Imagining the future can be tricky.
On one hand, we picture ourselves wearing jetpacks, flying through the open sky to get to work in the morning, and sending our relatives off (if we’re lucky) to live in space colonies on the moon. Love triumphs over our petty hatreds and we live in peace, not just with our earthbound neighbors, but with our friends across the grand universe.
On the other hand, we often also picture the worst: War comes to devastate everything we know. Governments fall into absolute, obvious corruption, separating the haves from the have-nots even more sharply than we experience already. Usually it’s snowing in this type of future, whether resulting from nuclear winter, global weather disruption or ash that just looks like snow as it falls across a smoky sky.
For years, the future in comic books leaned pretty heavily in the former direction, depicting a world of tomorrow that we all wanted to aspire to meet head on. The Legion of Super-Heroes, like Star Trek and The Jetsons on television, depicted a universe where planets were governed under one central authority each, and came together to form a United Nations of the galaxy.
Young super-heroes from all over came together, each with his or her own special set of powers, to form a team in honor of their own hero from a thousand years prior — Superboy, the greatest example of cultural blending and good deeds in the history of the known universe. Like the Boy (later Man) of Steel, who came from one world to another — not to conquer, but to teach, protect and serve — these teenagers joined forces to police Earth and outer space, share adventures, make friends, and even sometimes fall in love.
And then, thirty-one years after the Legion first appeared and traveled in their “time bubble” to seek out young bespectacled Clark Kent in rural Smallville, it all changed for them. Economic collapse spurred on by a destructive war of science and magic led to a secret takeover of the Earth government by alien forces — and the dissolution of the galactic symbol of peace and collaboration that the super-team had become.
1989 saw the publication of a new Legion of Super-Heroes #1, with a first page simply entitled “Five Years Later.” Jumping right into the future’s future, readers were taken to a world that no longer admired the Legion, with its members now spread out across worlds, separated by politics and war, personal ties and grudges. Everything you knew was in question. And I couldn’t have been happier.
For someone like myself who spends an inordinate amount of time speculating on comic books, their characters and possibilities — both verbally and in my own head, ad naseum — it’s not hard to imagine how much this scenario appealed to me. Much like the current DC Comics series The New 52: Futures End, five years have gone by and heroes have gone missing, been changed, or had adventures that are now only alluded to in passing. This is speculation gold for a comic book continuity junkie, if, like me, you are patient enough to wait for answers.
That said, this era of the team remains one of the most divisive in its history. Its fans (like myself) are hardcore lovers of the direction writer/artist Keith Giffen and his colleagues took, but its detractors are equally as — dare I say it — legion, citing the break from previous lore and status quo to be one of the biggest mistakes ever within the franchise. But what this series did best, I believe, was make the Legion of Super-Heroes both exciting for old time fans — who were treated to page after page of Easter eggs and hints about their favorite characters — and accessible for newcomers, who could get to know each member of the much smaller cast in a more intimate way.
At the center of the relaunch was Rokk Krinn, the hero of Braal once known as Cosmic Boy, now powerless and living in relative obscurity on an occupied planet with his pregnant wife. One of the three founders of the Legion, Rokk was understood to be the heart and soul of the team, and critical to their resurgence — that is, according to Chameleon Boy, ultra-rich son of the team’s initial funder and shape-shifting Durlan hero in his own right. These two men meeting to face off against the state of the universe was at the core of what it meant to be a Legionnaire: doing what’s right against all odds, and brotherhood (or sisterhood) above all else.
Giffen’s dedication to the nine-panel grid should look familiar to comic historians, as it was presumably an homage to the structure of Dave Gibbons’ epic tome a few years prior, Watchmen. Like Watchmen, Legion of Super-Heroes now was taking a darker look at the super-hero tropes fans had grown comfortable with over the years, although it’s not like the book hadn’t dealt with darkness before.
One of the first series to feature a major character death as early as 1967, the book saw heroes kidnapped and tortured, replaced by imposters, characters go insane, members conspire against each other and even put on trial for murder. But throughout that history, the Legion had its own structure as an institution to fall back on. Here, with members scattered across the stars and some even intellectually opposed to its reformation, the team was reduced to a shadow of its former self. All that was left was their pride and friendship. And that, quite frankly, was thrilling.
Ever the soap opera, the book didn’t just have Giffen to rely upon in its writing duties, as the long-time artist of the title (spanning back nearly a decade) was joined by husband-wife team Tom and Mary Bierbaum. The Bierbaums brought with them a real sense of the characters’ histories, having been avid fans of the book themselves, but also a sincere dedication to move these people forward in their lives and get to the root of their individual heroism.
Ultra Boy, long the most carefree — can I say mimbo? — is reintroduced as a man in mourning, returned to his corrupt home planet and running a black market operation after the seeming death of his beloved Phantom Girl. Not just a personality shift in time of crisis, however, this development in Jo Nah’s characterization came with a series of revelations about his complicity in keeping one of the world’s most powerful sorcerers under control — all without ever breaking the façade of a man too dumb to lead the team effectively.
Meanwhile, Shrinking Violet (Vi) returns from war between her native planet of Imsk and Braal a high-profile dissenter, but one racked with guilt over the people she helped kill on Rokk’s home planet. The specter of their mutual battle at Venedo Bay hangs over much of the first two years of this series, and remains indelibly carved on Vi’s own face, a scar across the artificial eye replacing the one she lost in war.
Vi’s renewed relationship with Ayla Ranzz, Lightning Lass, is also a hallmark of the series and a significant milestone for LGBT inclusion in mainstream comics. The couple was never treated differently from any other marriage or coupling in the series, frequently shown sharing quarters, expressing love and fighting side-by-side just as family members Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl would.
The series also featured one of the earliest focuses on a trans character at DC Comics, as Element Lad’s longtime girlfriend Shvaughn Erin revealed herself to have been born male. Twenty years later, there is much to criticize about the motivations and reasoning behind Shvaughn’s journey as a trans woman, but I can attest that her inclusion in the tapestry of the Legion’s future meant a lot to me as a young gay man. Seeing a character I had read about for years come out in the pages of one of my favorite monthly comic books was empowering, and the effort these creators put in at such an early stage of the effort towards fair representation of the LGBT community is commendable to say the least.
Sadly, this iteration of the Legion lasted a mere five years, culminating in a complete reboot of the concept with younger, less traumatized versions of the characters taking center stage. Many of the developments in this era have resurfaced recently, including Vi and Ayla’s relationship, but much of what made this era so special to me is lost in later iterations, with new characters from the series never returning to the page, even in decades hence.
What stands out so significantly for me in this world is that the boys and girls, the lads and lasses, were able to grow up, but never lost what made them heroes, even in the direst circumstances. They could still be funny, optimistic, and experience deep love and camaraderie despite being faced with the seemingly insurmountable odds of a government — to some degree, an entire United Planets — that didn’t want them to be together. The Legion, to them, was something too special to lose. And there’s no question in my mind that they were right.
Every Legion fan has an era they consider to be intrinsically theirs. Even if one loves all of them, there’s always one iteration that stands just a bit above the rest in his or her heart. This one is mine. No matter how many times I re-read it, I still get a thrill at the sight of Rokk’s unshaven face or Bounty’s mysterious smirk, because they truly were the people I wanted to be like someday.
I imagined my own teenage self flashed forward into adulthood five years later and living in a future worth fighting for. The world could get darker but there would always still be room for hope in it. And honestly, that’s just as important a lesson to learn today as it’s even been.
This article was originally written for and published online by the Idler Magazine, February 2013.