Monday, May 12, 2014

Giffen's Legion Part 3: Life After The Legion--Darkness, Light and Compromise

This is the post where I actually get around to discussing the story lines of Legionnaires 3 and Legion of Super-Heroes Volume 4.  Thus, spoilers lay ahead.  Tread carefully.
The greatest thematic similarity between Legionnaires 3 and the first year of Legion of Super-Heroes Volume 4 is that they both deal with life after the Legion.   The main characters of L3 are the three founding members of the Legion of Super-Heroes; Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl and Cosmic Boy. These three had recently, for different reasons, retired from the Legion and were no longer appearing regularly in the main Legion title.  Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl had recently had a child and left to devote themselves to raising him, while Cosmic Boy had simply decided it was perhaps time to do something else with his life.  LSH v4, of course, is the infamous Five Years Later version of the Legion, in which the team had been disbanded several years before the series picked up their story.  In both cases, the former Legionnaires learn that they can never truly leave their pasts, and especially the Legion, behind.
The two stories share a similarity in tone, as well.  While Giffen is best known for his humorous works, especially Ambush Bug and Justice League International, many of his comics, most famously LSH v4, can be quite dark.  Even Justice League has its serious moments, such as the Despero story line or the story in Justice League America #26, 27 and 28 where the Blue Blue Beetle, under the control of the Queen Bee, nearly kills Max Lord.
One of the criticism leveled against a lot of the so-called "grim and gritty" comics that followed the groundbreaking work of Alan Moore on Watchmen and Frank Miller on Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns is that they copy only the surface darkness and violence of those works while missing the elements that truly made these comics great.  Giffen's LSH v4 is often lumped in with those clueless imitators.  However, I think that Giffen got it right with his Legion stories.
One thing that people often overlook about the seminal works listed above is that amidst the darkness, these stories contain an element of hope.  Miller's "Born Again" story in Daredevil is not the story of a man's life falling apart, its the story of a man fighting to get his life back.  The story ends on a hopeful note. By the the final issue of the story line, Matt Murdock has his life back.  It may not be the life he had before, but its one he has chosen for himself and one with which he is content. The Dark Knight Returns ends with Bruce Wayne embarking on a new chapter in his life with a new, more positive attitude.  Throughout the series, Batman would think in certain situations, "This would be a good death," but the story ends with him thinking, "This will be a good LIFE."
If you ask me, if anybody failed to see the hopefulness in Miller's work, especially on Daredevil, its Brian Michael Bendis.  His acclaimed run on the character is very good, I have to admit, but it is also almost unrelentingly bleak.  He just piles the crap on top of poor Matt Murdock and climaxes his run with Murdock sitting in a jail cell. 
Forgive my tangent. I was meant to be talking about Keith Giffen's Legion of Super-Heroes, wasn't I? Ok, then, let's get back on topic. 
The Legion of Super-Heroes had always been seen as presenting a utopian view of the future.  Of course, it was far from perfect.  To paraphrase Geoff Johns from Infinite Crisis, a perfect galaxy wouldn't need a Legion of Super-Heroes.  Besides, perfection makes for boring stories, especially super-hero stories.  There was always an Earthwar, a Magic War, a Great Darkness, an evil sorcerer, or a time traveling conqueror, not to mention Khunds, Dominators and other alien races of malicious intent, to keep the Legion busy.  Yet the Legion's world of the 30th century was one of hopefulness and optimism for the future of mankind.  Hell, sometimes it takes a heaping load of optimism just to imagine the human race surviving for another century, let alone a thousand years.  The Legion presented a universe where mankind had united and stood at the center of the United Planets, an alliance of civilized, space-faring worlds.  All of the threats I noted above were external, coming from outside the peaceful UP worlds.
By the first issue of LSH v4, however, the universe of the 30th century, even the once near utopian United Planets, had become a much darker place. The United Planets has all but dissolved in the wake of a galaxy wide economic disaster, the Khunds have initiated a new campaign of conquest while at the same time former UP worlds war amongst themselves, and the government of Earth (a.k.a. Earthgov) is revealed to have been infiltrated by Dominators decades earlier.  Worst of all, what had once been the light in even the UP's darkest hours, the Legion of Super-Heroes, is no more, hounded out of existence by a campaign of harassment from the Dominator controlled Earthgov.
That all does sound pretty bleak, but there is hope.  That hope lies in a reformed Legion.  Reep Daggle, the former Chameleon Boy, and Rokk Krinn, once known as Cosmic Boy, set about re-uniting their former comrades in arms becaues they are optimistic that the Legion is needed, and that they can make a difference and be the light that turns back the darkness that has spread throughout the galaxy. 
By the end of LSH v4's first year, it looks like Reep and Rokk's dream is going to come true.  The former Legionnaires have faced down two of their deadliest foes and emerged victorious.  The Legion of Super-Heroes, at last, lives again.  While it takes place against a dark backdrop, the first year of Keith Giffen's Legion of Super-Heroes Volume 4 is, in truth, a story about hope, optimism, and the belief that the right people can make a difference in even the darkest of times.
Although taking place in the near utopian environment of the pre-economic collapse United Planets, in many ways Legionnaires 3 is a much darker story than LSH v4.  It establishes the Time Trapper as a truly formidable villain and presents the three founding Legionnaires with a very personal tragedy, the kidnapping by the Trapper of Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl's son. The series does not exactly end on a hopeful note, either.  The heroes don't defeat the villain, they simply outlast him.  The conflict only ends when the self-imposed time limit that the Trapper set on what he calls his "game" runs out and the Trapper simply sends the former Legionnaires and the child home.  Furthermore, the Trapper's soliloquy on the story's final page makes it clear that even though this battle has ended, his war with the Legion is far from over.
I guess you'd call that ending an anti-climax, and its a hallmark of Keith Giffen's work, not just on Legion, but on Justice League and even as recently as Doom Patrol.  Many times the conflicts in Giffen's stories are resolved not by a knock down drag out melee between the forces of good and evil, but by negotiation and compromise, or often by the intervention of an outside force.  In LSH v4, the re-united Legionnaires free their former comrade Mysa, once known as the White Witch, from Mordru by coming to an agreement with the wizard after he and Rokk Krinn conduct negotiations over dinner.  This is quite similar to the mutual non-aggression pact reached between the Justice League and the Queen Bee at the end of the first four issue story line in Justice League Europe.  That's not to say that LSH v4 is lacking in action.  The Legion will fight when it has to, and some villains can't be reasoned with, such as the insane mass murderer Roxxas. However, Giffen recognizes that violence isn't always the answer and sometimes it takes more strength not to fight.
I'm pretty sure that this is my last post comparing and contrasting Legionnaires 3 and Legion of Super-Heroes Volume 4.  It may not, however, be my final word on Keith Giffen and the Legion of Super-Heroes.  After all, I haven't said anything about the Legion of Substitute Heroes yet. 

No comments:

Post a Comment