Even putting the context of DC’s “New 52″ initiative aside, it’s difficult to imagine a situation in which Legion Lost might qualify as even a barely-adequate comic. For it’s such an awkwardly and unhelpfully written book that it’s unlikely to appeal even to a majority of the ever-dwindling, ever-aging rump of Legion of Super-hero fans, of whose number your reviewer most definitely belongs. But then, this isn’t a comic which would be accessible, let alone enjoyable, to the great mass of readers who aren’t already both devoted to and knowledgeable about the very arcana of flight rings and Time Institutes and the legacy of the three founding Legionnaires either. This is a comic book, it seems, designed to appeal neither to the experienced or the novice consumer, and, presuming that there’s a method in such an apparently suicidal approach to marketplace survival, the question simply has to be why?
The storytelling misinvested in Legion Lost is so repeatedly and so substantially flawed that it’s easy to get distracted by the business of noting one creative shortcoming after another. And so, yes, the narrative flow from panel-to-panel and page-to-page is often unhelpful if not actively confusing. Facial expressions and body-language are regularly depicted in a way that quite undermines the story that’s being told. Important events are repeatedly obscured or even absent from the reader’s gaze. There’s a tendency to describe key plot-beats rather than showing them. Unnecessary exposition really clutters up the comic’s pages. Even the taken-for-granted skills associated with the likes of the provision of attention-snaring, page-turning panels are often absent from Legion Lost. For all of its glossy production values and moneyshot moments, “Present Tense” is a profoundly and inexplicably amateuresque production.
But the truth is that Legion Lost might still have managed to be a tolerably entertaining comic book, had one key flaw in its script been attended to. For what finally sinks the comic isn’t its — shall we say — idiosyncratic storytelling, but the fact that its climax requires the Legionnaires present to behave as if they were impossibly dense and careless. Indeed, the whole supposedly-tragic conclusion to this first issue, with its Legionnaire deaths and escaping super-villains and the resulting exile of the remaining team members to the 21st century, relies upon characters behaving in a completely implausible way. Because of that, the preceding pages have had to be presented in such a fashion as to obscure the stupidity of both script and characters. Consequently,Legion Lost #1 is a comic whose creators are struggling to compose a compelling story that doesn’t reveal how flawed its basic premise is. Or to put it another way, underneath that surface of dodgy storytelling is a narrative which has sacrificed logic for expedience and effect. And if the story is at points confused and imprecisely told, then it had to be, because the only other option, it seems, would have been to inconveniently rip up the whole plot and instead produce one which actually made sense.
Everything in Legion Lost #1 is designed to set up a new status quo in which a small team of 31st-century super-people are trapped in 2011 without either the hope of rescue or the advantage of any significant future technology. And in order for that to happen in such a way as to provide the reader with some high drama and a water-cooler moment or two, the Legion’s Time Bubble is shown being destroyed as a result of the apparently unforeseen mutation of a prisoner who the Legion is taking back to the future with them. But to make this plot twist one which the audience can both believe in and be shocked by, the Legion can’t be shown to suspect that the terrorist Alastor might transform into a monster who could destroy their only means of returning home.
After all, that would them at least partially responsible for the disaster, which the text quite obviously wants to pin solely on Alastor’s shoulders. What a shame it is, therefore, that the story itself makes it perfectly obvious that the Legion would simply have to noted that Alastor was indeed infected by the same creature-creating pathogen which he’s also inflicted upon the new post-Flashpoint DCU. Because “Present Tense” is full of sequences which clearly establish that the Legion really ought to have deduced that Alastor possessed the capacity to destroy their time-traveling technology if allowed anywhere near to it. In short, their placing him in the Time Bubble for the ride back to Levitz-land, without a great deal more care having been taken to control him, makes them look anything but a group of heroically able super-heroes. Whatever those shackles which the Legion used to restrain him in their complacency were made of, they quite obviously weren’t in any way strong enough.
