Saturday, August 11, 2012


 The odd thing about The Great Darkness Saga, long considered one of the most immortal Legion of Superheroes storylines, is how at odds with the style and flow of the book. It's a great story, it has a great epic sweep, insanely high stakes, and is pretty action-packed, and is tied in at an almost rabbinical level of Legion of Superheroes lore (of which there is a lot) but what comes out most plainly at me is how utterly odd it is, given that Legion of Superheroes is not a superhero book, really.

 Oh, it has superheroes in it, but it's pretty much a romance comic in superhero drag. I was quite stunned in re-reading it decades later that really all of the action bits are pretty well dashed off before the issue's halfway over and then it's straight up soap-opera stuff: job stresses, relationship troubles, marriages, romantic misunderstandings, and, as with all romance comics, bundles of panels featuring women with their hand to their faces, a single tear spilling from their eyes.

 I'm not saying this as though it's a bad thing--hell, the most popular books in the industry at this time had adopted the X-Men "keep the soap-opera going at all costs and make that the bits that people come back for month after month" storytelling model--but I can't think of a book that all but pushed the superhero stuff to the bare minimum of the equation like this one did.

 My enormous Great Darkness Saga HC covers Legion of Superheroes #284-296 and the first Annual, and it's a very interesting slice of the book. The actual Great Darkness Saga only runs about 4 issues, and has been released with just the 4 issues, but in doing so, you really take the story out of context, and that's kind of a shame, as it's an interesting snapshot of a book at the peak of its popularity only scant moments before DC, motivated by greed, ends up tanking the book and catering to a mere handful of anoraks exploring ever more obscure continuity backwaters, most infamously making Element Lad gay because only gay dudes have man-fros. (I. . .guess? There's some real hair-related gay panic in DC comics) and then having to walk it back and taking a concept that collapsed so utterly in upon itself and having to take this thing out and sell it again to someone new while having no idea how to do that.

 But at the time of this story, Legion is riding high, and from the bits and bobs of this story, apparently very busily trying to get out from under the very weird 70's days of the book (you know, the time that Cosmic Boy was wearing a bustier and shit) and making it a bit more of its time (inasmuch as a book written in the early 80's about the 30th century can really be of its time) and point itself in a new direction while still keeping the critical bits of the Legion lore in play.

 Which is why Great Darkness is such a weird story. It uses a lot of current-day DC Universe backstory (which Legion almost never did apart from you know, Superboy) which it can;t even be fussed to explain (there's a hilarious editor's note that says, essentially "You know what? We can't explain the New Gods stuff either") and . . .man, there's something about the notion that the book is not willing to explain all that much (and if they're not willing to tell you that much, you can for damn sure imagine you're on your own trying to figure out who the hell the Heroes of Lallor are supposed to be) which is a . . .well, it's an interesting choice, as the writer of the piece, Paul Levitz, is basically throwing a story that turns on every bit of Legion Lore and characters accrued to this point and the whole Fourth World stuff at you, not really pausing to explain any of it and yet . . .

 . . .and yet it kind of works on this base level in that you're presented with something built up as suitably apocalyptic and if you go in knowing none of it, it still plays as "epic," because it's treated as an epic thing, and that comes across on a base level, even if the rest is not really known. Crisis, actually works on that level for the uninitiated, in fact; the less you know about DC universe lore, the better it plays, but that's another write-up.

 It's interesting that the story works so well, with everything against it (not least because this kinda stuff doesn't really happen in soap operas, does it?) and given it's rather anomalous circumstances, it's no wonder it stands out so. Even if it didn't work, it would probably be an interesting failure (as the sequel story was, sadly enough) but that it does with so much against it, it's kind of even more intriguing.


C. Elam said...

Blogger's ridiculous captchas are going to be immortalized on my blog. This makes me feel slightly less bad for letting this entry simmer in my brain for a few days. (By accident, as it turns out...)

