27 May 2016

DC's R.E.B.E.L.S.: An Interesting, But Flawed Experiment

By the time it ended, L.E.G.I.O.N. had run for 70 issues, plus assorted annuals. It featured a large and complex array of characters, and a number of ongoing plots and subplots. Zero Hour provided an opportunity: not to cancel the series outright, but to relaunch it in a way that would make it less impenetrable to newcomers. If nothing else, it would have single-digit issue numbers again, not frightening ones in the 60s and beyond. In these days of DC Rebirth and All-New, All-Different Marvel, a comics publisher probably wouldn't think twice about just starting the book over at #1 with no other changes, but writer Tom "Tennessee" Peyer goes the extra mile.

L.E.G.I.O.N. had been about a corps of space police for hire led by Vril Dox, sometimes called Brainiac 2, scion of the Superman foe, ancestor of Legion of Super-Heroes member Brainiac 5. The last few issues of L.E.G.I.O.N. saw Vril Dox slowly supplanted by his superintelligent infant son, Lyrl Dox; this culminated in Lyrl taking over the organization outright in L.E.G.I.O.N. '94 #70 and Vril Dox going on the run with the "core" team of L.E.G.I.O.N. R.E.B.E.L.S. (1994-96) is the sequel series to L.E.G.I.O.N., picking up right where its predecessor left off, following the attempts of Vril Dox and company to seize control back from Lyrl. (R.E.B.E.L.S. stands for "Revolutionary Elite Brigade to Eradicate L.E.G.I.O.N. Supremacy.")

Gotta get some of that sweet Kyle Rayner crossover action in your second issue to get people to read. (Yes, #1 is the second issue.)
R.E.B.E.L.S. '94 #1 (Nov. 1994, cover by Dave Johnson)

The editorial staff periodically explains the rationale for the name change in the letter column, and it makes sense: if the series name remained L.E.G.I.O.N., you would never buy Lyrl's takeover as anything more than temporary, a short-term shift in the status quo to be overturned after a story arc. But by renaming the book after the goal of resisting L.E.G.I.O.N., it becomes clear that this could go on for a long time. You take the takeover seriously, at least in theory.

But it didn't really work for me. With the series named after the concept of resisting L.E.G.I.O.N., you know exactly when our heroes will finally succeed: the last issue. Now, as someone coming to this series twenty years later, I do know exactly how long the series is (18 issues, including #0), but even without that context, I think there would be a real feeling of wheel-spinning throughout. It never feels like Vril Dox and company get anywhere or accomplish anything; they try something to resist L.E.G.I.O.N., and it fails. Then they try something else, and it fails. And so on, until it succeeds because this time it's the final issue. It doesn't help that the book doesn't draw on the continuity established by L.E.G.I.O.N. enough, sending Vril Dox to planets and people that are supposedly important but somehow never came up in the previous seventy issues of adventures.

For some reason, each issue of R.E.B.E.L.S. had a one- or two-word caption above the title. This one is probably the weirdest of them.
R.E.B.E.L.S. '95 #6 (Apr. 1995, cover by Dave Johnson)

At its best, under Alan Grant and Barry Kitson, L.E.G.I.O.N. balanced a large, diverse ensemble cast with a number of ongoing plots. R.E.B.E.L.S., with everything subordinate to the masterplot of Dox vs. Dox, never recreates that alchemy. Strata, Stealth, Phase, Telepath, and many of the other L.E.G.I.O.N. characters are present, but mostly they just stand there and complain about Dox's plans. Grant and Kitson were good about giving all the characters meaningful contributions to the story, even if Dox does have a tendency to dominate the proceedings, but here the big cast is a chorus of one-dimensional whiners. "Dox, you can't do x! Oh, you did anyway? How terrible yet I shall do nothing to stop you." Most of the series is drawn by Derec Aucoin and Mark Propst, who are serviceable and not prone to the excesses of 1990s comics, but aren't as good at facial expressions or character as Barry Kitson. (But then, few are.)

Many of the threads of the tapestry of L.E.G.I.O.N., like Garryn Bek, his wife Marij'n, and her love for Captain Comet, are completely dropped. Those that R.E.B.E.L.S. introduces on its own, such as the romance between Dox and Stealth, are just strange. (Stealth raped Dox and left him for dead in L.E.G.I.O.N., following a biological imperative of her unusual species. That either could ever love the other seems grossly out of character, and Peyer does nothing to convince the reader of it here.) Without the character dynamics to motivate it, R.E.B.E.L.S. is a barrage of relentless, but uninvolving action.

The slight 3-D shading elements of some of the series' later covers make it look like a cheap videogame.
R.E.B.E.L.S. '96 #16 (Feb. 1996, cover by Derek Aucoin and John Dell)

That's not to say it's without its high points, my favorite probably being when Captain Comet reveals that he solved the problem of being marooned on a pre-industrial planet by elevating them from the Stone Age to the Space Age in six months. Which is made even better by the way Lyrl Dox dismisses his pompousness. And the ending, with Comet taking command of a reincorporated L.E.G.I.O.N. while Vril Dox goes into retirement to garden and raise his son right, is surprisingly sweet. (Though not really followed up on as far as I know; in its Infinite Crisis-era appearances, L.E.G.I.O.N. is led by Dox once again, and Captain Comet has gone freelance by the time of 52 and Mystery in Space.)

I applaud Peyer and company for doing something different... but unfortunately, it didn't really work. I do look forward to seeing what Tony Bedard does with these characters when R.E.B.E.L.S. is brought back in the 2000s, though; he's usually good with character and humor, which is what L.E.G.I.O.N./R.E.B.E.L.S. requires, and his experience (co-)writing Legion of Super-Heroes (during the "threeboot" era) will probably transfer well.

No comments:

Post a Comment