Legion of Super-Heroes
“When you think of Superman in the 1950s, only a handful of artists come to mind – and Al Plastino’s one of them. Along with the likes of Wayne Boring and Curt Swan, Plastino brought a level of humanity to Superman that had never been seen before. This amazing, super-human being now had a smile like you or me. He brought out the human side of a modern myth. It was nuanced but game changing. We can’t thank him enough for his work at DC, and we’re thinking of all those close to him during this difficult time.”
– DC Entertainment Co-Publisher Dan DiDio, discussing the work of prolific Superman artist Al Plastino, who passed away at age 91
Prolific artist Al Plastino, who in recent weeks lobbied for the return of his original art for the 1964 story “Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy,” has passed away after a battle with prostate cancer, Mark Evanier reports. He was 91.
Born Dec. 15, 1921 in New York City, Plastino began illustrating for Youth Today magazine after he graduated from the High School of Industrial Arts. His first comics credit was on Dynamic Publications’ Dynamic Comics #2, cover-dated December 1941.
After serving in the Army during World War II, Plastino returned to freelance work and learned in 1948 that DC Comics was searching for a new Superman artist; according to his website, the publisher paid $55 a page at the time. For the next two decades, Plastino drew Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Superboy, Superman, Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane and Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, and with writer Otto Binder created the Legion of Super-Heroes and Supergirl.
Summer is officially over, so this is a little late, but I’ve been meaning to talk about a certain arc from the summer of 1993. It was the height of the speculator bubble, when everything came with cover enhancements, trading cards, unfortunate hairstyles and/or superfluous pouches.
For many DC Comics readers, 20 years ago was also the summer of “Reign of the Supermen!” That’s not necessarily enthusiasm — the exclamation point was part of the title, which in turn was inspired by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s early proto-supervillain story, “The Reign of the Superman.” The third (and by far the longest) chapter of the “Death of Superman” saga began with teasers at the back of Adventures of Superman #500, published around April 15,* and ended with Superman Vol. 2 #82, published around Aug. 26.** Those four and a half months may not seem like much, but they saw 20 issues of the four regular Superman books (including Action Comics and Superman: The Man of Steel) spread over 20 weeks. In fact, “Reign” was front-loaded, with all four titles marking the official start of the arc on April 29 or so, two weeks after Adventures #500. That meant there were some weeks without a new installment, and those were sometimes hard to take.
“Reign of the Supermen!” is not the greatest Superman story ever memorialized in print. On one level it is very much a product of its era. However, for the Superman books, that era was energized not just by the efforts of their creative teams, but by the overarching framework the books had developed. While “Reign” wasn’t the only big DC event of the summer — for one thing, the debut of DC’s imprint Milestone Media has much more historical significance — it’s a reminder of the ebbs and flows of serial superhero storytelling, and it remains instructive today.
Warning: This is a very long post, because I think there’s a lot of background to be explored.
Although I’m looking forward to Justice League 3000, I still can’t quite get over the Legion-sized hole in DC’s roster. The Legion of Super-Heroes turned 55 earlier this year (on Feb. 27, according to Mike’s Amazing World of Comics), which makes it some 18 months older than Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps, and almost two years older than the Justice League. Indeed, the Legion’s enduring popularity has made it one of the“foundational” features that DC will probably publish until its doors finally close, along with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, the League and Green Lantern. However, today I want to talk about the Legion in terms of a different kind of landmark.
By definition, a shared universe is composed of the combined details of its constituent features. We tend to think of this in terms of geography, cosmology and the space-time continuum. Accordingly, DC-Earth has various additional “fictionopolises” (including Metropolis, Gotham City, Central City and Coast City) and nations (like Atlantis and Themyscira); and it shares a universe with planets not found so far in ours (Oa, Tamaran, etc.). There are also other planes of existence to be explored (Gemworld, Earth-2, the Fourth World and the Fifth Dimension); as well as series set in the Dark Ages, the Old West and of course the 31st century.
Oh, DC, you came so close to a slam dunk. If you had told me Keith Giffen, J. Marc DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire would be working on Legion of Super-Heroes, I’d have been beyond excited. After all, Justice League International was nothing if not a superb ensemble comedy, and what richer source of super-ensemble action does DC have than the Legion?
Instead, though, we’re getting Justice League 3000, set in the Legion’s 31st century and apparently following the events of August’s final Legion issue, but not explicitly tied to the 55-year-old super-team. This raises two questions. First, whither the Legion itself? DC has previously put the Legion on hiatus, although never for too long, so one wonders how long it’ll lie dormant this time. Second, why does it have to be such a familiar Justice League? The initial roster includes Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern, with redesigns (courtesy of Howard Porter) that retain some fairly familiar elements. Is the League being “Avengers-ized,” so that every major super-team must have some “JL” in its name?
And those two questions combine for a third: How sustainable is JL3K, really?
