DON'T FEAR THE LEGION
In February of 2007, I met with Julian Darius, publisher of my first book, and threw out some ideas for a follow-up. I suggested a bunch of things that I thought would make interesting book topics and ended by saying, "but what I'd really like to do is a book about 'The Legion of Super-Heroes."
"Really?" "Yes, really. The Legion's 50th anniversary is 2008, and I'm sure DC has something planned. Plus, the Legion's such a fascinating topic, with its almost hermetically-sealed continuity, its continual reboots, the way it tells stories about the future and yet reflects the present. It's the perfect topic for a book of essays. I don't even want to write the whole thing. We'll get perspectives from a variety of writers and we'll make sure all the major eras are covered and..."
I'm sure I rambled on endlessly, barely taking a breath between sentences.
To his credit, Julian not only supported the project, but he contributed the longest chapter on the era he holds dearest to his critically-inclined heart: The Keith Giffen, "Five Years Later" era. And I wrote about how Paul Levitz is some kind of genius combination of Roy Thomas and Robert Altman. And Chris Sims wrote about the zany rules of the Silver Age Legion. And James Kakalios wrote about the Legion's "Super-Science."
You want a close look at how Legion architecture echoed and predicted architecture of the 20th century? It's in there. An examination of sexual identity? It's in there. A Matt Fraction introduction full of wit and mockery? It's in there. It's all in "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes."
I'm not here to sell the book to you -- it's not even in stores yet -- but it's full of essays and explorations of all of the things that make the Legion of Super-Heroes interesting, from almost every perspective imaginable.
And it wasn't difficult to find writers willing to write about the Legion, because for all of its supposed impenetrability, the Legion is one of those things that excites people. It compels devotion. It encourages passion.
The reason I even proposed the idea of a book to Julian wasn't because I was some life-long Legion devotee. I'd read some Legion comics growing up, and even though "DC Comics Presents" #43 (with its Legion and Superman team-up against a Sun-Eater) made an indelible impression on my ten-year-old brain, it was really the "Legion of Super-Heroes Archives" that turned my passing interest into an obsession. I had purchased the first volume of most of the DC Archive editions, sampling Golden and Silver Age stories that I'd never read. But the Legion volume was the one that sucked me in most deeply. By the end of 2006, I had read all twelve volumes of the Legion Archives, and by the time I spoke to Julian in the later winter of 2007, I had collected all the missing back-issues and was halfway through my chronological reading of everything Legion.
So, yeah, the Legion was on my mind when we had that discussion.
And I guess I was right about DC having some plans for the Legion to celebrate their 50th anniversary, because look what comes out this week: "Final Crisis: The Legion of Three Worlds" #1, by Geoff Johns and George Perez.
I'm sure plenty of readers thought, when this series was announced, "I can't even keep one Legion team straight! Now I have to deal with three of them???" Meanwhile, every Legion fan around the world jumped up and high-fived each other. You may have felt the shockwave. And you, being a bit less obsessed the Legion than me, might have thought, "ah, I'll skip 'Legion of Three-Worlds.' Too many characters I don't know. It frightens me."
But what I'm here to tell you is simple: Don't Fear the Legion.
I'm sure Geoff Johns and George Perez will give you a great introduction to the different teams. I haven't read the comic yet, but I can imagine giant flying hordes of Legionnaires zooming in from three different alternate futures. I can imagine Superman-Prime punching Legionnaires heads off, and the remaining Legionnaires teaming up and lots of cosmic battles and all that good stuff. But it's a "Final Crisis" book, and with that many characters it will be difficult for Johns to give each of them any sort of distinct characterization. I'm sure DC hopes that you'll be fascinated enough by the appearance of the characters to seek out more Legion comics. But where do you start? The Legion is the largest super-team in history, and there are three versions to choose from? It can be intimidating, but if you can overcome your fear, I have some suggestions about where you might want to look for more of your Legion fix. Because once you get hooked, like I did, there's nothing to do but give in to the pleasure of the Legion of Super-Heroes.
