When I was still a young man – 18 or 20 – I remember telling my mother that I assumed I’d someday outgrow comic books. I recall specifically saying that I figured it was pretty unlikely I’d still be reading them when I was 40. I guess I didn’t consider myself “grown up” at that point and assumed that someday I would. Well, here I am at 41, and though I have changed in a lot of ways in terms of maturity and responsibilities, I am still reading comic books.
There are a lot of different series I’ve enjoyed, though I always gravitated toward super-heroes. However, consistently over the years, my favorite title has been The Legion of Super-Heroes. Debuting in 1958 as a one-off guest appearance in a Superboy comic, the Legion of Super-Heroes (LSH) grew in popularity until it had its own series that ran for a while in Adventure Comics. Since then, it’s jumped around in various comic series, but never been too far from its own series, and usually its own book
The core concept is that a group of super-powered teenagers from different worlds in the future (the 30th Century most of the time, although in a couple of early appearance they were described as being from the 21st Century, and of course now it’s the 31st Century) band together, inspired by the heroic exploits of of Superboy in the past (or depending on the current status of Superboy in the shared DC universe canon, there have been replacements for the source of inspiration, but it’s always drawn from the current century DC heroes). Usually, the membership of the Legion floats around the mid-20’s, so it’s one of the largest teams to be featured in any mainstream comic book.
A defining feature of the Legion in most of its iterations is it is a team of celebrated heroes. Young teenagers come from all over the galaxy to demonstrate their abilities and seek an opportunity to be part of the most prestigious group of heroes in the universe. It’s an exciting and privileged thing to be part of the Legion of Super-Heroes. This has led to all sorts of stories about these try-outs (mostly humorous) and even what happens to the applicants that fail.
Thinking of the reasons I especially like the Legion, there are several aspects that come to mind.
First, there is the notion that every Legionnaire, every hero, has a contribution to make. One of the requirements for membership in the Legion is that each applicant must have at least one unique power that is not shared by any other member that is not dependent upon any devices or artificial means. Amongst the 20+ team members, there are those who are far more powerful than others. For every Superboy or Mon-El who have super-strength, flight, invulnerability, and more, there is a Phantom Girl, who can walk through walls, or a Bouncing Boy, who…well, bounces. Yet, in the best stories, every team member, regardless of their overall power level, helps defeat the villain and save the universe. I love the idea that it is not that each individual member is the most powerful being there is, but the sheer number of Legionnaires with unique abilities can handle almost any situation.
Second, I love the fact that the series is painted on a vast science fiction canvas filled with lots of different planets, races, creatures, heroes, villains, technologies, and time-traveling embodiments of entropy. At times its as much a science fiction book as a superhero one, and often captures what I enjoy about both. When you combine this with the huge regular cast, you get a rich heritage of concepts and characters to draw from in the storytelling. I guess some people find this fact off-putting, but I find it quite drawing.
Third, there is the fact that for the most part, the Legion takes place in its own corner of the DC Universe. Most of the characters, and indeed the team and most of the rich concepts mentioned above, don’t appear in any other books on a regular basis. This allows for a lot of change and growth to take place in the characters’ lives. People can get fall in love, get married, die, lose their powers, have mental breakdowns, quit the team, join the team, and more on a regular basis – and the did – in a way that couldn’t be done in a book full of super-stars like the Justice League. Semi-regular reboots to the concept notwithstanding, it was a pleasure to watch this team grow up and experience life.
Finally, there is the fact that Legion represents hope. It’s not that the series has always been bright and easy – often it’s been full of great deal of heartache and pain. But the very concept of the Legion – young people from different worlds teaming up to help people – is inherently positive and optimistic, and is thus fun to read.
There is a lot more I could say about the Legion that will have to keep for future postings. As I am able, I will be offering my thoughts on the stories in more detail, probably along the lines of the various collected editions of the series – especially the twelve (soon to be thirteen) DC Archive editions that reprint the early years of the series.