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A Lifetime of Superhero Comics — 1989 — Legion of Super-Heroes 1
In which I discuss five-year time jumps, editorial decrees and avoiding one's continuity from being Jengaed.
Written by Keith Giffen and Tom and Mary Bierbaum
Pencils by Keith Giffen
Cover date: November 1989
Warning: spoilers for the issue follow
The Legion of Super-Heroes was a superhero team I’d enjoyed since I was a small child. As I mentioned way back in the very first instalment of this personal history, Superboy was my favourite character, and the Legion was the friends he hung out with. Not in boring old 20th century middle America, but in the far-flung future of the 30th century.
There (or should that be ‘Then’?) young Kal-El palled around with Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad, Brainiac 5, Phantom Girl, Mon-El, Ultra-Boy, Chameleon Boy and what seemed like thousands of other preposterously-monikered super-powered kids from all across the universe. The team — the Legion of Super-Heroes — did all the things you might expect a group of super-powered teenagers to do.
On the super-powered front, they tussled with cosmic forces such as the Time Trapper (the embodiment of entropy who prevented the Legion from travelling beyond the 30th century with a surprisingly literal iron curtain of time) and Mordru (an all-powerful magician who possessed both near-infinite power and a nasty case of claustrophobia). They faced off against villainous teams similarly gathered from all across the universe, such as The Fatal Five and (probably inevitably) The Legion of Super-Villains. They fought off invasions from alien races such as The Dominators and the Khunds (definitely be careful how you pronounce that latter one if you’re in a hurry).
As busy as they were on the superhero front, however, the Legion were somehow even busier on the teenage front. For, in between their various adventures, this team of unstoppable youngsters indulged in all manner of adolescent nonsense. They played pranks on one another, developed crushes, squabbled over who should and shouldn’t be allowed to join their club, and (presumably) mumbled insolently at their parents while not even putting their phone down for just one freaking second, for goodness’ sake, Tinya!
It was great fun. Sure, the characters were all pretty one-dimensional (ironic exception — One-Dimensional Lad, who was riddled with nuance). But who cared? They were a colourful array of hilariously code-named super-powered younglings doing superheroic stuff.
(As a young boy, I particularly liked Brainiac 5, who didn’t have any powers other than being, y’know, really smart. As a monstrous nerd gifted primarily in academia myself, I could get behind this dashing young green-skinned chap holding his own alongside Kryptonians (and Kryptonian-level beings) simply by being very, very smart. (Without all the nuisance of having your parents murdered and dedicating your life to dressing up as a bat and seeking vengeance on the cowardly criminal underbelly.))
So this was where I began with the Legion, picking up random old reprints of their stories and delighting in their adventures.
Five years later…
By the mid-1980s, the Legion had become one of DC’s most popular books, on a par with the Teen Titans. The teenage Legionnaires had become young adults, but still had melodramatic adventures and affairs, with regular writer Paul Levitz mastering the art of comic book storytelling to win both critical plaudits and vast readership.
Levitz had developed a serialised storytelling method that later became known as The Levitz Paradigm (this was not a coincidence). In each issue of the book he’d have a main plot, some development of a secondary plot and one or two panels showing shoots of tertiary plots. As a main plot wrapped up, he would promote the secondary plot to main plot in the next issue, with the tertiary plots similarly graduating into secondary plots, while new tertiary plots were seeded.
It was a conveyor belt of serialised storytelling, perhaps best showcased by what is widely considered to be the best Legion story of them all, The Great Darkness Saga, a story that reintroduced Apokolips New God and former Jimmy Olsen villain Darkseid as a cosmic level antagonist in the DC Universe.
Levitz’s Legion also helped transition DC from newsprint books to the direct market (ie, books you could only purchase in comic book stores). It was a maturation of the medium and the Legion was at the forefront, as one of the first books (alongside The New Teen Titans and Batman and the Outsiders) that DC offered in this fashion.
This maturation of the medium was, as I’ve mentioned previously, less good for me, a country bumpkin living nowhere near anything resembling a comic book store. The absence of Legion of Super-Heroes from my local newsagency in my early teenage years meant I lost touch with the team.
A shame, too. Because in my absence, they faced perhaps their greatest foe: John Lindley Byrne.
After the Crisis on Infinite Earths, Byrne’s reboot of Superman had reimagined the newly rewritten history of the Man of Steel as being staunchly Superboy-less. The ‘adventures of Superman as a boy’ were over. Instead, Byrne’s version of the character had him beginning his superhero career as a fully grown man.
Fortunately, in the later years of Levitz’s run, Superboy was rarely seen in the book. Levitz had developed sufficiently unique personalities for the other heroes in the team that the comic no longer needed the sales push of young Clark Kent and his embarrassing 20th century hick ways.
