Legacies: A Romp Through the Old DCU

I’ve just read the DC miniseries from a year or two ago, entitled DC Universe:  Legacies, written by Len Wein and drawn by all sorts of people, notably Andy Kubert, George Perez, Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, Jesus Saiz, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, and Scott Kolins.  It’s strange to look at in this post-New 52 world, as the book explores the entire superhero history of the DC Universe, and completed its run not long before that whole history was “rewritten” in Flashpoint.  As such, reading it now makes it feel like someone’s attempt to put down a true and accurate record of what took place in the old DC Universe before we said goodbye to it forever.

The series was ten issues long and roughly chronicles the tale of the DC Universe’s superheroes from the appearance of the first costumed crime fighters pre-World War II, all the up way to the start of Infinite Crisis, which is when we really hit the most modern age of DC.  The narrator is Paul Lincoln, an old man speaking to an off-panel audience (revealed at the very end), telling about his experiences as a boy growing up in Metropolis, including getting married, having children, and becoming a police officer who hovered at the edge of every major event in that period of DC history.  It’s a similar approach that the classic Marvels took, but is not as good for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the book seems to have a hard time deciding between really treating Lincoln as a character and walking through the story of his family, or just using him as a substitute omniscient narrator for events that really, there’s no way he could have known (eg. how does he know what transpired between Ferro and Parallax in the closing moments of Final Night?)

It all works well enough as a condensed retelling of the history of the (Old) DCU, sort of an expanded version of the History of the DC Universe that Marv Wolfman and George Perez put together shortly after Crisis on Infinite Earths.  I enjoyed the early installments the best, especially the first issue.  It’s the one that does the best job putting us in the mind of the average man (or boy, as the case may be), experiencing what it’s like to feel overwhelmed by the crime on the street, and then to feel the hope that comes with the costumed mystery men who emerged from the darkness to fight against it.   But as the series carries on, it begins to lose interest – partly because the material is more familiar to me, and partly because as it goes on it just begins to read like a walk-through of DC’s most memorable crossover events.

There are ways in which I liked that retelling, and I was often surprised at how “faithful” it was to the original series – with lots of little moments and lines of dialog brought back to memory.  But, mainstream superhero comics being what they are, there is little nuance to the big picture: generally things just get worse and worse as real-life comics pushed the boundaries of how much violence and gruesomeness that they would inflict upon their characters.  How many times can we once again state that things used to be more innocent, but then they got darker and more grim?  That’s the emotional tone we get from the death of the Doom Patrol, The Killing Joke, Knightfall, Emerald Twilight, Identity Crisis…you get the idea. Lincoln’s story is woven through it but feels largely irrelevant to the meta-story.  It’s nice but not compelling enough to give the series the emotional scope it needs to make it feel like anything other than a Cliff’s Notes on 70 years of DC superheroes.

Each issue also had a short back-up story (entitled “Snapshots”) which gives a quick peak into other corners of the DC Universe that the main story largely misses (eg. the Shazam characters, the science fiction characters,  the Fourth World,  etc.). They are all right, but all ten are placed at the end of the hardcover, which makes the story, already as random feeling as it is, sort of just trickle away at the end.  One of them uses the classic moment where Superboy is invited to join the Legion of Super-Heroes as a bit of a commentary on the many reboots and variations that the team has had.  It’s clever, but treats the team as a bit of a joke, which I found disappointing since it that has always been my favorite title.

Another, drawn by the great Joe Kubert (who also inked over his son Andy’s pencils in the first two issues) features many of DC’s World War II heroes gathering for a reunion on the bicentennial, largely to remember Sgt. Rock, who we find out was killed by possibly the last bullet fired in World War II.  It’s not bad, even though it features the only version of DC history that I’ve ever seen that portrays the Losers as surviving the war.  I guess they didn’t want to have to make the characters remember too many dead soldiers.  Still, it could have even been better if we’d had, say, three survivors (say Jeb Stuart, Mademoiselle Marie, and a member of Easy Co.) reminiscing over everyone that was lost in the war, building up to Rock himself.

A final point is the sense of a chronology one gains from the series.  Because it’s all told from the point of view of Paul Lincoln, we can clearly see some of the oddities at work. He’s just graduated high school when the JSA retires in 1951, and hasn’t yet joined the Police Academy when reports of miraculous rescues are taking place in Smallville.  It seems to only be a year or two later that Paul is on the force when Superman makes his debut.  And he retires, possibly early, just prior to Infinite Crisis.  Since the book came out in 2010, this would imply that the better part of 50 years has to either take place before Paul starts at the Police Academy, or after Superman makes his debut.  Neither of these make any sense.  And normally, this wouldn’t really matter except that the book purports to be creating a bit of a timeline here.  Frankly, this is never going to be an easy thing to do as long as the JSA are tied into World War II (something the New 52 has divested itself from).

This continuity quibble highlights the fact that the book doesn’t really add anything to our understanding of DC History.  OK, it does clearly make Wonder Woman a founding member of the JLA again, and seems to remove Black Canary from that position (after a brief period where it was implied that both female heroes were involved).  But overall, it’s basically just a trip down memory lane, and it’s fine for that if that sort of thing is appealing to you.

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