When Words Collide

Mon, May 24th, 2010 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

MARVEL AND DC GO HEROIC

The gleaming "Heroic Age" logo may dominate the Marvel side of the comic books aisle this week, but DC also released a kind of heroic age comic of its own this month -- a comic that's a throwback to an earlier era, a comic that's about noble heroes fighting the good fight against great forces of evil. And, no, it's not "Brightest Day," which, contrary to its title, is anything but bright.

I'm talking about "Legion of Super-Heroes" #1, the Paul Levitz return to the series he's best known for. A writer, and a series, that in many ways recalls the classic kind of heroic age that Marvel seems interested in bringing back to the superhero forefront. But the Levitz Legion was also the kind of series that helped to usher in a more decompressed kind of storytelling during the 1980s. If the Levitz Legion isn't the father of 21st century superhero storytelling, it's one of the favorite uncles, and Brian Michael Bendis and friends may not be purposefully channeling "Who is Sensor Girl?" or "The Universo Project," but its in the DNA of the stories. Even today, the "Legion of Super-Heroes" run by Paul Levitz reads like a modern run. Or close to it.

But I'm also going to take a look at Brian Michael Bendis and John Romita, Jr.'s "Avengers" #1 this week, to see how it fares as the standard-bearer for the new age of heroism at Marvel. To see how it measures up to the classic ideas of superheroey goodness, and to see how the Bendis approach might differ from what Levitz does in the new "Legion" series. And how they share the same influences. How the Heroic Age spans across both companies, even as the "Legion" #1 banner calls it an "all-new era."

I've written about the classic Levitz Legion a few times before -- in the "Teenagers from the Future" anthology, but also in a couple of CBR columns from 2008: "Don't Fear the Legion", in which I talk about what Legion stories might be worth your time, with a heavy dose of Levitz tales in the discussion, and "Lyga's Legion", in which novelist and Legion superfan Barry Lyga joins me to talk about what we loved about the Legion and why the Levitz era was so special. You can check those out for deeper discussions about what made the Levitz comics so good. But I'll give you some of the highlights here, and maybe make a few new observations.

Levitz has always claimed that he learned to write superhero comic by reverse-engineering the "Avengers" comics of Roy Thomas. Stan Lee may have launched the series, but Roy Thomas pioneered the kind of continuity-based saga storytelling that we all associate with Silver Age Marvel. His "Avengers" run was mostly based around two-part stories in which the team would struggle against, then defeat, a costumed villain, but the long-form storytelling was based around the subplots that would carry throughout a year's worth of stories, or more. That kind of storytelling became a hallmark of other Silver Age Marvel comics as well, possibly reaching its pinnacle in the Stan Lee/John Romita, Sr. run on "Amazing Spider-Man." On the other side of the street, teenage Jim Shooter brought his version of the Stan Lee bombastic humanity to "Adventure Comics" and to a stuffy, square serial called "The Legion of Super-Heroes." This was 1966, and its more than possible that Shooter was looking at what Roy Thomas was doing at the time in "Avengers" and spinning it off in a DC direction. But Levitz really made a study of Thomas a priority. He embedded the Thomas structure into his own type of superhero soap opera, all based around the idea of an immediate threat -- something to compel the narrative -- nested within larger character arcs and extended subplots.

Brian Michael Bendis has demonstrated that his influences come more from cinema than old-school comic books. While Levitz and Shooter may have learned at the metaphorical feet of Lee and Thomas, Bendis learned from the scripts of David Mamet, the historical epics of Warren Beatty, and hundreds of other movies, both good and bad. His forte isn't the short two-part action tale with subplots that will last for months. He thinks long-term, and builds his beats within that larger structure. Look at the slow unfolding of "Secret Invasion," a story which began as a seeming subplot ("New Avengers" launched as a mystery about who freed the prisoners on the Raft and what S.H.I.E.L.D. was doing in the Savage Land), but is actually the central story all along. Bendis's comic book "movies" on paper are, of course, far longer than most theatrical releases, but the structure comes from that Syd Field sense of the three-act story.

But like Levitz, Bendis gives us a focus on character. For Levitz, in his original Legion run (actually two runs, with "Earthwar" being the highlight of the first run, and a dozen highlights in the second run, from "The Great Darkness Saga" to almost every issue in the Baxter, direct-market series that soon followed), he may have built his superhero storytelling on the framework of the Roy Thomas "Avengers," but he had a notable advantage that Thomas didn't have (or may not have wanted): working 1,000 years in DC's future, Levitz operated in a self-contained continuity. He could marry characters off, give them a noble death, or turn them against one another. He could do anything he wanted, without regard for what was going on in the rest of the DCU. The John Byrne no-Superboy revamp may have messed that up (though Levitz went along with it for the good of the company), and changed the Legion irrevocably, but for the bulk of his run, Levitz was able to do his own thing. To tell stories with real stakes, to tell stories where characters could really face the consequences of their actions, where characters were guided by a single authorial voice, and their fate wasn't written in stone, or embroidered on pillowcases.

