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