Tales from the Long Box # 10: Japer Revisits Alien Legion # 1

Every Friday, we’ll be bringing you reviews of meaningful comics found in the collections of our writers. “Long Box” refers to the lengthy, white cardboard boxes most comics find themselves stored within – bagged, alphabetized and numerically ordered.

These reviews, then, are the tales of those collections: illuminating characters, artists, writers – even eras – in addition to the personalities of the very owners of those fine collections.

Alien Legion # 1
Writers: Carl Potts, Alan Zelenetz
Artists: Frank Cirocco, Terry Austin
Epic Comics

“Footsloggers and soldiers of fortune, priests and poets, killers and cads – they fight for a future Galarchy, for cash, a cause, for the thrill of adventure. Legionnaires live rough and they die hard, tough as tungsten and loyal to the dirty end.”

Those are the opening words to the first issue of The Alien Legion, a sci-fi series published by Epic Comics, a division of Marvel Comics, premiering in early 1984. The series lived up to each of those words.

For the past five weeks now, the Long Box has been focused on horror-related comics. I thought it was high time to switch gears and turn our collective heads upwards and gaze into outer space. The Alien Legion is a great place to start.

The early eighties was beginning to see a change in the comic landscape. Small publishing upstarts like First Comics and Comico, among others, were beginning to stretch their creative legs and take a run at Marvel and DC. Never a real financial threat, these companies still became a viable alternative to the big two. They employed underground writers and artists who had distinct views on both comics and the world. The stories they published would often push at the barriers that the politically-correct Comic Code Authority had intimidated over the preceding decades. Marvel Comics, with their astute business acumen, decided to become an early adopter of creator-owned projects and turned their flagship Epic Illustrated magazine, which contained envelope-pushing material, into a publishing arm that would release more avant-garde works into the marketplace. Future comic legends like Jim Starlin and Steve Englehart would see their creations Dreadstar and Coyote come to critical acclaim via the Epic imprint.

Created in stages by Carl Potts throughout the 1970’s, The Alien Legion was one of the first creator-owned series regularly published by a big comic company. Based on the real-life French Foreign Legion but mixed with influences from such films as Star Wars, Star Trek and The Dirty Dozen, The Alien Legion became something of a minor hit, lasting twenty bi-monthly issues in its first run, eighteen in its second, as well as a graphic novel and a number of one-shots and mini-series. It would seem that the comic-book audience, coming off of the original Star Wars trilogy, was ready for a science fiction-based team book as an alternative to a mutant-based one.

The double-sized first issue illustrates both the hard and rough nature of being a Legionnaire as well as setting the stage for the universe in which the Legionnaires exist. The universe itself, Potts has stated is “an extrapolation of the American democratic melting pot society” where differing worlds and aliens of various species partner, negotiate and, in many cases, compete ruthlessly with one another. Readers are introduced to the three seats of power in the Galactic Union. Known as the executive, legislative and judicial branches, it is a firm nod to US-style politics – which are, of course, perfectly situated for inter-galactic relations. (My tongue is firmly planted in my cheek, if you hadn’t guessed.) Of course, as in real life, this situation doesn’t always work, and the seeds of political unrest are foreshadowed in the story.

The ensemble group of characters that make up the Legionnaires’ Nomad Squadron are what drive interest in the comic. The half-serpentine alien and consummate professional, Sarigar is the squad’s leader while wealthy aristocrat humanoid, Torie Montroc III, is his second in command. Torqa Dun is a defamed government agent out for material gain and Durge is a reckless adventurer. Perhaps the most popular of all characters is Jugger Grimrod, a suspected criminal who, it so happens, carries piano wire in his wrist guards in order to slit the throats of his enemies. Grimrod, it should be mentioned, went on to star in two of his own specials. The rest of the group is made up of thieves, loners, and the dregs of the galaxy which all contribute to the friction and philosophy that propels the story of Nomad Squadron forward. Characters die here. They are betrayed, rescued and redeemed. In fact, Sarigar sums up the Legion best in a brief conversation with Montroc: “You’re not fighting for ideals,” he tells the Lieutenant. “You’re fighting for the Legion.”

The art, by Frank Cirocco, an acclaimed designer, is beautiful to look at. Through his company, Lightsource Studios, he has done work for Lucasfilm Ltd., Dreamworks, Electronic Arts and Universal Studios. Now, I love Cirocco’s imaginative work. In this first issue alone, he has designed a staggering number of aliens, infusing them all with a sense of history and culture. But Cirocco is a designer at heart. When illustrating comics, his figures are stoic, with a distinct lack of movement and fluidity. Still, they look magnificent, especially when inked by the great Terry Austin.

It can be argued that the relative success of series like The Alien Legion and the broader view of Marvel publishing stories that weren’t mutant-centric, gave rise to the award-winning series The ‘Nam a few years later. Carl Potts went on to write such characters as the Punisher, helping to bring that c-list character into the mainstream, as well as becoming Editor-in-Chief of the Epic Comics division of Marvel. Branching out with his owned work, The Alien Legion was pitched as a computer-animated television series a few years back. It would have been cool to see those characters of Nomad Squadron, world-hopping and blowing things up on the frontiers of the galaxy.

Maybe that day will still come. With creator-owned projects, nothing is ever dead – the projects just wait.

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