Days of Past Future
It recently occurred to me to ask the question, "What is the Legion of Super-Heroes for?"
As in, what purpose does the Legion serve from the perspective of DC Comics?
Stipulated that this question, applied to any comic-book character or characters, can be truthfully answered with, "They serve the purpose of appearing in comic-book stories that people will buy because they enjoy reading about those characters' adventures." Further stipulated that any superhero characters have the purpose of, "They exist to be the protagonists of the story and to fight supervillains." What I'm looking for is, what is the purpose of the Legion beyond all that stuff.
Here are some examples of what I mean. The purpose of Superman is to be the preeminent superhero of the DCU. The purpose of the Justice League is to organize the DCU's top superheroes for easy collective use. The purpose of the Outsiders is to give Batman an outlet for some of his worst tendencies. And so on.
I've gone on at length before about the essential qualities of the Legion, but that's more a description of what the Legion is. Not quite the same question. For instance, the Legion is traditionally composed of young superheroes, but the Legion is not the DCU's go-to team for teenagers. The Teen Titans is. The Legion isn't around to be young; they just are young.
As far as I can tell the Legion has two purposes in DC's ecosystem. (Let me know if you can think of any I missed.)
The first one is that they are there to reflect glory on Superman, by which I also mean Superboy. They represent the ultimate triumph of his ideals, on the one hand, and on the other hand they're really cool friends for him to have. Does Batman hang out with dozens of 31st-century aliens with their own spaceships and stuff? No, that he does not. DC needs Superman to be the greatest superhero ever, and the Legion is highly useful in justifying that status in his portrayal. For this purpose alone, DC will probably never completely discard the Legion.
The Legion's second purpose is that they represent the distant future of the DCU, and that's where we run into some problems.
(At one point the Legion had a third purpose, which DC has since outgrown: Legion comics were DC's laboratory for experimenting with various kinds of long-form storytelling. Stories like the death and resurrection of Lightning Lad, Earthwar, and the Great Darkness Saga were notably longer stories than DC usually told during their respective eras. The Legion still gets mixed up in its share of long stories, but it's not unusual anymore and anyway DC feels free to do this kind of experimenting with any or all of its titles these days.)
First, what comic book writer wants to have the future already decided? It's actually kind of a stupid idea if you think about it. What the flip is the point of a comic book where Superman has to save the world in the 21st century when DC's got over fifty years of comics showing Earth existing in the 31st century?
I'm not saying there aren't ways around that. I'm just saying that having the Legion around is not necessarily a welcome thing for all of DC's creators. Which brings us to the second problem.
Second, the Legion's future is an optimistic one. Which is great! I like it. You like it. But DC must hate it at times. After all, not only does it take some suspense away, but it's not what Marvel does. Marvel's future is always really unpleasant, something that's to be dreaded and changed. There's no room for a Legion of Super-Heroes in Marvel Comics.* And DC does so like to take its lead from Marvel.
This is probably the reason Geoff Johns grabbed onto the future-xenophobia idea so enthusiastically. Splits the difference: 31st-century Earth can still be, overall, a prosperous and amazing place, while also having a problem that makes it seem dystopian from our point of view. An optimistic and terrible future.
The third problem is not a drawback so much as it is something to be managed, and that is that the future is always changing.
(By this, I don't mean that details of DC continuity are always changing and the Legion's future must always change to reflect what's going on in the present. This happens, of course, but it's stupid and DC would do much better to just let all that stuff slide.)
No, what I mean is that our ideas of what the future is going to be like are always changing. Look at the difference between the future as drawn by Al Plastino and John Forte, and the future as drawn by Dave Cockrum and Mike Grell. It's like night and day.
For the first few decades of the Legion's existence, the various writers and artists managed to update their views of the future without actually saying that that's what they were doing. Then the reboots started, and while they were unwelcome in many ways they did have the effect of making it easier to reflect contemporary ideas of what the future was going to be like. Because the creators didn't have to change the existing settings and characters, see? They could just make new versions.
And I think that's why I have so much of a problem with the retroboot.
To go from publishing the threeboot Legion to the retroboot Legion is to abandon the idea of showing the future. Because you're not; you're showing somebody else's vision of the future from a quarter century ago. I mean, I don't say that the retroboot writers and artists were doing nothing more than echoing Levitz's second run; that's certainly not true. But the retroboot future is clearly a variation on the pre-Crisis future, and Crisis was thirty years ago. It's a 1980s future.
So how sad is that? We need an inspiring vision of the future as much today as we ever have. We could be getting it from Legion comics. But even when there are Legion comics, they aren't really about the future anymore.**
* Yes, yes; Shi'ar Imperial Guard; not what I'm talking about.
** To be fair, DC is also showing us some kind of future in Justice League 3001. But I'm not reading that. Is it any good?