It was the first superhero team of the Silver Age. It was the first group composed entirely of costumed kid heroes. It was the first group of kid heroes none of whom had an adult mentor. It was the first superhero group to be set anyplace other than in present-day American cities. Yet for all this, the Legion of Super Heroes has had a chopped and checkered history.
Most people think this can be laid at the feet of Crisis on Infinite Earths. In this, DC tried to get rid of the parallel Earths with their different heroes and their different histories. Since the Legion was formed in admiration of Superboy, the elimination of him from continuity took away the Legion’s very reason for existence.
But the same Crisis removed Superman ever having gone to the bottle city of Kandor to be the superhero Nightwing. As such, Dick Grayson should have never had the inspiration to take on the name when he dropped being Robin. But no one complains about that, not writers and not fans.
And if the Legion should have gone, so should Phantom Girl. She comes from an interdimensional world, Bgztl. She should have ceased to exist but no one thought of that. Odd that something any fan would notice in a second the controllers of the stories knew nothing about.
Crisis is not the problem. Rather, the ground shifted under the Legion and no one has figured out how to deal with it.
The Legion first appears in Adventure in April 1958. They have come back in time to induct their inspiration into their group. Like all Superboy stories at this time, everything revolves around him. His fame is so great that it will last a thousand years and people will think so much of him they will do good deeds because he did.
The Legion consists of Cosmic Boy, Lightning Boy, and Saturn Girl. Their costumes, a name, and a power (Cosmic Boy’s magnetism is controlled by his eyes, not his hands) are different. The Legion was intended to appear, admire Superboy, and disappear. But sales figures meant the Legion showed up again in December 1959. And they kept popping up.
Eventually the stories weren’t about meeting Superboy, but what the Legion itself did. The Legion added members and it’s always been assumed the group had more than the three founding members when they go visit Superboy. Indeed, they’re only assumed to be the founding members because they’re the ones who first show up. And there is nothing in those first two stories to indicate additional members. Quite the opposite: Superboy goes to the 30th century. If he is so inspirational why didn’t every single member not insist on meeting him?
It was in 1961 that the roster actually started to grow and once it started, it grew rapidly. Starboy and Chameleon Boy are introduced, though Starboy has Superboy-like powers. In a Supergirl story that same year, Supergirl and Brainiac 5 join the Legion, and in that story we’re also introduced to Phantom Girl, Triplicate Girl, Shrinking Violet, Bouncing Boy and Sun Boy. 1961 also sees the introduction of the Legion of Supervillains who are adults facing the adult Legion of Super-Heroes.
By this stage there are twelve members and the first weakness in the Legion shows up.
When the JLA took on a new member there was one whole issue devoted to that individual, what they could do, what they could bring to the League. In the Legion we get five new heroes who are already members. There’s no introduction and no delineation of character. Pretty well what differentiates one Legionnaire from another is their costume and their superpower. That’s largely it. Personality creeps in at the edges.
It’s kind of like the way the Earth-2 heroes of the time were written. Since so many letters asked if Earth-2 had a Legion, it suggests significant overlap in the readerships.
Once the Legion became the center of its own stories, we see the 30th century on a regular basis. It is here that the assumptions of the times come to the fore. After all, the fifties may have believed in progress like no other decade.
The fifties believed good things were coming if we’d just get past the nuclear bombs, monsters, and aliens. So the 30th century is as optimistic in the Legion as the 23rd and 24th centuries are in Star Trek.
The Legion itself has a clubhouse, which looks like a yellow rocket with red fins that crashed straight into the ground without doing any damage. The strangest thing about the clubhouse is that it is so small. It’s as if it were a real clubhouse and only needs a single room in there. Fortunately a more appropriate building is created later.
The Legion operates from Earth which is a member and capital of the United Planets. Obviously the UP is modeled on the UN. Their police are the Science Police, because much was expected of science: magic would be left behind, which was odd considering they had characters like Princess Projectra, Dream Girl, the Emerald Empress, Mordru, the White Witch, and even Darkside. Eventually that idea went out the window, but the cops are still the Science Police.
There was a belief that, in the future, problems would largely be ironed out. Evolution will make us stronger, faster, smarter, and (somehow) psychic – look at Captain Comet. Buildings will all be in perfect repair and paint would give way to metal. Everything will be clean: no stains, no litter, no pet poop. In these early stories, evil is basically restricted to the supervillains.
As was common at the time of publication, these stories center on the young Legion against older villains who might upset their wonderful society. It is the generation gap that was an “eternal truth” for maybe fifteen years.
As optimism about the future faded, this view ceased to be acceptable. The Legion universe becomes darker in order to match people’s new preconceptions of making it ‘realistic.’ This has been part of a generic movement in storytelling. So the original series of Star Trek (1966-1969) was the bright, clean, in-repair future.
Since the original series, though, the Federation (another UN imitation) has had ever larger groups of evil characters who are in ever larger conspiracies at ever higher levels of power. Things have been damaged. In the same way the world of the Legion has changed.
Matter-Eater Lad’s father comes on stage and is an alcoholic who lost his job when the factory he worked at went broke. Tenzil Kem is supporting his family with his Legion living allowance check (which is written on paper for some reason). We get the planet-destroying Mordru and the many-planet-destroying Darkseid. There is the invading Khund and the infiltrating Dominators. After Earth is demolished, the President (Colossal Boy’s mother) embezzles money from RJ Brande (who funds the Legion) to cover the damage.
Look at JLA 3000. Set in the 31st century, the story chronicles clones of JLA members. Their 31st century is a Bladerunner’s jury-rigged interplanetary slum run by unaccountable incompetent bureaucrats.
The Legion has never quite been able to deal with this change. It’s rarely addressed that it has happened (a thought balloon for Colossal Boy says the Khunds were making soldiers of the Legion, but the same subtext is in a thousand other stories including in the Star Wars prequels). Dark times tend to need a dark hero like Batman, but the Legion is still in the bright uniforms of the optimistic era we were supposed to be heading for and they don’t play that up. I mean, look at Sun Boy: he’s one of the few heroes who’s more of a neon sign than Superman.
On the other hand, the darker the world of the Legion gets, the higher the stakes tend to be in stories.
1962 sees the introduction of Invisible Kid and Mon-El. Mon-El was introduced into 20th century stories as Superboy’s supposed brother. But it turned out he was from Daxam and in a long explanation had gathered things that made him look like Superboy’s brother. But, as a Daxamite, Mon-El isn’t vulnerable to Kryptonite radiation. He is vulnerable to lead radiation. Seriously.
DC now calls it lead poisoning. But Daxamites don’t have to ingest or touch lead to get this, they just have to stand near the stuff. It’s still lead radiation.
Unable to cure his friend, Superboy sends Mon-El to the Phantom Zone. Superboy swears he will find a cure, but he never does. So in a thousand years, Braniac 5 figures out a treatment (not a cure, but supply of the drug he needs has never been interrupted) Mon-El gets out and becomes a Legionnaire.
I think (and it’s just my thought, I have no evidence for this) the original plan was to have Superman get his pal out of the Phantom Zone and cure him. That way, Superman would have a sidekick, which was all the rage at the time. If that was the plan, fortunately, somebody put the nix on that. But they couldn’t leave Mon-El in the Phantom Zone, so they gave him some space from Superman and brought him out in the 30th century.
But when that happened the Legion changed. Originally, Legionnaires had one power or a couple powers that worked together: Cosmic Boy generates and controls magnetic energy; Lightning Lad throws lightning bolts; Bouncing Boy inflates and bounces.
These super powers are often very weak. Look at Invisible Kid. If you think turning invisible is a cool power, you live in a medium to low population density area. Let’s face it, Invisible Kid would be useless in Tokyo. People would bump into him all the time. In the same way, do you even want the power to inflate and bounce?
Some Legionnaires were in fact jokes. Bouncing Boy was created to keep overeating and put on weight. Matter-Eater Lad is able to bite through, chew, and digest anything. He comes from Bismoll, which was taken from Pepto Bismol, an over-the-counter treatment for stomach upset.
