Explain the Legion to me

1958, Al Plastino

1958, Otto Binder (writer) & Al Plastino (art)

I promise to ask this with humility and respect if you promise to answer without blithering. Blithering about the Legion of Superheroes seems to be almost a whole subset of comics fandom, comparable perhaps to Glorantha moonbats such as myself in the role-playing hobby. Jacobs & Jones’ The Comic Book Heroes, not otherwise sentimental, breaks down into slobbers about it for a whole chapter. I am sure someone out there can manage better.

Here’s what I know. The concept started in 1958 as a one-off story, with Superboy meeting some visitors from the 31st century who’ve formed a fan club and more-or-less fashioned themselves into superheroes based on their legends of the past, namely him. It quickly led to multiple appearances and then a consistent feature in Adventure Comics, with the idea that this fan club with names and costumes based on their idealism about the heroes of yore, has actually become a superhero group.

What started as a couple of cute conceits – a unique power per character, representatives of home planet “races,” a club not crime-fighters – became emergent properties of working together to work at all, of exotics without freakishness, and of heroism arising out of fandom. It’s a neat idea, and justifies a certain goofiness in the look-and-feel, a typically mid-teen age for the heroes, names that usually ended in “boy/lad” or “girl/lass,” a naive optimism, and an acceptably wider-than-usual range of oddball powers. Arguably it’s even profound that people in a space-faring super-civilization a thousand years from now would idealize our rather grubby or difficult struggles and model themselves on their vision of it, but I may be reaching a bit with that one as far as the book itself is concerned. Suffice to say that the premise can support a remarkably lighter and broader kind of superhero action than most of the comics I know, and could certainly make it fun.

The bushels and bushels of characters is obviously built-in, and given the inherent license to be a little goofy, it seems that no one lost any time adding another Legionnaire.

Lookit all the superheroes!

Lookit all the superheroes!

Seems like a lot!

Seems like a lot!

No, this isn't a DC Universe, it's a single team

No, this isn’t a DC Universe, it’s a single team (OK fine, some aren’t official members)

If you want to blow your mind, run any image search or visit the Cosmic Teams gallery.

Bluntly, that’s all I know, and I didn’t know it at all in the early 70s. Without the context, names like Lightning Lad and absurdly cute costumes just weren’t in my zone as a comics-reading kid who liked Warlock, Conan the Barbarian, and Hero for Hire.

timberwolfI remember the name Brainiac mainly because it became a general term and was often applied to me, not necessarily affectionately (or did the term exist before the character? I don’t know). I do in fact remember Timber Wolf, at his debut because I was really into wolves at age 10, and later in the 80s, someone explained the whole Wolverine-costume joke Dave Cockrum ran through his first run on the X-Men. No, I’m not going into it, it’s amusing but also all over the internet so you can look it up easily.

The Legion seems to have been a fast-track for young fans to become working pros, with significant results in all kinds of ways, so I’m interested in reading the following some day.

  • The 1966-1969 run written by the teenage Jim Shooter.
  • The early-mid 1970s, written by Cary Bates and then by Bates and Shooter (who’d returned to comics at the urging of Legion fans), drawn first by Dave Cockrum and then by Mike Grell.
  • In 1977, long-time editor Murray Boltinoff was replaced by Denny O’Neil and fan Paul Levitz became the writer, and apparently the book changed quite a bit. (Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway were on-and-off writers too.)
  • In the 1980s, finally in their own title, with Levitz still writing and with Keith Giffen as artist, then with a new title, and crossovers … which is where my interest flags.

Later stuff interests me about as much as any 90s superhero comics, meaning very few and very little. Besides, it was a crime to revise the color of that magnet-powers guy’s hot pink outfit. I’m not even a Legion reader and I do not approve.

Terry Gant, Third Coast Comics, Legion member

Terry = Legion member, no “sort of”

Klordny might even have been the first real-world grassroots superhero club, and it’s very intense and immediate as well as boasting a long-running APA. I totally get that the context of the fictional team as a fan club seems to have worked nicely for the real-world fan club, such that being a reading fan of the Legion was sort of like becoming a member. Wait a minute … “sort of?” Terry Gant of Third Coast Comics begs to differ! So that’s not really my topic; you go, guys.

And I’m not going to crack wise about how the powers are silly or whatever – come on, I’m writing and you’re reading a superhero/supervillain comics blog right at this very moment, f’fucksake. You won’t find me complaining about ridiculous stuff which is somehow good; my Surfer post should tell you all you need about that. I am perfectly willing to read a Matter-Eater Lad story if it is a good story. So … my question, not challenge, with no skepticism, is whether and how the Legion is good comics, simply because I don’t know. And whenever I try to find out, I get the aforementioned blithering, which, however sincere, doesn’t help me much.

