Comic Book Review – Legends

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dc summer blockbusters 1980s

Legends (1987)
Written by John Ostrander & Len Wein
Art by John Byrne

legends cover

On the planet Apokolips, the god Darkseid makes a wager with the Phantom Stranger that he will turn humanity against their most celebrated heroes. Darkseid accomplishes this by sending Glorious Godfrey, a supernaturally powered svengali to sway the general public. He also dispatches the psychic terror Dr. Bedlam in the form of a manufactured villain Macro-Man and the fiery acolyte Brimstone. The first target is the bastion of goodness Captain Marvel, and he is the first of many heroes to fall. Along the way, the Justice League of America crumbles, and Batman is driven from his cape and cowl when given orders by the Gotham City PD. However, this is the beginning of a new era in DC Comics with the introductions of Blue Beetle and Captain Marvel into the DC Universe as well as the reintroduction of Wonder Woman.

Eight months passed between the conclusion of DC’s massive reboot in the pages of Crisis on Infinite Earths and the publication of Legends #1. In the interim we had John Byrne’s The Man of Steel rewriting the origins of Superman and Secret Origins, a series devoted to retelling character’s back histories in this brand new world. Legends was an attempt not to lay the groundwork to explain the plot details but to establish an image of what the great heroes of DC would be going forward. The successes of Legends would go on to be Keith Giffen & J.M. DeMatteis’ Justice League, Mike Baron’s Flash, and John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad. Wonder Woman had been rebooted by George Perez a few months prior though. But there was one big failure of Legends, and that was to set up Captain Marvel as a premier hero in the shared universe.

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Captain Marvel was an acquisition from a defunct publisher who was initially introduced as Part of Earth-S in the pages of the Justice League. After Crisis, when all the parallel realities were merged into a singular one, there were a lot of questions about the new history of this world. Captain Marvel was a character who fits perfectly in an older setting. He was a child who, when shouting the magic word “Shazam,” would become the adult hero Captain Marvel. You need to remember that at this point in DC’s publishing history they had just dropped The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, two series that recontextualized the bright and shiny hero adventures of old. Captain Marvel was a strange fit in this time period. Roy Thomas who had helmed the adventures of DC’s Golden Age heroes in the modern world was tasked with a reboot mini-series to run alongside Legends, but it is remembered as a flop.

After Legends, Captain Marvel would appear in the pages of Justice League for a couple issues and then drop into obscurity until he finally got his own ongoing series in the mid-1990s. Even still he has managed to be a tough character to work into the directions DC has chosen to go. All this said, there is now a profoundly meta-textual reading that can be applied to Cap as Darkseid’s first target in Legends. By going after the poster child from superhero innocence, a statement is being made that we can’t expect our heroes to be safe anymore.

Captain Marvel’s lack of success after Legends has a counter in the Suicide Squad which is introduced in this mini-series. Plotter John Ostrander would follow the team into their own ongoing series and would pen all 66 of their issues. It’s apparently an essential concept to him, and they get a fair amount of coverage in the book. This original team is composed of Bronze Tiger, Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, Blockbuster, and The Enchantress. They are led by Rick Flag and overseen by Amanda Waller in her first appearance. DC had tried villain-centric books in the past, most notably The Secret Society of Supervillains and The Joker, but this was the one that stuck. It makes sense too. The villains aren’t just cavorting at their own whims, they are forced into doing good, and so there is a tension that can be played with. Captain Boomerang is the highlight of the team, relishing the fact he’s a rogue but also not having enough guts to stand up to Waller. Their success over Captain Marvel’s failure to launch post-Legends and Suicide Squad’s marked success feels like a continuation of the darkening of DC Comics in this era.

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Unlike most modern universe wide-events, Legends feels incredibly lowkey. Darkseid never comes to Earth for a battle with the heroes, he and Phantom Stranger just passively observe with the former dropped some minions from time to time. There’s inspiration from the Biblical book of Job here as a metaphorical Satan and Yahweh test the faith of humanity. It’s easy to forget what a passive villain Darkseid used to be starting from his creation at the hands of Jack Kirby. He’s physically imposing, but the danger comes in his limitless and bizarre resources. His lackeys get their hands dirty, not Darkseid. The climax of the story happens without much fighting, the heroes tussle with the crazed mob but work to not harm them because they are in Darkseid’s thrall. The story even ends without the heroes ever really knowing the scope of what transpired.

That scope includes some mini-series and crossovers that are mentioned in the pages of Legends but not essential to read. There is the aforementioned Shazam: A New Beginning mini, plus one featuring Cosmic Boy who was taking time off from the Legion of Super-Heroes to vacation in the 20th century. There was a fall of the Justice League story that has almost no connections to Legends happening off screen. Superman is abducted and taken to Apokolips for a couple issues. Desaad, Darkseid chief torturer, travels to Skartaris and battles Warlord, a near-forgotten Conan/Flash Gordon mash-up. This is to say Legends wasn’t a singular villain everyone was fighting but was more a banner slapped on ongoing books to signal that they represented the face of DC Comics going forward.

Overall, it was refreshing to read a comic event that was focused more on thematics than plot points and needless character deaths. The likelihood we’d ever get a superhero movie like this is near impossible, and I don’t think DC will touch something like this anytime soon. The DC Rebirth one-shot was probably the closest we’ll get and even Doomsday Clock, which could be a reimagining of Legends, is going to succumb to plot beats over exciting themes and analysis of its characters. Legends will be an extremely nostalgic trip back for comics fans of my age, for many of us our first introduction to the heroes of DC Comics. It definitely inspires me to go back and work through the collections of Justice League International and Suicide Squad/ However, next up we will be looking at a genuinely dreadful DC event which has no enduring legacy, Millenium 

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