Omnicommentary #-1: Mela's Guide to the 30th Century

(The following is the first of the Omnicommentary reviews for Legionnaires; due to RL time constraints & the desire to get a good backlog of reviews, these will appear monthly.  This first entry is not so much a review as an explanation for the reviews' existence and will be rather long compared to the reviews proper.)

Before we visit the future, let's go back in time for a bit.

1994, small town South Jersey.  The local main street had one block that seemed to have new stores every other month.  One that lasted the longest (18 months) was a bizarre combination ice cream shop/comics and collectibles/video rental store.  While Dad bought the not-that-good ice cream, I'd look at the comics tossed in long boxes and sold two for a dollar.

These were the heady days of the Speculator Bubble; soon, I would learn what what real comic shops run by legit businessmen/fans were like and just how close the industry came to self-destructing.  But for now, I bought the same line as this store's owners and believed that every comic was a goldmine - especially if it had something like "First Issue!" on the cover or came with swag.  So imagine my delight when I find a #1 issue in a still-sealed bag with a trading card. Jackpot!

Greed and stupidity aside, the book just looked neat.  The art looked less scratchy and angular than most books and more like the Japanese art on my Sega games.  The characters were a young-person team (always a favorite set-up), and while they each had a unique costume, there was a shared template to the costumes' designs, which made them instantly recognizable as teammates.  Plus, right on the cover, it said "A new beginning starts HERE!"  So no playing catch-up (or so I thought).

Thus was my entry into the abyss of Legion fandom.  I couldn't have chosen a worse time, but as I left with my comic and a freezer-tasting milkshake, I had absolutely no clue about any of this.  All I knew was that I liked the guy with the shades and big grin already.

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A curious reader researching the Legion will inevitably stumble across the phrase "Five Years Later".  This refers to possibly the most polarizing storytelling era in the series' history, beginning some time in the late 80s and ending with the first complete reboot of the series during the Zero Hour crossover.  In fact, a good argument could made that the Five Years Later (henceforth known as 5YL) was largely responsible for the reboot (although I would not place the blame solely on this, rather on the exterior forces that warped the 5YL's original plans).  I, personally, enjoy this era, even if it did have some missteps, so I will try to summarize it enough to let you follow the reviews.

When 5YL opens, the Legion has disbanded and fallen out of public favor.  Earthgov has collaborated with the Dominators to stealthily take over Earth, and they've stepped up their efforts to silence dissenters - for example, the Tornado Twins are falsely charged with terrorism and executed to silence their mother's journalistic criticism.  Little by little, surviving Legionnaires (most of whom have gone through their own individual traumas in the missing years) gather back together and ultimate recement their alliance after the horrific murder of their old teammate Blok.  (Seriously, his death is a heartbreaker.)  Together, they do their best to overthrow the corrupt Earthgov, free Earth from the Dominators, hold off the ever-present encroachment of the Khund Empire, and come to terms with where life has taken each of them.  And that's before we get into the creative team's attempts to appease their bosses and excise all references to Superman & Co. from the Legion's history (thank you John Byrne, you great screaming jackass, and Mike Carlin, his dim-witted enabler & hater of the JSA).  But all this is basic stuff about 5YL.  There's really only two things you need to know to get these stories - what happened to Earth and the "SW6 Batch".

What happened to Earth is pretty basic - in #38, it blew up reeeeeal good.  Please note that I do not have a copy of that issue and have only read segments from it; what I have seen, however, is one of the high points of the 5YL era and an issue that I would desperately love to find.  Thanks to the Dominion War, mishandled heavy wastes, damage from the moon's explosion earlier, and cruel whims of fate, Earth was about to shatter much like Krypton.  However, New Earth could be formed from linked-up domed cities from around the world, a failsafe created in just this event.  But this doesn't mean that everything's okay; billions of people can't reach the cities or evacuation ships, and even in the link-up process, several cities are destroyed.  This isn't treated as a throwaway disaster movie, however.  The Legionnaires who helped with the evacuation are suitably traumatized by the loss of Earth and countless innocent lives (which, from what I've heard, prompted a cameo from Death herself).  New Earth is far from perfect, and its mix of Wild West/refugee state status keeps the stories in Legionnaires from being too light-hearted.  There's always that aura of desperation and sadness because of this.

The "SW6 Batch" refers to an experiment done by the Dominators, who have always been fond of abducting random unsuspecting people to use as guinea pigs (this goes back to the Invasion! crossover at my earliest reading experience).  A few of these random people (including folks attached to the Legion) found this "batch", in which the captives bore an eerie resemblence to the Silver Age Legion.  Even the events they remembered seem to cut off well before the present day, and they are appalled by the world around them.  The escape costs them three teammates (and since Keith Giffen's involved, you know Karate Kid was one of them), and then they find themselves with a new problem upon meeting their older equivalents - namely, there was no way to determine which Legion was the original.  (We now pause for a new sentence.  I apologize for so many long sentences, but I can't help it.)  This storyline raised the disturbing possibility that the Legionnaires we had seen grow & struggle since the early days of Shooter (back when he was readable) were "just" clones.

So, what to do?  I'm sure DC editorial (stupid as it was back then) saw how well a similar theme had gone down over at Marvel, and the decision was made to keep it a mystery indefinitely.  Then the creative team came up with the idea of having a big fight issue where the members of a new single Legion are determined by who survives; either the survivors or the victims would be determined by pulling names out of a hat.  The results probably would have been interesting (and it'd certainly be interesting to try creatively), but this was nixed as well.  Finally, they opted just to give the SW6 kids their own book, as the motherbook was replacing the main 5YL team but this would allow them to continue to explore both the kids & the situation with New Earth.  This would also serve as a jumping-on point for new readers and have a lighter tone than the main Legion's book.  And that brings us back to the cheapy bin at the anything-goes store, where I found the end result of all this foo-for-all.

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The purpose of these issue-by-issue reviews is ultimately twofold.  First, I wish to entertain.  These aren't scholarly critical reviews but rather my personal reactions.  I'll do my best to at least amuse myself, and hopefully others will come along for the ride.

Second, and more important, these are an attempt to reconnect with my past.  I want to discover what it was that appealled to me in these stories back in the day.  I also want to see how my tastes have changed over the past 15-odd years, a length of time that could render even the truest of believers totally jaded towards comics.  This will mostly follow the stories up through the "End of an Era" Zero Hour crossover, although there will be some early reboot issues and a smattering of others.  We'll just have to see what winds up here.

The future begins here! Again.

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Recommended references for the understandably confused include:

- Matthew Peterson's incredibly thorough Hero Histories for EVERY Legionnaire.  The one linked is not only the last one done (for Gazelle, one of the few plot subjects in Shooter's Threeboot run that didn't make me want to bludgeon him), but it also has a list of every Legionnaire ever for more info, including the ones that were just mentioned as members during the missing years.  THAT is thorough, folks.

- Tom Bierbaum's Livejournal, where he shares crucial insights into the background of writing both books during the 5YL era.  Very enlightening.

- Not Blog X, G. Kendall's review site for 90s comics.  It's my main inspiration for the reviewing format I will use and very entertaining in its own right.

- Last but not least, I recommend you buy Teenagers from Outer Space: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes and give it a read.  It's well worth it, and the insights from Julian Darius' mega-essay "Revisionism, Radical Experimentation, and Dystopia in Giffen's Legion" are particularly valuable for anyone interested in the 5YL stories.


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