By Michael Bailey
There’s a theory that the first thing you are exposed to in a particular fandom will ultimately be your favorite. This is not a hard and fast rule but for the most part it’s true. For example, the first Doctor you experience when you start watching Doctor Who is more than likely going to become “your” Doctor. The Star Trek series you watch and fall in love with first with is “your” Star Trek. The first heroes and villains you are exposed to become “your” heroes.
Going with that theory and sticking to it the Legion, by all rights, should be among my favorite characters ever.
In fact it took me a long time to learn to love the Legion.
I’m not making any sense. Let me back this up a bit.
Despite being a fan of super-heroes from the time I was cognizant of the world around me, I didn’t start seriously reading comics until I was eleven years old. I would get the odd comic here and there, in addition to the big box of Marvel books I got for Christmas 1985. I even tried to collect a book in the summer of 1986. It was the Masters of the Universe book that Marvel put out under their Star Comics imprint. I lasted four issues.
The time wasn’t right. I wasn’t ready. The book wasn’t all that good.
All of these sentences are accurate.
Something changed in 1987. I have four older sisters and we had a sliding scale of jacked up grills. My eldest sister needed a little work from the orthodontist while my mouth could have been declared a disaster area with FEMA being called in to assist. My time in harness (as in getting braces) was still about a year or so away but being eleven my mother couldn’t leave me at home while she took my sisters to their orthodontic appointments. The office was lousy with comics, mostly DC and mostly Superman on top of that. One of them was an issue of Action Comics where Superman was fighting Superboy. I didn’t get the chance to read it though when I saw it because it was time to leave but it sure looked cool.
Sometime later I was at the grocery store with my Dad where I spotted that issue of Action Comics from the orthodontist’s office, as well as an issue of Superman. It had an amazing cover. There was Superman hoisting one guy I didn’t recognize (who I would learn is named Blok) over his head while holding another guy I didn’t recognize (who I would learn is Brainiac Five) with two other guys I didn’t recognize (who I learned were Sun Boy and the second Invisible Kid) were sprawled out on either side of him.
This is the type of cover that dares you not to read it.
I took the dare and was a bit shocked by what I saw when I opened the comic. There, on the first page, was a shirtless Clark Kent ripping a tree out of the ground in full view of Lana Lang. A few pages later Ma and Pa Kent show up with a picnic lunch. What was going on? Had the world gone insane? How can Lana know Clark’s secret? How can the Kents be alive? How can Clark have such an amazingly hairy chest?
My confusion stemmed from the fact that up until I plucked those comics from the spinner rack the sum total of my experience with Superman in the comics came from a copy of Superman: From the ‘30s to the ‘70s that I used to check out of the school library. Things were pretty clear in that book: Lana Lang did not know that Superboy/Superman and Clark Kent were one and the same. The Kents? They were passed on. Those people are no more. They have ceased to be. They had expired and gone to meet their maker.
Before reading those issues I also had no idea who the Legion of Super-Heroes were, either. Luckily John Byrne provided the origin of the team and a short explanation of why there wasn’t a Superboy anymore, which in a roundabout way explained why Lana knew Clark’s secret and how the Kents were alive. I rather liked the idea of these costumed heroes from the future coming back to make Superboy part of their team. Nearly thirty years later I still like the idea but I also laugh at the fact that hazing is something that survived the thousand years between now and when the Legion exists.
I also liked how the story played out over Superman #8 and Action Comics #591. Clark is minding his own business, hears of some trouble, investigates said trouble, meets Brainiac 5 and friends, gets thrown into the pocket universe, fights with a younger, more powerful version of himself, and once everything is sorted out returns home. There’s action, some emotion, a lot of exposition, colorful characters, and a super powered dog that sacrifices his powers to save his master.
It was a great way to be introduced to the then new comic book adventures of Superman and because of that these issues will always be special to me.
I knew the story continued into another book but at the time I was so new to buying comics that if it wasn’t at the 7-11 or the grocery store it just didn’t exist. It never occurred to the eleven year old me to try to find the issues of Legion of Super-Heroes that both preceded and concluded the story in the two comics I had just bought. A few months later I picked up Who’s Who Update ‘87 off the spinner rack and the Superboy entry told me everything I needed to know about the story so I was good. In fact it would be ten years before I would finally read Legion of Super-Heroes #37 and #38.
