It is a comics that is hard to read. Writers Keith Giffen and Tom & Mary Bierbaum do not shy away from using as many as 40 words on the thin sliver of paneling, each one only one-ninth of the page. Effectively this means as many as 360 words per page. Each page as thoroughgoing in its word count as some op ed pieces. The unforgiving nature of the three-by-three grid ceaselessly hammers home the theme of impoverishment and collapse. The panels themselves are just too slender. Readers sense that panoramic vistas await them, just beyond the jailhouse of a page layout that withholds more than it depicts. It is the worst kind of comics, about the worst kind of times.
The Legion of Super-Heroes was supposed to be about hope. Heroes inspired by the valor of the first generation of superheroes 1,000 years in their past, The Legion was a beacon of youthful valor at a time of universal conformity. At its most basic, most sincere form, The Legion was about youthful challenge to generational inertia and enforced mediocrity. Would these teens with amazing gifts, dare to meet the challenge of making the world better? Bright colors and cosplay from a millennium prior would be the beginning of an endearing legacy of valor. Legionnaires uphold a code of honor. Legionnaires never kill. Legionnaires save lives. Legionnaires inspire. But things were never supposed to be this bad.
The November 1989 cover-dated first issue proclaiming The New Legion of Super-Heroes, would not only reboot the Legion for DC’s post-Crisis continuity, but provide a radically inverted new setting for the super-team. Leaping forward five years into the future, the first issue would see the Legion long disbanded and pan-galactic culture teetering on the brink of ruin in the wake of economic meltdown. The United Planets, once a staunch bastion for prosperity and multiculturalism, faces a de facto dissolution with emergence of splinter-groups uniting to form voting blocks that exploit the organization’s internal protocols. Yet what emerges from this bleak wreckage is the resilience of the Legion’s spirit. Although disbanded and publicly disgraced, the Legionnaires themselves are still very much alive. They move about the geopolitical landscape, some just trying to make ends meet, others engaging corporate exploiters in a roguish brand of justice, others still stirring the embers of their long dead dream that the galaxy can be greater than it is now. As the Legionnaires maneuver through the blasted landscape, promise is roused.
In a very real sense, 1989’s Legion of Super-Heroes is the true successor, and perhaps innovator of the cultural model set forth by Alan Moore in Watchmen. Both more grim and more bleak than other comics of its day, Watchmen sought to tell the tale of how much worse things had gotten politically with the advent of superheroes. But Watchmen always prioritized the ordinary citizens of New York City, showing how the lives of individuals were warped by far-reaching political events predicated by the actions of superheroes. Also told on a three-by-three panel grid, 1985’s Watchmen read like a movie screened on the printed page.
But The Legion of Super-Heroes framed the problem of civilians living out the ramifications of superhuman-motivated political actions in a wholly different way. What if the artificial schism, writers Giffen and the Bierbaums seem to suggest, separating superheroes and civilians no longer had any relevance? The Legionnaires were after all ordinary members of their species, with no greater racial abilities than any other member, and no superior technology to anyone else in the thirtieth century. Beyond the neat polarization presented in Watchmen between superheroes and civilians, Giffen and the Bierbaums offer a profound statement on the resurging nature of idealism; a vision of a society where the exceptional integrates flawlessly with mundane. In this respect, The Legion of Super-Heroes becomes prescient of such 2000’s dramas as the Shakespearean Deadwood or the Dickensian The Wire. The 1989 comicbook stands as an argument for extraordinary arising from the dirt of the ordinary.
Far from being a single, coherent vision, The Legion of Super-Heroes stands as a testament to the creativity that comes from conflicting artistic perspectives. Tom and Mary Bierbaum both had a credible history of fan participation with the Legion of Super-Heroes before being tapped by DC to take up writing responsibilities on the series reboot. For the husband and wife writing team, the Legion would yearn towards the super-team they knew as fans; bright, confident, challenging of restrictive values, and at utmost, valiant. Giffen’s genius lay in finding the darker, moodier factoids that would allow for a more realistic, more adult-reader oriented book to be published every month for five years. Between these two prolific visions, The Legion of Super-Heroes would become a book that magnificently portrayed both grim realities of economic and cultural collapse, and the idealism of characters reclaiming the exceptional standing they once possessed.
But the true skill of The Legion of Super-Heroes lies in its deft and consummate linkage of three distinct cultural themes, seen once before in response to bleak economic realities. Following on from the famous proclamation of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus in 1834 that, ‘The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man’, engineer Samuel Colt, scientist Charles Darwin and author Charles Dickens would reinvent cultural reality as they knew it. Two years later, in 1836, the world would see a strange confluence of personal firearms, scientific materialism, and an entirely new form of fiction.
It was Malthus’ idea that the land’s capacity to provide subsistence for far fewer than the full population was an implicit exhortation by God to lead a righteous life and therefore be saved both spiritually and materially. Darwin would engage Malthus directly, using this rationalization as the basis for the driving mechanism of his theory of natural selection, where organisms evolve by sustaining heritable traits. Colt would bill his revolvers as ‘the great equalizer’, an indirect reference to the poor (monetarily or spiritually impoverished) standing on a more equal footing with the wealthy. Charles Dickens would invent the genre of observational caricature, one that would be sustained well through the twentieth century by the likes of such great innovators as L. Frank Baum, Windsor McCay, Walt Disney, Osamu Tezuka and R. Crumb.
Writing in 1989, Giffen and the Bierbaums would again touch on the confluence of these cultural themes. With a new style comics that just glimpses at panoramas, Giffen and the Bierbaums would promote a Dickensian-style rejuvenation of storytelling that would sustain itself well into 1999 where Warren Ellis’ and Bryan Hitch’s ‘widescreen’ format of comics would eventually invert this style. Moreover, this new style of comics that would articulate for the reader emotions experienced the ordinary denizens of the fictional world, would tap similar themes to both Darwin and Dickens. In the spirit of the great equalizer, the writers 1989’s Legion would show the extraordinary as arising from the dust of the ordinary.
1989’s Legion of Super-Heroes often suffers from the poorest kind of fan culture, where pronouncements are made as to authenticity of pedigree versus passionate creativity. Fan opinion tends towards the extremes of celebration or aversion. Beyond these limitations of originality and legacy, 1989’s Legion of Super-Heroes offers the rejuvenation of grimmer superhero stories of the 1980’s while laying the foundations for a new kind of sociological fiction that will be more fully developed in the television of the 2000’s.