It's interesting the point you make about this collection putting the actual "Great Darkness Saga" into context, because it definitely does. What's harder to explain if you weren't reading at the time is what a seismic change this run was in the book. The 1970s period characterized by Bates/Cockrum/Shooter/Grell had pretty much ended by the conclusion of Levitz's "Earthwar" (from his previous stint on the title). This led to a period of 3-4 years where the book was guided by people who...really didn't want to be there.

To give you an idea, Roy Thomas was the LOSH writer of record prior to this run. And he's gone on record as having no kinship with the characters; it was just an assignment for him. There were plenty of decent comics and important developments in that period (not the least of which was the Legion taking over the book from Superboy), but I don't imagine many people think of it as their favorite Legion era.

(Full disclosure: this period happens to be when I read the Legion regularly. And even I can't call it my favorite.)

So these stories were a shot in the arm for a book that was treading water a bit. A key factor turned out to be Keith Giffen, which is amazing in that Levitz didn't even want him on the book at first. Their unique method of collaborating really brought out the best in both of them.

...Which is why Keith altering his art so drastically and leaving the book is one of those idiosyncratic Giffen things that leaves me shaking my head. But that's what led us to Ambush Bug, so I guess it worked out.

Kazekage said...

Witless Prattle--come for the Captchas, stay for they honey barbeque wings.

I had no idea about the interregnum between Levitz's tenures on the book--I just assumed he'd come in in the late 70's when he started writing stuff at DC and stayed there, more or less, the whole time until the 5YL stuff started in the late 80's.

That said, I can totally see this not being Roy Thomas' bag. He's not happy unless he can tie the 30th century's insane level of density in with the totality of the entirety of DC's history to that point.

You see a bit of Giffen's style changing over to the Munoz-esque style in this book, but he flips back to where it was more commonly soon after. I think it was good in the short term that they had someone who was willing to experiment and shake things up, and it certainly paid off.

Aaaaand then Crisis happened.

C. Elam said...

True story - my job currently has wings called "Caribbean Jerk." I like to affect a faux Jamaican accent before adding to that name "Oh, was that your wife I just fucked? So sorry, mon."

It makes sense that Levitz WOULD have been there the whole time, doesn't it? I'm a little fuzzy on precise details, but I think his departure was due his duties as editor of all the Batman books. I think it was when he stopped being an editor of individual titles that he returned to Legion.

Roy gave it his best in true Thomas-fashion, including an attempt to reconcile the conflicting origins of Wildfire. I just get the idea his inherent lack of connection with the characters rendered it more trouble than it was worth for him. Probably for the best.

In reaching for a way to describe this particular era, what springs to mind is that there was no real forward momentum. Things happened, but the title itself was sort of stagnant. to give you very Legion-ccentric examples, they kept the same leader during that entire timeframe, and no one changed costumes.

Giffen is also the co-plotter, though I'm not sure this is reflected in the credits of every issue. He would rework the scripts and sometimes even add stuff without telling Levitz. The example of this I remember best falls a bit outside the collection in question.

As I get older, the take I have on continuity is what worked best when I was 9 - it only happened if you read the comic. Otherwise, it didn't matter.

Kazekage said...

I have a similar reaction when people talk about "jerked chicken," so those sort of dark thoughts are going around, it seems.

I had completely forgotten Levitz had edited the Bat books, on account of not knowing that. Again, I had this idea that Levitz came on and shepherded All-Star and Legion into the 80's until Roy relieved him of the Golden Age stuff.

I have a feeling the conflicting Wildfire origins are the reason that every time someone brings Wildifre back he has to have some baffling origin that makes absolutely no sense and seems convoluted for their own sake. I now see where that comes from. I think half the problem with legion continuity is that its density and complexity is celebrated as an end in and of itself.

I seem to have arrived at a point with respect to continuity not unlike where Bill Murray was in the movie "Meatballs"--it just doesn't matter