Friday, April 17, 2015

5YL Legion of Super-Heroes #31

Recap: The Dominators' control of Earth is weakening. The Dominion's use of super-powered clones and brainwashing has been made public. The United Planets is mobilizing their fleet to free Earth. The Khunds are moving in to attack the Dominion homeworld. And two Legions are trying to figure out how they can help. Meanwhile life on the planet is a disaster with the Dominators basically declaring martial law, using their might to keep the Terran population scared and disempowered.

Something has to give.

Legion of Super-Heroes #31 is another one of those daring creative risks that have become the hallmark of this title. With all the action and political maneuvering of the last few issues, Earth is like a powder keg that's giving off sparks. We have been bouncing between the Dominators' attempts to squelch a revolution, the rebel troops of Universo and Jacques Foccart trying to undermine things on Earth, the rest of the galaxy finally deciding to move in, and two sets of Legionnaires dipping their toes in this intergalactic war. After months of things simmering, last issue felt like a full boil. I was ready for more ... and fast.

So, of course, the writers Keith Giffen and Tom & Mary Bierbaum decide to pump the brakes. This sort of forced pause has always been doubly effective. For one, it left me as a reader clamoring for more. I want to see resolution of these big plot lines. To make me wait more was to make me want more.

But just as importantly, these character-focused issues deepen this universe. We learn more about characters, making them more three-dimensional. And they also show the personal side of this 5YL universe, the struggles that people have on a day-to-day basis. The power of the Legion universe is how broad it is. So I love that Giffen and the Bierbaums embrace it.

This issue, with its rejiggered cover, showcases Young Legion of Super-Heroes Romance, the relationship between Element Lad and Schvaughn Erin. And here is yet another creative risk for this book. Here we are in mid-1992 and the creators are giving us an issue tackling human sexuality and transgender individuals. This is a topic we have barely started to touch in 2015. This issue hit the stands 23 years ago.

The art is a wonderful mix of legendary Curt Swan and long time Legion fan Colleen Doran. 

Now I am a middle aged, white, straight male. I am about as far away from this personally as someone can be. I can sympathize ... I can try to comprehend ... but I am not living this life, or dealing with the prejudices, or the anguish that people can be going through. And so, I hope I do a decent job reviewing this issue. And I would welcome as many comments about this as possible.

This issue takes place on Earth as we see just how hellish life has become under the thumb of the Dominion militia.

One plot we are following is the elder Jan Arrah and his helping Schvaughn Erin. She is suffering and he is there to help. But part of the suffering is the relationship they have had and how it has had its ups and downs, its own pauses.

Jan is narrating here. He had always been dealing with his own demons, the death of his people, his quest for spiritual fulfillment. Then Schvaughn and her innocence and love entered his life.

From the beginning, you can see how he struggled with this romance. He needed someone in his life. She wanted more. And he didn't know if his religious life could include a physical love. So he kept her at arms length, even leaving at times.

But he cares for her, and so he is on Earth, looking for medication she needs.

Meanwhile, we are following the SW6 Element Lad.

In a pique of rage, he turns the street under a Dominion tank squadron into air. The tanks and the surrounding infantry fall to their deaths. Is this a break in the Legion code? Was Jan trying to just slow them down? Did he know that they would die? And what was he thinking?

You can see the tears in his eyes. He wanted to hurt them. But did he intentionally kill them?

It turns out that Schvaughn has been taking Profem, a drug which had changed her into a woman. She had never let Jan know this ... until now. Without the medication, her body is reverting to a male phenotype. And it is painful.

But there is also the pain of having to reveal her 'secret' to Jan. Their whole relationship was built on this hidden fact. And it turns out that it didn't matter to him.

But how can a secret like that not somehow impact him.

In this 5YL universe, he went to Trom for years on his spiritual journey, trying to discover who he was. Remember when we first met him again way back in Legion of Super-Heroes #6? He was hoping that maybe Schvaughn would mature in that time away as well. That he could return to something more meaningful.

But when he returned to her, there was this revelation ...

As Schvaughn deals with her withdrawal, she asks Jan to tell her a Trommite fable.

In a nice use of framework, he tells her a fable about a Trommite cub who uses his power to kill. How it was easy to turn the father bear to charcoal and how such a thing shouldn't change the cub's outlook. It mirrors what our young Jan is dealing with.

How could such an act not change someone.

The Profem has finally worn off. And Schvaughn now asks to be called Sean.

There is something powerful in this conversation. Jan says Schvaughn/Sean's gender didn't impact their relationship. That yes there was something physical ... but that was in spite of the Profem. Is Jan saying he is bisexual? That he would have loved Sean if that is who he knew all along? Is this about love transcending things?

And yet, can't Sean still live her life as Schvaughn? Isn't it her life to decide who she wants to live as?

Or was that too progressive an idea for 1992? Was this as close as we could get to hard topics in sexuality back then?

But this is still a discussion about things, back in 1992! This is progressive for the time.

As the final effects of withdrawal wrack Schvaughn/Sean's body, Jan finishes his story.

The Trommite cub who killed is suddenly shunned by the rest of the planet. "A Trommite can kill no one but himself."Completely alone, the cub does kill himself.

The SW6 Element Lad is suddenly struggling with his own feelings. He has killed ...

Finally, the drugs are out of Schvaughn's system. Now Sean, he knows that he needs to rely on himself alone. He can't lean on Jan anymore. He needs to realize who he is.

And this is where I need to lean on others.

She can still lead a life as Schvaughn if she IS Schvaughn.
But might she want to live a life as a he? As Sean?

