Written by Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen
Penciled by Keith Giffen, Pat Broderick, Carmine Infantino, and Howard Bender
Inked by Larry Mahlstedt, Bruce Patterson, and Dave Hunt
416 pages, color
Published by DC Comics
When friends got me hooked on the Legion of Super-Heroes back in the early ’90s with Keith Giffen, Tom and Mary Bierbaum, and Al Gordon’s infamous "Five Years Later" run, I eventually started moving backwards through the team’s history, reading all of the previous Legion of Super-Heroes comic that began in 1984. I never went any further back at that time, though, and in doing so I missed what remains one of the most well-known stories involving the characters: The Great Darkness Saga. With the softcover collection having gone out of print years ago, this new deluxe hardcover seemed to be a perfect time to see if it still holds up to all the praise heaped on it over the years.
Unlike the previous edition (which began with a brief prologue from Legion of Super-Heroes #287 and then jumped to #290), this hardcover starts with Paul Levitz’s return to the title as writer with issue #284. It’s an interesting decision, but ultimately a smart one. "The Great Darkness Saga" officially kicks off with #290, but there are multiple story threads from the previous issues that are still moving when it begins: Chameleon Boy’s attack on the Khund homeworld that has him arrested, friction between Light Lass and Timber Wolf, and the introduction of the new Invisible Kid to name a few. Here we get to see where these stories come from, and how they continue to move forward even as Darkseid begins his attack on the galaxy. Legion of Super-Heroes is in many ways one of DC Comics’s soap operas, with a large cast and most characters getting even a brief scene to remind you of their presence before moving onto the next ones in line. For the most part, Levitz juggles the number of characters he’s been handed well, although some fare better than others. The only character which seems to ultimately fall to the wayside is Blok, a new member introduced a year earlier after a brief run as a villain, and whom Levitz clearly has no plans for at this early stage of the game. (Interestingly enough, with the help of some Legion-loving friends, I got to see the issues in-between Blok’s joining and Levitz taking over the book, in which Blok does… absolutely nothing at all, and in fact barely appears in those issues. Clearly Levitz was not the only person who had no idea what to do with this new member.) Otherwise, everyone gets a chance to shine in this volume, and in many ways it’s a good primer on why Levitz’s run on the book is so fondly remembered. No matter whom your favorite character was, sooner or later they got a good moment to keep you happy.
That said, some of the pre-"Great Darkness Saga" stories don’t quite jump out at the reader the way the later ones do. Maybe it’s due to Levitz still finding his footing now that he had returned to the title, but space pirates and mystery aliens in those first few issues aren’t clicking into place. Before long, though, Levitz is getting into some slightly more interesting territory; showing that a member of the team can’t just go for revenge against an alien race without taking into account peace treaties, for instance, or stranding some of the members on a frozen world and having the real conflict be personality clashes and jealousy. Even what could have felt a bit trite, like the return to Princess Projectra’s medieval-themed world of Orando, has a bit of bite to it. It’s also around this time that penciler Pat Broderick is replaced by Keith Giffen, and Levitz and Giffen’s co-plotting quickly spikes the pace of the book into high gear in these early issues.
And then, of course, the main event kicks in. Knowing that Darkseid is the villain (he’s on the cover so this isn’t exactly a big spoiler) doesn’t actually harm the story, even though it’s not until the final cliffhanger that his identity is revealed. Instead, the masked Darkseid actually becomes a greater threat, because as a reader you know just how much power the Legion is up against, and their cluelessness is clearly leading them into additional danger that could easily destroy them. It’s almost like watching a mouse in a cage not knowing that it’s being stalked by a python. You spend your time wincing, knowing that the snake will eventually strike and it’s going to be ugly when that happens. And as the characters continue to talk in excited, innocent dialogue, it serves almost as a contrast for the nastiness in store for them.
The one weak point of "The Great Darkness Saga" proper is, I think, the deus ex machina that wraps things up. There’s something about dredging up a magician character from 16 years earlier and having her be the key to starting the endgame that feels a bit weak. Maybe it’s because, like almost all magic-using characters in superhero comics, the White Witch’s powers here are undefined and seem to do whatever plot requires. I appreciate that at this early stage of the game, Levitz and Giffen are already trying to limit her power potential (mentioning that spells must be studied in advance, and often require other components) but it still feels slightly out of the blue. Then again, her spell brings along an ally that in many ways sums up the actual meaning of the phrase deus ex machina. If you’re fighting a character as strong as Darkseid it does make sense that you’d need someone just as strong on the other side, but still, it was a slightly unsatisfying conclusion.
Fortunately, "The Great Darkness Saga" brings enough other strong moments to balance out this slight misstep. Darkseid’s plans for the people of Daxam are alone enough to make it worth reading this collection, and even outside of the main story there are other strong stories, like the Legion going up against Computo in Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #1. It’s also fun to watch Giffen’s pencils slowly evolve throughout this issue; his art at first seems to follow the same, generic, clean look that had preceded him. It’s during "The Great Darkness Saga" that we first start seeing Giffen’s blocky style form, and honestly, I love it. There’s something about the fullness of everyone’s faces, and the sheer power of the bad guys attacking that makes you sit up and take notice. Even something as simple as the look down a ring of buildings at the start of #290 is more visually interesting than everything else that came up to that point. Giffen’s definitely feeling much more confident in the book as it progresses.
If bookseller pages combined with rumors are true, there might just be more hardcover collections around the bend that pick up where Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga leaves off. If so, count me in on buying another copy. Flaws aside, this is a great amount of fun, and considering how much Levitz and Giffen are on a roll by the end of this volume, I can’t help but think the next one will be even more entertaining. Count me in.