When Words Collide

Wed, October 15th, 2008 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: October 15th, 2008 at 3:50pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

LYGA'S LEGION

"Teenagers From The Future"

I've been thinking a lot about "The Legion of Super-Heroes" lately, partly because of the recently-released book of essays I put together, but also because Geoff Johns is weaving all of the divergent strands of Legion history into a single tale in his "Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds" series (the second issue of which should have hit stands today).

One of the biggest Legion fans I know is author Barry Lyga, of "The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl" fame. His new novel, "Hero Type," landed in bookstores a few weeks ago, and I wanted to talk to him about how the Legion shaped his notion of storytelling and what we both thought about the past, present, and future of the 31st century's greatest super-team:

Timothy Callahan: You write in "Teenagers from the Future" about how you noticed that all the Legion comics you liked were written by the same guy -- Paul Levitz -- but how did the Legion REALLY sink its hooks into you? At what point did you shift from a fan of the Legion to a "Legion Fan?"

Barry Lyga: I realize that I'll probably be chased with torches and pitchforks and made to give up my 30th-century honorary Legion coin, but... Believe it or not, the end of the Gerry Conway issues and the Roy Thomas issues! I know, I know. They are almost universally reviled and denigrated, and, in retrospect, that's probably OK. But it was right around then that I started picking up consecutive issues at the local 7-11. So I was actually following the stories, not just randomly reading whatever I could get my hands on. That was when I started to become annoyed when I would miss an occasional issue on the spinner rack, so I begged and pestered until my dad relented and ordered a subscription for me.

This all sort of dovetailed into the Levitz run, and honestly, I did notice a difference in quality when he came on board. I didn't look into the credit box until “The Great Darkness Saga” started, but I could tell that the stories were getting better right away. And that's when the obsession really began -- the Reflecto story sort of set things up and then there was this jump in quality that made me go from, "I want to read this every month" to "I MUST read this every month."

Two other things that helped at the time: "The Secrets of the Legion of Super-Heroes" mini-series and the DC digest reprints. They made it easy to catch up with the group's history and, therefore, that much easier to be obsessive about it!

So, for me, it was sort of a perfect storm of several different events happening at once. What about you? Was it a single issue that made you go "Wow!" or more of a slow descent into the madness we call Legion fandom?

"A Very 21st Century Hero" From Lyga
TC: I mention this in my introduction to "Teenagers from the Future," but my first taste of the Legion was from "DC Comics Presents" #43, with that iconic image of Mongul holding Superman in a transparent cube as the Legion flies in to the rescue. I mean, you can't go wrong with Brian Bolland drawing the Legion, and that's what we got with that cover! (And Levitz and Curt Swan on the inside! Good stuff!)

But in those days (and I was around 9 or 10 at the time), the only place I ever saw a comic book was in my small town general store.

We didn't have glamorous 7-11's like you did, with a rack full of comics and a freezer full of microwave burritos. All we had was the Lanesborough General Store, with dusty cans of olives and a pretty extensive hardware section.

The general store carried a seemingly random selection of comics, so I never got any consecutive issues of anything until near the end of "Crisis on Infinite Earths" when I found out that we had a comic shop less than six miles away from our house. The discovery of the comic shop came at the perfect time -- right as stuff like "Crisis" and "Watchmen" and "Dark Knight Returns" was hitting, and just as I had moved from sword-and-sorcery role-playing games into super-hero centric games like TSR's "Marvel SuperHeroes" and Mayfair's "DC Heroes."

To this day, I have never actually played either of those RPGs, but I own almost all the books, and they gave me a crash course in Marvel and DC continuity.

Even though I had a fondness for the Legion ever since that "DC Comics Presents" issue, I never really bought it faithfully until the Mayfair's two-volume "Legion Sourcebook" came out. And those two books led me to the Paul Levitz/Greg LaRocque "Legion of Super-Heroes" around the time of -- or just before -- the "Universo Project" issues.

