The Idiot's Guide to the Legion of Superheroes (and why I love them)

The Legion gets a bad rap.

This stems mostly from a long history that involves two reboots and one major retcon that ultimately took years to fully resolve. As a concept, the Legion of Superheroes became synonymous with convoluted continuity that was constantly trying to fix itself. The Legion was supposed to be the most inacessible comic around.

But here's the thing: the rest of the DCU has caught up to them.

The DC Universe as a whole has now seen two reboots (Crisis and Flashpoint) and one major retcon that took years to resolve (Zero Hour). And most of DC's main characters have been around longer than the Legion. So to hang your hat on the "Legion is complicated" bit as a reason to write them off is stupid; they are no more complicated than any other title DC publishes (which, granted, is a backhanded compliment).

No, the problem that most people really have with the Legion is that they exist outside of the mainstream DCU continuity. Their book takes place one thousand years in the future, which means that whatever happens in Rebirth or Metal will have no impact on them, as any impact it had has already been seen.

More than ever, people want their superhero stories to "count." The Legion just isn't that book, although it can be.

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The Originals

The Legion first appeared in Adventure Comics #247 in a Superboy story. They were created by Otto Binder and Al Plastino. The team allowed DC's creators to tell even more fantastical Superboy stories by placing the adventures in the future. And, by and large, the stories were fun, Silver Age nonsense.

The team would eventually co-star in Superboy's book before pushing him aside. They became a staple of the DCU, joining the Teen Titans in launching two titles, one created especially for the direct burgeoning market. The early 80s were good to the Legion.

The problems began when Crisis on Infinite Earths happened. DC decided that Superboy no longer existed, and Superman didn't don the costume until he was living in Metropolis. This is actually a solid idea; thinking that no one would piece together Superman's identity simply by figuring out which Smallville resident moved to Metropolis was silly.

But if the Legion had formed with Superboy as their inspiration, how could they still exist?

The solution was to create an alternate Superboy, one whose adventures still happened and who still inspired the team. But this Superboy could't exist in the mainstream DCU. That then begged the question: why had the Legion been palling around with an alternate universe Superboy all this time?

The answer as that major Legion villain, the Time Trapper, had been manipulating them all this time. He'd created this pocket universe and every time the Legion went into the past, he redirected them to his creation.

This was actually a pretty great twist. It allowed Superboy to remain a part of Legion history while creating a devastating secret that shook the team to its core. The pocket Superboy ends up sacrificing himself to save the Legion, because he couldn't exist any more.

But while Superboy had been removed from the Legion's future, he was still a part of its past. Years later, no doubt because of the ongoing lawsuit between DC and Superboy's creators, Siegel and Schuster, Superboy had to be erased completely. So Legion history was rewritten. Their inspiration become a new version of an old character, Mon-El, known in the 20th century as Valor.

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The Archie Legion

The Legion didn't technically need to be rebooted during the Zero Hour crossover, but the original version of the team had been pushed to its end. A jump five years into the future had seen to that. While there were still places creators could have taken the team, DC decided to instead start all over again. This led to the creation of what is affectionately known as the Archie Legion.

This reboot happens not quite 40 years after the Legion had been introduced, so this idea that the Legion was regularly being recreated has no merit.

In fact, this new version of the team lasted 10 years, across two titles for most of that time. The series was like any other long running superhero comic: it had its good moments and its bad. But the book was basically an optimistic Ultimate universe update that kept the core concepts of each character in tact. It didn't feel like a reboot so much as a remodel.

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The Threeboot

Dwindling sales convinced DC to reboot the team again, no doubt in part because it was being spearheaded by a writer with a following, Mark Waid. This team was known as the Threeboot, which was a bit of a misnomer. This was the third version of the team; a third reboot would have made this the fourth version.

This version was more of a departure from the original concept than the Archie Legion. Waid and artist Barry Kitson attempted to give a rational explanation for why the Legion would be a group of teenagers. They also tried to introduce new villains and diversify the team. Their success with each of these aspects varied and this new version was undermined when Geoff Johns brought back the original team in the pages of Action Comics. This new Legion would eventually come to end after 4 years.

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All For One

The originals returned from an early point in their history. The original group had jumped forward 5 years for some radically different stories which, while considered top notch now, were polarizing when originally released. Johns decided to use the team that existed just before the 5 year jump, leaving that future as a possible one, but not the present.

