Book Review: Legion of Super-Heroes Vol. 1: Hostile World (The New 52)
by Darren Goodhart
Published: June 27, 2012
As a longtime comic book fan and a part-time comic book artist, whenever I'm asked about my favorite comics of all time I'm always sure to mention DC Comics' Legion of Super-Heroes very highly on the list.
For those that don't know anything about the Legion of Super-Heroes, here's a quickie crash course: In the 31st century, a group of young heroes from worlds across the galaxy have banded together to fight the good fight, inspired by the legend of Superman and other heroes from 1,000 years before. That's the clean and simple version, though if you're willing to dig, you'll find a wealth more of material. I first got into the Legion back in the 70s first through some reprints and then through new material when the group was a back-up feature in Superboy's comic. Its multitude of characters and optimistic futuristic environment really tickled my sense of wonder and I just wanted to absorb myself in this stuff; it was literally like Star Trek but with superheroes. Artist Dave Cockrum (best known for his amazing work in revitalizing Marvel's X-Men in the 70s) first made a name for himself drawing the feature back in the day and it was his work on this feature that inspired me to want to draw comics. Since then, I've followed the Legion religiously through all of their various creative teams and reboots and through it all, I've still found the feature to be inspiring.
Another huge part of that inspiration comes through two previous runs on the book by writer (and former DC President) Paul Levitz. Levitz first got the chance to write the feature while he was 19 years old, primarily working with artists James Sherman and Mike Netzer (then Mike Nasser) and immediately started to add to the Legion's legacy in huge ways. This first run, though, was plagued with production problems, and eventually Levitz stepped down from the title to concentrate more on the editorial and business affairs for DC Comics. Levitz returned to the title in the early 80s, starting first with artist Pat Broderick and continuing with a highly memorable run with artist Keith Giffen that still today remains the utter high point of the feature's history for many Legion fans -- deservedly so as well, as Levitz and Giffen took the Legion to amazing new heights making it (at the time) DC's second best-selling comic.
A little over two years ago, after stepping down from his spot as President of DC Comics, Levitz made the return to the life of the freelancer working on various projects but also returning to the Legion. We longtime fans were looking forward to this in a big way, though many newer fans were wondering if Levitz still had the chops to write the book for a new audience that's now used to having their stories presented to them in a whole new way. When Levitz was first writing the book, he was writing a serialized monthly comic book that only occasionally took the time to have specific story arcs. The idea of being collected into trade editions wasn't really in the plan. Now story arcs are par for the course with instead of writing stories that take place in a single issue, they're now spread across five or six issues and are specifically written with trade collections in mind. This has certainly let writers take the time to better explore all of the facets of their characters and their stories, but at least in my mind, it's also made every single storyline seem like it's your literal "big" event with little breathing room between big arcs. It's turned me off to a lot of comics now, though I'll also be the first to admit that when it's done right it can be very effective.
For me, Levitz's return to the Legion was welcomed, but it was also slow to catch fire. Oh certainly, my expectations were huge and probably impossible to meet and while I wasn't blown away right from the start, I was still entertained and as I continued to follow the book, just got more and more back into it to the point where pre-New 52, the Legion of Super-Heroes (and Adventure Comics- Levitz was also writing the Legion there as well) got back to the top of my list. Levitz, working with artists Yildiray Cinar, Frances Portela and Phil Jiminez (amongst others) was finding his groove and I was certainly enjoying the ride.
Then DC dropped the big one last year and made the announcement that all of the books were going away only to relaunch with 52 new #1 issues with some returning series and a lot of brand new books. I, like the rest of the comic fans out there, was stunned by the news, but I got it- sales have been in the tank for the last few years all around, especially when compared to the glory days of the 80s and 90s. Something new needed to be done to (hopefully) try to attract new readers and DC figured that giving everyone a fresh start along with a new digital initiative would be just the thing to jumpstart sales. So far, from what I've gathered, it's been considered a success though maybe not as successful as many would hope it would be.
Almost everything was getting a fresh start with the exceptions being the Batman and Green Lantern books- those being DC's best-selling titles now, were retaining some of their story points from the pre-New 52 run. Another book that was also not going to see too much change was The Legion of Super-Heroes. For current Legion fans, this was welcomed news, but for the new reader it's been seen as a bit of a detriment.
Which finally brings us to the book I have in hand, Legion of Super-Heroes Volume 1: Hostile World. This volume collects the first seven issues of Legion of Super Heroes as part of The New 52 and was initially met with mixed tidings, even from yours truly. The centerpiece of this first volume is the first four issues which has the Legion working to fight off the advance of the conquering alien race known as the Dominators on the world of Panoptes. The fifth issue is a special fill-in/bridge story that covers a day in the life of the Legion and trying to catch up with all of its members who are still in the 31st century. The final two issues are a smaller and more intimate story with the Legion thwarting a threat in China, but still setting up threads which have yet to pay off.
