Legion of Super-Heroes at 50: What Makes the Legion Cool?

Legion of Super-Heroes Ends With #50

The Legion of Super-Heroes has more than stood the test of time. From an upcoming introduction to TV's Smallville to a highly-anticipated comics series this week, the flying futuristic teenagers in the Legion of Super-Heroes are not only still around 50 years after their introduction, but the team has been getting a lot of renewed attention.

First introduced in Adventure Comics #247 in 1958, the Legion of Super-Heroes is a group of super-powered teenagers from 1,000 years in the future who are inspired by the legend of Superman. The team's introductory story, which saw the young heroes traveling back in time to visit a young Clark Kent, will be the subject of an episode of TV's Smallville this fall, and a Warner Bros. cartoon series recently introduced the team to a new generation of TV viewers.

And while comic book fans just got a revived ongoing Legion series a few years ago and a recent Superman-centered Legion story in Action Comics, this week's Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds mini-series will focus on the team even more in a highly anticipated summer event that will determine the future of the DC Universe.

In a fictional landscape inundated with sci-fi versions of the future and superpowered space heroes, the Legion has somehow stuck around and continued to resonate with readers. In celebration of the team's 50th anniversary – and as Legion of 3 Worlds is set to begin – we start a series of Newsarama features this week by talking to a few of the comic book creators who molded the team to find out why the Legion of Super-Heroes has such lasting appeal.

"Despite the futuristic setting and extra-terrestrial planets, the Legion is all about us," said Geoff Johns, the writer behind Legion of 3 Worlds and the team's upcoming Smallville appearance. "The idea of a team composed of aliens from different worlds working together to prove that a united universe can become a reality will always be relevant. There are themes within the Legion and the various members that touch upon things we can all relate to."

Johns said the idea of a fun futuristic space story may be what first attracts people to the concept of the Legion, but it's the basic human qualities of the characters and the familiar problems they face that make the stories continue to be popular with audiences.

"My favorite superhero stories are the ones that on the surface appear to be a fun, big superhero story, but underneath are really about us," the writer said. "Our struggles with faith, loss, finding inspiration, overcoming our fears, striving to be the best we can be – that's really what Legion of 3 Worlds is about, among many other things.

"And in Smallville, we've got an element of embracing your destiny, or questioning those that tell you who you're supposed to be. There's many more in the episode I'm working on," Johns said of his upcoming television work with the Legion.

Mark Waid, who's had a hand in introducing two versions of the Legion – once after a Zero Hour reboot and more recently with the new series – said he thinks the Legion of Super-Heroes was also able to stay popular over the years because the team has so many members. In fact, there are so many different heroes and powers that the team actually passed a rule allowing only 25 active members at a time, and all members had to have a unique power. This led to the start-up of a Legion of Substitute Heroes, many of which continue to be fan favorites despite having been rejected from the Legion roster.

"I think the size of the group has everything to do with it. The cast is so huge and so sprawling that there's somebody there for everybody," Waid said. "And you get that great sort of feeling of, I'm a fan of this one character that nobody else likes, but that's OK. That's my special attachment to Shrinking Violet or Timberwolf or whatever. It's like when you find this band that nobody else knows is cool yet. You get that sense that I know something that nobody else gets. And I think that's a big part of the Legion's appeal."

The writer said the team's large size is also what separated the Legion from other comic book teams that attracted young readers over the years. "With a group of five or six X-Men, you either like Wolverine or you don't. It's not like everybody has their wildly favorite X-Man. Like nobody likes Cyclops -- some people might, and I do, but if you ask a random poll, it's not like people go, 'Jubilee's my favorite!' all the time," Waid said. "But with the Legion, what's cool is it's a big enough group of heroes that every fan can find someone in that group who is their favorite."

While the number of heroes on the team itself may have been attractive to audiences, the Legion of Super-Heroes is also unique because it exists in a time period far in the future that was established when the term "high-tech" wasn't understood. Years before Star Trek built a loyal following with its space-traveling futuristic vision; the Legion introduced the idea of a sci-fi future that still resonates with audiences despite being 50 years old.

"I think this version of the future has lasted so long because the Legion was one of the only ongoing science fiction series that put forward a positive future. That made it stand out," said Keith Giffen, who both drew and wrote Legion of Super-Heroes in the late '80s and early '90s. "There were threats and all that came roaring in, but for the most part, it was flight rings and snazzy headquarters and a fun future. The Legion is the idea that the science we have now did what it was supposed to do and made our lives better. It was a pretty Utopian future. All the different planets were getting along and you never really saw ghettos or any of the Dystopian things that a lot of the futures deal with."

Giffen said it was also fairly unique in that it focused on teens in the future at a time when the audience was made up of mostly kids. "The primary audience back then was young people, and here you had a future through the eyes of young people," he said. "If you're a kid, what's cooler than a club of superhero kids? They had their own clubhouse and everything.

"That was before you started seeing more mature storylines and comics taking themselves way too seriously, and I admit I had a hand in perhaps making the Legion more Dystopian during my run on the series. But when it started, comics were kiddie fare. You were trying to grab the pre-pubescent teens in there. I guess flying around in the future had a certain appeal -- I know it had an appeal for me when I was a kid. When I was reading them, growing up, there was this sort of a wow factor in there. It may not have been the best science fiction book or the most well-thought-out in terms of science fiction and logic, but it resonated," Giffen said.

And as the readers of Legion of Super-Heroes grew up, so did the Legion members. While new versions of the Legion have been launched to appeal to a younger audience, the original Legion that will appear in this week's Legion of 3 World is made up of adults. The various versions of the Legion are now nostalgic to many older comic book readers, which makes this week's Legion of 3 Worlds all the more enticing because it includes three versions of the team.

Yet Dan Abnett, who was the driving force behind one of those Legion versions with his co-writer Andy Lanning, said that no matter what version of the team may have attracted readers over the years, the basic concept of a team of kids helping make a brighter future is what keeps the team so relevant.

"The Legion has survived because it's a thoroughly appealing future," he said, "and it's deeply tied to the very core of the DC Universe. Let's remember, it's been made over several times, but even the most extreme makeovers have retained the basic essence of the Legion. It's a future that pulses with nostalgia for all of us: this is a feature we've all grown up with, whichever version of it we're nostalgic about."

Check back this week on Newsarama as we continue our focus on the 50th anniversary of the Legion of Super-Heroes, including discussions with current Legion of Super-Heroes writer Jim Shooter and DC president and publisher (and former Legion writer) Paul Levitz.


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