Tuesday, June 09, 2015

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?

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Blogger Dylan said...

JL 300 is decent, if not great. The recent addition of the time-tossed or long-lived JlI members has done some interesting things to improve it, though.

I admit, I've never fully gotten how the "being in the future" ruins any kind of suspense. As long as their knowledge of the past is at least somewhat sketchy, they're not gonna ruin anything. And they're far enough in the future that anything contradictory (person x being person y's descendent when person xis currently dead), can be glossed over by the fact that person x could well come back to life sometime in the next thousand years. Besides, any kind of medium like comics is inherently undercuts its own suspense. We know nothing truly terrible is going to happen to Clark or Bruce or Diana or who have you, because they need to keep appearing in money-making books.

10:09 PM  
Blogger Jim Purcell said...

To me the Legion serves the purpose of being a group of characters at a major publisher tangentially connected to the history of your shared super-hero universe. One were you can literally DO ANYTHING YOU WANT WITHOUT REPERCUSSIONS. Because the Legion is off in their own corner of the DCU, separated from the rest by 1000 years there's actually no worries of upturning someone else apple carts when you want to do dramatic things to your cast. You can mine history, kill characters, resurrect characters, blow up Earth, etc... etc...

You can't do that in Justice League, you can't do it in Teen Titans, etc... because somebody else is using those characters somewhere. Like Dylan said, in some ways comics undercut themselves in terms of suspence because you know a hero is eventually going to 'win'. But with a book like Legion of Super-Heroes built around a team structure, you can get some of that suspense back because no individual character is ultimately ESSENTIAL to the team/concept.

I personally think the Legion has outgrown Superman/boy as their sole anchor. They should be inspired by the example of the entire modern age of super-heroes and their ideals.

11:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Dylan: I'm not saying there aren't ways to cope with it. I'm just saying that it's a thing and not a welcome one.

Jim: I get your point. I can't entirely agree about the Superboy thing, though; I myself don't need him in Legion comics but I recognize that there are those who do, and I think the Superboy link adds at least as much to their concept as it blocks.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Dylan said...

You know, on the subject of Superboy, as much as I do love that era, it raises all kinds of questions that make your head hurt thinking about it. I mean, think about the original Sun-Eater story arc. If Ferro Lad hadn't stopped him, young Clark would have blown himself up. And then the time stream would have exploded. Or what if Mano or the Emerald Empress or someone had managed to kill him?

I also agree with Jim about the distance being a good thing. The problem is, DC seems to actively hate that distance, whether its the future or the past. During the Millennium crossover, they shanghaied both the Young All-Stars and the Legion into it, to the detriment of both books.

8:03 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Yeah, they were really being irresponsible with Superboy, weren't they?

I think what we're calling "the distance" is a good thing in artistic terms, but in commercial terms it tends to work against DC's basic strategy, which is for each of their comics to get you to buy more of their comics. So it's no wonder if they fail to take full advantage of it.

8:27 PM  
Blogger anonymous said...

Very much enjoyed the thought-piece here.

At this point, I crave the Legion for being some manifestation of utopic imagination, ...some kind of novelty in the context of (imo) a pervasive dystopian fluency.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks. And, yes, exactly: what's the point of Superman if we can't have that?

3:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's no reason the Legion can't have more than one over-arching purpose.In the 5YL era,their purpose was in liberating Earth.In the threeboot era,it was loosening up a culture that had become too rigid.Even a comic set in the future has to change with the (present)times.

11:24 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Well, the purposes you cite are specific to the storylines within the comic. I'm talking about stuff that speaks to the roles the Legion plays before anybody's decided on a storyline. But the last thing you say...

Even a comic set in the future has to change with the (present)times.

...Yes, exactly, and that's just what's not happening.

11:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Y'know,I don't think the Legion needs any more raison d'etre besides fighting bad guys.Giving them a more specific purpose has its pitfalls;for instance,the Blackhawks were made to fight WWII.When WWII was over,it was a struggle to find something else to do with them.Efforts to update them have been less than successful,and the Blackhawks survive today only as period pieces,stuck in the WWII era.
If DC needs something for the Legion to do,how about this--featuring them in a comic book that fans will look forward to reading each month? Do that,and the rest will take care of itself.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Point taken, but:

- note that I'm not trying to come up with new roles for the Legion so much as discussing the ones they've historically had, and
- in the specific case of your example, World War II gets less relevant as time passes but the future never does

Plus, I submit that it's easier to create a comic book that fans want to read each month if one has some idea of what should go in it.

3:43 PM  
Blogger Arion said...

Interesting observations about the Legion. I think they still have an important role but seems like DC doesn't know what to do with them. Anyway, I'm writing about the series as often as I can in my blog (wich I encourage you to visit):


I hope you enjoy my review, and please feel free to leave me a comment over there or add yourself as a follower (or both), and I promise I'll reciprocate.



11:30 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks; I'll check it out.

11:33 PM  
Blogger Azathoth100 said...

