Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Out of the Clubhouse, Into the Fire

Long time no see, Second Printers. Big Mike is back from his two week vacation in Cambodia. I’ll send out the link to my pictures as soon as I have them uploaded. I returned from my voyage and had a pretty large stack of comics waiting for me. Now, I’ve talked about how much of what we’ve seen this summer is somewhat underwhelming, but there’s one franchise that seems to be going strong: The Legion of Super-Heroes.

Now, I love the Legion. I love the Silver Age Legion. I even love the 90’s Archie Legion. But more than that, I really love the current incarnations of the Legion as they’re playing out in DC comics right now. And I don’t just love it because it’s good storytelling. I love it because it’s relevant.

The Legion began as club house fan fiction. In its original incarnation, this was fundamentally a book about what would happen if the kids reading super-hero comics got to operate and manage a super-team. They had arbitrary rules. They played cruel pranks on each other. They even had a separate group of substitutes for those who were… well… lame. Combined with a 50s and 60s science fiction sensibility, Legion was the quintessential example of super-hero comics ‘giving the people what they want’.

But over time, the Legion became more than that. I came of age on the Archie Legion, which was also timely but in a very different sense. The narrative of the 90s Legion unfolded with a post-Cold War internationalist sensibility. The concepts of the United Planets and the multicultural essence of the Legion had been fleshed out in the later years of the original incarnation, but in this 1990s reboot, they were able to discard fully the old clubhouse mentality and truly embrace the Legion as the story of many nations coming together to resolve problems collectively.

But this couldn’t last. After Legion Lost and Legion Worlds, the team came back together in the Legion, but at the time this series debuted, the world had changed. The opening plot arc of the new Legion series had R’as Al Ghul taking control of the United Planets and stirring up tribalism and discord, setting a more cynical, pessimistic tone for the 38 issue run that would prove to be the death rattle for the Legion that I had known as a kid.

Today’s Legion is something differently entirely. The newest Legion of Super-Heroes reboot is about kids desperate to hold together a system that wants to fly apart. Their relationship with established authority is often adversarial, and while the Legion still clings to the dream of pluralism, it’s clear that the once noble United Planets is fractured and cynical.

In addition, the return of the Silver Age Legion in the Lightning Saga, Action Comics, and Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds shows us a Legion struggling against the death of their dream. Nativism, tribalism, and xenophobia are rampant, and the Legion itself is left wondering what they’ve been fighting for all these years. In an era of political division, unilateral military action, and the decline of multilateral institutions as legitimate forces for change, the current evolution of the Legion of Super-Heroes is nothing short of narrative brilliance. It’s a decades-old concept reinvented to fit the current geo-political climate.

I’ll try not to get too political here, but it’s no coincidence that we would get these stories in a time when certain political candidates would brush aside discussion of real economic, environmental, and security threats to wage an intellectually dishonest culture war against so-called ‘elites’. That’s why I can’t put down any of the Legion comics right now, and if you haven’t been reading them, I urge you to add them to your pull list. I promise you it’s more rewarding than Trinity or JL of A. The best science fiction is set in the future but really about right now, and these Legion stories definitely fit the bill.


ChrisM said...

wow. I dont' think I've ever read such a wonderful expository about the LSH! I've never thought of it as a societal mirror..interesting.

Devon Sanders said...

This is, easily, one of the smartest pieces on comics I've ever read.

Kudos, Mike!

cayomagnetking said...

I loved your essay also....I thought there were big things coming for the Legion in their 51st year....but have you heard that the series will be canceled after issue 50? The 31st Century series will also end with issue #20...

ASK said...

I think this is a good post, and is right on a number of issues. I think you could push it a bit further and state that the end of the Archie era was more of a response to the Bush administration, 9/11, and the Iraq War. Archie Legion was really about the Clinton-era and NATO. I think the whole white triangle storyline was really a response to the conflict in the Balkans.

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