Meanwhile, In The 30th Century of the 1970s…: Graeme Revisits The Legion

November 17, 2015

Programming Note: If you haven’t listened to the latest Wait, What? episode, stop reading this right now, scroll down and do so. It’s our Secret Convergence on Infinite Podcasts episode, and it’s pretty damn amazing.

I’ve been reading a lot of Legion of Super-Heroes lately, in part because of a stray thought last week where I was surprised that, considering the avalanche of titles All-New All-Different Marvel is bringing and Marvel’s love of tweaking DC, we haven’t seen an announcement for an ongoing Imperial Guard series yet. The Imperial Guard, for those unfamiliar with the X-Men supporting characters, were the Legion to the Squadron Supreme’s Avengers; a group of thinly-veiled analogs to the DC characters that took on a life of their own within the larger Marvel mythology. (That the Imperial Guard were designed by Dave Cockrum, an artist who’d previously drawn a bunch of Legion strips, should be noted.)

But that thought was only part of the reason behind my mammoth — three Showcase Presents volumes — dive into the series; the rest really came from realizing how absolutely enjoyable the series is, especially at the period I was reading. The three volumes I read were Vols. 3-5, which contain Jim Shooter’s first run on the series, Cary Bates’ follow-up, and Shooter’s return — pretty much the Legion output from the mid-60s through the mid-70s, with Shooter taking the book from its cosy, comfortable Superboy-esque origins and trying to turn it into a Marvel book, using his particular take on the Marvel formula as a basis and letting that mix of soap operatics and superheroic melodrama shape what Bates, and then Shooter himself, does in later issues.

It’s a dizzying, wonderfully compelling period, made all the moreso by watching the art on the books go from Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson to Dave Cockrum and Mike Grell, with new costumes that reveal a lot more skin and turn the characters from chaste, well-behaved mini-adults to more sexual creatures, in subtext at least. You can almost imagine the readers of the early ’70s melting down over what was happening to their favorite heroes.


It all makes for fascinating reading, especially watching Shooter — at the time a teenager — bring a teenager’s intensity to a series that is, ostensibly about a group of teenagers: romances are suddenly far more of a plot point in a number of stories, as is an obsession with how dangerous all the new missions are (Ferro Lad dies, a fact that overshadows a number of stories immediately afterwards as if to say these stories are important, dammit) and an authorial tone that owes much to Stan Lee in an effort to sound with-it and popular. Bates refines these elements some — while also penning some unintentionally creepy relationship moments, including Bouncing Boy’s continued excitement over having two girlfriends, thanks to his relationship with Duo Damsel, and writing a story in which Brainiac 5 was so distraught over missing Supergirl, whom he had a crush on, that he build himself a Supergirl sexbot that he then eloped with — while lightening the overall tone in preparation for an older, more savvy Shooter to return for a victory lap.

The series, which ran in Adventure Comics, Action Comics and Superboy for the stories in these volumes, is impressively solid throughout, laying groundwork that will be built on in Claremont’s X-Men and Wolfman’s New Teen Titans as well as in Paul Levitz’s later Legion stories. More than the original Titans stories or the original X-Men or anything else, these were the comics that created the language and rules of teen superhero comics, in fits and starts, with the verve and lunacy that comes from not having to tie in to a wider contemporary universe: need to just decide that there’s a war on that no-one ever mentioned? Easy. Need to hypnotize the entire planet for plot related purposes? No sweat! Even at its most melodramatic and soap-y, it’s amazingly loopy and shameless, throwing both caution and logic to the wind to follow its heart to amusingly dumb places on a whim. It’s difficult not to read it and think, this is what I want more of in superhero comics, and wondering what a modern day Legion could be, given the chance.

I imagine someone like Ryan North killing on it, in terms of writing, with whoever drew it given the chance to invent a whole new visual language for the 31st century, in terms of fashion and architecture and everything. There’s such potential in the Legion to do something that speaks to the superhero genre, the YA space and something entirely itself and different, all at the same time. That the concept is lying in limbo right now — absent from the DC schedule for the first extended period since it was introduced in the 1950s — feels like a tragedy, a travesty, and an oversight. It was, for awhile, one of DC’s leading lights and certainly its most interesting books. I’d love to see it come back and reclaim that crown, somehow.


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6 comments on “Meanwhile, In The 30th Century of the 1970s…: Graeme Revisits The Legion

  1. Bruce Baugh Nov 17, 2015

    I miss the Legion a lot. But really, it’d been dying since before Crisis, as it got more enmeshed in 20th century continuity issues. I don’t think it ever had a five-year stretch without getting hit by a reboot from within or continuity shift commanded from without, once Crisis ended.

    What it needs is to be its own continuity, as much as the current Earth-One books, written by someone who’s comfortable writing a fundamentally upbeat future – foreground calamities, but a background in which it’s sensible to assume that problems get solved. I would read the heck out of that. :)

    • The post-Zero Hour reboot lasted for a solid decade. Abnett and Lanning brought about a dramatic (and much-needed) change in tone, but they did it without retconning or rebooting anything that came before them, and they brought back a lot of old favorites (Wildfire, Timber Wolf, etc.) without having to rely on the continuity reset.

      And then it was followed by Waid’s utterly gratuitous reboot so he could tell some pretty dismal “Eat it, grandpa” stories. That kicked off a neverending succession of resets that pretty much killed the book dead. DC is probably right to let it lie fallow a while until they have a strong direction in place, but man, I do miss a good Legion book.

      • I’m also a huge fan of the DnA run. They completely revitalized the property and Widening Rifts, Legion Lost, Legion Worlds and first 14-odd issues of The Legion were (and still are) incredible.

        I didn’t mind Waid’s reboot, but it was unnecessary and actually ended up making things more convoluted and removing some of the heart that was always at the core of Legion stories before that (even during the 5YL era and its various follow-ups).

        The whole “Shrinking Violet” is a myth and Giant Man is actually a, well GIANT, were especially hamfisted plot points and ruined so much of what made Legion great.

        Really hope someone will figure out a way to bring this book back. And hopefully, for once, just leave it alone without trying to link it to “present day” shenanigans.

  2. Flasshe Nov 17, 2015

    “You can almost imagine the readers of the early ’70s melting down over what was happening to their favorite heroes.”

    We did, Graeme, we did. Pretty sure I was obsessed with Phantom Girl’s new costume. And with the whole tragedy, and teenage rebellion, of Wildfire.

  3. daustin Nov 18, 2015

    Now I’m thinking of the Squirrel Girl team on Legion – that would be such a pleasure. I wonder if you’ll reconsider your stance on the 5 Years Later Legion though – that was my introduction and I still love it. There are definitely some weak stretches in the middle of the Giffen/Bierbaum run where only the backups were totally up to snuff, but the overarching story arc leading up to final confrontation with the forces dominating the Earth, and particularly the first and last batches of issues, were really outstanding.

    • Speaking of which, Graeme, did you and Jeff ever talk about the rest of the first year of the Giffen/Bierbaum Legion? You didn’t seem especially entranced by the first six issues so I can’t really blame you for letting it drop, but those next six happened to be the comics that got me into the Legion.