Ask Chris #256: The Inherent Goofiness Of Future Space Teens
Q: Do you think it's possible for the Legion of Super-Heroes to work today, or are the trappings too corny? -- @jdkrach
A: My first instinct on this one is to say yes, and not just because the Legion was, for a long time, one of my absolute favorite comics. The entire superhero genre is, after all, full of corny ideas that have become timeless, right down to the fact that the entire thing is built around the idea of a very nice man who came from space and fools everyone into thinking that he's a very nice man from Kansas by wearing a pair of glasses.
But the Legion represents an entirely different question. It's not just the optimism of a bright future and names like "Lightning Lad" that can come off as corny, it's the entire universe that allowed them to exist in the first place --- and for a team that's been rebooted more times than just about anyone else, they sure do seem to have a hard time keeping up.
That was actually one of the biggest disappointments of DC's New 52 relaunch a few years back, that the Legion was one of the first books on the chopping block, and that despite coming out of the gate with two ongoing series --- which, in retrospect, probably wasn't the best idea for a team whose niche popularity had been steadily waning over the previous decade.
But that's not really something you can pin on the relaunch. The Legion had been muddled for years, to the point where there was a time back in 2007 where there were three separate versions of the team running around various pieces of the DC Universe that had absolutely nothing to do with each other.
When that's the kind of confusion you're dealing with just in the course of regular storytelling, corniness is the least of your worries.
But it is there, and the thing is, a lot of what makes the Legion great is rooted in it. A huge part of the appeal --- for me, at least --- is tied up in stuff like clubhouses and the Planetary Chance Machine, a bizarre little plot device from the '50s that selected Legionnaires for missions based not on their particular skills, but by spinning around real fast and then bouncing a miniature planet off their heads at random.
That thing's great. I mean, yes, it's also goofy as hell, but that's part of the charm of the franchise, and when you start stripping things like that out, you start to get further away from the heart of what makes them work --- the idea that the Legion is made up of kids.
I wrote about this a while back, but the one thing that grabbed me about the Silver Age Legion is that if you really look at those stories, they actually act like a bunch of children. It's something that's set up right in their first appearance, where they use a time machine --- a time machine --- to go back a thousand years to meet their hero and play a series of increasingly cruel pranks on him to see if he's cool enough to hang out with.
Seriously. If you haven't read it, that is the actual plot of their first appearance.
And from there, it ends up becoming more of the same. They are, at heart, a bunch of kids who formed a club with a needlessly complicated set of rules that, if anything, seems to be built less for efficiency in galactic crime-fighting and more for keeping out anyone who isn't already their friend until they finally prove that they're cool enough to hang out with. They play tricks on each other, invent complicated lies when it's way easier to just tell the truth, and there's more than one story about the less popular Legionnaires suddenly climbing the social ladder and taking their revenge on the rest of the club.
In its earliest form, the Legion is basically a high school clique with jetpacks. And that's great.
But it does put an interesting kind of limitation on the franchise. Because the Legion was originally conceived as something childish --- and I mean that in the purest sense of the word, not with the negative connotation that it usually has --- it can be a tough sell for the more hardcore audience. Which is itself a pretty big problem, because the hardcore audience is pretty much all the Legion has. I mean, I'm sure there's a casual fan of the Legion somewhere, but most of the people who love the Legion are all-in, with shelves full of pricey archives and very rigid opinions on things like Baxter paper and the words "five years later."
I think that's probably why so many of the attempts at reviving the Legion have involved recasting the team as adults. There's precedent for it going back all the way to the Silver Age --- since they were originally a spin-off of Superboy, the vague and nebulous time-travel rules of the time meant that whenever they showed up in Superman, they should also be adults.
Otherwise, I suppose, a grown-ass Clark Kent would've been best friends with a bunch of teenagers, and you can really only get away with that sort of thing if you live in Gotham City.
It really starts to take hold in the '70s and '80s, though, as the characters move into a new era and get those new Mike Grell designs that include Star Boy's lumberjack beard. On one level, I'm sure that was a function of creators like Jim Shooter --- who legendarily began sending in scripts for LOSH stories when he was 13 because it was his least-favorite comic --- growing up and wanting to recast the team into a form that was more relevant to them personally, but I have to imagine that at least a part of it was meant to appeal to a readership that was growing up along with them.
