You no doubt have read about DC Comics’ new “Before Watchmen” project. It’s the cutting edge of mainstream superhero comics and another reminder why I don’t read many modern comics these days.
That’s okay, though, it’s cyclical. I’m sure I’ll be knee-deep in comics again in the next five years. There have been periods likes this before, where the Big Two publishers produce material that just doesn’t interest me. In those times, I tend to look back at the series that got me into the medium in the first place: The Legion of Superheroes.
Despite that absurd title, the Legion is one of DC Comics’ most enduring concepts. First appearing in Adventure Comics in the early 1960s, the strip chronicled the exploits of a group of super-powered teenagers in the 30th Century. Each member of what was initially a “Super Hero Fan Club” had distinct abilities and a colorful uniforms. Characters included Lightning Lad, Shadow Lass, Star Boy, Saturn Girl, and Matter-Eater Lad.
As the concept matured into the Legion, Superboy and, later, Supergirl were admitted membership and spent enough time in their own futures for Supergirl to form a relationship with the Legion’s resident know-it-all, Brainiac 5 (whose relationship to the original villainous Brainiac is not worth discussing here). The roster swelled by leaps and bounds to include Invisible Kid, Ferro Lad, Sun Boy, Light Lass and many more. An annual story revolved around the group hosting a tryout day for hopeful heroes and a Legion of Substitute Heroes formed from some of the goofier powers the Silver Age writers could come up with.
One interesting aspect of the strip was that it moved, more or less, in real time. They had relationships, fell out of them, took leaves of absence, returned and so on. Relatives began to appear and the vague setting of a 30th Century Smallville became a cornucopia of minutia that would comprise the United Planets; a galaxy filled with worlds and races that fans love to discuss even to this very day. A fifteen year-old fan named Jim Shooter submitted stories to the editor and soon became a regular writer. During his tenor, the group would experience the first real death in their ranks when Ferro Lad sacrificed himself to save the Earth. Despite its superhero and sci-fi trappings, the book was a soap opera with the interpersonal relationships given as much weight as interplanetary action. Eventually, the strip was kicked out of Adventure Comics, but followed Superboy into his own title. Eventually, the book became known as Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes and, sometime later, the Boy of Steel was dropped from the masthead all together. Now safely in their own monthly comic, the future became more solid.
Time marched on. Writers came and went, as did the Legion’s popularity. A writer named Paul Levitz — later to be publisher of DC Comics for decades — came on board for an impressive 13 year run on the title (in its various forms). His era is now looked upon as the definitive Legion, spawning the classic story “The Great Darkness Saga.” He continued to allow the characters to age. He married off a few of them and allowed them to retire, only to return when the Legion needed them most. Levitz’s contributions are formidable as his vision of the 30th Century remains a strong influence on the way the current Legion looks and feels. Attempts to revamp the series inevitably lead to restoring his status quo.
In the mid-1980s, Levitz was tasked with making the Legion work in the face of an editorial fiat that removed Superboy from DC’s fictional history. Without him to inspire the Legion, he wrote a story that more or less mended things for a time. Soon, his commitments to the business side of DC saw him hand the book off to his frequent artist, Keith Giffen.
Giffen’s approach was radical. Setting his Legion of Superheroes Volume 4 #1 five years after a cataclysmic war chronicled in Levtiz’s final story, the issue opened with a newscast revealing the Legion had been disbanded. It seems both the group and the galaxy never quite recovered from the war. We are soon introduced to the Legion’s original leader, Rokk Krinn, as he surveys the remains of his home planet, itself devastated during a conflict with the planet Imsk. On this particular day, Rokk is surprised to see his old Legion teammate Reep Daggle (Chameleon Boy or “Cham” as he’s more commonly known) has come planet side with a proposition.
I’m sure you can guess what it is.
Rokk admits that the war with Imsk has left him crippled; his magnetic powers a casualty of a cruel weapon the Imskians used against his people. Cham persuades the embittered ex-hero that what the Legion needs is a leader, not a dude with magnetic powers. Rokk agrees to come on-board, but the stage is set for a decidedly different Legion. Gone are the costumes and codenames. The characters are now in their 30s, the brighter days of the galaxy are past them, and all they have left are trench coats, chain smoking, and regret.
Naturally, this was catnip for me when I discovered Giffen’s Legion, known in fan parlance as v4.
So, a little background. I had read comics intermittently since 1990, but nothing in the spinner racks at WaldenBooks really made me need a monthly hit. Instead, I sampled the odd issue of Swamp Thing, Superman, and Batman. You might notice there’s no mention of Marvel titles, but that’s an issue for another day. So, in 1992, DC’s summer crossover event concerned the superheroes coming under the influence of a villain named Eclipso. The story featured two rather important characters for my future appreciation of comics: Starman, who we’ll definitely talk about another time, and Lar Gand — a seeming Superman clone in a red tunic. A text page in the last issue of the Eclipso story cryptically mentioned Lar Gand’s life in the Legion. Intrigued by him, I went looking to know his story. He was featured on the cover of a copy of Legion of Superheroes #4 that I found in the back issue bin of my local comic book shop. I scrounged up some money and bought the copy. It featured Giffen’s bizarre line work and extensive use of shadow, techniques completely new to my eyes. I was transported to the 30th Century where I learned Lar Gand was known as “Mon-El” and presumed dead. He reappears only to confront his presumed murderer, a entity known as the Time Trapper. The issue ends with Lar smacking the Trapper and destroying time itself.
I was — in spite of the story’s almost aggressively insular plot-points — hooked. I went back and got the three issues before and the subsequent thirty issues that followed and discovered a story where powers meant very little and the characters were all on a first name basis. Slowly, but surely, Rokk and Cham built a new Legion comprised of some surviving veterans, cheeky youths, and a couple of 30th Century reporters. They would eventually learn the problems of the galaxy, particularly those of the Earth — were largely orchestrated by a single alien race bent on domination. It’s probably no accident that they were called “The Dominators.” After ending their occupation of Earth, the Legion watched in horror as the planet ripped itself apart.
Giffen departed the title with the destruction of the Earth.
Legion v4 was the first book I committed to precisely because it rewarded me for digging into it. I loved the notion of former superheroes from a once-shiny world. I loved the trench coats, chain-smoking and regret that permeated every issue. Because the series was less about superhero theatrics and more about the characters, I came to love Rokk, Vi, Ayla, Cham, and Brainy far more for who they were than what their costumes looked like or what their powers were. Consequently, it was a book I could not share with most of my comic reading friends at the time.
Did I forget to mention I was 14 when I discovered the Legion?
I suppose it’s also no accident that I found myself reading Vertigo and independent titles soon after.
This was a post-punk Legion, complete with the drum machine beat of the nine-panel grid. It was overtly dark and dystopian, but pointedly so. It also appealed, I think, to the angry brats out there weaned on Star Wars and the first Superman film cycle. And while not commercially viable, it was seismic for the new reader capable of responding to it.
To this day, I look for comics that reward my involvement and give me a world of rich characters, intriguing locations, and a premise worth returning to month after month.
But only one book can give me Matter-Eater Lad.