23 October 2015

Ongoing Comics I've Been Reading: L.E.G.I.O.N.

This is the time period Lobo becomes popular, so he's on the cover a lot. But I feel like the interiors are always making fun of him!
Since sometime in June, I think, I've been reading the DC Comics series L.E.G.I.O.N. (Or, rather, succession of series, technically. There's L.E.G.I.O.N. '89, which has issues #1-10, L.E.G.I.O.N. '90, which has issues #11-22, and so on. I don't know why they decided to do this, except that I guess it makes it clear that unlike its famous cousin Legion of Super-Heroes, this does not take place in the future.) L.E.G.I.O.N. is about an interstellar police force-for-hire founded by Vril Dox, the son of Brainiac. His team initially consists of a group of characters he was imprisoned with in Invasion!, and the initial plot of the book is them, post-escape, trying to return to their homes. But Dox is a crafty fellow, and he soon uses them to take over both the criminal operations and the police forces of the world of Cairn, reforming them all into the Licensed Extra-Governmental Interstellar Operatives Network, which offers police protection to planets that can't protect themselves (except Earth, because everyone in space hates Earth).

The core team is soon supplemented by an army of cops, and there are also a number of characters who come and go, giving the book a rather sprawling cast. They're a rather diverse lot, with different reasons for doing what they do, and different perspectives on how it ought to be done. Subplots weave in and out of the book over time, as different aspects rise and fall in prominence gradually.

Lobo, Lyrissa Mallor, Stealth, Garryn Bek, Strata, and Vril Dox. Three of the six core members are women, which was a bit surprising, especially as Strata is not traditionally feminine.
So, of course I loved it. Ensemble casts of disparate personalities are my ideal form of ongoing story, especially when as well-balanced as they are here. Some periods of the series are better than others-- with 70 monthly issues, plus 5 annuals, and a couple crossovers, there's a lot of variation, and the creative teams shift gradually over time. But of course, that level of variation is part of what makes ongoing comics so enjoyable to me as a medium; I love the way in which things change gradually, in which concepts are slowly retooled, sometimes for good (as in L.E.G.I.O.N.), sometimes for bad (Alpha Flight), the ways in which you see the same concept refracted through the creative vision of a number of different creators.

And L.E.G.I.O.N.'s transition of creators in more interesting than most. Leaving out fill-ins, you have a number of distinct creative eras: [there's rarely consistent inkers, so I've omitted them here]
  1. #1-12: Keith Giffen (plots and breakdowns), Alan Grant (scripts), Barry Kitson (pencils)
  2. #13-18: Alan Grant (plots and scripts), Barry Kitson (plot and pencils)
  3. #19-24: Alan Grant (plots and scripts), Jim Fern (pencils)
  4. #25-39: Alan Grant (plots and scripts), Barry Kitson (plots and pencils)
  5. #40-48: Barry Kitson (plots, scripts, and pencils)
  6. #49-60: Barry Kitson (plots and pencils), Mark Waid (scripts)
  7. #61-70: Tom "Tennessee" Peyer (plots and scripts), Arnie Jorgensen (pencils)
The best part about this fight is that Captain Marvel is so gosh-darn nice that he turns out to be nearly impossible for even Lobo to provoke.
As you can see, the comic transforms gradually over time. It starts out driven by Keith Giffen, but Barry Kitson goes from penciling according to Giffen's breakdowns, to co-plotting the series with Alan Grant, to writing and drawing it. Some artist-turned-writer transformations in comics can be nightmares, but this one is excellent. I don't think Kitson had drawn any monthly book before L.E.G.I.O.N., but eventually he was doing almost all the work!

And indeed, the real peak of the book is the second Grant/Kitson period and the Kitson solo period (issues #25-48), where it the book "grows the beard." This is where they finally nail all the characters, and where they learn to balance subplots against the overarching plots. (In the first eighteen issues, it felt like each issue often saw eight different subplots advance in a minuscule fashion.) In these issues, Lobo fights Captain Marvel, a set of R.E.C.R.U.I.T.S. is introduced, a new villain starts to dismantle L.E.G.I.O.N. from the inside, the core team has to go on the run from their own troops, the L.E.G.I.O.N. discovers it's propping up a genocidal regime on one of its client worlds, and Green Lantern gets in a fight with Lobo.

To top it all off, Kitson is just a great artist, especially when paired with a good inker (Mark McKenna, on issues #4-18, was probably my favorite): he does excellent facial expressions, which aids immeasurably in making the characters come to life, and his storytelling is always clear.

The last ten issues I'm a little skeptical of. Tom Peyer doesn't quite "get" some of the characters, reducing some of the complicated relationship dynamics into melodrama. There's a twist I'm unsure about-- but we'll see, as issue #70 was not the end in a conventional sense. Rather, it leads straight into a successor series, R.E.B.E.L.S., so the story he began isn't over yet. If it all works out, I'm on board, but I can also imagine ways it could go horribly wrong!

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