That was, after all, an era that was marked by a desire among comics to "grow up" and tell darker stories, a reaction to public perception of comics fueled by Batman '66 and the natural evolution of storytelling that, in the long run, ended up producing a bunch of stuff that was just as immature as what came before.
But, y'know, that's for another time. The point right now is that the Legion was at the leading edge of this idea. Before New Teen Titans launched to specifically fill that role, Legion was, in a lot of ways, DC's answer to X-Men, full of long-form storytelling and soap operatic drama --- and, not incidentally, Dave Cockrum art --- that replaced the "childish" bits of its earlier structure.
And that's not inherently a bad thing. There are plenty of good stories that resulted from that idea. The Great Darkness Saga is 100% off the chain and one of the best non-Kirby Darkseid stories ever printed, and "Eye For An Eye," the story where the villains decide to get serious about killing the heroes and Karate Kid is literally beaten to death by a traitor who then gets his neck snapped by Princess Projectra --- one of the darkest and most violent rejections of Silver Age optimism ever --- is also a really great story in its own right.
It's not limited to that era, either --- The Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes story by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank is probably Johns' best work in superhero comics. It's one that's directly inspired by the darker take that came about in the '80s, right down to the logo, and like those, it rejects a lot of what might be considered corny in favor of showing a dystopia built on xenophobia and racism, using a lot of those elements that first cropped up in the bright, poppy Silver Age stories.
Those are all great takes, and they're some of my favorite Legion stories, and part of the reason that they all work as well as they do is because they're reacting to the brighter stuff that's already in place. But at the same time, I do think that thematically, they're missing something. The Legion always works best when they're teenagers, when they're literally and metaphorically representing the future, and when they're a group that's so inspired by the stories of larger-than-life heroes that they decide to continue their legacy themselves.
There's a corniness that's kind of inherent in that. At its most simple, functional level, the existence of the Legion implies a future built on the idea that the Good Guys Win. There's a core of optimism there, and as much as it might make it a little harder to suspend our disbelief --- part of the price of admission when you sit down to read a superhero comic --- the alternative is a whole lot worse. Setting the Legion in a dystopia rather than a bright and optimistic future --- the kind of bright, optimistic future that comes with making kids your heroes --- means that all the books we're reading now are pointless because it just ends up being crappy anyway.
Admittedly, that's a reductive view. If nothing else, the thousand-year gap means that you can build plenty of caveats into whatever you want to do with the Legion, up to and including bringing in Jack Kirby's "Great Disaster" as a part of their Official Future History. But at the very least, showing us that there's always going to be a need for heroes is close enough to telling us that nothing's ever really going to get better, that it becomes a pretty difficult line to walk.
I think that's why so many reboots of the Legion have taken them back to the idea of being teenagers, returning to that optimism in various degrees whenever the pendulum swings too far into darkness. And it works, too --- the post-Zero Hour Legion, the one with all the updated codenames and those great sandwich-style costumes, has some of the best elements of the long history of the franchise.
Because they figured out one crucial point, one that's been at the heart of the Legion for decades: The corniness doesn't always have to be at odds with the darkness. They can actually work together and combine into something greater.
The Legion's strange status --- a spinoff of an alternate version of a character that was also set a thousand years in the future --- means that they weren't quite beholden to the same rules as the other Silver Age titles. While new elements were introduced and referenced more often than you'd think, Superman was usually back to status quo at the end of every story, but the Legion was just distant enough from the rest of the universe that they were always changing things up.
Mostly it was just the ever-expanding roster of new characters, but you also had a lot of the blueprints of modern storytelling going on there. Characters joined and left, they died and came back to life, and, in Lightning Lad's case, they lost arms. And folks, there is nothing more "Modern DC" than a character losing an arm.
But through it all, it was still a book starring children that largely operated on the logic of children, with all the corniness that implied. The two ideas have never had to be mutually exclusive, they just seem like they are because of the way those stories have developed over the years.
So, long story short, the answer is yes. The Legion's not around now --- and to be honest, as much as I miss them, I think it was probably a good move to give them a break --- but I hope that when they come back, they bring all that goofiness with them, from clubhouses to super-pets to Science Police.
The Planetary Chance Machine can probably sit this one out, though.