2010
07.18

I don’t know what’s come over me, but I’ve been having this urge to read a Legion of Super Heroes comic. Thing is, I can’t stand the Legion (or is that LoS? LoSH?) I’ve always found them to be boring and corny. The part of my brain that allows me to unabashedly enjoy any other [arguably boring and corny] superhero comic fails me when I have a Legion comic in front of me (Well, I do like Ty Templeton’s work on those characters, so I do like some Legion*).

I asked two reliable sources (friends who know their shit) and they instantly said, “FIVE YEARS LATER”. I have to admit, gentlemen, that Legion is a train wreck of words and images.


Well, THIS sequence is nice and quiet and pretty. By “train wreck” I mean… well, keep reading.

I picked up the first seven issues of this late 80s/early 90s re-launch of the LoSH, simply known as LEGION: the Five Years Later era. Plotted and penciled by Keith Giffen and scripted by Tom and Mary Bierbaum with story assist by Al Gordon. The basic premise is that the Legion team had disbanded and are slowly regrouping in order to… be a team again, I think because… they were wronged somehow by… the govern… ment? There’s this kooky cosmic psycho who has different voices, dream sequences and “article” pages aplenty, a few people die, a few get into a fight, a new spunky girl is the resident badass. I don’t know much more than that. At this point, I don’t really care. I thought that by the seventh issue, I’d be invested in something. That didn’t happen. This is the best jumping on point for the Legion mythos?

Growing stubble and a ponytail screams angst, I totally get that. I can read all that “grim and gritty” stuff without bitching about how it was an industry trend. But this revision felt a little forced, a little too pat.

I appreciate the writing style in that it takes its cue from Howard Chaykin’s “dropping you in the middle of a conversation, keep up & learn as you go along” writing. The difference is that this story is really seeped in back story and Legion trivia. One’s enjoyment is reliant on a deep knowledge of Legion history, something I don’t have. It’s for insiders only and re-reading pages in order to clarify plot points took me out of the story. Is this what it’s like to be a non-comics reader? Holy shit, no wonder people give up easily. A story like Alex Ross and Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come is riddled with in-jokes and club house winks and nudges, but I still got a solid story from it. It was clear, it moved along, it did its job… but was it because I knew who Hal Jordan and Billy Batson were?

Speaking of Mark Waid, I had forgotten that he was actually the editor for the first few issues of “Five Years Later” and I’m curious as to how involved he was in the plotting of this series. I know that’s he’s a walking comic book encyclopedia (runners up include Kurt Busiek and the late Mark Gruenwald), but did that inform the way the story was told? It really did read like a comic book “members only” sign and I’m left to wonder if that was on purpose or if it was an experiment gone awry.

The art certainly didn’t help. I like Giffen’s art fine, especially when he does stuff like this:

I dig Ambush Bug. I even like Video Jack and Trencher. His fill in issue of New Universe’s Justice was pretty cool. As was JLI #13. My point is that no matter how faux-artsy Giffen is at times, that shit gets in the way of clarity. It’s not challenging me, though, it’s stumbling me. It’s not that I’m a novice reader, it’s that Giffen’s art is sometimes too obscure for its own sake. There’s no reveal to his storytelling, there’s just loaded mystery. Slapping a nine panel grid over a page doesn’t make it Watchmen, it just jumbles the story up. Randomly shrouding faces in black doesn’t make them look haunting, it makes them impossible to tell apart.

Did I miss out on a potentially good story due to its incomprehensible presentation? Part of this unsolicited breakdown of Five Years Later came from two things: wanting to explore what bothered me about the comic in order to learn from it… AND because I still want to read a good ol’ superhero comic that I haven’t read before, and I still think Legion may be a good source for that. Bring on the Steve Lightle art, man. I wanna see some old school Greg LaRocque. Didn’t Adam Hughes draw an issue or two?

Silver Age Curt Swan is great, but those 60s Legion stories are unreadable unless you have a nostalgic noose around your neck. As much as I like Dave Cockrum’s work, his Legion revision in the 70s doesn’t grab me. Mike Grell drew some issues, too, but that’s not really a selling point for me. I once described Grell as though he’s molesting me with his art. Y’know, with his feathery, color pencil montages of long haired heroes and horses. He is the mutton chops of comics. He is the dank basement in the Midwest. The way Grell draws lips is the equivalent of a gang of construction workers playing Duck Duck Goose with a teenage runaway. I feel wrong looking at it.

