Friday, January 9, 2015

Artist Spotlight: Stuart Immonen's Legion of Super-Heroes

I will first say that the history of the Legion of Super-Heroes is beyond the scope of this blog post.  That sort of thing is done way better here & here.  And here.


The Legion of Super-Heroes is one of my absolute favorite comics.  The Legion, a team of young people (& beings) all from different planets and possessing different abilities, fighting for peace, unity and intergalactic cooperation, has been around for over 50 years.  The team has had, creatively speaking, some ups and downs through the years, but it's often been an excellent read and an inspiring concept of the promise & possibilities (both good and bad) of the future.

One of my favorite artists to have successfully managed the herculean task of illustrating a group of heroes, that at times has numbered more than 20, is Stuart Immonen.  The Legion was Immonen's first assignment for DC (talk about trial by fire), taking over regular penciling duties from Jason Pearson with issue #39 of the series begun in 1989 by longtime Legion artist/plotter, Keith Giffen.  This series [referred to today as the '5 Years Later' Legion, as this series picks up the story 5 years after the last published Legion comic - 5 years wherein there have been many, many changes] was a new take on the Legion - the image of the once bright, shining beacon of hope in the 30th century that the team had once been was shattered amidst a grim, dark dystopia, as the team members grew older & disillusioned and were pulled away to their home corners of the galaxy to deal with various personal issues.

Everyone hates this Immonen re-design for Ultra Boy, for some reason.  It's very 90s, but I can't help but love this costume
The first few years of this new Legion title are now kindly regarded as a high point in the book's history.  The storytelling was challenging - characters were allowed to grow and change, some more than others, and readers couldn't expect how some of the their favorites would be treated.  Read then or now, its all exciting stuff.  The guiding creative force behind all of this was Giffen, who illustrated most of these issues in a very stylized manner - his future was a dark and dirty place, and it was often difficult to pick out the characters from the background in his work.  Giffen decided to leave the title after blowing up the Earth in issue #38.  Despite the consensus on the internet, the Legion didn't go to complete shit when Giffen left.  There were a couple of good stories post-Giffen & at the very least, we were treated to some of the best art in Legion history by Stuart Immonen.  The artist worked on the title through to the next big set of changes (the biggest the Legion had ever experienced) in a story called 'End of an Era' which ran through a couple of related titles and finished in LSH #61.  So in almost 2 years of work, Immonen, and inker Ron Boyd. defined the look of the Legion and its universe - a very cool, polished universe -  almost photorealistic compared to the grime & abstracted anatomies of both Giffen and Pearson.

Sure, the future that the Immonen/Boyd team illustrated was a dark place, staying true to the tone set by Giffen, but it was damn pretty & its inhabitants were attractive people.  Not in an over-exaggerated, mis-proportioned way - more, perhaps like a slightly toned down Adam Hughes.

End of an Era - the 'old' Legion checks out in dramatic fashion
The issue I'd like to look at in this post, Legion of Super-Heroes #0 (Oct. 1994) is actually Immonen's last regular work on the Legion.  In fact, it's a completely different Legion featured in this issue than the one the artist had been working on for the past couple of years.  The aforementioned 'End of an Era' had closed the door on the Legion that had been allowed to grow up.  DC wanted a fresh new group to once again become a team of promise for the future, and decided to start from scratch.  Using the company-wide cross-over event Zero Hour as a natural point to push such a plan, the entire history of the Legion was collapsed, and the story was allowed to unfurl again from the very beginning.  The idea of the reboot now is old hat, but in 1994 this was a big deal for the Legion - and though many fans turned their back on this re-imagined future, I feel that this iteration of the Legion, called by some the 'reboot Legion,' kicked off right here in issue #0, in the time it was allowed, came the closest to fulfilling its truest potential as a diverse group of young super-people, inspiring a galaxy, writing wrongs, & pointing the way toward an intergalactic peace.

The creative team for this issue was a holdover from the previous incarnation of the Legion.  It was written by the team of Tom McCraw (who would not only continue to plot the adventures of the Legion, but also colored the book) and Mark Waid (who would stay on for about a year, but whose involvement with the Legion was far from over). The story, titled "Time and Chance" was essentially a new origin not only for the team, but for each character.  While events in this continuity followed closely to the original story, the characters of the 3 founding members, Rokk Krinn (soon to be called 'Cosmic Boy'), Imra Ardeen ('Saturn Girl'), and Garth Ranzz (no longer called, anachronistically 'Lightning Lad', but a more updated 'Live Wire') were fleshed out more than when this origin story was first told in the 60s.