I loved the Levitz/LaRocque comics so much, that I bought as many back issues as I could, getting a near complete set of the Baxter issues pretty quickly and then picking up the earlier volume piecemeal.

Although I will confess that I never read either "Earthwar" or "The Great Darkness Saga" until two years ago, because my Legion love waned after Giffen blew up the Earth with Tom and Mary Bierbaum, and I never bothered to finish filling in the gaps in my Legion collection after that. I completely ignored the post-"Zero Hour" reboot, for example, but Waid and Kitson's Legion seemed interesting, and it rekindled my passion for the Legion just as I started picking up some of the archive editions of the first Legion stories. I devoured all twelve Legion archives within a couple of months, and then I knew I had to collect and read every Legion issue. I had to fill in ALL the gaps.

So in 2006, I did just that and completely immersed myself in the chronology of the future, reading every Legion issue ever printed (thanks to eBay and a couple of guys selling huge Legion lots). I've definitely come late to Legion fandom, but better late than never, right?

Have you kept up with all the reboots and revamps in the post-Levitz years?

Shooter's Legion
BL: Sounds like we're about the same age, but discovered the Legion at different times. And, yeah, I had a 7-11 within walking (or biking) distance, but dude! You had hardware?! Ah, the mischief I could have gotten into with a hardware section at my disposal...

I was always thrilled to see the Legion pop up in another DC book. It somehow made it all more real to me, when they would show up in "DC Comics Presents" or "Brave and Bold" or "World's Finest." Even just a flashback panel in an issue of "Superman" made my little Legion heart go pitter-pat. I really, really needed a life at that age. Desperately.

I remember those old-school super-hero RPGs fondly. I had a whole slew of manuals and guides for the DC game, but I only ever played it once. The rest of the time, my brother and I used to have slugfests, randomly assigning characters and then just rolling dice until someone croaked. Swear to God, we actually ended up with Trigon vs. Robin once. Didn't last long, as you might expect. Swamp Thing vs. the Sun-Eater was much more interesting than you might imagine...

You came into the Legion at a good time -- those Levitz/LaRocque issues were sort of underrated, I think, coming as they did after Giffen's amazing run and the beautiful artwork of Steve Lightle. Interestingly, that's around the time I started getting letters published in the lettercols pretty regularly. (See above about my desperate need for a life...)

I, too, made a solemn oath to track down every last appearance of the Legion. Right after college, I even nabbed the Holy Grail -- a fairly decent copy of "Adventure Comics" #247. Did you know that when they reprint that issue, they recolor key panels and characters to jibe with later continuity?

I've kept up with the team faithfully. To be brutally honest, after Paul left there were many times when I was ready to drop it. But then I started working at Diamond and I ended up getting my comics for free, for the most part, so it was easy to keep reading. I loved the early Waid/Kitson issues, but then it seemed like it just sort of ran out of steam. I'm really enjoying the Shooter run, though. And Geoff Johns's take on the team feels like coming home. Yes, the home has been burgled and vandalized, but it's still home, right?

Since you pretty much read a big chunk of the history backwards, what was the biggest surprise to you? What was the story or run that caught you off-guard or made you re-think the Legion?

TC: Well, I wouldn't say I read it backwards, because I did read everything in the order of publication, but I certainly knew where the big arcs were headed.

The biggest surprise to me was how much I loved the Siegel/Hamilton/Forte era. I had heard great things about Shooter's Legion, and since I had a stack of archives sitting next to me, I knew that Shooter's run was on the horizon as I read about the glorious Legion of Super-Pets and Bizarro Computo, but I just absolutely reveled in the bizarre fun of those Silver Age stories. I regretted the arrival of Shooter.

Although, once I got past the first couple of Shooter issues (which were great in their own way -- and inconceivable -- can you imagine being Curt Swan and having to draw over the layouts of some 14-year-old kid?) I loved what Shooter did, especially with the Fatal Five and Ferro Lad. I could clearly see the Marvel influence, and I think that that year or two is the best work Shooter and Swan had ever done. In my mind, they never topped themselves after that.

