Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wednesday Comics: Long Live the Legion!!!

Hey Kids, Comics! 

In the summer of 1975 I came across the last of my great comic book favorites. In the St. Louis airport on the way to some family trip, I accidentally found myself with a copy of Superboy & The Legion of Super-Heroes #212. The art was the first thing that grabbed my attention; it wasn't the same John Romita-Nick Cardy type covers that I was used to seeing. It was by rising star Mike Grell, who quickly became one of my favorite artists ever. That's his cover on the left.

Unlike the Justice League of America or the Avengers, who have their adventures in the current day, the Legion (LSH for short) exists in the far-flung 30th Century. This issue opened up, literally, a whole new universe of adventures to me. I had thought that the DC universe revolved around Superman and Batman; after reading this issue, I knew that the Legion owned the future. And as a fan of STAR TREK and LOST in SPACE, I loved the idea of a space-based adventure series.  

I don't think I could have asked for a better first issue for me to introduce me to the complicated mythos of The Legion than this issue. Quick recap: the LSH holds open calls for members, but six of these Rejects get together to challenge the right of their fellow countrymen to represent their planets as Legionnaires. So right off the bat I get quick origins for Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, Phantom Girl, Chameleon Boy, Shrinking Violet, and Matter-Eater Lad, as well as vital story points: each member has a unique ability, members are mostly from different planets, teamwork is important, and nobody hogs the spotlight. This was brought home to me when Chameleon Boy calls Superboy "a super-buttinsky." This never happened in the Justice League!!

When I first discovered the Legion it was in the midst of one of its many "peaks." I eventually found out that the history of the LSH is marked by its "peaks" and "valleys." It was originally created as a throwaway plot device in a Superboy story but the fans wouldn't let the characters die; it fought its way into the lead berth in Adventures Comics where it enjoyed a strong Silver Age run until its editor retired. The new editor didn't like the series and banished it into the back-up position of Action Comics and then Superboy. This lasted for several years until a different editor (and the accounting department) realized that the issues WITH the Legion were selling better than the issues without. Then in Superboy #197, the Legion grabbed the lead spot again, and this time, there was no looking back. This was when the late, great Dave Cockrum was redesigning all of their costumes and their futuristic architecture and machinery. (These are his character references, collected on the cover of THE LEGION ARCHIVE #10.) He is almost single-handedly responsible for the resurgence in the Legion's popularity. Oh, and when he had a fight with the LSH editor, he left DC and went to Marvel to help create The New X-Men. So he wasn't just some no-talented guy! Although it was a shame to lose him, he was replaced by Mike Grell, which is where I came in. 

When I got back to St. Louis I started hunting down Superboy/LSH issues. I not only found #213 but I also found a few older issues. I eventually spent my adoloscence collecting all of the Dave Cockrum and Mike Grell back-issues; when I got the first issue with the Legion taking over Superboy's book (#197) in the mail I let out a little cheer. I even subscribed so that I wouldn't miss any issues. For nearly 20 years, I didn't.

Oh, did I forget to mention that another reason I liked the Legion is because they had 20 members? Yep; they really were legion. Those characters shown above by Dave Cockrum are most of the leads, but there are a good ten more characters not shown here, and that doesn't even consider the Legion of SUBSTITUTE Heroes, who appeared often. So those characters I learned about in #212? They were almost all absent from #213! I'm sure it took me awhile to figure out who all them were. Whenever I read that the Legion mythos was hard to "break into," though, I just shrugged. I never had any problem picking the stuff up as I went along, but maybe that was because I started with a story that was so accessible.

I think one reason that DC used Superboy as a "hook" was because none of the other characters were anybody, and didn't tend to appear in every issue. So until the group proved their worth to the comic-buying audience, Superboy's name stayed on the mast-head. The book's name was changed legally to Superboy AND the Legion (#231) in 1977 and then two years later his name was dropped completely: they booted him out, as "his" book was renamed Legion of Super-Heroes with #259.

