Comics Time: Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga

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Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga

Paul Levitz, writer

Keith Giffen, Larry Mahlstedt, Richard Bruning, artists

DC Comics, 1991

192 pages

$17.95

Buy it used for an exorbitant amount via Amazon.com

I don’t know how much you’d get out of this book if you weren’t already a superhero comics devotee. It doesn’t have the revisionist sophistication of Alan Moore or Frank Miller, the high-level craft of the modern-day big-name creators whose work you see praised on blogs like this, the easily recognizable wild imagination of Lee/Kirby/Ditko or even Claremont/Byrne. But for someone like me, who can derive pleasure from variations on familiar themes, this was an engaging read and, I’m betting, a pretty important touchstone for today’s superhero mainstream.

Though the cover gives the game away, what’s interesting about this story is that while it relies on the now-traditional–indeed, almost de rigeur these days–”mystery villain” device whereby our heroes are plagued by sinister, shadowy forces whose true nature and intent are learned only after extensive confrontations with his minions and much fretting and wild-goose-chasing by the heroes (and, just as importantly, the readers), this mystery villain doesn’t just lurk in the background, popping up in a panel or two every other issue to remind us that he exists before he finally reveals himself. Instead, he’s the good guys’ main antagonist throughout–his presence is constantly touted by his minions, he directly addressing both them and our heroes, he even physically confronts them from time to time, all while his identity remains hidden from heroes and readers alike. This strikes me as a far more daring narrative strategy than that used in such ’00s-era arcs as Kevin Smith’s Daredevil: Guardian Devil, Jeph Loeb’s Batman: Hush, Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, Brad Meltzer’s Justice League of America and so on: It practically dares the reader to figure it out, get tired of it, or call bullshit, hoping that if it calls their bluff and they stay involved, they’ll be even more excited by the eventual reveal than if it was just a tease here and there. (In terms of current comics it seems like Morrison’s ongoing Black Glove storyline in Batman comes closest.)

I don’t know enough about the historical circumstances regarding the status of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World New Gods within DC fandom at the time these issues were originally published to know if the identity of the villain was as obvious to readers then as it is to readers in this Kirby-worshipping, Final Crisis-reading era. For me it would have all clicked when that “servant of darkness” who rides that recognizably weird little pipe-lattice started talking about the Astro-Force and getting called “my son” by his master. But I enjoyed the mystery element even so as I was slowly shown exactly how Darkseid was putting his plot into action because, in a fashion reminiscent to me of how Geoff Johns has been working with the Green Lantern franchise, Levitz cleverly drew strength for the arc from a hodgepodge of DCU components. What kind of villain has the power to create evil clones of Superman and a Guardian of the Universe, then brainwash the Krypton-like planet of Daxam into a genocidal army of 3 billion Supermen? When you hear a question like that, you either give a shit about the answer or you don’t. I did.

Meanwhile, the book did a solid job of conveying the appeal of the Legion concept, which had been largely elusive to me up until now: It’s its own superhero universe within the larger DCU. Besides the fact that there are, like, forty thousand Legionnaires, each with their own cute code name and baroque power, they live in an era and environment connected enough to the things we recognize from more popular DC franchises to be familiar, yet it has the freedom to take them in weird new directions. (I suppose having a heroic Brainiac with a crush on Supergirl is the most fundamental example of that.) It’s kind of like the way Star Trek: The Next Generation opened up, expanded, and riffed on the original series in the service of a different aesthetic. Moreover, as a friend of mine recently pointed out to me, the team is so big and so stuffed with conflicting personalities that writers need not indulge in either the hoary old “team of best friends” or “reluctant team that comes together in the clutch” cliches–I’m pretty sure some of these people never even set foot in the same room or exchange a single word, and there are obvious cliques and couples and enemies and exes and so on, yet in the end the all kind of do their thing and get the job done, like a particularly big extracurricular activity in high school–the glee club, say. And that’s appropriate enough considering that they all seem to be about college-age by this point in the series. Finally, there are just so goddamn many Legionnaires that figuring out who’s who and starting to recognize and appreciate their names, costumes, powers and so on feels like an achievement, god help me.

Now, is this a great comic book? No. It’s too rooted in house-style artistic aesthetics, expository dialogue, self-referential continuity, corny jokes, and everything else you’d expect from a basic superhero comic of the early ’80s. As in so many comics of the period I have to wonder if the creators ever listened to human speech. But it’s an effective comic of its type, at times quite so–you’ve got to imagine that there’s an endless ocean of inferior junk above which this floats. It certainly goes to great pains to convey the menace of one of Jack Kirby’s great creations as well as any other comic I’ve read. On a personal note, as a superhero fan, I wish today’s writers and editors would display similar care when dealing with the real cream of the villain crop, from Darkseid himself to Lex Luthor and the Joker to Doctor Doom and Magneto and Galactus and the Green Goblin–like, oh crap, when that dude shows up, we’re in trouble. We nerds would be better off for it.

