Current Reviews


Sunday Slugfest: Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #1

Posted: Sunday, February 6, 2011
By: Thom Young

Paul Levitz
Keith Giffen (with John Dell & Scott Koblish, inkers)
DC Comics
“Here Eye Am”

The Eye of Ekron is back--as is an all-new Emerald Empress, who has her sights set on ruling the medieval planet of Orando.

Danny Djeljosevic:
Shawn Hill:
Thom Young:

Danny Djeljosevic:

As someone largely unfamiliar with the Legion of Super-Heroes--aren’t they supposed to be teens from the future? Why are they so OLD? Why are all these guys wearing sleeveless costumes with really hairy arms?--I’ve been trying to get into the series.

However, getting into the Legion as a new reader is a brain-hurting undertaking. The franchise, as a whole, is convoluted and damn near impenetrable--having been rebooted at least two times, and that’s not counting minor retcons, and then un-rebooted. Thus, there are three distinct incarnations of the Legion in existence in DC’s history. It’s like somebody invited you to a party but didn’t really want you there, so he gave you complicated directions to discourage you from attending.

That said, having read this latest story without the proper context that the seasoned fans have, I declare Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #1 to be the Superhero Comic Book of the Year for 2011.

“Here Eye Am” opens with an injured, bleeding woman being hunted for sport by some sword-bearing noble, his assistants, and his little dog, too. Before they catch up to her, she enters some ruins and falls upon a giant green symbol that vaguely resembles a Green Lantern icon, which effectively transforms her into the Emerald Empress--a woman with green hair and dressed in neon green, and whose weapon of choice is a giant floating eyeball with a neon green iris . . . that shoots neon green lasers from its pupil.

Yes, Internet, you read correctly. Floating eyeball. Shoots neon green lasers.

So, over the course of the year she takes over Orando (not “Orlando,” as my brain desperately wants to read it), corrupting the planet and its denizens. Legionnaires Lightning Lass and Shrinking Violet crash-land on the planet and find themselves imprisoned, stripped of their costumes and flight rings and donning some weird hybrid of long johns, pants suits, and tube tops that are curiously color-coordinated to their costumes. To their rescue come Sun Boy, Sensor Girl, and Gates (a teleporting arthropod).

This comic book is fucking insane. Moreover, it’s so unabashedly comic book that it almost makes up for every rape scene and girl-licking zombie DC Comics has ever published.

On second thought, no it doesn’t--but it’s a step in the right direction.

Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen, the creative team of Legion during its “Great Darkness Saga” prime, have brought the band back together to create a superhero comic with strange imagery, a fairly clear and understandable plot, and weirdly cosmic solution to fighting a giant laser-shooting eyeball. The dialogue reads like an old comic, down to the overly descriptive exclamations, but it works for what this story is going for, which is pure superhero comics, free of all that post-Watchmen muck and grime.

Here, the solution to the big problem doesn’t even involve any punching, and the thing ends with "The End?" If it weren’t for an instance of the word Bitch in the story, you could safely give this comic to a child and watch his or her head explode.

Giffen drew the issue, but if you didn’t read the credits you’d have thought it was Tom Scioli or Ladrönn in the midst of a horror movie chase scene. Just flipping through The Great Darkness Saga, you can see some moments of Giffen dabbling in homages to the King, but here he goes full-on Kirby--drawing bulky figures, people pointing with their mouths open, and even some spacey medieval wardrobe that wouldn’t be out of place in Darkseid’s court.

This is one luminous comic thanks to Hi-Fi’s bright, borderline Day-Glo color work. Hi-Fi does a lot of mainstream superhero comics, but they’ve never looked like this, so perfectly tailored to Giffen’s LSD-affected Kirby renditions. There’s more fluorescent green in these pages than in the latest issue of Green Lantern. It’s like staring into the sun whilst on drugs. Fuck realism, this is superhero comics, and Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #1 is a comic where a crashed spaceship isn’t rendered in boring grays and silvers. No, sir or ma’am, this is the goddamn Legion of Super-Heroes, where a bunch of kids all decided they want to be Superman and paint their spaceships bright cerulean BECAUSE THEY FUCKING CAN.

Also, for those who need cute infodumps, there’s a Legion History Board Game in the final pages and an “ABCs of the Legion” kind of glossary that helps readers catch up on the events of the franchise that haven’t been completely retconned yet. I appreciated this, and so will you, Internet, because if you’re using a computer right now you probably don’t know what a Legion of Super-Heroes is.

