Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Death Of Mon-El, Again: On Keth Giffen's Five-Years-After "Legion Of Super-Heroes" & The Strange Legacy Of The Canon (Part 1 of 2)

In which the blogger takes a look at a single example of how the years following "Watchmen" and "The Dark Knight Returns" produced some very brave and profoundly noncommercial stabs at producing smart mainstream books for supposedly older audiences;

        

Whatever did happen to the opportunities which arose for the mainstream super-person comic in the wake of the potentially game-changing successes of Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns? Something of how those favorable circumstances were, with the very best of intentions, squandered is to be found in the pages of 1989's Legion Of Super-Heroes # 4, volume 4, by plotter/artist Keith Giffen and the scripting team of Tom & Mary Bierbaum.  In a great many ways, Giffen's Legion remains a bold and innovative comicbook, and one which shares a similar approach to storytelling with Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s Watchman. Yet in applying those to DC’s consistently under-performing future-heroes franchise, Giffen created a comic-book which was anything but likely to break out to the lucrative markets of the mainstream. For through a debilitating brew of opaque craftsmanship, DC editorial fiat, and a misdiagnosis of the Legion's commercial weaknesses, this bold new start for the Legion of Superheroes ended up contradicting many of the key reasons for the artistic and commercial achievements of Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns.

The first page of L.S.H. 4:4: complex, but obtuse; dense, but not transparent; ambitious, but not inclusive.

One of the most unfortunate of the assumptions drawn in the late Eighties from the success of Moore, Gibbons and Miller's work was that revisionist takes on the superhero sub-genre were worthwhile narratives in themselves. Ever since then, the mainstream of the American comics industry has invested itself in a constant and wearying round of obsessive naval gazing, perpetually presenting tales of super-heroic analogues and alternative realities, what-ifs, re-boots, and post-modern low-jinks. But in doing so, all the industry has managed to achieve is reinforce its own reluctance to look beyond the substance of the sub-genre in the way that the creators of Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns so daringly did. For in so much as they were revisionist texts, the revisionism was in significant part the result of their hybridizing the traditions of the superhero book with those of other fictional genres. For example, Moore's decision to frame his re-imagining of the Charlton super-people in the context of a compelling murder mystery invigorated the superperson comic, adding an untypical rigour and drive to the well-mined and relatively narrow traditions of the sub-genre.

The nine-panel grid for its own sake; style over substance, experimentation triumphing over clarity. Interesting, but hardly functional. A sense of dislocation is created, but a sense of place and narrative progression are jeopardized in doing so.
         
The same is true of Miller importing and adapting the tropes of the thriller while accessing something of the visual conventions of Manga. In that, neither book was centrally concerned with the super-person narrative as a distinct fictional form in its own right at all, and yet the belief that they were has somehow become one of the most influential, and flat-out dysfunctional, lessons drawn from the "canon". In short, Miller, Moore and Gibbons took the strengths of the superhero books and put them to use in telling stories which had far more in common with other genres than was typical, and they did so in as clear and involving a fashion as they possibly could. Where they experimented, they did so to achieve a specific storytelling purpose, and where they innovated, they did so in a radical if controlled fashion. By contrast, Keith Giffen’s Legion Of Superheroes occupies the opposite territory.. His stories focus solely on reinvigorating a specific superhero franchise in terms of the sub-genre itself, and the stories which he tells are largely of interest only to those who’ve already bought into the Legion and engaged in its quarter-century's worth of fantastical back-story.

Nine panels of a debate between 3 characters who've yet to be introduced, placed against the least involving of artwork. Fascinating to lovers of form, as I must admit I am, but entirely alienating to most folks looking for a comprehensible and involving narrative.
          
That Giffen’s Legion was ambitiously aimed at a more patient and, for want of a better phrase, comics-literate audience than is typical for the superhero book - then as now - is beyond doubt. For nobody could have imagined that this take on the Legion could possibly sell to anything other than a readership which was willing to delay narrative gratification to an unprecedented degree, and to do so while focusing to such an demanding and challenging narrative. This was a book which expected its reader to take a counter-intuitive pleasure in not immediately knowing what was happening, in not understanding the purpose of what they were seeing, and often in not even recognizing who it was that they were looking at. Out went the costumes, out went the code-names, out went the familiar tone and tropes of the previously optimistic Thirtieth century; in came a deliberately obscure approach to the depiction of a suddenly dark far future. And with Giffen having chosen to abandon so many of the key elements of the Legion which were most familiar and helpful to the comic's readers, a book that could essentially only appeal to a niche audience looking for a superheroic payoff was pushed ambitiously into the marketplace offering little of either pay-off or recognisable superheroes.

Three confusingly identified voices superimposed over an entirely meaningless background; anything less guaranteed to estrange most classes of Legion readers is hard to imagine.
         
