Search This Blog

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Panel Vision - Superman & The Legion of Superheroes

Edited by Robert Beach 

If you like this post or want to support the blog, please consider donating 
As I currently write this, the political world is in something of a weird place. Honestly, “weird” feels like an understatement. American politics are blighted by vicious strains of white supremacy and xenophobia; the world is still gripped in the midst of a refugee crisis, and the UK is deciding whether or not it wants to drop out of the EU (Editor's Note: they did). It’s a tumultuous time, and the elements of racism, hatred, and general petty bigotry that inform the political climate are hard to ignore. 

While all of this is an issue to be dealt with through political action, it’s also a massively stressful and emotionally taxing ordeal to live with. The situation that fiction can exist to reflect and give us some semblance of ease through. And where some of the ugliest beliefs and ideologies of humanity can rear their head with pride and a legitimate chance at power, there’s no greater fictional reflection of our current state than Superman and the Legion of Superheroes.

Published across 2007 to 2008 in the pages of Action Comics, Superman and the Legion of Superheroes was a 6-issue story arc by superstar author Geoff Johns. This was around the time Johns, now famous for taking over the DC movieverse in the wake of Batman v. Superman, was ascending to be a God of DC comics. He’d already cut his teeth with a solid run on The Flash and a legendary run on Justice Society of America. In 2005, he made the big leagues. First, he took on the universe-reshaping Infinite Crisis, then his blockbuster hit Green Lantern comic. Given everything else, Johns’s 3-story run on Action Comics tends to get lost in the shuffle, even though it’s a sobbing superb reflection of a future we exist in today. 

His work was focused on streamlining classical elements of Superman’s mythos like Bizarro, Brainiac, and the Legion of Superheroes while also incorporating the excised elements of the Silver Age like the bottle city of Kandor. All of Johns's work from this era (pre-2011) is great, but Superman and the Legion of Superheroes is not only the best; it’s damn near one of the best Superman stories of the decade. 

For the uninitiated, the Legion of Superheroes was a screwy idea cooked up by comics’ titan Otto Binder. This guy invented Superman as you know him, along with a lot of weirder ideas that never made it into the bigger multimedia adaptations like The Legion. The Legion were a team of super-powered teenagers from the 31st century who came back in time and befriended Superman when he was just a boy. The Legion’s entire outlook and philosophy of heroism, and, most of all, interspecies cooperation was founded on the beliefs Superman fought for. 

They were immensely popular at the time, functioning as the X-Men before the X-Men. The entirety of young adult fiction traces its roots back to the Legion of Superheroes. While they enjoyed their own series, they always remained a firm part of the Superman mythos.  Much like Superman himself, The Legion existed as an embodiment of optimism, living proof that humanity’s best days weren’t behind us. A better future was coming where the 31st century was a wonderful place for all boys and girls. All of that changed in Superman and the Legion of Superheroes. 

In the story, Superman is pulled into the future by a mysterious distress call from The Legion only to find the 31st century in a completely different place. Now, the Earth was caught in the grip of incredible xenophobia: aliens were outlawed; The Legion headquarters had been turned into an alien deportee camp; Earth’s sun had gone red, and the Legion was being pursued by the villainous forces of the Justice League.  

It’s a dynamite opening to the arc that completely pulls the rug out from under the reader and inverts everything The Legion world was supposed to be. What’s more, it’s a debut this story isn’t going to be pulling any punches in what it features. Make no mistake, Superman and the Legion of Superheroes is a comic with a message, and it’s a loud one.

After Superman arrives, he teams up with the remaining Legionnaires to try and free his friends, figure out why the sun mysteriously turned red, and return order to a galaxy on the brink of war.  It’s a fairly simplistic narrative, but it has to be to facilitate the larger point of the book at play. This isn’t a story full of twists and tricks. It's meant to take Superman, as audience surrogate, on a walking tour of the nightmare the 31st century has become and to see how much his own legacy is at the heart of this change. 

That’s one of the brilliant core concepts of the story. That the man behind the Earth Supremacy movement accomplished his goal. The entire movement is founded on the claim that Superman wasn’t an alien, but a human blessed with immense powers by the Earth herself. The claims he’s an alien were simply lies propagated by alien lovers. 

If that disinformation campaign doesn’t sound familiar to you, it is.  That set-up of constantly repeating a single lie and claiming the truth is a vast conspiracy is the perfect form of self-sustaining propaganda and has been used across the world to force some of the most dangerous and destructive ideas out there. It’s the same tactic used by serial harassers online, anti-vaxxers, holocaust deniers, and even the white supremacist movement, and Johns adapted it to the future perfectly. 

It’s a chilling vision into how well the purity and goodness of Superman can be perverted and twisted to serve the aims of the sick and inhuman. What’s even creepier about it is the way the lie becomes the accepted status quo, forcing the burden of proof onto accused of spreading conspiracy. Suddenly, the galaxy's greatest heroes become mistrusted public figures as people demand they prove Superman is Kryptonian.

That emphasis on the ease ideals can be twisted and the status quo can shift to one of fear, hatred, and petty entitlement is highlighted in the villains, their infrastructure, and their leader of Earth-Man.  Johns has developed a tendency to give all of his bad guys “tragic” pasts, but the Justice League of the 31st century is a great exception. Every one of the leaguers is a uniquely twisted monster, vile and corrupt at the most basic levels imaginable. The core, interlacing idea behind them all is another genius concept informing the politics of the whole comic. 

Earth-Man and his fellow leaguers tried to join the Legion of Superheroes and were rejected. Rather than accept they were flawed and need improvement, their rallying cry became they were the true heroes, and The Legion had rejected them because they weren’t alien. It’s a scaled down and deeply petty take on the same idea as their disinformation campaign. They insist that they not only are they perfect, but the entire galaxy is involved in a conspiracy against them. 

This personal, internalized version of their own supremacist ideology has the effect of giving the various Leaguers their own unique brands of petty ugliness and corrupting human bigotry. Their financer of Gold Boy is a metallic humanoid kid who can turn anything he touches into gold. He turns to a hedonistic sociopath who views other people as possessions, believing his fortune grants him the right to treat people like objects. 

Weather Boy surgically ruined his body in the pursuit of powers, undergoing over 75 operations to remove his organs and replace them with weather control technology. Earth-Man himself is a brilliant take on several aspects of this key idea. He doesn’t have any powers, only the ability to absorb and mimic the abilities of other heroes. Everything super about Earth-Man comes from The Legion. He’s just the human face on it. 

That alone is a perfect commentary on the way privileged groups take credit for the accomplishments and culture of the marginalized. Earth-Man keeps going beyond that. His true hatred for Superman and everything The Legion stands for comes from the fact they let Superman join as a kid because he was going to grow up to be Superman. 

There’s an amazing scene where Earth-Man rants about how he was the one who should’ve been made a member. Any sadness or isolation he ever felt entitles him to a spot as one of the world’s greatest heroes. The whole thing pulls together to create a truly disgusting vision of a man so petty, small, and self-obsessed he was convinced the whole world was against him. Worst of all, he convinced the world of that too. 

As terrifyingly realistic and ugly Earth Man is, he’s not the worst of the League. That's reserved for Ethel Niwtyn. Her power is the ability to grow more eyes, an ability even her fellow leaguers acknowledge as useless. Instead, she serves as the League’s educator. That’s the third terrifying concept that makes the story so creepy in how believable it all is. 

Aside from their disinformation campaign, the Justice League have changed the world by changing its people. We see the way they pervert the truth and teach the kids to fear aliens. Worse so, we see how chilling it is how normal it all seems. 

Any time we check in with the classroom it feels like it could be any classroom in any time period. We even see how the League’s cancer has spread to the world at large in the book's most disturbing and brutal scene in which they re-enact the Superman myth in the world Earth-Man has made. We see the doomed planet, the desperate scientists, their last hope rocketed to Earth with a modification. The kindly couple greets the child with violent, lethal, hatred. 

All of that is why the book works as a terrifying reflection of the horrors of reality as they are. Superman and the Legion of Superheroes is still a superhero story, and good does win. As I said, Superman and the remaining Legionnaires team up in the book to try and rescue their captive comrades and avert a war. Their plan to achieve this is all hinges on fixing Earth’s sun, which the Justice League has turned red using a captured Legionnaire named Sun Boy. 

To rescue him, Superman and friends call in one of the greatest superhero concepts of all time: the Legion of Substitute Heroes. The Subs are a group of heroes who were also rejected by The Legion. Rather than taking it out on the world, they formed their own Legion and did things their own way.  

The Subs are a great addition to the adventure and help emphasize ideas of finding the positive in rejection and forming a community out of it. That idea of turning our negatives into positives is very much in line with Superman’s ethos: the idea that goodness is out there if you have the will to find it.  

The Subs attack the Justice League by driving a school bus through their front window (that’s just how they roll.) Having the good version of the Justice League concept thrown into the mix and able to beat the League is a great way of showing off how much the villains rely on Earth-Man as a crutch. The way Earth-Man's powers supplement the other’s real lack of ability. He made them feel strong. 

Eventually, the Subs and The Legion manage to reverse the Sun’s decay and restore it to yellow, leading to one of the greatest Superman moments. This whole time we’ve been waiting for Superman to appear and usher in the truth to a world poisoned by lies and hatred. Finally, he appears with the proclamation that Superman isn’t just for human rights; Superman is for everyone. 

The final battle between Earth-Man and The Legion, including Superman, is pretty spectacular and ties into the Subs’ presence in a neat way. The whole time Earth Man is ranting about how much easier Superman has it, how Superman’s never known rejection or isolation. All of that serves to underline the entire comic’s thesis on how Superman takes great strides to limit himself. We’ve seen, peppered throughout the issue, how often Superman IS isolated as Clark Kent. How often he’s had to fake his own incompetence to maintain the ruse of his human identity. 

What emerges out of the story is a re-affirmation of why Superman and The Legion of Superheroes need each other. The Legion may need Superman’s ideals and his strength of character to build upon, but Superman needs them just as much as friends. It all adds up to an incredibly compelling story that digs deep into real-world fears and threats. Superman stands for truth and community just as much as he stands for justice. Superman and the Legion of Superheroes embraces that idea. 

If you liked this article, please like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter

No comments:

Post a Comment