Ask Chris #11: Jumping On the Legion and the Riddler’s Greatest Hits
Here at ComicsAlliance, we value our readership and are always open to what the masses of Internet readers have to say. That’s why we’ve given Senior Writer Chris Sims the
punishment pleasure of stepping into the grand tradition of the Answer Man as he responds to your reader questions!
Q: Assuming you only have $300 (or less) to spend on getting caught up, what’s vital for “Legion of Super-Heroes?” — StoopidTallKid
A: I’ve said before — this very week, in fact — that the only way to really get the most out of the Legion of Super-Heroes is to drop $600 on a full set of DC’s high-end Archive hardcovers, and while that’s the way I did it, that’s probably not actually true.
The problem with jumping on the Legion (and one of the selling points for fans) is that by its very nature as a story set in the far future that tied in with a second-tier version of Superman, it developed alongside the rest of the DC Universe in relative isolation. From an academic standpoint, this is one of my favorite things about the Legion; because it doesn’t tie in with anything and is yet an undeniable product of the DCU, it functions as a microcosm of comics as a whole. In one relatively small amount of stories, you can chart the development of storytelling trends, starting in the Silver Age, moving to the X-Men-ish Bronze Age — or rather, see how the Legion influenced the rest of the Bronze Age, as Nightcrawler and Colossus were actually Dave Cockrum’s rejected designs for new Legionnaires–into the grim-n-gritty ’80s and through the development of retro and revisionist themes that cropped up in the ’90s. For me, that’s a huge part of the appeal.But there’s a side effect to all that, and it’s that the Legion brings its own substantial amount of baggage to the table. The isolated development, along with the fact that it was one of the first comics to use continuity to drive stories, means that it’s developed its own level of shorthand and self-referentialism that persists even when the entire franchise is rebooted. There is, for instance, an underlying tension to the mid-90s Reboot Era story where Ferro suggests a suicide mission to kill the Sun-Eater that just isn’t there if you don’t have a prior knowledge of the Legion.
If you don’t, there’s really no reason to expect that he won’t make it through. If you do, then you know that the original Ferro Lad died fighting the Sun-Eater in 1967’s version of the 30th Century, and it’s a genuine surprise when he survives the second trip. It’s a series that benefits from knowledge, and that means that it requires a certain amount of commitment, which really appeals to some readers, which is why there are very few casual Legion fans. Instead, you tend to get a bunch of people who either love the Legion with a passion or think that stuff like Bouncing Boy and Matter-Eater Lad is the lamest thing they’ve ever heard, with very little in between.
Even beyond the storytelling aspects, though, I’d still recommend starting from the beginning, if only because those stories are insane. Superman and Jimmy Olsen are the poster children for the lunacy of the Silver Age, but the Legion boiled down into its purest form. It’s the Weapons Grade Crystal Meth of Silver Age Craziness, as evidenced by the fact that there’s a story where the Legion is being spied on…
Which is another point: If you have a low tolerance for madness, the Legion is not for you. But if you do, then you’re in luck, because in the years since I made the leap into the Archives, DC’s put out three volumes of Showcase Editions, each of which reprints about 500 pages of Silver Age LOSH from the beginning for about $17 each. They’re in black and white, so you might be surprised down the line to discover that Brainiac 5 is green, but the stories are great, and while they lose a little from not having the vibrant colors, the same bunch of stories would run you about $300 in the Archives.
There’s also some really good stuff from later years available in trade: “The Great Darkness Saga” is currently out of print (which never fails to mystify me), but it’s a high point for the series, and occasionally you can find one warming the shelf at your local comic book store, and it’s not hard to find at all in back issues. DC recently reprinted the first two story arcs of the Levitz/Giffen 1984 series, and the first, “An Eye For an Eye,” is one of the best comics of the ’80s. By its nature, though — it’s a story where the Legion of Super-Villains decides they’re done screwing around and they swear to just flat-out kill the Legionnaires AND SOMEONE DIES!!! — it works a lot better if you know who these characters are already. Seriously, you will believe Princess Projectra is a badass.
If you’re looking for something that requires a little less knowledge, Mark Waid and Barry Kitson’s “threeboot” version is all in trade, and while it lags after Waid leaves, it picks up again when Jim Shooter comes on to (sadly) finish it out. Also, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes is a very, very solid story that leads into the current stuff, although again, I’m not sure how much of it relies on the reader already having affection for those characters.
Amazingly, what I think is the most accessible stuff (and my favorite iteration of the team after the kookiness of the Silver Age) hasn’t been collected: Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s critically acclaimed 2000-2004 run on the title. There’s one trade of a story involving Superboy from near the tail end of their run, but the rest of it is only available in the back issue bins, which I just don’t get. Presumably they’ve got their reasons (and I’m sure having four different versions of the team and not wanting to confuse readers plays into it), but you’d think with as much as people like their cosmic work for Marvel, DC would be like “Oh hey, you like it when those dudes do space stories? Here’s their run!” Heck, it’s even got art by current superstar “Siege” artist Olivier Coipel!
