Sunday, June 01, 2014

And If You Tie the Bottom of the Bootstrap to the Top, You Don't Even Have to Pull

It's time we got back to my personal favourite topic: Legion reboots. Try not to disturb the neighbours with your cheers.

As always, I'm against reboots, but I'm often in favour of the comic books that are produced by reboots. Certainly such has been the case with Legion comics over the years. But there's another thing besides good comics that came out of the Legion reboots of 1994 and 2004 and, if you like, 1990. And that other thing is that it made the Legion inevitable.

Do you see what I mean? Rebooting the Legion isn't like rebooting, oh, Wonder Woman, for instance. Rebooting Wonder Woman means you're changing what happened before and what's happening now. Rebooting the Legion means you're changing what's going to happen. Before your reboot, when the future finally got here it would be like this and there would be a Legion of Super-Heroes. But after the reboot, the future would actually be like that and... there would be a Legion of Super-Heroes. One that was different in details from the previous one, sure, but clearly the same kind of thing. In other words, it doesn't matter what you do, in a thousand years the Legion is still going to show up and save us all.

And that's great! I need you to understand how great that is. First, it implies that the things the Legion stands for simply cannot be defeated. We'd all like to believe that, right? That's our optimistic future; without that, we have nothing. Second, it sets up an excellent adversarial relationship with the Time Trapper. The Time Trapper must be sitting there on his rock going, "Christ, what do I have to do to get rid of these kids? I've tried everything and they keep coming back!" It makes him frantic and desperate and gives him the motivation that otherwise he really wouldn't have.

That situation really doesn't apply any more. The idea that the future could hold a number of different possible Legions that were all nevertheless valid has been largely rejected by DC Comics and its readers in favour of the current status, which is that there's only one real Legion and it needs to be preserved against change.

This weekend I reread a comic book that occupies a strange place in this discussion: Superboy's Legion, the two-issue Elseworlds story by Mark Farmer and Alan Davis from 2001.

The premise of Superboy's Legion is that Kal-El's rocket didn't make it to Earth in the 20th century, but floated around in space for a thousand years before R.J. Brande found it. He hatched Kal-El out of it and adopted him, and he grew up to be a good-hearted but spoiled young superhuman who eventually founded a team of young superheroes, the Legion of Super-Heroes. Kal-El, Superboy, does some growing up and leads the team to costly victory against the Fatal Five and the forces of 20th-century villain Lex Luthor. The story is told well and excitingly, and, most noticeably of all, it's gorgeous to look at, because a) Alan Davis is great, and b) Davis's style is perfect for portraying the Legion's youthful exuberance. And the format has the glossy paper with the bright colours and all.*

As an Elseworlds story, and a superhero story, it's perfectly good, but if we think about the implications of the premise for a couple of minutes (something I'm sure Farmer and Davis do not particularly recommend to us) it starts to look a little strange.

We learn in Superboy's Legion that there was, despite the lack of Superman, a great superheroic age of the 20th century, and that it ended badly. Also, the 30th century is a pretty nice place, a future utopia if you will, albeit one with a dark secret or two.

We're familiar with the original-Legion story in which the Legion is founded on the inspiration of Superman. This situation is obviously not exactly like that, but it's comparable. But there's one scene in the second part where Superboy is losing his heart for the fight and Star Boy has to give him a pep talk. And there are references to the Legion being the heirs of the ideals of the great superheroes of the 20th century. Also, humanity managed to make it to the 30th century intact and prosperous without needing Superman to save the world all those times; the only one of his great enemies taken into account is Luthor.

It seems to be an attempt to have the results of Superman's inspiration, all the superheroes present and future, without having had Superman in the first place. Effect without cause. I'm not criticizing Farmer and Davis for this, not at all; I wouldn't expect them to write a story to stand up to the kind of scrutiny I'm giving it. They're playing with what-if and I'm just following threads.

In one sense Superboy's Legion is an example of the reboot spirit: the Legion will come into existence even if there were no historical Superman to inspire them. In another, it reflects the nostalgist urge: Superboy's Legion resembles the Adventure-era Legion in many many ways. The reboot Legion was going strong at the time but the only acknowledgements of its existence are Projectra's race, Chameleon Boy's characterization, and a few figures on the last page.

So that's Superboy's Legion: a good story, and I recommend it, but out of step with the times as Legion stories go. Not because it's too much the same to be different, but because it's too different to be the same.


* Note: I've got the original printing of this, with the square binding. If you want that, expect to pay a lot of money for it. It's since been reprinted in a single volume, which I assume still looks good enough to do the story justice.

Labels: ,