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Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds

March is Superman month here at the m0vie blog, what with the release of the animated adaptation of Grant Morrison’s superb All-Star Superman. We’ll be reviewing a Superman-related book/story arc every Wednesday this month, so check on back – and we might have a surprise or two along the way.

They call themselves Legionnaires. There are so many of these guys I can’t keep track of them all.

– Superboy Prime. I can empathise.

The tie-ins to Final Crisis were an interesting bunch. They weren’t, for the most part, your usual comic book event tie-ins. Then again, Final Crisis was hardly your usual comic book event. Indeed, the handful of essential reading material was included in Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis hardcover. The remaining hardcovers didn’t exist to plug holes in the story, nor to showcase particular characters interacting with the crisis du jour. So, while Final Crisis: The Legion of Three Worlds does little to tie-in plot-wise to the main miniseries (save, perhaps, setting up a tiny scene), it’s interesting that Geoff Johns elected to have is story reflect the themes and core ideas of Grant Morrison’s epic event.

And the Legion shall be many...

The tie-ins pretty much served as “connective tissue” for certain DC series, which was an interesting approach. Final Crisis: Revelations tied together some loose threads from Greg Rucka’s work on Gotham Central and The Question. Final Crisis: Rogues’ Revenge connected Geoff Johns’ first run on The Flash through to Flash: Rebirth. And Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds exists to tidy up the continuity of The Legion of Superheroes so that they can relaunched again.

I’ll confess I don’t know much about The Legion of Superheroes, save that their very existence is one of those tangled webs of plot-heavy continuity which can give fanboys nightmares. They’ve been reimagined and rebooted so many times that it’s hard to keep track – let alone the question of whether or not the teenage version of Superman used to travel to the future with them to have adventures. The Legion of Three Worlds seems to exist solely to draw a line under this tangled mess, and give us a position from which we can move forward.

... and the Legion shall be... still many...

There’s a lot going on here, and I have no problem admitting that I didn’t get all of it. I am a geek, but I am not a geek with an expert interest in the future chronology of the DC Universe. I will freely admit that there were times when I was last within the pages of the book. However, thanks to the work of Geoff Johns, I was never too far away from finding something to hang on to. Johns gets a lot of flack for having something of a strange attitude towards continuity – he can latch on to certain elements and discard others casually. He has been accused of heavily re-writing individual characters, needlessly revamping them.

However, in my experience (and it’s experience borne out in this collection), Johns rewrites characters to give them emotional torque. He finds the essence of a character and finds a straight-forward motivation for them. Some fans balk at their childhood favourites receiving streamlined essence and motivations, and sometimes Johns goes perhaps a little too far (I’m not sure I needed Barry Allen to have his mother murdered), but he keeps things fresh. As a reader not familiar with the Legion – a group with a cast in the dozens, even before alternate versions are considered – the ability to point to a character and understand their reasoning and motivation means a lot to me. I am on the verge of using that mythical comic book a-word, “accessibility”.

Rock of Ages...

I must concede that I am not sure it’s the proper word to use in the context. The Legion of Three Worlds is – like Final Crisis itself – predicated on a decent level of knowledge of the DC universe. It rewards those familiar with incidents both ancient and recent. George Perez is an artist who loves continuity (consider the work he did with Kurt Busiek on The Avengers or Avengers/JLA), and so he’s well suited to it. Even though I can’t begin to grasp the in-jokes at play, elements like “the hall of 1,000 Olsens” (featuring hundreds of iterations of Superman’s Pal – from space monster to werewolf) still bring a smile to my face.

In many ways, you could argue that the book represents a defence of what might be termed “Geoff Johns’ philosophy of comic books.” It shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, as his views overlaps significantly with those of Grant Morrison – just with less conscious post-modernism. It’s no wonder that the first place we visit in the far future is a museum, as this entire story is a form of collected nostalgia – but nostalgia that should not be confused with continuity. It doesn’t matter that things don’t necessarily tie up in the most logical sequence, as long as it makes a good story. Indeed, the notion of continuity plays out in the background of the story. There’s even a cameo from General Zod, the living embodiment of a character trapped under mountains of continuity. Although he featured in Superman II, the comic book iteration of Zod has been revised and reimagined, added and removed from continuity far too many times – trying to make sense of it could drive you insane, until Geoff Johns and Richard Donner decided to just play him straight during their run on Action Comics. There’s a sense of relief in his voice as he escapes the Phantom Zone. “At last! Freedom!”

Sodam Yat isn't Green anymore...