Let me narrow it down a little. If I get the basic idea, and if I’m not too interested in becoming a fully-costumed Legionnaire myself, and if I don’t need some extra-complicated time-traveling crossover plotline explained, and if I’m completely not interested in slagging them in a hyper-concentrated pinpoint on the Geek Hierarchy diagram, then what am I really asking?

This: considering this is the Doctor Xaos blog, not the Guy Who Fights Doctor Xaos, it really comes down to who the bad guys are – whom did the Legion fight? more importantly, who did what to force them to fight or try to stop it? ‘Cause what I hardly see in any of the big ol’ Legion pictures out there, are villains. Maybe that’s an artifact of what I (don’t) know to search for, but help me out here!

Oh, here’s one, apparently these are the Fatal Five, who intrigue me greatly:

A big freakin' axe-halberd, a floating eyeball, and thigh-high boots - that's a whole lot of things I like in one spot

A big freakin’ halberd-axe, a floating eyeball, and thigh-high boots – that’s a whole lot of Ron’s jam in one spot. Who are they? I must know!

Next: BONUS POST: MCI: Misdemeanors and felonies

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on May 3, 2015, in Heroics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Tim Callahan

    The book TEENAGERS FROM THE FUTURE compiles essays about the Legion and heads in the direction of answering this very question, if anyone is interested: http://www.amazon.com/Teenagers-Future-Essays-Legion-Super-Heroes/dp/1467995665/ref=sr_1_1_twi_2_pap?ie=UTF8&qid=1430658939&sr=8-1&keywords=Teenagers+future

    Liked by 1 person

    • Got it! Many thanks Tim! THis book is exactly what my post was looking for. A perfect example of the internet doing what it purports: bringing together questions and answers, yes, but above all, people.


  2. I lost interest about the same time you did, but I really liked how the concept of 30+ heroes in one group played out, especially since so few of them were important media properties. It meant that no one was safe, except,perhaps, for Superboy. The Legion writers were free to torment and kill their characters in a way that other writers weren’t, and yet, those moments of bad behavior and noble sacrifice were well balanced by the joy of having powers, of being well-respected, of being decent teenagers in a group of other teens that accepts and love them. Now that I work with teenagers, some of them very high-achieving, I see the LSH in them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m no superfan, and I only read for a few years in the ’80s, so take my words with a grain of salt. I enjoyed the mix of Sci-fi and superheroes. It served as a nice change of pace from modern day settings at the time. Sometime in the early ’80s, just before the Great Darkness saga, they really nailed down a specific look for the 30th century, along with a calendar set in the 2980’s, and a nice futuristic looking alphabet/font.

    The Great Darkness Saga/Darkseid saga was likely their best story arc in the ’80s. It’s collected on paperback and kindle on amazon.

    I know you specifically asked for pre’90s Legion, but consider checking out the Mark Waid/Barry Kitson reboot of 2006-2007. I enjoyed that particular re-imagining, but it went south after the 3th or 4th paperback collection. BUT it’s real cheap if you buy it used (like $4.25 with shipping) on Amazon.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m interested in the answers here too as I’d like to read more. As an occasional comics reader I only encountered a few issues of LOTS growing up, but they stuck with me. When I was little, one of the first comics I owned was Superboy battling Wildfire for control of the Legion (#225, Mar 77). Later I found Wildfire’s tragic origin story (#283, Jan 82) at the library – remember when libraries had individual comics? Then on the school bus we would slide a box of comics up and down the aisle, and I was struck by the story where Karate Kid is taken out by the Legion of the Super-Villains (Vol 3 #4, Nov 84).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Tony Lower-Basch

    Grabbed from a G+ thread, at Ron’s request: I haven’t read much Legion of Superheroes myself, but I rather enjoyed Mark Waid’s “Legion of Super Heroes: Teenage Revolution” run, which has been collected in trades. It looks (to my inexpert eyes) like a bit of a reboot, but for that very reason it stands passably on its own, without requiring a lot of background knowledge to engage with.

    I thought it was particularly interesting how Waid conveyed the soft dystopia of a world in which parents have overwhelming ability to control and shape their children. Might be a place you could dig in, if you wanted. I picked it up off my library shelves, though, so I haven’t put my money where my mouth is.

    Added to address the topic question: I think, in a very real way, the Legion of Super Heroes are often counter-cultural. They seemed to fight the Science Police a *lot*, even back in the day.

    And frankly, when you’re Matter Eater Lad, and you have parents who (a) say “Wouldn’t you be -healthier- if you conformed more to our ideas of body image?” and (b) have the psychogenic drugs to MAKE YOU, and the will to use them … well, I’m not 100% sure that you need to posit some spandex-clad baddie, in order for conflict to exist.

    I feel like I’m walking into a dangerous mine-field to even ask it, but maybe someone with more knowledge can answer the elephant-in-the-room question … how often do the Legion engage in actions to shape and alter the fabric of their society that would, if placed in a modern context, end with them being called super-villains?

    Liked by 1 person

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