During all this Mike Grell left and was replaced by James Sherman (who later designed the MLB logo) and then a long list of different "permanent" artists. Paul Levitz came in as the lead writer and tried to make the Legion book into more of a space opera and less of a "Super Friends in Space." He did a pretty good job, in my opinion. His run's highlight was the most ambitious LSH story arc up to that time: the Earthwar Saga, where the evil alien race in the LSH continuity (The Khunds) lead an all-out attack on Earth (they fail, by the way). During his run he also wrote the first Legion wedding as well as a death of a Legionnaire: Chemical King, one of my favorites, died to prevent the beginning of another World War (seven, I think it was). :-(

After Levitz left, the series fell into one of its "valleys" again. There were a few good stories, but in general this era was marked by silliness (The Genie of Space), mistakes (Brainiac 5 Goes Insane?), and just plain bad (the whole "death" of Ultra Boy and the debut of Reflecto). This was not a good time to be a Legion fan.

Then, in 1982, Paul Levitz came back to the book. He announced that he was determined to do a *better* job than he had done before. He brought with him two stellar artists, Pat Broderick and Keith Giffen. Although Broderick left after only a few issues, Giffen stayed. Together they ushered in what all LSH fans consider to be one of the best runs in the history of the series. They kicked off their run with one of the all-time best Legion stories ever, "The Great Darkness Saga." If you haven't read it and you like science fiction and super-heroes, and this article hasn't completely befuddled you, and you perhaps recognize the famous face shown here, then you definitely should read it.

Giffen stayed long enough to help create a new "direct market" only LSH title for the then-new "comic book shop" market. For about a year, there were two LSH books, as the "news-stand" series marched on as the Baxter Book (named after the better paper used in the printing) also told new stories. Giffen left just as he was finished plotting the death of Karate Kid at the hands of the Legion of Super-Villains. (Yes, we haven't even talked about their villains. They, too, were legion.) He was  replaced by another of my favorites, Steve Lightle. It was Lightle who helped design two of my favorite Legionnaires, Tellus and Sensor Girl. Tellus was famous because he was the first (and for awhile ONLY) true "alien" Legionnaire. Although every member was from a different planet, 99% of them were humanoids (and 75% were white, but that's another story). Steve Lightle came on and *requested* a character design that was not humanoid. The character that eventually became Tellus was so popular that Levitz and Lightle decided to make him into an actual Legionnaire. As a "fish out of water" myself (atleast in my own mind?) I really enjoyed reading about how this fish-monster-thing was getting along as a police officer to the galaxy.

And as for Sensor Girl....another candidate for Best LSH Story Arc Of All Time has to be the "Who Is Sensor Girl?" story from 1986. She joined in the same Open Call for New Legionnaires that brought in Tellus, but unlike all other Legionnaires, she was masked and kept her identity secret. No one knew who she was under her mask! There were plenty of ideas and theories before her identity was finally revealed in a story that ended with the death of another hero. This was the Space Opera that Levitz had been aiming for. Even now, 20-plus years later, this story stands up as a wonderful mystery. In fact, best-selling author Brad Meltzer has admitted that as a reader he *loved* this story. I don't blame him. 

Steve Lightle only stayed about one year because he found his intricate designs took too long for a monthly series. When he left he remained the main cover artist (#25 above; btw that's Tellus on the middle left and Sensor Girl in the center). The interior art was taken over by Greg LaRoque, who stayed for approximately three years. Then Giffen came back, and when that happened Levitz decided he could hand "his" book off to his old partner. So in 1989 the Paul Levitz Legion era came to an end. 

All of the Legionnaires before the Levitz era ended
(click on it to inflate it ala Bouncing Boy)

The series, which had always been positive and optimistic, turned dark and somber under Giffen's tenure. The heroes lost their costumes and their main "hero" names. They went underground. The United Planets were at war. Characters were murdered. The Earth was destroyed. Not a very pleasant universe.

I kept reading for a few years,  but my heart was no longer in it. The Legion I had loved was gone. When the series was re-booted by DC in another attempt to fix their convoluted continuity, I dropped out. I've come back a few times and dipped my toe in the water, but in general when I need a Legion Fix I read the LSH Archives collecting *all* of the Silver Age and Bronze Age stories, or I read my own back-issues. Although the Legion is set in the future, for me their best days are in the past.

(and yes, I recognize ALL of these characters, haha,
click on it to Colossal Boy size it) 

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