Legion of Super-Heroes: A Brief (?) History of the Future

TL;DR, After a long, three-decade history of reboots — some of them soft and within existing continuity, others as hard as reboots get — DC Comics’ dormant Legion of Super-Heroes franchise is poised for its latest relaunch under Brian Michael Bendis and Ryan Sook.  

I’ll start by saying that I’m a ride-or-die fan of DC Comics’ Legion of Super-Heroes. The concept has appealed to me across its different iterations, even though I came on board the fandom in a particularly turbulent time.

So when, a month or so ago, award-winning writer Brian Michael Bendis announced that he’s going to write a new Legion of Super-Heroes title in 2019, I knew I needed to write a piece or two about it. The Legion hasn’t had a regular appearance in the DCU in more than half a decade and their return really has been a long time coming.

What is the Legion of Super-Heroes?

The original three members: Lightning Lad, Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl.

The answer is as much a “who” as it is a “what.”

It’s a super-team like the Justice League … but they’re young like the Teen Titans and (original) X-Men … but they’re a thousand (or so) years in the future … but they came back in time to recruit a young Clark Kent … but then they didn’t anymore…

Hmmm, that’s a lot. Perhaps it’s best to start at the beginning.

Superboy gets rejected??? (Spoiler alert: He doesn’t actually)

In 1958’s Adventure Comics #247, a trio of super heroic teens from a thousand years in DC’s future — Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl — traveled to the (then) mid-20th century to possibly enroll their admitted inspiration, Superboy, into their super-club, the Legion of Super-Heroes. 

The concept was a hit with readers, and the before-only-hinted-at Legion grew into a regular rotating cast of dozens. The team went from Adventure to Superboy and The Legion of Super-Heroes, eventually shedding the young Kryptonian from top billing to occasional guest-star status and becoming one of DC’s top-selling titles in the 1980s — both despite and because of its far-future setting apart from the rest of the DC universe.

Silver Age glory days.

The Legion has fallen far from those heights. From losing its progenitor to John Byrne’s 1986 “Man of Steel” reboot of Superman that effectively erased Superboy from continuity (necessitating a crude “pocket universe” retcon to explain the Legion’s very existence, post-Crisis) to the creatively ambitious but franchise-killing Five Years Later time jump that was 1989’s vol. 4, to its massive 1994 full reboot (technically not its first, but the one everyone remembers) that for some reason did not restart numbering at 1, the Legion became and remains a rather byzantine part of DC Comics lore.

Perhaps it’s instructive to talk a bit about the Legion’s history of reboots.

Post-Crisis

Following 1985’s Crisis of Infinite Earths that revamped the DC universe, the Legion of Super-Heroes was left slightly adrift. Up until then, the title, under the steady hand of writer Paul Levitz, continued to march along, with members coming and going and actually aging in real time in a manner generally not seen in mainstream superhero comics. It’s the kind of thing that could occur with the LSH not being tied as tightly to DC continuity.

But the loss of Superboy kinda stuck the Legion even further into its own insular corner of the DCU, as the time-traveling teen no longer provided that tether to the 20th-century. Fellow 20th-century visitor Supergirl was also lost during Crisis.

Longtime Legion artist Keith Giffen decided to lean fully into the Legion’s unusual status following Levitz’s departure after the elder scribe’s “Magic Wars” arc threw the United Planets into chaos, leading to the first of many reboots of the Legion.

Five Years Later

When those three words faded in from a black screen during “Avengers: Endgame” this spring, Legion fans recognized them from the opening page of Legion of Super-Heroes (volume 4) #1 from back in 1989.

Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 4. You can tell it was the ’90s from all the jackets.

Giffen’s Legion aged the characters from their young adulthood to deep in their 30s and beyond. It also did its storytelling with a 9-panel-grid approach to super heroics in the style of Watchmen from a few years earlier — complete with the postscript text pieces at the ends of each issue — though with grittier art and less overt sex and violence than the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons-helmed classic. Also like Watchmen, it was ambitious and bold, utterly dense and a challenge for new readers.

This was the Legion as I first encountered it. 

Well, that’s not entirely true. I had read an issue or two of vol. 3 in the mid-’80s during the “Who Is Sensor Girl?” arc. But this more mature take on the team, one where these adults eschewed their “-Lad” and “Lass” code names in favor of their real names, definitely caught my fancy. 

Trouble was … it wasn’t quite the Legion anymore. Oh sure, it had the same characters and all (mostly). But the essence of the Legion was missing. And that became clear with the next soft reboot — one in-continuity.