DC Comics’ August solicitations include both the end of “Trinity War” and of four series, including the latest Legion of Super-Heroes title. Otherwise, not much jumps out at me. Even the collected-edition section isn’t that diverse, as it’s heavy on “Death of the Family” books and pretty light on the vintage reprints.
NOT QUITE DEAD
If Talon weren’t a Bat-title, I’d say it was getting ready to be canceled. Issue 11′s solicitation refers to an “epic finale,” with Batman pitching in to help “eliminate the Court of Owls once and for all.” However, because so much work went into making the Court of Owls a credible threat to the Bat-clan, I doubt they’ll be eradicated completely. Likewise, I don’t think Talon is going anywhere, at least not yet.
Similarly, the continued existence of Batman Incorporated is one of the questions posed by the sure-to-be-epic conclusion of Grant Morrison’s Bat-work. In other words, is a revamped Club of Heroes so wrapped up with Morrison that it can’t survive without him? More to the point, is a Morrison-less Batman Inc. still marketable? Presumably the answer rests in the sales numbers for August’s Batman Incorporated Special — which, incidentally, appears to indicate just who among the various Inc.’ers survives the end of the regular series. I guess DC isn’t worried about spoiling such things, because it’s done something similar with the last couple months of Lantern Corps solicits.
With his 19-issue Action Comics saga, Grant Morrison has almost literally written a Superman story for all time. “For every time” might be more accurate, because it plays with chronology like a kid jumbling up a Rubik’s Cube. Morrison begins with tales of Superman’s earliest days, then jumps into the New 52′s present for a couple of issues (bringing in the 31st century’s Legion of Super-Heroes) before wrapping up the first arc and proceeding on to “now.” The result is a macro-level adventure that draws liberally from every era of Superman, blends those disparate elements into a fine pureé, and repositions the mix as a self-reflective epic. This is the Superman legend as alpha and omega, beginning and end, reinvention and restoration, and it’s a heck of a thing.
It’s also a pretty daunting read. I spent about three hours Tuesday night with issues 1 through 17 (and Issue 0, of course) and still didn’t catch every nuance and reference. However, the overall impression is a familiar one: Superman’s real power comes more from the idea of “Superman” than from the effects of yellow-sun rays. On its own this is rather hokey, or at least dismissable as such, and a reader casually flipping through Action Vol. 2 #18 might wonder what all the fuss was about. To be fair, a more dedicated reader might wonder that as well; but I think it’s a lot less likely.
SPOILERS FOLLOW for Action Comics #18 and its predecessors:
On the science fiction blog io9, Rachel Ariel Porte provides us with a great introduction to Raymond McDaniel‘s Legion Of Super-Heroes-themed poetry collection Special Powers And Abilities, along with a fascinating interview with the poet.
This was a book whose existence I was entirely in ignorance of until now, but has gone straight to the top of my Amazon wish list. McDaniel’s dropped-at-the-deep end introduction to Legion lore sounds remarkably similar to my own, when I bought LSH #300 on a whim as a youth. The interview reveals McDaniel as a writer with an amazingly thoughtful take on these characters, and a man throwing around as many mad ideas and as much maddening language as Grant Morrison. (“Consider us super-induced, added to that which is, enumerated perhaps to the point of being supererogative if never quite superfluous, each one of us supernumerary, all of us superhetrodyne, mixed, reactive, multiple, magical”).
The guy should be offered the job of writing a Legion comic for DC ASAP!
No small amount of drama accompanies the March solicitations, thanks to Gail Simone’s unexpected dismissal from Batgirl. There’s also turnover at Swamp Thing and Birds of Prey, potential clues to the end of “Death of the Family,” and the usual I-remember-this! commentary on collections.
FOLLOW THE BOUNCING BALL
The big stories are the departures of Simone from Batgirl and Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette from Swamp Thing. It seems particularly odd in Simone’s case because it leaves the fate of Batgirl’s current antagonist in the hands of a different writer. Maybe that means Simone’s original plans for him didn’t go over particularly well with DC, or maybe it’s something totally unrelated. Either way, looks like it’ll be at least another month (in January’s Issue 16, her last issue) before we learn anything significant. At any rate, Ray Fawkes writes two issues of Batgirl starting with Issue 18.
As of March, Jim Zubkavich is your new Birds of Prey writer, Andy Kubert draws the lead story in Batman #18, and Trevor McCarthy draws Batwoman #18. Also, in a move that threatens to have me try out Phantom Stranger, the very fine J.M. DeMatteis comes aboard as co-writer with Issue # (guest-drawn by the equally fine Gene Ha and Zander Cannon).
I am not certain about a lot of things, but I am pretty sure of this: If you read enough of Karen Berger’s comics, it makes you a better person. It would have to. It just makes too much sense!
In more than 30 years, first as a DC Comics editor and then as head of Vertigo, Berger helped to transform the comics industry by shepherding some of the most acclaimed and beloved series in recent memory. Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, The Sandman and other not-exactly mainstream DC books not only helped define Vertigo’s identity, they established their own, free from the restraints of a shared superhero universe.
