Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Legion of "Super-Heroes"

While writing something else, I stumbled across something I'd never realized:

The real reason I could never get into The Legion of Super-Heroes.

Despite its having the name, "super-heroes" in its title, The Legion of Super-Heroes is anything but a superhero title.

It is a science fiction comic, first and foremost.

Sure, the things that make for good super-heroics can be found in the Legion's pages: alliterative names, costumes, but what it lacks is that one basic theme that makes a super-hero a super-hero.

By The Legion's very design, they are denied that one thing that makes a Superman, a Superman. A Batman, a Batman: pathos.

The Legion is all about "group-mind." Shared ideals that benefit all, a very social, very "Star Trek-ian" way of doing and thinking about things.

They lack the individual motivations needed in order to make the world a better place. There are no Joe Chills in their worlds, no mantles to pick up.

The Legion's motivation for doing what they do seemed to come more from lack of anything better to do than make the universe over into what they thought The Justice League would have wanted.

The Justice League, to me, seems more about helping mankind rise when, and only when,it falls. The best way of going about this is by allowing for a place where Batman, while working within a team dynamic, can still be be Batman, rough edges and all.

Sure, characters like Timber Wolf come in all growly and angry but what soon happens with these characters is that after an adventure or two, they start to have their rough edges smoothed over. The things that made them "them" are soon removed, revealing their personalities to be nothing more than affectation and/or loud cries for attention. Correct me if I'm wrong but isn't this also how you man a Federation starship?

Look, I'm not a sci-fi fan and never will be. I can appreciate sci-fi themes but most are lost upon me. Which I think is why I can't find the appreciation for The Legion most super-hero fans have.

Please, tell me, am totally wrong about The Legion?

17 comments:

Big Mike said...

Devon,

I never could have articulated it that well, but I think you're right on the money.

I think that the point you make speaks to why the current Legion run didn't pick up steam until Supergirl (and later Mon-El) got thrown into the mix. The Legion know who they are and what they're about; they're like the X-Men without the gritiness and emo. They treat heroics like kids treat going to school, and that's less compelling than a story about someone who has to balance being a hero with being a person.

That's not to say there isn't value in the Legion. It's great fun and I personally read every issue (and watch the cartoon sometimes). But I don't find the stories mythic or the characters iconic as I do in Superman, Batman and Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane.

Question: Do you think that the Lightning Saga will, to some extent, de-science fictionalize the Legion and tell a more traditional superhero story with those characters?

Devon said...

Mike:

I can't say, really. I'm having a bit of a time trying to figure out where this is all going.

If it leads to a more "reader-friendly" Legion I'm all for it but if the past'll show you anything, this'll just wind up wiped out with the next wave of continuity.

thatsthespirit said...

You're totally right.

Scipio said...

"Sure, characters like Timber Wolf come in all growly and angry but what soon happens with these characters is that after an adventure or two, they start to have their rough edges smoothed over. The things that made them "them" are soon removed, revealing their personalities to be nothing more than affectation and/or loud cries for attention. "

Hmm. This part I don't buy.

Individual characterizations is one of the things the Legion helped pioneer (in DC). One of the things I like about the LSH is the personalities of the members. Lightning Lad has always been a jerk, Cos a natural leader, Saturn Girl a little cold, Brainiac 5 a little condescending, Element Lad a little esoteric, Dream Girl a tease "playing dumb", Bouncing Boy the life of party, Invisible Kid the practical one, et sim.

I think you read some more LSH, Devon, you might change your mind on this part.

Devon said...

Hmmm...

Nope.

Don't get hung up on that line.

The things you listed are mostly traits, not pathos. How did these characters get to these places in their heads. Them just came to be, fully realized, in that way.

The natural learder.

The slightly condescending individualist.

The cold, aloof girl.

The livewire.

These aren't character traits.

It's simple casting.

This is the very foundation most X-teams and their 90's X-treme(!) counterparts are built upon.

