Two Reasons I don’t much like the Legion of Superheroes

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So recently I read two books about the Legion of Superheroes, from two separate continuities, from Mark Waid and Paul Levitz. (They got a book each.) The Legion themselves is a large superhero team from the year 3000, and I don’t like them for these two reasons.

 

Superheroes aren’t very impressive in futuristic settings

Back when cameras were first invented, the ability to create a realistic image of almost anything must’ve seemed like something from another world. Even in the nineties, I considered photography to be an art form taken seriously. Nowadays, when practically everyone has an iPhone in their pockets, no photo, no matter how good, can impress me. It’s become far too easy. That’s the main reason I have big reservations about photographers, especially wedding photographers, who think they have a right to tell me how and where to stand just because they have a fancy camera and a tacky bowtie. I swear they can smell my loathing.

Same thing happens with superpowers in the far future. Who cares if you can shoot lasers from your eyes, if the cop down the street can do the same with his gun? Unaided flight, superhuman strength and invisibility are made less remarkable by the sheer fact that science fiction technology can do anything the author wants. Superhero stories are better set in a more familiar environments, so there’s a clash between the absurdity of the characters and the mundane places they operate.

There’s too many characters

Far, far too many. We never spent enough time with any Legionnaire to get to know them well, which is a great pity, as characters like Saturn Girl or Lightening Lad would have great potential in a spin-off comic. That’s the direction I’d advise DC to take with this property, split the Legion up into smaller, more focused groups and give the more interesting characters their own stories. X-Men would be the obvious model for this approach, but I doubt there’s enough interested readers to sustain a burgeoning Legion universe.

That all said, apparently there’s a classic Legion of Superheroes story where they fight Darkseid. I love that villain, so I’m going to be keeping out an eye for that book.

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Batman: featuring Two Face and The Riddler – Various

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You know the way a review of this sort of book goes,  we’ve got a collection of reprints that’ll prove gratifying for long-time fans and educational for Batman newbies. (The index of villain appearances might even be useful for any Bat academics reading.) The variety of art and writing styles aptly demonstrates how American comics have evolved over the last centuries, and gosh, I really like this sort of thing, so of course I’m going to tell you to go read Batman: featuring Two Face and The Riddler.

The foreword is particularly interesting, being written by Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker and frequently voices the Joker in cartoons, soon before the release of one of the nineties Batman films that’s seen as a campy embarrassment today. Nowadays mainstream Batman is more influenced by Nolan’s noirish realism than the exuberant silliness of the Adam West show. I personally consider both styles valid, although given that I haven’t seen Batman’s most recent film I could be completely wrong about the currently accepted Batman aesthetic.

As for the villains themselves, I found the Riddler oddly sympathetic. His story is that ever since he cheated at a puzzle during school, he’s dedicated his life to trolling people with riddles. He can’t stop himself, it’s a compulsion. Somebody should really give the guy an acceptable outlet for his puzzle-posing predilection, may I suggest being the snob who writes those infuriating Mensa activity books or setting up elaborate Easter egg hunts as a training exercise for the Gotham Police department. Knowing him, they’d probably be laced with explosives or something, but it’s for scenarios like this we have the phrase ‘baby steps’. My favorite Riddler moment was that time he painted a crossword on the billboard, a crossword that the reader could attempt to solve while the Dynamic Duo puzzled up their way its side. That was brilliant evocation of the sort of thing you can only do in comics, and it’s a trick I’d happily steal were I writing in the medium. I’ll happily admit that the Riddler’s conundrums are ridiculous, their answers even more so, but the way I see it Batman’s ability to navigate the villain’s labyrinthine logic is just one of the reasons he’s the World’s Greatest Detective, and besides, you can’t expect much lucidity from a man dressed like a green question mark.

The internally dualistic Two Face was a less interesting character, although he too had a narrative moment I’d adapt if I were making my own Batman film. During a raid on a cinema, Two Face has one of his goons project a clip of him demanding money from the audience before Batman swings from the rafters and kicks him in the face. Imagine yourself in that audience, think of the effect that experience would have on your underwear. Absolutely brilliant.

If you like Batman, you’ll like this book.

 

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The Flash: Move Forward – Francis Manapul

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This was the first solo Flash book I’ve read, and I can’t say that I was disappointed.

