[18 October 2011]
PopMatters Comics Editor
“Present Tense” the opening issue of the “Run From Tomorrow” storyarc (the first arc of the rebooted Legion Lost) was little more than exposition. Don’t be mistaken, Fabian Nicieza definitely got you to understand where he was heading. “Where he was heading” being the thematic weight of the story he would unfold over the coming months. But he didn’t quite get there in the first issue. Instead his attention was focused on the exceedingly difficult task of making the ordinary life of small-town America in the 21st century seem unearthly. That alone was a hard enough task. On top of it, Nicieza had to foster our sense of rooting for aliens from the future who seemed to espouse our own values. “Present Tense” showed the potential for great stories to come from the setting Nicieza was developing with artist Pete Woods. But this issue wasn’t one of those great stories yet, it stood on the cusp.
With “The Rise of the Hypersapiens”, the next installment of “Run From Tomorrow”, all of that has flipped.
“The Rise of the Hypersapiens” is a deep and engaging character drama that couldn’t be more timeous as we head into the elections that will decide whether we remain fractured as a nation.
Some of the backstory that’s filled in really does help. The Legionnaires, a group of super-powered youth of intergalactic cultural diversity banded together to live up to the democratic ideals that fueled superheroes of their past, have returned to 21st century earth to apprehend the criminal Alastor. Alastor, for his part has returned to earth to enact a genetic crime—releasing a virus that would alter human DNA to such a degree that it would in effect obliterate humans as a species.
But the specifics of Alastor’s motivation fade into the background noise as Nicieza attempts a scripting technique hardly seen before in Legion of Super Heroes stories—he commits the whole team to a single mission and uses one team member to narrate that story. This storytelling device scans as deceptively simple, yet it evokes much of the beautiful mythology that Nicieza taps with Legion Lost. I’m watching David Lynch’s Twin Peaks again. This is where small-town oddity connects with otherworldly scifi drama.
But the heart of Nicieza’s crafting of Legion Lost doesn’t lie in his command of the otherworldly, but the ordinary. The Legion of Super Heroes has always been committed to the democratic ideal. A place for multiple voices, the Legion was always that venue where our best ideas succeeded beyond ourselves. Nicieza’s conception of the villain’s plot to undo the future by promoting diversity rather than stymying it is simply beguiling.
This idea of multiplying diversity is further grounded in the Legionnaire Wildfire’s point of view issue-long monologue. The question isn’t whether or not this team of Legionnaires can win, but how far they can back pedal on what they’ve already lost. And the centerpiece in this drama of culpability, is Wildfire’s mistake in believing that the newly evolved species, the hypersapiens, would in any way resemble humans in terms of their needs or their motivations.
It’s hard to read Legion Lost and not fall back into thinking about the election to come. Four years ago the idea of being liberal or being conservative could have been more clearly defined. More than what (then Senator) Obama’s campaign claimed, the 2008 election was a time of hope for all. But 2012 will be different. The Republican Party particularly, seems to be staring down a singular fracturing of the idea of conservatism. But Democrats face no less of a challenge defining the nature of liberalism in the wake of the S&P downgrade of the US.
And yet, for all its thematic overtones, Legion Lost fails to make an overt connection with the political. This is a small, personal story. Themes of culpability and self-recrimination abound. This is the technique of great literature; to tell small, personal stories that allow us to animate them with issues of the day. So ultimately, what really steals the show is not the very clear line we can draw between Legion Lost and our own historical moment, but Nicieza’s gearing up of exposition-style narrative to a character-driven drama.
“Have we already lost by losing the idea of what it means to be human”, Wildfire ponders at one point. The interesting thing would be to see how far DC is willing to allow Nicieza to push the limit. Throughout the issue there’s the clear sense that Wildfire considers the Legion’s failings to blame for the birth of the hypersapiens. But will we see an even deeper character shift? Will Wildfire or one of the other Legionnaires become a tyrant, monomaniacally reassert their own view of what is right?
Like the 2012 election, only time can tell.