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Sunday Slugfest: DC Universe: Legacies #2

Posted: Sunday, June 20, 2010
By: Thom Young

Len Wein
DC Comics
“The Golden Age”--framing sequence by Scott Kolins, pencils by Andy Kubert, and inks by Joe Kubert.

Paul Lincoln continues telling his life story to his mystery guest as he covers the 1940s and the end of the Golden Age of heroes in 1951.

“Snapshot: Reaction”--illustrated by J.H. Williams III

The Seven Soldiers of Victory upset the schemes of the Vigilante’s arch nemesis who tries to misdirect them by having them believe one of their other foes, Black Star, has returned from his apparent death in Leading Comics #2.

Andre Lamar:
Shawn Hill:
Chris Kiser:
Thom Young:

Andre Lamar:

During the Modern Age of Comics, “true” heroism has become a thing of the past. There was once a time when caped crusaders stood for courage, faith, and justice. However, by torturing and murdering petty criminals, such characters as the Punisher have crossed the line and re-wrote the heroes’ code of honor. In DC Universe: Legacies, author Len Wein comes full-circle in preentsing the history of the DC universe as told by a normal citizen.

The first issue followed two young boys, Jimmy Mahoney and Paul Lincoln, in the late 1930s and early 1940s as they become involved with Metropolis gangsters. The issue ended with Sandman and the Atom saving them and advising the pair to turn their lives around.

In this second issue, Paul now leads an honest life, but Jimmy continues to follow a path of crime. Wein continues to sell his writing abilities, by treating audiences to a diverse mix of vintage slang and jargon. His dialogue is simple and easy to understand.

While the main plot focuses on Paul and Jimmy, Wein keeps the story fresh by including a subplot featuring the JSA fighting villains like Vandal Savage.

The tandem of Andy and Joe Kubert capture the look and feel of this vintage-styled comic. Joe Kubert’s excessive use of curvy and sketchy lines reflect the gritty atmosphere of the Suicide Slums. Brad Anderson’s colors fit perfectly over the Kuberts art. He uses a lot of earth tones, which really adds a sense of poverty and depression to the setting.

Despite Scott Kolins and Mike Atiyeh’s limited art duties--they only provide the art for the first two pages--their collaborative effort is remarkable. Their work is reminiscent of Mauro Cascioli’s acclaimed colored pencil style in Cry for Justice.

It’s nice to see Joe Kubert working on modern day comics, but sometimes his exaggerated lines make Paul appear to have aged. If it weren’t for Paul’s comment about being a high school student, I would have assumed he was an older man. His hands have craggily lines on them too, and it made it hard to believe he was only a teen.

Though impressive, this comic features a slight flaw in some of Joe Kubert’s unwarranted inking. Nonetheless, Legacies #2 is a collaborative effort that shines bright. I’m truly curious to find out how the story will transition into contemporary times, and if the tone will become darker.

Shawn Hill

The quality keeps up in the second installment of this well-conceived series, but grim times make this issue less enjoyable than the first. Our young paperboy, Paul Lincoln, comes to a decisive moment with his old chum Jimmy, who has made some dark choices and actually threatens his own sister (Paul's future girlfriend, it turns out) in an alley. Paul protects her, but shatters his friendship with Jimmy decisively.

While that small-scale conflict is going on, the Justice Society faces newly arisen threats on two fronts: some of their more colorful foes have organized to form the (humbly titled) Injustice Gang of the World. This crew is formidable, but they prove woefully insufficient to stem the rising tide of men and women in tights.

Perhaps the even worse threat comes from the American government, when the heroes are called before the Congressional Un-American Activities committee and asked to unmask.

Rather than being treated with gratitude or respect, and with no acknowledgment of how their masks provide protection for friends and family, the group is threatened with a "lengthy clearance process" that clearly aims to reduce them to compliant government agents at best. The team eloquently refuses, in swift, decisive style, with an abruptness that indicates the next installment will see a jump both in time and style (as, in fact, there was between the Golden and the Silver Ages).

The Kuberts acquit themselves well in this volume, whether depicting the character-filled Newsboy Legion (who save Paul from a criminal attack), the explosive growth of costumed fighters in a two-page spread, or the obtuse blankness of the government officials daring to put heroes on trial.

The back-up story, an abbreviated epic in 8 pages, serves mostly to showcase J.H. Williams's abilities as an art chameleon. Each Soldier gets his own stylistic change in his segment of the tale, letting Williams move from painterly to cartoonish, from shadowy noir to Wild West heroics from half-page to half-page.

In fact, the horizontal compositions echo classic funny papers formats, but the tale doesn't seem dated--just cheerfully nostalgic. The whole is an essay in storytelling, but it has to be completely formulaic in order to get the job done so quickly.

