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Friday, February 3, 2017

Cover Story - Top 15 Legion Covers

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Next week marks a pretty major occasion, despite the downplaying, it’s had so far; the first time a live-action X-Men show will be attempted.  There have been vague attempts before such as a couple of TV movies in the ‘90s and a quasi-X-Men show in the 2000s called Mutant X, but that’s about it.  Next week’s Legion will be the first full series adapted from the Marvel comics we’ve yet seen, revolving around the mentally unstable son of Charles Xavier, David Haller AKA Legion. 

David’s been around since the mid-'80s ad played a prominent role in the lead up to the 1995 mega-event Age of Apocalypse, which I covered last year.  However, in the early 2010s, as part of the Marvel NOW branding initiative, David got his own comic for the first time under the title X-Men Legacy.  We’ll see if I end up reviewing it somewhere down the line, but for now, I plan to indulge my clinical need for topicality by diving head first into the top 15 Legion comic book covers. 

This is going to be a bit of a mixed list in style as partially it’ll be devoted to just cool weirdness but also I’m going to use it to explain some stuff about Legion.  So, as to this really impressive cover, Legion’s power is that he can absorb people’s psyches into his own as alternate personalities, which grant him various weird powers.  

As a result of all that absorption, however, he’s become basically an exaggerated kind of super crazy.  He’s also been described as autistic on occasion but that’s been a thoroughly inconsistent part of his character. 

Given that his mind is playing host to a whole host of other personalities vying for dominance, the X-Men Legacy covers have always strived to visually represent that, hence cool covers like this one.  The being here is meant to be Legion, full up with the minds and identities of all the beings he’s absorbed into himself over the years.  

That’s why, if you look closely, you ca actually make out some familiar faces.  Wolverine is nestled into the left shoulder joint while Cyclops is resting his head on top of the E and N in the title block.  That’s something I really like about this cover actually, the way it incorporates both the title and issue number into Legion’s form, it’s a nice touch. 

Here’s another interesting twist on the title block as part of a joke cover.  See, the only consistent thing about Legion is his hilariously massive hair.  For some reason, it was decided Legion’s hair should stick about a foot straight up in a single block of hair.  I don’t even know if this hairstyle has a name, but it’s incredibly goofy for something that’s become the character’s signature look, even if it didn’t make its way into the TV show.  

Actually, given that one of Legion’s powers is reality warping it’s quite possible that he’s actively altering the fabric of reality to maintain his outrageous hairdo, it’d honestly make more sense then him using more nautical tons of hair gel than Johnny Bravo.  I’ve long maintained his hilarious hair style is meant as a jab at his dad Xavier, kind of a joke that where Xavier is bald, Legion has more hair than he knows what to do with.  That’s part of why it works as a joke here because it was never meant to be taken seriously. 

See, here’s another great example of using the ridiculous hair as a joke for the cover, even if it’s framed in a slightly different manner.  In this case it’s a funny but immediately recognizable shorthand for Legion as a baby, which is actually a far more eerie concept than I would’ve thought.  

Western culture has done a lot to code “super powered children” as more creepy than anything else, hence why there’s an entire subgenre of horror dedicated to spooky kids.  In the case of Legion, he’s always had at least 1 foot in the horror genre thanks to the coding of “mentally unwell” as shorthand for “deadly maniac,” so this just swaps one cultural code for another. 

More than that, this digs nicely into the unique role Legion plays in superhero mythos overall.  See, Legion is more than just some crazy super powerful character, there are plenty of those, he’s something much more unique in the language of comics: a family secret.  His story has always been that, for decades, he lay hidden in a hospital in Israel as Xavier’s deepest, darkest secret.  

It’s a sinister extra layer to Xavier’s character, a guy who’s always been made up of more questions and dark implications than anyone would want to accept.  Adding the idea of a secret hidden child to the mix, one with god-like powers and mental issues no less, and it becomes the stuff of horror novels. 

They really love making jokes about the hair; you might as well just accept it now.  You might notice a lot of these covers are using a ton of blank, white space in the background but I haven’t come down on them for that.  Normally, block color backgrounds end up a lazy way to fill a page but in the case of X-Men Legacy it fits a lot better as a lot of the story is meant to be taking place in Legion’s weird headspace.  That’s one of the curious things about psychic characters, the concept of a story taking place entirely in their minds takes on a whole new conception.  

Normally “it was all in their head” is used for a twist or a hacky fan theory but in this case Legion’s mind is a whole world unto itself and capable of reaching out into the minds of others.  What’s more, they do a lot with the landscape of his mind being a deeper reflection of his madness and personality rather than just a virtual reality.  

This cover, for instance, is about Legion’s projected sense of self vs. his deeper identity within the realm of his mind, hence the painting imagery.  I also like how the use of black and white checkerboard flooring has come to signify a non-real location, that’s a weird little cultural idiosyncrasy. 

Fun fact- comics absolutely love this cover format.  I think a lot of that is self-awareness, there’s something comforting about being aware that even if you're super serious about your story, you’re still basically writing a funny book adventure with action figures.  It’s a concession to reality to keep one grounded, making it a perfect fit for a character like Legion who spends so much of his time flittering in and out of the real world.  

This cover is also jumping back to the idea of David’s mind being the product of multiple absorbed personalities, hence the way his body here is a disparate hodgepodge of various limbs and elements.  I also like the little added detail that this is Legion’s “beast mode,” hence why he’s chosen to be made up of the most monstrous body parts he’s ever absorbed.  Not much else to say here, this is just a brilliant cover twist.  I will note that the shading here is just spectacular and really sells the illusion of a folded up manual, especially in the crease lines. 

What’d I tell you- they love making jokes out of the hair, there’s just something about it that’s so innately doofy and impossible to ignore.  Actually, the initial idea was that Legion was just supposed to have long hair because he’d been in a coma for decades after absorbing several people’s minds in a terrorist attack but I guess wires got crossed and we ended up with “coma hair” turning into “hair column.”  As for this cover, it’s actually meant to reference phrenology charts, a medieval practice of trying to use the shape and form of the skull to ascribe personality elements.  

It’s complete junk science but the imagery of phrenological charts has become a famous visual because of how strange and evocative it is, so it’s a nice edition here.  In the case of Legion, this also plays into the idea of how his powers work, gaining new abilities with each new personality he takes into himself and manifesting their powers when he allows their personality to be dominant.  It’s a neat spin on the very singular nature of most X-Men abilities and extending the visual of the phrenology chart through his hair was a clever way to fit in ALL of his many abilities. 

This is a much more straightforward visual metaphor cover, albeit an excellent one.  The multiple Legions work as a visual for his multiple personalities, hence why each of them is sporting a radically different facially expression.  I also really love the bloom and color work on his eyes and mouth to create that energy effect, nice touch.  

What’s more, I really love the way the red jumpsuits and giant hair stalks are used to create the visual of a pack of dynamite here, that’s a really clever way to double down on the visual metaphors of the cover.  There’s an absurdity to it that feels very old school, something about that giant alarm clock that seems cut from the Silver Age of comics.  

The time bomb visual digs nicely into another element of David’s character, the way he’s the most unstable of Marvel’s reality warping characters.  Any character who can alter reality through sheer force of will ends up a little unstable, but amid superhero types like Scarlet Witch and the Sentry, someone like Legion really does feel like he’s one rat’s whisker away from rewriting history so that all humans are octopus pie or something. 

I really love this visual conception of England.  I’m aware it’s basically a handful of broad stereotypical landmarks and visual cues but for most Americans that’s what England is.  I’ve also always had a soft spot for broad geographical stereotype maps like this one and the board game design is an absolute delight.  I really like how goofy some of the squares are, like the little Captain Britain face by the Anti-Mutant Protest sign.  