Just kidding, older folks. You gave us Seinfeld, and we are very appreciative of that.

I dunno how this issue of Legion of Super-Heroes even got made in the year 2011, but nobody is more thankful for its existence than me. It’s got all the crazy shit I read Grant Morrison comics for but rendered in an old school kind of way that’s neither ironic nor hokey. I don’t need a comic book winking at me--I wink at THEM.

Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #1 alone should immediately beget a new age of comics--The Neon Age, where people fill the panels of comic books with the craziest, brightest-colored things they can think of in an attempt to stun and blind the old guard of readers whose idea of good comics is childhood nostalgia porn starring Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. They will be brilliant, fun, and warp the minds of little children across the globe.

And to read them, we will need sunglasses.

Shawn Hill

I've been waiting for Levitz to get his groove back regarding this series. I've been fully on board with his embracement of the quasi-1970s version of the Legion that Geoff Johns returned to the spotlight as Superman supporting cast members just as I was fully on board with Shooter's attempt to breathe some life and excitement into the lackluster Threeboot timeline. However, the negativity left over from both iterations (teenage rebellion on the latter, rampant xenophobia on the former) made Levitz’s new stories and plots seem a bit crude and abrupt at times--as if he was shifting around for a new sense of focus and balance in this world that was both familiar and changed in the 31st century.

This latest issue is decidedly nostalgic, and better for it. The story is as simple as one could have found (and enjoyed) in a true Silver Age annual--one big baddie to deal with in an extra-length story that takes a few chapters to complete. Here the villain is the Eye of Ekron, resurfaced on Orando of all places (I guess it wasn't really some elder beings eye after all then?), and finding a new victim to empower.

The Eye’s new Empress, Falyce, is certainly a downtrodden one (sexual abuse by an arrogant nobleman is implied, and she's been injured in her flight from his domination), though it's not really she that creates the interest in the new Empress. Rather, it's the Eye's sentience that attracts attention, as it seems to remember its previous hosts, and certainly feels a need for vengeance against Legion members who can have meant little to the fleeing slave girl. It's the Eye that plucks two passing Legionnaires from the sky, just its bad luck that it gets the cantankerous (and reunited!) duo of Lightning Lass and Shrinking Violet.

They were knocked out in their spaceship crash, but they get their wits about them fairly quickly in the castle dungeons, where the Empress (as usual) is bigger on the powerful gesture than anything like careful planning. Ayla and Violet still have their powers, and it's not long before a Legion rescue team embarks to Orando--naturally, of course, including Sensor Girl (aka Princess Projectra, the rightful ruler of Orando).

Here Giffen's abilities shine strongest, as he almost manages to make Jeckie’s current hideous mishmash of a costume look more regal than ready for the stripper pole for the first time ever. You just can't mix Dave Cockrum’s 1970s Bond Girl sexpot getup--all laces and thigh boots--with the Steve Lightle’s militaristic Sensor Girl suit and come up with anything attractive. I really hope it's also the last time we ever have to see this Sensor Girl costume again.

In the goal of taking Projectra seriously, Giffen is matched by Levitz, who doesn't even acknowledge the most recent Shooter Threeboot version of Projectra as a kind of (more) evil Paris Hilton. Rather, Levitz is writing the seasoned warrior and exiled queen, the woman who lost her lover, executed his murderer, and came back to the team in disguise, with exciting new uses of her power owed to hard-earned wisdom. She's once again the kind of character who can utter a line like "Ah, Orando, why do I always return to you mourning?" and sound full of gravitas and sincere rue rather than too much melodrama.

Giffen's art is in a mix of his Kirby-mode (this Empress wouldn't flinch in the presence of an Eternal or an Asgardian) with his later focus on detailed textures (of medieval buildings and bizarre plant life), but some might not find his stocky figure proportions attractive. I'm eating it up on a stick, and I extend special commendation to colorist Hi-Fi (if that’s a person, or to the studio if that's better said), who goes to town with a lurid Day-Glo green that blows away the more somber early previews I've been studying for months. Levitz and Giffen, together again? Long live the new regime!

The issue also features a humorous board-game full of caricatures (Candyladders? Chutes and Land?) that gives us a whirlwind tour of fifty years of Legion history. Of course large portions are skipped over (or we'd need a much bigger board), and I'm not sure about the exact chronology of all the weddings and other sequences of events. However, most major crucial plot-points are included (with, it seems. the 5-Year Gap, the Reboot, and the Threeboot now all being consigned to a blank known as the "mystery years"; never made any sense to me anyway).