I hear a lot of rumbling from the February solicitations — the First Lantern, the last Hellblazer, the new JLA — like the Next Big Things are simmering under the surface. Yes, this is how DC wants me to think, but there’s no guarantee that my anticipation will live up to the books themselves. Still, at least things are happening, which is nice. There are endings and beginnings, changes and reintroductions, and a few good reprints too.
So, without further ado …
JUST BE GLAD IT’S NOT “20,000 LEAGUES”
The “expansion of the Justice League” advertised in Justice League #17 may be related to the new Justice League of America, but I suspect it will have more to do with the main League’s roster additions (which, if memory serves, were teased back in summer 2011). I base this mostly on the fact that JLA #1 comes out two weeks before JL #17, and therefore I doubt DC would want its latest high-profile first issue to spoil the end of “Throne of Atlantis.”
“Comics have a problem, and that is continuity — the obsession with placing the characters in an existing world, where every event is marked in canon. You’re supposed to believe that these weepy star boys of now are the same gung ho super teens fighting space monsters in the sixties, and they’ve only aged perhaps five years. It eventually strains credulity, and can shackle a writer who wants to try a something new. Very few narrative forms have to deal with this principle, and a fan base that gets mad when it’s violated, except for maybe soap operas (which is what comics are). So there are these periodic memory wipes and start-overs. But to me, it never felt right with the Legion. There are just too many of these kids, none of them is iconic, the whole pleasure is the continuity– the evolution of comic styles and sensibility encoded in their being.”
– author, humorist and Legion of Super-Heroes fan John Hodgman, on why the DC Comics property has been rebooted so many times over the past 55 years
While I was enjoying my time at APE up in San Francisco, the New York Comic Con was raging on with announcements and such. Before I get into a rundown of the comic-related news coming out of the East Coast today, let’s jump back to yesterday real quick so I can update one of the items from my Friday round-up. I mentioned that Dark Horse would publish a comic based on the upcoming video game The Last of Us, but I didn’t know at the time the most important part — the always awesome Faith Erin Hicks is co-writing AND drawing the comic. That’s a “Stop the presses” moment if I’ve ever seen one.
Ok, now on to Saturday …
• Apparently space is the place at NYCC … following DC’s announcement of Threshold yesterday, Marvel officially announced the return of two of their cosmic titles — Guardians of the Galaxy and Nova. Guardians, written by Brian Michael Bendis with art by Steve McNiven, comes out in February and apparently will feature Iron Man, or at least someone in his armor. Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness are the creative team for Nova, which features Sam Alexander, the Nova from Avengers vs. X-Men.
Today I am pondering that Ivan Brandon essay on TheAwl.com, and the things comics can do that movies just can’t.
Last week I mentioned the Lazarus Pit as an example of a comics staple that Batman movies — any Batman movies, arguably — would probably be reluctant to use. While the Pit comes with certain restrictions and side effects, it still boils down basically to an unlimited supply of extra lives. It runs counter to the idea of Batman as being grounded in reality, but in the context of a shared universe where Batman pals around with extraterrestrials (and their agents), a super-powered Amazon, and the King of Atlantis, it’s not that far-fetched. This is the old “Character Y could solve Character X’s problems” hypothesis, and it tends to be met with “Character X and Character Y play by different rules.” A good example of the latter was a “No Man’s Land” story featuring Superman (coincidentally collected in the new NML Vol. 3), where the Man of Steel’s well-intentioned assistance in trying to rebuild an earthquake-devastated Gotham turned out to be exactly wrong under the circumstances.
Welcome to Food or Comics?, where every week we talk about what comics we’d buy at our local comic shop based on certain spending limits — $15 and $30 — as well as what we’d get if we had extra money or a gift card to spend on a splurge item.
It’s not even a fifth week, but I find myself curiously distanced from this week’s releases for some reason. Outside of some books I’ve been reading for awhile, there’s little to really catch my eye, so if I had $15, I’d likely find myself buying Dark Horse Presents #10 (Dark Horse, $7.99) and Memorial #4 (IDW, $3.99), and being quite happy with those two books.
If I had $30, I might go back to Justice League with #7 (DC, $3.99); I wasn’t entirely convinced by the opening arc, but I found myself enjoying the Pandora back-up in #6 enough that I found myself more curious about sticking around than I would’ve expected. I’d also grab Legion of Super-Heroes #7 (DC, $2.99), another book I’ve found myself liking more than I initially thought, as well as Thunderbolts #171 (Marvel, $2.99) for one of the few, final times before it becomes a part of the Avengers family.
Splurging, oddly, is a much easier choice for me than what I’d get in single issues: Avengers: West Coast Avengers – Lost In Space-Time (Marvel, $34.99) collects some of the first issues of West Coast Avengers that I read way back when, launching a love affair with Steve Englehart’s writing that continues to this day. Those original issues are long since lost to history (Somewhat fittingly, considering the time travel subject matter), so this will be a welcome nostalgia trip for me.