5W Flashback: The Essential Legionnaires

Every group has an origin story.

Long before there was a Fifth World, or even a Howling Curmudgeons, some of us have been talking comics for close to twenty-five years. From Usenet groups to private email lists, a lot of that talk was about the Legion of Super-Heroes. This week's panel was a lot of fun, but it was far from the first time we've debated these different characters and versions of the Legion.

As we had our discussion I was reminded of a couple of Facebook threads back in December 2012, when our apprehension about some upcoming changes to the Legion turned into a freewheeling discussion of the various members over the years. Since most of the participants ended up at the Fifth World, we're taking that discussion public to close out Legion Week. From the last time there was a regular Legion series, here's our look at the most essential Legionnaires... and the least. Along the way we also talk about what makes the Legion work as a comic, and the vital importance of Legion haircuts. Enjoy!

Marc Singer: There are certain key Legionnaires that you pretty much have to get right. I would say Ultra Boy, Brainiac 5, and Wildfire are the top three. You need some of the women on that list, too. Dream Girl most likely, though I have a soft spot for Shadow Lass. If you get their characters and voices right, you'll probably write a good Legion. If you don't, there's probably no hope for you.

Marc: The corollaries: if you write Dream Girl as a bimbo, or Ultra Boy as a mimbo, or Brainiac 5 as a psycho, or Shadow Lass as a simpering girlfriend and arm accessory, or you don't write Wildfire at all, your Legion will probably suck.

If you don't write any characters who joined post-Shooter, your Legion will almost certainly suck.

What do you think? Did I miss any of the key characters?

Greg Morrow: So we're sort of looking at characters who are deeper than the shallow stereotype suggested by a surface description. Sun Boy is probably the most prominent Legionnaire who's verging on that category.

Greg: There have been relatively few writers who have really grokked that "Every Legionnaire is someone's favorite". That may be the biggest obstacle to writing the Legion successfully -- you have a lot of cast, all of whom need servicing at the right standard, AND you still have to find a way to challenge them internally as well as externally. (Although of course insistence on short-term character arc is misplaced in a serial medium.)

Marc: Kind of, but also characters who are essential to the team dynamic or the feel of the book, or who bring something that no other character has. I mean, you could write a great Star Boy, but he's still just Star Boy. Conversely, Cosmic Boy is central to the team but doesn't have much of a personality to speak of other than Generic Male Legionnaire. I'm wondering which characters are both distinctive and important enough that a writer has to get them right.

Chris Maka: Yeah, I think you're right. I like the characters you picked, although it's hard to separate which are real pillars and which are products of personal bias (in my case most dramatically from Second Levitz). For instance, your Dream Girl pick makes sense to me, but mostly because of Levitz. For most the Legion I read as a little kid in the late 70's, she pretty much was a bimbo, or not present at all, and it didn't faze me. I have it in my head that Cosmic Boy is important, but mostly from being told that; in stretches where not much was done with him it still felt like the Legion. I'm a big Sun Boy fan, and I hate when he's written as a mimbo (or any Legionnaire is written to a simple stereotype like that), but he's a character who can disappear for long stretches without the book feeling off either.

To your list, though, I would add Saturn Girl, Colossal Boy, and Chameleon Boy. Which is funny because none of them are favorites of mine, but upon reflection the Legion just feels more Legion-y when they're relatively prominent and being reasonably well written (even if in CB's case that means as a bit of a doofus with a good heart). What do you think?

Jason Tondro: You guys are gonna make me go back and read LSH, aren't you.

Chris: Man, I don't want to be responsible for that right before Giffen comes back and ruins the book again.

(2018 Marc, in his best Ron Howard narrating Arrested Development voice: Keith Giffen did come back and ruin the book again.)

Greg: Oh, Cham. Yeah, he's got a voice that needs getting right -- and with it, you need to get the whole Espionage Squad right; not just the members, but that there is one, and what it's used for. The LSH is NOT a "proactive" team, and the Espionage Squad doesn't instigate plots. (There's probably room for a really great spy pastiche involving the Espionage Squad with Cham in sort of a George Smiley role -- but that is not the normal business of the Espionage Squad, and Cham does not have the same kind of institutional paranoia that marks a pure spy.)

Marc: Shadow Lass is probably a personal favorite and not a central character; I feel like she has this warrior core that's almost never used, so much so that it exists more in my head than on the page. I'd write her as one of the toughest Legionnaires, far out of proportion to her power level. (There has to be some reason why Mon likes her.) Also one of the most culturally exotic to the UP.

