03 February 2013

What Legacies Left Us

DC Universe: Legacies was a comics series published in 2010-11 during an apparent wave of nostalgia at DC Comics. It was scripted by Len Wein, a top editor at the house in the early 1980s, and drawn by a stellar cast of established artists: Joe and Andy Kubert, Dave Gibbons, José Luis García-López, George Pérez, Jerry Ordway, Dan Jurgens, Brian Bolland, and so on.

As the series ended, DC trumpeted several single-issue stories about its top characters created in the style of the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s, using talent that had worked on the characters in those decades. Those magazines had the umbrella label of DC Retroactive.

Legacies retold the entire history of the DC Universe as it then existed—the universe that had been created by merging several parallel continuities at the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986 and remade more gently at ten-year intervals in the Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis crossovers. For the purposes of the weekly Robin, the series notes the debut of the first two Robins, the first two versions of the Teen Titans, and Nightwing, but shows little of Tim Drake, Young Justice, or later Titans groupings.

Wein retold that super hero history through the eyes of a kid from Metropolis who grew up to be a police officer and detective. That approach was quite like the way Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross structured Marvels, a 1994 retelling of Marvel Universe highlights through the eye of a news photographer.

Legacies’ main storyline is thus a recap of the company’s mythos—just enough for new fans to figure out how events fit together and a trip down memory lane for folks who’d read the stories originally. Wein didn’t try to reconcile or “retcon” gaps in the continuity, which left such glitches as Depression kids becoming a young couple in the late 1980s. (Hey, it’s comics!) With so much “history” to get through, there’s a high panel-per-page ratio reminiscent of earlier decades, but not much chance for deep drama or characterization unaided by reader nostalgia.

Wein added eight-page back-up stories about some of the odd corners of the DC Universe: the World War 2 soldiers, the sci-fi adventure teams of the 1950s, Jack Kirby’s New Gods, and so on. Shoved to the back of the collected edition, those little tales might be the most fulfilling because they’re complete tales in themselves, not squeezed to rush on to the next event that might change the entire world.

Where does the volume leave readers? For decades the narrator collects accounts of those costumed heroes on pulp paper, filing them in plastic—just like DC Comics’s most devoted fans. And the final pages reveal that he’s an old man in a nursing home, repeating those stories every night for an uninterested and unbelieving audience of attendants. Hardly the portrait readers would want of themselves.

Furthermore, just after this series ended, DC had announced that the continuity it recounts would be set aside in favor of a new variation. Was Legacies therefore a test of whether the nostalgia market was big enough to sustain the operation? Was it a sincere attempt to give new readers a way to “jump in” and catch up to the existing universe, only for the company to decide it had to do something more dramatic? Or was it always designed to be what it and DC Retroactive became, a last hurrah for that continuity before the company swerved onto a new path?


ToB said...

This is a good point. What the hell was Legacies for? I thought it was a way of bringing new fans up to speed. Then they took the whole continuity and dumped it. Sometimes I wonder if they just don't care: milk continuity when it seems important, dump it when they can make more sales from that, bring it back, erase, rewrite --> whatever. I don't think they care that much about consistency or narrative logic, even in as flexible a story-telling medium as comics. All Didio cares about is $. If he becomes convinced that he can bring back the DCU for even more $$ in a big extravaganza, he'll do it, you'll see.

J. L. Bell said...

To be fair to Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, bringing dollars into DC (or the parent corporation) is their job. I can't blame them for that, even if the process looks baffling from the outside.