By 1962, with Superboy, Supergirl, Mon-el, and Ultra Boy, the Legion now had A-grade members and it added more over the years. This added depth to the team and adventures. But it also means members have to be carefully picked to meet the kind of opponents they can defeat in small groups. This is the change that the Legion has done best in meeting. It is no longer people with minor powers who need to be together but a range of abilities and that gives a chance for better stories and deeper characters. The JLA may be a team, but the Legion sends out teams and that’s better for the story.
The moment when Darkseid moves Daxam to a yellow sun and billions of people get Mon-El level powers should be an icon in DC storytelling. For one thing, it should tell us the destruction of Krypton may have been a blessing or you’d have all those Kryptonians and no Kryptonite.
With much more powerful characters, the old days of the Legion was recreated in March 1963 (six months before the X-Men first appeared). The Legion of Substitute Heroes was born. Originally, the Subs just had powers that were weak or had an obvious flaw. Eventually, they were made into a joke. The Substitutes have never recovered from this, but there is drama in the whole idea. After all, if the detectives of Gotham City can follow after Batman and try and do what they can, why can’t the Subs? But there were reasons for the change to comedy.
In 1963, trying your best even if you weren’t the best was considered a virtue. Now, it’s success rather than effort which is the measure of a person. The idea that the Subs were rejected, but will work hard to prove themselves, is now thought of as just hokey. We have become too cynical for the Legion of Substitute Heroes – at least, we think we have. I personally want to see them face Zod because I think they can win.
We also can’t take the Heroes of Lallor. These five superpowered teenagers worked for a dictatorship that was overthrown by story’s end. Basically, it was comment against the Soviet Union. That is now dated and I don’t know if the story could be rewritten to make the dictatorship Middle Eastern. But the idea of gaining freedom has lost currency, though in the Captain America movies, it may be making a comeback.
Finally, there was a problem from the start. The Legion was created in homage to Superboy. When Mon-El was brought in, it tied the Legion to DC continuity. Normally this would be a good thing, but the Legion is made of over thirty members, the Substitutes, and the Heroes of Lallor. In recent times there is even a cut-down version of cloned JLA members. It operates throughout the galaxy where there are various governments.
Played to the full, the Legion should be its own continuity. But DC has always tried to keep it chained to whatever other titles it has that are selling well or it is pushing. For example, Superboy and Supergirl are both members, but Superman doesn’t know who Supergirl is when he met her. So the explanation is Superboy is hypnotized to forget about anything he discovers about his future life. Fair enough.
But the Amazons don’t exist in the future. This is strange, since Wonder Woman, like the rest of them, is immortal. What happened to them? Batman could die of old age, but Wonder Woman’s life would have to be terminated or she would have to specifically move from Earth. DC had a problem and made it worse with its solution.
The Legion had to be part of DC continuity and always reacted to the continuity of other comics. Whatever fascinated Superboy, Superman, Supergirl or any other title would be holy writ for the Legion. When Lois and Lana are still competing for Superman’s attention, the Legion stays out of it because they would give away the result. When Superman will definitely marry Lois, their descendant looks like her and Superboy is obsessed with her (which means Lana never had a chance).
When Superman and Superboy have Kryptonite all over the place, there can be a whole cloud of it around the Earth. When Superboy isn’t there any more, the only Kryptonite is implied because Mon-el still has his serum. I mean, they never have to go get more raw materials.
Even before the events of Crisis, the Legion’s history was chopped on behalf of others. It made the Legion the servant of every other comic when it should have been the advertisement for them.
Look at the final scenes of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Nothing happens. It’s just that Wolverine is back and can’t remember anything after the seventies. But what if Mystique shows up (in clothes) and starts asking Logan if he’s all right. What if she tells him to look at his left hand, he does and there’s a ring on it? What if a blue-skinned, black haired kid runs by them and Mystique yells, “In class, on time, or you’re grounded.” What if the kid says some smart-ass thing and Logan yells, “Listen to your…” and freezes, clearly panicking. If that were the case, the next installment would have everybody looking for the changes. The Legion could have been used for foreshadowing in the same way. They shouldn’t have reflected what heroes in other titles were doing, they should have showcased what those heroes were going to do.
