Sunday, May 19, 2013

5 Thoughts on the end of the Legion of Superheroes

Last week, DC revealed a new wave of cancellations (many of which would be no surprise to regular readers of this blog) including long time fan favorite, the Legion of Superheroes.

This prompted this tweet from the High Reactionary himself, Mark Waid:

And while I think Waid's hashtagged label for the tweet is a clue that perhaps his reaction is a bit extreme, the news of cancellation catalyze a lot of thoughts I've been having about the Legion over the years. In no apparent order, here they are:

1. Has the Losh really been continuously published for the past 40 years?
Wasn't there a period several years ago when they were just a seldom seen backup in a short lived Adventure Comics in 2009? Seeing how this latest version was Volume 7 of a title that has been rebooted 3 times, I think it's a bit rediculous to call it continuous publication.

2. Does anyone really think this will be the last we see of the Legion in a comic?
In a world where Grant Morrison can put juice back in the Batman of Zurr-en-arrh, I would be relunctant to count the Losh out for long.

3. Is the Legion a concept that can't be retooled for this era?
The list of excellent creators who have tried to rejuvinate the franchise is pretty long (Abnett and Lanning, Waid, Giffen, Jim Shooter, Paul Levitz) DC has tried a number of different approaches on the franchises (time jumps, reboots, retro reconfigurings, high concept storylines, etc...) with the exception of some mild interest in the last Waid/Kitson threeboot in 2004, nothing has really ever moved the needle. (And even the threeboot ran out of steam by issue 16 when it was retitled Supergirl and the Legion of Superheroes.)

4. Why don't younger fans like the Legion?
From listening to 30 something podcasters on ifanboy talk about the series, I think there are several answers to this question:
  • Dated, juvenile sounding names (Saturn Girl, Ultra Boy, etc.)
  • A fear that they don't know where to start with the series
  • They are overwhelmed by the large cast
Basically, I think a lot of modern comic readers are a bit lazy when it comes to trying new comics. If they can't grasp a concept in the first issue, they walk away from it. A comic like American Flagg (or from heretell, the current incarnation of Prophet) requires more mental energy than most modern readers want to expend. (And honestly, can you blame them? With the siren song of television shows, movies and video games ever calling them, why should they put forward the effort to read a title like the Legion?)

5. What is my favorite era of the Legion?
That's a tough one, because I like different eras for different reasons. Currently, I would say the Silver Age, mostly for the background ideas that appear in the stories - like a desk unit that has yes/no light displays on the front.

I would love one of those for work.

I'm going to end with a final question:  
How would you make the Legion a successful comic in this day and age?

Have a great week!

- Jim


MattComix said...

1. I'd have to wonder if the "continuous publication" part of his comment was perhaps meant as a sarcastic jab at the various reboots and relaunches. I think those have lead to a feeling of no coherent answer the very basic of question of "Who and What is The Legion of Superheroes?"

That's before you even get into questions of continuity with the rest of the DCU. I think for classic Legion fans the history was part of the appeal because you see the Legion go from kids/teen to young adults if you trace it from the Silver Age up to before Crisis. As much as I love having Superman without the Superboy career there is no doubt that it has hurt the Legion.

2. No but at the same time each successive relaunch further aggravates no.1. It drives old fans away and new ones to whether they are coming into it cold or got in with the previous relaunch/reboot.

3. I think it's possible. Just not as an ongoing series. COIE and everything after that has kind of screwed the pooch on it. My little pitch is that it should be a long but finite series that is essentially young Clark Kent's awesome adventure in the bright optimistic future that he and the other heroes will lay the groundwork for. That future is suddenly threatened and it's up to the kids inspired by the heroes of old to remind the people of this future what being a hero is all about. It's a big epic adventure that young Clark won't be allowed to remember (at least not until he's older which is my way of reconciling that The Legion needs Superboy but Superman works better without having had a whole other career as Superboy.

4. This basically goes back to my response in no. 1. Addressing specific points presented

-Dated, juvenile sounding names (Saturn Girl, Ultra Boy, etc.)