In order to disguise the Legionnaire’s culpability for the disaster which marks the end of Legion Lost #1 while maximizing the surprise of the Time Bubble’s destruction, Fabian Nicieza really does work hard to make it seem as if no one could have foreseen Alastor’s propensity for turning into a hugely powerful behemoth. But at the same time, Mr. Nicieza also has to try to ensure that the reader can believe that the Legionnaires know far more than just a little something about the disease which they’ve been sent back in time to contain. It’s a close-to-impossible task, given that the Legionnaires are either on top of the basics of the mission they’ve been sent to complete or not, and trying to present them as both knowledgeable and yet uninformed is just one of the contradictions which leaves “Present Tense” riddled with inconsistencies and disappointments.
It appears that Mr. Nicieza has decided that it’s important to avoid mentioning that the pathogen, which Alastor is said to be planning to release, causes people to mutate into great car-hurling hulksters. For if that effect of the condition was to be openly described in the story, then who could ever accept the scene of the Legionnaires simply binding the obviously infected Alastor with a few relatively thin restraints in their Time Bubble? Similarly, none of the Legion, with one key exception, is ever shown discussing the symptomatology of the very condition that they’ve been propelled back in time to deal with. All they can ever say is that it’s a “pathogen,” and they seem to be rather unconcerned with the effect which it might have. Their concern, it seems, isn’t with the pathogen so much as capturing the man who’s threatening to release it, and they never mention the possibility of having to deal with any super-powered victims of it. In such a way does Legion Lost’s writer appear to attempt to both sign up how the comic will close while trying to misdirect the reader’s attention from the implausibility of his plot design.
The hope, it seems to be, is that the reader won’t notice how daft it is that the Legionnaires miss both the threat which Alastor poses as well as the clearly obvious tell-tale signs that’s he’s infected. And it does seem that Mr. Nicieza is quite deliberately implying that the Legion both knows everything about their task and yet very little of it at the same time. For example, the fact that the Legion do know the effect of the unnamed disease is clearly shown three pages before the story’s end, when Tellus states that Alastor is beginning to transform because “he has been infected.” Tellus therefore quite clearly recognizes the symptoms of contamination, which confirms that the Legion knew that their enemy was in possession of a pathogen which could cause such mutations. How strange it is, therefore, that they never apparently considered, before letting him into the Bubble, that he might be infected himself, and therefore a substantial physical danger to their safety.
Yet the Legionnaires’ failure to take in consideration Alastor’s possible contamination is by far the least of their sins, where the events that lead to the death of two of their comrades are concerned. On its own, it’d probably be a carelessness on their part which the reader could most likely ignore. But “Present Tense” makes it quite plain that they had a great deal of evidence that Alastor was actively infected and profoundly dangerous, and yet they simply chose to ignore it. Perhaps it’s conceivable that in the challenges posed by a difficult mission, one or even two of the Legion might have failed to consider the possibility of Alastor’s contagion. But what’s not conceivable is that they’ve also already been clearly shown that Alastor is infected. As Timber Wolf tells the team after capturing him, he’d seen the evidence that Alastor had “ripped apart a small town.”
Yet of all the Legionnaires present on this mission to the past, none think to notice that the man who carried the monster-creating plague back in time is now quite obviously infected with the mutating-causing pathogen. To miss this is surely inconceivable, and yet that’s exactly what the Legionnaires do. These are six very smart superheroes from a ferociously advanced future, and even Wildfire is, for all his impulsiveness, an educated and competent individual who’s served in at least one key continuity as a Legion leader himself. But only Gates even notices that Alastor has suddenly turned into a creature of considerable power, and even he doesn’t link the surprise of the terrorist’s new powers with any danger he might pose to the team. Indeed, the most willful and determined of Legionnaires is given just six words to express a touch of concern (“He has no abilities – does he?”) and he then quite simply shuts up, as if the point he was making wasn’t an absolutely vital one. Now, the reader might think that the fact of a previously quite typical individual wiping out an entire town all on his lonesome might be a really obvious giveaway, if not a blindingly flashing-red warning sign, but it seems you’d be wrong. Because the plot requires the Legionnaires not to notice the degree of threat which Alastor poses, even as Timber Wolf has witnessed — actually seen — the considerable damage their truck-throwing, cop-murdering opponent is capable of.