But the Legion has one more first, its biggest and the one no one has been able to handle. The Legion started as a kid hero group in 1958 and in 1966 they became the first kid hero group to start growing up. They did it before the Teen Titans, they did it before the X-Men.
I don’t just mean adding years or being drawing bigger. In 1966 Computo the Conqueror killed one of the three bodies of Triplicate Girl, leaving her Duo Damsel. The experience of losing a friend was the beginning of the Legion growing up. I know people think she was just one of three, but other two mourn her as an individual and their husband can tell them apart.
Since then the Legion has lost other heroes like Ferro Lad, Karate Kid, Chemical King, so many and others. Only after the deaths started did the Legionnaires turn from kissing games to actual sexuality that led to marriage and children and whole new dimensions to the stories. The Legion did a more thorough job growing up than any other kid hero group.
But this has made reboots almost impossible. The Legion cannot start out without the ghost of things to come hanging over them. When they started in 1958, the Legion had members in their early teens. But in the most recent reboot Saturn Girl and Cosmic Boy have sex when the membership is still at three and the members should be between 14 or 16.
And look at the original and the reboot names. The reboot names tend to drop the use of terms designating age. Lightning Lad becomes Livewire. Triplicate Girl becomes Triad. They seem to have trouble with the age of the characters.
Every time a character like Ferro Lad is introduced, their importance in the Legion growing up takes over everything. You can’t see Triplicate Girl without thinking one of them is going to die.
The last reboot was a failure, in some ways the most spectacular yet. Not only did the Legion and Legion Lost titles get canceled but they subverted an old rule of continuity. DC said time and again, Earth-2 has no Legion because there was no Superboy to inspire them (as we’ve seen there were a lot of other kid heroes on both worlds who could have inspired the Legion). When the latest series ended they showed this Legion had been on the current Earth-2. Perhaps it was just a swerve or maybe it was some fans who finally got to fight against a DC decision they probably had disagreed with as kids.
DC needs the Legion. Do they need to change it? Yes and no. If they leave it out of continuity, they can bring back Superboy and Supergirl. They don’t have to explain them, just have them there and that will give a lot more of the original Legion’s ethos. They could be time travelers, descendants, or from a parallel Earth. Who cares? They’re back.
Reboot from the start and don’t add characters every five minutes. Give time to the characters who are there. Give the story time to develop because you need new readers, not just the ones who are traipsing down memory lane.
And contradict that. Why can’t Braniac 5 work on the long-inert Metal Men to have a crossover? Wonder Woman is immortal. If Darkseid, Ra’s al Ghul, and Vandal Savage can make it to the 31st century, so can she and you can give her a different style. She’s Queen Diana and has only one eye. I just made that up and I want to see how that happened.
A descendant of Superman tried to join, what about descendants of other superheroes? Was Superman the only one to successfully breed?
Have other hero groups including adult ones. I know the Legion was eventually retconned to be the rebirth of superheroes, but there’s no reason to stick with that: the original series didn’t. Have the adults and the Legion conflict. Have at least one sidekick join the Legion and have the Legion argue with the adult hero.
Have at least one parallel-world Legion. Have the Legion of Substitutes and treat them seriously. Have the Subs learn how to use their powers more effectively.
Take the best heroes and put them in their own miniseries to show off aspects of the 31st century universe.
Above all, be optimistic. There’s a lot of Legion fans out there who are just waiting for a chance to read about their team. Don’t just make it a swerve fest. To misquote Dan Quayle, “If we do right today, the future will be better tomorrow.”
Until that day, check out The Legion of Super-Heroes: vol I Secret Origins and vols II through 12 The Dominators and especially the Legion Archives volumes – especially origins and archives. Watch the animated series and hope DC is smart enough to do an animated movie or two. It all will show you why the Legion is one of the underestimated great stories in comics, bar none.