A Grell cover sans color pencil feathering. Stippling can’t be far behind.

I flipped through some of the early Giffen/Levitz stuff (the Great Darkness Saga seemed promising), but it didn’t seem like a good jumping on point. Neither did the Baxter paper re-launch from the 80s. I’m assuming that I’m missing a recent storyline that’s great. You know what I mean, right? Daredevil and Batman have whatever Frank Miller has written. The X-men have the Dark Phoenix Saga. Swamp Thing has the Alan Moore run. Jim Aparo’s Aquaman. Ditko’s Spider-Man. What story does the Legion of Super Heroes have that can convert any hater with its sheer power of awesome? Have I just missed a window of opportunity to really embrace such a series?

I like this Giffen cover a lot. I should just take the plunge and read the damn thing.

What am I doing worrying about a comic I know I don’t like? I should probably read Moomin instead, or finally give Scott Pilgrim a try. I can dig into Jim Woodring’s Weathercraft or I can revisit Simonson’s ORION or back issues of ANGEL LOVE or ZERO ZERO.

For some reason, I still want LoSH comics.

* Ty drew bunch of profiles for the “Who’s Who in the Legion of Super Heroes” and wrote a story for the 7th issue of that series (it was drawn by Curt Swan). He also wrote and drew the Legion of Substitute Heroes in Secret Origins #37, the Bouncing Boy origin in SO #49, and inked another LoSH yarn for Curt Swan in SO #46. I say Ty Templeton should write and draw THE end-all, be-all Legion story. Who is with me on this? What petition should I sign? Let’s make this happen!

UPDATE! (10/21/12, left as comment)

Wow, it’s been a while since I wrote that post. I’ve since changed my mind a bit. I actually like these comics a lot now.

I took the suggestions from the above commenters and ran with them. In fact, I hunted down the majority of the uninterrupted Levitz Legion material (starting at #284) up to the Baxter run and minis. In a nutshell, I did not enjoy it. It was overwritten, low grade soap material, emotional porn written by someone incapable of writing convincing emotion. It actually made Chris Claremont look exceptional, which put into perspective why the X-men were so embraced (you may argue that Claremont’s work is overwritten as well, but at least his highly emotive scripts rang true). Giffen tried his best amalgam of Gulacy/Starlin/Perez, but it never quite worked. The Great Darkness Saga had potential – there was a nice build up to Darkseid’s appearance – but then it all fell flat. I think it’s mostly due to the characters reading like textbook “personality types”. There was never a moment of genuine humanity, or at least good dialogue. Tears and hissy fits were in abundance, but to no emotional climax or pay off.

A few highlights, though: Steve Lightle’s art, the death of Karate Kid issues were solid (but again, no one seemed to care or have a reaction to this tragic event), “The Universo Project” had great tension, and Giffen’s return during the last year had him riffing on Kevin Maguire to good effect. Levitz, unfortunately, still couldn’t make me care about these characters even after all this time.

However, I did learn a great deal about who was who, people’s names, roles, and histories… so 5YL made perfect sense to me upon re-reading it. This was Giffen at his purest, too.

So it wasn’t really the content that I had issue with, it was the presentation of content. But after absorbing Levitz’s content and presentation, the 5YL material seemed like fresh air. I stand behind the idea that 5YL is borderline incomprehensible and aggressively non-reader friendly, but that doesn’t make it bad. It just made the clubhouse a little less appealing.

You probably already know this, but Tom Bierbaum has a LiveJournal blog where he goes over every issue he wrote (with Mary) in great detail… lots of editorial and creative backstory. He was also interviewed by the Legion of Substitute Podcasters (episode #140), where they, too, go over their reactions then and now regarding 5YL.

18 comments so far

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  1. I’m with you on this. I have NEVER understood the appeal of the Legion. I was convinced that if I found, bought, and read the trade paperback of The Great Darkness Saga, I’d finally get it and be hooked.

    Nope.

    And I also love Giffen. Especially a fondness for his Ragman mini. But I find all of this Legion stuff impenetrable.

  2. The 5YL series is about the worst possible place for a new reader to jump on. It’s great stuff if you already love the Legion, but if you’re skeptical about it and have no knowledge, it won’t work at all.

    Try tracking down a copy of LSH Annual #1, the one from about 1980 or 1981. It was designed to be a jumping-on point for the Levitz-Giffen stuff, and it’s one of my favourite stories. You shouldn’t have to shell out too much for it. It also leads in to the Great Darkness Saga, which is the most famous Legion story, and more or less deserves that status.