The Flash is the alter-ego of Barry Allen, a police scientist who gained superspeed after being simultaneously doused in esoteric chemicals and struck by lightening. His ability to run really fast isn’t the only reason he’s remarkable, he’s also sharp enough to invent a uniform small enough to fit in his ring, which he can make pop out and wear at opportune times. What makes the Flash a fun character is that while he has only one superpower, his writers get very imaginative thinking of new applications of this ability. Manapul has him think really fast, to Sherlock Holmesian levels, and I remember this Justice League comic written by Grant Morrison where the Flash breaks a safe trying every single combination in one second.

Reading this particular book, I was confused about what constituted the character’s status quo – I thought that the protagonist Barry Allen was in a relationship with Iris West, not a coworker. Manapul could’ve done better in introducing new readers to the cast, instead of assuming they’d know who was who. At the very least, I could’ve done with a one-page recap of the Flash’s origin story.

But I overlooked my confusion once the true nature of the main villain, Mob Rule, was revealed. Mob Rule is the former best friend of Barry Allen, a super soldier with regenerative powers so potent that if you were to hack off one of his limbs, it would grow into a clone. So effectively the guy is a one man army. He needs to be in a movie.

The titles of each issue were also beautifully done, with the words being spelt out by objects from the story’s world, like puddles, wreckage or even panels. It’s lovely to see something so reminiscent of Will Eisner’s The Spirit being done in a modern comic.

To any comic fans reading this review, try out Manapul’s Flash run. It starts out slow, but it grows on you. This particular volume promises great things for its sequels.

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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Power – Ryan North

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Squirrel Power is easily the funnest comic I’ve read this year, certainly the best Marvel one I’ve read for a long time. Squirrel Girl is a superhero of uncertain origin, either a mutant or someone with squirrel blood, with a large tail, the proportionate strength and abilities of a squirrel, and the ability to talk to those exotic tree dwelling rodents.

Squirrel Power sees her begin her first days at college, settle in with her new roomate and crush on a young man with implausible cheekbones, all the while defeating some of Marvel’s most famous – and kooky! – villains.

The authorship of Ryan North is plainly visible in the faint text at the bottom of the page, which expands upon the action depicted in the panels, like the alt-text in his Dinosaur Comics. Erica Hendersons’ art suits the tone of the script perfectly, alternating between zany cartooniness and tributes to Steve Ditko. Looks good, is what I’m saying.

Everyone who cares about comics should read this one, but it’d be particularly suitable for younger readers.

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The Study Hall of Justice – Derek Fridolfs

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If Fridolf and Nguyen’s Li’l Gotham wasn’t enough to convince me that cuteness and American Superheroes mix, Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice is. I think it’s something about Western superhero masculinity that just doesn’t gel with Nguyen’s beautiful watercolour imagery. I can’t put my finger on it, but maybe it’d work better with Japanese magical girls?

A kid version of Batman investigates mysterious events at the elite academy he’s recently enrolled in, alongside a young Superman and Wonder Woman. It bothers me he doesn’t figure out Clark is an alien. I get this is effectively an Elseworlds tale, but being the World’s Greatest Detective is a fundamental component of Batman’s character.

The most interesting thing about this book was how diary entries, comic strips, forms, reports and even security camera footage was woven in a comprehensible narrative. I’d love for the Fridolf and Nguyen team to write a more adult book in this style.

Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice wasn’t for me. I can’t say whether it’s for you.

Starman: Times Past – James Robinson

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James Robinson’s Starman is a strange series for me. The praise in the forewords, the excellent art and the brilliant stories all make it seem as though Starman should be a really big deal, alongside Sandman or any other quality Vertigo book. My guess is that it simply came out at the wrong time. I don’t know.

I’ve only read one volume and one spinoff from this series, but it’s basically about a junk shop owner who inherits his father’s superhero paraphernalia after his brother dies. Times Past is a collection of self-contained one issue stories, stretching all the way from the times of Oscar Wilde, to the Second World War, to the nineties. They’re meant to shed new light on the events of the main series, but since I don’t know what they are, I can’t say if they do.

Although this was a satisfying read, it really makes me want to see the rest of the series!

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Justice League: Midsummer’s Nightmare – Mark Waid

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Justice League: Midsummer’s Nightmare is a bit of a mixed bad, with somewhat questionable art, and an interesting premise where the League lose all memories of the superpowered alter egos while ordinary civilians gain extraordinary powers. The climax came out of nowhere, but Superman’s hair made it worthwhile. Watch out for two cameos from prominent Sandman characters, Destiny and Doctor Dee.

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