They're archetypes, easily lending themselves to The LoSH's overall homogeny.

gar said...

I hope your antipathy towards scifi hasn't prevented you from watching the excellent new version of Battlestar Galactica. I'm not someone who gets into much sci-fi, but BSG is spectacular...granted, the last season had a few episodes that were outright clunkers, but overall, it's one of the best things on television.

I leave you with four words:

Bears, beets, Battlestar Galactica.

Christopher said...

I think you are partly right. To me part of the reason the LSH differs from other JL/DCU stuff is the absence of risk.

Sure they can be killed or injured (or can they? medicine is quite sophisticated)..but almost ALL of the LSH have public identities. They work OPENLY without fear of reprisal from their enemies.

NONE of them have secret identities. And when they do (such as Sensor Girl) everyone gets antsy.

If it was ever revealed that Batman or Superman were Bruce or Clark-BAM! someone would go and whack their supporting staff, their family, their alter ego or life.

So, I think that sure, the LSH dares life and limb..but honestly they do so openly and overtly. They are "out of the closet" so to speak.

And one of the classical conditions of super heroes has always been the "secret identity". It is fundamental to the vigilante super heroic lifestyle. In fact, it forms the driving force for Identity Crisis..super heroes are willing to go to great lengths to protect their families.

It is their anonymity which protects them from greatest risk. Sure, no problem if *I* die says Clark...but if Lois is in danger.....

Yes, the LSH families get menaced, but its just not the same. How often does that ACTUALLY happen? NONE of the LSH *ever* protects their identity or wears a mask.

No risk.

Matthew E said...

I think you've got a point but you're not completely right.

There have been elements of pathos in the Legion: Wildfire, most notably. These days, Invisible Kid and Brainiac 5 both have some issues that they haven't dealt with.

The current Legion most definitely does not have a 'group-mind'. One of the themes of Waid's run is that the characters think they have shared ideals but really they don't, quite.

There are some mantles being passed on, on two levels. First, we've got successor heroes like Jacques Foccart taking over for Lyle Norg, Jazmin Cullen taking over for her brother James, Myg taking over for Val Armorr. And XS and Thunder, of course. Second, the whole idea of the Legion is that they represent Superman's legacy ten centuries later (as represented by many characters, most notably Mon-El and Brainiac 5, if you leave out Superboy and Supergirl themselves).

I haven't invalidated your argument by listing all that stuff, of course; the points you made still apply but they don't apply across the board.

One thing I think is that the pathos you mention is not central to the superhero genre. You don't need it to tell superhero stories.

Also: if the Legion is science fiction, it's bad science fiction. Because the science it uses is superhero-comic-book science, which is almost invariably poorly conceived, poorly developed, and without a shred of real-world plausibility. So to the extent that the Legion succeeds at all (which it often does), it has to be succeeding as a superhero story, although perhaps one that isn't configured to your taste.

Vaklam said...

Well stated. I think you're right about LSH. It's not supers it's sci-fi which is why I prefer it to a lot of the superhero comics out there.

Same reason I prefer Green Lantern Corps stories to Green Lantern stories. For that matter I enjoy Heroes more than most comics with similar themes because I am more of a science-fiction guy than a Justice Leage guy.

Andrew said...

"Bears, beets, Battlestar Galactica."

Oh, well done sir.

Gyuss Baaltar said...

I dunno, I haven't picked up the latest Legion TPB ~ahem, if only a certain monkey themed comic store had'em in stock~ but I enjoyed the heck out of the first three in the series.

It is sci-fi, but its also teenagers trying to figure out what to do with their powers. I love the rebellion against a world that's just too safe.

ticknart said...

