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How Should DC Comics Rebirth The Legion Of Super-Heroes?

by  in CBR Exclusives, Comic News Comment
How Should DC Comics Rebirth The Legion Of Super-Heroes?

The combined Legions attack, from "Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds" by Geoff Johns and George Perez

Slowly but surely, DC Comics’ Legion of Super-Heroes is coming back into the spotlight. Readers of the “DCU: Rebirth” special and “Batman” #9 have seen co-founder Saturn Girl — or someone a lot like her — trapped in Arkham Asylum, “Supergirl” viewers have been getting to know longtime member Mon-El, and longtime LoSH villain the Emerald Empress is poised to surface in the upcoming “Justice League vs Suicide Squad” event. Considering the Girl of Steel’s own history with the 31st Century’s premier super-team (alluded to on TV via Legion foes the Dominators, and that Legion flight ring glimpsed briefly last season), more LSH teases appear likely.

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It all suggests that the Legion will be back in its own comics series sooner rather than later — but how? Both in terms of continuity and publishing, the Legion has a complicated history. Whoever relaunches the Legion will have to honor that history (somehow) while attracting new readers. Today we’ll examine what that could involve, and why it might not look like you’d expect.

THE HISTORY OF THE FUTURE

The original Legion of Super-Heroes, from DC's original "Who's Who" miniseries

The original Legion, from “Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe.” Art by Greg LaRocque and Larry Mahlstedt

The Legion of Super-Heroes first appeared in April 1958’s “Adventure Comics” #247, in a Superboy story written by Otto Binder and drawn by Al Plastino. Generally speaking, there have been three different versions of the team. The original lasted from 1958 until the summer of 1994, when it was retired as part of the “Zero Hour” crossover miniseries. The second (a/k/a the Reboot Legion) debuted immediately thereafter and ran for some ten years, until the fall of 2004. It was followed by the Threeboot, which ran from the end of 2004 through the end of 2008. Eventually, DC brought back the original team — sort of — in the pages of “Action Comics” and the “Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds” miniseries; and for the most part DC has stuck with them to this day.

Nevertheless, various tweaks and relaunches have complicated each of those three teams even further. Probably the biggest was the original team’s 1989 “Five Years Later” relaunch, which presented a Legion in need of rebuilding a dystopian United Planets. This status quo — known as “TMK” for the initials of its first creative team, writers Tom & Mary Bierbaum and plotter/penciller Keith Giffen — lasted just about five years itself, and featured a number of shakeups. Thus, when the original team seemed to return as part of a 2007 Justice League-Justice Society crossover called “The Lightning Saga” (written by Brad Meltzer and Geoff Johns and pencilled by Shane Davis and Fernando Pasarin), they didn’t exactly fit into their own established continuity. Instead, the history of this “Retroboot” Legion (as it came to be called) apparently ignored everything past the mid-1980s — around the time of “Crisis On Infinite Earths” — so that Johns and Meltzer could extrapolate from there.

The Retroboot Legion in "Justice League United"

The Retroboot Legion of Super-Heroes, from “Justice League United Annual” #1 by Jeff Lemire, Neil Edwards and Jay Leisten

Ironically, as much as the New 52 was supposed to streamline DC continuity to make it accessible for newer readers, the reboot didn’t really touch the Retroboot Legion. In fact, the group got two New 52 titles, with “Legion Lost” following a handful of Legionnaires stranded in the 21st Century. Neither lasted very long: “Lost” got 17 issues, while the main title made it to 24. Since then the Legion has popped up here and there, most recently in 2014-15’s “Infinitus Saga” in the also-cancelled “Justice League United.” In their place the future-superhero slot was filled by “Justice League 3000,” which placed a group of genetically-revived Leaguers in a dystopian future with Legion-style details (and, eventually, an evil version of the Legion itself). Apparently “JL3K” also took place in the future of a pre-“Flashpoint” DC Universe, although not in the Legion’s future. The distinction made things even more confusing, since the pre-“Flashpoint” Legion was presented as the future of the New 52’s DC-Earth.

