Monday, 19 July 2010

How I learned to love The Legion of Superheroes

The Legion of Superheroes are a group of super powered individuals from a thousand years in the future who came from all over the universe to follow the example of Superboy and fight for justice. Despite this relatively simple premise the Legion probably have one of the most complicated backstories in comics. For a start there are three different versions of them, and with over fifty members and over fifty years of stories it can seem a little daunting to anyone approaching the Legion for the first time. As a result the Legion pretty much split fans down the middle. You either love 'em or hate 'em, like a superhero version of Marmite or Morrissey.

I was introduced to the Legion for the first time as a kid by a couple of my father's old copies of Adventure Comics. One was a story containing the origin of Sun Boy, while the other was a story about the death of Beast Boy, one of the Heroes of Lallor. I absolutely loved these stories and read them so much that the covers fell off the comics. Every members' super-power seemed so cool and there were so many things that intrigued me about each one. I remember being particularly intrigued by Mon-El. This guy's as powerful as Superboy!? What's the deal? Is he Superboy's brother? I was hooked.

I was later given a bunch of old comics by my R.E. teacher and sure enough there were Legion comics in the pile. One story involved Brainiac 5 going crazy from the pressure of being the smartest guy on the team and using the Miracle Machine to unleash a monster on the Universe. The monster was only stopped by the sacrifice of Matter Eater Lad, who ate the Miracle Machine and was driven insane as a result. These issues left a tremendous impression on me. Brainiac 5 and Matter Eater Lad remain two of my favourite DC characters to this day and the idea of a good guy having a nervous breakdown and turning on his team mates seemed extremely grown up to me at the time.

Sadly by the time I tried to get into what were then current Legion stories it was the early to mid '90s and things had taken a turn for the confusing. Initially I tried getting into what I later found out was the "Five Year Gap" Legion, so called because the stories had jumped forward five years and caught up with a disbanded Legion in a much darker universe. I couldn't understand why there were two Legions, a young version and an adult version where everyone was missing limbs and had designer stubble. Shortly afterwards I tried once again to get into the Legion but by now Legion continuity had been rebooted and everyone had new, funky codenames like Live-Wire, Triad and Apparition, which in my mind robbed the characters of a lot of their charm. Worst still, Matter Eater Lad was demoted to the status of the Legion's resident chef! In 2004 Mark Waid rebooted the Legion once more and I gave the Legion another chance. The old code name's were back and these stories held a lot of promise, but something was still missing.

In fact all of these different versions were probably perfectly decent interpretations of the characters but I was looking to recapture the wonder and fascination I had experienced reading my Dad's old Adventure Comics and these comics just weren't doing it for me. Having said that, I always enjoyed seeing the Legion turn up in other people's comics. I had two favourite Legion guest appearances in particular. The first was Superman: Time and Time Again, in which Superman finds himself bouncing through time and meets the Legion at three different points in their history. The second was Final Night in which the rebooted Legion are trapped in the present day and help reignite the Sun. This story contains some wonderful interaction between Lex Luthor and Brainiac 5, with an arrogant Brainy trying to lord it over Lex with his massive intellect but being thoroughly put in his place by the super-arrogant Luthor. These stories always gave me the impression that I was missing out on something wonderful by not following the Legion regularly. However that feeling I had reading my Dad's Adventure Comics continued to elude me.

That is until 2007 when I read Geoff Johns' Superman and the Legion of Superheroes. Finally, here was the Legion I recognised! Sure, they were older but they were unmistakably the characters I fell in love with as a child. This was confirmed by the utterly brilliant Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds, which had nothing to do with Final Crisis but did beat convoluted Legion continuity into something resembling coherency, validated every single incarnation of the Legion and told a fantastic story at the same time. All these years I had been peering over the wall of confusion at this wonderful Legion party going on without me, and if Geoff Johns didn't break down this barrier, he did at least give me a leg up over it and allowed me to join the party.

So why do I love the Legion so much? There are many reasons but here's the main three.

