How DC Comics Can Help the Legion of Super-Heroes Live Long

DC Comics' superhero line is criticized either for being too beholden to its own continuity, too willing to chuck everything and start over, or some unholy combination thereof. Perhaps no DC feature embodies those frustrations more than the Legion of Super-Heroes. Despite the rallying cry "Long Live the Legion," it's been over two years since the final issue of the most recent "Legion" ongoing series and over nine months since the Legion's last big appearance (in a crossover with the just-cancelled "Justice League United").

Following its 1958 debut, the Legion became a staple of both Silver Age DC and the extended Superman mythology. A devoted fanbase sprung up around it, and before long the title was an enduring superhero serial, garnering new fans even after reboots in 1994 and 2003. However, its future-of-superheroics slot now seems to have been filled by "Justice League 3001," and there don't seem to be any concrete plans for another revival.

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Nevertheless, I don't expect DC will go too much longer without a Legion title on the stands. While I am hardly the group's biggest scholar, I have followed the team to one degree or another since the mid-'70s, and was a regular reader from 1989 (the beginning of "Five Years Later") through 2007-ish (when Mark Waid and Barry Kitson left the "threeboot"). I hope that gives me some perspective on what would appeal to both longtime fans and new readers, because today we'll explore what might benefit a new Legion series.

From the early 1960s through the 2010s, the Legion was a constant presence in DC's superhero books. I've said before that there are seven features -- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, the Justice League, and the Legion -- which DC will publish until the day its doors close for good. The first three have been published continuously (for all intents and purposes) since their respective debuts; and the next three represent the most successful Silver Age revivals.

And then there's the Legion, different from any of the other foundational features. Originally part of Superman editor Mort Weisinger's anything-goes mythology explosion, the group earned its independence slowly but surely. At its heart the Justice League is equal parts marketing and fannish wish-fulfillment; but the Legion deals much more in the latter. A tremendous sense of optimism informs the feature -- optimism not just about a utopian future but about the kind of adventures its readers want.

The Legion of Super-Heroes first appeared in an eponymous story from "Adventure Comics" #247, cover-dated April 1958. Written by Otto Binder and drawn by Al Plastino, it involved three super-powered teenagers who came back in time a thousand years to recruit Superboy into their "Super Hero Club." Shockingly, Superboy failed their tests -- but no, it was all good, because the Legionnaires were just doing some gentle hazing. Indeed, future stories would reveal that Superboy was the Legion's heroic inspiration; so "of course" he would be a member, virtually by default.

Over the next two-and-a-half years the Legion appeared just twice more, in December 1959's "Adventure" #267 and August 1960's "Action Comics" #267. However, starting in January 1961's "Superboy" #86, the Legion started appearing more-or-less monthly in various Superman-related titles. Soon it had returned to "Adventure," where it had a regular home starting with September 1962's issue #300.

The Legionnaires spent 81 issues in "Adventure" before moving briefly to a 1969-70 backup feature in "Action Comics," and then into "Superboy" in 1971. The title was officially renamed "Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes" in 1977, and in 1980 dropped the Superboy portion. From there the group would occasionally gain sister titles and spinoffs (including "Tales of the Legion" in the mid-1980s, "Legionnaires" in the mid-'90s, and the New 52's short-lived "Legion Lost"). The Legion was even adapted for TV, both in its own animated series and in a few "Smallville" appearances.

Along the way it would have to deal with the loss of its inspiration. In 1986, the John Byrne-led Superman relaunch established flatly that there had never been a teenaged Superboy (or Supergirl, or Super-Dog, etc.). Byrne and "Legion" writer Paul Levitz quickly put in place a continuity patch, involving a "pocket universe" where the Legion met a remarkably familiar version of the Boy of Steel.