Aspects of the Legion of Super-Heroes I've always liked:
The origin where three kids from different worlds work together, accidently, to save the president and then decided that sometimes people can make a difference.
The way they always enjoyed diversity. (Yeah, not in skin color or anything like that, but they always encouraged diversity in the powers and homeworlds of their members.)
Cosmic Boys ability to inspire and lead such a diverse group of superpowered individuals.
The secret origin of their clubhouse.
"The Great Darkness Saga" and the DnA version years later.
Do we call him Collasal Boy or Micro Lad? (--insert nudity joke here--)

I understand the frustrations people have with the Legion, but they don't bother me. Maybe it's because I've always been a science fiction fan as much as I've been a super-hero fan. I'm sure there something in there for you to enjoy, Devon, just give the books a shot.

Christopher said...

I think the other aspect of the LSH that compliments the absence of risk is that they are basically too much like the environment they inhabit.

Superman, Batman, etc.? They stand head and shoulders. They can be an example to everyone but they are "SUPER-heroic"!! The remain examples but examples among a largely mortal environment.

The LSH are fantastic among a fantastic environment. They fit into the 31st Century a little too well. They aren't even all really super powered, they're just representatives with "powers" as a result of being out of their homeworlds. Kryptonians are not super-powered on their indiginous world. But durlans are! they just stand out on Earth.

Bill said...

Hmm... Speaking as a Science Fiction fan who wants to see as many science fiction comics as possible I do actually see your point. Legion works for me the best in the few times when it is GOOD science fiction and those times are painfully rare. I'm afraid the only time that Legion fit into my criteria for good science fiction was the late Giffen run. All other times you're absolutely right. The 30th Century of the Legion is a Gen Roddenberry inspired utopia that has me reaching for the insulin.

Anonymous said...

It depends on the writer, I think. I liked some issues of Paul Levitz's run. If the writer puts a serious effort into characterization the Legion breaks out of the sci-fi rut. But too often it's easy to write the Legion as a generic team; a forest without any trees, to use a bad metaphor.

Tenzil said...

No risk? Are you guys reading the same characters I am?

LSH was the first book to have major cast members permanently die. No ifs, ands or buts. Not an imaginary story. Not a dream. Dead as a doornail.

Lightning Lad, murdered & revived a few months later- the ONLY LSHer this happened to in a 35+ year run in the original continuity.

Ferro Lad, sacrificed himself, had to wait 40 years for a reboot. Just died again last Saturday on the LSH TV show.

Triplicate Girl, 1/3 murdered. Then 2/3 murdered late in the Levitz/Giffen run.

Invisible Kid (Lyle Norg), murdered.

Chemical King, sacrificed himself.

Karate Kid, beaten to death. Had to wait 25 years for a reboot.

Mon-El, offed at the very end of the Levitz run.

Supergirl, sacrificed herself in the Crisis. Had to wait 25 years for an intelligent reboot.

And of course, the Pocket Universe Superboy, murdered. Read that again. Paul Levitz killed off Superboy. Superboy!

Show me a team in fiction other than Blake's 7 that has such a large number of tragic ends in the course of heroic duty.

In the most current reboot, less than 3 years old, Dream Girl is already dead.

Yeah, it's a bright happy Roddenberry Future where 1/3 the team is killed off. And Bouncing Boy fights Darkseid....and wins.

ross_horowitz said...

Hey Devon,

Just found your site and had to sign up.

I'm not going to tell you to like the Legion.

A big part of them is sci-fi.

A big part is that they're teenage hero worshippers, starting with the first story. They're doing a lot with it in the current run.

But not only were they ahead of their time in setting but in comics history.

Your previous commenter listed Legion deaths. I believe that Ferro Lad was the first superhero death. We're talking 1967 I think.

They also had a hero go on trial for murder. They've had relationships. Marriages. Deaths. Births. They dealt with pretty serious themes while the Justice League would just say, "Let's split up!" as if they were in a Scooby-Doo cartoon.

And they're young and colorful and fun. And that's an important part of them.

I'm not going to tell you to like the Legion, but they have a lot more going for them than you give them credit for.