Action Comics #858
“Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes, Chapter 1: Alien World”
Writer: Geoff Johns
Pencils/Cover artist: Gary Frank
Inks: Jon Sibal
Colors: Dave McCaig
Letters: Rob Leigh
Editor: Matt Idelson
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $3.50 US/$4.25 CAN
Geoff Johns delivers an unusual but ultimately charming story that manages to balance an appreciation of the lighter, more innocent tone of Silver Age super-hero stories and a slightly darker, more modern edge. The plot — about Superman visiting his super-hero pals in a harsh future he no longer recognizes — is hardly the most innovative premise; we’ve seen this sort of fare time and time again (no pun intended). Furthermore, introducing another altered version of the Legion of Super-Heroes seems like an odd choice, given how many permutations of property seem to exist simultaneously in DC lore. However, Johns’s story works quite well, and even the inconsistent continuity is easy to ignore given the more iconic, nostalgic approach he takes with the characters. Also adding strength is the introduction of Gary Frank’s pencils to the title. His realistic art not only brings a sense of grandeur to the superhuman characters but reinforces the dire and intense tone of the plot elements that turn up in the latter part of this issue.
Superman receives a desperate call for help from the future from an old friend who won’t be born for almost a thousand years. As he recalls the sense of belonging that membership in the 30th century Legion of Super-Heroes offered him in his youth, he readily agrees. But upon his arrival, he’s met by different Legionnaires who are shocked and horrified to see him in the year 3008. All is not as it was in the future when Superman left it, as he quickly discovers that he and his teammates, once revered by the populace, are now on the run from the law.
Gary Frank’s artwork still puts me in mind of the work of Steve (Preacher, Wolverine Origins) Dillon. Both artists bring a strong sense of realism to bear in their work, though Frank’s style boasts a greater level of detail. Frank’s style suits the darker tone that arises later in the issue while bringing an odd kind of credibility by the Silver Age-inspired scenes early on and in the flashback. His redesigns for the Legionnaires of 3008 are well done. Just as the plot takes cues from the Paul Levitz Legion stories of the 1980s, so does the artwork. The new Legion designs incorporate the 1980s looks of the characters and look like the kind of update one might have seen from Steve Lightle, a long-running Legion artist of that era. Dave McCaig’s colors serve the story well. He resorts to brilliant, primary colors for the Clark Kent flashback and duller, muted tones for the harsh future Superman discovers toward the end of the issue.
One odd element about this book — and other recent issues of Action Comics — is the fact that it doesn’t seem to jibe with other DC continuity. The Jimmy Olsen we see in this issue, for example, is a radically different character than the one currently starring in Countdown. This incarnation of Clark Kent is awkward to the point of disbelief. But this story does connect with events from a few months ago in Justice League of America and Justice Society of America. Furthermore, we’re faced with a couple of different versions of the Legion, neither of which seems to have anything to do with the team featured in another current DC title, Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes. That being said, the continuity glitches don’t really interfere with this story. It’s easy to get past it, and honestly, there’s a sense of direction here that’s grabbed my attention. Mind you, I’m a fan of the Levitz-era Legion, so I’m perhaps more of a willing participant here than other Action readers. I expect the different incarnations of the Legion will eventually be explained away by DC’s new multiverse premise.
The basic plot is a super-hero standard, with the hero visiting a dystopian future when he expected to find a better world. The illusions of childhood innocence are shattered; a place of safety is transformed into the depths of danger. We’ve seen it all before. But Johns’s script drives home the importance of the Legion to a teenage Clark Kent quite effectively, and Frank’s detailed linework and expressive characters make it believable. Nostalgia’s a major factor here, but not just nostalgia for the Silver Age of comics or the Legion. In this story, Superman looks forward to reconnecting with his youth but finds the reality doesn’t hold a candle to his memories.
One could see it as something of a commentary on the state of super-hero comics. Johns uses a foundation of a much simpler era of the Superman mythos here. Jimmy Olsen is a keener kid here, following Clark around like a puppy. He’s really a one-dimensional figure, representative of a simpler era in the genre. The same holds true of the implausibly cheerful Legionnaires who approach the young Clark Kent in Smallville. While those simpler incarnations are charming in their own way, they don’t really hold up as fleshed-out, compelling characters in the context of modern storytelling. Perhaps Johns is saying there is a place for those elements we remember with such fondness but that one also has to accept the state of super-hero storytelling of the 21st century along with the nostalgia factor. 7/10