It wasn't enough. "Legion of Super-Heroes" relaunched in 1989 with both a five-year time-jump and some deep dives into over thirty years of Legion history. Let me repeat that: DC relaunched "LSH" both by hurling the team into dystopia -- potentially alienating longtime readers -- and bringing back obscure characters like Roxxas and Glorith to make the new folks (including yours truly) wonder what the heck was going on. Regardless, this volume lasted almost five years before it too was rebooted (via 1994's "Zero Hour") in a much more nostalgic, back-to-basics manner. That, in turn, lasted over ten years before the "threeboot" of late 2004, which itself eventually gave way to a nostalgia-driven version of the original team. In other words, the group has come full circle. The 2008-09 "Legion of Three Worlds" miniseries tried to sort everything out, even placing the 1994 and 2004 reboots in different parallel universes. For whatever it's worth, "Justice League 3001" also takes place in the future of what looks like a pre-"Flashpoint" DC Universe, so the Legion which survived the New 52's relaunches is still out there somewhere, in the future of DC's main Earth.

Clearly, the Legion has had a complicated history, compounded by a voluminous cast of characters who might also be largely unfamiliar to casual readers, and set in a future which owes more to the Superman books than to the DC line generally. Keeping these challenges in mind, what might best serve a new Legion series?

Let's start with that setting. The Legion operates out of a futuristic Metropolis which is the hub of the 31st Century's United Planets. The Legionnaires tend to come from UP members (I'm sure I'm forgetting some specific exceptions), and are seen generally as an arm of the UP. If this sounds familiar, it's not surprising. Although the Legion was already over eight years old when "Star Trek" premiered, the two works share a hopeful outlook, and "LSH" creators from the 1970s forward were at least mindful of "Trek"'s parallels. More to the point, though, "Trek" has helped mainstream the idea of a galaxy-spanning utopian society. The Legion just adds costumes, codenames and superpowers.

In fact, DC readers should already be familiar with the concept of intergalactic peacekeepers. Legion lore holds that the Green Lantern Corps isn't as ubiquitous a thousand years from now, but that doesn't mean they're not around. Comparing and contrasting the two groups could give new readers a feel for how the Legion functions. A new Legion series will necessarily have to do some world-building (or world-reintroducing, as the case may be), and that means using some recognizable benchmarks. The Green Lanterns and the Federation-analogue United Planets can help with that.

Moreover, the Legion also includes its own superhero school. While plenty of works have acclimated readers to sprawling settings literally by educating its point-of-view characters, the Legion Academy provides a natural venue for such a character to enter the 31st Century. DC already has "Gotham Academy," of course, but a new Legion series might feature more actual superheroics by presenting the next generation of Legionnaires.

A new Legion series could also be somewhat darker, a la writer Tom King's take on the Omega Men. The United Planets can look very different to characters who aren't necessarily reaping all of its benefits, and trying to make a living in a universe policed by various super-types -- more "Firefly" than "Trek," if you will -- would definitely offer a new perspective on the Legion and its worlds.

Alternatively, as comics pundit Graeme McMillan suggests, a new Legion title could just go full "Squirrel Girl" and embrace all of the group's history, from epic to goofy. After all, the Legion hasn't just squared off against Mordru, Darkseid, and the Fatal Five, it's showcased Matter-Eater Lad, Arm-Fall-Off Boy, and the Super-Moby Dick of Space. If Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis weren't already busy with "JL 3001," they'd probably be on the short list for this sort of relaunch.

Ultimately, though, the Legion has gotten to the point of having to justify its own existence. Originally they existed to help glorify Superboy by extending his legend (not to mention his storytelling possibilities) a millennium into the future. The group has since transcended those origins, accumulating enough character dynamics and backstory to warrant the feature's independence. The problem with that is, the resulting isolation from the rest of the DC line made the Legion a little less vital to the overall shared universe. Even the New 52 relaunch didn't shake up the Legion all that much -- good for longtime readers, but maybe not for those looking to jump aboard -- and that might have kept it out of sight and out of mind.

Thus, I would argue first that any new Legion series should emphasize the group's connections to the present-day DC Universe. That doesn't mean clear analogues for Batman or Wonder Woman, or putting a Green Lantern on the team; but it wouldn't hurt to show the 31st Century's versions of the "Daily Planet," Atlantis, Mogo, or Themyscira. Our hypothetical new series should definitely remind readers that the group takes its inspiration from Superman and his peers, even if it doesn't dwell on comparisons.

I've already mentioned a couple of possibilities for using new characters as entry points to the larger Legion universe, but the more I think about it, the less convinced I am that they should be the focus of any new series. Because the Legion has enough characters who are relatively unfamiliar to casual readers, any relaunch could choose from have a variety of folks to fill such a role.

Besides, I think getting used to the setting is arguably a bigger hurdle. I mean, the Legion's 31st Century includes:

  • dozens of distinct planets (most of which have super-powered residents)
  • the Klingon-like Khunds
  • the schemers of the Dominators and the Dark Circle
  • a thousand years' worth of advancements for familiar worlds like Rann and Thanagar (and baddies like Darkseid and Rā's al-GhÅ«l)
  • a planet of magicians for gosh sakes, and
  • yes, depending on how the creative team feels about it, the Green Lantern Corps.

It really is "Star Trek" plus superheroes, with a dash of Hogwarts and/or "X-Men" for good measure.

Now, as Graeme and Jeff Lester pointed out in the above-linked podcast, its next creative team will have to grapple with some very 1960s elements baked into the Legion's premise -- chief among them the notion that the galaxy will embrace benign Kennedy-era imperialism gladly. That's part of my argument for Tom King (or someone similar) looking at the Legion from a more humble viewpoint. On the other hand, it's arguably harder to relaunch such a venerable feature by turning it upside down -- "Trek" has had mixed success with "going dark" -- so maybe the next "Legion" series is best-served by being optimistic first and pointing out the system's flaws once the sales figures have stabilized.

See, I just keep coming back to the Legion's more sunny qualities. The Superboy of 1958 was hardly a grim take on the travails of an omnipotent teenager, but the Legion's introduction helped establish two significant points: that Superboy had very few real peers, and that giving him some would be immensely helpful. (No less than Jack Kirby would make this point some thirteen years later, when he had the adult Superman meet the Forever People.) The Legion's introduction also preceded the Kandorians' (July 1958), Supergirl's (May 1959), and the Justice League's (February-March 1960), so outside of Batman and Robin, it's not like Superman at any age was already palling around with other super-people. Certainly the Legion benefited from being associated with Superboy, but in the long run the reverse seems also to be true.

More to the point, the Legion opened up a whole new realm not just for Superboy, but for DC readers generally. There are plenty of dystopian sci-fi settings to explore, with DC in just the past few years offering "Threshold" and "Futures End," and putting forth more cynical takes on the extended Green Lantern line. Maybe it's just my own affection for the Legion coming through, but I think a "LSH" relaunch can succeed if it resists those darker urges and gives readers a chance to feel good about the group.

I would even suggest that the next "LSH" creative team should avoid plunging readers too deeply into soap opera. It is arguably more important to have a new audience buy into the Legion's setting than its characters because, to be blunt, there are so many Legionnaires that they might tend to fall into predictable categories. The Legion has its share of square-jawed heroes, bad boys, femmes fatale, nurturers and assorted others in various combinations of trait and gender. You are not going to get new readers to root for the Legionnaires automatically, because those new readers a) risk being overwhelmed and b) will deal with that risk by stereotyping the characters.

Now, this is not to say that the Legion shouldn't showcase its cast, because its format is ideal for building a very diverse super-team. In fact, virtually by definition the Legion should be "more" diverse than any other super-team out there. After all, its recruitment pool includes an entire galaxy filled with beings of every shape and color. That diversity is part and parcel of the limitless potential the Legion represents.

At the risk of being glib, the bottom line is that the Legion will only prove its awesomeness by being awesome straight out of the gate. No elaborately-plotted six-issue introductions, no decompression, and I daresay no deconstruction. Start with an impressive sequence of the team in action, show the aftermath, and fill in the details as necessary; and then do the same thing a few more times, in tight, exciting standalone stories. Again, "potential" is the watchword and "spectacle" is key: just as Superboy was dazzled by the Legion's future, so must readers be again.

The Legion is full of characters who have modeled their lives after the examples of the Justice Leaguers, and who race around fabulous sci-fi settings fighting bad guys and righting wrongs. It's the future both as we want it to be and as the Legionnaires imagine it should be. As such, it's suited perfectly for comics' limitless budget. If the tone is right, the details will take care of themselves.

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