Chris Kiser:

Given a surface level reading, it would be easy to dismiss DC Universe: Legacies as routine and uninspiring.

Its central story, centered on the life of a teenaged boy growing up during the Golden Age of Superheroes, is admittedly simplistic. For a series supposedly about the history of DC’s notable costumed adventurers, the focus lingers quite long on young Paul Lincoln and the comparatively mundane scrapes he gets himself into.

Even when the story does shift its eye towards name-brand characters, such as the Justice Society, it often becomes derivative. Case in point, the McCarthyist Senate hearing that leads to public condemnation of masked heroes at the end of the book is recycled fodder from many previous tales in the medium, not the least of which is Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen.

The backup feature about the Seven Soldiers of Victory fares no better under the same line of skepticism. It achieves little as a story, serving mainly to remind audiences of J. H. Williams’ abilities to draw superheroes in more than one visual style.

While all of these aspects may truly be the weaknesses of this comic, dwelling on them exclusively would most assuredly miss the point. As the title suggests, Legacies is writer Len Wein’s testament to the positive impact of DC Comics throughout the ages, and in that regard he nails it.

It’s no secret that our narrator, Paul, in his admiration for superheroes, is a stand-in for fans who have followed these characters from their youth. It is also no stretch to think that the heroic icons in comic books have influenced the moral sensibilities of many such fans on into adulthood--a concept that Wein’s series looks to hold onto.

If Wein were to have diverted our attention more extensively to the details of the JSA’s exploits, he would have missed the opportunity to expound upon this thesis. The “legacies” in question not only refer to superheroes who take up the mantles of their predecessors, but in the way that ordinary people like Paul are inspired to turn their backs on a life of delinquency.

The legacy theme even finds itself furthered by the choice of artists for the main portion of the book. Not only does the father and son team of Andy and Joe Kubert manage to deliver effective storytelling, but it’s a solid meta-textual reinforcement of the topic at hand.

Not content to merely present a tweaked version of the post-Infinite Crisis DCU timeline, DC Universe: Legacies is a powerful commentary on a life lived reading superheroes. It speaks to those of us who fondly remember poring through stacks of comics as children and who plan to leave them lying around the house for our own kids.

Thom Young:

Last month, in the joint review that Shawn Hill and I did of the first issue of DC Universe: Legacies, I gave that premiere issue five bullets. It was a near-perfect presentation of the urban milieu of the 1940s for which Joe Kubert’s style of illustration is well suited. Additionally, Len Wein’s dialog and his scripted actions of the characters was skillful and filled with a sense of verisimilitude that has not been previously displayed in any of DC’s superhero stories set in the 1940s.

Unfortunately, I’m not so enamored of this second issue. Obviously, though, a four-bullet rating isn’t bad. However, neither the illustrations nor the writing seems as inspired as it was in the debut issue.

This latest installment opens with the same framing device seen last month, as an 80-year-old Paul Lincoln (he would be about the same age as my father) tells his life story to an off-panel visitor in his house. In effect, we are that off-panel visitor--though I’m certain the final issue will reveal Paul’s actual guest to be either a reporter (Clark Kent or Jimmy Olsen, for instance) or a person with some nefarious intent whom Paul is mistakenly confiding in.

Paul’s story is still interesting, but this chapter in his biography isn’t quite as turbulent as the previous chapter as he has given up his life of crime (his heart was never in it anyway) in order to sell newspapers on the street corners of Suicide Slum. Of course, the streets of Suicide Slum is where a legion of boys created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby back in the 1940s also sell newspapers, so the eventual appearance of certain guest stars is a forgone conclusion.

In the first issue, Paul was involved in organized crime in the Suicide Slum section of Metropolis as he and his childhood friend, Jimmy, were kids employed by gangsters to be innocent-looking collectors for a protection racket. As part of his activities, he and Jimmy encountered The Crimson Avenger when the hero broke up the protection racket, and they encountered The Sandman and The Atom when they were loading bootleg whiskey for another racketeer. Thus, Paul was able to report on these heroic characters because he actually saw them in action.

It was Paul’s personal encounters (and crucial conversation with Sandman and Atom) that led to his fascination with superheroes (or “masked mystery men”). Additionally, Paul’s hard life, as presented in the first issue, is the type of story that Joe Kubert has excelled at depicting since at least 1959--an average man dealing with life’s struggles in either an impoverished or war-torn setting.

In this second issue, most of Paul’s “encounters” with superheroes comes in the form of reading newspaper articles about them. By the end of this issue, he and his wife-to-be (Jimmy’s kid sister, Peggy, whom it was clear from the previous issue that Paul was destined to marry) watch the JSA on television as they are called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (which is referred to in the DC universe as the “Congressional Un-American Activities Committee”).

