Redefining a Universe: DC’s “Legends” Crossover, Part 1

Legends was meant to create a cohesive narrative for the new DCU after the giant events of Crisis on Infinite Earths. It was a way of acknowledging what made DC great to begin with while also moving it forward. It succeeded, while also working as a launching point for a number of excellent new titles.

This is particularly amazing when you consider just how bad Legends is.

The post-Crisis DCU has often been called DC’s attempt at becoming more like Marvel, a claim mostly built upon their reboot of Superman with writer/artist John Byrne, who also happens to provide the pencils for Legends. There’s additional fuel for that fire provided by the creative team of Legends, as the book is plotted by John Ostrander, scripted by Len Wein, pencilled by Byrne, and inked by Karl Kesel. Alternate issues are colored by Tom Ziuko and Carl Gafford.

Historically, there have been two ways of creating comics: the DC way and the Marvel way. The DC way involved the writer creating a full script, one that included the dialog that would appear in each panel. The Marvel way involved the writer giving the artists the plot (and perhaps panel descriptions, depending upon the writer) and then filling the dialog in latter,allowing the writer to modify the script based upon what the artist had done.So while there’s nothing to suggest that DC is now creating their comics the Marvel way, the credits on Legends suggests that, at the very least, this essential mini-series is being done in the style of their cross town rivals.

Thematically, the creative team attempts to do something that would seem to be a foreign concept to DC these days: make their heroes seem truly heroic. To do this, they first need to create an environment that is oppressive enough to make these inspirational figures all the more important. Their choice of villain is perfect given what’s at stake in this series: they use Darkseid.

First and foremost, there’s the fact that Darkseid should be the preeminent threat in the DCU; no other villains should come close to the terror that Darkseid inspires. We are leading charmed lives that Darkseid has yet to conquer us, that’s how powerful he is. If you want to tell a story that epitomizes the new DCU, using Darkseid as the bad guy is the only way to go.

There’s also the simple fact that Darkseid was, at the time, getting his ugly mug on TV on Saturday mornings on the various incarnations of the Super Friends. So not only did DC choose the right villain, they chose one that might entice some non-comic book readers to take a peek, which is what the post-Crisis DCU was all about.

So who is that guy cackling in the background supposed to be?

Unfortunately, this is an awful interpretation of Darkseid. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown used to the modern version, who almost seems devoid of emotion because there’s darkness where his soul should be. He’s a creature of intellect, with no empathy and no sense of right or wrong. Darkseid is amoral. He is a force of nature.

Here, he’s a typical, maniacal super villain which, to be fair, isn’t far off from how he’d been portrayed up until now.

But let’s start at the beginning of this 28 issues event before we get too far into the Legends series itself.

Batman #401

The inclusion of Batman #401 in this crossover is significant in that this is technically the first issue of the post-Crisis Batman era. Yes, this was months after Crisis had ended, but that was often the case with the DCU at the time: it took a while before every title reflected the new, post-Crisis world, which was another reason why Legends even existed.

There’s another important reason this issue being a part of the crossover is a big deal: it’s an excellent comic. The art by Tevor Von Eeden should be enough to get you through the door, but the story by Barbara J.Randall is also well done. It’s not groundbreaking, but it has all the elements of a classic Batman story: a bizarre villain, a mystery, a quick thinking escape, even Bruce Wayne being Bruce Wayne and Robin trying to do too much. It would actually be a fairly pedestrian Batman story, but Randall infuses it with an ominous feeling, making the new villain, Magpie, unpredictable enough to be frightening, while keeping the story grounded.

Randall would not have been as successful had she been joined by any other artist. I doubt that Von Eeden knew he was drawing the first appearance of the post-Crisis Batman, but he certainly sets the tone with this issue. His work is both gritty and menacing, yet classic, like Alex Toth trying to do Bob Kane. He defines the post-Crisis Batman perfectly and I say this after having seen dozens of other artists draw this version of Batman before reading this issue.

Connection to Legends: We meet G. Gordon Godfrey, a TV personality who preaches the evils of superheroes and the power of the common man. The version we meet in Batman #401 is far and away superior to all other versions we will see.