  3. Of the very short list of comics I could get when I was a kid, for some reason one of them was the Legion. This would be early 80s, so Paul Levitz and I think Steve Lightle. It was the one I enjoyed most at the time, because it was engaging old school sci-fi ( like most of the novels I was reading at the time ) and had fun character interaction, sexy babes and time travel. There was also obviously a great deal of geeky insider knowledge to be had, which was something the 14 year old me enjoyed immensely. Whether it holds up now….I seriously doubt.
    Geoff Johns did a great Superman/Legion book a while back which I liked a lot though. I can lend it to ya.

  4. Jonathan, Giffen plotted those Ragmans, right? I actually like his Heckler series, too.

    Matthew, I’ll give the Annual #1 a shot. Judging by your blog, I have not doubt that you… ah, know what you’re talking about!

    Simon, I may look over those Lightle issues; I like his art a bunch. As for the Johns Legion, sure, I’ll give that a shot, too. I like Gary Frank enough.

  5. I read the Legion pretty loyally all through the 1980s and felt the Five Years Later storyline was the “culmination” of that period. As someone fairly well steeped in Legion lore at that point, I was able to follow it pretty well. (It WOULD be confusing to newbies, however, especially because they had retconned Superboy out of existence, substituting Mon-El in his place.) And I LOVED the Giffen art of that period, when he was totally ripping off Jose Munoz.

    In fact, I thought Tom & Mary Bierbaum were so genius, I couldn’t figure out why they hadn’t done more brilliant comics work after they got booted from the LSH. I ended up writing their Wikipedia page and discovered some more details about the 5YL storyline. Seems the Bierbaums were in the same LSH fan-club as Giffen (and Mark Waid), and had attracted his notice. When it came to do the 5YL story, Giffen basically brought them on board to script and dialogue his plot and story ideas.

    But don’t sweat it if you don’t like the Legion. They definitely attract only the most rabid of DC fangirls…

    BTW, your Mike Grell assessment is hilarious. Pure comic gold.

  6. You wrote that entry, Nosh? I recently read that and discovered that they were married fans first. The Bierbaums came up with only 15% of those stories, they admitted. I DO like the style of writing, but again, it was like reading another language. Apparently, Giffen was gonna take the retcon TOO far.

    Yeah, it’s weird. I feel as if though I can’t let this beat me. If I can get through Byrne’s Alpha Flight, Wolfman’s Titans, and Claremont’s X-men, I can do Legion. Can Omega Men be far behind??

  7. I remember the LOSH relaunch happening in 89. I worked in my LCS at the time as a young teen and I can clearly recall people bitching and moaning about the 5YL reboot. Not knowing anything at all about LOSH I dived in and simply couldn’t get into it at all. I gave up around #12 and never went back. A few years ago, I picked up #1 – 40 and started reading it once more. I moved house part way through reading it and so STILL haven’t finished it. It remains, for me, 20 years on, a really tough read, but that I feel I must persevere with. No comic, in my 30+ years of collecting, has been such hard work for me.

  8. You can’t say you didn’t try, Karlos! I, too, like the idea of “attacking” a title by buying a large run and forcing yourself to read it.

  9. I can appreciate your frustration. In much the same way that the latest Christian Bale Bat-Iron-Man left me wanting with the whole armor and gimmick angle perhaps you were not Legion 5 Years Later’s target audience. The Great Darkness Saga or the Magic Wars might be more what you were looking. Though I found them to be lacking in depth where the 5 Year Later saga had problems a world in the middle of Dessert Storm could relate to.
    What makes the Legion title compelling for me is it was demanded by fans. It was put on the shelf through fan support and keeps getting put back on the shelves through fan pressure. It is the only comic out that there that can truly boast, “because you demanded it.” I get it now purely in support of that unique history.
    If you are still looking for that single issue to see if the Legion can hold your interest I suggest Legion of Superheroes, THE END! A very compelling read.

  10. Wow, it’s been a while since I wrote that post. I’ve since changed my mind a bit. I actually like these comics a lot now.