The Legion themselves are the most child-like of superhero teams. “Although you are men and women, you still call yourselves boys and girls,” Brainiac 6 observes, as if drafting an accusation. Another individual suggests, “maybe it is time you grew up.” This image recurs throughout the story – the idea that the Legion is a silly, childish idea and that it should be put to bed, once and for all. The Legion finds its own relevance attacked on intellectual and ideological terms. Talking heads critique the “internal strife” and the soap opera that it creates, or the “male-dominated organisation.”

These are attempts to apply rigid rational thought to a wonderfully optimistic and fantastic organisation. Rather than attempting to convince the reader that the Legion is “mature” or “sophisticated”, he defends it on its own terms. It is childish, but perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that – there’s something wrong with losing all of that innocence and growing up too fast. After all, it’s the grown-up part of Bart Allen that is killing him.

A Wizard did it...

“So the adult part of him was like a cancer?” a character asks of the speedster, returned from the grave. “I saw myself – the adult part of me – die,” Bart remarks, as he runs off to save the world again. On seeing the younger Bart Allen return, Superboy Prime is aghast. “You got older and dumber,” he insists, referring to continuity – but that version of Bart Allen was a mistake, Johns assures us.

It’s fitting that the story pits the Legion of Superheroes against Superboy Prime. Prime is a parody of the self-righteous fans who are doing long-term damage to the medium with their sense of entitlement, and so he makes the perfect choice to confront the Legion. He’s the kind of person who makes their first judgement of an event based on how it fits within continuity, rather than how good it is. “I know who the Legion is, Olsen,” Prime remarks as he tours the museum. “I read about them as a kid. And I like their old costumes way better.” He’s the fan who argues that everything should be like it always was, and there’s no room for growth.

Struck down in his Prime...

You might argue that it’s a tad hypocritical for Johns to critique the fan who insists on a static DC Universe while using the miniseries to bring not only Bart Allen but Superboy back to life. Those actions, you would suggest, hint at a writer who isn’t comfortable with change and wants to restore the DC Universe back to the way it was when he read comics. Given how Johns has restored various legacy heroes to their most popular incarnations, you might have a point.

However, Johns isn’t fundamentally afraid of new ideas in principle. He isn’t averse to change and experimentation, even if he acknowledges his own bias. He might believe that Hal Jordan works best as the Green Lantern, but he’s not too hung up on whether or not female guardians didn’t exist in the original stories. He certainly doesn’t believe that continuity should stand in the way of a good story. “This isn’t how anything happened,” Superboy Prime protests as he’s treated to his own history. That boy would be a lot happier if he let go of the past and started living in the present.

This has a familiar ring to it...

The other main villain of the piece is the Time Trapper. He works well as a bad guy because he’s pretty much the embodiment of a continuity revision – he stands in for all the continuity-heavy rewrites which have damaged the Legion over the years (which allows him, for example, to fit in with Johns’ portrayal of the Reverse Flash). He’s a “giant cosmic reset button”. Indeed, his identity is itself subject to the same sort of editorial mandated rewrites which have made the Legion’s continuity so tough to follow. “His own history changes,” Brainiac suggests, “I’d guess even his identity could alter, as the true timeline marches on.” When he remarks that “I attempted to remove any true memories of Superboy from the Legion”, he’s pretty much speaking as the embodiment of DC editorial policy when they attempted to erase the Legion of Superheroes from Superman’s history.

I’m fairly sure there’s even more going on underneath this, but I’m not entirely certain what it is. There are hints throughout the book that the future is being constantly rewritten by events unfolding in the modern DC continuity, which makes sense. Perhaps it’s the most sensible way to approach the Legion – to acknowledge the rewrites to continuity that have choked the book in the past, and accept that it’s something that needs to be enjoyed in “the here and now.” However, the outcome is strangely static and conservative for a book that seems to resent the interference of fans who fear change. The event restores the Legion pretty much as it was and even two modern day heroes, reversing significant amounts of change to the DC Universe.

Time is running out...

You might suggest that the deaths of Bart Allen and Conor Kent were mistakes that needed to be fixed, but simply resurrecting them seems to be indulging the sort of attitudes that the book cautions against. Or perhaps the book simply suggests that such things should not be taken so seriously. Either way, it feels like a victory for story over continuity, which is something of a complimentary idea to what Grant Morrison proposed in Final Crisis – the victory of story over darkness.

Or something. I’m probably rambling. I’m not yet converted to The Legion of Superheroes, despite appreciating what Johns was attempting here. I think I like the ideas he is proposing more than I like the book itself, another hallmark of the title miniseries. Still, it’s clear that Johns has a passion for what he’s doing and that Perez is a smart choice to draw it.

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