Nevertheless, the character of Superboy was still a fundamental building block of the Legion. In DC lore, the team had been originally inspired by his youthful feats of superhero derring-do, and his Byrne-decreed absence threatened to Jenga their entire future history.
Levitz was a pro, however. He rolled with Byrne’s retconning punches and developed a crossover event that salvaged the history of the Legion of Super-Heroes via a ‘pocket universe’ Superboy. Furthermore, Levitz also gave that Superboy a heroic farewell as he died to prevent the Time Trapper (who had wickedly created the pocket universe for his own nefarious means) from… well, doing something dreadful, that’s for sure.
Crisis-related crisis averted.
Five years later…
Levitz was no longer writing the Legion. He finished up his run on the book with issue 63, perhaps wondering what else could be done with the team.
He’d transformed them from a bunch of colourful cookie-cutter teens to a still-colourful, more grown-up team of young adults, taking part in a rolling series of adventures, defeating the most dangerous foes, both in-universe (The Great Darkness Saga) and extra-universe (The Great Clark-Less Saga).
In doing so, he’d set up a platform for ongoing futuristic space superhero adventure in the DC universe. Levitz’s Legion wasn’t Watchmen (despite the presence of blue-skinned superpowered beings in both), but it was still excellent comic book fare.
New writer (and old artist) Keith Giffen seemingly wasn’t satisfied with that, however. Giffen apparently asked himself the question, what if a Legion of Super-Heroes comic book was Watchmen?
Legion was an old-fashioned style of superhero comics. Yes, it was fun. Yes, the Levitz Paradigm had been, for its time, a major innovation in terms of serialised comic book storytelling. But it, like everything else in superhero comics, suddenly looked outdated in the wake of Alan Moore’s Watchmen.
So Giffen burnt it all down. After Levitz’s run finished, the Giffen era of Legion of Super-Heroes restarted with a fresh first issue.
And the opening caption read ‘Five years later…’
This new Legion — the Five Years Later Legion as it became known — was like no other Legion before it. It wasn’t colourful or optimistic. Gone were the cheery lasses, lads, damsels, kids, boys and girls. In their place were codename-less former heroes beaten down and defeated by unseen trauma.
In the five-year gap between Levitz’s run and Giffen’s run, the Legion had been disbanded and scattered across a dystopian universe. Without the team’s protection, dread forces had taken over Earth and the surrounding galaxies, insidiously corrupting everything.
Giffen (and scripters Tom and Mary Bierbaum), following in Moore’s footsteps, didn’t spell any of this out for readers. Instead, they just offered oblique glimpses of the looming threats as the tattered remnants of the Legion began to reform.
The approach conveyed the enormity of the universe in a way that hadn’t previously been attempted. The 22 pages of each issue didn’t have room for more than fleeting looks at the various corners of an enormous universe.
It wasn’t as if Giffen and co skimped on the content either. Again following Moore’s lead, they used a nine panel grid for their storytelling (ie three rows and three columns of panels on each page, all the same size) and, again just like Watchmen, augmented the panel-by-panel comic book storytelling with text pages at the end of each issue that offered in-world documents that helped flesh out the reality of the Five Years Later universe.
Despite the amount of story crammed into each issue, there still wasn’t always enough room for full clarity. And that was just too bad. Readers were instead invited to fill in gaps for themselves.
It was a challenging book. A dense book. A book with no discernible market.
Almost everybody who had previously loved the colourful, optimistic utopia of the Levitz Legion was turned off by this darker, five years later turn. This wasn’t the Legion they’d spent most of their life reading. What in blazes did Giffen think he was doing?
Giffen couldn’t exactly hope to easily attract new readers either. His sophisticated storytelling was founded on a detailed knowledge of the previous history of the Legion. Knowledge that extended, for example, beyond the code names of Matter Eater Lad or Shrinking Lass to their real names of Tenzil Kem or Salu Digby. Throwaway one-off characters from the Legion’s distant past were repurposed and reimagined and became fundamental parts of the ongoing story.
No other writer in DC’s stable could have embraced such a new reader-unfriendly style. But, as I mentioned last month, Giffen was at this time the writer on DC’s best-selling Justice League title. A position that presumably gave him enough power to run roughshod over the thirtieth century.
Who, then, was 1989’s Five Years Later Legion of Super-Heroes for? Impenetrable to new readers, it also shook out everything that presumably attracted old readers.
The answer is that the Five Years Later Legion was for me. (You probably guessed this.)
1989 was my first year of university. I wasn’t fully a grown-up yet. I was living with my grandmother in Brisbane while I did my tertiary studies, and my parents still helped support me financially.
But I was inching my way towards adulthood. The tutoring I did on the side gave me a small income. I was responsible for my attendance at classes, driving myself to and from campus. I was certainly sufficiently grown-up that I could occasionally pop into the Brisbane CBD now and then to peruse the comic book stores hidden down back streets there.