The SW6 Legion

A refreshed, back-to-youthful-basics spinoff in 1993. Didn’t last … sort of

In the final third of vol. 4’s three-year storyline, a younger, more idealistic Legion — called “Batch SW6” for the stasis pods in which they were discovered — was introduced, with all the costumes and memories of the team from the early 1960s. Whether these were clones of the adults or the actual time-lost originals was never quite settled in-panel, but their presence led to the launch of Legionnaires #1 in 1993. 

It wasn’t one-third as sophisticated as the parent Legion title (which itself wasn’t that hot after Giffen’s departure left his co-scribes to muddle on in mediocrity) but holy cats did it revive the essence of the team that I didn’t know I was missing. 

That essence: The Legion of Super-Heroes are optimistic super teens of the future with flight rings attempting to evoke the Heroic Age exemplified by Superman, colorful costumes and all. Their society is either utopian (or being dragged toward it by their example) or being restored to it by their efforts. 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last. The powers that were at DC decided they wanted that essence back in the core title of grownups, leading to the MOTHER of all Legion reboots:

ZERO HOUR

Never has cover text promising the “End of an Era” proven so true

Though the crossover tangentially affected the rest of the DCU (the way the original Crisis tangentially touched the Legion nine years earlier), 1994’s Zero Hour completely wiped away the Legion’s long and storied history, replacing the adult heroes with what came to be known as the reboot Legion (or, more derisively, the “Archie” Legion), helmed by Mark Waid for its first year. After that year’s  “0” issues, the numbering of both the former parent Legion of Super-Heroes (drawn by Lee Moder) and spinoff Legionnaires (co-plotted by Tom Peyer and penciled by Jeffrey Moy) picked right up where the pre-ZH runs ended and the two essentially became a bimonthly title retelling the early history of the classic Legion. 

…But different.

Reader reaction was split. Old-timers were frustrated at the loss of “their” Legion and the rehashing of stories they’d already read — or upset when the stories went left when they expected a right turn. (Just mention the name “Sneckie” to any Legion fan and then sit back and watch.) Newer readers like me enjoyed the twin titles all right, but the run wasn’t entirely even. And even to us, the stories seems somewhat rehashed, even though the writers (later joined by Roger Stern) tried to keep us on our toes. 

Truly, though, it wasn’t until the books’ cancellations and rebrand into a pair of miniseries (“Legion Lost” and then “Legion Worlds”) leading into “The Legion” by the writing team of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning (affectionately known as DnA) in the 2000s that the reboot Legion really carved its own identity apart from the original that ended in 1994. 

It was a generally stellar run that launched the career of Olivier Coipel, among other things. Unfortunately, low sales doomed this Legion to limp into limbo to make way for … ANOTHER reboot?

The Threeboot

Different. But kinda the same?

In 2005, Mark Waid, who’d headed up the Zero Hour relaunch, asked the question: How would the core Legion concept play out if created in 2006 instead of 1958? His answer: It would be a massive youth movement figure headed by the rebellious Legion of Super-Heroes. Each issue, written by Waid and drawn by Barry Kitson, would be extra-length to give more space for the team’s large cast. It was, in its way, as bold and ambitious as the 1989 version even though it looked much more like the Silver Age Legion updated for the 21st century.

But the “Threeboot” (so named as it was the third LSH continuity) didn’t fully take off for readers, either. The old guard took offense at the surly new Legion’s “Eat it, Grandpa” ethos and rallying cry. The newer fans who’d come into Legion fandom with the Zero Hour team now got to feel spurned by the loss of “their” Legion. And the very sluggish pace of Waid’s arcs did not help many readers from either camp to overlook those irritations. 

The book briefly became “Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes,” featuring a time-lost Kara Zor-el as headliner and new member, but the same pacing issues plagued the title and Waid and Kitson left by the middle of the title’s third year. 

After a fill-in stint by writer Tom Bedard, comics veteran Jim Shooter returned to comics writing on the team that had launched his career when he was only a teenager. Accompanied by new art talent Francis Manapul, Shooter gave the struggling title his best shot, but the rust was very evident to me and his Legion run was very uneven. The book was canceled with issue 50. 

But it wasn’t over for the Legion, not by a long shot.