Regardless, Sean leaves Jan. This relationship is over for now. Even if Jan isn't ready to say that.

As luck would have it, Sean runs into the younger Jan.

This is the young vulnerable Jan that Schvaughn fell in love with. And somehow, being confronted by this young Jan ... a fragile boy who on his own worked out who he wanted to be in life ... gives Sean some resolve. It is time for Sean to work out who he wants to be.

Sean says that it is his turn to making his life work, just as Jan did.

Again,  the question here is how does Sean/Schvaughn decide what that life is. Does he want to be Sean or Schvaughn ... and do drugs alone define that decisions?

Unlike the older Element Lad, the young Element Lad realizes he can't bottle up his feelings, he can't get through this whole thing alone. He can lean on others to help him.

These two Legions are already different.

This is going to be interesting to watch.

And finally, the two Valors, the two Legionnaires who were sick of skulking and decided to go to the UP, meet.

"I used to be THAT young..." That is perfect.

And yet it also shows that these two Legions are very similar.

This is going to be interesting to watch.

And just when you think we have seen it all. Dominators. Khunds. United Planets. The Dark Circle. Universo. Two Legions.

Just when you think you know all the pieces on the chess board, the creative team adds another. The galaxy is in a state of upheaval. And someone controlling the Emerald Eye thinks they should enter the fray.

This was a powerful issue. It certainly nudged the main plots forward.

But the revelation of Schvaughn. The discussion of sexuality and identity. This was almost unheard of in 1992. And yet this team, undeterred in taking risks, decided to devote an issue to that conversation.

Issues like this are what make the 5YL Legion such an incredible experience.


  1. Is this the most controversial Legion story ever? Probably.
    I note your comment regarding your status as a straight man. As a gay man, one who has been specializing on sexual diversity and gender studies for many years, as much as I love this book, this story and Jan, who is my all-time favorite legionnaire, I have many problems with it.
    Thing is, this story could not be printed today, not only because powers that probably wouldn’t allow it, but also because it would break the controversy from the trans community for it’s barely-informed take on trans identity.
    Still, a much valid effort, you can tell everyone’s hearts were in the right place. And Jan? No one has a bigger heart. Such a lovely character.
    Doran is not only a Legion fan, but also a Jan fan, and you can tell the amount of love that went into every page. Swan is, of course, an impossible to argue classic. And the cover? So many people hated it, but I thought it was so clever, and clearly, as much of this book, simply ahead of its time.
    And the meeting of the Lars… the issue needed some levity, and this was it (within the heavy implications it brings)

  2. I remember hating this story the first time I read it. My take on it was that the creators wanted to have their cake and eat it too: Jan isn't gay, but he could be, or might be, but Shvaughn is really Sean, and....nope. It just didn't work for me.

    Having re-read it a few times since, I have softened my opinions on it. Now I think it does tell us that Jan is one of the best characters, ever. However, we have so few "good" female characters, that to take Shvaughn and make her a just felt wrong. She was always trans-gendered? Okay, I guess....but then they used that as a plot devise to send Sean off the stage. So we get this potentially great character, and then lose him.
    So in the end we don't get our cake AND we don't get to eat it.
    Noble failure.

  3. I don't disagree that the writers evidently made compromises by letting Jan and Shvaughn separate after this, but I think we've been made more aware of trans issues since, and the gay thing becomes a non-issue. Since Shvaughn is a woman in her mind, she was always a woman, and still is even after her sex-change meds run out. Our definitions have changed.

    But yeah, totally bogus to then do away with the relationship that defined so much of both their characters after that.

  4. Thanks for comments and for reading my review. This one was tough.

    I think the creators must have wanted to do an issue around gender issues and sexuality. And, in the context of the time, they must not have wanted focus on a 'big' character. So Schvaughn fit the bill.

    And yes, the relationship with Jan and his background made it more fertile ground.

    As you say, Sean disappears so we never get to see where the relationship would go. I wonder if that is also a sign of the times. I mean, we all knew that Vi and Ayla were in a romantic relationship. But it was never quite obviously shown. Reading their scenes, you could just as easily infer they were just very close friends.

    Thanks again!

  5. Of all the bad fan-fiction ideas we got during the 5YL era this definitely ranks up there with the future Lighting Lad/Proty reveal.

    One of the main problems is that it just came out of nowhere and really had no basis for what we had seen before, with either of these characters. Had the writers been building things up and dropping subtle hints, it could have worked. Vi and Lighting Lass worked because hints were being dropped by Levitz during the Baxter series. But this? Fan fiction at it's worst.

  6. I've been reading your recaps of the series as I work through the 5 Years Later Omnibus that was released last year. It's been a really great companion to me as I journey through this story for the first time.

    I wanted to comment on this one though because of how personal this story feels to me as a trans woman. Being up front it gets a lot wrong about the trans experience and why people transition, and yet I still found it so moving. I think a big part of this is because Giffen and Co.'s heart seems to really be in the right place here. And even with the stuff that doesn't really make sense when viewed through trans eyes, there are things that hit me like a gut punch. For instance, Schvaughn being unable to access her profem really hit home. I've been unable to access my estrogen medication before, but sometimes I worry that something may happen someday that prevents me from being able to get it. The pain Schvaughn feels as her body reverts to its male self was hard for me to read, but I was deeply moved by it.

    I honestly would love a new writer to bring her back and establish her as trans. Obviously I'd like them to dump the stuff like the only reason she did it was for Jan, and that she was fine going back to male, but there are so few good trans characters in comics. I'd love to see her back.