17 Responses to Comics Time: Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga

  1. Bruce Baugh says:

    Darkseid was in much scarcer supply then than now. There’d been the Engelhart/Rogers short-lived Mr. Miracle revival, and scattered appearances between then and Great Darkness, but nothing at all like his commonality now. Hard-core fans figured it out early on, but many readers got it no sooner than Brainiac 5 did. And he’d never (so nearly as I know) appeared in the LSH before. The impact can probably best be compared to the use of R’as al-Ghul in the Abnett & Lanning run a few years ago.

  2. Bruce Baugh says:

    Footnoting myself: The original Great Darkness issues appeared a full three years before the Hunger Dogs graphic novel. For whatever that’s worth.

  3. Ben Morse says:

    This review was like nerd chocolate for the guy who lent you the book. Thank you.

  4. Jon Hastings says:

    Basically agree with your assessment of this book. But can any of us think of comics that are rooted in house-style etc. but that are also great?

    I would propose: a lot of Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America run and his Squadron Supreme (admittiedly this one is more free-standing).

    (Also of interest: Mike Grost’s classic comic book site argues for the greatness of a number of 60s house-style super-hero books.)

  5. I haven’t read Gruenwald’s Cap, but I love Squadron Supreme precisely BECAUSE it was done in house style, or more accurately because of the tension that arises when a house style is used to depict very un-house-style themes.

  6. Rickey Purdin says:

    Sean, did you start reading this because you’d heard it was worth checking out as a Legion book? Or did you read it cause it used Kirby’s Darkseid? Or was it a combination of both?

    I checked it out cause I was looking for an entry into the Legion world.

  7. I read it ‘cuz Ben lent it to me!

  8. Jim Treacher says:

    Remember when Keith Giffen could draw?

  9. Eh, this was just a’ight for me, dawg. Technically competent, I suppose, but no pizazz.

  10. Tom Spurgeon says:

    The time delay thing fooled all us kids. It would have been like Khan Noonian Singh not being in Star Trek II but showing up on Next Generation in some capacity.

    I like the glee club comparison.

    I find the recent Legion of Superheroes kind of interesting because it’s been revamped a hundred times and all the revamps seem gross to me for one reason or the other, I mean really singularly unappealing.

  11. Tom Spurgeon says:

    (Also, I always liked that readers elected the chairman. Or they pretended they did. That was always the coolest reader participation event. I hope they still do that.)

  12. Bruce and Tom, thank you both for the historical context.

    Tom, it seems like they’re getting ready to bring back the old Legion full-time, albeit slightly aged. (Or maybe not even slightly–I think in their recent appearances they’re all actually Superman’s age so that they’re still peers.) And no, they don’t let fans vote for the leader anymore, dammit.

  13. Dan Coyle says:

    I’d like to see you review the Eye for an Eye trade and Squadron Supreme collection.

    SS isn’t great, but it’s gotten slightly better with age, especially compared to JMS’ godawful Supreme Power.

  14. Bruce Baugh says:

    When it comes to the Legion in the 2000s, I’m afraid I’ve become a complete cynic. I don’t think it’s possible to sustain more than a year, or two, or maybe three, of good storytelling about the Legion before something elsewhere in DC-land mucks it up. To work the way the series can work, it needs to be isolated from the fads and fallacies of the contemporary DC universe, free to lay down its own rules and keep to them. Otherwise, it’s now inevitable that someone will once again be so sure of their good idea that they’ll insist the Legion change as necessary to accommodate it, and this never works in the long run.

    One of the interesting things to me about re-reading something like Great Darkness is that such concerns simply aren’t a part of it. It’s not reacting to the possibility or defending its own turf or anything like that – it’s just not been thought of.

  15. Ben Morse says:

    Not only were the fan leadership elections a cool and unique aspect of the book, if you go back and read single issues of the Levitz run, the man really took time to carefully answer each letter with honesty and detail. I can only imagine what it was like to be a Legion reader back then, but I get a real sense of community.

    Put me down as another who would like to see an STC Squadron Supreme treatise.

  16. Jim Treacher says:

    Aren’t there two or three different versions of the Legion being published right now? Way to bring in new readers, DC.

  17. mckracken says:

    boring, dated and cliche plagued.

    keeps getting nods for being so great by aging nostalgics.

    Better stick to the adventure comics legion issues.