It's always been a problem for the Legion to deal with changes in the current books. Anytime DC does a shake up, a death, a reboot, or a crisis it ends up having to effect the Legion. At one point they were able to explain away incongruities by saying that the Time Trapper kept a lot of the Superman ear blocked from them, modern stories being either lost in time or ultimately inaccessible to the Legion. It's also why, I think, DC kept a lot of their Immortal characters from showing up in Legion stories. While some did (Most noticeably Darkseid, Brainiac aka Pulsar Stargrave, I'm not sure if I can count Vandal Savage), DC has tons of immortal beings who never appeared in Legion (personally I wouldn't have minded seeing Solomon Grundy, Shaggy Man, Amazo, or even Eclipso show up for a story or two) mostly because they didn't want to conflict with current stories. What DC misses is the fact that due to the long time separating the Legion from Modern DC, and the ever present certainty of some crisis or other changing things, they can pretty much write Legion view on history as the writer sees fit without worrying about how it differs since they can always come up with some way to explain the differences, either by the Time Tapper or just information being lost over 1,000 years. With the long a time period there's no reason to handcuff yourself to the ever changing present. Unless there is a death that is meant to be permanent, which is almost unheard of in comics, then the Legion can just look back on the legends of the modern heroes/villains without focusing on every single event in their lives.

11:16 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Yeah. Again, these kinds of continuity implications are only a problem if DC insists that they must be a problem. Well then, you say, why don't they just not do that? And I say, I'm dashed if I know.

11:21 PM  
Blogger Azathoth100 said...

so a question for you Matt. are there any of DC's Immortal beings who you think would have done well showing up in the Legion comics? As I stated, I like the idea of Solomon Grundy, Amazo (with all the JLA's powers) or Eclipso.. heck I would have been interested in a story where a new Legion recruit turns out to be the Ultra Humanite. Are there any you think could have been used effectively?

11:31 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

The one I always thought of was Vandal Savage. But we had Ra's al Ghul and it probably would have gone about the same as that.

I think we secretly had Amazo in the Who Shot Laurel Kent one of the Annuals.

I dunno. Nobody comes to mind. Maybe the Appellax aliens?

11:40 PM  
Blogger Axel said...

I think I disagree with much of the original post. A 1980s future isn't a bad thing. In fact, we're living it now. I don't need a new version of the future in order to enjoy the Legion or feel it's relevant. What I need is. Legion of Superheroes which understands what it's really about and what it exists to do - it's about (1) an optimistic future and vision of humanity; (2) science fiction; (3) diversity of cast (with a small "d" or just meaning, lots of different characters, and (4) complex world building. If a writer gets those things right, the Legion will be essential to read, even if it's a 1980s future. After all, I'd much prefer a 1989s future that feels familiar and seems to make sense than an arbitrary one that lacks coherence. We're living that future anyway.

11:53 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

This world today certainly is not the future as we envisioned it in the '80s.

No, there's nothing wrong with a future setting as it was thought up in the 1980s, but one of the strengths of a disposable medium like comics is its immediacy. Surely we must have some thoughts about the future now that are worth expressing, that are more relevant and interesting to us than they would be if they were filtered through someone else's thirty-year-old thoughts about the future.

12:11 AM  
Blogger Axel said...

First, I'm just not sure I agree. Ask someone who's a fan of "Back to the Future" and they might argue with you that the "now" we're living in isn't that far off from where we thought it would be.

Second, I just don't agree that it really matters all that much. We're talking about fictional concepts really. The truth is the details of the vision of the future presented don't really matter. What matters is that's it's a) bright and optimistic; b) complex and fully realized; and c) has a Legion which is tethered to the past in some meaningful way - most hopefully through Superman.

I just don't get your insistence that the version of the future presented by Levitz in 1985 is all that irrelevant or unworkable today. All that matters is that someone has a way to use those characters to tell new and interesting stories.

And actually, I think I have a way to do that. I think you could make a pretty exciting series using the so called retro-boot Legion, but spun into new and unexpected directions. Wish I could pitch it actually.

Thank you for the blog! You're obviously very smart, and I admire your passion for the Legion!

11:06 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

You're welcome.

And I don't want to give you the idea that I don't like Levitz's Legion comics of the '80s. I do, a lot. He and his collaborators did fine work. They were informed by those who had gone before, but were not constrained by that previous work. I would like current-day Legion writers to have that same freedom.

One of the things I think is that the LSH is not just another superhero comic. It is also, partly, a little, a science fiction comic. This is one of its strengths. And when you're doing science fiction set in the future, you're saying, "Here's what I think things could be like by then." And our ideas of what the future could be like change over time. That's why Dave Cockrum's future looked so different from John Forte's, for instance. Portraying the future is one of the things LSH creators do for us. Let's not lock them down to any one specific vision of it. To do so would be to discard one of the strengths of the title.

(I do agree with you that, for it to be a proper LSH comic, the future should be portrayed as identifiably optimistic. DC seems to agree with us also, as we've basically always had that.)

11:33 AM  
Blogger Axel said...

