Retro Reviews: L.E.G.I.O.N. ’89 #1-10, L.E.G.I.O.N. ’90 #11-12 By Keith Giffen, Alan Grant & Barry Kitson For DC Comics

L.E.G.I.O.N. ‘89 #1-10; L.E.G.I.O.N. ‘90 #11-12 (February ‘89 – Feb ‘90)

Written by Keith Giffen (plot; #1-12), Alan Grant (script; #1-12)

Breakdowns by Keith Giffen (#1-12)

Pencilled by Barry Kitson (#1-12)

Inked by Mike DeCarlo (#1-3), Mark McKenna (#4-12)

Spoilers (from twenty-five or twenty-six years ago)

I did not start reading L.E.G.I.O.N. ‘89 regularly until issue sixteen, but did eventually track down the issues I was missing (including the last few in order to write this column).  I was liking the work that Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen were doing with the Legion of Super-Heroes at this time, which is around the era where they were getting weird costumes, and getting ready to relaunch the book with the Five Years Later era, which remains my favourite of all time.  I didn’t see this title as essential to that one though, and was not immediately impressed with it, so I passed it by after the first issue.  Later, I realized that was a mistake, as this was a unique and interesting title, marked by excellent character work, which took precedence over plotting.

This was a pretty exciting time to be reading DC Comics though.  I was relatively new to the company and characters, having spent the time before that focusing mainly on Marvel books.  Post-Crisis, I was slowly brought over, by titles like Suicide Squad, Justice League, and the Legion of Super-Heroes, but it was around this time that I started to pay real attention to the company’s output.  The inside cover of these comics list what else was being released in the same week, and it’s worth seeing what came out at the same time as the first issue of this title:  Doom Patrol #19 (Grant Morrison’s first!), Sandman #2 (!), and Animal Man #8 (more Morrison).  Imagine how exciting things must have been around the DC offices at that point.

This comic was produced in DC’s ‘New Format’, which has always been a favourite of mine.  The paper was nicer than what we got in a standard format book, and these comics always felt a little more refined.  They’ve also aged very nicely, without yellowing.  In fact, I prefer this paper stock to what we get in our comics today…

Anyway, eventually, this book caught my eye, but it took a few more direct ties to the Legion to cement my interest.

In the beginning, this book feels a little directionless.  Sure, Vril Dox has a plan for everyone and everything, but that’s not shared with us for a while.  Instead, we have a group of characters who were either barely introduced in Invasion!, or who were very slowly built over the course of this series, as they set about building up an intergalactic police force.

Keith Giffen, who plotted and laid the book out, departed after issue twelve, so I decided to take a look at just the first year of the title for this column.  Giffen’s fingerprints are all over this book, from the reliance on the nine-panel grid he was using on LSH, through the carefully planned little connections between this title and that one.

This is not a superhero book, despite the fact that some of the characters have abilities, and it becomes very much about their different personalities.  That is what won me over, and kept me around long after Giffen departed.  I also like that the book has such a wide and varied cast, always showing promise that new characters could become central to the title (or, killed off, or written out).  As well, I enjoyed trying to puzzle together the connections between these characters and their 31st century descendants, which was wisely not over-used as a plot point.

With a book as full as this one, it’s helpful to keep track of the cast:

  • Vril Dox (Coluan ancestor to Brainiac 5; manipulative leader of the organization)
  • Garryn Bek (whiny ex-cop from Cairn)
  • Lyrissa Mallor (Talokian ancestor to Shadow Lass)
  • Strata (Dryadian, possibly ancestor of Blok?)
  • The Durlan (never given a name of his own; disappears in #9)
  • Stealth (mystery character, at least at the beginning)
  • Lobo (first appears in #3, joins the crew in #4; psychotic assassin for hire and 90s throwback)
  • Marij’n Bek (Garryn Bek’s wife, first appears in #8; doesn’t stick around for long)
  • Phase (possibly Phantom Girl from the future; appears in #9, doesn’t become a part of the team until later)
  • One particular female officer and her male sergeant were shown a few times, but they were never named or made an important part of the cast at this point

