In 1985, the publishing company known as DC Comics was celebrating over fifty years of comic books, characters, and history. In that fifty years, they had introduced such characters as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash, as well as Robin, the template for any and all young sidekicks, and the premier super-teams the Justice Society of America and, later, the Justice League of America. With fifty years of stories came a massive amount of history, though, meaning it could be difficult for new readers to jump on at any given time.
With more characters constantly being added to the table, and an ever-increasing number of alternate worlds populating the universe, DC editorial had a novel idea: reboot the universe and streamline everything into one easy to read, self-contained DCU. As such, the monumental Crisis on Infinite Earths was conceived. Written by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by George Perez, the 12 issue series was vast in scope and length, and it contained some of the most iconic moments in comics history: the deaths of Supergirl and Barry Allen; the creation of Alexander Luthor’s “pocket dimension”; and the climactic battle that abolishes the Multiverse to make room for a single Earth. Even with hindsight being 20/20, it’s wrong to state that they didn’t actually accomplish what they set out to do, even with any number of Zero Hours, Convergences, and at least three other named Crises to following the next few decades. It was a new DC Universe, and it had new stories to tell.
The first major story it had to tell, at least after the new origin of Superman, was Legends, a six-issue miniseries and crossover event that has recently been re-collected. While the volume only contains the main series and hardly anything in the way of extras, it is notable for quite a few reasons.
The premise itself is intriguing, even if writers John Ostrander and Len Wein don’t go as far with it as they could have: what happens when the world loses faith in its heroes?
It’s a question that’s presented almost like a morality play, with Darkseid and the Phantom Stranger on opposite ends of the argument. Frankly, I wish the script had dug deeper into their conflict, as the scenes between the two are incredibly interesting. You have the Phantom Stranger, a character who is usually cold and aloof making impassioned pleas to the ruler of Apokolips, arguing that flawed though they may be, the world needs heroes. Then you have Darkseid, confident to a fault, not entirely arguing the Stranger’s point but instead taking this opportunity to break humanity’s spirit to accomplish his own goals.
To do so, Darkseid manipulates events on Earth to paint heroes in a bad light. First he unleashes the giant Macro Man to wreak havoc, only to self-destruct when Billy Batson calls down the thunder of Shazam. This makes Billy think he’s murdered someone, so he swears off heroics completely. The public also questions what happened, causing people to turn a leery eye toward their supposedly altruistic protectors.
This leads Amanda Waller to dust off some old files and reactivate a defunct military group: Task Force X. If Legends is remembered for anything it’s the reintroduction of the Suicide Squad into (relatively) modern continuity, leading to a legendary comics run by Ostrander himself. Seriously, if you’ve never read those comics, I highly recommend it. It may be one of the best superhero comics I’ve ever read.
The team, which includes mainstays Rick Flag, Bronze Tiger, Deadshot, and Captain Boomerang along with Enchantress and Blockbuster, are dispatched to take down the monstrous Brimstone, another of Darkseid’s machinations. That entire issue is probably the highlight of the book, with the battle between the Squad and Brimstone, Billy Batson’s inner turmoil, and the other events on Earth playing out over the top two-thirds of each page, while Darkseid and the Phantom Stranger’s dialogue unfolding along the bottom of each page. It’s a technique that isn’t unique to this book (Crisis on Infinite Earths actually did something remarkably similar), but the more focused storytelling and clever parallels struck by John Byrne work well in the book’s favor.
Batman, who I’m sure is the main draw for most of the audience here (and rightfully so), plays a small role, but when he appears it’s always memorable. And not just because it’s Batman, either; his subplot with Robin, who is beaten nearly to death by an angry mob, is integral to the conclusion while also providing some of the most genuinely moving moments of the story.
It should be noted that the Robin here is Jason Todd, making a rare “big event” appearance before A Death in the Family. Given that it’s post-Crisis, Jason was starting to develop into his own character: initially he was pretty much “red-haired Dick Grayson,” but now he has a much more tragic and unique backstory. This is the Jason that we would eventually come to know and… know.
There’s a fairly straightforward confrontation with the Joker as well, at least until one of the more… physically questionable uses of a Batarang that I’ve seen.
It then somehow has enough velocity to shatter the window behind the Joker.
After being thrown clandestinely.
With very little wind-up.
There are so many things going on there that are pretty much impossible that I don’t even care anymore. Let’s chalk it up to “he’s Batman” and just move on, shall we?
Everything about this story works and it works well, even if it never rises very far above “good.” There are some moments that hit hard and carry great weight, and it’s never boring or incomprehensible, but with guys like Wein, Ostrander, Byrne, and Kesel on board, being merely “good” isn’t what you’d expect.
Still, despite a bit of a cornball resolution this is a good read, and it looks great too.
If nothing else, it proves that Jenet Klyburn is totally a real character.
And really, isn’t that what matters?
Bonus features: Besides the original trade’s cover and a lengthy-but-enlightening and heartfelt afterword from editor Mike Gold, nothing.
Overall: A good, solid story with hints of greatness it never quite achieves. The art is great, the writing is good, and some of the ideas at work are brilliant. As an event, Legends is rather forgettable due to its unfortunate place in comics history, coming right after the biggest event possible with Crisis, and earnest but sappy ending. Regardless, it generally works, and it will always be notable for introducting one of the most popular and enduring teams in superhero comics: the Suicide Squad.