is all that great yet. Perhaps Shooter still needs a few more issues to position the team where he wants it. I don't know.

Of course, with the Johns/Perez "Legion of Three Worlds" this summer, perhaps Shooter won't get a chance to take the Legion where he wants them to go. I'd be shocked if a reboot or deboot (or whatever) didn't come out of this Final Crisis/"Legion of Three World" stuff. And although I'd happily keep buying Jim Shooter Legion comics, I feel that editorial forces beyond all of our control may have something different in mind for the future of the Legion.

I am really glad that someone had the foresight to pull together a useful analytical guide to the various incarnations of the Legion of Super-Heroes just in time for this huge summer event, though. That guy must know what he's doing, at least.

What does everyone else think about all of this stuff?


Marc Caputo said...

"The Legion has been cast aside for too long, in my mind, and even the Abnett and Lanning attempts to connect the characters with Superboy felt like a second-rate patch job."

Well, obviously, I have a bias for DnA's run. But I do stand behind "Foundations". I thought that it was a shoot AND score in its attempt to a) celebrate the Legion's 45th anniversary and b) fold back in the elements of its history that had been retconned away - Darkseid, Superboy - but giving them a new coat of paint, so to say. Especially masterful was how they brought in Superboy (Kon-El) for the name factor, but it was ultimately Clark Kent (or more to the point, Kal-El) who saved the day, showing that name and costume only mean so much. Kal-El would have been a hero and an inspiration no matter what.

Matthew E said...

What does everyone else think about all of this stuff?

I think Shooter's characterizations are not identical to Waid's but not inconsistent with them either. And that's to be expected.

I think if they tried really hard, Johns and Frank could have told that Superman/Legion story in one issue.

I think the success of Johns's Legion is relying a bit too much on nostalgia. I haven't seen anything that gives me an idea of what an ongoing series starring that Legion would be like. Shooter, at least, seems to be trying to create something new.

I applaud FC:L3W to the extent that it's an attempt to accommodate all three Legions in DC continuity, and to the extent that it's a good story. If some kind of retroboot comes out of it, I'm in favour of that if it restores old continuities that were previously cut off, but not in favour of it if it has the opposite effect.

I don't want DC to give Johns's Legion their own book if it's just going to be fighting Mordru and the Dark Circle again. And again.

Sure, Johns could write it well, but I'd rather see someone write something new (about those Legionnaires, or others) well. Not like the Action Comics arc, which was composed from start to finish of some really really old Legion story elements, and stretched out way too long. Entertainingly presented, to be sure, but that's no excuse, and it's no recipe for further appearances by this group. I think Bosquet put it best when he said, "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre." Or, to say it another way, "Tastes great. Less filling."

Timothy Callahan said...

Marc: I agree with everything you say, but while that DnA stuff did a nice job bringing Superboy back into the Legion, it's didn't do a damn thing to bring the Legion back into the DCU.

Matthew: They could have told A story in one issue, but not THAT story. I didn't feel it was decompressed at all, personally, but even if it was, the pacing is part of the story. The style is the substance. And it's a style I like, even if others do not.

I don't really understand the criticism that Johns just does retreads of past stories. He uses elements of continuity, as he should, but he moves things forward in all of his comics. I'd like to see some examples of how he doesn't.

Marc Caputo said...

Would you liken Johns to, let's say, Roy Thomas? Maybe if someone did, then he'd stop getting knocked about so much.
I feel the same (and maybe more so, so strong is my man-love for Johns' comics), but I feel when I defend his work, I end up saying, in essence, "Well, he writes damn fine comics!". Which sounds like faint praise, but it's not. I don't think that every writer (or artist) has to elevate the form. Sometimes it's enough - hell, more than enough - to knock out solid examples of the form.

Matthew E said...

I don't really understand the criticism that Johns just does retreads of past stories.

I don't think that's all he does, but I think that's all he did here. My experience of Johns is that he's at his best when combining already-existing elements in new and interesting ways. Which is what we had in this arc, and it was in fact a good read. But I don't think Johns creates new elements all that much, and I think that's just what the Legion needs. I don't mind the matching of Johns's tendencies with the Legion so much in a reintroductory arc such as we had here, but it's no recipe for anything ongoing.

Would you liken Johns to, let's say, Roy Thomas?

I think that's a decent comparison. Although there are differences: I'd trust Thomas to handle continuity above anyone else, but Johns is probably a superior storyteller.

Anyway. Basically, my problem is this: I think the Legion should be about the future, and I think Shooter is trying to give me what I want. Too many Legion fans are fixated on the past, and I think Johns is trying to give them what they want.

marcwrz said...

Tim, just tell DC to give Legion to you already. I'd buy it. lol

Timothy Callahan said...

I had a whole Johns/Thomas (John Thomas?) post organized last summer, complete with pics, but I never actually got around to writing it. Maybe I will. Anyway, Johns is absolutely the Roy Thomas of this generation. In his own way.

And Marc: I will e-mail Levitz tonight and demand the Legion job. I can't imagine why he'd say no.

Chad Nevett said...

Huh. I think you just accidentally put a finger on one of the reasons why Geoff Johns's writing leaves me cold: much lke Joss Whedon, his mechanics are fantastic, but everything comes across as so planned, so purposeful in causing a specific reaction that it winds up doing the opposite. I'll read a scene (by either writer) and know exactly how they want me to react and because I know that, I simply think "Oh, that's nice" and move on. Intellectually, it can be interested to examine and discuss, but emotionally, it's completely flat because there's no sense of fluidity or spontaneity. It's the same problem I have with a lot of poetry--that every single piece is so purposeful and precise that it's about an interesting as looking at blueprints for a building. Again, impressive intellectually, but not exatly exciting or engaging. I've thought that way about Whedon for a while (or, his work on Astonishing X-Men), but this is the first time I've viewed Johns's work as such.

And, I should add, that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Since discovering that's how Whedon's writing works on Astonishing, I've been able to read it with that mindset--maybe now I'll be able to read Johns's stuff in a similar way and take SOMETHING from it, where, before, I was getting almost nothing.

Timothy Callahan said...

right. You just have to be cold an heartless like me. Then, the emotional impact is irrelevant anyway.

Chad Nevett said...

See, I know that, but I do try and avoid reading exclusively like that since an emotion impact of some kind is usually one of the goals of the author--and ignoring said impact (or lack thereof) seems only like a partial reading.