So going with the theory I put forward at the beginning of this post I should have been a Legion fan from the beginning, because they were in the first comics that made me a comics fan.
But they didn’t. Why?
One answer is the setting. Stories set in either the future or in a more science fiction/outer space settings never appealed to me (with the exceptions of Star Wars and Star Trek which were, for lack of a better term, grandfathered into my favorite things). For the most part I like my stories to be set in a more real world setting. This is also why I never glommed on to fantasy stories. When all of the settings and even some of the language is made up by the author my interest tends to plummet.
Beyond that the Legion itself never appealed to me. I liked the idea of the team but I am the type of person that needs to connect with a concept before I really get into it. Finally, the Superman books were my bread and butter in terms of must-have comics and during the Post-Crisis on Infinite Earths era the Legion was not a big part of Superman’s life, even though they would pop up from time to time. Dan Jurgens used several eras of the team during the Time and Time Again storyline in 1991 and the Post Zero Hour version of the group worked with Superman before and after the Final Night event, but they weren’t an integral part of that Superman’s backstory. He never was Superboy so, he wasn’t a member of their team. He didn’t have a strong connection to them and because of that neither did I.
Now to be fair there were times when I almost got into the Legion. In 1997 I found a huge run of both the Baxter series and the Five Years Later series in the cheap bins and liked both of them just fine...just not enough to investigate either series beyond the issues I had found. In the early 2000s Superboy was drawn into the team so I started buying that book to follow his adventures with them. I even bought the Mark Waid “threeboot” series from right before Infinite Crisis. This is in addition to reading the Who’s Who entries as I bought the various iterations of that series over the years.
None of it stuck.
Geoff Johns forced the issue in 2008 when he (along with Brad Meltzer) brought the Pre-Crisis Legion back in the JLA/JSA crossover the Lightning Saga as well as the Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes storyline in Action Comics. They also played a part in Superman: Secret Origin and the conclusion of the New Krypton saga. Then there was Legion of Three Worlds, which was great until the final page of the final issue.
Anyway, suddenly the Legion was back in Superman’s life and it was then that I started to finally “get” the Legion.
It was a big deal for me. After years of keeping the team at arm’s length I finally started to understand what the Legion represents and what it means to Superman. It took the death of my era of the Man of Steel to get to that point but once it hit me it was like a fog had lifted. “My” Superman had little to nothing to do with the Legion but once I started to accept the previous iterations of the character I started to have more respect for the elements of his history.
I am not trying to insult the die-hard Legion fans by saying this so please stick with me to the end but once I realized that the Legion was a spin-off of Superboy and by extension Superman I accepted the group into my heart. Like Laverne and Shirley and Benson and Frasier, the Legion of Super-Heroes managed to spin out of a popular series and become something special in and of itself. In the admittedly limited reading I have done of their Bronze Age adventures I see something a reader can really sink their teeth into. The sense of family. The values the group stood for. The acceptance of other races and species. The different personalities and powers.
The whole gestalt of the Legion spoke to me like it never had before.
And just like that I learned to love the Legion.
It’s funny too because in many ways I feel like I have circled back to the early days of my comic book collecting. This super-hero team I was exposed to thanks to Superman #8 and Action Comics #591 that had once been lost to me was found. There will always be a part of me that loves the era of Superman where he had little or no connection to the Legion, because that’s what I grew up on, but there is another part that will always think of the Legion as something that is closely associated with the Man of Steel. It’s why I store my Legion collection with my Superman books.
It’s where they belong.
One more thing and you can file this under “Something You Probably Already Knew But Just In Case You Didn’t Here It Is”. The cover to Superman #8 is Byrne reworking the cover he drew for Fantastic Four #249. On that cover Gladiator is hoisting the Thing over his head and holding Mister Fantastic while the Human Torch and Invisible Woman are sprawled on either side of him. He was a member of the Shi’Ar Imperial Guard which had a diverse membership that were all swiped in one form or another from the Legion of Super-Heroes. Gladiator was the Superboy stand in and years later his real name would be revealed to be Kallark. A few years back someone pointed out to me that if you look at the Legionnaires that Superman is holding/standing in front of you have a fire person, someone that turns invisible, someone that looks like they are made of rock and someone that is really, really smart. So on one cover you have the Marvel version of Superman standing triumphant over the Fantastic Four and on the other you have Superman standing triumphant over four characters that share the powers and/or personalities of the Fantastic Four.
Mind = blown.
Mind = blown.