More than simply throwing away those elements of the franchise which made navigating its huge cast and their bewildering backstory easier to manage for all but the most devoted of fans, Giffen also set his stories in the era following a barely-detailed five year period of universal social collapse and interstellar war. In short, Giffen took a book which was already hamstrung by an excess of continuity, and he made the whole situation exponentially more obscure by rendering his narratives unfamiliar to both aficionados and neophytes alike. Oldsters found the familiar set-up of the Legion absent, and to the point at which the Legion itself didn't even officially exist for a great many months, whereas newcomers were faced with tales which gained their power not so much from what was being shown as from how the Legion's status quo had been changed. Which old friends would renew their relationships, who had altered their allegiances or passed on entirely, and so on? Bafflingly impenetrable to newcomers and excluding even to longterm readers, volume 4 of the Legion Of Superheroes was too often all snare and no second, let alone third, act, all mystery and little catharsis. For all that it excelled in a great deal of its character moments, and that was undoubtedly so, they were often the only traditionally rewarding aspect of the narrative. Worse yet, even they often relied on the reader having mastered both the old and the new continuity while carrying a largely self-generated picture of what occurred in the rarely-touched upon five year gap between the two as well.

Storytelling limited by the choice of page design rather than illuminated by it. Though at moments the design creates interesting effects, the experience of the page as a whole is disjointed and unsatisfying. The top row of panels do certainly create a sense of time passing from Mon-El's heat-vision firing to it hitting the Time Trapper, emphasising the force of it as it impacts against the tale's protagonist,and the chopping and changing of camera angles does create the air of a world where the natural order is absent. And yet Giffen largely used the same techniques on scenes set in far less untypical circumstances, as can be seen below, meaning that what we see here is less a specific choice for a specific purpose and more the overall style of the book's early run.
           
That this was a daring road to take couldn't ever be denied. But the premise that a commercially viable mass of readers would want to be constantly confused by a comic's storytelling, and continually frustrated by a playful refusal to act out the familiar plots of the sub-genre's tradition, was as flawed as could be. For every one reader who embraced the opportunity to collaborate with Giffen's obscurantism, and who appreciated Giffen's refusal to deliver what would essentially be more of the same, there must have been hundreds who just didn't feel comfortable or even welcome in the midst of all this style for style's sake. This was art-rock being peddled to a Pop single's market,  and as such, it was never going to raise the Legion up from the status of a second-string property. And whatever the satisfactions offered by Giffen's narratives, they never threatened to match the sympathetic and involving virtues of the Dark Knight Returns and Watchman, which wed experimentation to comprehensibility and depth to clearly signaled narrative returns. In short, Giffen's Legion was a glorious act of ambition matched with willfulness which ran contrary to the examples set by the canon just a few years before, and it suffered accordingly.

For there's a limit to how much stressing and straining the sub-genre's traditions can take before their meaning collapses. And without it having been hybridised with other literary forms, the superhero tale is a thin and fragile load-bearing structure to hang such a very great deal of stuff and digression upon.

A prisoner of the nine panel grid he'd chosen, Giffen was compelled to constantly offer scenes which weren't suited to any such design. In the above, the visual representation of Colu and the shot of what we must presume is Brainiac 5's home carry little information, distinctiveness or mood. Even the word "Colu" itself means nothing to anyone unfamiliar with Legion lore, while what we see tells us nought of worth to the story itself at all. In short, that first row is entirely unnecessary to the story.

      
To be concluded tomorrow, same blog-time, same blog-space;

.

25 comments:

  1. For all its flaws, I have a real fondness for the 5YL run of Legion, where there was a genuine sense of the characters evolving and moving forward, instead of being locked in a perpetual, backward-looking stasis.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hello Knightdky:- As I'm going to finish off saying, I was and I remain a fan of the run. I've still got the Legion role playing book and I even went to a London comic-con in the early nineties to hear the Legion editor discuss the Giffen era. I think the comic was, as I write above and as you say, adventurous and enjoyable. But I also believe that it was an art project in a commercial medium, and that it was the wrong project at the time. I think that all the things you rightly praise the book for could've been incorporated into a form that also sold. Mind you, I'm not claiming that's fact!

    I know that sounds contradictory, but I promise you, Mr K, it's true.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "After years of success keeping the galaxy safe, the Galactic Champions were helpless to stop the Universal Disaster. Five years later, can the team pick up the pieces?"

    There, now it's not about the Legion, and the writer can be free to do whatever he wants. He can use the set-up to write about whether or not the failed super heroes are still relevant or turn it into a rousing adventure of how the GC saved society. I think the relative failure of 5 YL points to one of the ways the self-contained, continuity-free structure was a factor in the success of Watchmen and DKR.

    -Mike Loughlin

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hello Mike:- Absolutely! There was so much that was good about the Giffen Legion, and yet there was so much much about it that was excluding too. Following your point, the fact that the Legion has such a fantastically detailed continuity doesn't need to be an issue. The creators could edit the corpus for what's needed for a specific story, and without contradicting what's been laid down elsewhere, focus on providing a story which is, as you say. self-contained and (relatively) continuity-free.

    The 5YL - thanks for reminding me of that phrase - Legion was trying to do far too much. A comic book can't bear the weight of an entire immersive universe. It's a daft business, and as you've always argued, the story is the thing.

    ReplyDelete
  5. While your point about it being baffling to new readers is absolutely valid, I personally found the fact that I had absolutely no idea what was going on incredibly invigorating.

    I stumbled across this version of the Legion with #20, which was about as obtuse and confusing as the series ever got, and I loved every bit of it. It took me years to figure out what was going on, but every tiny little revelation was profoundly appreciated.

    (I'm having a similar experience reading George R R Martin's Song Of Ice and Fire, where every piece that locks into place enriches the entire narrative.)

