Saturday, July 6, 2013

Adventure Comics 247: "The Legion of Super-Heroes"

Given the name of the site I suppose this review was inevitable.

When we go back to the Silver Age Superman we're not just looking at a single character or book, but an incredible universe that sprung up around the character throughout the 50's and 60's. ACTION COMICS and SUPERMAN were joined by team ups with Batman in WORLD'S FINEST, Superman leading the greatest superheroes in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, Superman's cousin fighting the good fight as SUPERGIRL, LOIS LANE and JIMMY OLSEN enjoyed long periods of success, and even a prequel series of sorts chronicling the adventures of Superman when he was Superboy became a hit in ADVENTURE COMICS.

It was in the pages of Adventure Comics' Superboy feature that my personal favorite corner of the extended "Super-family" was born-- THE LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES. The Legion were a group of 30th century teen aged superheroes who, inspired by the legends of Superboy, had formed a "super hero club" which consisted of dozens of heretofore unseen superheroes who defended the galaxy from evil in their own time. Their great affection for Superboy led them to travel back to the 20th century in a "time bubble" to collect him and initiate him into the group so that he could join them in their adventures.

If ever there was a spin off more fertile than the idea that birthed it-- this was it.

Don't get me wrong, the Superboy strip was by no means a disaster in its own right, but its status as "the Superman comic for your younger brother" looked even more drab and hokey after you'd seen Superboy battle Mordru in the 30th century with a cadre of his fellow superheroes. What was intended as a fine "one off" about Superman and a group of three "future heroes" playing practical jokes on one another became, over the decades, a space opera of surprising depth and passion.

The Legionnaires were not just a high concept idea, they had real personality at a time when the mainline DC heroes (even The Batman) were basically interchangeable. They pranked one another incessantly, they were elitists about who could join their group, they made mistakes and had moments of weakness that characters paid for with their lives which made their essential nobility and camaraderie all the more touching. They were a massive army of Superheroes at a time before the Justice League existed, and they had bizarre and wonderful powers that felt like a kid had created them. They made Superboy less of an exact analogue of Superman-- by virtue of their richness and depth he gained added dimensions by bouncing off them.

Most importantly, they were implicitly optimistic as their very existence promised the brighter future that Superboy was destined to bring about through his example as Superman. Even though it's never explicitly stated in those early stories, the Legion existed as an affirmation of Superboy's faith in himself and his vocation. That's what makes the seemingly paradoxical blending of Superman's past and future so mythical and resonant-- it's hard to see where your life will take you when you're twelve. The Legion were a reminder to never lose hope in the development of humanity. Their existence promised a world beyond the problems of the 50's, where we had conquered the demons inside ourselves and had extended our grasp to the universe. And all this predated Star Trek by a considerable margin, by the by.

This story itself is not a masterpiece; it is an enjoyable short feature from the DC Comics of the late 50's. Skillfully written and drawn, it goes about its business of recounting the time Superboy met and horsed around with time travelling super heroes from the future with clarity and brevity. I don't mean to give it short-shrift in its own entry on this site, as it's a charming story and I think it sets the tone for the Legion stories perfectly by playing them as slightly edgy kids doing an elaborate "Hazing" routine. I also like the way Superboy effortlessly shows them all up in the final sequence and regains his primacy. These guys aren't Snapper Carr or even Robin, and the mischievous quality brings out an alpha male quality in Superboy that makes him a full character in his own right. This is a wonderful story.

But we have to be real, what makes it all so beautiful and wonderful is the world it promises and the stories it made possible by doing so. It's the prologue to one of the great epics of American comic books, and the first of many Legion stories to get profiled here. It was a great seed planted by men looking to meet a deadline which gave us a breathtaking space opera which continues to this day and so it deserves inclusion here.

Long live the Legion!

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