This event that ended DC’s Golden Age of heroes was first revealed nearly 31 years ago in Adventure Comics #466 by Paul Levitz and Joe Staton when the Huntress explained to Power Girl that the Justice Society went into retirement in 1951 after being brought before the Congressional Un-American Activities Committee where they were told to reveal their identities. Thus, it is appropriate that this issue’s conclusion shows that same committee and those same era-ending events.

I fully expected this issue would conclude with that piece of DC history. However, what I didn’t expect was that Paul Lincoln would be watching it on television rather than being in attendance at the actual hearing. I anticipated that DC Universe: Legacies would mostly be told from Paul’s first-person perspective of the superhero community as his life began to interweave with the lives of the colorfully clad figures whom he idolizes.

In a sense, I expected Paul to essentially be the never-before-shown Golden Age version of Snapper Carr, the Silver Age “mascot” of the Justice League of America. However, Wein’s decision to have Paul keep tabs on his heroes through the media is the correct choice in terms of creating verisimilitude. After all, that’s how most of us encounter “famous people.”

For instance, I have met professional athletes and famous musicians on several occasions, but they are not my friends--nor even my acquaintances. They wouldn’t remember me if I were to meet any of them again, and my current “relationship” with them is strictly through the media--as when I read about them on the sports page or listen to their music, et cetera. Thus, the idea that Paul’s life has been influenced by his fascination with superheroes is realistic in that regard.

He’s not being revealed as some previously unknown “pal of the superheroes” in the vein of Snapper Carr (or Jimmy Olsen). Additionally, his one actual encounter with a superheroe in this issue, the Guardian, is perfectly plausible in that Simon and Kirby’s character was specifically designed to patrol Suicide Slum and protect kids from racketeers and other criminals.

Nevertheless, despite Wein’s decision making perfect sense in terms of verisimilitude, I was surprised by his choice to have Paul’s observations of the JSA filtered through media reports that he reads and watches.

However, as I mentioned earlier, due to Paul’s job as a newspaper boy in Suicide Slum, I fully expected him to meet Simon and Kirby’s Newsboy Legion. Then, through them, I knew he would meet the Guardian--but he didn’t. Not exactluy.

Oh, The Guardian shows up in this issue to protect Paul and the Newsboy Legion from the Dead End Boys, but he doesn’t stick around long enough to actually meet Paul and talk to him. Again, from a realistic perspective, it makes perfect sense for Paul to not become a chum of the Guardian and the Newsboy Legion. However, from the perspective of a romantic, superhero comic book set in the 1940s, it’s a somewhat surprising story choice.

As for his personal life, now that his criminal past is behind him, Paul is experiencing the universal teenage turmoil of failing friendships and nascent love affairs. Additionally, I quite enjoyed seeing Paul being beaten up by the Bowery Boys. In my review of last month’s issue I wrote:
Of course, when I was a kid I couldn’t get enough of the Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys films that were a staple of Saturday afternoon UHF channels--and that is essentially who the kids populating DC’s Suicide Slum in the 1940s are: The Dead End Kids.

In that same vein, I am really looking forward to the next issue since it is apparently going to feature the Newsboy Legion--the four boys Simon and Kirby created as residents of Suicide Slum 68 years ago, and that Joe Kubert drew for two issues in 1945.
I had no idea that this issue would involve a rumble featuring Paul and the Newsboy Legion on one side and the Dead End Kids/the Bowery Boys on the other. Yet that is exactly what we have here.

The moment I saw the hat of the leader of the gang that harasses Paul, I knew I was seeing one of the characters portrayed by Leo Gorcey in the films featuring the Dead End Boys and Bowery Boys from 1938 to 1958 (not counting 1937’s Dead End, in which Gorcey was an unnamed minor character).

Except for Gabe, none of the other characters in the gang in this issue bears a strong physical resemblance to the main actors in the Dead End Boys and Bowery Boys. However, the tall, lanky fellow behind the Leo Gorcey analogue not only has the same height and build as Huntz Hall (Gorcey’s sidekick), he also has the same baseball cap that Hall wore in some of the early Dead End Kids films. However, by 1947, which is when the confrontation between the gang and the newsboys takes place in this issue, Hall was no longer wearing that black and silver cap.

Anyway, getting back to the issue at hand--that is Legacies #2, Paul eventually ran into his old childhood friend, Jimmy, who was initially strutting his stuff as a fledgling member of Vandal Savage’s gang. Near the end of the chapter, though, he’s on the lam to Gotham City to join Ra’s al Ghul’s gang after the JSA brought down Vandal Savage.