    The Giffen/Bierbaum Legion got me at a reasonably young age - I hadn't read Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns at that stage - but I had never cared about the Legion before v4, and this bold style of storytelling, that didn't feel like anything else in mainstream comics, got me hooked for years afterwards. (Too much Jeff Moy art killed off that enthusiasm in the end.)

    I fully understand that the series was way too frustrating for many readers, but I think there were more people who liked that kind of storytelling than you might think. It was popular enough to spawn several spin-off titles, and did continue with its complicated storytelling for more than three years, so they must have had some kind of an audience.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I made an attempt at reading the 5YL run a few years back, and found it to be, as you say, rather obtuse and opaque. I had some familiarity with the Legion from stories like Final Night, Time and Time Again, and a small digest collection of Silver-Age Legion stories I had found at a garage sale. None of these prepared me for the bizarre nature of the 5YL books, which I found to be only a small bit more lucid than Finnegan's Wake. Even in the rare occasions I could make out the speakers' identities, I couldn't see the purpose behind what they were saying, much less find any pleasure in reading their dialogue. The art, too, was impressionistic without being informational. I actually had to look up plot summaries on Wikipedia to understand what I had just read.

    The Legion remains my favorite franchise I've never truly read. The idea of the Legion fascinates and thrills me, but any actual stories tend to disappoint, 5YL more than most. I suppose Mark Waid's attempts to revitalize The Legion (two of them!) are some of the easiest for beginners, though they come at the expense of dumping the franchise's earlier history. Geoff Johns' retrobooting felt cynical and opportunistic, and was itself apparently wiped out in part by this recent Flashpoint nonsense.

    Maybe my difficulty comes from the suspicion that the Legion ought to remain nothing more than a nostalgic ideal because, after all, it was the group that Superman hung out with as a boy. They were Superman's own Teen Titans, his clubhouse adventure group. To watch them grow up alongside their most famous member feels wrong in some way, because one would think that the majority of them would grow up to be old and boring, and perhaps some would even become jealous of the team's more successful members. No one could expect a children's or teenager's group of superpersons to continue with the same membership into adulthood. I suppose if the 5YL run succeeded at all, it was in depicting how the team had fractured and matured (if it even survived) over time. The plot summaries I've read imply that this may have been the case, but sadly I find the manuscripts themselves to be too unreadable to see for myself. All I really know about the 5YL story is from the final chapter of Time and Time Again, in which the separated members of the old Legion come together to stop one great threat... and fail. It might have been a suitably tragic chapter from the Legion's point of view, but from the POV of the T&TA story, it was just another episode. A pity nobody is likely to revisit this or any other old Legion continuity, DC's "don't look back" policy being what it is.

    I am curious to see what the death of Mon-El has to do with your two-part series. He's been used as a continuity hole-plugger far too often for my liking, but he remains a fascinating Silver-Age artifact. Even the origin of his name is so bizarre as to require its own occasional retcon. His costume is a color-reversed version of Superman's, subtly implying a close connection and interchangability between the two, which made it easier for writers to replace Superman with his "brother" whenever it suited them.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I somewhat grudgingly accept most of your points about how choices--such as the 9-panel grid and a dependence on detailed knowledge of the earlier lore of the legion--worked against mainstream acceptance of the 5-years-later run. However, I have to say, they did a lot of interesting and fun things considering the editorial nonsense thrust upon them.

    "Mr. Giffen, my boy, we want you to do anything you like with this project on the history of the Beatles. We know that you, like we do, want to honor their legacy. Love the idea of an alternate history where they reunite in 1975! go WILD, boy! Do it however you like! ...Oh, but we don't want you to use Lennon. No, I don't mean Lennon doesn't rejoin--I mean it's the Beatles we all know and love, but without John Lennon having ever been a member. No go tell some great Beatles stories!"

    Once they had to rewrite Legion history without Superboy and Supergirl--because of editorial fiat--they never had a chance, IMHO.

    -mikesensei

    ReplyDelete
  8. For all the handicaps Giffen and the Bierbaums took upon themselves, these scans make me want to read the story now! But it would have to be the whole story in one collection. I only buy jigsaw puzzles on the assurance that all 500 pieces are in the box.

    Colin, I've been following your posts from near the start. If you need to pull back and prospect for a different vein then I'd say it's about time. I would hardly have believed there was as much to say about the classic superhero corpus as you've elucidated. Here's looking forward to anything you write.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I haven't read the book in question, but the "happier times / happier tunes" panel is wonderful. 

    And that page of all those conversation bubbles over the Moire is actually quite beautiful, in an abstract way. Knowing nothing about the characters, they're these strange, almost Lichenstein-esque slices of contextless narrative.

    Also, in that page with the dude kicking the other dude, the action is totally DKR-influenced. 

    I was not aware of this book, but you're right- it is a fascinating case study of taking on a lot of characteristics of WM, and missing the point- but not in the later, cliched grim'n'gritty way either. It looks like a really beautiful book.

    Also, didn't Giffen do the JLI? I think I read that with no real introduction and got right into it. But of course, that was the introduction of a new team, versus an old, convoluted franchise. Seems it all really comes down to a misjudgment of what was appropriate for Legion.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hello Bob:- "While your point about it being baffling to new readers is absolutely valid, I personally found the fact that I had absolutely no idea what was going on incredibly invigorating."