Detective Comics #568

You have to say this much for DC: post-Crisis Batman kills it right out of the gate.

I knew this story by Joey Cavalieri and Klaus Janson before deciding to read this crossover because it was included in the original edition of The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told. In the simplest sense, this is an attempt to make the Penguin a more threatening villain while still trying to stick with his, well, schtick, if you will. The Penguin had broadened his bird fetish in the past, so it wasn’t a stretch to incorporate birds of prey into his arsenal. Taken out of context, this would actually be a pretty silly story and not nearly as ominous as intended.

That context comes in the form of the wonderful art by Klaus Janson. Arkham Asylum video games notwithstanding, the Penguin has been a tough character to make menacing, yet Janson manages to pull it off without even drastically altering the character. Janson simply grounds him, making him less cartoonish. This is actually a pre-cursor to the video game version and the one we’d see decades later in the Batman books. This is the Penguin as the crime boss he’s always been, but never really portrayed.

And, hey, Cavalieri and Janson manages to make the Penguin interesting without resorting to beastiality, because that would be really, really stupid.

We also get to see G. Gordon Godfrey again and he doesn’t look anything like the version we saw in Batman #401, neither of whom look anything like the version we’ll see in Legends, but both of whom look better.

Legends #1

The framing sequence to this event is a philosophical debate between Darkseid and the Phantom Stranger as to how easy it is to corrupt human beings. Darkseid thinks it’s simple, and he’ll prove it by turning the population of earth against its super powered defenders. The Phantom Stranger, however, holds out hope that humanity will prove that it’s ultimately made up of good people.

Darkseid’s main tool in swaying the people of Earth is G. Gordon Godfrey, the prototypical TV talking head who is convinced that superheroes are bad for America and that they’re taking away rights from normal, every day, God fearing people. It’s crazy to think that a hatemonger on TV would be able to sway large crowds of people in this country, yeah?

Darkseid’s other prongs in this attack are a giant, fiery creature named Brimestone (who talks like a preacher) and the unfortunately named Macro Man, who is really Dr. Bedlam in a giant body. Brimestone is meant to destroy everything in his path, while Macro Man is specifically created as a trap. Macro Man is meant to die, and he’s meant to die in a way that will setup the superhero fighting him to think said hero is the cause. In this case, it’s Captain Marvel, who shazam’s Macro Man to death.

Legends is meant to tie together the various elements of the DCU, so aside from Captain Marvel we also see Cosmic Boy of the Legion of Superheroes, visiting from the 30th century, help Firestorm and the Justice League (Detroit) battle Brimstone. We also check in with the new Flash (Wally West), who is hanging out with Changeling aka Beast Boy at Titans Tower. We also get to meet one of the greatest characters in DC’s history, Amanda Waller, for the first time. And we see the very beginnings of Taskforce X, what would eventually be known as the Suicide Squad.

The issue itself is actually not bad, with solid art from Byrne and Kesel. The multiple prongs of Darkseid’s plan are well thought out: taking out the purest, most innocent of heroes (Captain Marvel), turning the American people against super folk, and unleashing a good, old fashioned monster to do physical damage on top of the emotional havoc.

There’s a lot to like going forward and it gave me some hope for the series which, sadly, was misplaced.

3 thoughts on “Redefining a Universe: DC’s “Legends” Crossover, Part 1

  1. I don’t recall being super disappointed with “Legends” back when it came out, but I also haven’t read it since then. This will be an interesting journey! As for Darkseid, I prefer the Kirby characterization to the great big lumbering “Hulk with laser vision” that he seems to get reduced to these days, and I recall this Darkseid being closer to the original…again, that’s just how I recall it through the misty fog of time!

  2. I had stopped reading comics for a while in the years leading up to Crisis and didn’t begin to play catchup until recently. Thanks for this series. It helps fill in the gaps some.

  3. DC’s done a lot right since Crisis…and probably even more wrong. There are some gems during those years, though. I’ll write about those at some point, too!

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