I’m not terribly sure what this is meant to represent other than Legion basically just playing with this collection of English mutants in an attempt to achieve mutant equality in the UK but I’m not really sure it needs more than that.  The visual design of the cardboard figure cutout board game pieces is a clever way to keep the characters recognizable, even if I only know Psylocke and Peter Wisdom (also maybe Chamber?  There are too many X-Men.)  Bonus points for the little red phone boxes, that’s a nice touch.  

I’m an absolute sucker for advertisement covers, and this is a great one.  It actually ties into a 3-part storyline that requires a lot of explaining, but each of the various covers shows up here, so I’ll take that one issue at a time.  This cover relates to the drug X-Cise, obviously, a pill that “cured” people’s genetic mutations, sort of like that plot point from X-Men 3: Last Stand.  Even excepting that I actually don’t mind X3, the cure plotline was one of their only interesting elements so bringing it back here is a really good idea.  Legion is one of those mutants like Rogue or Beast where actually wanting a cure for his mutation makes a lot of sense.  

His powers are much more of a curse than anything else so I definitely get why he’d consider taking the X-Cise drug.  They even lampshade this down in the text, about how symptoms of mutantism increase risk of “total planetary extinction.”  This ties nicely into how Legion’s disturbed status adds to his tragedy, especially working off the time bomb metaphor from #9.  In his case, there’s a very real chance he could end up destroying reality or altering the laws of physics cause he was depressed that day- who wouldn’t want a way out of that responsibility. 

As I said, the X-Cise plot was about 3 issues long, all the covers are great, and they’re in order on this list- so spoilers, I guess.  Anyway, this is just a superb visual metaphor of a cover.  For those who actually don’t know, this is indeed how certain kinds of pills work, they’re basically a capsule full of smaller little pellets that break down in your stomach once swallowed.  That works really well for the idea of Legion being engulfed or swallowed in pills, a nice visual metaphor for the way chemical dependence can consume people.  

Legion adds a nice layer of distance to his metaphor here, which is good otherwise this visual could easily end up an endorsement of the idea that mental illness is something we should just “get over” rather than treating with medicine and stuff.  In Legion’s case, he’s trying to suppress his mutant power in the hopes that it’ll undo his mental issues, which seems real questionable given he’s shutting off part of his brain to do it.  That’s one reason the pellets here form into a giant terrifying skull about to swallow all that’s good in the world (hence the black background rather than the standard white.)  There’s also another reason for this giant red skull.

That’s right: Nazis, it wouldn’t be 2017 without them I guess.  Anyway, this is where we get into the nuts and bolts of this storyline and boy is it a doozy.  At the time Marvel was pushing to combine more of their X-Men properties and their non-Mutant related universe elements, as the two have always existed at arm’s length from each other.  One of the ways they did this was to have Red Skull steal the brain of the recently deceased Charles Xavier, thus gaining his incredible mental power.  

Basically, the Skull set himself up as a kind of human supremacist Xavier, stealing Charle’s powers and forming the S-Men as his answer to the X-Men.  It was incredibly goofy but in a very endearing sense and making Red Skull a mutant hater made sense as a way to bridge the Avengers/X-Men gap that had developed. 

Given that the Skull had Xavier’s brain at the time it makes a lot of sense Legion would end up in a confrontation, even if he didn’t really care too much about his dad’s stolen brain.  That’s one thing that’s always been pretty persistent about Legion, he doesn’t really like most people but he definitely doesn’t care for his dad.  

Going back to the block coloring, I really like how this story has slowly shifted the background color from white to black to red as the true nature of X-Cise is revealed to us.  Combine that with how well this cover uses minimal imagery for big impact and it’s really beautiful.  Through just an armband and a bottom jaw you know exactly what’s going on here, that’s great iconography. 