    As I mentioned in a comment above, I was actually a fan of the book myself, and I'd invest in a big phone book collection without the slightest hesitation. But I did find myself wearying about the lack of pay-off in the book as the first year passed. That never stopped me buying it or enjoying it, and I can remember being very touched when the 'original' Legion returned, Forte/Swan mid-Sixties costumes and all.

    What I did want to do was to try to find a way of discussing a book I was fond of that - in less than 2000 words - sidestepped my opinions and relied on the material I'd stumbled into when discussing the canon. It was in that an experiment; can I push my own feelings to one side and, for all that I accept that it's a spurious business, approach an argument in a slightly different way? And yet I still found myself unable to stop my bias show in the use of words like "daring" and phrases like "glorious act of ambition". Because I do believe in what I've written, and yet I really just wanted to write BUT I LOVED IT TOO.

    "The Giffen/Bierbaum Legion got me at a reasonably young age - I hadn't read Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns at that stage - but I had never cared about the Legion before v4, and this bold style of storytelling, that didn't feel like anything else in mainstream comics, got me hooked for years afterwards."

    One of the other things I wanted to do was to see whether it's actually possible to write "this doesn't work for a mass audience for 'x' reasons' while still recognising the virtues of the work. I think that'll come across better in today's conclusion. But of the seven factors which I'm in a spirit of playfulness applying to these books, L5Y carried only 3: innovation, distinctiveness and density. To me that means that they'll undoubtedly be incredibly interesting parts of the book, but that the book itself will remain a comic for a minority audience.

    "I fully understand that the series was way too frustrating for many readers, but I think there were more people who liked that kind of storytelling than you might think. It was popular enough to spawn several spin-off titles, and did continue with its complicated storytelling for more than three years, so they must have had some kind of an audience."

    It's a very good point. And I'll try to be careful to acknowledge that in the second half. Thank you. In truth, I wasn't trying to deny that there was an audience for the book, and I must make that clearer. But I was working from the premise that this was a book which could have done so much better. Its virtues, for me, could've been delivered in a form which also negated many of its vices.

    But your comment effectively contradicts that P.O.V. :) You embraced the experience, the delayed gratification, the density without transparency. I don't think a mainstream smash can be won according to those principles, but that the process created a unique and interesting effect, I'd not disagree.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hello J:- “I made an attempt at reading the 5YL run a few years back, and found it to be, as you say, rather obtuse and opaque. I had some familiarity with the Legion from stories like Final Night, Time and Time Again, and a small digest collection of Silver-Age Legion stories I had found at a garage sale. None of these prepared me for the bizarre nature of the 5YL books, which I found to be only a small bit more lucid than Finnegan's Wake. Even in the rare occasions I could make out the speakers' identities, I couldn't see the purpose behind what they were saying, much less find any pleasure in reading their dialogue. The art, too, was impressionistic without being informational. I actually had to look up plot summaries on Wikipedia to understand what I had just read.”

    That’s a really succinct distillation of how I suspect a great many readers responded. And I think that the difference between Bob’s comment above and yours reflects a real and fascinating debate about Giffen’s Legion. Trying to find a way to approach BOTH points-of-view which might explain each of them was what I wanted to do here, and as an experiment I’m glad I had a go at it. I’m sure that in the end everything comes down to ‘horses for courses’, and yet I’m also sure that there are objective criteria to use to evaluate books too. So, I liked it and I didn’t. I think it’s a matter of opinion and I don’t! Fat lot of good I am!

    “The Legion remains my favorite franchise I've never truly read. The idea of the Legion fascinates and thrills me, but any actual stories tend to disappoint, 5YL more than most.”

    I think that’s a real shame. Because I agree with you about the Legion’s worth, and it’s potential is considerable. Yet it’s a nightmare commission, not least because of the endless meddling in the franchise by DC editorial. But I’ve always had a gut feeling that the Legion could once again attain a place in the front rank of the second string titles. I can recall how wonderful the first Giffen/Levitz collaboration was, and I don’t believe in lightning not striking twice where comic books are concerned. (By which I don’t mean that there haven’t been fine LSH comics since, but the Great Darkness Saga was the moment when the Legion became a front rank book for a year and slightly more.)

    “I suppose Mark Waid's attempts to revitalize The Legion (two of them!) are some of the easiest for beginners, though they come at the expense of dumping the franchise's earlier history. Geoff Johns' retrobooting felt cynical and opportunistic, and was itself apparently wiped out in part by this recent Flashpoint nonsense.”

    I thought the Johns/Frank six-parter in Action was often charming, but there was a great deal else of what he instigated with the Legion which I most certainly didn’t warm too. I think Mr Waid’s reboots, and particularly the second one, stumbled against some structural problems in the basic concept, which I’m going to try to touch upon today.

    Cont;

    ReplyDelete
  12. Cont:

    “Maybe my difficulty comes from the suspicion that the Legion ought to remain nothing more than a nostalgic ideal because, after all, it was the group that Superman hung out with as a boy. They were Superman's own Teen Titans, his clubhouse adventure group. To watch them grow up alongside their most famous member feels wrong in some way, because one would think that the majority of them would grow up to be old and boring, and perhaps some would even become jealous of the team's more successful members. No one could expect a children's or teenager's group of superpersons to continue with the same membership into adulthood.”