Bendis has been working in the Marvel mainstream, but he's had that same kind of luxury. He has largely steered the direction of the Marvel Universe since he began writing "Avengers" all those years ago, and disassembled the team that Roy Thomas wrote so memorably back in the Silver Age. Levitz may have reverse-engineered the Thomas "Avengers," but Bendis de-engineered the team. He broke it apart and rebuilt it in the image of his influences. The characters who formed the "New Avengers" team were rougher around the edges -- rougher toward each other and the world around them -- and they liked to talk about what they did and what they planned to do. And soon, the world was against them. They were the heralds of the less-than-heroic-age. And their struggle has defined them, and their struggle has defined the Marvel Universe for half a decade.

So what does the "Heroic Age" look like under Bendis's guidance today? What of "Avengers" #1 and how does it compare to what Levitz has returned to in "Legion of Super-Heroes" #1?

Well, they're both pretty good first issues. I suspect "Avengers" #1 is a more accessible entry point for new readers -- if such things exist -- than "Legion of Super-Heroes" #1, but that's only because Levitz packs more plot in his opening issue than Bendis does. In Levitz's best Legion stories, he jumps from scene to scene quickly, never lingering too long on one place, even as tension builds and emotions rise. In issue #1, he cuts back and forth over a dozen times, climaxing with a single page in which he shows the emotional response at nine different locations as a world is destroyed. Bendis sticks primarily to a single location and a single sequence in his opening issue, though he does have a few other locales pop up for a page or two at a time. They are more like teasers than examples of cross-cutting, and the single extended sequence -- the Avengers, assembled, then interrupted by Kang -- has more room to breathe than anything in "Legion of Super-Heroes" #1.

In short, the new Levitz Legion reads a lot like the old Levitz Legion, with plenty of drama and action and relationships and tragedy, while the new Bendis Avengers reads like the old Bendis Avengers. With a twist, and the twist is in the tone.

As Chad Nevett pointed out in our most recent >Splash Page podcast, Bendis continually provides interruptions for his own speeches and dialogue. Bendis is known for his use of a particular cadence in his dialogue -- a chatty, informal speech pattern -- and for an abundance of it. In "Avengers" #1, the opening scene seems to mock that tendency, with the Avengers of the Future responding to Immortus getting blasted mid-sentence, by saying, "That guy liked to talk," and "Really? Wasn't even listening..." Later, Kang shows up with a warning, and, mid-speech, Thor blasts him in the neck with a hammer. The theme of this issue might as well be: Cut the chit-chat, let's get on with the Heroic Age.

But it is still largely a comic book filled with dialogue, contrary to Bendis's apparent attempt to subvert (or ironically highlight) his own tendencies.

The dialogue in "Legion" #1 is more traditional, higher-diction kind of talk, like you'd expect, well, in a DC comic. Characters declare and shout. They directly express their intentions, and say what they mean and mean what they say. Cosmic Boy tells Earth-Man that they will offer him Legion membership (as directed by the government), but there's a catch: "The ring is your key to freedom -- but also your leash." It feels like the right tone for a comic book in the sci-fi future of the 31st century. (And one of the glaring problems with Jim Shooter's recent, and abysmally-treated-in-the-end, run was his attempt at slang and futurespeak. It just didn't work at all, and made the book sound out-of-touch with anyone or anything.)

I haven't much written about the art in either "Avengers" or "Legion" because I'm mostly interested in the intersections and divergences between Levitz and Bendis, but if it's a competition between which comic looks better, "Avengers" #1 wins by a landslide. Yildray Cinar is a decent artist, but he isn't very good at depicting emotional extremes. His characters fall apart under stress, it seems. John Romita, Jr., though, is a master. His Spider-Woman looks a bit odd, but the rest of his characters look just about perfect, and his Thor-vs.-Kang imagery is unparalleled. Romita, Jr. really is the artistic face of Marvel, and they couldn't ask for anyone better right now.

I suppose the final question to consider is this: what makes these comics "heroic" as opposed to what has come before?

In the case of "Avengers" #1, Bendis not only gives us a sense of unity between the previously warring factions of superheroes, but he also throws in a classic Avengers villain and the notion of time travel. Bendis has played with international conspiracies, and alternate realities, and alien invasions, but time travel is a particularly unrealistic sci-fi notion that he's largely avoided. By bringing it in to launch the Heroic Age, he signifies a break from the pseudo-realism of what he's done with the team before. The Heroic Age, it seems, is about more than just a return to a more simple heroes-vs.-villains conflict. It's also about pushing ahead in a more Romantic vein.

There's nothing about "Legion" #1 that's realistic, so no worries there, but I'd still say that it overlaps with the Marvel Heroic Age in tone, much more so that many of its DC counterparts. While DC titles this month have that abominable "Green Arrow" preview in the back, reminding us of how gritty superheroes can be, when written without much imagination, "Legion" #1 shows us an age of heroes where tragedy can happen on a global level, but it still feels like something optimistic, hopeful, and not cynical. The Legion may be up against a racist Green Lantern and stolen children, but there's a sense that goodness and harmony will prevail, though it will be a great struggle to achieve any of it.

As a reader, I'm ready for the type of stories that the Heroic Age will bring, whether the comics are officially labeled as such or not. This upcoming "Green Arrow" series or even Marvel's "Moon Knight" comic seem like relics from an earlier time. Old is new again, and it's nice to see the Avengers and the Legion doing what they do best: fighting the good fight. Struggling against adversity. Punching Kang in the throat and staring the Big Bang in the face. Like our dads used to do.

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 "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

TAGS:  when words collide, brian michael bendis, paul levitz, avengers, legion of super-heroes, heroic age, brightest day

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