"Legion of Three Worlds"

The post-Shooter years and the half-hearted return of Shooter in the early 1970s were pretty weak, so when Roy Thomas popped into the 30th century, he was a revelation. His Reflecto story was classic super-hero goodness, and in his few issues, he reinvigorated the sluggish Legion. I don't think his work is held in particularly high regard by Legion fans (other than the two of us, apparently), but I thought his stuff was excellent.

I was also stunned by how innovative James Sherman was. In another bit of "backwards" reading, I had read the TwoMorrow's "Legion Companion" well before I'd ever read a James Sherman-illustrated comic, and to see his figure work and design sense in actual Legion stories was quite exciting. I know he didn't stay too long in the industry, but as I read his issues, I kept thinking, "why is this guy not more critically acclaimed?"

And, of course, I loved pretty much everything Levitz did from “Earthwar” to “The Great Darkness Saga” and beyond.

I also really liked Abnett and Lanning's "Legion Lost." It was the first time that the reboot Legion felt like it started to matter again. And then they were able to keep that momentum for a while, building to their own version of “The Great Darkness Saga,” which was quite good in its own right.

I neglected to mention my feelings about the Five Years Later stuff, so I'll let you tackle that era first. How did you feel about the Giffen/Bierbaum issues, and has your opinion changed over the years?

BL: I just realized I never answered your original question: Did I keep up with the post-Levitz reboots and revamps? The answer is yes. I've been reading Legion since I was a little kid. I don't think I know how to live WITHOUT reading Legion. If there's a Legion comic, I buy it. Simple. Yeah, even the really, really crappy ones. I know that sounds terrible, but it's the only comic I treat that way. Anything else, if it sucks, I drop it. Legion is the exception that proves the rule.

Yeah, wasn't Jim Sherman's art gorgeous? First time I saw it was in the “Earthwar” segment of "Legion of Super-Heroes" #300. I think if he'd stayed in the business another five years, he would have intersected with the rise of rabid fandom and been one of the Big Names, you know?

Sometimes what amazes me the most about that first Shooter run is this: Imagine that right now there's a 14-year-old kid out there just as good as Shooter was back then. That kid would never, ever get the chance that Shooter got. The industry has changed too much. It makes me wonder what we might be missing out on.

I thought the Reflecto story was a lot of fun. Giant chains surrounding the earth! Karate Kid saves the day with a well-placed chop! And the single most convoluted Superboy story EVER. Honestly, you can only get that stuff in comics.

I ran hot and cold on most of the DnA stuff. Some of it was really great and some of it was just "eh." I did like their Darkseid story, though it made me wonder: Are people ALWAYS going to go back to that with the Legion?

"Secrets of The Legion"

Oh, Five Years Later... The first couple of issues left me cold, but then I clued in to what Giffen was doing -- he was writing a novel. In fact, if you look at the structure of those early issues, he was really the first (and only) creator to adopt the "Watchmen" model to something other than "Watchmen." He had those "fantasy world documents" at the end of each issue, for example. The nine-panel grid. Once I realized that, I really got into that run, right up until about the whole Khund War, which is where you could tell Giffen was starting to get annoyed by the politics of doing this book. He'd lost Superboy and a bunch of other toys, and now things were beginning to fall apart.

I thought the Bierbaums had some good ideas, but I think they were probably out of their depth. They didn't know how to kill their darlings. Saying that Lightning Lad is really Proty sounds like a fun, subversive idea, but if you don't go anywhere with it, you haven't accomplished anything.

Still, many of the problems from Five Years Later (and God knows there were many of them!) have to be laid at the feet of DC editorial and the Superman crew. Who knows what sort of coolness Giffen and the Bierbaums might have come up with if they didn't have to constantly back up and re-explain (and re-re-explain) some niggling point of continuity in order to keep someone across the hall happy? We'll never know. So, to me, the Five Years Later stuff had enormous potential, with flashes of brilliance that were never able to catch fire.

