Sunday, February 06, 2005

Comics: Legion of Superheroes #2 Musings

"Legion Of Superheroes, rather than being a future looking book, reads like a backwards looking one. The characters seem old, safe and dull ... All good sci-fi is never about the future, but about the present. This is sci-fi that's about the past. So traditional. So classic. So Dad's Comics."

These are some of the words that Rich Johnston uses in his review of Waid and Kitson's Legion of Superheroes #2. I'm not going to dispute all of Johnston's review in general, his opinions are valid even if I feel that he's off on his reading of things - I liked how Waid wrote the precognition scenes and I like how he handled to planet of precogs.[1] But, I do want to talk a little bit about this whole "looking backward" thing.

First of all, I agree wholeheartedly that good sci-fi is about the present. Good sci-fi is really a commentary on what our current world is like, but extrapolated into the future. It gives us a feel for "where we are going" if we continue down the paths that we have set. Books like Neuromancer, The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and others all give us a glimpse of what the future will be like not just due to advancing technology, but with changing social mores and attitudes.

That is not to say that just because a piece of sci-fi is about the present, it will be good. There are many, many Star Trek scripts that say otherwise (see entire seasons of Star Trek: Voyager for more). However, finding good sci-fi that doesn't reflect on our current culture and attitudes is hard.

So what does this have to do with the Legion? I'd like to know exactly what Rich is looking at and saying its "backwards looking". Is it the futuristic Utopia? This is a reflection of our current attitudes extrapolated out a thousand years. Look at how things seem to be set up in this futuristic "utopia":
  • People go out of their way to avoid human contact and try to only talk to each other through their computer connections.
  • Parents are so concerned about what their kids see, hear and do that they have built an entire "Public Service" that seems to do nothing but monitor their own children for them.
  • A government is so worried about the reactions of their youth population that they censor the knowledge they receive to prevent them from reacting against it.
And these are JUST in that second issue. The first issue contains more, including a government so afraid of losing its grip on power that it turns its army loose on its own children to keep them in line and a United Planets government that is unwilling or unable to step in and stop them from doing it.

If you aren't seeing how these things are related to our present day, then I really don't know what to say. Sure it still has some trappings that "smell" kind of old and musty, especially the codenames, but that's because its not just sci-fi, its also a super-hero book and lately they tend to be musty-smelling all-around.

And its not like Waid is using the Legion as a metaphor for conflicts in our world - he's extending our conflicts a thousand years into the future. The opposition of the idealists versus those in power, the conflict between the need to express yourself versus the need for security and stability, the conflict between society's responsibility to help parents raise their children correctly versus the freedom of the individual to grown and learn on his own. These are all the types of battles that are fought every day now, and the types of things that Waid seems to be looking at with the Legion.

Now, that's not to say that he COULDN'T screw it up and turn the whole thing into a nostalgia-fest. He could, and if it happens I will sigh and stop buying the book (and perhaps grumble about missed opportunities here and there). But for now, its unfair to call this a backwards looking book. Waid is definitely looking into the future, despite the "musty-smelling" superhero trappings, and I can't wait to see where it goes next.

[1] I also agree with Rich that civilization tends to turn out brats and that these kids are a bit on the "nice" side. However, that's partly because we are dealing with superhero fiction here. You shouldn't generally think that your heroes are a bunch of selfish bastards (unless that's the point of the whole thing - see "The Authority"). If your characters are not likeable, its not going to get sales into that mass market of superhero comics (again, unless that's the point - see "The Ultimates).

Also, by making the Legion the sympathetic ones, Waid may be setting things up for the "crush of idealism" in the future. I'd like to see this book run in real-time for 5 years and see what happens to the idealists like Brainiac 5 and Sun Boy as their idealism is crushed out of them. It won't happen, of course, but it would be interesting to watch.

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