Let’s look at the events of this series in more detail, with some commentary as I go along:

  • Following the events of Invasion!, Dox, Bek, Mallor, Strata, the Durlan, and Stealth are sharing a ship they stole so they can get home.
  • Dox has convinced everyone to drop him off at Colu first, but when they arrive, they are attacked by the Computer Tyrants who run the planet, their ship is brought down, and they are taken prisoner.
  • We learn that the Tyrants keep control of everyone on the planet, except for Dox, who has arranged things so that this group can help him overthrow them.
  • The Durlan (who wasn’t captured) frees everyone, and the Tyrant blow up the building.
  • Our heroes survive the explosion, and spend the issue fighting off various threats in large tunnels that run under the planet’s surface.
  • Eventually they make their way to a central computer, where Dox smashes some circuits, thereby freeing his people.
  • This causes mayhem on the planet, as all power goes out, and the Coluans don’t know what to do without the Tyrants’ control.  They all go home to starve to death (it reminds me of that planet in the Serenity movie).
  • In space, a capsule opens that contains a big green android guy who contains the consciousnesses of the Computer Tyrants.  I think this guy becomes Pulsar Stargrave eventually – he certainly looks like him.
  • Bek and Mallor leave the planet, fed up with Dox’s machinations, but as they are flying away, they hit a flying space fish (that looks more like a dolphin to me).  Recognizing the fish as one of Lobo’s, Mallor has them return to Colu, knowing they will need help.
  • The Tyrants attack and almost kill Dox, but then discover that a bomb he had planted has destroyed any hope they can return to their former lives.  They get angry and fly away.
  • Lobo arrives on Colu, looking to find the person who killed his space fish friend.
  • LEGION '89 House adAfter a bit of time passes, we learn that Dox has been working to restore power to the planet, as well as install some programming into his people that will make them look favourably upon him.  The Durlan disagrees with this, and they have to fight it out (according to Durlan custom).  When the Durlan wins, he just assumes that Dox will do the right thing, because apparently he hasn’t been paying attention.
  • Dox and the Durlan have a very interesting conversation, wherein Dox outlines his idea of creating a police force to replace the Green Lantern Corps (which, I guess, didn’t exist at that time for some reason or another).  The Durlan is surprised that Dox feels he has to manipulate everyone into agreeing with him, instead of just asking them.
  • Lobo interrupts this conversation, and everyone starts fighting him.  Strata gets some of his (more on that pronoun later) chest ripped apart, and things look bad until Dox offers Lobo a job, basically arranging that Lobo work for him for as long as Bek and Mallor are alive, thereby saving them from his wrath, and finding himself a handy enforcer.
  • The group goes to Cairn, Bek’s homeworld, where Dox puts into play a plan to take over the world’s corrupt police force, and to kill the leading drug-lord on the planet.
  • Bek, Mallor, Strata, and Stealth stay with the drug-lord, Kanis-Biz, who we learn is Bek’s father-in-law.  The police attack, putting our heroes in a difficult situation (at least until they start brawling with Lobo again), while Dox negotiates, and then terminates, Kanis-Biz.  Interestingly, the Durlan shows signs of losing patience with Dox, and begins to bond a little more with the other central cast members.
  • The police of Cairn show signs of loyalty to Dox in light of this action, making it easier for him to lay the groundwork for L.E.G.I.O.N.’s formation.
  • After learning of Biz’s assassination, the other drug lords of Cairn blockade Dox’s headquarters, waiting for the right moment to attack.
  • Dox knocks out the rest of the team, and sends out a legion of Lobos to fight the drug lords.  Apparently a new Lobo clones from every drop of his blood that is spilled, making him the psychotic equivalent of Madrox the Multiple Man.
  • Stealth, who has been left as a very mysterious character, goes into heat or something, and attacks Dox, leaving him dead.
  • In the aftermath of everything that’s happened, Mallor is left in charge by default, while Bek’s wife Marij’n tries to restore Dox to life (or regrow him, it’s not all that clear) not so much because everyone values his life, but because they are worried that the police of Cairn will kill them for allowing their new leader to be killed.
  • Strata goes through Dryadian puberty, shedding her rocky outer layer, to reveal a more gem-like body, which also reveals that she is female.  Little space is given to this, but it appears Strata is not too excited about her gender, possibly making her the first transgendered character to have appeared in a mainstream DC comic?
  • Stealth snaps out of the fugue state she was in after attacking Dox, and shows remorse.
  • Lobo apparently no longer has the ability to clone himself, thanks to something Dox did to him, and all of his clones have expired.  He’s very angry about this (could this event have been used to allow him to become ever more unhinged and grow into the character that dominated the 90s?).
  • Stealth is declared fit for duty, decides to join L.E.G.I.O.N., and is revealed to be pregnant with Dox’s baby, a fact she is not too happy about.
  • The Durlan disappears in a flash, and is replaced by Phase, who doesn’t speak the language, and spends the issue running and hiding from Garryn Bek, using her phasing powers to assist her in this.
  • Bek, trying to stop Phase, mistakenly frees Lobo, who attacks Dox’s still-gestating body, ripping it from its womb-device.
  • The reawakened Dox, who has been conscious for about a week (Marij’n was dragging out his recovery to spend more time with her husband) fights and defeats Lobo in front of most of his troops, ensuring their respect.
  • Dox leaves Mallor in charge, because she’s done such a good job of managing things in his absence.
  • Phase figures out the the L.E.G.I.O.N.naires are speaking a primitive form of Interlac (further proof that she’s from the future), and begins to talk to the team; she has amnesia and doesn’t know anything about herself.
  • The computer tyrants, using the name Mr. Starr, begin to take on the role of the new champion of Talok VIII, Lyrissa Mallor’s planet, as part of his/their plan to get revenge on Vril Dox.
  • Leading a small group of L.E.G.I.O.N. police about to make contact with a new planet, Bek comes across a derelict ship, and finds the Emerald Eye on it.  As he attempts to bring the Eye back to Cairn, it kills the rest of the ship’s crew, acting on Bek’s darker impulses.
  • The organization continues to build itself, with Strata finally giving it the L.E.G.I.O.N. name, and figuring out what that acronym stands for – Licensed Extra-Governmental Interstellar Operatives Network.
  • Dox has a number of conversations with the characters – assuring Mallor that she will continue in her Acting Commander role, and trying to convince Stealth to have an abortion – before demonstrating real anger and feelings of betrayal around the Durlan’s disappearance.

