Sunday, May 11, 2014

Giffen's Legions Part 2: Welcome, New Readers! (...or not so much)

Before I get into today's post, I should offer a slight correction to something I wrote in part one of this series.  There are actually three full page splashes in Legion of Super-Heroes Volume 4 #12.  Yes, I have actually read the book, and do own a copy, however, I didn't look at it while I was writing the post, and the full page image of Celeste Rockfish bathed in a mysterious green light slipped my mind.  This error, though, in no way invalidates the point I was making about Giffen's use of splash pages in LHS v.4, as this "revelation" is pretty effectively telegraphed in the pages leading up to it.
To begin today's post, I invite you to join me on a journey through time, back three decades to 1985 where we will meet me as I was then.  I was quite different back then.  I hadn't yet taken up smoking, nor was I yet a coffee addict, and I was only just beginning to discover that I am not a man who can hold his liquor.  More relevant to our topic, I also was not yet the slavering obsessed comics fanboy that I would later devolve into.  I was a casual reader of super-hero comics at perhaps the last time in the history of the genre was such a thing was possible.
I knew little of the Legion of Super-Heroes.  While I was aware of the comic's existence, I didn't really know anything about the characters or the strip's then two and a half decade history.  Aside from a brief cameo in DC Comics Presents #2 and their appearance, along with every other DC hero, in Crisis On Infinite Earths, the only Legion stories I'd read were the 1977 JLA/JSA cross-over in Justice League of America #'s 147 and 148 and a 1978 issue of Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes that was part of the "Earthwar" saga.  As it was thirty years ago, I can't really say at this point what it was that motivated me to purchase the first issue of the Legionnaires 3 mini-series. I suppose, however, that having enjoyed the few Legion tales I had read, I was curious about the team and looking to learn more about them, and the first issue of this mini-series seemed a good place to start.
That, as it turned out, was a pretty accurate assessment.  Though I've still read relatively few Legion stories compared to the vast amount that have been published since 1958, of the ones that I have read L3 is probably the one that I'd recommend to someone as their first Legion comic, with the possible exception of the origin story in Superboy #147 or one of the retellings of that tale I mentioned in my post on that issue.
While the primary audience for this mini-series is obviously long time hardcore Legion fans, the series is carefully crafted to be welcoming to new readers as well.  The story can be read and understood by a reader unfamiliar with Legion history and I'd even venture to say that someone totally new to comics and unfamiliar with their language and storytelling conventions would have little problem following the action.    A knowledge of the history of the characters certainly provides a richer reading experience for those in possession of such facts, but it is hardly a prerequisite.  All the back story and information about the characters pertinent to the story at hand is laid out for the reading within the first issue.  Even the creative team's one questionable story telling choice, the decision to show three Legionnaires who are supposedly retired from active duty with the group lounging around at home and off duty in their super-heroing attire, was, as scripter Mindy Newell explains in answer to a reader in the third issue's letters column, made in the name of enhancing the reader's comprehension of the story by making recognition and identification of the characters easier.  Not only does this not make sense within the context of the story but is ultimately unnecessary due to penciler Ernie Colon's skill in rendering each character in the story in a unique and recognizable manner.  Even two characters who share similar characteristics, Cosmic Boy and Rond Vidar, and could, in the hands of a lesser artist, have been rendered almost interchangeably, stand out instead as distinct individuals.
To me, L3 stands out as a particularly well crafted example of what Colin Smith, writing about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's work on the first Avengers #1 at his blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics, terms the "paternalistic" approach to comic book story telling.  In this model, the creative team figuratively take the reader by the hand in order to, as Smith puts it, "guide them through a story in a highly controlled and specific sense."  Every story telling choice, from the dialogue and captions to the number,placement and size and shape of the panels to the composition of the images within those panels, is carefully calculated to enhance the reader's understanding and enjoyment of the story and produce in them the effect desired by the creative team.  To a greater or lesser extant, and with varying degrees of success, the paternalistic model was the dominant mode of comics story telling through most of the medium's history.
As far as I can tell, Legion of Super-Heroes Volume 4 represents one of the mainstream super-hero genres earliest moves away from the paternalistic approach, as well as an early flirtation with what has come to be known as decompressed story telling.
I think it may be time now for another disclaimer.  I may not be the most qualified person to talk about the issue of new reader friendliness. Personally, I don't mind a little initial confusion on jumping into a series, and a long and complicated back story usually doesn't deter me as long as the story I'm reading at the moment is understandable and enjoyable.  When I started getting into Doctor Who a couple of years ago, I found learning the show's fifty years of history to be as much fun as watching the current episodes.  With that qualification in mind, let me say that I don't find LSH v4 as impenetrable as it has acquired a reputation for being.
On the other hand, creators Keith Giffen and Tom and Mary Bierbaum certainly aren't holding our hands here, either.  They expect the reader to be a participant in the story telling process and do a little bit of work to make sense of what's going on.  As with any long running series, the long time reader has an advantage over the new reader, and that's especially true in LSH v4, although in the the letters columns, even some long time readers expressed a degree of confusion. Still, setting the beginning of this series five years after the end of the previous Legion book does serve to put both new and older readers on somewhat of an equal footing, as now neither knows the status quo.
In sharp contrast to L3's showing off duty heroes lounging around in their fighting uniforms, this series eschews super-hero costumes for at least the first twelve issues. Furthermore, the characters are referred to by their civilian identities rather than their super-hero code names. A few characters are referred to by abbreviated versions of their code names, but these are more like affectionate nicknames rather than noms de guerre, such as Brainy (Brainiac 5), Cham (Chameleon Boy, also referred to as Reep Daggle) and Vi (Shrinking Violet or Salu Digby). This is entirely appropriate in a story that begins with the Legion having been disbanded several years in the past, but this seems to have been one reason even long time readers, more familiar with the character's super-heroic names, experienced some confusion.
With overall lack of narrative captions, other than those tersely telling us what planet we're on, and establishing panels that just show background with no people along with several unattributed dialogue balloons, sometimes it can be difficult at first to figure out what's going on or who's speaking. Nonetheless, all the information the reader needs to fully understand each issue is contained within that issue.  Its just that it is not presented right up front and the readers has to piece it together for himself.
I'm a big fan of Keith Giffen's artwork, and the late 80'/early 90's is one of my favorite periods of his work.  He had synthesized his early Jack Kirby and Jim Starlin influenced style with the controversial influence of Jose Munoz to produce a style that blended cartooniness and realism in a way that particularly suited the super-hero genre.  His face and figure drawings are excellent, giving each character a recognizable individual look.  His background drawings, however, can at times be a little too busy and somewhat hard to interpret at first glance, especially when divided into multiple panels. 
In both its story and art, LSH v4 is most definitely a series that rewards, and in fact demands, repeated readings.  I find myself understanding and enjoying the story more each time I read it.
I also find that its best to read several issues  at one time, as the story does unfold rather slowly and developments in early issues do take some time to pay off.  The series would definitely benefit from being collected, but no such collected editions exist. 
 It seems that many people writing about LSH v4 experience a problem similar to the one I've been having in writing this post.  I really like the series, but the story telling approach taken by Giffen and the Bierbaums has it drawbacks as well as its pleasures and the series does take some time to get into.  In pointing this out, I may seem to be discouraging you from seeking this series out and reading it.  That however, is the exact opposite of my intent.  Legion of Super-Heroes Volume 4 is actually a series I would highly recommend. Anyone willing to be patient with the series and put the required effort into it will ultimately find it a rewarding reading experience.

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