Not quite. There was the abominable "five years later" period when Giffen was given the keys to the Kingdom
and ran amock with the Bierbaums.

Then there was the time DC decided that it was going to take half the cast and send them to the past, or our present... For no good solid reason and much to our collective chagrin.

And then there was the other time when GIffen was given a chance to get his grubby hands on the books and decided that he would have aliens seat Sun Boy....

So... DC hasn't really quite gotten it consistently.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Axel said...

That's "eat" Sunboy. Eat. I wish there was an edit function for these posts!

6:27 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I stand by my statement.

11:59 PM  
Blogger Axel said...

I understand. I suppose my point of view is that DC hasn't always understood what made the Legion resonate with each new iteration. By and large, you're right, the arc of Legion history has been a positive future, but they have made a few mistakes along the way. Just my view.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

They have _certainly_ made mistakes. But I don't think they've ever gotten to the point where they had simply gotten the premise of the team wrong; their mistakes have never reached the stick-the-carrots-up-your-nose stage.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Axel said...

Ok. Maybe the "five years later" managed to get it right. I don't know because I never finished it.

But I would argue the "Legion Lost" book where legionnaires were taken out of the main book and sent to he past was a terrible idea that deserved to fail.

12:25 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Well. The early issues (1-~40) were better than the later issues, so it's unlikely you would have been won over if you'd stuck with it.

Legion Lost V2 stank on ice, all right, but it might have worked if a better writer and artist had thought it out better; the idea wasn't completely unsalvageable. Still, it wasn't a Legion comic in the sense that we're discussing Legion comics; it's a totally different premise that just happened to use some of the same characters.

1:07 PM  
Blogger Axel said...

But I think that proves my point, no? My point is, "DC doesn't always get it right where these characters and concepts are concerned." Or, in other words, "they got the premise wrong." Otherwise I don't think I can argue the point with you.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Well, let's see... how can I express the distinction the way I mean it...

My assertion was, essentially, that DC has never attempted an LSH comic and fumbled the core premise. Legion Lost v2, while it didn't have that core premise, also wasn't an LSH comic but was some other kind of comic that happened to use LSH characters.

If your position is that it must have been an LSH comic because it used those characters, well, I don't construe it that way, but that's a point on which reasonable people can disagree, and it would qualify LLv2 as such a failure.

But, well, hmm. Because I think you could have successful uses of LSH characters in comics which are just not LSH comics. And it'd be unfair to call those failures to get the LSH concept right.

I may be overthinking this.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Axel said...

Annnnnd that's what I think the problem is. Giving "Legion Lost" a pass because it "used" LSH characters but wasn't an "LSH book" is splitting convenient hairs. Here you are saying that "by and large, DC has gotten this right" except that I assert that that book is clear proof they got it fundamentally wrong, and you're arguing it wasn't technically an example... There's a problem if the very evidence which disproves the assertion isn't "good enough."

Look, not to get into an endless back and forth with you, but my view is that if an editor decides to come
up with an ongoing "legion book" (which it must be if it's using Legion characters) but plants them in the past; that books is:

(A) doomed to failure because it completely misses the point;

(B) the editor should have been relieved of his duties; and

(C) it's evidence that DC doesn't understand why these characters work the way they do and how to use them properly.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Which is largely what I said in the third paragraph of my previous comment; I was conceding the validity of your point.

But the two of us do seem to have different approaches to what makes something an LSH comic. For you, if I am reading you right, it's the characters. For me, it's the idea of teenage superheroes carrying on Superman's legacy ten centuries in the future, but I'm flexible about just _which_ teenage superheroes.

I think you can use LSH characters in the past. One of my dream comics I'd like to read someday is a screwball comedy adventure where Bouncing Boy and Matter-Eater Lad are trapped in the past as 1930s hoboes who have to make it from New York to Miami Beach in time to stop Benn Pares from stealing the Hope Diamond from millionaire Lee Travis, who is distracted by trying to romance Luornu... But it's not exactly an LSH comic, is it? Whether it's any good or not?

3:52 PM  
Blogger Axel said...

Provided it's not an ongoing, or the premise of an ongoing book, I don't see why it wouldn't be a Legion book, good or bad. the Cosmic Boy mini which was a tie in to Legends was a "legion book." Legion Lost V.1 was a "legion book." And so was Legion Lost v.2. It just wasn't a very good one.

4:13 PM  
Blogger Axel said...

Oh, and for me, it's post the characters AND the premise. I love Dawnstar and Wildfire and Sun Boy and Blok etc. but I'm not that interested in reading about them stuck in the past indefinitely. For me, they work really well when they're basically teenage superheroes carrying on Superman's legacy ten centuries in the future.

4:15 PM  
Blogger Axel said...

"Both" I meant. "Both" the characters AND the premise! Sigh.

4:16 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I think we've drifted pretty far from the original discussion.

Any day now I'm going to have a review of that Sugar & Spike/LSH story in Legends of Tomorrow #8, so that'll be something new for everyone to kick around.

5:43 PM  

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