Monday, February 26, 2018

Earthwar: The Legion's First Saga

Editor's Note: 
This week we present an essay from our Legion of Super-Blogger Applicant Long-Winded Lad. 
Let us know what you think and if you would like to see more essays on the page! 

Oh, the glory days of the Legion. Writer Paul Levitz has a grand idea: a five-part saga that draws on every single Legionnaire, as well as the Reservists, the retirees, and the Subs. A massive invasion that overwhelms the UFP. All masterminded by a mysterious villain, a legendary figure of DC villainy that remains unknown until the very end of Part IV. Then, in Chapter V (named after the villain), the villain is miraculously defeated. Major consequences of the story that will play out for months, if not years.

And just to put a big bow on it, each chapter will have a key word in it that ties it all together, so later it can be referred to by a handy name. The story became part of Legion legend.

Then, four years later, Paul Levitz did the exact same thing again. And this time it was even better.

The first time, of course, was Earthwar – Superboy & The Legion 241-245, July-November 1978. The Resource Raiders attack Earth, and the Legion stops them – only to learn that they were merely the heralds for the Khunds, who invade and conquer Earth. The Legion goes after the Khunds' warlord, only to learn that he's merely the puppet of the Dark Circle, who now rule Earth. The Legion then takes on the Dark Circle, only to learn that they themselves are also puppets – of Mordru, who reveals himself at the end of Part IV, and promptly defeats the Legion. A few escape, and he is finally defeated.

(The five chapters were titled “Prologue to Earthwar,” “Startarget: Earth,” “Earth's Last Stand,” “The Dark Circle That Crushed Earth,” and “Mordru: Master Of Earth.” Compare these to “And The Servant Shall Be A Sign,” “A Sign Of Darkness Rising,” “Darkness Transcendent,” “Within The Darkness,” and “Darkseid.” In the Legion's case, history didn't exactly repeat itself, but it definitely rhymed.)

(I don't know if I should be more proud or ashamed that I knew the titles of the Great Darkness chapters from memory.)

The aftermath of Earthwar, however, gave Levitz (and later writers) much grist for future stories. The Legion amends its rules banning married members, and Founders Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad return (after less than a year of “retirement,” but it's still big.) EarthGov finds itself unable to financially recover from the damages of the invasion, and the President steals R. J. Brande's entire fortune, bankrupting the Legion's bankroller – and leading to several stories of Legionnaires traveling with Brande to rebuild his fortune.

The story also introduces Science Police Officer Svaughn Erin, one of the greatest supporting characters in Legion history (until she's gutted by fanfic writers who should NEVER been given the keys to Legion canon, but that's a far later story). And it also the swan song of amazing artist Jim Sherman, who is far too often overlooked in the history of great artists who worked on the Legion.

One of the hallmarks of Sherman's artwork is reflections – the man loved him some shiny things, and used them just to make things more visually interesting. Other artists would depict reflective surfaces with a couple of line, but Sherman insisted on showing us just what we'd see in the real world. The best example is probably from Superboy & The Legion 233, but the splash page of 242 is probably more striking.

On the down side, it brought in Joe Staton, whose cartoony style always irritated the hell out of me. I followed two books at the time that were given to Staton, and he nearly ruined both Legion and Green Lantern for me.

In retrospect, it's easy to look at Earthwar as Levitz' “first draft” of The Great Darkness Saga, because he sure as hell reused a lot of the elements in the later, more popular storyline. But the earlier story needs to be given its due.

Prior to Earthwar, nothing like it had been done in Legion history. They'd had plenty of two-parters, but never a five-part story. They'd brought back former members, but never founders. They'd had invasions and conquests of Earth, but never so brutal. I don't think the Legion had ever had a crisis so severe that they'd called up the Reserves and the Substitutes, but they did this time.

Hell, it also introduced us to Weber's World, the artificial planetoid that served as the United Planets Federation's administrative home. (A quick aside: this was about a year after Star Wars came out. Could Weber's World have been inspired by the Death Star?) It also gave us Ambassador Relnic and Security Chief Ontiir, who also played major roles in Legion history. In fact, Ontiir's questionable loyalties became a key story element when the Dark Circle returned, about two years after the Great Darkness Saga.

Earthwar was the first major Legion “saga,” and it set the standard for future events. It was, I believe, the first DC storyline to go on so long. Marvel had already done it with the Avengers (the Kree-Skrull War of Avengers #s89-97 in 1971-1972, and the Korvac story from #s167-177 from earlier in 1978), but I don't think DC had ever gone so big. And it worked. Oh, Great Glmoren, did it work.

So, the next time you hear someone praise the Great Darkness Saga, smile to yourself a little. It was a lot of things, a lot of amazing things, but there's one title it can't claim.

It wasn't the first.


  1. This is still the biggest chunk of Legion stories I haven't read. The bits & pieces of Jim Sherman art I've seen are fantastic.

    Side note: It truly goes to show how subjective art is, and where in one's life it is encountered. I grew up loving Joe Staton's work on GL & LoSH, but I can totally see how it could be considered a 'step down' from Jim Sherman. Like going from Jerry Ordway to very early Todd McFarlane on "Infinity Inc.", or from anyone else to Rob Liefeld on just about anything.

  2. This will be collected in this summer's Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes Vol. 2, right? I'm hyped that DC is plugging the gap between the Archives and the Great Darkness Saga deluxe ed.

  3. I am a great fan of Joe Staton, but I have to admit, while his art style is perfect for certain characters (E-Man, for example, or his current run on the Dick Tracy comic strip), it was a poor match for LSH.

  4. I have one or two of these issues.
    Jim Sherman is great. I have a random issue he did in the early eighties for the Rich Buckler-led reboot of the Archie superheroes.