FORWARD INTO THE PAST

Age before beauty, from "JLA" #148

Lightning Lad taken out by the Justice Society, from “Justice League of America” vol. 1 #148, by Paul Levitz, Martin Pasko, Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin

At this point let’s shift gears a bit and talk about the Justice Society of America. Because the JSA and Legion represent two ends of the DC timeline, they can sometimes feel like add-ons, or even afterthoughts, in the grand scheme of things. They also tend to be affected differently by DC’s various time-twisting relaunches. For example, the JSA got a big boost from “Crisis On Infinite Earths,” whose reset timeline made them the foundation of DC’s entire superhero-legacy structure. Conversely, though, “Crisis” facilitated changes to Superman which had pretty profound (and ultimately negative) effects on the Legion. Nine years later, “Zero Hour” rebooted the Legion, but killed off a number of elderly JSAers and suggested that the Golden Age Green Lantern and Flash were ready to retire. The New 52 got rid of the Golden Agers entirely (as well as much of the legacies) but left the Legion alone.

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This distinction is rooted in the two teams’ backgrounds. The Golden Age adventures of the Justice Society (and similarly well-aged characters) aren’t the start of a multigenerational saga. They don’t even really make a difference in DC-Earth history. Instead, they are what they were originally published to be: a loose collection of stories spanning a period of about 13 years (1938-51) in both comic-book and real-world time. In the Silver Age it was easy to assign those stories and characters to Earth-Two, and decades later it was only a little more difficult to incorporate them into the singular post-Crisis timeline. Now, I’m not judging these stories on their merits, just on their relative importance to a shared universe. As with the Marvel Universe’s Captain America, Namor and Human Torch, what seems to have mattered more (continuity-wise) is what the various Silver Age revivals did with these characters.

By contrast, each version the Legion’s adventures tends to be seen as one big saga. For at least the feature’s first thirty years, the characters developed and changed over time. They grew up together, paired off, split up, got killed, rebelled against their parents, etc. There were sweeping epics involving the Fatal Five and the Dark Circle, omnipotent bad guys like Mordru and the Time Trapper, and intergalactic conflicts against the Khunds or the Legion of Super-Villains. Collectively it produced the kind of super-soap opera the X-Men might envy. Even in a relatively-accessible storyline like the famous “Great Darkness Saga,” it helped to understand nuances like the new Invisible Kid’s relationship to his deceased predecessor.

To be sure, it’s hardly certain that a future Legion creative team will root its stories that deeply in Legion continuity. However, since the current Legion is based largely on the classic version, it’s not out of the question. Therefore, once again that hypothetical creative team faces the choice between old and new readers. Although that’s not a binary choice, to many people a new Legion title is either a reboot or it isn’t; and each option carries a different set of expectations.

REBIRTH

Reboot and Threeboot Legions, by George Perez

The Reboot and Threeboot Legion teams from “Legion of 3 Worlds,” by Geoff Johns and George Perez

So how might the Legion be Rebirthed? Generally readers know two things about the Rebirthed DC Universe. First, it’s missing ten years of in-universe history; and second, it’s bringing back pre-“Flashpoint” versions of characters like Superman and Wally West. The JSA and the Legion fall generally into that second aspect, since I’ve been assuming all along that classic versions of both teams will return to their usual spots in the timeline. (I’m making an educated guess that the end of “Earth 2: Society” won’t lead to those characters becoming integrated with the main DC-Earth.)

Of course, the current Retroboot Legion is basically a classic take and in any event is pre-“Flashpoint.” For what it’s worth, the Retroboot Legion is once again connected strongly to Superman — now also in his pre-“Flashpoint” incarnation — thanks to Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s “Superman and the Legion” storyline (in “Action Comics”) and the “Superman: Secret Origin” miniseries. It would therefore make sense for Johns to reinstall that version via Rebirth.

There’s another possibility, though; and it goes to Rebirth’s ultimate resolution. The current Superman remembers his boyhood adventures with the Retroboot Legion, but the Legion itself may remember the New 52 Supes. If Rebirth ends up harmonizing the New 52 Superman with the current version, it would probably get everyone on the same page.

