Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga
Paul Levitz, writer
Keith Giffen, Larry Mahlstedt, Richard Bruning, artists
DC Comics, 1991
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.