    Yes, that concept of the super-team is a real mine-field, isn’t it? And once you try to present a group of teens as an interstellar army, you’ve already presented a picture that defeats reason. The LSH as a group of teams, a superhero homage club? Fine. The Legion as a self-regulating elite strike force? Nope. Doesn’t work for me. I worked as a teacher of Six Formers for decades, and the idea that any group of them could function as an army; it actually circumnavigates reason, and for me the second Waid boot tripped over in embracing rather than qualifying that. But that’s my opinion, stated here in these comments, and I don’t claim even the dodgy pseudo-objectivity I was playing with in the above :)

    “I suppose if the 5YL run succeeded at all, it was in depicting how the team had fractured and matured (if it even survived) over time. The plot summaries I've read imply that this may have been the case, but sadly I find the manuscripts themselves to be too unreadable to see for myself.”

    It was bold, it was smart! You’re right! I must make sure I really do emphasise those points today, though I hope I have in the above. But I guess my point is yours; all those virtues aren’t enough, no matter how wonderful they are in themselves.

    “I am curious to see what the death of Mon-El has to do with your two-part series. He's been used as a continuity hole-plugger far too often for my liking, but he remains a fascinating Silver-Age artifact. Even the origin of his name is so bizarre as to require its own occasional retcon. His costume is a color-reversed version of Superman's, subtly implying a close connection and interchangability between the two, which made it easier for writers to replace Superman with his "brother" whenever it suited them.”

    You’ve nailed the answer. A huge part of the problems faced by this Legion were the editorial fiats which removed Superboy, and then any mention of anything to do with him, from the Legion. Though this first part focuses on storytelling, the Death Of Mon-El is a symbol of the impossible constraints placed in the LSH during Giffen’s time. I don’t think his approach here could ever have won and sustained a mass audience for the book, but it would’ve undoubtedly have gone better, and the Legion prosper as a property, if not for all the editorial shenanigans.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hello Mike:- “I somewhat grudgingly accept most of your points about how choices--such as the 9-panel grid and a dependence on detailed knowledge of the earlier lore of the legion--worked against mainstream acceptance of the 5-years-later run. However, I have to say, they did a lot of interesting and fun things considering the editorial nonsense thrust upon them.”

    And I did say that in the above, although I didn’t use the word ‘fun’, and I should have. But I found it incredibly hard myself to write this, which is why I wanted to, because in criticising the Giffen Legion, I felt – not thought, but felt - as if was I was taking the wrong side in the argument. I hadn’t realised how strongly I felt about the Giffen project and I still feel awkward and quite frankly something of a turncoat in taking such a doctrinaire position. I wanted to find a way of saying ‘this wasn’t a commercial project from the off, and for these pseudo-objective reasons, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t of worth in any way’. I think I probably went too far in the direction of the criticism in an attempt to keep my own bias clear of things. (This was originally written for another site, and I couldn’t rely on folks knowing me there at all, so I needed the argument as solid as possible. In the end, and for a variety of reasons, I thought it suited here more, and so I’ve submitted something else for there. But it’s not as straight-forward a business, this criticising the Giffen Legion, as it might seem. I struggled here, no matter how sure I may seem.)

    "Mr. Giffen, my boy, we want you to do anything you like with this project on the history of the Beatles. We know that you, like we do, want to honor their legacy. Love the idea of an alternate history where they reunite in 1975! go WILD, boy! Do it however you like! ...Oh, but we don't want you to use Lennon. No, I don't mean Lennon doesn't rejoin--I mean it's the Beatles we all know and love, but without John Lennon having ever been a member. No go tell some great Beatles stories!" Once they had to rewrite Legion history without Superboy and Supergirl--because of editorial fiat--they never had a chance, IMHO.”

    Absolutely! The essay as a whole looks at 3 aspects I was interested in, and I name them in the first paragraph: “a debilitating brew of opaque craftsmanship, DC editorial fiat, and a misdiagnosis of the Legion's commercial weaknesses”. The last two points will go up today, and I can assure you that what I wrote there about that ‘editorial fiat’ will be in COMPLETE agreement with your above points, Mike.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hello Jonathan:- “For all the handicaps Giffen and the Bierbaums took upon themselves, these scans make me want to read the story now! But it would have to be the whole story in one collection. I only buy jigsaw puzzles on the assurance that all 500 pieces are in the box.”

    Jonathan, thank you for writing that. Because it was a penny drop moment for me, for I suddenly thought “Yes! I feel the same.” It’s not just a case of saying I’d buy a phone-book collection of this run, but rather that I’d love to do so. That tension between what Giffen’s Legion achieved and what it might have has been a strange and difficult one to play with, but the more I think about things, having finished the essay as a whole, the more I think “But I’m very fond of that run.”

    “Colin, I've been following your posts from near the start. If you need to pull back and prospect for a different vein then I'd say it's about time. I would hardly have believed there was as much to say about the classic superhero corpus as you've elucidated. Here's looking forward to anything you write.”

    Thank you, Jonathan. I really appreciate you saying what you have And I do hope that there’s been pieces which have carried some value, but I suspect that it’s the fact that the blog has been about gathering an experience of writing at length to deadlines which has kept it going. I suspect that if I look back in the light of what you’ve said, I might collapse in horror at the very idea of any one pontificating that much on a subject which they know so very little about :)

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hello Historyman:- “I haven't read the book in question, but the "happier times / happier tunes" panel is wonderful.”