Brian Douglas Ahearn's drawings for the board game are irreverent and goofy, but I think it's probably indispensable as the best guide yet to just who is who and what is what in Legion lore at this point.

Thom Young:

Several months ago, when I first saw the cover to Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #1, I thought, “That looks like Kirby”--not the line work necessarily but the costume for the All-New Emerald Empress. It’s the type of costume Jack Kirby would have designed in the late 60s to mid 70s.

The other two figures on the cover--Lightning Lass and Shrinking Violet--didn’t look like they were drawn as homages to Kirby. They looked more like homages to John Byrne--particularly Shrinking Violet’s face. Not overtly like Byrne, but slightly. It was the Emerald Empress, though, who drew my attention--as she is meant to, obviously.

Not only is the cover reminiscent of Kirby’s work from 40 years ago, but most of the interior panels look as if they were penciled by Kirby in that same period. However, Giffen’s work in this latest edition of Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #1* doesn’t look like it was penciled by Kirby and inked by Joe Sinnott, Mike Royer, or (shudder) Vince Colletta. Rather, most of the interior panels here look as if they were penciled by Kirby and inked by Byrne.

When Kirby left Marvel to return to DC in 1970, he was given the failing Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen to revive (which he then incorporated into his New Gods saga). In that vein, Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen’s latest Legion effort shows what might have been had Kirby arrived at DC a year and a half earlier and been handed the failing Legion feature in Adventure Comics (albeit inked by Byrne, who was still a few years removed from starting his professional work at Charlton when Kirby took over Jimmy Olsen).

More precisely, this annual indicates what Kirby’s return to DC might have been like had Jim Shooter and Win Mortimer’s Adventure Comics feature continued until late 1970** and Kirby had then been given the book and decided to integrate the Legion of Super-Heroes into his New Gods saga.

There is a sense that Levitz and Giffen’s “gods of Ekron” alluded to in this story might somehow be related to Kirby’s gods of New Genesis and Apokolips (though that sense might come solely from Giffen’s imitation of Kirby’s style). Perhaps the gods of Ekron are the “Old Gods” whose destruction we saw in Kirby’s New Gods #1. Of course, Kirby clearly meant for his “Old Gods” to be the Aesir (a dig at his former job as the co-creator and illustrator of Marvel’s Thor), but Giffen’s flashback depiction of Ekron in this annual isn’t too far removed from the medieval look that Kirby gave his Old Gods in New Gods #1.

Thus, it’s possible that Levitz and Giffen could be connecting the Emerald Eye with Kirby’s Fourth World--possibly setting up a sort of sequel to their Great Darkness Saga in the not-too-distant future. However, it’s more obvious that Levitz is using this story to sort out the confusing history of the Emerald Eye itself.

When Shooter first created the Emerald Empress and her Eye of Ekron*** way back in 1966 in Adventure Comics #352, he wrote:
Sarya . . . the Emerald Empress of the planet Vengar . . . the most wanted female criminal in the history of the universe! She is guilty of every crime from murder to space-piracy!

Vengar was the site of the long-dead Ekron civilization, whose astounding scientific secrets were all lost . . . until . . . [Sarya discovered the “scientific secret” of the Emerald Eye of Ekron in a hidden temple on Vengar and used it to make herself “Empress of Vengar”].
Thus, Shooter clearly envisioned the Emerald Eye as a piece of technology left behind by a long-dead civilization on the planet Vengar. However, the year-long weekly DC series 52 retconned the Emerald Eye as an organic eyeball from a creature named Ekron who once served as the Green Lantern of the space sector that contains Sarya’s planet Vengar. This Green Lantern named Ekron would have come from another planet in that sector of space.

With this latest issue, Levitz seems to be tying the two opposing origins for the eye together, as the new Emerald Empress says:
Eye remember all . . . all my lives, on long-vanished Ekron, where Eye walked as a goddess until the Guardians came and scattered my worshippers to the stars.

