In email, Michael Paciocco asks:
So, I’m reading this.
And there’s a lot of reference and reverence for the “Five Years Later” Legion stuff. Which is sort of before my time (didn’t even start reading DC regularly until post-Zero Hour – exceptions being Waid’s Flash, the Superman stuff, and the beginning of the Kyle Rayner era). As the biggest Legion guy I know, would you mind explaining it to me because I don’t get it.
From what I’ve read in bits and pieces from blogs and everywhere else, the 5YL is the Legion’s “Grim and Gritty” phase – the UFP is more Dystopic, Cosmic Boy’s lost his powers, the Legion is basically shattered, Richard Kent Shakespeare, Shrinking Violet has a bionic leg or something, etc etc. And then there’s whole thing where they find a bunch of bright and happy clones (who may or may not be the real deal) and Earth is destroyed? How does that not conflict deeply with the whole thing of “LOSH should be bright and happy and heroic”?
The first thing you have to understand about the v4 era Legion is that it was almost certainly one of the most ambitious superhero comics undertakings of all time. The blogpost Michael references rightly describes it as a “post-Watchmen comic book” in the proper sense, which is to say it took away far more in the storytelling toolkit from Watchmen than simply the grim tone. Indeed, calling v4 “grim and gritty” oversimplifies it greatly; after all, this is a run which had some of the greatest comedy issues of all time.
What Keith Giffen took from Watchmen was the concept of whole-world-building and the idea that the greater world beyond one’s protagonists matters, but his use of it was expressly in opposition to the core thesis Alan Moore advanced, which is that, all things considered, superheroes in and of themselves are basically powerless to stop society’s self-destructive urges (Dr. Manhattan is only a stopgap, Nite Owl and Rorshach are meaningless, and Ozymandias only succeeds because he abandons superheroism for conspiratorial means). v4 Legion, in comparison, is set against the backdrop of a full-fledged galactic war between numerous enormous space empires – the United Planets, the Khunds, the Dominion, the Dark Circle, et cetera – but time and again, the Legion mostly succeeds in its goals. Where it does not are usually disasters of immense scope rather than the result of others’ agency.
As comics have grown more cognizant of the belief that superheroes could only “realistically” operate as agents of state authority (see the Marvel Universe, where currently most of the major superhero teams either are explicitly state agents like the Avengers or operate on a wink-nod basis with the state), Giffen’s Legion went entirely the other way: he had the Legion reform under conditions as hostile as possible, with only their own resources keeping them afloat (and although Chameleon was at this point ridiculously wealthy, the series made clear that individual wealth really only goes so far more often than not) and with most of the established power actors either disinclined to cooperate with the Legion or actively hostile towards their re-inception. It’s an overwhelmingly pro-superheroic, deeply idealistic run of comics. To call it “grim and gritty” because a lot of characters die misses the point – after all, the series takes place mostly within a war, and whenever the focus shifts away from those wars, the most striking thing about the story is how much care it takes to show that the Legion is an extended family more than anything else.
And, as a writing accomplishment – getting back to the technical side of things – even though it does not entirely succeed (Giffen tries to juggle an enormous number of balls, and frankly he drops a few here and there) it is staggering in its scope. What Giffen did (along with the Bierbaums, who I think at this point are widely acknowledged as being the weaker writers in the v4 team, particularly when their eventual run without Giffen was so much… less than his) was to apply Watchmen‘s use of wider-world story to the Legion universe – IE to apply it to over thirty years of comics. Giffen had done this before with Paul Levitz, of course (see the Great Darkness Saga and the Legion of Super-Villains story, both of which were massive callbacks to practically the entirety of Legion history) but v4 is so dense at times it practically begs for annotations – not that they are necessary, for the most part, to follow the vast and ambitious swirling plot. And Giffen did all of this while creating a new status quo to explain how the Legion came to be in a universe where Superboy was never a member to boot (a task at which he was mostly successful, creating Laurel Gand in the process – a Supergirl replacement who became quite popular in her own right).
It doesn’t entirely succeed. Some elements were controversial at the time because neckbeards hate change (the Ayla/Vi gay relationship, the Shvaughn/Sean Erin de-transgendering story, Sun Boy’s character arc). Some elements were controversial because they just sucked (Kid Quantum, a bad idea all around). But on the whole it is far more successful than not, and where it fails it is forgivable because of the furious attempt by Giffen and his co-creators to do something new in superhero comics. And that is worth commemorating.