Friday Flashback: THE GREAT DARKNESS SAGA: Paul Levitz

Friday Flashback: GREAT DARKNESS SAGA

I’d originally planned something else for this week, but with the news that Paul Levitz will be writing the Legion again . . . well, I just couldn’t resist.  It was 1982; where were YOU when the Great Darkness fell?

1982 in Review: E.T. crushed the box office opposition that year; it stayed the highest-grossing film ever until Jurassic Park, an eleven year streak.  Other big flix were Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tootsie, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Rocky III.  Eddie Murphy broke out on SNL and with 48 Hours.  The highest-rated TV show was 60 Minutes, followed by Dallas, M*A*S*H, and Magnum P.I. (yeah, those were all CBS; in fact, CBS and ABC had the top 13 shows).  The number song of the year was Olivia Newton-John’s (it was #1 from November of 1981 thru the end of January 1982); other big hits were (from the aforementioned Rocky III) by Survivor, by Soft Cell and by The Go-Gos.  1982 also saw the debut of Late Night with David Letterman, The Falklands War, the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the births of genre-related actors like Anna Paquin, Devon Aoki, Elisha Cuthbert, Jared Padalecki, Jessica Biel, Jewel Staite, and Kirsten Dunst.

In Comics . . .: At the Eagle Awards, New Teen Titans was the Best New Book, while some guy named Alan Moore was Best Writer.  (The Eisner and Harvey Awards did not yet exist).  Top-selling books included the aforementioned Titans, Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine, G.I. Joe and . . . Legion of Super-Heroes.

And Now, Darkness:  The drumbeat for the event started with issue #287.  As I recounted in this week’s Legion Blogpost, Mon-El and Shadow Lass happened upon a planet boasting war machines that gave the Daxamite hero a run for his money.  As Mon and Shady departed, someone woke up.

In #290, the storyline proper began with an issue titled “And the Servant Shall be a Sign…”.  In that one, the visiting Superboy and other Legion members (including Wildfire and the second Invisible Kid, then still a new member) encountered the first of the Servants of Darkness.  These granite bodied-and-visaged creatures possessed tremendous power and proved to be extremely dangerous.  Against this backdrop, members of the Legion were dealing with several internal conflicts, not the least of which was a contentious election for new leader and other interpersonal strife.  Notably, the marriage of Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl was in rough place after Saturn Girl had been in a group of stranded Legionnaires.  She and Timber Wolf were found in a compromising position by Light Lass (Lightning Lad’s sister, Timber Wolf’s girlfriend), and part of the stress of that aggravated a medical condition that Lightning Lad (then also Legion leader) had.  That led to Lightning Lad’s stepping down and the election, fought between Dream Girl, Element Lad, and Ultra Boy.  At the same time, Chameleon Boy was about to go on trial for treason for a Legion mission gone wrong.  It was against this backdrop that the threat of Darkness rose.

I’m not going to recount every element of the story.  However, that set-up gives you a sense of one of the best things about the Legion at the time: scope.  Writer Paul Levitz and artist Keith Giffen (usually with inker Larry Mahlstedt) put together arcs that explored relationships, deepened characters, and expanded the parameters of DC’s future while pulling off terrific action sequences involving frequently terrifying nemeses.  I’m not sure that the Great Darkness would have worked so well if you didn’t have so much invested in the characters; even if you were a new reader, you got to know them quickly under the sure hands of the creative team.

As the storyline went on, the stakes kept getting larger and larger.  Nearly every heroic character that had been in the Legion books to that point (including Superboy, Supergirl, the Legion of Substitute Heroes, the Heroes of Lallor, the Wanderers, and Dev-Em) got in on the action.  (While it’s true that Matter-Eater Lad and Tyroc don’t appear, they do get mentions).  Eventually, the heroes of the United Planets stand against the master of darkness, Darkseid, and his three billion super-powered minions.  Issue #294 has rarely been matched for sheer scale and spectacle.

The storyline accomplished a number of things: it increased awareness of the Legion geometrically.  It likely led to the launch of the second series in 1984.  It re-established Darkseid as the biggest villain in the DC Universe.  It made Dream Girl one of the few female leaders of a super-hero team in comics.  And it was just plain fun to read.

Its influence runs deep, in my opinion.  Take a look at many of the event stories that have come sense, and I challenge you not to see echoes of patterns established by Levitz and Giffen.  The Great Darkness manages to juggle character, action, and spectacle without sacrificing any of those qualities.  If you’ve never read it, do yourself a favor and pick up the trade paperback.  It also includes Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #3 from 1984, which includes a chilling coda to the original story.  It was intense, occasionally scary, and really, just plain awesome.  The Great Darkness Saga, gang; that’s your Friday Flashback.

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