Your additions all work for me. I hate Gim's modern characterization as a total screw-up and punching bag for the villains to show how tough they are; he should be a doofus, not an incompetent.

If you had to sum up Saturn Girl and Chameleon Boy in one line each, what would it be? One of the things that makes the key characters stand out from the crowd is that they all have easily apprehensible hooks: the beautiful woman who's much smarter than she lets on, the hothead suffering from a terrible accident, the irritable (not assholish!) super genius, the kid from the wrong side of the tracks who's trying to clean up his act. (Any other characterization of Jo is WRONG WRONG WRONG and a good sign that I should stop reading that Legion immediately.)

Greg: One line is probably exactly the wrong way to go about defining the characters; I think the core is that they are more complex than one line. For example, I'm tempted to say, pithily, that Saturn Girl is a woman who understands how people think so well that you can never tell how she thinks. But that doesn't get you far enough, because she's also family-building, she's probably conservative in the sense of liking tradition and slower-paced change. And so on.

Marc: Yes, but they have that hook so you can immediately recognize when something is off. "An intensely private woman who can know everybody else's secrets" works just fine.

Bear in mind, most Legionnaires all started with the same line: "a young man or woman devoted to law and service." Anything else is an improvement.

Greg: With Cham, the temptation is go science fictional -- he has no fixed shape, so there's a lot of room to look at mind-body duality (in a different way than the traditional superhero/secret identity way), but he thinks enough like a human that he has no problem fitting seamlessly into human culture. But again, that strips off the actually interesting and established personality -- he's inquisitive and clever, he likes surprising people. He's got enough paranoia to be head of the Espionage Squad, but not so much that it poisons his relationships; he is willing to trust. He is uncertain about his place, as an outsider in human culture, who has become an outsider to his native culture, and as heir to Brande. One line is tough!

Greg: Oh, yeah, it wasn't until first Shooter that there was any inkling of consistent personality differences, and it wasn't until Wildfire and then second Shooter that personalities could get established. Which is why the inexplicable tendency of other writers to cling to Adventure-era only versions of the Legion is so baffling.

Marc: Yeah, I'm more interested in the established personalities. Contrary to most fan wisdom, I think the Legion almost always goes wrong when writers start thinking of it as science fiction. The settings are science fictional (in a goofy 1960s sort of way: the genius planet, the gang planet, etc.) but the main characters should be superheroes who do superheroey things. I'm more interested in figuring out why Cham is a complex and appealing character as written.

Greg: Agreed -- I think the Legion is a superhero comic set in a utopian future setting. SF can inform, but the genre is superhero, not SF. I'm not even comfortable calling it hybrid or cross-genre.

Chris: Marc and I could not be more in sync here. In fact, Marc, I just got a friend relatively new to superhero comics to read Second Levitz, which she liked tremendously, but one of the characters I singled out as one who's generally disappointed me in how she's written is Shadow Lass. She comes from one of the most interesting cultural backgrounds of any Legionnaire, and she should be a martial badass -- in terms of technique she should be third behind Val and Brin unless I'm missing something -- and not just a pining, often helpless person who makes it dark in one spot (and even her darkness could and should be written to be more awesome than it usually is). And I completely agree about Gim.

Greg: I liked Levitz's positioning of Dream Girl as a student of Val.

I think that replacing "superhero" with "warrior" as the basic archetype is a mistake for a character in a superheroic role. I prefer to map "planetary hero" to "superhero" rather than "warrior".

Marc: OTOH, I think you could fix a lot of what's wrong with how Shady is written if she just carried a big-ass John Carter sword everywhere. Talok VIII=Barsoom.

I'm comfortable with writing Shady as a character out of heroic fantasy; she should be slightly different from all the other Legionnaires, and it's an easy way to let her hit above her weight. Also, when Mon-El visits Talok VIII, he becomes HER sidekick/love interest. (Especially if you gave it a red sun... oh, now there's a story...)

Greg: Her 70s-era bikini could easily be interpreted as Barsoomian, too.

Marc: Yeah, she's already most of the way there. Just own it!