The true strength of this title lies in the strong character work done by Giffen and Grant.  The personalities of the key cast members, especially Dox’s, really drive the plot of this book, and we are given a number of issues where not a whole lot happens plot-wise, but we get to see the characters become stronger and better-realized.  It wasn’t a common approach, then or now, and it really works for this book.

Dox is shown as a master manipulator, but we are always being given glimpses of his own insecurities or self-doubt.  This is amplified after the Durlan disappears, and after he dies and is raped at Stealth’s hand.  The rape is not given a lot of attention, although it’s very clear that this is what happened; Stealth is standing over his injured, possibly dead body, and later, she’s pregnant with his baby.  I’m not sure if DC’s editorial office kept this issue from being explored fully, or if it was Giffen and Grant’s decision to soft-peddle that aspect of the story, but it’s kind of a strange choice.

It’s also interesting to look at the development of Lobo over the course of the first year of this book.  Prior to showing up in L.E.G.I.O.N., I know that Lobo was in a few issues of Omega Men, but I’ve never read those stories.  Here, he becomes wilder and more violent as the book continues.  At first, he kind of looks like Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice, but as things progress, he looks more and more like the character that became so ubiquitous a few years later.

While it’s essential to talk about how much Giffen contributed to this book, it’s important to also look at what artist Barry Kitson brought to the table.  Kitson has long been one of my favourite character artists, never flashy, but always very good.  There are a number of pages here where Giffen’s vision shines through almost as if he’d pencilled the page himself, but there are other spots which are very obviously Kitson’s.  After Giffen left, he began co-plotting with Grant, and it will be interesting to see how his influence on the book caused it to evolve and grow into one of the few titles I stuck with into the early nineties.

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