    And there’s the frustration of the Giffen Legion. Because there is so much that’s so good in it. Now, of course it’s a terrible conceit to suggest there is a set of principles which might have been followed in order to make sure that all that good was placed in a more commercial context. But I think the folks who pop into the blog know the difference between a bloke who believes he knows more than Mr Giffen and a bloke who’s playing with critical writing in order to find a way of better expressing himself. There’s no point in writing “I think at the moment, but I know it’s only my opinion, and I’ll probably change it tomorrow” at the beginning of each sentence.

    “And that page of all those conversation bubbles over the Moire is actually quite beautiful, in an abstract way. Knowing nothing about the characters, they're these strange, almost Lichenstein-esque slices of contextless narrative.”

    I think you put your finger on something important here. Giffen’s Legion is often wonderful when its taken out of the context of a commercial, mainstream comic. A page such as the one you’re discussing has a great many virtues even if it couldn’t possibly serve the comic in the marketplace to the degree with Mr Giffen’s ambitions deserved.

    “Also, in that page with the dude kicking the other dude, the action is totally DKR-influenced.”

    Very much so. I thought it safer to focus on the 9-panel grid given I had just 2000 words to play with, but TDKR is another influence here. Which is why I found this a logical place to pop off to once I’d discussed the canon abit. If the canon’s work is largely ignored today, then what was its influence in the day? The LSH is just a snapshot of that, of course, but I do find it fascinating to speculate why those examples might not have ‘taken’ in different contexts.

    “I was not aware of this book, but you're right- it is a fascinating case study of taking on a lot of characteristics of WM, and missing the point- but not in the later, cliched grim'n'gritty way either. It looks like a really beautiful book.”

    Though this Legion was bleak – Julian Darius quite rightly calls it a dystopia – it didn’t, you’re right, fall into the grim’n’gritty trap. And bless it for that.

    Beauty? Yes. The pages have a hypnotic effect in terms of themselves. As examples of storytelling one after another, I don’t believe they work. But there’s far more than one way to consider them.

    “Also, didn't Giffen do the JLI? I think I read that with no real introduction and got right into it. But of course, that was the introduction of a new team, versus an old, convoluted franchise. Seems it all really comes down to a misjudgment of what was appropriate for Legion.”

    If there’s a good collection appearing for this Legion, I’d heartily recommend you buy it. And Mr Giffen’s creativity in this period is quite simply staggering. He did indeed revitalise the JLU, as well as a host of other projects such as L.E.G.I.O.N. And yet by the middle of the 90s, according to an interview with him I’ve just read, he wasn’t getting the work from DC anymore. The comicbook industry never ceases – NEVER ceases – to astonish me.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Giffen was indeed extraordinary in the '80s: Ambush Bug, JLI/JLE, Lobo, L.E.G.I.O.N., The Legion of the Super-Heroes, and then in the early '90s Eclipso. He was prolific and diverse in a way few comic book writers are.

    ReplyDelete
  17. "For all the handicaps Giffen and the Bierbaums took upon themselves, these scans make me want to read the story now! But it would have to be the whole story in one collection. I only buy jigsaw puzzles on the assurance that all 500 pieces are in the box."

    There is nothing more aggravating in this world than a jigsaw that is missing a piece, but this is a narrative, not a puzzle. I read this series completely out of order over more than a decade, and the non-linear nature of that experience wasn't as frustrating as I would have thought, and occasionally rewarding.

    If the Giffen/Bierbaum Legion is a puzzle, I'm still not finished, even though I've been reading and re-reading these comics over and over again since 1992. I still get a kick out of reading through a Showcase book featuring the Legion, and finally getting a reference that has baffled me for years....

    ReplyDelete
  18. Hello Miquel:- I bought anything that had KG's name attached to it in that period. I think his importance to the books of the time can be seen in the fact that the JL books and the LSH run are as different as can be in a great many key aspects. I was very taken by the first year of his Justice League, and although I've read L.E.G.I.O.N. in many years, I recall being very fond of it.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Hello Bob:- “There is nothing more aggravating in this world than a jigsaw that is missing a piece, but this is a narrative, not a puzzle. I read this series completely out of order over more than a decade, and the non-linear nature of that experience wasn't as frustrating as I would have thought, and occasionally rewarding.”

    I think it all comes down to the individual’s willingness to delay gratification. I’m absolutely inspired by your enthusiasm for the book, and somewhat ashamed that I lack your ability to persevere with texts that are this challenging.

    ”If the Giffen/Bierbaum Legion is a puzzle, I'm still not finished, even though I've been reading and re-reading these comics over and over again since 1992. I still get a kick out of reading through a Showcase book featuring the Legion, and finally getting a reference that has baffled me for years....”

    OK. Now I’m thoroughly ashamed. I just wouldn’t be keeping that amount of data in my head. That's a different relationship to comics than I tend to have, and I'm grateful to you for expressing it. It puts my argument into context, to say the least.

    ReplyDelete
  20. A second to what Bob says. There is an audience for the long disconnected serial with its eventual rewards, and this audience shouldn't be confused with one that wants mere adherence to continuity and repetitions of the expected rewards.

