Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Hottest Mess II

Continued from last weekend, here's the fallout from The Legion of Superheroes 50 (1988), in which a foursome led by Brainiac confronted the Time Trapper at the very end of existence. During said conflict, the Legion were savagely drubbed by the being embodying entropy itself; Duo Damsel's second persona died, and the nigh-invincible Mon El took a roasting by the cosmic energies in play. But before the Trapper could maim Brainiac and Saturn Girl, the super-intelligent Coluan unleashed the Infinite Man, a secret weapon in the form of a hero who embodied a circuitous universe.

"Thank you," said the Infinite Man to Brainiac, while destroying the Trapper's time barrier. "For this, I forgive you for my birth and damnation... farewell..."  But "The Trial of Brainiac Five" has nothing to do with the Trapper's defeat. It deals instead with the supposed murder of Jaxon Rugarth, the comatose professor in whose body the Infinite Man dwelt.

With most of the Legion members watching on monitors throughout headquarters, Brek Banin, the sanctimonious Polar Boy, accuses Brainiac of violating the team's constitution by needlessly sacrificing a life. In objection, Saturn Girl says, "I helped write that clause... don't preach it to me. Your interpretation is extreme." She goes on to state that Rugarth wasn't a sentient being, and so couldn't have been murdered. Blok and Quislet, non-human members of the Legion, are duly impressed by the unfolding argument.

Artist Keith Giffen, throughout most of this Legion run, included a specific close-up panel on ninety percent of his pages. It's a slanted shot of the speaker's mouth, nose and eye, with maximal emotion conveyed. He typically reserved it for the best dialogue on the page, allowing us to peer straight into a character's soul. Occasionally, when Giffen sketches the layout for another artist, these panels are his thumbprint (1988's Justice League, drawn by Kevin Maguire, is a good example).

This late 80s Legion is also remarkable for ditching the narration boxes that writers lean on for tone, pacing and exposition. Paul Levitz uses them only to set new scenes. Everything else comes through dialogue that is flirty, feisty and engagingly adult. To Polar Boy's contention that a cure for Rugarth's vegetative state might have some day been found, Brainiac spouts a page-long diatribe that reads like prime-time television scripting: "Fellow Legionnaires, I offer no defense against the charge of murder... not because I choose to plead guilty. But because this trial itself is irrelevant."

Polar Boy thinks he's insane, and Saturn Girl wants to throttle him. Still, Brainiac continues, "This is a simple matter of morality. I believe that what I did to Professor Jaxon Rugarth was within the bounds of the course he himself would have chosen for his life, if he could." That readers saw the Infinite Man thank Brainiac doesn't matter. Whether we agree with him doesn't matter. The compelling aspect here is that, as a twelfth-level intellect from Colu, Brainiac knows himself to be indispensable to the Legion. His moral high-ground is a luxury. His behavior both serves as a bright example and sets a dangerous precedent to others who might see their constitution as just a piece of paper. Or so it seems.

A quick note further about the art, before I flit away: a friend once called Carl Gafford's sublime coloring of this Legion run "lollipops." I can't really improve that description, except to say that most 80s comics, from the purchase date onward, were hideously washed out and black ink smeared. Giffen's emphasis on broad panels and open, youthful faces, allows for heavy blocks of color. These issues, printed on superior Baxter paper, have never been cleaned up and collected into a trade. The original care in producing them, however, helps sustain a corner of comics that's its own pastel wonderland.

But candy alone can't bring asses back to the same seats, year in, year out. The protein here comes when the almost thirty-strong Legion votes Brainiac innocent. Soul-weary from the endless arguing about what their constitution does or doesn't mean, he responds by quitting. On his way out, he gives Luornu Durgo (the former Duo Damsel, who lost half of herself to the Time Trapper) his force-field belt. He then leaves the team to their childish bickering, disappointed in their lack of moral autonomy from a document they themselves created. Your blogger, living in today's United States, could not applaud him more.

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