 It’s a Legion world- we’re just living in it.  This is honestly one of the most visually appealing symbolism-laden covers I’ve seen from the series.  Making Legion’s whole head a puzzle is a great metaphor for the loose jigsaw pile that comprises his sense of self and his body flying apart fits well with the malevolent look on his face in this cover.  

The curl of his lips and those hilariously massive eyebrows fit together real nicely not to mention that cool circular energy effect around his eye.  This is also the first time we’ve seen the X-Men present in one of these covers, which is a nice addition.  Legion and the X-Men have always had a strained relationship given Xavier’s affection for the team.  

That probably goes hand-in-hand with how creepy and evil looking David is on this cover, he’s fought the X-Men plenty of times so it makes sense he’d delight in trapping them in the fractured mental landscape that is his psyche.  I do like the implication that, because of his reality warping powers, this cover is totally literal and Legion just turned himself into a giant living jigsaw man. 

This is probably the best visual metaphor for Legion’s mental state.  As you can see, the idea is that his face is made up of these torn up pieces of various other characters like Magneto, Cable, Wolverine, etc. but as a whole, he’s something completely different.  It’s a really screwy concept and one of those ideas that can only really work in comics.  

I’ve seen it attempted in TV shows and things but usually that just boils down to a single character being advised by imaginary friends, sort of like Fight Club.  Legion is much more about existing as wholly different people, with different powers and ethos, more than anything else. 

Aside from summing up Legion’s nature really well, this is such an impressively unique experiment in style.  I love that visual of the torn up paper making up the collage of Legion’s face, it’s just such a brilliant take on the idea.  

It’s an especially nice touch that each of the various paper scraps comes from another cover, like the Wolverine one is from the first issue of his solo ‘80s series.  It’s a nicely meta-concept for a character that’s shockingly never dove too deeply into the idea. 

This probably wasn’t intentional but this is easily the best visualization for Twitter I’ve ever seen.  Seriously, a sad lonely, mentally unwell man bombarded on all sides by a cacophony of voices that add basically nothing to the greater whole but serve to undermine his sense of self?  

That’s more or less exactly what we’ve got with Twitter these days, and I actually really Twitter too.  It’s also a perfect visual metaphor for Legion, the best we’ve seen, hence why it’s so high up on the list.  As I’ve stated before speech balloons on covers are always a real favorite for me.  It’s a great way to add a judicious helping of ‘comic book!’ to a cover, to help set it apart from being just a small scale poster or splashy image.  

In this case though, the real shining part of the color is the lettering.  Every speech balloon here has its own unique font and color of text and it’s so impressive.  It’s such a great way to convey that these are unique voices all screaming for attention and is the kind of art that could only come from the world of comics.  I also like that they fit the title logo into a speech balloon as well, as part of this series’ commitment to doing weird and cool things with its title. 


Okay yes, this is a cheat, but it’s a really good cheat.   This is an issue of X-Men from 1995 during the event Legion Quest, which I’ll talk about in depth another time.  This was the story that really drew most people’s attention to Legion as he’d previously only appeared in an X-Force comic.  

What’s more, this cover perfectly sums up the way his character was originally intended to work.  The thing about Legion is that he’s always been a character steeped in the coding of horror aesthetics and tropes.  His role as Xavier’s family secret combined with the way mental illness and spooky monster go hand-in-hand honestly plays like something out of a Stephen King novel.  

This is pretty much the only cover he’s been on to truly embrace that particular origin and it works so well it’s become an iconic image of the entire X-Men franchise.  There’s something so sinister about the weird way Legion’s sitting in that wheel chair combined with his bizarre hand gestures and extended fingers.  

It’s a deeply inhuman pose and his face fits perfectly with the idea of a character that already knows way more than everyone else.  Combine that with the huge flame shooting out of his back, a staple of the X-Men universe ever since the Dark Phoenix days, and this is the perfect image for the horror-infused super villain Legion can’t help but revert back to. 

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