At the end of the day are these any more or less juvenille sounding that Batman or Superman? If you give them hyper modern you run the risk of just dating them in a different era. This is one problem with agressive modernizing, what's modern now will not be tomorrow.

-A fear that they don't know where to start with the series

Again see no.1

-They are overwhelmed by the large cast

Yes and no. Clearly fans can keep with a ton of mutants, a ton of combatants or anime characters. But I think there does need to be a core cast to at the center of it all and having at least one of these core members present in every story. Like the JLU cartoon for example.

Sorry for the long post.

Trey said...

I'm not really sure why the Legion isn't popular other that very few comic book characters are popular, really.

I think before you can answer "why aren't they more popular now?" you have to answer "why were they never all that popular?"

Jim Shelley said...

@MattComix - no apologies needed on the long comment! I like that you brought a lot to the table here! I think you are correct that the tampering with legion history that occurred during COIE and after has driven a large part of the fan base away.

I also agree with your suggestion that the concept might work better if it weren't an ongoing series.

Jim Shelley said...

@Trey - I think I can give you part of an answer (if I am interpreting your question of why were they ever popular correctly.)
In the Silver Age, they were the first (if not only?) team of teen superheroes. While they were about as in touch with teenage sensibilities as an espisode of Patty Duke, it was at least a step in the right direction. Also, the large cast of characters allowed for more romantic melodrama which may have been what gave it the edge with female readers.
--As to the the other eras in which it had some popularity, I would suggest that Cockrum and Grell's artwork brought some fans on board (I know that why I started picking up the book.)
--If there was one last influx of fans, it would probably have been during the Great Darkness Saga which seemed to be one of the first big events in comics at the time. With readers picking up their comics in comic shops, I think that was their first dose of a hyped event. Albeit, not as calculated or orchestrated as events today, but I seem to recall it getting some attention in the comic press at the time.

Those are some rather different reasons altogether, and they are all time sensitive.

JP Cote said...

I liked the LoSH when I started paying attention to them in the 70s and 80s. I loved them when Giffen took over and I lost interest after he left.

It's a Star Trek vs Star Wars thing and, based upon an IGN poll <> at least, people like Star Trek but love Star Wars. LoSH has usually been Star Trek in terms of it's environment, outlook, etc. It needs Star Wars . . . and less soap opera with the group.

Fewer members. The cast was massive and, as fun as Matter-eater Lad was, you can lose more than a few.

More focus on the 'underdog'. People love the underdog. It's one of the reasons why Batman is more popular today than Superman: Batman is always fighting overwhelming odds. That's something everyone can identify with. And seeing his victory against those odds gives everyone hope.

And don't go too sci-fi. Again a Star Trek vs Star Wars thing. You can also look at the latest incarnation of the Guardians of The Galaxy. I think they were largely canceled after 25 issues because of the ridiculous, sci-fi angle stories they had. They need to stop cracks in the universe? You have a talking Raccoon, a cross between Han Solo/Luke Skywalker and the King of The Giant Tree People, and they fight cracks in the universe. Large, interstellar corps running things and a band of do-gooders fighting them trying to do just that? There is a reason why it is a classic storyline used over and over again. It works. Even in this post-modern, deconstructive world where you are expected to think critical and be creative, people needs some downtime with a basic underdog story.

cash_gorman said...

I don't think not having Superboy hurt the Legion per se. By that point in time, Superboy/Supergirl appeared maybe once or twice every couple of years for a cameo or two. All it took was for writers to simply NOT constantly revisit the past to try to explain things. You just stop referencing them much as the Fantastic Four does not reference Ben and Reed knowing Nick Fury from their time in WWII,

As far as not understanding something from the first issue... at the price tag most comics are and their inability to deliver something that's at least coherent in one issue (a multi-part story should still have a story to tell that's got a payoff within the one issue off the racks), I only give comics one issue a chance to grab me. And, even then it's to decide whether to get monthly or wait and pick up as a trade since I've been burned so many times in the last act.