    I took the suggestions from the above commenters and ran with them. In fact, I hunted down the majority of the uninterrupted Levitz Legion material (starting at #284) up to the Baxter run and minis. In a nutshell, I did not enjoy it. It was overwritten, low grade soap material, emotional porn written by someone incapable of writing convincing emotion. It actually made Chris Claremont look exceptional, which put into perspective why the X-men were so embraced (you may argue that Claremont’s work is overwritten as well, but at least his highly emotive scripts rang true). Giffen tried his best amalgam of Gulacy/Starlin/Perez, but it never quite worked. The Great Darkness Saga had potential – there was a nice build up to Darkseid’s appearance – but then it all fell flat. I think it’s mostly due to the characters reading like textbook “personality types”. There was never a moment of genuine humanity, or at least good dialogue. Tears and hissy fits were in abundance, but to no emotional climax or pay off.

    A few highlights, though: Steve Lightle’s art, the death of Karate Kid issues were solid (but again, no one seemed to care or have a reaction to this tragic event), “The Universo Project” had great tension, and Giffen’s return during the last year had him riffing on Kevin Maguire to good effect. Levitz, unfortunately, still couldn’t make me care about these characters even after all this time.

    However, I did learn a great deal about who was who, people’s names, roles, and histories… so 5YL made perfect sense to me upon re-reading it. This was Giffen at his purest, too.

    So it wasn’t really the content that I had issue with, it was the presentation of content. But after absorbing Levitz’s content and presentation, the 5YL material seemed like fresh air. I stand behind the idea that 5YL is borderline incomprehensible and aggressively non-reader friendly, but that doesn’t make it bad. It just made the clubhouse a little less appealing.

    You probably already know this, but Tom Bierbaum has a LiveJournal blog where he goes over every issue he wrote (with Mary) in great detail… lots of editorial and creative backstory. He was also interviewed by the Legion of Substitute Podcasters (episode #140), where they, too, go over their reactions then and now regarding 5YL.

    I’ve yet to get to the Waid/Kitson stuff, but I look forward to it.

  11. Just another suggestion to look around for if you can find them…
    The Abnett/Lanning run “Legion Lost” etc al…is quite good, and probably one of only three Legion runs that I enjoy (Giffen/Bierbaums’ first 38 issues and Waid/Kitson being the others), Geoff Johns’ Superman the Legion of Superheroes is also my favorite Superman story of the past 10 years, it’s a shame that foundation has been bungled so far in the New 52 relaunch.

  12. Man, starting with 5YL is crayyyzzzyyyyyyyyyyyy. I can’t believe you were steered that way. But it does go with my point (made, as you know, on the SBG) that Legion is a fandom all its own, and attracts fans the same way Tolkien’s wider work might. 5YL is the epitome of this phenomenon, completely opaque to non-fans, but incredibly exciting for hardcore fans.

    Sequart came out with an interesting book that analyzed the Legion and its appeal in literary terms (including a great chapter on 5YL) called Teenagers from the Future. If you ever want to find out more without actually reading all those comics, that’s the place to go.

  13. Glad you (eventually) dug it, Michel!

    Hopefully, one day, I’ll finish reading that run, too!

    And as the gentleman above me correctly says, the Teenagers From the Future book is an essential companion piece, with Julian Darius’ contribution on Giffen’s 5YL a real stand-out.

  14. Huh. I started with “Five Years Later,” having never read any Legion of Super Heroes, and I LOVED it. I had absolutely NO background on the Legion at all when I started (*), and it was just brilliant. I loved the idea of abandoning a storyline and imagining the characters several years later, and that everyone reading it had to learn anew what was happening, and what came before…particularly if it was done naturally, without a lot of forced exposition. More comics should do this. On the strength of the 5YL storyline, I’ve tried again and again to read other Legion storylines, and they’ve all left me cold. Apparently I’m in the minority in this, though, as witnessed by the eventual abandoning of the title in favor of the Legionnaires spin-off, which essentially returned the series to the 60s teen pap.

    * – All I knew was that there had been a bunch of teenage heroes originally created to be future pals for a time-traveling Superboy, which was and is a pretty lame excuse for a comic.

  15. I came at 5YL as a NON-fan. In the mid-80’s, I lived in a group home and the local “cool priest” (he really WAS cool!), seeing that I was a comic geek, gave me his entire collection of 60’s era comics (interestingly, very few Marvels). He was BIG on the Legion so there was a lot of those Adventure issues and, man, I thought those – and most DC comics, really – were cornily unreadable.

    As a young adult when 5YL started, into undergrounds, weird music… drugs… the heavily experimental art and mid-level grimness (almost faux-grim, though, it’s still Giffen and the Bierbaums) really struck a chord and threw those early issues into a weird new light.