Back to the Future: The Retroboot

The originals, updated

Before the Threeboot run had even ended in late 2007,  respective Justice League of America and Justice Society of America writers Brad Meltzer and Geoff Johns wrote a crossover story called “The Lightning Saga” which featured members of the Legion of Super-Heroes — the young adult versions previously erased in Zero Hour, but in their pre-Five Years Later incarnations. Not long after, these Legionnaires were highlighted by Johns in an arc of Action Comics where they were shown to be headline character Superman’s boyhood friends, as in pre-Crisis DC continuity. 

Clearly, the powers that were at DC decided to undo much of the original 1980s Crisis of Infinite Earths and, in the Legion’s particular case, renew much of the team’s original continuity prior to the franchise’s first massive reboot in 1989. And the old Legion’s return was solidified by the Final Crisis tie-in “Legion of 3 Worlds” in 2008-09 that acknowledged all three Legion runs as extant in the DCU, just from different Earths. 

In the end, though, only one got a new lease on life in 2010. Basically, DC had finally listened to the old school and gave them (and us) what they’d been asking for: the original Legion, picked up after The Magic Wars but before the Five Year Gap — right down to having legendary writer Paul Levitz back.

For a while, the book worked. Though Levitz and penciller Yildiray Cinar never quite excelled, neither was reading this now sixth volume of Legion of Super-Heroes ever painful as in Shooter’s run on vol. 5. We were all home. 

But then The New 52 happened. 

Of all the DCU properties, the Legion was actually the least affected, continuity-wise, its far-future setting continuing to be a boon in this context. And the franchise got to participate in the 2011 event as well with the launch of a new “Legion Lost” title featuring a squad marooned in the 21st century.

But the spinoff, written by Fabian Nicieza, wasn’t successful and something changed in the character of the core Legion title as well, which began to spin its wheels. Legion veteran Keith Giffen returned to the book he’d built his career on but it didn’t help — indeed, given some of the rather cavalier shock deaths of his run, it seemed he was there to hurt instead. 

Both Legion titles were gone by 2013, about two years into the New 52. But this time, for the first time in the team’s nearly 50 years of continuous publication, there was no plan for a new title. 

The future had no future.

The LSH has appeared sporadically since, whether as part of DC’s “Convergence” two-shots in 2015 or in an arc of “Justice League United” starting in late 2014 before that. And, of course, members have guest-starred in TV’s “Supergirl” for the past few seasons. But the team’s existence in DC’s Rebirth universe has been shrouded in mystery. 

There have been hints of the Legion, of course. DC Rebirth #1, and then the (too) long-running miniseries Doomsday Clock both featured a blond young woman resembling Legion founding member Saturn Girl. And other LSH-related characters have appeared as well. But it’s been suggested that the Legion’s fate and future in the current Rebirth continuity hinges upon the completion of Doomsday Clock, whose most recent issue 10 suggests that both the LSH and the Justice Society have been absent for a reason. 

Saturn Girl appears in Doomsday Clock #7. But WHICH Saturn Girl?

In any case, perhaps whatever plan Geoff Johns has or had in store for the Legion no longer matters, because now new DC Comics superstar Bendis is on board the Superman titles and now also the Legion of Super-Heroes (though Bendis reportedly still says his Legion and “Clock” are connected somehow, despite Johns’ story starting long before Bendis’ arrival). In fact, it’s beginning to appear that the LSH may have been part of what drew Bendis to jump ship from Marvel to DC in the first place. 

It’s also looking like this Rebirth Universe Legion has no connection to any of the previous versions. While many of the names may be the same — the three founders along with Shadow Lass, Chameleon Boy and Brainiac 5 being the earliest confirmed members — the looks and feel of this Legion as visually designed by Ryan Sook are quite different.

The newest Legion, as depicted on the cover of Superman #14, coming in August

Bendis will introduce the LSH in August within the pages of Superman #14, then backtrack a bit with a two-part mini titled “Millennium,” in which a character will trek through the 1,000 years of DC’s future, tying together all the disparate franchises of tomorrow ranging from near-future stuff like Batman Beyond to the distant dystopia of Kamandi, the Last Boy before presumably culminating in the Legion sometime in the 32nd century — breaking the previous “1,000 years in the future” chain that has been the concept’s strength and weakness. 

Some of the remaining fans of the original Legion are dismayed at all this change. Others are beyond excited. And probably all of us are a bit apprehensive at what Bendis is up to after his earlier Disassemblings of other super-teams. But we’re all ready to love it or hate it* either way.

*For me, personally, as much as I’ve loved the Legion, there’s a little bit of hate mixed in as well for the franchise’s vision of diversity. I’ll write about that in the near future.

Black in America. Child of God. Incredible geek. Lethally kind.

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