I also wonder that superhero comics have gotten so far from the real world in the Earth-bound adventures, that it's hard to make the future or alien planet adventures of someone like the Legion and Adam Strange stand out. When Mr. Terrific routinely invents things that make simple Flight Rings and force field belts of Brainiac 5 seem pedestrian, you have a bit of a problem buying Brainiac 5 as some kind of supergenius.

Jim Shelley said...

@JP Cote - I sort of agree with you that going too sci-fi would be a mistake. Again I think we see less and less of that on television and movies than we did in the 50's, 60's and 70's. (Where is the modern version of Star Trek on television now?)

Jim Shelley said...

@Cash_Gorman - your methodology of trying one issue and deciding whether to follow a series in trade or not is something I've heard other people do as well. I think that's becoming a preference for a lot of readers. I think you can do that with a lot of titles, but some more complex comics might not fair too well with just one issue.
I also think you have something with your comment about the lack of wonder in a Futuristic setting now. I think to do that sort of thing justice now, you would end up with a setting that might make superheroes unnecessary (or at least so different as to make them hard to enjoy for the reader expecting the high adventure they are used to.)

cash_gorman said...

When you first started reading, how many series did you start with the first issue. I doubt many of us started with the first appearance of the Legion. That means, we all picked up a comic somewhere that was coherent enough in one issue to make us want to read more.

I think that's the big problem with today's comics, editors and writers. They don't know how to deliver a story in one issue. And, when I'm saying "story" I'm talking about each issue has a story to tell, whether it's part 1, 2 or 3 of plot. Characters were called by name when you first see them in the comic (superhero movies are doing this badly as well, characters named only in the credits), the set-up adequately described, some pay-off even if it ends in cliff-hanger. AND a 3 part story actually had an ending! Not just an anticlimactic ending to lead to the next arc!

Since today's writers cannot tell a comic so that every issue can serve as a jumping on point, everything is so mired in being about continuity and long arcs, they have to advertise when it's ok for new readers. And, the jumping on points are usually dull, nothing-happens or simple plotline set-up issues. Enough to make me jump right back off!

MattComix said...

I think you create dramatic stakes in a bright and optimistic future that has not faced a threat in a long time suddenly has to deal with that. The idea that we finally made it out of the darkness and now something has come that could plunge us back into it or simply destroy all we've built. So the future has to be protected.

The adults are scrambling for solutions and aren't really getting anywhere. But the kids take matters in their own hands by asking themselves "What would Superman do?"

It's not physical reality that makes something relatable. It's emotional reality which at the end of the day should be the only reality that matters in a superhero comic. This is part of why the Bronze Age is appealing. The genre took to heart what Stan Lee did by making them less cookie cutter and cardboard than they maybe had been. But at the same time this wasn't done at the expense of the cartoony and fantastic elements of the genre nor at the expense of the characters ultimately rising to the occasion of being heroes.Overcoming their ticks and flaws to be the noble heroes they are deep inside.

In the modern era for all the posturing about "evolving" the genre we've simply swung to the opposite extreme where compassion as the motivator for a superhero is a greater leap of the imagination for the creators than flight or heat vision.

Jim Shelley said...

@cash_gorman - yeah, I can agree with the idea that a lot of modern writers don't really seem to think about delivering a story in one issue. I think some writers consider the done-in-on framework a bit limiting.

Jim Shelley said...

@MattComix - I like your approach - so would you bring in more of the Stan Lee approach to the Legion - sort of more like early Amazing Spider-man?

MattComix said...

@JimShelley In a sense. Peter was a teen striving to live up to the lesson he learned the hard way about power and responsibility.

The Legionaries are teens striving to live up to the example set by the heroes of old. I could see them being misunderstood by some of the adults of the future.

That might be a good way to write in RJ Brande. He thinks the kids are alright and sticks up for them.

Anonymous said...

"A comic like American Flagg (or from heretell, the current incarnation of Prophet) requires more mental energy than most modern readers want to expend. (And honestly, can you blame them? With the siren song of television shows, movies and video games ever calling them, why should they put forward the effort to read a title like the Legion?)"

Yes, I do blame anyone who is too lazy to use their brain.
If someone finds it too difficult to grasp a comic book, then they must have a very low IQ.


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