Because you probably don't have infinite resources, I'll restrict myself to ten essential Legion stories. If you can track these down, you'll have the beginnings of a Lifetime Legion Reading Plan. And these ten stories will give you perspective on each of the three Legions. You won't need these comics to understand what Johns and Perez are doing in their series, but reading these stories might help you appreciate why the Legion has such a special place in so many hearts. (Either that, or you'll think Legion fans are crazy, and you'll steer clear of us at conventions. Whatever.)
THE OFFICIAL "DON'T FEAR THE LEGION" READING LIST (in chronological order):
The Death and Resurrection of Lightning Lad
Beginning in "Adventure Comics" #304 (Jan. 1963) and running through "Adventure Comics" #312 (Sept. 1963), the fate of Lightning Lad shattered preconceived notions of what a long-form story might be. Or maybe not. But it was still a rarity, in those Silver Age days at DC, to see a storyline continue for more than an issue or two. Pretty much everything was "done-in-one" back then, or "done in eight-to-twelve-pages," to be more accurate. So when Legion co-founder Lightning Lad perished and then stayed dead for nine months: well, it was a big deal. Sure, not every issue advanced the death-and-resurrection plot, but many did, with even a gender-bending fake-out thrown into the mix as the soon-to-be Lightning Lass pretends to be her dead brother. But her lack of an adam's apple gave her away and she joined the team on her own merits. And the saga features some of the best creators to ever work on the Legion, including Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel (who wrote the issue in which Lightning Lad died) to Edmond Hamilton (a former pulp novelist who helped pioneer the space opera genre) and John Forte (who was the emblematic penciller of the Silver Age Legion).
After killing one of Triplicate Girl's bodies (leading to her new identity as Duo Damsel), Computo the Conqueror (a giant yellow robot that looks like a maniac adding machine) seems unstoppable. A trip to the 20th century Batcave gets the Legion what they need: a duplicator ray. Used on Computo in "Adventure Comics" #341 (Feb 1966), they get a Bizarro-Computo who should easily defeat the crazed machine. But, no. It turns out that creating a Bizarro version of an evil computer isn't the best idea, and now the Legion has two problems to deal with. Even Bouncing Boy can't save the day. It ends in a maelstrom of Brainiac 5's genius and an anti-matter ray, and if you can't appreciate the insanity of a Bizarro Computo, maybe the Legion isn't for you. Or maybe you should skip ahead to the next entry, when the Legion started to get more "mature." Me, I love the Silver Age madness and fun of the Siegel and Hamilton era (both of whom apparently contributed to the Computo story), and to top it all off, this was the first "Adventure Comics" issue with the go-go checks on the cover.
Fatal Five and the Death of Ferro Lad
Teenage writer Jim Shooter broke into comics by looking at what he thought was DC's worst comic book series: "The Legion of Super-Heroes," which to him seemed corny and out-dated compared to the Marvel comics of 1966. (The kid obviously failed to appreciate the genius of Bizarro Computo). He figured he could apply Marvel's approach to the Legion and get paid for doing so. And, shockingly, his plan worked, and he became the regular writer on the series at age 15. He peaked at age 16, when he was assigned the task of ripping off the popular "Dirty Dozen" movie. Not having seen the movie, but understanding that it was about some criminals enlisted to help the good guys, Shooter created the Fatal Five: Tharok, the Persuader, Mano, Validus, and the Emerald Empress. The five most sinister criminals of the 30th century, drafted to save the world from the Sun-Eater. The two-part story, published in "Adventure Comics" #352-353 (Jan.-Feb. 1967), remains one of the best Legion stories ever, with betrayals and reversals and a shocking ending in which the noble Ferro Lad (he of the metal mask to hide his disfigured face) punches out Superboy and flies off on a suicide mission with the Absorbatron Bomb. It's good stuff, and you'll note that all three of there reading list entries feature Legionnaire deaths. That was one of the things that made the Legion so compelling: characters could die. And stay dead. For unlike Lightning Lad, Ferro Lad never got a resurrection. (Reboot, yes. Resurrection, no.)
