Friday, May 19, 2017

Review: Legion of Super-Heroes #301

Hello everyone! It's Anj and as usual, I am occupying the Friday post on the blog. Today is a special day because I will be beginning my set of reviews of the post-300 Legion issues by the superstar team of Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen. For many, this run is the high water mark for these characters and I am in that camp. The team came out swinging with the Great Darkness Saga and that stands out as the best story in their run. But for me, it is this next year of issues that really shows how in control of these characters Levitz and Giffen were. This was a time when multiple plotlines were simmering in the background. Characters were changing and growing. And everything just seemed to be firing on all cylinders. Everyone mentions Great Darkness Saga, but I mention issues 304 and 305 as my overall faves as they showed just how deep the plots ran and just how vast the Legion mythos was.

Obviously, we will start with Legion of Super-Heroes #301, a story that focuses mainly on Chameleon Boy, his quest to regain his powers, and his somewhat turbulent relationship with his father RJ Brande. But the creators, as usual, give us a couple of pages to build up other plotlines and check in on other characters. No one is left untouched for too long.Everything feels smooth and planned out.

And, while Giffen has changed his art style many times over the years, this is the style I like the most, a very smooth, very organic feel with innovative panel layouts. While I loved the 5YL 9 panel grid for what it was, these pages really sing and allow Giffen to stretch his legs.

Okay, enough introduction to the run ... on to the issue itself.

First off, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the cover to Legion of Super-Heroes #301 is an homage to Adventure Comics #300, one of the more iconic Legion covers in history. What I like is that even more than simply putting multiple characters on the cover in a similar layout, Giffen has them (for the most part, UPC code cramped panel for Violet notwithstanding) in similar positions. Even Timber Wolf seems to be walking in clouds like Mon-El's Phantom Zone panel shows.

Much like the nods given in Legion of Super-Heroes #300, this shows Levitz and Giffen's love of Legion history. And Legion fans love the team history as well. So those who knew about the Adventure cover in those pre-internet days must have been beaming. Would it have been cool to have this on the LSH #300 book, matching 300's? Maybe. But the jam cover worked so well, I think they played it out right. Especially given how the characters on this cover are the main players in this issue.

"Different paths, different dooms' was written/plotted/penciled by Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen with inks by Larry Mahlstadt. We start out on Durla with Cham and RJ Brande sitting around a campfire. Cham is there to try to regain his shape-shifting powers and Brande is accompanying.

As was the norm for the time, Levitz has Encyclopedia and Travel-logue blurbs about planets and cultures sprinkled throughout the issue adding some nice dimension to the setting. Durla was once a high-technology planet but a 6-minute nuclear armageddon leveled the place and sent it into a darker time. The radiation triggered the ability to shape change and therefore adapt to this horrific landscape. That sort of background info, I believe, is better suited for a text box than as dialogue from a character. And they were always appreciated.

But this isn't a fun family outing. Cham is still a little upset about the secret Brande kept from him. RJ Brande is Cham's father but is stuck in that human form. Cham is rightfully upset. At least Brande fesses up that mistakes were made. Maybe this effort to help Cham is an olive branch of a sort, to try to smooth the waters.

This was 1983. The Brande revelation came out in the Secrets of the Legion of Super-Heroes mini-series from 1981. I am glad that Levitz and Giffen thought that this was an important enough nugget to explore more, especially given how long it went unaddressed.

Another thing that I liked about this run is that Levitz and Giffen would often put in panels of the team at rest and hanging out together. So we know that Sun Boy and Star Boy like playing holographic D&D. And we get to see the couples sitting and having a drink. This 'down time' makes the characters feel more real. Their whole lives can't be adventures.

And yes, personally I love that Levitz and Giffen brought Supergirl back to the book. We see her here sitting with Brainiac 5. We also see some nods to ongoing stories here as well. The Proteans are now recognized as sentients and demand being treated as equals. And some team members are sick of how Dream Girl leads the team.

But the main plot is Cham. He and Brande are captured and brought before a group of elders. Without their ability to change and without their willingness to adopt the Durlan culture, Cham and Brande are felt to be superfluous. The two are dropped into a crater where the nuclear missiles detonated. The radiation here is so concentrated it doesn't bestow powers, it simply kills.

Despite both being powerless, they aren't helpless. And it is Brande who breaks them out of their bubble prison and forces them to move on.

Giffen shines in this section as we see the cowled Durlans shape-shift into dragons.

This issue we also meet a new character who will become part of the book's supporting cast.

Gigi Cusimano is part of the Science Police Executive Branch. She becomes a SciPo who interacts with the team quite a bit, ends up having a back story with Colossal Boy, and is a love interest for a couple of Legionnaires.