    You know, for this essay to be complete, we should see this Legion epic not only pursuing the promise of the Dark Knight and Watchmen, but Cerebus.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Hello Jonathan:- "A second to what Bob says. There is an audience for the long disconnected serial with its eventual rewards "

    Absolutely! I hope I've been careful to differentiate between saying that the Giffen Legion was wrong and that it couldn't ever appeal to a broader audience. That was certainly my intention.

    " ... and this audience shouldn't be confused with one that wants mere adherence to continuity and repetitions of the expected rewards."

    Again, I'd be deeply worried if I seemed to do that. In fact, what marked the audience who did stick with the Giffen Legion - and that did include me :) - was that they DIDN'T want, for example, repetitions of the expected rewards, as you say. Many of the expected tropes of the super-book were deliberately played with, and even when the Legion finally reformed, it wasn't in a way that parallels the usual super-team-rises-anew narrative.

    "You know, for this essay to be complete, we should see this Legion epic not only pursuing the promise of the Dark Knight and Watchmen, but Cerebus."

    That's a REALLY good point. To me, the canon in super-books is important because it points to the breakout to the breaker audience, and it's there that I've focused. But there was a host of other fine examples of other forms during the period, and the delayed gratification and intricate structuring of Cerebus certainly does have much in common with Giffen's LSH. Though I'd never have spotted if you'd not have mentioned it. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Hello Colin, thanks for a superb piece. You have it exactly - whereas Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore, in Watchmen, use the nine-panel grid to control the rhythm of the information, ensuring we have everything we need for the story, Keith Giffen seems to be approaching his strip more as a technical experiment, a game of form. Again and again, the tiny panels worked against understanding of the story; the first time Giffen found himself spreading one image across two or three frames, he should have thought, 'OK, not working - tweak the approach'. I'd have thanked him for at least having a crack at something new. And I'd likely have found the story easier to consume in the sense of quick-fix fun, if not necessarily richer as an experience. As you say (paraphrase ahoy!), every piece of story the reader puts together via clue spotting and inference feels that much more rewarding for not being easily gleaned.

    I'm not a big fan of focus groups but mayhap DC should have kept a few new and old readers chained up in the basement to test drive these issues. Giffen knew what his story, and back-story, was. The Bierbaums likely had full access to whatever series bible he'd put together. The editors likely knew as much as they could take in given their other duties.

    But the people buying the book? Not so much. The creative team knew the Who What When Where Why intimately, so likely thought they were doing enough to distill that onto the page, while keeping the mysteries going. But they were perhaps too close, unable to appreciate that just a little more spoon-feeding, if not actual sugar, might help the medicine go down. And Reader-Minions with different levels of knowledge and expectation, to help Giffen and co gauge the balance between challenge and reward, might have helped.

    You could look at the extreme close-ups in many panels as an analogy for all this. But probably shouldn't.

    Wasn't Giffen's radical approach spurred on by not wanting to Follow That! so far as his universally loved run with Paul Levitz (seriously, have you ever heard of anyone not liking the book through at least the incredible #300?), and Levitz's Baxter encore, were concerned? How marvelous that rather than trying to revisit old glories, or running away from the assignment, he took up the challenge. He gave us a story in which superheroes were allowed to mature as never before, rewarding longtime fans and inviting new readers to jump on board ... as the comments here show, some people did indeed get it - perhaps even better than some of us old guys, who were constantly wondering 'what's the status of X?'. They could approach the book as a discrete work, as you would an original novel or other narrative entertainment.

    And you know what - difficult as it could be, I loved the 5YL* LSH too. Suddenly the Legion was like nothing else in superhero comics. Old friends - heroes and creatives - were guiding me through a cutting edge experience, promising that if I trusted them, everything would pay off. And an awful lot of it did. By issue #4, when Giffen dazzled with his solution to the pos-Crisis Superboy problem, I was fully onboard. New characters Kono, Devlin and Celeste were gateways to help new and old readers alike get a grip on the new era. Implants such as Kent Shakespeare and the wonderful Andromeda intrigued. And I'd say that we did get a pay-off at the end of the first year, when a small team reunited as the Legion. So sign me up for a Showcase, Omnibus or whatever.

    Now to Part 2 ...

    * Gah! To me it'll always be the Five Year Gap Legion - no one actually thinks it's set in the gap, it came after a gap of five years!

    ReplyDelete
  23. Hello Mart: thanks for your generous words. I do appreciate them.

    “Keith Giffen seems to be approaching his strip more as a technical experiment, a game of form. Again and again, the tiny panels worked against understanding of the story; the first time Giffen found himself spreading one image across two or three frames, he should have thought, 'OK, not working - tweak the approach'.”

    I wish I’d put it that way. And I’d meant to mention that habit of “spreading one image across two or three frames” too! I’m grateful to you for adding that here. You’re so right; it SHOULD have been the moment when KG noted style was strangling and not enabling substance.

    “And I'd likely have found the story easier to consume in the sense of quick-fix fun, if not necessarily richer as an experience. As you say (paraphrase ahoy!), every piece of story the reader puts together via clue spotting and inference feels that much more rewarding for not being easily gleaned.”

    I become more and more convinced, for I fear I’m a very slow learner, that one of the key aspects of a truly great superhero book, and especially a breakout one, is that it finds that balance between an ease of reading and the richness of the reading experience. At the one end of the continuum you’ve got the worst of modern-era deconstruction, and at the other end there’s Don McGregor at his most obtuse and THEN there’s the Giffen Legion. I suppose the short-lived “Thriller” could be similarly challenging. I can’t think of any other examples at the moment, though there must a great many. (I might have a go at such a continuum.)