This whole situation, this entire charade that the Legionnaires are surprised by Alastor’s infection and subsequent power, becomes an even more implausible business when it’s remembered that Tellus has already referred to Alastor as a probable “patient zero” as well as the ”index case” where the pathogen is concerned. It’s odd that he does so, because it’s hard to understand how he could actually know that Alastor is infected. But then, it’s equally difficult to grasp how Tellus has forgotten the same fact two pages later, when he declares with some considerable surprise, as the Time Bubble’s end arrives, that ”Something is wrong… with Alastor… He has been infected…” Either we accept that Tellus has confused the meaning of the phrase “patient zero,” and thought that it refers to the human cause associated with a specific epidemiological investigation rather than an infected individual, or we accept that he really does suspect and then immediately and incredibly forget that Alastor is likely to be an extremely dangerous captive indeed. Once again, we find Mr. Nicieza trying to show that his Legionnaires are admirably informed and competent, while at the same time presenting us with characters who are forgetful, ignorant and incompetent.
There’s certainly every effort made to assure us that Tellus knows what he’s talking about, for he does refer to Alastor as both the ”index case,” meaning the source of the pathogen, as well as its ”patient zero,” meaning the individual who initiates the spread of the disease through her or his own infection. He uses the terminology quite precisely, which means that he really is saying that Alastor is likely to be an ill and even-more threatening individual. In fact, Tellus seems to be the team’s expert on the pathogen right up until the moment at which he actually comes face-to-face with the person who he’s already described as probably playing host to it. Only expert knowledge on his part, for example, could explain his statement that removing Alastor from 2011 ”should minimise… the pathogen’s spread.” And it seems that the Legion is quite happy to leave for the future in the knowledge that the plague will be limited in its effects, which must explain why they make not the slightest attempt to warn or advise any of the present day’s citizens about the situation. (Mind you, if Tellus doesn’t know what he’s talking about, then we have to assume that none of his fellows do either, and their decision to abandon the new DCU to a terrible plague based upon an uninformed guess that everything will be mostly alright becomes a thoroughly questionable business.) All of which means that Tellus, Gates, and Timber Wolf should at the very least have been up in claws and flippers about the danger posed by Alastor before he was ever pushed towards the Time Bubble. But of course, that never happens, or the story would grind to a halt under the weight of its own logic.
Because of this need to avoid making the Legionnaires look as stupid as their behavior proves them to be, the fact that it’s the pathogen which is causing Alastor to become strong enough to hurl trucks at police-cars is never mentioned until the climactic scene within the Time Bubble. Though we do see the terrorist in his pathogen-mutated form, there’s nothing on the page that tells us that he isn’t normally able to transform himself in such a way. This sleight of hand means that the reader doesn’t question the Legionnaires’ lack of concern about what appears to be the threat of Alastor’s super-powers. Since the script doesn’t mention that there’s anything new and unexpected about them, we’re left assuming that Tyroc and his colleagues already know that Alastor can make something superhuman out of himself.
This also means that we don’t listen with any great concern to Gates’s brief question about Alastor’s supposed lack of any special abilities, because it comes across as if any confusion is his fault rather than that of his colleagues. He and his words are crammed down into the far corner of the panel, and none of his comrades cares to acknowledge his concern, let alone reply to it. As a result of this withholding of key aspects of the plot, the reader is nudged into looking at a scene of the Legionnaires behaving in an inconceivably stupid fashion in such a way that they appear to be entirely sensible if somewhat harassed individuals. They’re clearly being obtuse, and yet they seem well-informed. Indeed, it’s Gates, the only one who’s even vaguely aware that there’s a terrible danger closing in on them, who seems to be the misguided Legionnaire on the page. It’s a confusing state of affairs which helps only on the first read through of the story to temporarily cover up the fact that the Legion are dangerously and stupidly under-estimating Alastor. Even then, it’s a tale which leaves what’s in truth a barely-coherent narrative feeling strangely unsatisfying, while a second glance at Legion Lost leads to the inevitable conclusion that whole story’s little but illogic and misdirection.
