Thursday, March 27, 2008

Everything You Know is Wrong #2: The Impenetrability of the Legion of Super-Heroes

This being the second in a series of posts in which I explain why the conventional widom is wrong.

The Legion of Super-Heroes has been an overwhelming part of my life for the past 16 months, as I read every Legion story (in chronological order) and prepared and edited a book of essays on the various incarnations of the team.

Conventional wisdom, as echoed by Matt Fraction in his Foreword to the book, states that the Legion of Super-Heroes is an impenetrable tangle of characters, continuity, and reboots, making it practically impossible for a new reader to jump on board.

This piece of conventional wisdom is, of course, WRONG.

First of all, Teenagers from the Future will help make everything less impenetrable, so you should all read that as a primer, but even if you are bold enough to dive into the 31st century without dipping your toes into that book, you will not drown! The Legion is accessible for anyone who's willing to even try to read it.

Here's why: Even though it seems like the Legion has a roster of billions, it's only just a few dozen, and rarely do all the characters appear in the same stories anyway. Sure, there's more characters than your average Justice League or Avengers squad, but that's part of the Legion's appeal. Plus, the characters in the Legion are really, really easy to figure out right away. First of all, each character can only really do one thing. Unless you're talking about Superboy, Supergirl, or Mon-El (who all have the same powers as Superman) or Ultra Boy (who has the same powers as Superman but he can only use one at a time), basically each character has one power, and the power is clearly identified by name.

Guess what Matter-Eater Lad can do? Um, eat matter. Sun Boy? Heat. Lightning Lad? Lightning. Do these names seem confusing to you in any way?

Even characters with "subtle" names like Cosmic Boy or Saturn Girl have single, clearly defined powers that you'll learn after about ten seconds of reading a story in which they appear. Others, like Princess Projectra, will take 15 seconds to figure out. What does she project? Illusions. Easy. Move on.

And the continuity isn't any more dense than what you'd expect from any long-running series. First of all, nobody has read every DC comic ever published. I don't think that's humanly possible (and I'm trying to do it, so I know how ridiculous the task can be). Take Batman, for example. All of those stories that Grant Morrison references in the current run are completely forgotten by most fans. And he's only alluding to about 10 stories out of thousands of past Batman tales. You can still pick up an issue of Detective Comics and read it without knowing all those stories. It's no big deal. Same thing with the Legion. And with the reboots, none of the old continuity matters anyway, except when Geoff Johns is around, but even then, he explains everything to you through exposition.

I think the Legion developed its reputation for impenetrability during the late Bronze Age, when Levitz took over the book for his extended run. He told one long story over his 100 issues, although he had a villain pop up in practically every issue. I wrote about his use of story structure in my essay for the Teenagers book, so I'm not going to go into it here, but his type of linked, rotating-subplot structure with an emphasis on characterization basically became the template for decompressed superhero comics today. His stories were not decompressed, though, he just allowed long-running subplots to evolve over months or even years.

But, guess what? That's exactly when I jumped aboard the Legion, and I was able to figure everything out pretty quickly. I wasn't sure what Dream Girl did, exactly, other than look hot, but I soon figured out that her power was described in her name too. It ain't Ulysses, folks.

The Legion is a club of teenage superheroes in the 31st century. That's all you really need to know to get started. So dive in, enjoy the fun, and soon, you too will be naming your kids Rokk and Tasmia.


Richard said...

That claim about the Legion being overpopulated and overcomplicated was long ago disproved by the popularity of X-titles at Marvel. How many books do they support at one time, with how many different casts in which different time periods and continuities? And this character came back from which future alternate history that now will have never existed, and that one is the child of which couple that never had offspring in our head hurts.

Except for the occasional fits of madness by individual writers, the Legion has usually only had one continuity operating at any given moment...and with equally rare exception, the stories haven't depended on the reader knowing all the minutiae of some past adventure to follow the action.* We're not talking anything like the interwoven plot thread density of a Cerebus or X-Men here, but the Legion series was always characterized as too hard to follow. I heard the exact same complaint thirty years ago. Funnily enough, it wasn't until people started trying to "fix" the LSH and "cure" it of being "too complicated" that it actually became at all complicated...

That said, I'm not quite as accepting as you are of what Geoff Johns has been doing lately, but I'll concede that he still has a chance to somehow justify it and make it all worth the unnecessary confusion he's created.

* See what I did there? Clever, eh? ;-)

Matthew E said...

soon, you too will be naming your kids Rokk and Tasmia.

My younger son's name is Devlin. I don't say it was *because* of Devlin O'Ryan, but obviously I was *aware* of Devlin O'Ryan.