The return of the originals was a big deal, as such things always are in comics. No one loves a return to an old concept more than comic book fans who have lived through new iterations.

But present day DC characters had interacted with both the Archie Legion and the Threeboot version. How could that work if the originals were back?

During yet another crossover, Geoff Johns declared that the originals were from the future of Earth-1, the main reality. The Archie Legion was from Earth-247, although Johns had established that in the Infinite Crisis series. Unfortunately for the Legion, Johns had also destroyed that Earth. Luckily for the Archie Legion, they had been banished to limbo before that happened, which is where they were pulled from for the Legion of 3 Worlds.

The Threeboot Legion, it turned out, were from the future of Earth Prime, birth place of Superboy Prime, a polarizing character who was the main villain of 3 Worlds. Making the Threeboot Legion a part of Superboy Prime's universe is a little messed up, considering how awful Superboy Prime was, but I suppose it connected the story together. The main problem is that the Threeboot Legion were inspired by real life superheroes, yet Earth Prime's whole concept is that Superboy is the only super powered character there. Given that Superboy Prime is an incredible d-bag, implying that he somehow inspired the Legion comes off as a really sneaky way of saying the Threeboot was filled with jerks.

The original Legion survived Final Crisis and would also make it through another DC reboot without being touched. This time it was Flashpoint and the launch of the New 52. The Legion got two books, the second, called Legion Lost, took place in the present. It was a solid theory on how to bridge the gap between the Legion and the rest of the DCU.

Both books were canceled after less than 2 years.

The Final Tally

So let's break it down so we're all clear:

Original Superman                                    Original Legion
Post-Crisis Superman                                Archie Legion
New 52 Superman                                     Threeboot Legion
Rebirth Superman

In other words, there have been just as many reboots of Superman as there have been of the Legion, more, since we don't know what the Rebirth version is like just yet. Yet the idea that the Legion is overly complicated persists.

So with all these strikes -- both perceived and real -- against them, why do so many people love the Legion?

Change.

One of the frustrating things about being a fan of corporately owned superhero comics is that they tend to maintain the status quo. Even if there's drastic change, you know full well that it's temporary, as the intellectual property much always remain the same. We all knew Superman would return from the dead, just as we all know that Captain America will stop being a Nazi, just as well all know that Wolverine will be back. That's just the way it is.

My favorite superhero stories are the ones that buck that trend. Grant Morrison gave Batman a biological son and, despite the odds, he has stuck. More recently, Superman has returned and he's married to Lois Lane and the two of them have a son. It's phenomenal. Suddenly, the imaginary stories of the 70s, the "Super Sons" is now a reality, because comics have actually moved forward.

This is rarity, though, and in some ways only applicable to Superman and Batman. The latter has always had a teen sidekick, so making one of them his biological child wasn't that much of a change. And Superman is Superman; if any character could make being a good family man work, it's the Last Son of Krypton.

In other words, change is hard to come by in superhero comics, so when I find it, I am drawn to it. It is one of my most favorite things.

Enter the Legion of Superheroes, a comic about a group of teen superheroes in the far future. Their adventures are not bound by shared continuity or intellectual property concerns.

As I mentioned above, the Legion's appeal is also one of the reasons it's a hard sell. Fans don't want to buy a comic unless they think it's going to be important to the grand tapestry of the DCU.

It looks like the Rebirth version is going to be connected to the present. The first appearance of the Rebirth Legion has Saturn Girl as a patient in Arkham Asylum.

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This is problematic for me on a couple of levels. First and foremost, using Saturn Girl would suggest that she's no longer a retired, married, mother of two, and I really liked her as a retired, married, mother of two, just as I really liked Lightning Lad as a retired, married, father of two.

The other issue is that connecting the Legion to Batman seems insane. Connecting them to Superman makes sense. But there is nothing about the Legion that should connect to Batman. More to the point, the idea that Batman would have any kind of a legacy remaining after 1,000 years is a huge stretch; there are just too many other superheroes running around.

Besides, the most recent history of the originals had Superman actually going on adventures as Superboy, albeit in the future where he didn't risk exposing his secret identity. I'm not entirely sure when that idea was first introduced or who came up with it, but it's brilliant and I'm a little worried it might go away.

Regardless, the return of the Legion can only be a good thing. They offer a version of superheroes that we don't normally get to see: ones that change. And that's great.