The Great Darkness Saga
For a while "The Great Darkness Saga," which began with a prologue in "The Legion of Super-Heroes" #289 (July 1982) and ended in issue #294 (Dec. 1982), was the only Legion trade paperback available. For many readers, it was the pinnacle of Legion storytelling. Written by Paul Levitz and illustrated by Keith Giffen, the story brought Darkseid into the 30th century at a time when DC didn't seem to know what to do with the character. Although he was the centerpiece of Kirby's Fourth World comics of the 1970s, Darkseid hadn't, by 1982, become the major DC villain that he would soon be. But his appearance in "The Great Darkness Saga" gave the Legion the greatest threat they'd ever faced, and gave DC one of the most successful long-form stories in their publishing history. If you haven't read this story yet, ponder this scene: the entire population of Daxam (whose inhabitants have the same powers as Superman) rises up from the planet under the control of Darkseid, on a mission to destroy the United Planets (including, of course, Earth). That's the scope of this story arc, and nearly every character in Legion history joins forces to face this seemingly unstoppable threat. If anything's the precursor to "The Legion of Three Worlds," it's this one.
Legion of Substitute Heroes Special
Released on April Fool's Day in 1985, "The Legion of Substitute Heroes Special" applies Keith Giffen's mocking hand to some of the Legion's most endearing supporting cast members. The Subs were created in the Silver Age as sincere also-rans -- characters who weren't quite good enough for the main team, but offered earnest help whenever possible. Giffen spotlighted their more absurd qualities in this one-shot special, applying his "Ambush Bug" brand of humor to a story that featured the 1970s Brainiac-in-the-future character known as Pulsar Stargrave along with ex-Legionnaire Matter-Eater Lad and Subs like Chlorophyll Kid and Porcupine Pete. Though some Legion fans dismiss this issue as pure silliness, it's a comic masterpiece (in every sense of the word.)
The Sensor Girl Mystery
Between his work leading up to "The Great Darkness Saga" and his final, "Magic Wars" arc, Paul Levitz wrote one hundred consecutive issue of Legion stories. Although "The Great Darkness Saga" was easier to collect in trade-paperback format, I think he reached the peak of his storytelling in the "Who is Sensor Girl" arc which ran from "Legion of Super-Heroes" #14 (Sept. 1985) to issue #27 (Oct. 1986). Even with "Crisis on Infinite Earths" popping up in the middle of the arc (and eventually damaging the Legion forever with the removal of Superboy from continuity), Levitz kept the mystery of the strange, masked Legionnaire alive. Many thought it was Supergirl, somehow saved from her death in "Crisis," while others remained baffled as to Sensor Girl's true identity. Even though the year-long story featured different villains, the Sensor Girl subplot remained essential and developed gracefully from issue to issue. Levitz's attention to characterization and interest in relationships over fight scenes was a precursor to the decompressed comics of today. Except, with Levitz it didn't feel decompressed at all.
Five Years Later
After Levitz departed, and basically gave up writing comics entirely (other than a few stories here and there) to focus on his executive duties at DC, the Legion was relaunched and reimagined under the guidance of Keith Giffen who bumped the continuity five years into the future (making Legion time 1,005 years ahead of our own) in respect for what Levitz had done. But those five years must have been catastrophic for the Legion, because by the time Giffen (with the help of Tom and May Bierbaum) began his tale, the Legion was defunct, the characters out of costume, and barely anything was recognizable. Giffen's complex, deeply dystopian run repelled old Legion fans an boggled new ones, but it provided a fascinating perspective on the core Legion concepts. He even introduced a group of Legion clones ("Batch SW6") who resembled the Silver Age team in appearance and attitude. Seeing the classically garbed characters next to the tattered remains of the Five Years Later team provided a stark visual contrast, and supposedly Giffen even considered revealing that the clone team were the "real" Legionnaires, which would have subverted all expectations. Giffen never got to finish his run as he'd planned, and he left the series the only way he knew how -- by literally blowing up the Earth -- but his work from "Legion of Super-Heroes" #1 (Nov. 1989) through issue #38 (Dec. 1992) is a fascinating look at a much more mature approach to the Legionnaires.
