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Paul Levitz’s Run on The Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga (Review/Retrospective)

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.

The Great Darkness Saga is regarded as perhaps the classic Legion of Superheroes story. If you could preserve one of their adventures for the ages, this would likely be it. So it’s great to see DC pulling out all the stops and collecting it in a lavish Deluxe Edition, which includes not only the story arc and extras, but the complete build-up to the saga as well. This collection begins with the first issue of Paul Levitz’s second run on the title (and the recent solicitation of a Curse deluxe hardcover suggests that DC will be collecting all of that very popular run) and goes all the way through to the end of this epic storyline.

The book has its legions of fans...

For anybody unaware of the Legion of Superheroes (including myself, because I’m a newbie), the team is basically “Star Trek meets the Justice League.” It’s a bunch of super-powered kids of various alien origins working together in the far future trying to make the universe a better place. It’s a simple premise and one easy enough to get ahold of. Of course, this being comic books, continuity has been tricky for the team – they originally claimed to have been inspired by (and, in the issue here, count as a member) Superboy (Clark Kent as a teenage Superman). However, when Superman’s history was redrafted so that there never was a Superboy (he only started wearing tights as an adult), this caused a few problems. Those problems were still being cleaned up even a few years ago (in Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds).

However, all of these problems lie ahead of the book. You don’t need to concern yourself with continuity to jump into Levitz’s futuristic sci-fi superhero extravaganza. The plots are fairly straightforward and easy to follow (even if they do seem rather densely-packed), but there are perhaps a few too many members of the super-powered task-force for me to really keep track of. By the middle of the collection, I was begining to think that I’d got a grasp on the few core members – but, every once in a while, I’d find myself skipping back a chapter or two to help me remember who everybody was and what their character baggage was.

Making waves...

Of course, reading it thirty years after it was originally published does weaken some of the impact. Much as with Frank Miller’s Daredevil run, I find myself struggling to deal with the style of the time, which includes a lot of expository narration and more than a couple of thought-balloons. It’s amazing how different today’s style is to those of times past, that I find myself having genuine difficulty reading an older comic – but, to be honest, Levitz’s Legion of Superheroes is worth the effort. It’s not, of course, as seminal as Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing or Miller’s Daredevil, but it is a good read.

Another fact which negatively impacts the story that Levitz is attempting to tell is the simple fact that we know a lot of the stuff that the author is building up to. The story is packed to the brim with ominous foreboding (we’re warned, for example, that we will return to a plot point in a future issue “with results that will concern the Legion… later” or that we’re witnessing “a simple event, yet one that heralds many others, greater and more dangerous”), but modern readers know exactly where the plot is going before it gets there.

Super news...

The cover of the hardcover spoils the storyline’s top secret ominous villain, but it’s not really anything to spoil. For years, The Great Darkness Saga has attained cult status as “a great Darkseid story”, one of the stories which firmly established Jack Kirby’s creation as a part of the DC cosmic mythos and paved the way for his involvement in big stories told featuring big characters – like Final Crisis, for example. Much like the sled in Citizen Kane, it’s a plot point which has taken on a life outside the story itself. The character’s involvement in this story is so pivotal that everybody now knows about it – and, indeed, it’s a huge selling point of the arc, to be frank.

So while Levitz tries to generate a sense of mystery around the strange force that has awoken –  with ominous warnings like “that life is death incarnate” – we’re already aware of the twist. Even if we didn’t know Darkseid was the villain in this particular story, and even if he wasn’t on the cover, The Great Darkness Saga is responsible for establishing a trend that Darkseid is the mysterious villain behind every large-scale cosmic threat. Sure, I am exaggerating slightly, but I seem to recall Keith Griffen’s Ambush Bug miniseries, where every issue ended with the “twist” that Darkseid was confronting the hero.

McDarkseid! (from Ambush Bug miniseries)

However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves by discussing Darkseid. The villain who will later be identified as Darkseid doesn’t appear until over 100 pages into this lovely collected edition, so let’s talk about Levitz’s Legion of Superheroes in general. There’s no denying that the writer’s style is corny and, to be honest, a little cliché. There’s something more than a little bit Silver Age about watching a bunch of adolescent superheroes play a sports game with a “no superpowers” rule, among other such moments.

