Continuity Notes: Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Pocket Universe
In the mid-'80s, DC decided to streamline its continuity with a 12-issue miniseries called Crisis on Infinite Earths (COIE). Worlds lived, worlds died, and nothing was ever the same again. The main effect of COIE was to reduce DC's reality from a multiverse, with an infinite number of parallel Earths, down to a single universe in which all of its in-continuity characters would live. This didn't affect the Legion much, as they didn't have much of a history of parallel-world stories. The only effect it had on them, for the most part, was that Supergirl had been killed and removed from continuity.
Or that's what everyone figured at the time.
Problem was, DC didn't really have all its ducks in a row coming out of COIE. They used it as an opportunity to restart a bunch of characters, but those restarts didn't happen until some time after COIE finished. Many classic post-COIE takes on characters only took effect after the first post-COIE appearances of those characters. I'm thinking of Hawkman, the Question, Captain Atom... and Superman.
DC brought in legendary writer/artist John Byrne to revamp Superman after COIE. This was really a big deal, and DC made much of it. Anyway, Byrne made a lot of changes to Superman and his mythos, and one of the things he did was to get rid of a lot of stuff. For one thing, Byrne wanted Superman to be the lone survivor of Krypton: no Supergirl, no Krypto, no Beppo the Super-Monkey... For another, Byrne had Superman becoming a superhero for the first time as an adult. No Superboy.
Obviously, this caused problems for the Legion, whose history was full of Superboy and was kind of meaningless without him. A lot of people blame Byrne for this, for cutting the legs out from under the Legion. Byrne claims he warned DC that what he was planning could mess up the Legion, but DC blew off his concerns until it was too late. I don't really care who's at fault.
Paul Levitz came up with a solution: the pocket universe. It worked this way:
The destiny of the 30th century, the future inhabited by the Legion, was to be ruled over by the evil and immensely powerful wizard Mordru. The only one who could stop him was another LSH villain, the likewise immensely powerful Time Trapper. The Trapper decided to fight Mordru indirectly: he took a slice of time and grew a whole little universe out of it, that he protected himself with his own powers (so that it wasn't destroyed by COIE). He also rigged it so that when the founding Legionnaires went back in time, they entered this pocket universe. See, the pocket universe had a Superboy in it, unlike the new post-COIE DCU. That was Levitz's continuity fix: any Legion story involving travel back to the 20th century was set in the Time Trapper's little toy universe, rather than the real DCU; any story about Superboy was a story about the pocket universe Superboy. The Trapper's plan was that this way, he could manipulate things so that the Legion would counteract Mordru and the Trapper would be able to rule everything. Of course, the Legion did counteract Mordru, but also fought the Trapper himself, so it wasn't a perfect plan.
Anyway, in the story in which this was all revealed, the Legion met Byrne's Superman (who didn't remember them, of course; he'd never met them!) and the pocket universe Superboy was killed. Killed, but not retroactively removed from existence, you understand: the Legion's past with this Superboy was unchanged.
I've heard some speculation about the 2x+unboot Legion who recently appeared in the JLA/JSA crossover and how maybe they had something to do with the pocket universe. (And I know that there was some nonsense about some version of Supergirl coming from the pocket universe.) But look: the pocket universe is not a time-honoured part of DC reality. If someone at DC uses this pocket universe now, it's only because he or she has an inexplicable and perverse fascination with complicating things for no good reason. The pocket universe was nothing more than one of Paul Levitz's cheap tricks*, an apotropaic oojah he beckoned into existence to protect the Legion from the bad mojo of John Byrne's intrusive continuity. It was meant to be used once and forgotten about, it hasn't existed since Mon-El polished off the Time Trapper back in 1990 (our time), and as far as I can tell there's no good reason for it ever to be mentioned in a comic book again. But it did do what it was meant to do: preserve a) the Legion's past, and b) Byrne's vision of Superman, simultaneously.
(You could, if you wanted, have an argument about whether this clever pocket universe retcon should extend back into pre-COIE continuity. In other words, when reading old Silver Age Legion stories, should one keep in mind that the Superboy in these stories isn't an Earth-1 character, but comes from the pocket universe? Or should we consider the pocket universe to be something that was only added to DC reality after COIE? My take on it is that you can think of it whichever way you want; it really doesn't make any difference.
(Correction: I just reread the comics in question and I got this part wrong. The Trapper created the pocket universe specifically to cope with the changes of COIE. He also had some kind of notion about using his created Superboy for some kind of world domination. The stuff I said about Mordru is true but was not established in the comics until later. Serves me right for trying to do this stuff from memory. Oh well; I said at the start of this little project that I was going to make mistakes. I'm surprised nobody called me on this point in the comments.))
There were still objections to be made about how all this fit together. Like, what about Supergirl? What about Mon-El? What about all the other times the Legion appeared in the 20th century, and met Batman or the Justice League or even Superman himself? But at least now the problems were small enough that they could be explained away or dismissed. The Legion's history was mostly intact and Superboy was out of the picture. So everybody was happy. Right?
* which I mean in a good way! Where would storytelling be without cheap tricks?