Saturday, August 23, 2008

How I Learned to Love the Legion

This is a few days old, but Timothy Callahan opens his most recent column, "When Worlds Collide" over at CBR, with a reference to me!

The context is a column on the Legion of Super-Heroes, which is the subject of Tim's new book through Sequart, entitled Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes. It's a hefty tome, edited by Tim with a foreword by Matt Fraction and an afterword by Barry Lyga, as well as essays by me, Tim, and a plethora of others. It covers everything you'd ever want to know about the Legion, and it's now available through retailers.

Anyway, Tim opens his column by recounting a conversation we had in February 2007 at the New York Comic-Con. Tim had wrapped up Grant Morrison: The Early Years and we were talking with Sequart's Editor-in-Chief, Mike Phillips, about what Tim wanted to do next. Tim, as he recounts, mentioned the Legion of Super-Heroes among his possible ideas.

I did indeed reply, "Really?"

The reason why, however, isn't important to the point Tim's making, and so he rightly doesn't address it. For some reason, I wasn't the point of his column on the Legion! He does give me credit for supporting the book and even contributing to it, which is damned awesome.

But let me set the record straight. There were two reasons why I replied that way.

The first is that I couldn't imagine Tim loving the Legion and writing a serious book about it. The Legion is just so campy, so silly, so seemingly opposite of the postmodern stuff that Tim showed how much he loved in Grant Morrison: The Early Years. I couldn't get the Legion, with its brightly-colored teenagers with flight rings, into the same "arteur" world as a book about Grant Morrison.

Along these lines, the Legion didn't immediately strike me as a likely subject for an analytical book. I mean, you write those things about Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, not the Legion. It's a little like an analytical book about Donald Duck comics: sure, they're important and worthwhile, but I wouldn't know where to begin a book like that.

Now, this doesn't mean that the Legion is trash or not appropriate for scholarly inquiry. Far from it. I wouldn't have founded Sequart if I didn't believe that comics were worthwhile works of art, due the respect of analysis. And it's not like I thought the Legion was too "lowly": I would find a book about bubblegum wrappers through history fascinating. It's just that, as a gut reaction, the Legion as subject surprised me -- especially from Tim.

But there's another reason why I was surprised: I love the Legion.

When I was a kid, the Flash was my #1 hero. Sure, I loved Batman and Superman. I loved G.I. Joe and Transformers. But there was something about the Flash, with his limited powers, that spurred my imagination. Here was a guy who ran fast, basically, but really could do anything: move faster than any punch, lift people into the air with wind, and travel through time and the whole multiverse. I bought everything Flash was in, and I started picking up the back issues.

I kept shopping around for another series that I loved as much as the Flash, and I never found it. I remember loving several characters and runs over the years, but there was no series that I loved enough to want to collect every single issue ever published.

And then came the Legion. I'd read the Legion before, but it was really the Giffen run that blew my mind. It was like no other monthly super-hero comic out there.

Suddenly, I just had to have every single Legion story ever published. Of the other eras, I fell in love with the oldest stories the most: from the guest appearances in Superman's titles through the end of the Adventure Comics run. They were just so zany, so filled with ideas and imagination -- much like Giffen's issues, though no one else seemed to be able to get past the fact that the tone was so different, those old stories so stupidly bright and Giffen's stories so stupidly dark.

The Legion was a late discovery, to be sure. By then, I was already getting into DC's mature readers titles: Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, The Sandman, Doom Patrol, and Shade, the Changing Man. I bought all those issues too, which was far easier than tracking down all the old Legion issues. But the Legion was the only other super-hero franchise that I loved (outside of Doom Patrol, I guess, but I didn't think of that as super-heroes).

If you asked me, the Legion was right up there with the Flash: odd little super-hero franchises that I just loved.

And it stayed that way, even as I ate up everything Vertigo published and dove headlong into black-and-white independent comics, then manga, then French comics...

I did eventually grow out of my completist worship for any title or character. Graphic novels will do that to you, as will realizing that you've been reading a title for 100 issues and that you don't like any of them -- what you liked was the writer who left 100 issues ago.

Anyway, the Legion was my childhood #2.

So part of my "Really?" was that I couldn't believe that Tim had any interest in the Legion too. Yeah, I couldn't imagine a book about the Legion. It was a gut reaction, and Tim convinced me. But part of my response was remembering how much I loved the Legion, a guilty pleasure I didn't know any other comics analyst shared.

Turned out that I was wrong: a lot of people who write about comics felt similarly.

I ended up writing a chapter in Tim's book. It should be no surprise that it's about Giffen's run. In that essay, I try to explain just what I saw all those years ago -- just what was so radical about what Giffen was doing. Stuff no one seems to know about, at least in the history of "deconstructivist" or "revisionist" super-hero comics.

I thought it was important to write. I slaved over it. I ran late. I worked for it, far more than I'm used to doing when I write, just trying to conceptualize all of what was there, lying implicit in Giffen's issues.

And, in the end, Keith Giffen got a review copy and wrote us an amazing cover blurb. "I never knew I was so interesting!" he said.

I was flattered because his work was so important, an all-but-ignored gem in the evolution of super-hero comics.

"Really?" you ask.

Just read the book.
This post originally appeared here. Teenagers from the Future is now available through retailers like

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