What about you? What did you think of the immediate post-Levitz era?

TC: The Five Years Later was EXACTLY what I wanted at the time. I'd come to the Legion kind of late, and I was in my late teens by the end of the Levitz run, so I was all about getting rid of the "Lad" and "Lass" names and putting them in some grungy sci-fi jumpsuits and all that. And I've always been a huge Giffen fan -- "The Legion of Substitute Heroes Special" was one of my favorite comic books ever, a fact which I neglected to mention earlier -- so I was thrilled to see him writing and drawing the Legion (with help from the Bierbaums on dialogue). But I was an idiot in those days, and when I got exactly what I thought I wanted, I didn't like it at all. I found it practically impossible to read on a month-to-month basis, although I figured it would read better as a whole. So I set the issues aside (I would say I bought it up until "The Quiet Darkness Saga" before I drifted away) and always told myself I'd go back to them. I never did.

Until I reread them as part of my gigantic-Legion-reading marathon. And I still found the Five Years Later issues to be kind of a train wreck, but a really aesthetically thrilling one. I wasn't confused by the issues, reading them in sequence like I did, but since the whole thing (at least at first) felt so tightly structured, you could see when things started to get out of whack. I mean, Giffen sets up this new status quo, and within four issues he has to do a white event to reboot its continuity? That's insane, and whatever Giffen was trying to do was ultimately ruined because of it. So many threads were left dangling, and the slow escalation of the early issues never paid off.

I also thought the SW6 Legion was a fascinating concept, especially as a visual and thematic contrast with the dark and downtrodden Legion of the time, but in practice, the SW6 Legion was a subplot with no workable outcome. Either they were all a bunch of clones, in which case, who cares? Or they were the real Legion, in which case, the fans would have crucified everyone and everything in their path. And, of course, the outcome ended up that the SW6 were clones (even though Giffen apparently had other plans) and even ended up with their own series. But who wants to read about a bunch of clones? Does anyone want to buy a Ben Reilly book every month? Not so much.

The Great Darkness Saga Begins

Of course, now that I'm older and wiser, I realize how the Legion isn't the Legion without the bright costumes and the "Lad" and "Lass" names. So when I see fans complain about the Legion on message boards and say, "They've got to get rid of those silly names!" I cringe and remember that I, too, was once young and very, very wrong.

By the way, I would buy a new Keith Giffen Legion comic in a microsecond. (Especially if the subs were somehow involved!)

BL: I think we can both agree that if someone had tried to come in after the Levitz run and just pick up where he left off, it would have been an unmitigated disaster, so Giffen didn't have much of a choice. He made the right decision, I think. It was the slavish and bizarre post-"Crisis" continuity that really messed up his mojo. I sort of wonder what that run would have looked like without the need for the white event so early or the later stories that existed purely to patch continuity.

I am SO glad to hear you say that the "Lad" and "Lass" names are important and integral! I mean, every time some X-fan would mock the Legion's codenames, I would think, "Oh, yeah, because Wolverine is such a better name -- it's a smelly weasel, people." At the end of the day, almost ALL super-hero codenames are ridiculous to some degree. You accept them as part of the conceit of the milieu. I mean, is the name "Polar Boy" really any more ridiculous than "Iceman?" Same powers. Why is one "cool" and the other not?

SW6 was one of those ideas that, as you indicate, only works until you start to think about it. It was a complete no-win situation -- they were guaranteed to piss off SOMEONE with that storyline, and in the end, they tried to have it both ways. I think the "Zero Hour" ending, where we learned that SW6 AND the originals were both, somehow, legitimate was the best option out of a slew of bad possibilities. With the reboot immediately following, there was no opportunity for people to get pissed off and linger on their anger. It was very much a magic trick: "Look, we've made SW6 and the originals into one and the same... and... ta-da! Oh, a whole new continuity! See how shiny it is? It still has that new universe smell."