    Yeah, it went off the rails – what book doesn’t? – but that first 40 issues or so are wild. But, yeah, I think it’s enhanced by some knowledge.

    Plus, ya gotta love the proto-Kindle / iPads.

    As aside: as I recall, most Legion fans hated 5YL at the time of it’s publishing because the Legion, as been stated, is very fan driven and, therefore, nostalgia based. So you had a bunch of middle-aged, Boomer fans pissed that this version upended everything they liked about Legion (though, honestly, it had been crawling there for a while – my guess: it was the five year gap that freaked the geeks).

    Glad you came around to 5YL, seems it’s finally being given a fair shake by the larger fandom.

  16. Thanks for the insight, Mars. Pretty funny considering that the Bierbaums came from that very same specific Legion fandom. I thought they were perhaps writing, maybe not even consciously, to that audience (not to dismiss their contributions and efforts as fanfic). When it comes to comics, nostalgic and conservative run in the same circles.

  17. You’re not supposed to abbreviate uncapitalized words. It’s LSH. Besides, LSH sounds less like a clubhouse full of alcoholics than LoSH.

    The appeal of the book begins with the fact that it was made at a time when cell phones and home computers were just dreams of a bright future. It looked all the more attractive once Cockrum was done revamping the look of it. So much of what was science fiction back then is now science fact that SF has really done a lot of dying in the modern world.

    So it’s not surprising when people say they don’t see the appeal.

    No one looks forward to a technological utopia anymore. Although there is some innovative thinking in film and television these days, it’s mostly rehashing old conceptions of what SF is supposed to be. And that’s not true science fiction. True SF give us something new based on real science.

    Which is why the Legion needs to keep evolving if it wants to have the same appeal it once did.

    It’s also why DC is having so much trouble pleasing the Legion fan base. Fans hate innovation. Once they decide they like something as it is, they react badly when it all changes. Just look at the reaction to 5YL. The team did a great job making the book fresh, more like SF should be. And more visceral and in-the-moment, too.

    But because it wasn’t what was expected and what fans were used to, many rejected it at first sight. It’s actually a case of getting what you really want and not knowing it.

    Fans must always be open to new experiences. But instead, many viewed it as a kind of betrayal. And that wasn’t at all what was happening.

  18. First of all, hello, Michel. A friend of mine told me about you and Copra and Zegas just this past Sunday night. Quick web search, and here I am!

    I consider myself a moderate Legion fan. I cannot abide anything Keith Giffen has ever drawn, plotted, or whatever, and none of his different Legion eras are any exception. So I don’t like 5YL at all, and that’s all I have to say about Giffen and his work on the LSH.

    In addition, I’ve found over the years that even most of the Levitz-without-Giffen issues don’t hold up for me when I’ve re-read them, either. I like Steve Lightle as both an artist and a person, but, for whatever reason, issues #7-12 of that volume of LSH (the ones immediately after Karate Kid’s death) are a slog to get through, and probably the main reason why that volume has not been collected in trades beyond #12. I do like the last three issues pencilled entirely by Lightle, #13 (Timber Wolf and the New Karate Kid), #14 (tryouts for new members), and #16 (Brainiac 5 dealing with Supergirl’s death in the Crisis event.) As for Greg LaRocque’s LSH art, I’m a fan of his work in general and I think there are many excellent moments, but overall it’s not a patch on his stellar 60-plus issue run on The Flash. But big thumbs-up to you for sharing my positive opinion of the LaRocque-drawn Universo Project story-arc, which I consider the closest Levitz came to his Legion masterpiece!

    Finally, I want to echo Kyle’s recommendation of the Abnett/Lanning Legion…but only up to a point. Their first arc, “Legion of the Damned,” drawn by Olivier Coipel, and it’s coda, “Widening Rifts,” are both must-reads in my opinion, and their 12-issue “Legion Lost” miniseries, also drawn by Coipel with Pascal Alixe spelling him here and there, is my absolute favorite Legion multi-part story of all time! But I feel the wheels started to come off with the sprawling multiple-artists follow-up to LL, “Legion Worlds,” and the subsequent monthly series, despite nice art by Coipel (most of the issues through #14) and Chris Batista (most of the issues from #19 to #33) and Steve Lightle (#24), reading the entire Abnett/Lanning Legion run is like watching a TV series with a great first season that goes into a fairly steady decline after that. But those first three arcs…sheer perfection!