Mythmaking ETC is a weekly column about comics books and related pop culture, primarily focused on comics published during the 1980s and ’90s. Check out the column index for past installments, subscribe via RSS, send an e-mail and follow Mythmaking ETC on Twitter!
“Come to the Circus and Die!”
Gerry Conway / Joe Staton / John Calnan / Gene D’Angelo
When last we saw the Legion, they were bidding farewell to their friend and inspiration Superboy, sending him off with a memory wipe as a parting present so that the young Kal-El would be able to continue living his life without any knowledge of the future and eventually become Superman…
Confused? If you need a refresher, check out my review of issue 259.
Or… here’s the condensed version: Superboy has gone back to the 20th Century and doesn’t remember his adventures in the future with the Legion of Super-Heroes. Simple enough.
So, what do the protectors of the United Planets do for their first adventure after Clark Kent’s departure? I know: silly question. They go to the circus, of course. To be more specific: Bacaro Barley Interstellar Traveling Carnival and Sideshow. It might not be big enough to be called a circus planet, but it likely qualifies as something slightly more diminutive. Planetoid?
Regardless, the Legion ends up there, though not for the sake of entertainment, since pressing concerns such as a lack of headquarters and the financial problems of their primary benefactors are pending. A trip to the circus could not normally be excused in such circumstances, but since one of those benefactors, the government of Earth, requests they do so, some of the Legionnaires head to the “artificial worldlet” hosting the carnival. Seems someone wants members of the Bacaro Barley crew dead, so Aton Gissark of the Interstellar entertainers requests the Legion’s help via Secretary Pheng of the Department of Culture.
It’s never fun and games even when it is, literally, fun and games. There’s a greater political motivation for Earth’s interest in helping Gissark and Bacaro Barley: the Carnival and Sideshow is from a different solar system, the Cygnus Confederation, one to which the United Planets desires a better relationship. Even though he is from Cyngus IV, Gissark’s grandmother, the founder of Bacaro Barley, was from Earth and this motivated him to make this foray, an extension of an intra-galactic olive branch of sorts. Unfortunately… the whole killing thing; seems someone is against greater peace. Hopefully, the Legion can prevent Gissark’s efforts from becoming futile.
Seven or so Legionnaires saunter off to the worldlet (or what have you) and disguise themselves as members of the troupe. It does not take long for several seeming accidents to happen that place Timber Wolf and others in precarious positions, leading the Legionnaires to surmise that someone is perpetrating these mishaps. Who? There’s not enough space in this issue to find out.
Someone once said “if you have no expectations, don’t call it a letdown.” Well, if I had any of this issue, they weren’t high. What I’ve read of Conway’s writing in the past hasn’t thrilled me. Add in the teaser that this story would take place within a circus and, well… I didn’t expect “Come to the Circus and Die!” to improve my opinion of Conway’s storytelling.
It would figure, then, that this would surpass the other issues Conway wrote. What seemed initially an odd mix with the Legion — a Circus story — proves to be an entertaining setting as the big top gets a 30th century update as a small planet (nice choice). Additionally, Conway makes a sensible, yet clever, connection between the traditional circus trope of a “freak show” and the Legion, a rather eccentric assortment of races, some of the strangest especially suited to such an exhibition of extraordinary characteristics. These elements prove enough of a connection between the concepts of a team of teenage super-heroes from different planets and a traveling company of performers to prove effective. Even so, there’s enough of a difference between the two groups — Legion and Bacaro Bailey — to enjoy a bit of a fish-out-of-water aspect to the story.
Conway also pares down the cast to a more manageable size by sending half of the current Legionnaires off to “help R.J. Brande recreate his fortune,” leaving us with seven characters to follow throughout the story: much easier than fourteen. We’ll presumably catch up with the rest of the team later on. That it won’t be happening next issue was a bit of surprise. One can hardly expect a story to wrap up in one issue nowadays, but in 1980 it was more common. Furthermore, the issue is plotted in such a manner that a wrap up seems a reasonable expectation as the final page approaches, but we find out that a greater threat lurks behind the one defeated in this issue. If the title of the next issue, “Space Circus of Death,” were not enough to indicate that the story will continue, the shadowy figure lurking in the final two panels assures us it will.
Speaking of expectations, the pencils of Joe Staton meet, but do no exceed the quality anticipated given the other issues featuring his art that I’ve read. His work gets the job done: he gets the story across with minimal to no confusion. One can easily take in the tale being told and not be effected all that much by Staton’s art. That might seem a little harsh, but it could be worse. In comics, bad art causes unclear storytelling; the reader relies on both words and pictures to understand what’s going on and if either falters, it can be hard to follow the goings-on, just as a bad director can ruin a good screenplay. Staton’s pencils let Conway’s story come through clearly, though they lack the “wow factor” of someone like Kubert or Romita that manage the same while also displaying a unique, recognizable style. In other words, I won’t be tracking down and collecting Staton’s work anytime soon, but I certainly won’t avoid an issue penciled by him.
As the first story out of the gate after the highly publicized split of Superboy and the Legion into separate books, “Come to the Circus and Die!” seems a little bit underwhelming. To bring up expectations again, I had pretty high ones of the previous issue because of this change and was slightly disappointed, so tempered them coming into this one. However, it remains that this circus plot seems an odd choice for the Legion’s first adventure without Superboy. Setting these feelings aside, this issue proves fairly entertaining and good enough to get this fan of the Legion to come back next time for the real threat to the Bacaro Bailey Interstellar Traveling Carnival Sideshow.