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Let’s talk about Legion. Before he got his own TV show as the first ever live action X-Men show to reach full series, he was a comic book character. Legion, real name David, is the son of Charles Xavier. His mutant power is the ability to absorb other people’s psyches into himself and gaining their powers when he gives their mind lease.
This basically makes him crazy, as he’s got a whole head full of absorbed personalities all vying for control of his body. Though he first premiered in 1985 in an issue of X-Force, he didn’t really come into his own in the X-Men mythos till a decade later, in a story entitled Legion Quest.
That’s what I’m looking at today, the story that put Legion on the X-map, for better and worse. It’s a curious beast, a crossover from 3 of the major X-men comics of the time that set off one the biggest crossover events in Marvel history. In fact, the only way the series has ever been collected is in relation to the event it spawned, Age of Apocalypse, which I reviewed last year.
That gives it a direct link to one of the biggest blunders in Marvel history, the comic series that helped bring about Marvel’s bankruptcy in 1996 and believe me it shows- there is no better single example of bad 1990s comics than Legion Quest.
The first thing to understand about Legion Quest is that it really does feel like a thing that only the ‘90s could’ve produced. At this point in Marvel comics history, the marketing department had seized the reigns of power and were more or less driving the good ship Marvel right into an iceberg. This was right at the edge of the Dark Age of comics, 3 years after Marvel’s cache of superstar artists had jumped ship and founded Image and right around the brink of the speculator bubble.
If you don’t know what that was, it was the tendency for non-comic fans to purchase comic books as a long-term investment, buying up first appearances or significant event issues in the hopes they’d appreciate in value over time. That’s what really fueled the Marvel marketing machine at the time, propelled by the twin unstoppable juggernauts that were the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises.
That’s part of why so much of Legion Quest and the event it spawned, Age of Apocalypse, were more about flashy visual design and mega-marketing crossovers than actually good storytelling. I know Age of Apocalypse is well remembered and, to some extent, I do understand why.
Even though it’s bad a lot of ‘90s comics do have a kind of charm in the badness and X-Men books, who’ve always been big on dubious quality and asking you not to notice their structural shortcomings, fit perfectly into that mold. What’s more, the ‘90s did have a lot of good concepts for comics, even if the stories themselves were lacking- that’s where Legion Quest lives.
In many ways, Legion Quest is the epitome of superhero comic’s failure as a medium of clarity. It’s cut from the same cloth as the likes of Supergirl or Hawkman where the concept is immediately clear and identifiable, but the finer details are absolutely horrendous. In this case, the story is that Xavier’s son Legion had decided the only way to fix the world is to go back in time and kill Erik Lehnsherr before he can become Magneto, back when he and Xavier were still friends. How he gets there and how the X-Men oppose him is…well, the details are unrewarding, but let’s dive in anyway.
One thing to understand is that the graphic novel version of Legion Quest, entitled Age of Apocalypse Prelude, actually includes a few issues that are entirely divorced from the main story. For instance, it opens with X-Men #38 just so that we can get a tedious Gambit vs. Sabertooth fight that’s not terribly well drawn or engaging.
This was when the X-Men were pushing Gambit big time as a new Wolverine and issues like this really cement how bad he is at filling that role. Where Wolverine fit naturally into the psycho-sexual angst of Claremont’s teen drama X-Men Gambit is a transparent marketing ploy.
Where the real story begins is in X-Force with Mystique. I feel like Jennifer Lawrence’s poor portrayal of Mystique has pushed a misconception of this character to the public as a whole. She might play a pensive good guy in the movies these days, but her character in the comics is way closer to the Mystique of the original X-trilogy, a cold, calculating killer who worked alone with her own mutant terrorist cell.
She’s seeking revenge on Legion for absorbing the brain and killing the body of her former lover Destiny, a mutant who could see the future. It’s Destiny’s mind, inside Legion’s head, that sets him off on his quest, shepherding him towards the realization that he needs to kill Magneto to save the world.
There’s still a lot of nothing before Legion gets started in earnest, mainly because ‘90s comics were shockingly big on inaction. Part of that is an attempt to recapture the style of the insanely successful ‘70s X-Men comics by Chris Claremont where so much of the content was just about characters interacting only here it’s a lot less interesting as everyone has the same persona of “scowly.” It also doesn’t help that the artwork is abysmal across the board.
Despite running across 3 ongoing series and featuring great artists like Andy Kubert these books look absolutely atrocious, some of the worst examples of bad ‘90s art. Nobody has even vaguely human anatomy, the action fails to flow badly, and the pages are always cramped and cluttered. The only good thing is the coloring, which is actually very fun and bright in an engaging way.
Things do get somewhat engaging in Legion Quest proper, where Legion warped himself and some of the X-Men into the past when Xavier and Magneto were friends in Israel before their falling out. That’s mainly because it features some, quality dialogue by comics legend Mark Waid but also does a cool job putting the whole X-Men mythos to work for the storytelling at hand.
The main part might be about Legion hiding in the past, preparing to kill Magneto while the X-Men try to stop him, but there’s some cool stuff in the present with the other X-Men working to rescue their friends. They bring in Cable, Cyclops and Jean Grey’s time traveling future son, and the Shiar show up with a bunch of Watchers because Legion’s actions might wipe out all reality.
From there things get very set-up centric as the final issue was designed to lead directly into Age of Apocalypse. Legion goes after Magneto, the X-Men try to save him, and in the shuffle, Xavier ends up getting killed. This is what results in the alternate reality of the Age of Apocalypse, where Magneto founded his own version of the X-Men in honor of his fallen friend but was unable to defeat Apocalypse before he took control of North America. It’s actually a pretty solid conclusion to Legion Quest with a really dramatic vision of the end of the universe, and Charles’ sacrifice to save his friend fits perfectly into the more altruistic elements of his character.
If there’s one downside to the issue, aside from the janky art and a horribly dated moment where Ice Man tries to say “pun intended” like a bad ass, it’s an incredibly uncomfortable scene with Legion. For some unknowable reason, Legion chooses to draw out Xavier and Magneto by assaulting his own mother. It’s not terribly clear what happens, but it’s strongly implied he rapes his own mom, which is just awful and completely out of place with the rest of the comic.
That particular moment aside Legion Quest is a kind of interesting cultural artifact if not a terribly engaging one. It’s the kind of story that would’ve been better served as a four issue stand alone comic rather than this big, multi-series crossover event leading into an even greater crossover event. It’s also painfully obvious how much the series was produced to cash-in on the speculator boom, to the point the “twist” of Legion killing Xavier rather than Magneto was spoiled by the cover of the final issue in the arc.
I honestly feel like the story deserves a reboot ala Dan Slott’s recent ‘Clone Conspiracy’ story arc in Spider-Man, especially given how many elements would fit better in a low stakes environment. It’s a story steeped in family secrets, hidden children, horror code fear of the mentally ill, and a dive into the X-Men’s past that would be more at home in a darker, more stripped down comics landscape. Still, if you’ve got a high tolerance for ‘90s-isms and are interested it’s definitely worth more of a look than most of its contemporaries.
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