Chris: In fact, the Gim example is a perfect case of something that happens in superhero comics way too often. Some writer handles a character and either just decides to write him a certain way or looks at past issues and thinks, "No one's ever expressly stated this, but I think character X can be characterized by Y." And it works and is cool and entertaining. But then later writers come along after and say, "Oh, Gim is a big doofus who can't do anything right and gets knocked down a lot!" and that's how they write him. And it's wrong and it sucks.

I would go so far as to say that 90% of Bendis' characterization of Marvel characters in his Avengers work has been marred by this very tendency.

Chris: You guys keep getting ahead of me, but in an awesome way. :-)

Marc: See also: Doctor Light. It's writing to the cliche of the character, not the character. That's how we get psychotic asshole Brainy and bimbo Dream Girl and... I'm not sure how we got mimbo Jo, but that too.

Chris: Yes, yes, yes. Well, fortunately Keith Giffen will... will... sigh

(2018 Marc: Keith Giffen would come back and ruin the book again.)

Matthew Rossi: Tyroc, motherfuckers. TYROC.

Chris: If your Tyroc doesn't have elf shoes, your Tyroc is motherfucking wrong.

Greg: Like to see Jamal Igle take on Tyroc.

Matt: Shadow Lass was the dominant partner in a relationship with a guy who could MOVE PLANETS. She told DARKSEID to fuck off. It's not hard to write Shadow Lass.

Greg: To be fair, Mon could not be a more passive guy if he were in a coma. A lump of Jello could be the dominant partner in a relationship with him.

Matt: I always wanted Superboy to just finally punch Mon right in the face.

Marc: And yet, so many do. (Find it hard to write Shadow Lass. Not punch Mon in the face.)

Matt: To be honest, to me the Legion is the Paul Levitz Legion from Great Darkness Saga, not even the post-Shooter Legion. So Dream Girl's the leader, the original three are kind of Emeritus Legionnaires who chip in when they feel like it, Superboy only shows up when shit's getting real and Wildfire thinks Superboy's ALMOST as good as he is, Supergirl thinks Brainy is cute just after he tells he he's over his crush on her, etc.

Marc: And Element Lad has a perm.

Chris: Okay, the perm is the one thing -- honestly, the one thing -- that I really hate about Second Levitz. Jan was one of the few characters who had his own, awesome, distinctive hairstyle in the 70's! Element Lad should not have been given a white guy perm right when Don Henley was getting rid of his. It's just not right.

Greg: His 70s hair was just long and straight, though, right? Was it that awesome and distinctive?

Chris: Yes, it was awesome and distinctive. I can diagram this for you if you like. (Actually, just go re-read Earthwar. Nearly every male Legionnaire, including Sun Boy, had short straight hair parted on one side. Element Lad's hair rocked. Go look. And if you don't agree, you're no true Scotsman.

Marc: This worked so well, I think I'm going to post a follow-up question tonight or tomorrow. It will not be about Legion haircuts.

Chris: If there's not already a website devoted to Legion haircuts, I think I know what I'm doing the next time I'm unemployed.

(2018 Marc: What he did was start The Fifth World. He was close!)

Greg: Will it be about how Jim Balent and Greg Land are actually good artists if they get ridden hard enough by art directors to keep their heads out of porno? Because that's a discussion I can have.

Chris: No, that's your Unemployed Website Project, dude. I already have mine planned now.

I'll have a section devoted to Great Legion Sideburns and another proving how you can tell how much hair product each Legionnaire uses based on the extent to which their hair is shown to move in action sequences. It's going to be epic.

Jerry Franke: Did Greg really write "get ridden hard" and "keep their heads out of porno" in the same sentence without a hint of irony?

To me, Shady's primary characterization in Levitz 2 was that of a catty gossip mongering sidekick to Tinya.

Gim could be so simple to write. He's not bumbling, he's just a linear, direct thinker who seems incapable of thinking deeper than the surface, which means he's often behind or mistaken in a world in which everyone else has some degree of subtlety to them. Would anyone else have so readily accepted Yera after what she did to him?

Marc: Yeah, a guy who can grow to the size of a skyscraper really doesn't and shouldn't do subtle. Unfortunately, too many writers (including Levitz, in the last volume) couldn't resist making him the Worf.

One of the things I liked about Johns's revamp was that he upgraded Yera to full membership. And then Levitz mostly ignored her.

Chris: Worf is exactly who I thought of in the previous thread.

Marc: Legion nerd follow-up!