1) The History

The huge continuity that once seemed so daunting now seems like a rich reservoir of storytelling goodness which I can dip into as much or as little as I like. Since Johns reintroduced me to the Legion I've sought out and thoroughly enjoyed the famous Great Darkness Saga, where the Legion go up against the 30th Century version of Darkseid. I've also bought Showcase Presents: The Legion of Superheroes Vol: 1-3 which reprints all the early Legion stuff. These books have allowed me to experience such great Legion moments as the Death of Ferro Lad and the origins of such villains as Computo and the Fatal Five. I've also been able to reexperience those two stories involving Beast Boy and Sun Boy that began my love affair with the Legion.

2) They're like the X-Men but better

The countless members! The wacky powers! The deaths! The dodgy resurrections! The drama! The love! The hate! The Dave Cockrum designed costumes! Everything the X-Men can do the Legion can do better. In the future. With spaceships.

3) The Coolest Super Powers in Comics

For me one of the best things about the Legion is that most of the members have the kind of powers that kids give themselves when they're playing. What kid wouldn't want to grow really big, split into three people, walk through walls, change shape, turn invisible or be really, really, really good at Karate? These are the kind of powers you would wish for if you had a magic wishing lamp, rather than certain other powers like, say, some vague energy based powers involving playing cards.

Recently veteran Legion writer Paul Levitz has begun a new ongoing Legion series and I've been getting it. I've recently been facing some minor financial woe and have been forced to cut my Pull List down slightly. I eventually decided that the Legion was among those comics for the chop. The first two issues have been great but I figured I couldn't miss out on Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin, J. Michael Straczynski's Superman or Aquaman's ongoing adventures in Brightest Day and so the Legion must be sacrificed. I tossed and turned that night in fitful slumber, and by the morning I had decided that I just couldn't drop it and Legion of Superheroes was back on the Pull List. It seems that after years of trying to get into the Legion party I just can't bring myself to leave! And why would I want to? The Legion of Superheroes are awesome! Long may they live!

Somewhere in this pic artist Keith Giffen has hidden Spider-Man. Can you find him?
UPDATE: My fellow blogger and internet chum Kello has kindly agreed to a blog crossover and has written a great post explaining why he doesn't like the Legion.  You can read his rebuttal here.


  1. I Found Spidey! Wow, I would've never known that. And great article Paul, I didn't know a lot about the Legion and yeah, it is very confusing getting into their stories due to them having such rich history. Imagine how confused I was when I read the Final Crisis story you mentioned.

  2. Great article Paul! You REALLY do love your Legion, don't you?! I was(and still am!)a HUGE fan of the Waid/Threeboot Legion, so I can totally understand where you're coming from here. It's probably my love of the Threeboot Legion which prevents me from enjoying the current version of the Legion. I miss my Legion SO much that I just can't get into the current Legion... Well, that plus the fact that they're still going by Boy/Girl and Lad/Lass, even though they've seemingly outgrown those monikers... That kind of bugs me... Anyway, sorry for rambling, but once you're bitten by the Legion bug, it's hard/impossible to be cured!

  3. Thanks for checking it out and commenting X and JT.

    X - I've got a lot of respect for the Threeboot Legion. I loved the little imaginative touches, like Colossol Boy being a giant who shrank. I'm glad they're still out there somewhere, even if it is on Earth Prime.

    I love the Boy/Girl/Lad/Lass names on the current Legion though, even though they're blatantly too old for them.

  4. Yeah, the cancellation of the Threeboot Legion has to be one of the most devastating cancellations I've suffered through recently... I was in a funk for a good week! And the way they wrapped up(and I use that term VERY loosely!)the dangling storylines! Grr!!! I will say that it's nice that DC has at least left them out there somewhere, where they could always be brought back, although they did seem to suffer some serious losses during Legion of 3 Worlds...

    HA, really!? That drives me so crazy! I just can't see any self-respecting twenty-something calling themselves Cosmic BOY or Saturn GIRL! Why not Cosmic Man, or Cosmic Guy or even Cosmic Fellow! :P

  5. This was a really great post. It's a lot of fun when people combine the history of characters with their personal passion for the title. I've felt this way about Robin and the Flash, so I can relate in that sense.

    And the hidden Spidey is hilarious.