I would buy a Giffen Legion book again, but I have to admit I'm really pleased with what Geoff Johns has done with the Levitz/Giffen characters. If we can't have Paul writing them, I'm happy with this, even though there are some niggling continuity glitches that make my 14-year-old brain itch. Besides, if Giffen took them over again, he'd bring back Karate Kid AGAIN just so that he can kill him AGAIN.

Speaking of Karate Kid... I just need to get this off my chest: Look, this guy is trained in every martial art in the GALAXY, OK? He took on Superboy. He fought the entire Fatal Five... and beat them, single-handedly. I don't care how much Batman cheats in the JLA -- no way in hell Karate Kid is beaten by Batman.

Whew. I feel much better now. It's not good to hold that stuff in, you know. :)

TC: I don't know. As CBR's own Andy Khouri says, "Batman wins. That's what he does." I know that Karate Kid SHOULD be able to defeat anyone else in hand-to-hand combat, but it's Batman! No shame in losing there.

I'm not convinced that it would have been impossible to pick up right after the Levitz run, although it probably would have been a disaster, you're right. I don't know who was working at the time that could have pulled it off, honestly, even though I don't think Levitz left the team in any sort of impossible-to-follow situation. Sure, his uninterrupted run was more than impressive, but maybe someone could have made it work. Then again, besides Levitz, all my favorite writers from that era were the proto-Vertigo guys, and they wouldn't have been able to pull it off either. A Grant Morrison Legion sounds great, and he could do it now, but in the late 1980s, he wouldn't have been ready. He hadn't yet fully embraced his love for the Silver Age the way he has since.

Zero Hour Reboot

I do like Geoff Johns's take on the Legion. It's not exactly the Levitz Legion, but it feels like the "real" team has returned for the first time in nearly twenty years. I'm interested to see what comes out of "Legion of Three Worlds." Do you have a preference regarding the outcome? Would you like to see a Legion team made up of members from various incarnations? A brand new reboot? A clear return to the Levitz Legion as the standard? What would be the ideal situation?

BL: OK, one quick word about Batman. I don't mean to detour this, but I just gotta get this in: Saying that "Batman wins. That's what he does." is the functional equivalent of giving him a superpower. ("I am Victory Lad! My power is to always win! I'm like Nemesis Kid, only I can beat up Duo Damsel.") Which then removes the mystique from the character. Batman is a human in a world of superhumans. The phrase "No shame in losing there" should be applied in the OPPOSITE direction. It should be Batman who feels no shame being beaten by Karate Kid. When Batman is tougher than Karate Kid and smarter than Brainiac 5, he steps away from his pulp origins and becomes a thorough fantasy character. Bizarro Barry loves that and thinks it's a great idea.

OK, done with that! Sorry for the digression. Back to your regularly scheduled Legion chat...

I agree that someone COULD have picked up where Paul left off... It just would have been an enormous task and quite an unenviable one. I also can't imagine who of that generation of creators could have done it. But here's something to chew over: I have a very specific memory of reading a Legion letter column in the ‘80s (I think it was the Baxter run) and Paul mentioning that he'd had a conversation with Alan Moore. And Moore, apparently, had admitted to having an idea or two for the Legion.

Now can you imagine that? If the Alan Moore of that vintage (say just before "Watchmen") had played with the Legion at some point? I've never been able to find that letter column again, so maybe it was some teenaged fever dream of mine, but still. Picture it.

(In the interests of thoroughly embarrassing myself, I'll mention here that, as a teen, one of my first pieces of short fiction was a Swamp Thing/Legion crossover.)

