Sunday, May 4, 2014

Giffen's Legions: Legionnaires 3 and Legion of Super-Heroes Volume 4

If, to open this post with a reference to an obscure episode of the animated Star Trek, Keith Giffen were to be kidnapped into space and place on display in an  interplanetary zoo for the amusement of giant slug-like extra-terrestrials (which could totally happen, you know), back here on Earth he would most likely be remembered by future generations of comics readers, if indeed there are to be any, for three things: Ambush Bug, Justice League International, and The Legion of Super-Heroes.  Celebrated primarily for his artistic contributions to the series in collaboration with long time writer Paul Levitz, Giffen also wrote, along with Tom and Mary Bierbaum, the controversial and divisive "Five Years Later" version of the Legion that appeared in Volume 4 of the series beginning in 1989.
However, Giffen's first crack at writing a Legion story came some four years earlier in a largely unheralded four issue mini-series entitled Legionnaires 3, with dialogue by Mindy Newell and art by Ernie Colon and Karl Kesel.  Perhaps I should qualify that statement a bit.  L3 was Giffen's first attempt at writing a serious Legion story featuring actual Legionnaires.  He had earlier written DC Comics Presents #59, co-starring the Legion of Substitute Heroes in 1983 and 1985's Legion of Substitute Heroes Special.  These efforts were more in the spirit of Giffen's work on Ambush Bug, however.  In fact, DCCP #59 featured that character's second appearance.
In contrast to the goofiness of those stories, L3 and LSH v.4, while they do contain flashes of humor, are for the most part deadly serious, even grim, affairs.  The first year of Volume 4 is concerned with the rebuilding of the Legion several years after the team's dissolution in the wake of a galaxy wide economic collapse that has left the 30th century a much darker and more dangerous place than it had been in the previous Legion series.  In L3, retired Legionnaires Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl's baby is kidnapped by one of the Legion's deadliest foes, the Time Trapper, in as part of a plot to destroy the Legion.  This post, however, is concerned not so much with the plots of the two series, but with the story telling choices Giffen makes in each and how they compare and contrast.
Giffen drew the early issues of LSH v. 4, with inks by Al Gordon, while on L3 he is credited as plotter and "designer".  I assume this means the same thing as "breakdowns", which is how his credit on the Justice League books read, thus the story telling choices are his for the most part, with Colon and Kesel following his lead.
A hallmark of both series is their dense visual story telling.  On Volume 4, Giffen famously, or infamously, stuck to a grid of nine equal sized panels for the overwhelming majority of pages.  This, combined with the text pieces at the end of most issues, even today draws comparisons between this volume of LSH and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen, which used similar techniques.  However, whereas Gibbons, while essentially sticking to the nine panel design, would judicially "combine" panels, eliminating the borders and gutters to create a larger uninterrupted image when it suited Moore's story, Giffen, for the most part, stuck to the grid seemingly at all costs.  Larger images, mostly establishing shots, where divided into two or three panels.  Also, ocassionally a single drawing would be reproduced across several panels.
L3 is, if anything, even more dense.  While not bound to a rigid nine panel pattern, each page is similarly packed with images.  There are very few pages with fewer than six panels, and one page in the first issue crams in a whopping thirteen panels. Unlike Volume 4, in which Giffen's nine panels were all of uniform size and shape throughout, even on pages with nine or more panels Colon gave greater emphasis to some images by varying the width of panels within the grid.  This was accomplished through the widening of certain panels to allow more to be shown while narrowing others in order to focus attention on detail.  Many pages consist of a relatively large image, running either across the top or bottom of the page or in some cases along the side, accompanied by a series of smaller panels.  While not meaning to diminish Colon's contributions to the storytelling, I'm attributing thes story telling techniques to Giffen, as perhaps communicated through his "designs."  He uses similar techniques in Legion tales of the period that he drew himself, such as the story contained in Tales of the Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #4.
The profusion of smaller panels serves to give the sporadic half and full page images, when they occur, a greater impact.  Full page splashes are not there merely to show off Colon and Kesel's beautiful art, though, make no mistake, the art in L3 is some of Colon's best super-hero work and Kesel's inks are part of the reason for that, but instead they serve to give proper emphasis to moments that are meant to shock or surprise the reader.  
While full page images are decidedly far rarer in Giffen's work on Volume 4, their impact, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, is not as great.  For the most part, the few story ending full page images serve to re-emphasize certain story points rather than to shock or reveal new information.  Most effective are the blank white pages at the end of issues #4 and 5 after the time line is shattered first by Mon-El's destruction of the Time Trapper then by Glorith's spell to restore the former time line.  The sixth issue's full page reintroduction of Jan Arrah, formerly known as Element Lad, is hardly shocking or even mildly unexpected.  After all, it is Arrah who Celeste Rockfish, Bounty and Devlin O'Ryan traveled to the dead planet Trom to find, and he is, in fact, the only living being on the planet.  Issue #12 contains two full page splashes.  The first is merely a field of stars with the words "The Legion of Super-Heroes" in the middle of the page.  This somewhat redundantly serves only to re-emphasize the point made by the previous pages nine panel exchange of dialogue between Rokk Krinn (Cosmic Boy) and Reep Daggle (Chameleon Boy) that the Legion has at long last been reborn.  The final page splash serves as a cliffhanger, emphasizing the danger that the newly introduced character Kent Shakespeare is in from the escaped villain The Persuader.  
Well, folks, it looks to me like we've got a series on our hands here.  Having said, I believe, all I have to say on the use of panel layouts in L3 and LSH v. 4, the next part will deal with the thorny issue of accessibility, or new reader friendliness.

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