There are fans, and then there are… super-fans.
For decades, readers have been treated to tales of super-powered teenagers from the future who, inspired by the legend of Superboy, decided to come together and make the universe a better place. Each one from a different planet — some who have even been at war with each other — these young heroes were a symbol for unity and diversity that spoke to the very best of what we could accomplish if we look past petty conflicts and surface differences, like skin color, nationality, sexual orientation, and shape-shifting ability. Starting out with just three, the team soon blossomed to over 30 members, each with a unique power, and each with a personality as individual as his or her moniker. Combined, these lads and lasses, kids, boys and girls, truly were legion. And, for a time, their popularity swelled as steadily as their ranks.
When I was first introduced to the Legion, it was shortly after the events of The Great Darkness Saga, Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen’s brilliant masterpiece pitting the Legion against a revived Darkseid as the universe trembled in the New God’s wake. To this day, this storyline and era is considered not just one of the finest Legion of Super-Heroes stories, but the epitome of what rich characterization, beautiful art, and dramatic action can do when mixed in just the right doses. At its height in the early 1980s, Legion of Super-Heroes was one of DC Comics’ top-selling books, alongside Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s New Teen Titans, and its fans could not have been happier. After years of devotion, seeing the series move from occasional back-up story to co-starring in Superboy’s book, to graduating to their own title, longtime fans must have felt a great sense of reward for hanging in with the team, and probably not a little bit smug that they were cool before everyone else knew what cool was.
Flash forward to today and the Legion has seen better days. A series that was once lauded for its rich sense of history and depth of narrative is now widely considered the poster child for inaccessibility and confusion. And the title has never sold so little, clocking a dangerously low 16,500 on the latest Diamond Comic Distibutors monthly sale chart. What happened exactly to make one of DC’s top-selling books fall from grace so severely, and what, if anything, can be done to return this former crown jewel to its former glory?
Being off in its own world should be a major plus for the Legion of Super-Heroes. Not wedded to whatever happens to be the flavor of the month within DC’s larger publishing line, you would think the book’s desert island status would lend it unparalleled creative opportunity and appear attractive to readers overwhelmed by having to follow countless tie-ins and event comics.
Except that it really hasn’t. With no strong ties to the greater DC Universe, the Legion is left pretty adrift — a cast of characters that appear nowhere else (thereby losing any chance for cross-promotion) and that are so culturally and spatially removed from the rest of the DC Universe in the 31st century that just understanding the environment of the story becomes a barrier. Some of the best Legion stories of the last decade have been their reintroduction in the pages of Justice League of America and subsequent adventure alongside Superman in Action Comics. That’s no accident. A Legion that maintains a strong tie to its inspiration is one that shares a commonality with its readers. They love Superman like we love Superman. Instant connection.
The primary reason the Legion has long been so divorced from the greater DC Universe is, ironically, one of the company’s greatest crossover events ever. After the dissolution of the multiverse in Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC editorial decided it would be better if Superman had never been a boy of steel, and thus, never could have joined a team of teenagers in their time traveling adventures. With this founding element of the book’s origin now eradicated from continuity, the Legion floundered, with writer Paul Levitz first concocting an alternate dimension Superboy to fill in for their original inspiration, and then subsequent writer Keith Giffen having to undo that solution by editorial edict and place an ill-prepared Mon-El in Kal-El’s boots, so to speak. Now fully isolated to the extent that the Legion was meant to be inspired by one of its own longtime members (who in turn now had no connection, however tenuous, to his own friend and mentor), the team became a much more difficult proposition for attracting new readers. It was no longer simply that readers needed to understand a long history, but sorting out which one was currently in vogue was a feat in itself.