If you’re into tracking it down, it starts with a story called “Legion of the Damned” that started in “Legionnaires” #78 and “Legion of Super-Heroes” #122, and closes out those series. Then it’s two minis, “Legion Lost” and “Legion Worlds,” and then the ongoing series just called “The Legion.” A full run of those were some of the hardest things to complete when I was putting together my Legion run, but as I opted to go with conventions and quarter bins rather than just hopping on eBay, you might have an easier time.
The years before that, after the 1994 Zero Hour reboot, are also pretty solid, and the first few issues of that are in trade too as The Beginning of Tomorrow. There’s also a “DC Library” edition of The Life and Death of Ferro Lad, but if you’re going to read that story, it’s going to work better in the context you’d get from the Archives or Showcases.
And that pretty much covers where to go and what to read for the Legion of Super-Heroes!
Oh, and one more thing: Whatever you do, don’t read “The Lightning Saga.”
Q: What is (are) the best story (stories) that star The Riddler (not including HUSH)? —angry_ngray
A: I appreciate that you specified, but don’t worry” “Hush” isn’t even on my list of the best stories starring Hush.
The Riddler’s a weird character. You’d think the appeal there would be a natural — The Ultimate Detective against The Ultimate Guy Who Asks A Bunch Of Questions — but since his gimmick of asking riddles was largely already covered by the far more popular Joker, he’s rarely had much of a chance to shine on his own. An obvious high point is Batman ’66, where Frank Gorshin’s portrayal and the way that he effortlessly snapped between manic laughter and downright sinister, wide-eyed murderous intent (which would later be adopted into the Joker’s portrayal, especially on the Animated Series) brought a real sense of menace to the character.
But that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t had good comics, and there are a couple of really excellent ones that spring to mind.
First up, “The Last Riddler Story” from “Batman Adventures” #10. The Kelley Puckett/Mike Parobeck stories that tied into “Batman: The Animated Series” were easily the best Batman comics of the decade (#3’s “Joker’s Late Night Lunacy” scared the living hell out of a ten year-old Chris Sims and it’s downright criminal that it’s usually left off lists of the best Joker stories ever), and this one’s no exception.
The premise, as you might expect, is pretty simple: The Riddler gets out of prison and decides to give up crime because he just can’t outwit Batman, but his henchmen convince him to give it one more all-or-nothing shot: He either comes up with the riddle that Batman can’t solve or he’s done.
Meanwhile, three other criminals — all of whom are highly entertaining one-note crooks like Mr. Nice, a vicious bank robber who feels bad about putting guards out of work with his crimes and cuts them in on the take so their kids won’t go hungry — are also rampaging through Gotham. A ton of stuff is going on at once, but it all comes off as fast-paced rather than confused, and the late Mike Parobeck’s art is phenomenal, working in the “animated” style with a fluidity and personality that other artists just can’t match. And like the show itself, it’s done smartly, full of action but relying on more than just a punch-out at the end to tell a story. It’s clever, it’s beautiful, and it’s got a really well-done sinister undercurrent to the villains that sells the comedy.
My favorite Riddler story, though, is Peter Milligan and Kieron Dwyer’s 1990 three-parter, “Dark Knight, Dark City.“
Milligan had a short run of strange little Batman stories around the time–my favorite of which is one where a psychotic librarian is murdering people and then putting them in leather jackets with the Dewey Decimal System number for their profession stitched on the shoulder and then “filing” them in various parts of the city, because that is hands down the craziest premise for a modern age story I’ve ever seen–but for most readers, “Dark City” (From “Batman” #452-454) is probably the most memorable.
To say it’s a Riddler story, however, is a bit of misnomer. He’s in it, but, well, I don’t want to spoil anything here, so suffice to say that there are multiple levels of villainy at work. It’s a great story, though, full of macabre sequences and events so bizarre that the reader can’t help but be put into the same position as Batman, trying to figure out why the Riddler’s blowing up blood banks and shoving ping pong balls down a baby’s throat to choke it. The Riddler stuff comes through perfectly in the way that it’s all a gigantic chess game of him putting Batman in situations where he has to do one thing, one of the great examples of what makes the character work: Unlike everyone else, he’s actually able to stay one step ahead of Batman… at least for a little while.
Also: Mike Mignola covers.
It’s an obvious influence on what Grant Morrison’s doing with the Batman titles today, and again, it’s not hard to round up if your local shop has a good selection of back issues, or if you plan on hitting a con this summer, and well worth the price of three ’90s Batman comics.
And now, the Quick Hits:
Q: Flat-out no-messing-around hyphen-ated most insane thing you were asked when you worked in a comic store? —lukemckinney
A: Probably not the most insane, but: “How many issues is ’52’ gonna be?”
Q: Favorite band/musician in comics. —switzke
A: Josie and the Pussycats, followed by Sex Bob-omb and the Amazing Joy Buzzards.
Q: I defer to your knowledge of all things Punisher – what is the strangest object used by Frank Castle to kill a man? —JeffStoldthood
A: Oh, that one’s easy: