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September, 2008 : Essay:

Middle-Aged Teenagers From the Future

It was a dark and stormy cover.

Lightning bolts burned through a starless night sky. Craggy, ominous-looking mountains loomed in the background. In the foreground, a bizarre scene was playing out. Superboy, along with five other costumed teenagers, formed a ring around a transparent coffin. Each of the teenagers rested one hand on the top of the coffin, while holding a short metal rod in the air, with the other hand. A perfectly-preserved body was lying inside.

What did it all mean? Fortunately, Superboy was there, to provide a handy chunk of exposition.

"The first bolt to strike a member's wand will flash through that Legionnaire's body and revive Lightning Lad!" he told the others. "But I warn you... whichever one of us attracts the lightning... will die!"

That was the cover of Adventure Comics #312, a DC publication dated September 1963. This story, "Super-Sacrifice of the Legionnaires," was the comic that introduced me to the Legion of Super-Heroes, a group of super-powered teenagers, based approximately one thousand years in the future. Originally introduced as supporting characters for Superboy, the group eventually earned its own series and its own comic. The Legion's popularity has risen and fallen over time; however, it has remained one of DC's primary super teams and is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year.

To help mark the occasion, the Legion will be featured in Legion of Three Worlds, a five-issue limited series starting in August. This series will supposedly give the Legion a major role in Final Crisis, the plotline now playing out in DC's superhero comics.

In addition, DC has published Legion of Super-Heroes:1050 Years of the Future, a Legion retrospective with stories from nearly every phase of the group's history, including "Super-Sacrifice Of the Legionnaires." Unfortunately, the animated series starring the Legion will not return to Kids' WB this fall, but there are already two DVD collections of episodes from the show.

Adventure Comics #312 was one of the first comics I remember buying with my newly-earned allowance and I've followed the team regularly—though not constantly—since then. Naturally, different aspects of the series have appealed to me at different times. However, I'm starting to believe that the same elements that make Legion of Super–Heroes difficult for some readers to get into are also the premise's greatest strengths.

As the name suggests, the Legion of Super-Heroes is big. Really big. Typically, there have been twenty or more active members in the group. As for the current enrollment... well, that depends on how you define "member."

Although it hasn't been mentioned recently, it has been suggested within the past few years that anyone who adopts the Legion's philosophy is automatically a Legionnaire. So, while there are relatively few super-powered Legionnaires, membership in the Legion is numbered in the tens of thousands—mostly teenagers, or, as they're called in the local parlance, underagers.

There's no question that a series with a large cast can be intimidating to a new reader. At the same time, though, it gives the reader a larger choice of characters to identify with. For most of its existence, the Legion has had a higher percentage of women in its membership than most super-teams. Extraterrestrials have usually been represented as well. They've ranged from the basically humanoid but green-skinned Brainiac 5 to the anything-but-human Quislet, who was introduced during Paul Levitz's productive tenure as Legion writer during the 1980s.

This large cast provided the opportunity for something very unusual in comics at the time: the possibility of real change. As Levitz writes in the introduction to 1050 Years of the Future, "Characters could die, be reborn, even crippled, love, marry or separate... storytelling tools that wouldn't be used widely in American comics until two decades later."

Another objection often leveled against the Legion is the—let's call it specialized—nature of many of the members' powers. Some of the characters who fit in that category are Light Lass, who makes things super-light; Matter-Eater Lad, who eats non-organic material like brick and metal, and Triplicate Girl, who can split into three identical bodies.

The Legion, in turn, has often been supported by another team, called the Legion of Substitute Heroes. These characters generally have powers so odd that even the original Legion hasn't been able to find a use for them. The subs include people like Color Kid, who can change the color of objects, and Stone Boy, who transforms himself into stone, after which, he can... well, he can't do much of anything, except turn back into human form again. There are people in the Legion now who have stronger and more vaguely defined powers, but many of the above characters still exist in the Legion's world. In fact, a version of the Legion of Substitute Heroes was introduced on the animated show.