That said, I find myself enjoying Levitz’s writing. He writes the legion as a bunch of teenagers, as opposed to just a bunch of short adults. Occasionally this results in some strange stereotypical moments as Levitz is clearly trying to connect with the readers of the comic, such as the revelation that these teenage geeks are avid Dungeons & Dragons players. This could be awkward, but the book is always affectionate and respectful.

Thank God his parents invested in those elocution lessons...

Despite the kinds of attitudes that you might see to role-playing games in popular media (especially thirty years ago), the hobby is treated as just that – it’s not all-consuming or trite, it’s just something they do in their spare time. Given how popular culture (even niche popular culture like comic books) tends to look down on this sort of nerdy behaviour, it’s refreshing how affectionate Levitz seems. In an era when comic books seem intent on ridiculing their “nerdy” and “geekier” fans with parodies like Superman-Prime, it’s refreshing to read a comic which salutes the geekiness of its readers with a polite smile.

Sure, some of the portrayals of his teenage cast are less than flattering. For example, with the soap opera plots that Levitz keeps on slow-burner, many of the cast seem to take turns sulking. “Call me if you need me,” Lightening Lad remarks as he wanders off, deflated. He doesn’t feel the need to add “I’ll be in my room”, but you know he will be. Similarly, there’s a whole host of tangled romantic subplots between any number of the impossibly large cast. Levitz handles these well (ah, teens and their hormones!), but I can’t help but feel the cast is simply too big for this sort of thing. I feel especially old when I can’t keep track of where everybody is and what they’re up to.

Out of the blue...

There are, of course, moments of hokeyness. It feels weird, for example, when the team’s token French character (Jacques, of course) breaks out a bit of token French like “Incroyable!” while speaking perfect English otherwise. And Darkseid’s preoccupation with the fact he’s fighting a bunch of kids does seem to undermine the drama slightly. At this stage in the history of the DC Universe, the character was such a large-scale threat that any team beating him should have felt like an incredibly accomplishment. I know Levitz is trying to make it sound even more incredible that he was beaten by a collection of kids, but it just seems a little heavy-handed to make such a big deal out of how young they are.

It’s to Levitz’s credit that he’s able to keep so many plates spinning at the same time. At one point, the Legion has three different activities on-going at the same time, each featuring its own small cast and central problems. Levitz skilfully tackles them – he’ll frequently devote an issue to one plot, with a back-up focusing on a particular Legion member and some small scenes to help the audience keep track of who is where. I did, occasionally, lose track of a few members but, for the most part, Levitz deserves points for keeping his large ensemble on track. In the interests of fairness, I should clarify that I am not a fan of team books, even being somewhat less fond of Grant Morrison’s JLA than most.

... In darkness dwells...

Another aspect of Levitz’s style which I appreciate here is the way that it is just a little bit self-aware and just a little bit cheeky. It seems that the script is aware that we aren’t exactly redefining the genre here, but that doesn’t mean that these can’t be solid, entertaining little stories. For example, I love the exchange concerning Orando. It’s a world that has advance far enough to send Princess Projectra into space, and yet it bears an uncanny resemblance to feudal Earth, like something out of Star Trek: The Original Series. The characters simply accept the absurd idea, and run with it. “I have never completely understood why this is, but it matters little.” Levitz acknowledges the corny nature of some of the devices that he is using, but still enjoys playing with them.

In fairness, and in comparison to modern comic books, Levitz’s plots just fly by. We live in the era of decompression, but Levitz manages to back every issue full of events and occurences. He plays into an over-arching plot, but there’s never a sense that any of the storylines are remaining stationary. Sometimes I feel that he could do well to settle on a given situation for a few pages longer before flying off, but it does give the collection a rather “brisk” feel. A lot is happening over the course of the issues here, so much that – if it wasn’t for the fact the book was called The Great Darkness Saga, it wouldn’t feel like the writer was waiting patiently to set his pieces up.

The Darkseid of a moon...

It’s a lovely collection, if you can get past the “gee whizz” nostalgia of it all. of course, that old-style innocence and fast-paced storytelling will be a large part of the appeal to some fans. It gives an indicator of how far the industry and medium have changed in the years since. It’s good fun, once you get into it, even if it is a bit tough for a modern reader to really get behind. Still, its place in comic book history – as well as a genuine sense of excitement and fun – earn the book a great deal of respect. I might, after all, pick up The Curse.

One Response

  1. I love your puns with images.

    Anti-Lifing the populace of Daxam and sending them across the universe was pretty bad-ass. (Spoiler alert.)

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