Reboot Upon Reboot Upon Reboot
Long before the New 52 took to rebuilding the DC Universe from scratch, the Legion of Super-Heroes got its chance to reboot — and has done so now no less than three (maybe four) times, depending on how you count. First softly rebooted in 1990 when the now adult Legion needed to clean up a bit of its continuity, the team went on to dissolve in the company-wide event Zero Hour and emerge in 1994 with a completely new beginning, starting off once again with three teenagers saving the life of an old man who would in turn fund the creation of an intergalactic super-team. Much like today’s Justice League, no continuity carried over and stories began to be retold, members rejoined, and everyone could be a kid, lass, or lad all over again. That is, until 2005, when DC would do it all over again and introduce another team from scratch, neither resembling the original team, their adult counterparts, or their youthful replacements. Not two years later, however, the original team was brought back to the DC Universe, as refugees in the 21st Century, with slight changes to their history (but only slight) and essentially diverging from their previous history at Crisis on Infinite Earths — the very series that mucked them up in the first place. Finally, in 2009, all questions were put to rest as the aptly named Legion of Three Worlds sent away all iterations of the teenaged super-heroes except these reconstituted originals, the very team headlining the title to this day.
Did any of that make sense? Not really? This is the problem.
It’s Not You (or You or You), It’s Me
At last count, the contemporary iteration (oy!) of the Legion of Super-Heroes has had 49 members, 18 of them currently active. Eighteen. And that’s after the death of Sun Boy in the latest issue. Admittedly, this is not unusual for the team throughout its history. The book has always featured a large cast, rotating characters through the spotlight and letting others recede into the shadows for a time. During the very same heyday of the early 1980s, the team was probably at the height of its membership with 24 members filling the book. My first issue, Legion of Super-Heroes #300, was an anniversary edition (loved those back in the day) that featured — I’m not kidding — six alternate universe versions of the team in a series of short stories. And I bought it hook, line and sinker. Maybe our tolerance as readers for arcane twists and tons of detail has degraded over the years. Or maybe the ability to tell that kind of story successfully is slowly becoming lost to the ages. I see shades of this type of grand, multi-character storytelling in Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four epic of late, but not a whole lot of other places. Readers just don’t seem to be able to handle it anymore.
And to be fair, the current title isn’t making it any easier. Losing seven members to an ill-fated spin-off title Legion Lost, Paul Levitz (back on the book after twenty years) immediately added five new youthful members to the cast, rather than focus more intently on the remaining members. When a rescue mission had to be pulled together that (in-story) necessitated non-active members to take part, the writer chose not to simply pull together some former members already always hanging around in the background, but create two ALL NEW CHARACTERS and add them temporarily to the book. What? Why? Why??? When members of the team like Invisible Kid, Lightning Lass, and Shadow Lass can barely get a word in edgewise, there seems no discernible rationale for bringing in yet another set of characters to sweep aside hastily at the end of a story arc.
For the Legion to regain its focus, and have any possibility for digging out of the potential cancellation grave it’s finding itself in, drastic action needs to be taken in all likelihood. A smaller cast, a clear inspiration, and a strong tie to the rest of the DC Universe may be in order — and rumor has it, that may be just what DC has in mind. Taking inspiration from the recent match-up between members of the Justice League and their new opposing force, the Justice League of America, DC may be moving toward Leaguing the Legion, matching up each of the core Justice League to an analogue in the 31st Century in an effort to lend some of the current credibility Justice League enjoys to the now suffering teenagers from the future.
But just who will be these discrete seven match-ups? I have some educated guesses.
This one is a total no brainer. Not only does Mon-El have historical ties to the Man of Steel — more than any other Legionnaire in fact — but he has taken his place both figuratively and metaphorically over and over the last twenty years. A favorite of both current writer Paul Levitz and DC hierarchy as a whole, Mon-El has the top spot in the bag in my opinion.
Bear with me here. One could easily speculate that Batman’s analogue should be the smartest Legionnaire, or the best hand-to-hand fighter, or the dark and scary one. But more than any other Justice Leaguer, Batman is the consummate detective, and there’s no greater detective in the 31st century than Chameleon Boy. It’s easy to forget about Cham’s exceptional prowess in this area if all you see is a shape-shifting orange dude with vibrating antennae, but underneath it all, Cham leads the Espionage Squad not because he can disguise himself, but because he has the brains and talent to uncover any mystery, anywhere and any time.