That was how I’d found my first ever copy of the Watchmen trade paperback. And, in 1991, it was how I was dragged back into the Legion of Super-Heroes.
I didn’t jump onto Giffen’s run until issue 19, which came out in 1991 in my final year of university. I still vividly recall the moment the cover of that nineteenth issue, featuring the moon exploding, caught my eye.
I picked it up and flipped through. I recognised enough Legion lore to connect with the nostalgic kick of some of my favourite childhood characters. But this new Legion book was using them in a way I’d never seen in an in-continuity DC comic book.
(Only just in-continuity, of course, given the Legion’s far future setting, outside the day-to-day activities of DC’s broader stable of superheroes. As Levitz’s Superman-suddenly- sans-Superboy struggles showed, however, the Legion was still, technically, part of the DC universe. Unlike, for example, Watchmen.)
The audacity of Giffen blowing up the moon and realistically exploring the aftermath of such a cataclysm, hooked me.
I didn’t care if nobody else liked this book. (The possibility of such a reaction didn’t even occur to me.) I loved it.
Of course, I wasn’t happy with just starting from issue 19. I wanted the full story of this Five Years Later Legion. (Or as full a story as the creators deigned to bestow.)
So after picking up issue 19, I dove into the back issue bins (not literally) and started filling in the gaps of this book.
Every new puzzle piece enthralled me. Even more so when I discovered the difficulties the writers had faced.
While Levitz had to do patchwork on the Superboy-centric history of the Legion in order to satisfy the Superman continuity wonks, Giffen had to redo it all. Completely. Not so much patchwork as starting-from-scratchwork.
Despite his Justice League credentials, it turned out Giffen wasn’t all-powerful after all. Certainly not as powerful as the Superman offices, headed by editor Mike Carlin, who, four issues into Giffen’s run on the Five Years Later Legion, sent down their decree.
References to anything Superman-related in the Legion were banned. Never mind that DC’s pre-eminent 30th century team predated the Superman editor, himself, by about six months. (The Legion’s first appearance was Adventure Comics 247, cover-dated April, 1958, six months before Carlin was born.) It didn’t matter. Seniority rules didn’t apply. Superman was out. Superboy was out. Even Levitz’s pocket universe Superboy was out. Sorry about that, mate. Find some other way to tell your stories. Good luck with your new book.
Giffen, bless his mad heart, fixed it all in one issue.
Five issues into his dense and convoluted reimagining of the 30th century of the DC universe, Giffen took time out (literally!) to craft a 22-page story in which the Legion timeline was rewritten twice over. The first restructuring of the timestream established a Legion-less universe in which the villainous sorcerer Mordru ruled the galaxy, before a handful of plucky Legion-related timeline refugees rewrote history again, rebuilding the classic Legion history, but this time with no reference to Superboy (or Supergirl, for that matter) at all.
It was a masterclass of superhero comic book storytelling. A masterclass that set the standard for the rest of Giffen’s run on the book.
As it turned out, I’d stumbled onto Giffen’s Legion run at the precise midpoint. The moon explosion issue was the nineteenth of the series. (Readers, you’ll perhaps be unsurprised to hear that the exploding moon came about because of a story that took place in, uh, the Superman books, only a little over a year after their editorial staff demanded that the Legion creators remove all references to everybody’s favourite Kryptonian. The story that culminated in this lunar explosion featured the Man of Steel bouncing uncontrollably through time whenever he was confronted by massive explosive forces. For example, a nuclear explosion or Keith Giffen gnashing his teeth in cosmic-level frustration.)
Nineteen further issues after he blew up the moon, Giffen ended his run by blowing up the Earth.
In between those two explosive milestones, I supplemented my back issue purchases with each new monthly issue of the Five Years Later Legion, delighting in Giffen’s futuristic world-building.
When he took over the book, he’d jumped five years into the future, with a Legion in tatters. At every turn, things got darker and darker for our heroes, as they fought to free Earth (and the greater universe) from the forces that oppressed them.
But that was the key to Giffen’s run. He’d pulled them down, scattered them to opposite ends of the universe and placed them against impossible odds. It made their eventual recombination and triumph that much more satisfying.
The Legion’s triumph over the darkness that imbued the book from its very beginning was serialised story-telling at its very peak, and Giffen’s run remains one of my favourite of any superhero comic book.
Sure, he then undercut the triumph by having the Earth explode because of environmental stresses. But that’s just how Giffen rolls. Go out with a bang.
The book continued on after that, and I continued to buy it, but without Giffen at the helm it seemed to lack a certain magic and soon devolved into a more run-of-the-mill team superhero book. Albeit one that still embraced the story bang-ending philosophy.
When it began in 1989, the Five Years Later Legion dared to offer an unprecedented level of sophisticated storytelling in a DC universe book.
Five years later, it closed out its run by rewriting the entire DC universe.
But we’ll get to that.
Next: Dream lovers…