Early on, we're introduced to each character individually: Garth, haunted by dreams of the past (when he and his siblings gained lightning powers in a terrifying accident) is making his way to Earth in search of a lost brother; Rokk, a professional athlete from the planet Braal, under the thumb of a seedy agent, is en route to Earth for a magno-ball tournament; and Imra, of the moon Titan, shunned by almost anyone she encounters due to her native thought-reading abilities, is also on her way to Earth, a new cadet in the galaxy-wide law enforcement agency, the Science Police.

Circumstances in super-hero origin stories being what they are, the trio share an interstellar shuttle with R.J. Brande, a very rich industrialist, and the man behind 'star gates' which make such travel possible.  After getting off on the wrong foot with each other (blame the hormones), the teens arrive at the Metropolis Spaceport, on Earth.

D'oh!  Frosty beginning to a legendary relationship
Coincidentally disembarking together with Rokk & Garth just after Brande, Imra picks up on some nasty thoughts - an assassination attempt on the magnate is about to happen!  Warned by their telepathic travel companion, the 2 boys leap naturally into action - 1st disarming the murderers with Rokk's magnetic abilities and then incapacitating them with Garth's lightning.  Through the hubbub, the target of the attack, Brande, witnesses these heroic acts by strangers from different planets & senses the seed of an idea - his eyes sparkle.  The silent expression Immonen & Boyd give Brande's face speaks volumes.

Shortly after going their separate ways, the teens become frustrated with their time on Earth: Imra isn't taken seriously in the Science Police, Garth's search for his brother has gone fruitless, and even the successful Rokk is open to other opportunities.  It's at this fortuitous moment that each receives a summons from Brande himself.  Brande had previously approached the President of the United Planets with his idea - to fund a tangible symbol of peace & unity - brightly uniformed young beacons with the very best qualities, capable of inspiring the galaxy.

It was now only left to sell it to the first few potential young beacons.  Meeting outside Brande's office, the 3 teens unite for the 2nd time, as Rokk's agent, Cuspin, is called out by Imra for mismanaging the young sports star's funds.  In retaliation, Cuspin strikes out at Imra, but is immediately confronted by Garth, fists sparking!  The expressions in this sequence are fantastic - Immonen truly excels at this to the point where word balloons are almost unnecessary.

Cuspin is sent packing, and the trio is called in to listen to Brande's pitch - they are to form the core of an interplanetary team, working together & using their special abilities to help others.  And the courageous young people that they are, Rokk, Imra, and Garth see a great opportunity to do real good and agree to participate in this wild experiment.  In a menacing epilogue, it's revealed that the hit on Brande was an inside job - Brande's associate Doyle, working for a group of mysterious 'masters' commissioned the assassination.  And the group will try one more time at the upcoming United Planets Summit - to be continued!

The birth of the Legion of Super-Heroes
Thus begin the adventures of the new Legion of Super-Heroes.  These adventures would last for about 10 years, until a time when someone thought another continuity shakeup was needed to inject some energy into the concept.  I don't know - this run of the Legion had some good stories and I feel that it gets a short shrift from factions of Legion fandom.  And that's really too bad - some of the best Legion stories were told during this period, and at the height of its membership, this Legion was the most diverse in the history of the franchise.  It really was for & OF a United Planets - something more than the Legion of Brown Haired White Guys that the team had been at times in the past.  This diversity pushed the concept of the Legion toward its greatest potential.

So in keeping with part of this blog's mission to highlight some forgotten or overlooked corners of the DC Universe, I'll continue to occasionally champion this run of the Legion.

In the meantime, L.L.L!


I cannot close this post without giving a little shout out to one of my favorite podcasts, Legion of Substitute Podcasters.  This weekly series is dedicated to all things Legion - but there's a little bit of everything for the DC Comics enthusiast.  It was one of their episodes covering The History of the DC Universe mini-series that indirectly inspired me to start this blog.  Check them out!

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