Why does this approach remain popular? There's the comic relief, of course, but I think there's more than that. It might even be one of the main reasons for the Legion's enduring appeal. Consider: When you're going to school, your popularity is affected by which super powers you have. You may be handsome, you may be athletic, or you may be rich—in other words, you may have a major super power. On the other hand, you might be able to draw funny pictures or play the guitar. In the merciless social hierarchy of school, they become minor super powers.

If you were in the latter category—and I certainly was—it's not hard to see the parallels between your world and the Legion's, even if you weren't thinking about them consciously. Here are kids who are trying to defend the Earth without adult resources or abilities, and there are still other kids—the Legion of Substitute Heroes—whom even the titular heroes of the comic have rejected.

And yet, Ferro Lad could defeat the devastating Sun-Eater, even when his powers seemed only slightly more useful than Stone Boy's (Ferro Lad could change himself into iron, but he could still move when he was transformed). The Legion of Substitute Heroes could defeat a horde of alien plant men trying to invade Earth by using clever combinations of their powers.

Were some of the stories gimmicky and contrived? Sure, but that's an adult's concern. A kid's main interest is enjoying the story. If the story is enjoyable, chances are that the reader won't even notice the message that underdogs could triumph&mdashand if you want to substitute the word "underdog," with "geek," I won't stop you. In its current incarnation, the Legion's headquarters is filled with antiques and vintage pop culture such as—you guessed it—comic books.

As is often the case in stories featuring teenagers, adults appearing in the Legion of Super-Heroes were often not portrayed in a positive light. The original backstory for the Legion said that a millionaire named R.J. Brande funded the group and that he hired someone named Marla Latham to serve as the Legion's advisor. Brande hasn't been seen in the comic for a while, though, and Latham has appeared only a few times.

Not only are the majority of the Legion's foes adults, the team also has to deal regularly with the bureaucracy of the United Planets (the series' version of Star Trek's Federation).

One situation where adults were presented positively, though, was a well-remembered story from 1967. Writer Jim Shooter (who was a teenager himself at the time) and Artist Curt Swan presented a look at the Legion as adults, with tantalizing hints of who remained with the group—who married and who died. It was similar to the sort of speculation that many readers were undoubtedly doing about their own lives. Not so incidentally, this story is also available in 1050 Years of the Future.

Putting science fictional concepts in a comic book doesn't always make the story good science fiction. Too often, terms like "radiation" and "nanotechnology" become synonyms for "magic." In the Legion of Super-Heroes, the SF elements have generally been good and have helped the series. One reason for this is that the Legion got off to a good start when it came to writers. The story introducing the Legion was scripted by Otto Binder, who regularly sold prose SF in addition to his comics work. When the team graduated to its own series, Space Opera Pioneer Edmond Hamilton was one of the first regular writers.

In addition, some of the SF in the Legion has been gently tweaked over the years, as the audience has become more sophisticated. Planets where the residents seemed to be identical to earthlings were later described as early Earth colonies. Rocket packs became anti-gravity belts became flight rings.

The various artists who have worked on the Legion have also made important contributions to SF aspects of the series, in terms of character design and general world-building. This is one of the few science fiction comics that can boast an entire secondary alphabet, Interlac. Some of the artists who shaped the Legion's world are Curt Swan, Dave Cockrum, Mike Grell, Keith Giffen, and Barry Kitson.

Normally, the phrase "middle-aged teenagers" wouldn't be considered a compliment. However, the teens of the Legion of Super-Heroes are entering middle-age without losing any energy or appeal.

Copyright © 2008, Bill Spangler. All Rights Reserved.

About Bill Spangler

Writer/editor, with a background in pop culture, comics and pulp-style adventure. He has written about Star Wars and Lost for BenBella Books' Smart Pop series and original comic book scripts base don TV shows such as Alien Nation; Robotech and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. More recently, he has written a prose story featuring Commando Cody for the magazine Thrilling Tales.


Sep 2, 05:31 by IROSF
Thoughts about the Legion of Super-Heroes?

The article is here.
Sep 4, 21:31 by john d'alessandro
great job bill -- someone was reading it with me and we got a couple of good laughs as well as enjoying it for the other insights -- i'm impressed -- jd

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