In the real world, death is the point of no return. In comics, death is more like a revolving door. Heroes die, only to be reborn. Yet, Superboy’s death in Legion of Super-Heroes (v3) # 38 was something else altogether.
Now, the core concept of the Legion is actually pretty simple: teen heroes from the future, inspired by the legend of Superman, who come back in time to invite the teenage Clark Kent to join their super-hero club. Or as Supes himself put it in Justice Society (v3) # 5: “They were my friends.”
The Legion inspired Superman to become a better hero, a better person. THAT’S why the Legion was so popular for so many years. Despite all its Silver Age trappings, the series managed to tap into a universal experience, one that especially resonated with its young readers: friendship.
It wasn’t about a futuristic utopia, or the advanced technology, or even the multitude of alien races. It was about a lonely outsider who finally found a group of people who accepted him for who he really was.
All that ended with Legion #38.
How do you come back from that?! The answer is pretty simple: you don’t.
Not to say that there haven’t been any good, or even great Legion stories published since 1987. Quite the opposite, in fact. For example, take Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s mammoth five year run. That creative team, which also included the manga-inspired artistry of Olivier Coipel, brought the Legion back to its sci-fi roots, and found innovative ways to connect the title to the rest of the DC universe (I’m looking at you, R’as al Ghul!). More importantly, they found a way to rejuvenate the franchise, without invalidating all that had gone before.
But with Superboy’s passing, something essential was lost. Call it charm or innocence; whatever you like. But, once that core conceit of friendship was unraveled, the Legion became unrecognizable to me. Gone was the wide-eyed optimism that had been such an integral part of the series’ DNA. In its place was a kind of bitter cynicism. Not to mention an increasingly convoluted, and often contradictory, timeline that—thirty years, four reboots (including the 5YL “Glorithverse”), two crises, and one convergence later—the Legion still has yet to overcome.