As the quintessential female hero in the DC Universe, Wonder Woman has a lot of things that differentiate her from her male counterpart Superman, not the least of which is her origin in the annals of mythology. Sure, she’s not mystical per se, but enough of Diana’s power comes from magical elements of the natural world to make Glorith, the Legion’s current ingénue and witch-in-training, a good match-up. And the great deal of focus given her the last eighteen months leads me to believe Glorith isn’t going anywhere. But I could be wrong, and in that case, Night Girl, the Legion’s purest female bruiser character, is a decent proposition.
Easily the most difficult analogy to make sense of, Aquaman just doesn’t have an obvious counterpart in the Legion’s ranks, which oddly enough has rarely had aquatic members. But as a formidable telepath, Aquaman could easily have lent inspiration to the Legion’s expert mind-reader Saturn Girl. Or if it’s royalty that defines the match-up, often deposed and returned Queen of Orando — a world steeped in both mysticism and technology, much like Atlantis — Sensor Girl could mirror the lineage of the King of the Seven Seas.
Lightning strikes — twice! Well, three times actually, but why dicker? Twin heroes Garth and Ayla Ranzz are both in the running (heh.) for parallel to the 21st century’s fastest man alive. In the past, the Flash’s legacy spread directly into the 31st century, leaving his children and grandchildren behind to carry on his mission in the far future. But with the de-aging across the board in the New 52, it’s a safe bet those legacies are off the board, at least temporarily. And when you have two such prominent members with the power of electricity running through their veins, no need to slow down this choice.
Almost any Legionnaire could fill Green Lantern’s boots in the 31st century (and in a sense have, given that the Green Lantern Corps are no longer allowed to operate in United Planets space), as the team is in itself an intergalactic police force who reach to the stars. But Cosmic Boy, natural leader and controller of one of the universe’s most elemental forces, is a good guess. Shrinking Violet may not make a ton of sense in this category unless you consider her recent history with the villainess known as the Emerald Empress (who just happens to be appearing in the very next issue!). Does Violet still have that emerald energy pulsing through her veins? Time will tell.
Another “duh.” Computer brain, information central, brilliant scientist. Brainiac 5 may not look it, but his lineage as ancestor to the original cybernetic Superman villain puts him in line to be the perfect analogue to Cyborg’s role in the modern day Justice League.
In any event, right or wrong, the only thing more obvious than a need for change in this case is the Legion’s ability to survive and thrive in the face of it. I, for one, am willing to give something radical a shot. I want the Legion of Super-Heroes around. It’s too important and compelling a team to let fall into obscurity. Its fans — myself included — don’t frequently exclaim, “Long Live the Legion!” for nothing.
Addendum – April 2013
Some sales facts to stir the pot:
- Legion of Super-Heroes #18 (March 2013) is indeed the lowest selling Legion monthly title ever at 16,148.
- The second lowest selling Legion of Super-Heroes monthly issue comes in at 17,838. That’s immediately before they relaunched the book as Legion Lost with only 10 members.
- Mark Waid’s Legion of Super-Heroes launched at 50,694, but averaged in the mid to low 30s for most of the run.
- By comparison, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s Legion of Super-Heroestitles (Legion Lost, Legion Worlds, Legion) averaged in the mid-20s for most of their run.
- Paul Levitz’s lowest selling pre-New 52 Legion of Super-Heroes issue (21,373) sold more than 2/3 of his post-New 52 issues.
- Highest selling Legion of Super-Heroes book of the last 15 years? Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds #1 (68,270) by Geoff Johns and George Perez.
- What do all the Legion of Super-Heroes issues that sold over 50,000 copies in last 15 years have in common? All featured modern day guest stars (Superman, Supergirl, The Teen Titans).
- All that said, when was the last time DC Comics went more than 2-3 months without a Legion of Super-Heroes book/feature on the stands? The early 1970s.