As this starts, it generally takes place after the Legion's pre-New 52 start but with one little snag. As part of the New 52, DC has chosen to have two Legion books, this one and Legion Lost which takes seven members of the group and has sent them back in time to the 21st century on a mission with the possibility of no return. In the main book, those members are believed to be dead, though of course, those of us reading both know better. The only big introduction a new reader gets to these characters are little call-out blocks of text that tell you who the characters are, their homeworlds, and their abilities, the rest you're left to pick up on for yourself. Now for the existing fan, this is fine, but for a new reader coming in, it's easy to see how one might get lost right from the start. I think if you're new to the Legion and have a real desire to follow them, eventually through the course of this book, things will get clearer. But considering the large membership of this group and the way that Levitz writes it, it could still be awhile before you really see the whole picture.
Now when I mention the way that Levitz writes it, I'm not saying that with any sort of derogatory sentiment at all. Levitz is literally writing this for the long haul, and not giving you something that will be neatly wrapped up in the space of a single trade collection. There's a very nice bit of business with both the start and finish in this book that can certainly serve as a proper book ending. At the start, one of the Legion's longtime members, Chameleon Boy, is leading a team that includes two rookie members and by the end, Chameleon Boy comes back to those members with a lesson learned. It's a nice way to go, but I don't think it does much for the new reader as far as giving them that jolt that they probably want. For me personally, it's just fine and I had a terrific time reading this book, but I'm just a little wary of how it fares now in today's marketplace.
The artwork in this book is just stunning. Francis Portela was retained for the New 52 launch and with each issue, I see new growth. Portela's vision of the 31st century is very appealing and each character has their own distinct face, body type and way of moving. In many ways, Francis Portela reminds me of artist James Sherman, who I mentioned above as being part of Paul Levitz's first run on the comic. Both artists have vibrant ways of depicting the future and neither have skimped on making it all look right and believable. The fifth issue (chapter) of this book is drawn by veteran artist Walter Simonson, who for my money is one of comics all-time top talents thanks to his work on Marvel's Thor and his collaboration with the late Archie Goodwin on DC's Manhunter, amongst other brilliantly drawn books. Simonson's chapter here seems a little rushed to me, but part of that I suspect is just due to the fact that he didn't ink it either, leaving that to in the hands of veteran artist Dan Green and Sean Parsons. It's not bad at all, but I was hoping that Simonson would've inked it as well. Stylistically, it's miles away from Portela's version, but that's fine as the Legion is the type of comic that works with different interpretations. I also want to tip my hat to artist Karl Kerschl for a terrific cover for this volume (which also served as the cover to the first issue). At the time when the book came out, I thought the cover was technically well done, but like the contents of the first issue, I had some question of whether or not it would serve the purpose of The New 52. Now seeing it again on this collection, it reminds me of classic science fiction paperback book covers from the 70s and 80s and absolutely seems fitting for this trade collection.
But still the question looms; will this be appealing to a new reader? From what I gather from reading various comics messageboards, I don't think it will, but then you never know. I certainly hope new readers will come in and discover the same magic that I've experienced with the Legion since the 1970s. The potential here is huge though one wonders if DC Comics themselves might be the biggest hindrance in the growth of the title. Why do I say that? Well, two things immediately come to mind. Come this September, DC will be doing a special Zero Issue month with number zero issues for the entire line that will explain away some of the gap in time since the start. This is fine and dandy, but with that same month, everyone but Paul Levitz will be leaving the title, basically saying that Francis Portela won't return. Since the start of The New 52, it seems like a good portion of titles have been hit with abrupt creative team changes that gives the impression of desperation on DC's part more than anything else.
Secondly, I think it was a mistake on DC's part to not just go all in and give this a whole new fresh start right off the bat (and for the record, I think they should've done the same thing with the Green Lantern and Batman titles as well). Recently, a new mini-series called Legion of Super-Heroes: Secret Origin came to an end. This was brilliantly written by Mr. Levitz and just beautifully drawn by artist Chris Batista (another Legion vet). This six-issue series looked at the purpose of the team and followed its growth to its first ten or so members and it was just wonderful. Levitz and Batista took a look at some classic Legion ideas and gave them a fresh spin bringing in a bigger sense of wonder than what the first seven issues of the regular title did. I read this series and just wanted to see Levitz build further on this version of the Legion. He could've saluted some more classic points for the older fans as well as making this the perfect point for a new reader to come in and truly discover what the Legion of Super-Heroes is all about.
As it is, I'm still thrilled with Paul Levitz's writing (he really is one of my all-time favorite comic writers, if not THE favorite) and still had a great time reading Legion of Super-Heroes Volume 1: Hostile World and I certainly do recommend it though I'll also admit my bias is showing. I really want to see new readers embrace this and find out just how special the Legion and Legion fandom can be. If you do choose to take this plunge, don't just stop with this book, there's plenty of collections of classic Legion material out there right now and they're all a lot of fun (and the above-mentioned Legion of Super-Heroes: Secret Origin is coming soon as well). In addition, I'd also highly recommend listening to a podcast called The Legion of Substitute Podcasters. This podcast is a weekly examination of all things Legion of Super-Heroes by Paul French, Darren Nowell, Matt Kramer and Scott Coles. From classic Legion stories to current Legion stories, these guys know their stuff, they're very entertaining to listen to and I know that they've helped new fans get acclimated to the Legion. I certainly do think it's a plunge worth taking and for me personally, reading and being a fan of the Legion of Super-Heroes has been nothing but rewarding.