Between the loss of Superboy due to the events of "Crisis" and Superman's post-Crisis revamp, and the devastation wrought by Giffen's run, the Legion could never go back to what it once was. It could never again be a team of optimistic young heroes (inspired by Superboy) who formed the coolest club of teenagers ever. So, in the wake of "Zero Hour," the Legion was rebooted, starting over from scratch with innocent youngsters Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad, and Saturn Girl forming the team all over again. Only Lighting Lad was called "Live Wire" now, for some reason. And retelling 1960s stories in the 1990s didn't really work, even with the efforts of Mark Waid and Tom Peyer and other talented writers. All was saved, however, when Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, and a young Olivier Coipel joined forces to produce a 12-issue series called "Legion Lost," taking the team in a brand new direction. Moving far, far away from prior Legion territory, "Legion Lost" was a kind of "Odyssey" meets "Heart of Darkness" mash-up, with Legion stalwart Element Lad turning into a deranged Mr. Kurtz as the Legionnaires tried to return home. It was a dark superhero saga that reinvigorated the Legion after years of dull, simplistic stories.
The Abnett/Lanning Legion eventually spun into a new ongoing series, titled simply "The Legion" in December, 2001. The Abnett/Lanning version combined some of the Levitz-style storytelling with the reboot philosophy of retelling classic stories, only this time with a slightly more mature spin. It was certainly much lighter than the Five Years Later incarnation, but after the events of "Legion Lost," the sense of lightness that had filled the post-"Zero Hour" team was gone. Abnett and Lanning's best work on "The Legion" ongoing was their quite transformed retelling of "The Great Darkness Saga," which ran from "The Legion" #25 (Dec. 2003) to issue #30 (April 2004). Titled "Foundations," Abnett and Lanning brought a menacing Darkseid into the future and, perhaps most notably, brought Connor Kent, Superboy of the 21th century into the 31st, making him a part of the Legion for the first time. While Abnett and Lanning hardly broke any new ground with "Foundations," it's an extremely well-executed Legion story that shows how classic characters and situations can be effectively reinterpreted for a contemporary audience.
Eat it Grandpa
In 2005, the Legion was rebooted yet again, for no apparent reason other than a tenuous, after-the-fact "Infinite Crisis" connection. But Mark Waid and Barry Kitson offered a new take on the Legion in "Legion of Super-Heroes" #1 (Feb 2005) through issue #30 (June 2007--by then retitled "Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes). Waid's new approach was to show the conflict between the teenage Legion and the adults in power across the universe. The generation clash was the main theme, but Waid also used the large cast of characters to emphasize notions of morality and heroism. The injection of Supergirl into Waid's run at the midway point helped to lighten the tone, but the thirty issues work together to tell a unified, science-fiction story of superheroics in the future. Unlike other incarnations of the Legion, the Waid/Kitson "Threeboot" had no explicit contact with the DC continuity of the past other than an amnesiac Supergirl. They never traveled back in time like the previous versions of the team had. They were inspired by vague, comic book legends of heroes long gone.
From the looks of "Final Crisis: The Legion of Three Worlds," Johns will cherry pick one Legion team from the Reboot era and another from the Threeboot era and combine them with his own version of the post-Levitz/Giffen team as seen recently in "Action Comics." If you like what he does, jump into the Legion with the above list as your guide. There's plenty of future history to go around. Don't be shy. There's no reason to fear the Legion.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the writer of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of the upcoming "Teenagers from the Future" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.