Eye remember waking at the tender touch of Sarya of Vengar, as she brushed the dirt off Eye . . . and the life we shared until her weakness consumed her.
In other words, Levitz has now stipulated that there was a planet named Ekron that was ruled by an earlier incarnation of the Empress under the control of the Eye (possibly with other “gods” of Ekron) until the Guardians of the Universe (not one of the Guardians’ later police forces, the Manhunters or the Green Lanterns, but the Guardians themselves) raided the planet and scattered the Ekronites across the galaxy--with some of them obviously winding up on Vengar as an alien civilization that eventually died on that planet, though leaving the technology of the Eye for Sarya to find millennia later.

Apparently, too, the Guardians must have used the Ekron technology as part of their own Power Battery technology (relying on a similar green energy source), and they then empowered one former Ekronite as a Green Lantern of Vengar (though it probably wasn’t the poor creature’s actual eyes that Lobo and Company were traveling around with in 52).

The only thing that Levitz hasn’t alluded to in this story is the notion that the Emerald Eye is also associated with Krypton or kryptonite in some way--as first revealed in 1977 in Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #231 when Mon-El said to the Empress, “Superboy may be harmed by your Eye’s kryptonite-based beams, but they don’t do me any harm!”

However, that bit of Legion lore (that the Eye always had more of an affect on Superboy than it did on Mon-El because the Eye is related to kryptonite) would be difficult to square with the concept of a technology that was developed millennia before Krypton exploded. Perhaps we should just note that the Eye is able to create a beam that mimics the properties of kryptonite.

Anyway, Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #1 is an amazing feat--especially for the contemporary approach to comic book storytelling that has become ubiquitous at DC and Marvel. This issue:
  • Tells a complete tale in only 39 pages (talk about a throwback to Old School comics!),

  • Resolves conflicts in continuity that longtime fans of the Legion should appreciate having resolved,

  • Alludes to Jack Kirby’s masterwork for DC (if only through Giffen’s choice of illustration style), and

  • Shouldn’t cause new readers to feel as if they came to the party 30 years too late to understand the story being told without prior knowledge of who’s who and what’s what.
This issue is an example of Levitz and Giffen at their best--displaying the more than 70 years of comic book storytelling experience they have between them (though Levitz does have a nearly 20-year gap in his resumé as a writer when he was busy doing something else for DC).

* This book is the fourth to have the title of Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #1, and it’s the third time that the creative team for it has been Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen.

** Shooter and Mortimer actually did continue their Legion feature--but as a back-up in Action Comics after the Legion was replaced in Adventure by Supergirl.

*** The Biblical Ekron, as one of the five great cities of the Philistines, may have been where Shooter took the name for the Eye of Ekron 45 years ago, but he could not have known what archaeologists would discover 30 years after he created the Emerald Empress. However, I do wonder if Levitz is aware of recent archaeological theories following the 1996 discovery of a Phoenician tablet (with Philistine script) that can be translated thusly:
This temple was built by Akish, son of Padi, son of Yasid, son of Ada, son of Ya'ir, ruler of Ekron, for Ptgyh, his goddess.
Aaron Demsky, in "The Name of the Goddess of Ekron: A New Reading" published in the
Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society (volume 25) argues that the tablet’s reference to a goddess named Ptgyh is actually the Phonecian Ptnyh, whom he relates to the Greek Potnia--the title (“Mistress” or “Lady”) that was given to the Aegean mother goddess whom the ancient Semitic cultures of the Middle East called Asherah.

Even more startling is the similarity between the Legion’s mythos regarding the Eye and its Empress (the Eye is the sentient being that takes possession of a woman whom it turns into the Emerald Empress) and Petryah, the Hebrew variation or corruption of the Phoenician goddess Pidray, who was the daughter of Baal.

Baal (as Baal Zebub) was the god of Ekron (whom the Hebrews referred to as Baalzebub or Beelzebub), and the Ekronite cult of Petryah had a rite in which a priestess would ingest Petryah's botanical Eucharist,
amanita muscaria, the hallucinogenic mushroom commonly known as the fly agaric, which supposedly transformed the priestess into Petryah's human host through which the goddess would speak to her worshippers. Doesn’t that sound a lot like the Eye, as the Goddess of the planet Ekron, and its relationship with the Emerald Empress as its priestess? (Save, of course, that instead of being a hallucinogenic mushroom, the Eye is a piece of alien technology.)

Could Levitz be alluding to these old Semitic gods and setting up the Eye (not the Empress, but the original Goddess of Ekron) as the daughter of Baal, the Lord of the Flies? Might Darkseid (or one of his ancestors) be the father of the Eye?

Time will tell.

What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!