If some of the Legionnaires are key figures that a writer has to get right (Brainiac 5, Ultra Boy, Wildfire, Dream Girl, Saturn Girl, Chameleon Boy, Colossal Boy, and I'm thinking maybe Lightning Lad), who just misses the mark? Who are the Legionnaires that have almost but not quite broken through?

Marc: I'm thinking Timber Wolf, whose shtick too closely duplicates other Legionnaires. I thought one of the better tricks of Abnett and Lanning's run was to make him and Ultra Boy hate each other because they were so much alike. (Making him Tinya's protector was also a nice touch.)

And Sun Boy, who in his best moments almost approximates a personality--but it's a personality that most comic book writers are sadly not qualified to write.

Jerry: Blok. Element Lad (who's really experienced some bad writing). Vi, who writers often take to one extreme or the other.

Marc: Agreed. I think Element Lad is best regarded as a poorly written character who's experienced one spell of really great writing, which everyone afterwards then proceeded to ignore. (I do not understand how one of the only things to carry over from the TMK Legion was the characterization of Jan as a space mystic--which totally depended on him being an older guy who'd spent the last five years in solitude and meditation on Trom. Every subsequent version wrote the young kid the same way, which makes for a really boring young kid.)

Greg: Cosmic Boy; he's consistently positioned as the most core of the founders, but he's little more than big bland hero. I would actually put Gim in this category, too, rather than key. As you say, Sun Boy. Vi, Tinya.

Chris: You guys have nailed the ones I would have mentioned.

Marc: Okay, since we found an easy consensus there I'm going to go for the final question: which Legionnaires have the worst personalities, or no personality at all? Who are the worst or most forgettable characters?

Just to make this difficult, I'm going to restrict it to pre-Five Year Gap. Otherwise we all know it's Monstress.

Jerry: Quislet. Tyroc. Ferro Lad. Magnetic Kid. Keith Giffen.

Greg: I hate to pile on, but worst includes Tyroc and Magnetic Kid for sure. Luornu has no personality -- the sole hint of one, that she was in love with Chuck, never led anywhere. Sun Boy usually doesn't have a personality; when he has one, it's usually a pretty bad one.

Marc: Don't forget Tellus.

I actually think Magnetic Kid had more potential than Cosmic Boy--he's essentially the first Legion legacy character--but Levitz was already starting to check out when he came on board. Ferro Lad wasn't around long enough to develop a personality.

What about Dawnstar? Did she have any personality outside her relationship with Wildfire?

Greg: I like Dawnstar. Her personality was that she used arrogance as a defense against having to trust people.

Chris: (Keith Giffen, lol!) I'm not really a fan of any of Star Boy's personalities or near-personalities.

To me Tyroc, Tellus, Quislet, and Magnetic Kid all had interesting personality potential, at least in theory. Oh, I think maybe the personality that bothered, and still bothers me, the most is the White Witch. Interesting, but overburdened with too much whining and angst and bad stories.

Marc: Star Boy and White Witch are both excellent choices. I can't see Tellus or especially Quislet working because they were built on the fundamentally mistaken premise that the Legion "needed" nonhumanoid members, and their nonhumanness (and Quislet's irritating shtick) took the place of any real characterization.

I wouldn't put Sun Boy on this list after the second Levitz run; he might have been a creep, but at least he was a creep with a distinctive character.

Did either Invisible Kid have a personality? I guess that almost qualifies as their super power...

Jerry: If you don't count the annoying turn the post-ZH IK took, I don't think Norg did. I found Foccart somewhat interesting, because he was a normal guy who learned how to be a hero. Similarly, I thought the lack of confidence Levitz gave Mysa made her slightly more interesting.

2018 Marc: And that wrapped up our threads. I hope you've enjoyed this look at The Fifth World before there was a Fifth World.

I've changed my views on some of these characters--I find Jacques much more interesting now, probably thanks to Raymond McDaniel, and I've even made my peace with Quislet to a degree--but for the most part our opinions have been remarkably consistent over the past five years, if only because there have been so few new Legion comics to challenge them. Hopefully that will change soon, and the discussion can begin anew.

Marc Singer is an associate professor of English at Howard University in Washington, DC. He is the author of Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics and a new book on the academic discipline of comics studies, due out later this year.
5W Flashback: The Essential Legionnaires 5W Flashback: The Essential Legionnaires Reviewed by Marc Singer on Friday, March 16, 2018 Rating: 5
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