Supergirl and the (Threeboot) Legion of Super-Heroes, by Barry Kitson

Supergirl and the (Threeboot) Legion of Super-Heroes, by Barry Kitson

However, it could also affect the larger Superman family’s relationship to the Legion. When Superman’s backstory finally shakes out — perhaps in time for his 80th anniversary in 2018 — it’ll also have to reconcile the pre- and post-“Flashpoint” versions of Superboy and Supergirl. In the old days both Superboy (Kon-El/Connor Kent) and Supergirl (Kara Zor-El) joined the Legion, but thanks to the timing of Legion relaunches, each joined a different version. After being made an honorary member in 1995’s “Legionnaires” #31, Superboy joined the Reboot version in Early January 2004’s “The Legion” issue #26. The Pre-Crisis Supergirl joined the original team in May 1961’s “Action Comics” #276, and her post-Crisis counterpart joined the Threeboot team in June 2006’s “Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes” #17. In the New 52 era, though, neither Kon nor Kara has joined the Legion. Because Superman has met all three versions, the Great Superman Reconciliation of 2018 (or whenever) would give DC an opportunity to harmonize these things too, and goodness knows it shouldn’t pass up any chance to make things easier to understand.

More importantly, clarifying Superboy and Supergirl’s Legionnaire status will frame Superman’s decision to present his own son for Legion membership. Sure, Jon White can pal around with Damian Wayne, but why not give him the same kinds of super-friends young Clark enjoyed? If Supergirl joins the Legion as well, she can help look after Jon in the 31st Century.

That, in turn, gets to what I think DC should do with the Legion. After all these years of subplots and storylines, it should let the Legion cultivate its own legacies. The team has done this before, in fits and starts. The Silver Age run occasionally spotlighted the Legionnaires as adults; and there have been legacy Legionnaires like Magnetic Kid (Cosmic Boy’s brother) and the aforementioned Invisible Kid II. Some members of the comic-relief Legion of Substitute Heroes graduated to the main team, and in the 1980s Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel ran the Legion Academy for younger heroes. The Retroboot team also has a few legacies, including Chameleon Girl, Karate Kid II and XS (Barry Allen’s granddaughter and Bart Allen’s cousin). We won’t get into the tragedy of Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad’s child.

Regardless, the second-generation Superboy would give the book a good opening to introduce a true second generation of Legionnaires. After all, if Superman is a dad now, it stands to reason that he’d want to visit the Legionnaires at similar points in their lives.

Opening up the Legion to legacy characters would also help redirect the book’s focus. Among other things, establishing a legacy tends to compartmentalize the original group of stories, such that readers aren’t concerned so much with the old exploits, except to the extent that they inform the new adventures. In the 1990s and 2000s DC used legacies to great effect in books like “Flash,” “Starman” and “JSA.” Those books hadn’t forgotten about Barry Allen, Ted Knight or the Golden Age — far from it — but their adventures weren’t as pertinent as they had been. Even Marvel has jumped wholesale into the legacy business, with new versions of its biggest characters.

Moreover, the Legion’s own in-universe structure encourages legacies. Different planets bestow different powers on their inhabitants, and those planets each send representatives to the Legion. In that regard it wouldn’t be surprising to see a new Shadow Lass or Princess Projectra. That would also cut down on the possible “JLA-ification” of the Legion, which might otherwise demand a speedster or Green Lantern on the team. (Personally, I’m in favor of a GL on the Legion, but I’d be happy simply with more GL involvement in the 31st Century.) The Reboot team did this a little, with XS and the Shazam-powered heroine called Thunder.

Among DC’s super-teams, the Legion stands apart. It’s not “the older heroes” like the JSA, “the A-listers” of the Justice League, or simply “the teenagers.” The Legion carries with it an entire millenium’s worth of backstory, so along with developing compelling characters it has to world-build. “Legion of Super-Heroes” is the 31st Century’s best and brightest youngsters, gathered together from across the universe to fight for truth and justice. As I’ve argued before, it’s superheroes plus “Star Trek” with a dash of “Harry Potter” for good measure. Incorporating a legacy structure would allow the Legion to keep its voluminous history while providing new readers with gateway characters. It is literally the future of the DC Universe, so it shouldn’t feel like it’s stuck in the past.

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