…the Legion of Super-Heroes, post cancellation?

Our host Nathan graciously invited me to share my thoughts about How to Fix the Legion of Super-Heroes as part of the discussion following this article. In case you don’t know me, I regularly hold forth on the Legion over at Legion Abstract, but I’ve never specifically answered this question before. It takes on added weight, though, now that the comic book has actually been cancelled (which happened after I finished the first draft of this article) as of August.

But you know the real problem with the Legion?

It’s not broken.

There’s nothing to fix.

Okay, good article! Thanks, Nathan! See you ’round! That was easy!

Or perhaps I will elaborate. See, here’s the thing. With most superhero teams, we have some idea of the rules for how to tell good stories about those teams. For instance: in a Justice League comic, we want a membership that includes at least some of DC’s most famous and powerful heroes, working together against a large-scale threat. Well, DC’s writers have, over the years, developed some highly identifiable rules for how to get the Legion right:

1. The Legion is a group of superheroes.
2. There are many Legionnaires.
3. Being a Legionnaire is a special thing.
4. Legionnaires don’t all have overwhelming superpowers, but combine their more modest talents through teamwork to be effective.
5. The Legionnaires started their heroic careers as teenagers.
6. The Legion lives in the distant future.
7. The future setting of the Legion is an optimistic one, and so is the Legion’s outlook.
8. The future setting of the Legion is one in which space travel is common and there is abundant life on other planets.
9. The Legionnaires were the best friends of Clark Kent when he was a teenager, and helped him learn how to be a superhero.
10. Either directly or indirectly, the Legion represents the legacy of Superman ten centuries in the future.
11. The Legionnaires are the champions of diversity, and against xenophobia, in their society.
12. In Legion comics, characters can experience permanent change.

It’s hard to mess up this recipe, and in fact there aren’t a lot of examples of Legion comics where it did get messed up. The incumbent Legion writer is Paul Levitz, who knows how to get the Legion right arguably better than anybody else does, and who might be the most beloved of all Legion writers (unless Jim Shooter is).

So everything must be fine! Right? But no. Because:

1. While Levitz is indisputably competent at writing the Legion, most of his recent output has lacked what one might call the fire (with the exception of the last few issues, which benefited from the contributions of another guy who knows how to get the Legion right, Keith Giffen). It just hasn’t been all that interesting.
2. There’s a perception among comics fans that Legion comics are, because of the large cast and long, convoluted continuity, impenetrable to new readers.
3. Sales are low.

The fix for 1. is easy to describe, but difficult to accomplish in practice: replace Levitz with another writer, one who is good, has some star power, and who has something to say about the Legion. The fix for 2. is very tricky, because, while it’s true that there is a lot of convoluted continuity in the Legion’s past (which we don’t need to go into here!), in practice that continuity does not get in the way or make the comic books hard to read. In particular, Paul Levitz has bent over backwards to make this version of the Legion extremely new-reader-friendly. He provided a lot of introductory material, back in Adventure Comics before it was cancelled, and in the Legion: Secret Origins miniseries. He’s shaved down the cast of characters a little bit. He’s provided some new Legionnaires to act as viewpoint characters for new readers. But the perception remains.

It would be nice to believe that, if DC could solve problems 1. and 2., that problem 3. would go away along with them. I don’t know if it’s true, though. I don’t know if there are enough people out there who want to read about the Legion of Super-Heroes.

A few years ago, the prescription would have been obvious. Remember the period of time from, I’m going to say, about 2000 through 2006, when Legion comics featured the reboot, or “post-Zero-Hour”, Legion, and then after that the threeboot, or “Waid-and-Kitson” Legion? Many fans spoke loud and clear: they wanted the original Legion back. They didn’t love these new versions the way they loved the ones they had grown up with. If DC wanted to make a big success out of the Legion, they would have to bring back the version of the team that Paul Levitz wrote about back in the ’80s.

And DC brought them back (or, at least, they brought back a version that was close enough to the ’80s version that most readers accepted them as such). And, eventually, Paul Levitz stepped down as publisher to write the comic again. The nostalgic faction of fans had been given exactly what they wanted.

Except, once they saw it, it turned out they didn’t want it that much, and DC eventually pulled the plug on the title. So where do you go from there? You’re not gonna get many old readers back by bringing in the reboot and threeboot Legions, I know that much (Some, yes, some of us would love it; I’d love it). And it won’t attract new readers either.

Is it, then, time for DC to give up on the Legion?

I’m going to say “no”, and here’s why.

First, DC doesn’t have so many properties that are as potentially successful as the Legion that they can afford to let one lie fallow.

Second, the Legion is a big property. We’re talking about an entire setting, with about a hundred notable characters, that have been featured in half a century’s worth of stories. That’s too much intellectual property to basically abandon.