And so, when reading “Present Tense” for the first time, it’s the big green-and-purple protagonist who seems entirely to blame for the Time Bubble’s destruction, as the story’s creators would seem to want us to believe. But from then onwards, it’s clear that any court-martial of the Legionnaires concerned would find all of them to have been in dereliction of their duty on the occasion of the deaths of two of their fellow Legion stalwarts.
After all, how can it be that Timber Wolf sees the evidence of what’s supposedly a no-more-than-typically powerful individual having destroyed much of a town without even wondering whether Alastor’s been infected or not? How can the other time-travelers hear Wolf’s report and not make the only logical deduction that’s possible from it? Yet once again, the reader’s been made to believe that the destruction of the Time Bubble was entirely beyond the Legion’s capacity to foresee or forestall, and so the Legionnaires can shown ignoring the most explicit evidence as if it were of no importance at all. But it’s an illusion which only holds for the first dash through the comic’s pages. As soon as the reader discovers that the Legion hadn’t realized that Alastor might be monstrously transformed, and at the point at which they see the largely unprepared Legionnaires facing oblivion because of that, it becomes very obvious indeed that they’ve just not been paying attention to the world around them at all.
Over and over again, key information in “Present Tense” is obscured and characters are made to contradict themselves so as to not make the Legionnaires ultimately look as thick as thick can be. Tellus is given a fine-sounding diagnosis and prognosis to spout, which he then instantly forgets. And Gates is used to express an entirely sensible and fiercely legitimate concern, which is then incredibly ignored, including by Gates himself. Information is withheld so that we don’t question the Legion’s competency, and yet complacency is ultimately what their behavior displays. It’s a surely deliberate process by which the Legion is presented as simultaneously smart and stupid, able and incompetent, and all because the reader mustn’t be allowed to conclude that the deaths of Gates and Yera are at least as much the team’s fault as they are Alastor’s. The assumption behind this seems to be that no one would want to read a comic about super-folks who are that stupid and that lacking in care — although I for one think that a comic which took such an approach in an open and thoughtful manner might be very much worth the investing in. Yet the truth seems to be that Mr. Nicieza simply wasn’t able to find a way to wrap up his various first-issue plotlines without relying on the Legion being not just dense, but out of character, inconceivably forgetful, and disastrously careless.
I’ve yet to come across a single, significantly positive review of Legion Lost #1, and all of those I’ve read quite correctly speak of the confusions, obscurations, and awkwardnesses in the comic. And yet there’s an irony that if many of those problems were absent from “Present Tense,” a far worse series of reviews would likely have occurred. Because underneath all those problems with the script, it’s the fatal flaws of the plot itself which so twist and fracture the sense of the story as a whole.
If “Present Tense” had been told in a typically transparent fashion, that closing sequence of comic-book shock and angst and awe would have been both entirely unsurprising in itself and thoroughly reprehensible where the surviving Legionnaires are concerned. Of course Alastor is capable of becoming a monster! Of course the Legion should have realised that he was infected and capable of hurting them so! And instead of objects of sympathy, Tyroc and his team would have been revealed as at best idiots and at worst criminally negligent.
What a choice to be faced with in order to save a story, if that truly was the choice that had to made: to either own up to the fact that the plot relies on the dumbest of conceits, or to make the story truly confusing and unsatisfying in order to protect even something of the plausibility of the big loud bang and all the dead heroes at the end of it.
Well, perhaps. Or it could well be that my assumption that there’s any such a purpose behind the problems of “Present Tense” is entirely misplaced. Perhaps Legion Lost #1 is just a thoroughly stupid comic book without a single half-decent excuse that we know of for being so. Perhaps it was produced under an impossible deadline, or subject to the influence of a whole chain of other creators and editors? Perhaps, maybe, perhaps…
Who knows? All we can be sure of is the comic book itself, and that’s clearly a daft little thing masquerading as a deeply meaningful superhero melodrama.
This review originally appeared on Colin Smith’s blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics.