It’s a very stream-of-consciousness story and I’m sure a great challenge for readers who aren’t intimately familiar with Legion history and Dirk’s particular background. And a good deal of what you see is clearly hallucination and self-delusion, so there’s not much you can take as gospel in this issue. As so often occurred in our stories, you have to make some judgments about what information to accept as true and what information is self-delusion or lie.
But you get a clear picture of Dirk having had a rough time of it growing up as the somewhat neglected child of a very well-to-do couple — a philandering father who was a big success in business and expected nothing less of his son, and a distracted mother who was more interested in her social activities than in raising her son. We see how deeply hurt he is by the childhood taunts of those who perceived him as a spoiled rich brat.
We re-tell the twin origins of Sun Boy and his arch-enemy Doctor Regulus, with the twist that Dirk fears that to some extent he was responsible for the accident that ruined Regulus’ career and created the villain's antipathy toward Dirk.
Through Dirk’s Legion years we see a frustration on Dirk’s part at watching the team go in directions he doesn’t agree with and an assumption that he could have led the group better himself, all tying in to the early Adventure story where he literally goes “space happy” when the pressure of trying to evacuate the population of an entire doomed planet overcomes him.
We slip into Dirk's experiences during the five-year gap (between the Levitz Legion and the Giffen-Bierbaum-Gordon Legion) and find out that Dirk finally got his chance to run the Legion his way, but things went terribly awry. One by one, the members walk out on him until he ends up finding himself in the pathetic position of getting a pep talk from rah-rah Polar Boy. When a couple of hot babes see them and start making fun of their Legion costumes, Dirk has had enough. He’s through with the Legion.
But as he tries to carry on as a civilian, he finds life is hard on the Depression-ravaged Earth of the Five-Year Gap and Dirk is really down on his luck when he’s seduced by Circe into accepting a Faustian bargain — a life of wealth and hedonism in exchange for his services as a front man for Earthgov. The lies he’s forced to tell become increasingly egregious, until finally his spirit is broken when he has to justify the executions of Dawn and Don Allen.
As Earthgov’s atrocities accumulate, Dirk has a complete breakdown, dresses up in his ill-fitting original costume and shows up as a would-be hero as the planet is being battered by meteors after the moon’s destruction. As the mob tries to make sense of Sun Boy's appearance, the Metropolis Powersphere detonates and the wave of “null radiation” rushes through the area and causes Dirk’s powers to go haywire. His body begins to incinerate itself. Dirk’s scream of pain from that flashback fades into his real-time scream of pain inside the Dominator pod and we see that the “Rorschach” pattern we’d seen flashes of throughout the story is what Dirk is now continually staring at — the reflection of his own screaming face on the plastic bubble of his pod.
It’s a very grim story, probably the single grimmest storyline in the whole Giffen-Bierbaum-Gordon run. I think a lot of people assumed this was primarily Keith’s issue and he told us people “congratulated” him on the story and he took some pleasure in pointing out that his participation was pretty much limited to laying out the issue based on the very detailed plot Mary and I wrote. Keith also deserves credit (or blame in some people’s mind) for the basic Dirk storyline — we took the general events that had happened off-panel in Keith’s mind and turned it into this unorthodox issue. Keith certainly came up with the idea of making Dirk an Earthgov spokesman, making Circe the temptress who lured him into that tangled web, having Dirk gradually get disillusioned with the corruption of Earthgov and finally having his power go haywire with the explosion of the Metropolis powersphere. I think he also envisioned that Dirk would crack up and go out with his old uniform on right before the powersphere blew up. If I’m correct about that, I don’t really remember how he communicated that and had us put it into this story that we plotted, but I’m almost sure it was Keith's idea.