I’m surprised by the reference to Ra’s al Ghul being in Gotham City in the late 1940s. He most certainly was alive in the 1940s, as his convoluted history has him being born in either the 1200s, 1300s, or 1400s. However, I envisioned the Demon’s Head as operating exclusively in the Middle East and Europe until the events depicted in Batman #232.

It’s an interesting twist to the history of the character, and I hope Wein picks up this plot at some point--perhaps in another series--to reveal what Ra’s al Ghul would have been doing in Gotham City in the 1950s after there were no longer any costumed superheroes operating in the currently accepted history of the DC universe.

As for the back-up story in this second issue, the artistic choices that Wein presents here make sense as well--even though they don’t necessarily work best in presenting an engaging plot. Essentially, the story is told through the notes that The Crimson Avenger’s sidekick, Wing, who wrote down the tale in his 4" x 8" memo-pad spiral notebook. Unfortunately, Wing’s narrative is presented in stereotypical Chinese English dialect:
We meeting in Seven Soldiers HEADQUARTERS one day, when STAR-SPANGLED KID saw crazy ad in daily NEWSPAPER.
At least the story isn’t being told vocally by Wing, or else we would undoubtedly have been told about the Star-Spangled Kid seeing a “clazy ad in newspaper.”

I’m well aware that Chinese-Americans for whom English is a second language (or third) often have difficulty with using definite articles and in conjugating verbs. Over the years, I have had dozens of ESL students from Asia in my composition classes. However, Wein doesn’t present Wing’s narrative in terms of actual ESL writing problems. Instead, Wing is writing in a style that is more akin to the way his dialog was scripted in the early to mid 1940s when he appeared in Detective Comics, “Mist’ Crimson and I . . . stop theft of JADE DRAGON.”

To some extent, though, I suppose we can excuse the stereotypical “broken English” (as opposed to authentic ESL writing problems) to the fact that Wing was jotting down notes in a memo-pad rather than writing a fully developed prose narrative.

As for the story itself, Wein chose to follow the approach of the original Seven Soldiers of Victory stories that ran in the first three issues Leading Comics. In those early adventures, the characters would meet in the first chapter to get their assignments, then they would head off in different directions with their exploits presented in separate individual chapters before meeting again at the end of the issue to wrap up the case.

For those individual chapters, the characters’ usual illustrator from their solo adventures would illustrate that part of the story:
  • Mort Meskin on Vigilante

  • Hal Sherman on Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy

  • George Papp on Green Arrow and Speedy

  • Creig Flessel on Shining Knight

  • And John Lehti on Crimson Avenger and Wing
In those days, though, the stories were 56 pages long and each chapter was about 10 pages or so. However, in this issue, Wein’s back-up tale is only eight pages long--but he and illustrator J.H. Williams III get around this problem of how to send the members off on their own adventures by making each individual “chapter” a comic strip--roughly the size of a current strip running in the Sunday Comics section of American newspapers (rather than the size such strips would have been in 1945).

Using that concept of different Sunday comic strips drawn by different illustrators, Williams imitates the styles of various artists who worked for DC back in the mid 1940s. However, rather than draw the Crimson Avenger and Wing the way that John Lehti drew them, Williams uses a style that is closer to how Simon and Kirby drew the Sandman and Sandy in their stories in Adventure Comics circa 1943.

It also looks to me like Williams might have modeled his Shining Knight strip after the way the character was depicted by Frank Frazetta in his 1950-51 Shining Knight stories--rather than on Creig Flessel’s version of the character. However, Flessel had left DC by the mid-1940s, so the use of another Shining Knight illustrator’s style isn’t out of the question.

The one problem I had with the story is the decision to make TNT and Dan the Dyna-Mite the revisionist stand-ins for Green Arrow and Speedy. Obviously, in the ret-conned DC universe, the Golden Age versions of Green Arrow and Speedy can no longer exist as members of the Seven Soldiers of Victory set in the 1940s (just as the Golden Age versions of Superman and Batman no longer exist in mainstream DC history).

I don’t recall if Roy Thomas is the writer who ret-conned TNT and Dan as the replacements for Green Arrow and Speedy, or if this is an idea that Wein brought in with this current issue. Thomas may have brought TNT and Dan into the Seven Soldiers back in the days when he was writing All-Star Squadron. However, I like the idea I have seen elsewhere (perhaps in Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers work?) in which the archer known as The Spider was the seventh soldier (along with his valet, Chuck, of course).

I would rather see those old Quality Comics characters here since it would have kept the archery angle of Green Arrow and Speedy with “Alias the Spider” and Chuck! Overall, though, this issue was entertaining and a good look at the end of DC’s Golden Age. It just wasn’t up to the level of quality of the first issue in terms of plot and characterization.

What did you think of this book?
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