Ask Chris #207: Rebuilding The Legion Of Super-Heroes
Q: If you had to create an iconic but stripped-down version of the Legion of Super-Heroes, like for a TV show, which eight to ten characters would be on it? -- @benito_cereno
A: One of the weirdest things about the DC Universe right now -- which is full of exactly as much weirdness as you'd expect from a 75 year-old superhero universe that's less than three years into a baby-and-bathwater reboot -- is that the Legion of Super-Heroes isn't a part of it. I mean, no, they were never the biggest franchise DC had to offer, but they were a pretty constant presence from 1958 to just a little while ago, and there's a good reason for that. I mean, they're teenagers from the future. That's quite literally a concept that never gets old.
That said, it's only a matter of time before they get rebooted, so let's while away some time figuring out just who I'd put on the new team.
First off, I want to point out that I'm a huge fan of the Legion, and the weird thing is that it has this reputation for being a franchise that's notoriously difficult to get into and that's mired in its own bizarre continuity, but that's actually one of the things that I really like about it. As much as I love the sheer goofiness of stories that are bizarre even by Silver Age standards -- there's one set up as a mystery about a traitor where it turns out that they're actually being spied on by a tiny little man who lives in Sun Boy's ankle bone, where he was put by an evil doctor with "fourth-dimensional forceps" that may actually be the single weirdest story in comics history -- there's a lot to love there about how far ahead of its time those stories seem.
The trick about the Silver Age is that on one level, every story was designed to preserve a status quo, but on another level, they were also adding things all the time to change just what that status quo was. Thanks to creators like Otto Binder on the Superman books, there's actually some pretty aggressive expansion in that time, with a lot of enduring concepts like Kandor, Supergirl, and even the Legion itself. And when you combine that with just how the Legion was built, you get a pretty interesting blueprint for how superhero stories would be told for the next fifty years.
See, the Legion was an offshoot of an offshoot -- a Superboy tie-in that had no other connection to a universe that was already marked by being pretty segmented. I mean, the Justice League was definitely a team of heroes that all hung out on occasion, but they were still rooted in their own little pockets, and since the Legion was set a thousand years in the future of an alternate version of a character set in his past, it was about as isolated as you could get. As a result, if you go back and read those stories, it seems like they had a mandate to do anything but keep the status quo. As early as the early '60s, you've got a book that's got relationship drama, people leaving the team, people dying and coming back and losing arms, and -- in the case of Lightning Lad, sometimes all three -- and it's all happening against the background of those weird-ass stories about Bizarro Computo and space whales.
Yeah: this is where DC's whole thing with the arms starts, although I think their current fascination with it has its roots in The Dark Knight Returns.
The biggest changes, though, came from the lineup. The Legion was adding new characters constantly, and the result of that is that if you're going to rebuild a team lineup, there's a lot of great characters to choose from. The problem, of course, is that it can get pretty difficult to narrow things down, but there's another little snag there too, in that the majority of those great characters were created in the '50s and '60s. If you're a fan of the Silver Age Legion, like I am, then when you start listing off your favorites and thinking about a new team, you end up with a lot of intergalactic white dudes, and that doesn't really set the trend of the forward-thinking future that you need for that comic.
The Legion has a reputation for being rebooted a lot -- which is often exaggerated by people who aren't reading the book but, let's be honest here, isn't entirely undeserved either -- but in addition to making things a little complicated, there's one really great thing that came out of it. The reboots have always skewed towards making the team more diverse, whether it was the '94 reboot's addition of more visually distinct aliens (like Projectra and Monstress) or the "Threeboot" and its racial diversity among the human cast.
Of course, there's also the "Deboot," where all the characters from the '70s came back because Brad Meltzer is why we can't have nice things, but, y'know, that's for another time.
So with all that in mind, here's who I'd pick. My first three are pretty obvious: Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy and Lightning Lass.
As the first three characters who appeared all the way back in Adventure Comics #247, Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad are considered to be the founders of the Legion, so they sort of have to be there. The thing is, when you start with those three, you're already tipping the balance in favor of the dudes, and the easiest way to do that is to just swap out Lightning Lad for his twin sister.
There's another added benefit to this, too: The Legion has historically been pretty good at including women (well, Girls and Lasses, mostly) on the roster, but they tend to have powers that are pretty passive. Phantom Girl phases through things, Dream Girl had prophetic visions, Saturn Girl spent most of the '60s reading minds (and occasionally mind-controlling her teammates into voting her into a leadership role for nefarious but ultimately noble purposes), and even Lightning Lass spent several years as Light Lass, with the awe-inspiring power of making things weigh less. Putting her front and center with the most destructive, combat-oriented powers for the founders makes for a nice change.
As for the looks, I never actually watched the Legion of Super-Heroes cartoon that was on a few years ago, but I did like that they tried to make Saturn Girl look a little more alien than her original appearance, even if it's just high-angled eyebrows and a widow's peak, and while I'll buy that Braal was colonized by mutants with magnetic powers (who were actually "seeded" there by Element Lad, don't ask) there's no real reason for him to look like a 20th-century Caucasian dude, either. If we're setting a story a thousand years in the future, then people are probably going to look a little different.
Next up, you've got another bunch of standards: Brainiac 5, Ultra Boy and Karate Kid:
Brainy's another one who almost has to be there; aside from the three founders, he's the character most strongly identified with the Legion, to the point where reprints of their first appearance are usually recolored to give some random kid in the last panel green skin and yellow hair. He's also one of the team's only real ties to the larger DC Universe, but I love the idea of this team of the 31st century having a technological mastermind who gives them stuff that's futuristic even for them.
Ultra Boy, on the other hand, is just one of the most brilliant concepts in the history of superhero comics. Seriously: He has all of Superboy's powers, which he got by being swallowed by yet another space whale, but he can only use one at a time, and that is just the best. If you don't think that's one of the greatest ideas for superhero storytelling, then I don't know what to tell you. You're just wrong.
Karate Kid is self-explanatory: He is so good at kicking people in the head that everyone was like "Yes, we agree that this is a super-power, like heat vision or telepathy." That is how good at kicking people in the head he is. In the future.
Finally, to round out my eight, Shadow Lass and Shrinking Violet:
I thought a lot about throwing in Triad or XS into the team, but in the end, I settled on these two for two reasons. First, and most simply, is that you've got visually interesting powers. If Teen Titans and Teen Titans Go have taught us anything, it's that you can do a lot with shadows that ends up looking really great, and, in addition to having one of the all-time greatest pun names in comics, Shrinking Violet's got that size-changing ability that's always really fun to see, especially when you throw it into sci-fi. The second reason is that it adds a nice layer of romantic tension to the team. Violet has often been hinted at being paired off with Lightning Lass, something that I think it's high time to pull the trigger on.
There are a lot of other great characters in the Legion that I'd throw in as guests, rotating out those other two slots, and with the caveat that this was meant to be for an imaginary TV show, I stayed away from the non-humanoid characters that I really like. Still, I think that's a pretty solid bunch to form new team -- although again, if I was in charge I'd definitely want to redesign more than a few of them to make things a little more diverse.
After all, a book that's set in the 31st century should at least look a little more like 2014.