Third, and this is one that I’m not sure about, but it sounds plausible, the word “superhero” appears in the title, and DC needs to publish something at least every now and then with the word “superhero” in the title in order to hang on to their (jointly held with Marvel) trademark on the word “superhero”. I have heard that this is true; I do not know that it is true.

Fine, then, we’ll save it.

(I’ve seen the idea in more than one place that the Legion needs some time off. That DC should just leave it alone for a few years, so when they bring it back, the new version will get a real fresh start and the audience won’t bring the baggage of the previous series to it. I can see the sense of this. But… I for one don’t need to take a break, and if the Legion was gone for a few years I would miss them like hell. That’s just me, though.)

There is, of course, one simple fix that would solve everything immediately. We could just turn the whole enterprise over to Art Baltazar and Franco. (For that matter, Christopher Bird has his own thoughts on what should be done, and we could do worse than to give him a shot.) Or maybe we could move the Legion franchise from regular DC to Vertigo; I could see that working.

Whichever lucky writer gets tagged in to make this comic book work, they’d be well advised to follow these constraints.

1. This is in part a science fiction comic book. It’s not just superhero space opera. Science fiction elements are both appropriate and welcome in Legion comics.

2. The Legion roster needs to be both large and diverse. Male and female Legionnaires, Legionnaires of any and every race, Legionnaires who are straight and gay and everything else, Legionnaires who are human and humanoid and nonhuman and noncorporeal and artificial. There’s no excuse for not doing this; it’s a basic necessity of the premise of the Legion.

3. Now, you don’t have to put all these characters in the spotlight. Pick maybe four or five Legionnaires to focus on, and have the others be supporting or walk-on characters. Background. This is not the way Legion comics have been done in the past, and some longtime fans may be ticked off about it, but in the interests of accessibility I think it’s the way to go.

4. I think it’d also be advisable to provide some kind of inflection point in the story, so that what comes after is clearly distinguishable from what came before. (The way Giffen and the Bierbaums separated off their Five Years Later run.) Not a reboot, you understand, just a clear boundary.

5. As it happens, I have an idea for this inflection point. This is just what I’d do, you understand; any other writer might have a different scheme. My idea is the advent of the megaverse. The megaverse is all parallel dimensions existing as one. So the Legion’s future merges with all the other possible futures of the DC universe into one big future, one which contains dozens of versions of the Legion itself, some new and some old. So, all previous continuity is true, whether it’s contradictory or not, and the potential cast of characters is huge (but see points 2 and 3).

6. Superboy (or Superman) and Supergirl should play a real but limited role in this comic book. That connection to Superboy is important to a lot of readers, and it’s also one that works well for the Legion, in small doses. (Making Bart Allen a Legionnaire is also not a bad idea. Plus I’d love it if you could use Jordana Gardner, the Teen Lantern, from that one issue of the cartoon-tie-in comic Legion of Super-Heroes in the 31st Century.)

7. Accessibility to new readers is going to be the most important thing, so all of this continuity that’s available to us should be strongly strongly deemphasized. No dwelling on the past; no revisiting previous plotlines; no nostalgia. You can keep old fans happy by portraying the characters well and giving them good stories to be in.

8. Again, to aid accessibility, for the first year or two of this new Legion era, all of the stories will be done-in-one. No huge arcs to make it hard for fans to jump on. Each individual issue will be a complete Legion of Super-Heroes story. This does not preclude subplots that build over several issues, but a reader should be able to pick up any comic book and read it without needing a previous comic to explain what’s going on, and enjoy it, and…

9. DC should make it crystal-pepsi-clear to everyone in the world that this comic book is new-reader-friendly. The cover of the first issue should be nothing but a big caption that says, “You Don’t Need to Have Ever Read A Legion Comic in Your Life to be Able to Understand This One”, or something along those lines. And maybe use that same sentence as a banner on all future covers, and at the top and bottom of every page of every comic. With luck, the message will get through to at least some of the readers.

10. There are ways DC could help support this new Legion comic. They could
a) release one of their direct-to-DVD features starring the Legion
b) give them their own TV show again (the previous TV version of the Legion being an acceptable proof-of-concept)
c) have a big crossover event where the characters from other DC titles are unexpectedly flung into the 31st-century megaverse and interact with the Legion.
In all of these cases, of course, you’d have to use basically the same version of the Legion that you’re using in the main Legion comic. It’d just be confusing otherwise, and against the spirit of the enterprise. And, of course, you have to make it good; there’s no substitute for that.

And let’s not ignore the art. The Legion has usually had excellent artists over the years. But some have been more successful than others at portraying the future, and only a few have really been able to put across their own vision of what the future looks like (I’m thinking of Dave Cockrum, Keith Giffen, Barry Kitson, and maybe Olivier Coipel). It would be strongly advisable to find another artist who could do that, and if the artist is already famous, and has an existing fan following, so much the better.

I guess what I’m really saying is this. DC doesn’t need to fix the Legion. What they need to do is stop fixing it and start selling it.

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