    ”I'm not a big fan of focus groups but mayhap DC should have kept a few new and old readers chained up in the basement to test drive these issues. Giffen knew what his story, and back-story, was. The Bierbaums likely had full access to whatever series bible he'd put together. The editors likely knew as much as they could take in given their other duties.”

    There’s that worrying line between respecting the public and listening to them, isn’t there? :) But you’re right; there needed to be a greater willingness to both listen to AND ignore fans, but not any one of these options. We’re told that DC didn’t do ANY market research before investing millions in the New 52, for example. You don’t have to listen to that research in any literal-minded sense, but surely you need to know more about your market when you’re changing everything?

    ”But the people buying the book? Not so much. The creative team knew the Who What When Where Why intimately, so likely thought they were doing enough to distill that onto the page, while keeping the mysteries going. But they were perhaps too close, unable to appreciate that just a little more spoon-feeding, if not actual sugar, might help the medicine go down. And Reader-Minions with different levels of knowledge and expectation, to help Giffen and co gauge the balance between challenge and reward, might have helped.”
    And Legion fandom does contain a significant number of folks, then and now, who are smart and civil and worth engaging with. I sometimes feel that there’s never been a greater distance between the fans who run the industry and the fans who keep it afloat today. I have no doubt the bet has helped this process …

    cont:

    ReplyDelete
  24. cont;

    ”You could look at the extreme close-ups in many panels as an analogy for all this. But probably shouldn't.”

    That’s the kind of thought that could inspire a 5 part series on this blog, Martin. You have to be careful around here …..

    ”Wasn't Giffen's radical approach spurred on by not wanting to Follow That! so far as his universally loved run with Paul Levitz (seriously, have you ever heard of anyone not liking the book through at least the incredible #300?), and Levitz's Baxter encore, were concerned? How marvelous that rather than trying to revisit old glories, or running away from the assignment, he took up the challenge.”

    The interviews I’ve been reading do indeed say that, and it IS admirable. It seems from what I’m reading that KG was very much working off his instinct matched with his daring. That might explain why his career has taken so many different roads and why his successes have been accompanied by quite a few damp squibs. He’s not playing safe, and he’s not spending his life hemmed in by preconceptions about what comics should and shouldn’t be. When he feels the call of that enthusiasm, it seems, he goes with it. And so you get the Justice League of the same period, which is in many ways the opposite of his Legion.

    And I'm chuffed you too feel that the Levitz/Giffen book might have started to run out of a little steam around 300. The Brainy/Supergirl issue after that was the point where the comics returned to "good but not great" status.

    “He gave us a story in which superheroes were allowed to mature as never before, rewarding longtime fans and inviting new readers to jump on board ... as the comments here show, some people did indeed get it - perhaps even better than some of us old guys, who were constantly wondering 'what's the status of X?'. They could approach the book as a discrete work, as you would an original novel or other narrative entertainment.”

    For me, this piece has really opened my eyes – again! - to thinking about how the form of the super-person narrative can be played with. Add factor ‘x’. take away factor ‘y’, and this audience arrives while that audience disappears. And, of course, no approach is wrong, although some of them of them are wrong-headed in the market-place.

    ”And you know what - difficult as it could be, I loved the 5YL* LSH too. Suddenly the Legion was like nothing else in superhero comics. Old friends - heroes and creatives - were guiding me through a cutting edge experience, promising that if I trusted them, everything would pay off. And an awful lot of it did. By issue #4, when Giffen dazzled with his solution to the pos-Crisis Superboy problem, I was fully onboard. New characters Kono, Devlin and Celeste were gateways to help new and old readers alike get a grip on the new era. Implants such as Kent Shakespeare and the wonderful Andromeda intrigued. And I'd say that we did get a pay-off at the end of the first year, when a small team reunited as the Legion. So sign me up for a Showcase, Omnibus or whatever.”

    I must say, I find it really helpful to be able to hold what seems to be two contradictory ideas at the same times; the 5YL books were commercially flawed, and the 5YL books were well worth the experiencing. And everything you say above is true. I remain improbably fond of Kent Shakespeare, for example.

    One of the best and worst aspects of writing, as you’ll of course known a few decades before it dawned upon me, is that you rarely know what you’re talking about until the piece is done. Now these pieces are up, I can see that it’s too stiff, and that I didn’t accentuate the positive about the 5YL experience. I do appreciate you sharing your ideas :) It’s helped me shift even further in the opposite direction to the above.

    cont;

    ReplyDelete
  25. cont;

    ”Gah! To me it'll always be the Five Year Gap Legion - no one actually thinks it's set in the gap, it came after a gap of five years!”

    When I went to a London Comic-Con around 1990, I asked a Legion editor – could it have been Mr Waid? – if we were going to get a mini-series taking us through that gap. It wouldn’t be interesting, he said, and he was very kind about explaining the point. The comic would fill in the key events as things continued. And then there was the gameplaying book written by the Bierbaums, if memory serves, which does a great deal of that. It’s a shame that so few folks have ever come across that book. It’s a treasure trove. I must go and find my copy, though I don’t know where it is!

    ReplyDelete