One part that I think was really Mary and I was the account of what happened during the five-year gap. We may have been the ones to think up that Dirk was the last really legitimate leader of the Legion as it fell apart under pressure from Earthgov, before Polar Boy took over for an almost comical final stretch of futility before the group was ultimately disbanded for the balance of the five-year gap. I especially enjoyed the chance to show the Adult Legion villain Echo as one of the members during the five-year gap. He was one of those incidental characters that had never gotten any real spotlight that I had a fondness for and it’s one of my favorite facets of the five-year gap that we threw him in as a member. In the "2995" Mayfair Legion Sourcebook Mary and I wrote, we tried to give some background about Echo, positioning him as a quasi-Robin Hood sort of villain who could reasonably be found working either for or against the Legion. (This sort of thing kind of fascinates me -- I wrote a few fan fiction stories back in the early 1980s where I came up with a half-baked justification for putting the 20th-century Batman villain The Riddler in the Legion, which is completely illogical, but a truly fun idea to me.)
I think one of the most effective bits in Legion #28 is 100% Keith’s idea, which is that Circe dressed up as various Legion women during her bedroom sessions with Dirk. It’s really a powerful bit and provides a real window into the kind of guy Dirk was — a womanizer with an adventurous streak and someone who was at once attracted to the clean-cut heroics of the Legion and the hedonistic ways of his father. As I recall, we hinted at Circe's role-playing in some of the earliest scenes between Dirk and Circe -- once seeing Circe wearing a lot of blue-skin makeup as she apparently had just taken on the identity of Shadow Lass.
One reason the issue may feel very Giffenesque is that it’s told almost completely in the nine-panel grid. There’s a splash page when Dirk shows up in his old ill-fitting Sun Boy costume, but otherwise the issue is completely in the grid. It’s an example of why I really liked to write for the grid, even more so when we were plotting — you can communicate a tremendous amount of content in the grid. It was perfect for this issue because we kept fading from one hallucination to the next and from the hallucinations to the “Rorschach” pattern. Any number of times we’d do something where one character evolves into another as Dirk’s mind makes associations that aren’t literally what happened in his past, and that would have been a lot tougher to do without fewer panels and a less structured layout.
In a way, this might have been the single most appropriate nine-panel grid story ever since it was a rare example of telling virtually an entire issue from the point of view of one character and the unchanging panel dimensions enhance the feeling that we’re getting one unbroken real-time narrative from a single point of view.
In a lot of ways this issue feels like a metaphor for the entire Giffen-Bierbaum-Gordon run. At times it’s really complicated if not completely confusing, at other times it’s arguably brilliant. It’s certainly ambitious, probably a little more than it should have been, but it was at all times a noble attempt to tell a Legion story in a whole new way. It’s also a metaphor for the entire run in that it was at the same time a radical departure from what the Legion had been in the past while also being very much entangled in the history of the group.
I wasn’t especially enthusiastic about what was done to Dirk over our run. I’d probably have preferred to not have any of the old guard heroes fall from grace and suffer so intensely. But it really felt to me as if someone was going to have to go down a path like this, given the overall storyline, and that Dirk was as logical a candidate as any. To Keith’s credit, very early on he asked me what I thought about the idea and I think was really giving me the chance to say that Dirk wasn’t right for the storyline and that there was someone else who was better. But to this day, I’m not sure there was a better choice. In one way I’d have rather not depicted the group’s most infamous womanizer as a corrupt individual, since my observation of the real, grown-up world is that lots of very admirable people happen to sleep around and it’s the hypocrites who condemn such behavior in public and do it in private that are the more corrupted/corruptible people. But ultimately, I think the Dirk of our run certainly far and away transcended any perception that he was simply a two-dimensional womanizer, something I think Paul always accomplished with the character as well.
I have similar regrets about how we turned Garth/Lightning Lad into quite a jerk. Again, left to my own devices, I don’t think I’d have turned any of the old-guard characters into that kind of person. But we were working in an era where group books were pretty much required to include “loose cannon” characters who broke the rules and made trouble. In the case of Garth, it tied into our Proty storyline, that the original Garth was a very different personality than the heroic post-resurrection Lightning Lad we’d gotten to know through most of the Legion’s history. And how plausible it is that his pre-resurrection rough edges would have been smoothed over in people's memories and largely forgotten after a heroic death. Had we continued to chart the courses of these characters over the years, I think I’d have leaned toward having both the SW6 Garth and Dirk redeem themselves, in part by coming to grips with what had happened to their predecessors in the original Legion timeline.