But we see how great Levitz and Giffen were at imparting unique personalities into all these characters. Element Lad is all business, even when his girlfriend Schvaughn brings someone new around. Meanwhile Sun Boy stops short to introduce himself to the new pretty girl on the block.  Oh Dirk!

Cham and Brande continue to work their way towards their destination, a temple that will hopefully rejuvenate Cham. But the terrain is rough and his flight ring can't function on this world. So they need to climb. And the need to deal with the local threats.

I said that Giffen really shined here. Look at this page of narrow panels without gutters. It gives this vertical climb some visual pizazz. And the lack of gutters makes it almost claustrophobic.

Finally the two make it to the Temple. Here the radiation is present but not lethal. Cham walks in hoping for the best. It looks like a painful process.

Throughout the story, Brande and Cham are working their feelings out. Cham even invites Brande to join him so Brande can regain his powers too. I like that Brande says he has been too long stuck in one shape to go back.

Nice coloring here by Carl Gafford.

Luckily it works.

Cham's malfunctioning flight ring was registered by the Legion and they send a team to go investigate.

Again, as a Supergirl fan, seeing her together with Brainy just made my heart sing. And you can see how happy yet awkward he feels. Giffen sells the emotions with that expressive work.

But the cruiser is blown out of the sky bu unknown assailants. The Legion flies out and easily dispatches the enemy. This might be the first time that the concept of a transsuit is used.

One thing to note here is how Giffen has Kara hold her cape out as a shield. We'll see that plenty over the next couple of issues. I love it as a visual.

It turns out that the attacking ships were an overzealous Science Police security team patrolling and protecting the nearby Weber's World. Ontiir, the head officer, apologizes and asks the team to join him on Weber's to recover.

Hmmm ... more on this later.

In the end, Cham not only regains his powers but defeats a Durlan elder in shape-shifting combat. By doing so he earns the right to choose his destiny. He chooses to return to the Legion. This is one page of four where Giffen shows just how crazy a skirmish between two shape-shifters would be. Really beautiful, innovative stuff.

The book ends with the announcement that Karate Kid and Princess Projectra are getting married. Timber Wolf wonders if he should have left with Ayla and kept their relationship intact. I have an answer for you Brin ... yes! Yes, you should have left with her.

Overall, this is a great issue, bringing Cham back into the fold, exploring his relationship with Brande, and setting up a couple of plots which will come to fruition soon.

Reading this was such a joy, reminding me of how spectacular this book was and how effortless it seemed to Levitz and Giffen. Much more to come!


  1. I admit I don't know much about the Legion. I was never interested in the team until recently. So I look forward to be instructed!

    This issue had good story and good art. If all issues are so good, I can see why this run is a classic. And it's good to see Supergirl back in the team (Brainiac is completely clueless as to how to deal with his emotions, right?)

  2. I agree with your 'high water mark' whole-heartedly. Everyone was firing on all cylinders. "The Great Darkness Saga" was amazing, but I preferred these later stories. And IMHO, during this run, this is the Supergirl I like best.

  3. Yeah, the deluxe editions of THE GREAT DARKNESS SAGA and THE CHOICE were my introductions to the Legion. GREAT DARKNESS SAGA created my love for the Legion, but this run is what sealed it. An excellent run of stories.

  4. Thanks for the great comments. Hope I give this run the treatment it deserves!

  5. Oh, lord, I was so young when these came out. I knew that it was head and shoulders above pretty much anything else around.

    I was following X-Men at the same time, but it just didn't wow me as much. This issue hit the stands the same month as X-Men 171 did -- Rogue's joining the team.

    I'd started X-Men with 148, just after Cockrum returned, and I wasn't totally impressed with his artwork. Then he left and Paul Smith started, and I thought his was too bland and cartoony.

    On the other hand, Legion had been consistently great ever since Levitz had returned. The aggressively mediocre (at best) intra-Levitz era was over, dead, and buried. Levitz had returned and brought the all-too-brief Pat Broderick, and then Giffen, and things had BEEN ON FIRE.

    And where was Legion superior to X-Men during this era, according to teenage me? Bigger cast, flashier powers, cooler settings, stable creators, and more happy fun. Most importantly, the heroes were seen as heroic!

    Now, if I can indulge a slightly tardy observation, what were some of the positives of the intra-Levitz era?

    --Introduction of Blok

    --George Perez covers

    --Departure of Superboy, allowing the Legion to stand on its own

    --George Perez covers (worth repeating)

    --R. J. Brande being revealed as a Durlan

    That's enough. I'm not exactly acting like a guest here.

    1. If you want to write a guest essay on how great the intra Levitz era was just let us know. :-)