As to the outcome of "Legion of Three Worlds," this may sound strange to you (and it certainly sounds strange to me because I never imagined it until you asked the question), but I think the ideal situation is actually the current status quo. I like the current Shooter Legion quite a bit. I love the Geoff Johns stuff. I wouldn't want either one to be screwed up. I have less love for the DnA team, but I don't bear it any ill will. So I say, give 'em each an Earth, and let them all stick around. Why not?

TC: But which Legion should have their own book? I'd love for all of them to stick around, just like Earth-1 and Earth-2 co-existed peacefully for so long, but I can't imagine going back to just the Shooter type of Legion after "Legion of Three Worlds" concludes. I like the Shooter Legion well enough, but I don't think it's anything special, and it will certainly feel much smaller six months from now, I think. I'd much prefer a Johns-written Legion book focusing on the pseudo-Levitz team (with the potential for the inclusion of other Legion teams for bigger stories), but as I said earlier, I need to be careful what I wish for.

Alan Moore did provide his take on the Legion in his "Supreme" run, with the League of Infinity characters, although they were merely a pastiche of the Silver Age Legion and nothing more. Still, he did give us a taste, as he did with "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" -- the coda to the pre-Byrne Superman.

I have some embarrassing teenage fanfic as well, although I always wrote them as comic book "pitches" and not short stories, even though I had no idea what comic book pitches looked like. Though I never dabbled in Legion lore with my 16-year-old pitches, I did write a shockingly brutal Green Lantern scenario that I recently found in some old papers, and I remember writing a really gritty revamp of the Inferior Five. Maybe that should be the next book we do with Sequart: "Embarrassing Teenage Comic Book Stories"!

Besides writing your own version of the Legion in those formative years, did the Legion comics influence you in other ways? Do you think the Levitz Legion shaped your comic book tastes in some way, or molded your own concept of fiction?

Waid and Kitson's "Threeboot"
BL: I realize it's probably a marketing nightmare, but I would like to see the current, Shooter-written, book and the Johns team both stick around, both with their own titles. How do you do that? I confess, I'm not sure. Maybe one of them is "Legion of Super-Heroes" and the other is "Adventure Comics." I really, REALLY don't like the idea of making up a single team with members from all the various versions. That's just asking for trouble.

A gritty revamp of the Inferior Five! Sir, I salute you! I think I could provide far, far too much material for "Embarrassing Teenage Comic Book Stories," including my post-"Crisis" take on the Crime Syndicate of America. But I have a reputation to consider!

I know for sure that Levitz's Legion shaped my comic book tastes. I consider those comics to be the zenith in super-hero comics -- every super-hero comic I read is compared to them in one way or another. I think that those stories definitely impacted my own writing in some way, though it's difficult to nail it down. I write very down-to-earth fiction. (As my editor put it once: We like when you write in the real world.) So you'd think there would be very little connection between what I write and the 30th century. But what I learned from the Legion was that it's important to let your imagination go. That you need to let the story breathe and age in its own time -- if it takes two years to get from a panel of Colossal Boy wondering what's wrong with Shrinking Violet to the revelation that Yera is a spy for Imsk... Well, you take that much time. That's just what you do.

Strangely, I'm not all that adept at juggling big casts. I tend to have small groups in my books. Reading the Legion, you'd think I would have fifty characters in each book, but I think that without the visual shorthand of comics, it's difficult to keep track of all of those characters, both as a writer and as a reader.

I don't know that the League of Infinity counts as Moore's "take" on the Legion. That seemed more like something set up for a very specific purpose -- more a plot device than "Oh, here's my chance to write the Legion." I did enjoy his brief use of the team (and the LSV) in "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" -- heartfelt and sad, while also managing to keep that Silver Age sense of future optimism, in that the Legion (literally) hands Superman the key to his victory.

TC: That's what the Legion's all about. That, and, of course, so much more.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of the recently-released "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Want to talk about this week's column with other readers? Post your thoughts over on the CBR message boards.

TAGS:  legion of super-heroes, jim shooter, barry lyga, paul levitz, keith giffen

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